3.23.2011

Anna and the French Kiss

I know that we're only a few months into 2011, but I find it hard to believe that I'll read another novel as perfect as Anna and the French Kiss, the debut novel of Stephanie Perkins. I'm not even limiting that statement to the young adult market. I can't call it the best book of the year, because it was published in December of 2010, but I highly doubt I'll read anything this fabulous for a very long time (or if I do, I'll be very lucky, because this is really that good). If only I had read it when it was published! I would have had the perfect Christmas present for all my reading friends -- now I simply have to hope they don't talk to each other as the year ticks by and I slowly parcel out surprisingly familiar-looking birthday presents. It would be weird to just say to them, "Surprise! I bought you your birthday present in March!" for each and every one of them, right? ... No seriously, right? Because I could still do it...

In any case, Anna and the French Kiss is a deceptively simple teenage love story where the emphasis is on storytelling and character development. Stephanie Perkins doesn't go for the bells and whistles of ridiculous situations; instead she crafts a narrator that any young female reader doesn't simply want to read about, she wants to BE. Perkins, unlike so many other well-meaning YA writers, also seems to understand the difference between *telling* the reader that the main character is smart and funny... and actually *demonstrating* that she's smart and funny by virtue of her words and actions. That said, Anna's not a genius or some perfect creation, she's a realistic teenager who makes the occasional poor decision, but readers are always on her side because we've come to love her.

Anna Oliphant (called "Banana Elephant" by her best friend Brigette) has been sent to the School of America in Paris (fondly called SOAP by its students) by her nouveau riche father for her senior year of high school. Her parents are divorced and after the break seven years ago, dad dropped all dreams of being a great writer and sold out to become a best-seller, cranking out novels that the female market seems to gobble up, where the plot always seems to include an Illness and Doomed Love. Dad's stated reasoning for shipping his eldest off to Paris involves showing her the world and giving her a great experience, but Anna is convinced he's doing this so *he* can appear worldly and cultured by having a daughter at an international boarding school. Pulled away from her family and friends, Anna's now in a country where she doesn't speak the language and doesn't know a soul. Thankfully, while high school will always suck on some level, there are some decent people to be found. Anna's next-door-neighbor in the dorm, Meredith, takes Anna under her wing and draws her into a group of friends where Anna tries to find a place despite being the very new addition to a group with some history. One of the members of this group is √Čtienne St. Clair (called St. Clair by his friends), an "American" by birth raised in London (so he has a British accent). Unfortunately, he also has a girlfriend and is therefore off limits. (That *always* stops us from falling for these kinds of boys, right ladies?) Needless to say, Anna's lost from the start and this novel is the story of her senior year where she discovers Paris, herself, and the perils of navigating relationships on two continents.

In a time where every other YA novel seems to feature a vampire or werewolf, Anna and the French Kiss features a refreshingly mortal cast written in to the world as the reader knows it to be. No one's destined to be the Summer Queen and the only thing that seems immortal or endless is French class. The plot is refreshingly real and familiar -- a girl likes a boy but there's an obstacle. Novels about a teen in a new place have defined the YA genre (long before Bella moved to Forks), and yet there's fresh life breathed into this tale by Stephanie Perkins. Paris is practically the main character and the location is essential to the story, as opposed to just being a pretty backdrop. The really remarkable part of the novel rests in reviving this easily identifiable plot and using it to convey a fresh voice. Perkins creates a narrator that's full of charm and deep emotions. Anna is witty and sharp, quick to notice some details and totally blind to others. She's real, her friends are real, and their problems seem even more so. Perhaps the two most shocking things of all in the novel are that (1) Anna has actual interests of her own and (2) there's never a moment where phrases like "we talked all night" are substituted for the dialogue that proves real connection as opposed to just summoning it at whim and expecting this to be enough for the reader. Even if these high school seniors are rather mature (they act more like college study abroad students than seniors in high school), it's easy to accept and move past it. If you weren't already smitten, then the humor would do you in -- seriously, Anna/Perkins is one of the funniest narrators I've encountered in a long time -- and it never lets up, even as we move into the all-too-easy-to-identify-with torment of wondering whether Anna's imagining the details that mean so much when it comes to making a connection with a boy. I'm someone who tires quickly of novels where girls pine after boys ad nauseum, and while the reader may want to shake sense into Anna on occasion, it's in a good way... a "why do we all seem to make this exact same mistake when we know better" way.

It helps, of course, that Anna's love interest is a delight. You had me at British accent, Stephanie. √Čtienne St. Clair's complicated background and family life seethe beneath the surface of a charismatic teenage boy, one who isn't some unreachable ideal (he's short, he's moody, he has realistic relationship issues) and yet he's also adorable in all the right ways (he's short, he's moody, and he wears "The Hat," a visually offensive hat that his mother knit for him but since he loves his mother, he wears the hat... OMGCUTE). The connection between Anna and St. Clair has actual roots (that go beyond proximity and author whim) and St. Clair takes an interest in Anna's love of cinema, helping her explore Paris via movie theaters. When St. Clair's home life takes a dramatic and terrible turn, Anna is there for him -- and like a real boy, he allows himself to lean on the friend he needs and the complications that ensue make sure everything seems tangled and no issues are clear cut. The reader might be screaming for St. Clair to leave his girlfriend and date Anna, but it's impossible to not understand his hesitations in light of his character, which provide a very real problem for him (and, consequently, Anna).

Added to the mix are a supporting cast of friends with their own issues -- who are almost perfectly measured so they can remind us that Anna and St. Clair are not the only people in the world and yet the supporting characters never overpower the main plotline or do anything to draw real focus away and confuse. The end result? You've got a superb group for being young and in Paris... which, let's face it, we all wish we could be, even if it came at the cost of reliving the follies of our late teenage years. Maybe *that's* the true miracle of this book -- Perkins makes the tortured angst of unrequited teenage love seem appealing. Sure, it's awful for Anna as she over-analyzes every single word and gesture, but we readers all remember what it was to be in her shoes and so this is the perfect way to experience those emotions without actually enduring twin extra long beds. (Incidentally, this book also features one of the sweetest and most awkward scenes that defines an unspoken attraction in all of young adult literature. A scene that had me shifting in my seat and making a noise that resembled a smothered squeal.) Stephanie Perkins never hits a wrong note and the ending will have the reader internally wrestling with the best dilemma a book can offer: do you gobble it all down and race to the end or do you try to pace yourself and savor every word? (Solution: gobble, then take your time with a second helping/reading.)

Do yourself a favor and go read this book right now. It will be the best thing you'll do all week, if not all month or even year (unless you're giving birth or getting married or something... then I can kind of understand how that might win out). I specifically bought the hardcover version because even before reading it, I knew this would be one I'd want to pass around. I've been delighted to loan this book to several girlfriends, all of whom now share my giant, goofy grin whenever Anna is mentioned. I keep loaning it out because if I have Anna back in my possession for more than a day, I abandon all other reading selections to re-read it. What more can I say? Hurry up and join the Anna and the French Kiss party -- teenage romance has never been so charming. C'est magnifique to say the very least.

3.17.2011

The Slap

We've all been there: we're at some a casual party and the guest list makes for an interesting combination of family, friends, even colleagues... and, of course, there's just one kid who could very well be the spawn of Satan. His parents adore him and he's spoiled rotten (in indulgent behavior if not in material items), so everyone knows there's no hope of getting his actions in line; we all simply have to endure the experience and hope he just doesn't start screaming or hurt someone. In Christos Tsiolkas's novel, The Slap, just such a situation takes a controversial turn -- the brat makes a movement that could potentially be seen as threatening to another child and that child's father intervenes to slap the offending brat. The rest of the novel resounds with this slap as it reverberates in the lives of every attendee. As the next few months play out, eight different perspectives are used to further the story along and explore the massive amount of tensions within the lives of those involved.

There's no easy way to summarize the novel -- like life, everything is tangled up and has become too complicated for simple summaries. The Slap is set in Australia and tensions abound. There's racial tension, cultural tension, religious tension, generational tension, classist tension, sexual tension... it's a society where everyone is allowed to have a valid opinion, no one's existence should be negatively impacted by another's, and yet there are very few relationships (friendships or otherwise) that are not strained as a result.

Since the book is all about the relationships between people (and a bit about what those relationships say with regards to society at large), the best way to explain things is to give a cast list. The book opens with the perspective of Hector, the son of Greek immigrants, who seems to compensate for never having found a career passion by being a bit of a philanderer, despite having a beautiful Indian wife, Aisha. They have two kids and are the hosts of the fateful barbecue alluded to above. Hector is sleeping with a teenager named Connie who works in his wife's veterinary clinic (she's eighteen, it's legal). Connie's best friend is Richie, another teenager just coming out of the closet, and they're both trying to figure out their lives as they potentially move on to university. Hector's cousin, Harry, is the guy whose child is threatened and who does the slapping. Harry has a temper and a fierce prejudice against people who simply do not pull it together to do right by their families (like the family of the slapped child, he believes). An excellent father, Harry has a successful car repair/garage business (he's even lenient in dealing with an employee who is stealing from him), a beautiful home, and an excellent relationship with his wife... and the mistress whom he supports (and who has kids that are probably not Harry's).

Meanwhile, the child who was slapped is named Hugo and he really is quite dreadful. Hugo's father is Gary, a struggling (read: failed) artist who drinks a great deal and gets blamed for a large number of his small family's issues (and the legal drama that ensues), but is not necessarily always at fault despite appearances. Hugo's mother is Rosie, one of Aisha's oldest friends and after being a somewhat wild child/wild young adult/wild adult, she has settled down and made Hugo her world. She's still breastfeeding him at age four. Let this single observation tell you all kinds of things about her. Rosie and Aisha are also dear friends with Anouk, who doesn't have children and so doesn't quite understand Rosie and Aisha at times, though she also chooses not to tell them when she realizes she's pregnant (by her much-younger-than-she-is television star boyfriend) and decides to have an abortion. Aisha is torn in her allegiances on the slapping issue as a result of the fact that it's her best friend versus her husband's family. Hector's parents (Harry's aunt and uncle) are Manolis and Koula, who think the kid deserved the slap and are not thrilled about Aisha's inability to totally stand with the family (though really, Koula refuses to even say Aisha's name). Also within the circle are two married, converted Muslims who, if the Muslim-conversion-thing wasn't enough controversy as it is, are an interracial couple -- he's Aboriginal and she's white.

I think that includes all the major players. An ecclectic bunch to be sure, and Tsiolkas is covering a great deal of ground by including such complicated people in his novel. It means that the topics touched upon range far and wide -- though perhaps the one thing Tsiolkas isn't writing a novel about is child abuse. Instead, everyone seems to acknowledge that hitting a child is a wrong thing, but the issue of a person snapping is a much more accessible moment... and can be illustrated in the daily lives of us all when we reach a moment that pushes us into a decision we might not otherwise make. Personal allegiances and beliefs muddy the waters here as characters are forced to choose sides or awkwardly defend their neutral status. A moment like this, where a child is struck by an adult, is supposed to be a clear-cut situation -- physical violence in polite society is supposed to be completely unacceptable. Instead, a single instance of breaking this carefully maintained control on one's physical impulses calls in to question the numerous other sins hidden under the guise of a "civilized" state as impotent desires seethe and burn under our skins.

Tsiolkas may be making a statement about Australian society (and indeed, many of the racial slurs and classist issues within the story were surprising elements of Australia that had previously been unknown to me), but his larger themes include more than that single continent, enveloping a number of modern cultures that must deal with differences that are not allowed to be treated as differences. Certain voices rang truer than others and there were certain similarities in tone, but on the whole, I found Tsolkas to present interesting narrators who might not be likable but could never really be pushed entirely into the truly detestable camp. Even the "good guys" make wrong choices or do less than ideal things.

We read this for my book club and we had a rousing discussion -- I always enjoy books that provoke different reactions from people, as it allows us to delve in to the reasons we felt as we did and what caused the splits of opinion. The Slap was really an ideal read, given its multiple perspectives and strong societal themes at the heart of its narrative. Some people might be horrified by the graphic sex, drugs, and various behaviors. Maybe I'm just a dissolute and profligate New Yorker, but I thought even some of these things had incredibly positive and redemptive elements to them -- perhaps it really is all about perspective.

3.14.2011

The Vespertine

I appreciate Saundra Mitchell's The Vespertine for trying to find uncharted paranormal waters in the YA market, but despite a lush depiction of 1889 Baltimore society, I was somewhat turned off by an overly-dramatic narration that seemed to take itself just a little too seriously for a book where personification of the elements was snuck in as a key relationship issue.

The book opens on a rather confusing note, but if you manage to make it through, you realize that our story deals with Amelia, a girl shut up in her brother's house and believed to be mad -- but we quickly jump back in time to see the path that brought her to that point. Fresh from Maine, Amelia is sent to board with the Stewart family who has a daughter Amelia's age so Amelia can have a Season in Baltimore and find an eligible match. Her family doesn't have much money, so this will likely be the only Season she can get, and of course, her very first dinner party has her falling for the wrong man. Nathaniel Witherspoon is a "Fourteenth," a young man paid to attend a party where otherwise there would be thirteen guests and superstition demands an addition. An artist without independent means, he is the very last person Amelia should be encouraging... but try as she might, she cannot quite help herself. Meanwhile, Amelia stumbles upon a gift that she also cannot seem to help -- when gazing in to the fading sunset light, she catches a flash of a vision that heralds the future. At first, it's an image of her new friend Zora, dancing with a young man she fancies in a gown with lilies on it. When the vision comes true, Zora begins to tell others of Amelia's gift and suddenly the girls are becoming popular with more and more people as word leaks out. They aren't always visions of consequence -- sometimes it's something as simple as a lost glove or a voyage, and with just a flash, the whole story can hardly be seen. But Amelia's visions come at a time when society is clambering for all kinds of this clairvoyant behavior -- seeing in to the future, communing with dead spirits, reading minds at parties. Others might be shams, but Amelia knows her visions are real... but some have very real consequences. What eventually drives Amelia back to Maine compromised and in shame is a twisted sequence of events that even Amelia could not have foreseen.

The two things in Mitchell's favor are her grasp of the time period coupled with the subtlety of her paranormal twist. The description of American society in 1889 pulls the reader in with her attention to detail and unique setting. I've never come across a novel set in Baltimore at this time, so it has the benefit of a city's polish with the rougher America surrounding it -- which is certainly evident in Amelia's home town of "Broken Tooth." Hardly an address a girl would care to own up to, and so the need for a girl to rise into higher society is obvious, giving the society parties and gowns a grander scale as seen through her eyes. In addition, unlike other novels where a heroine falls into an entirely new paranormal world, Amelia's world seems rather true to reality, save for her strange ability to see glimpses of the future. She cannot direct her visions, save focusing on a specific person, and there appears to be no one else with any abnormal gifts (until we start learning more about a certain someone who has a rather strong appeal for Amelia). As a result, Mitchell has formed the basic plot of a story with great potential and demonstrates her ability to write historical fiction well... so what goes wrong? Let me say that I wanted so badly to like this book. I love the published cover but I actually prefer the cover that was attached to the galley I received (pictured here). It's really quite beautiful -- but then, the published one is also pretty. I also like the idea of a slight paranormal tinge to an otherwise historical romance, as stated before. The descriptions of the time period are woven with rich detail, yet it isn't as though that attention is quite to blame for most of the characters being sketched just a little too lightly. Still, there is still plenty to interest anyone who would choose to enjoy themselves while reading it.

Unfortunately, Mitchell's writing is a bit over-wrought with flourishes and complications, particularly at moments when she's deliberately trying to be evasive with fantastic experiences that hint at the paranormal. The prologue is almost incomprehensible, which might be forgiven if Amelia actually were in any way crazy, but it still makes for a hard couple of pages to muddle through before the actual story begins. While Mitchell eventually settles into a better rhythm, the scenes which ought to be savored are the ones that suffer the most from a desire to make them that much more beautiful by offering both too much and too little for the reader to be satisfied. I worry that Mitchell spent far too long working and re-working these particular passages, for the reader should be sighing with pleasure instead of confusion. Amelia's illicit relationship with Nathaniel Witherspoon is a bit odd... they are drawn to each other without much reason, though to be fair at least Amelia seems to recognize how absurd it is to feel like she's on fire for this young artist. The ultimate explanation is acceptable, one supposes, but as a result they seem too fated for each other, which goes against all of the wonderful emotions that Mitchell had manages to describe, like a girl's anxious wait for a boy at a dance, particularly when the boy in question is totally unacceptable as a proper match. His appeal seems to rest solely in his beauty and his forbidden status -- this isn't a novel where the love interests spend time in much discussion and you feel as though they're realistically falling in love so much as they're simply attracted to each other on a number of levels. It's a pity, too, because when one learns Nathaniel's secret, he becomes much more interesting and yet we don't have much time to explore that side of him. Amelia herself is a bit one-note, but pleasantly so as a girl who doesn't realize the trouble she's falling in to. Zora, her friend, is a delight in the beginning and eventually fades into something less vibrant once she falls in love and yields up her independent character and presence to a storyline that simply needs her to play a part.

There are parts of The Vespertine where I saw great potential, but ultimately I finished the novel feeling rather disappointed. The opening of the novel is so dramatic as far as it concerns Amelia's sanity and stained reputation, but when all is played out, I was disappointed that Amelia didn't kick it up a notch and actually do something to merit it all. The ultimate ending for Amelia is predictable and somewhat anti-climactic. Such a shame, really, as the idea of a girl with flashes of clairvoyance in an otherwise realistic setting was quite intriguing -- and the actual historic detail is excellent and interesting. When all is said and done, though, Mitchell's novel only has its own sparks of good moments and is trying much too hard to shine. Perhaps her next book will find some benefit in the fact that, presumably, she'll have less time to fuss and obscure the clarity of what she's really trying to say with such affected flourishes.

ARC courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via NetGalley for reviewing purposes.

3.12.2011

Matched

Meh. My general rating of Matched would be about 2.5 stars, based solely on the idea that I'm giving Ally Condie the benefit of the doubt and that she still more interesting things in store... perhaps even things that aren't the YA romance version of The Giver.

This is the summary given on the book's website:

In the Society, Officials decide. Who you love. Where you work. When you die.
Cassia has always trusted their choices. It’s hardly any price to pay for a long life, the perfect job, the ideal mate. So when her best friend appears on the Matching screen, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is the one… until she sees another face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black. Now Cassia is faced with impossible choices: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she’s known and a path no one else has ever dared follow — between perfection and passion.


Cassia is believable as a character who sees nothing wrong with the system that's in place to keep her happy and healthy, but when a large number of things come together to unsettle her, she's no longer quite so sure that everything is as perfect as she once thought it to be. At her Matching banquet, she and her best friend Xander are matched -- and it's an incredibly rare event when two people are matched from within the same community. She's delighted and clearly he is, too. When she receives the computer card with information on her match, she's a bit amused, as she already knows everything about him... and then the card shows her the face of another boy in her community and everything changes. The mere suggestion of an alternate future is the tip of the iceberg. Cassia's grandfather is scheduled to die (people die at age 80 in this world) and suggests life is not all it should be. He shows her a hidden trick to the watch she had inherited -- which conceals a poem that wasn't destroyed when their society decided that too many things made it impossible to really appreciate them, so 100 of every poem, book, and song were kept while all others were destroyed. Raids on homes stir some unrest. The fact that Ky, the boy she's strangely drawn to, is explained away as someone who will never be matched... well, Cassia now has a number of questions and can only be satisfied with answers that will be difficult to come by.

The utopian/dystopian society is a pretty common trope in today's young adult literature, but it's impossible not to cite The Giver as the inspiration for this one. Cassia's world is completely regulated -- food is distributed and specifically tailored to each person, matches are set for marriage, jobs are given out according to capabilities, housing is assigned. Everyone carries two colored pills with them at all times (one of which helps with anxiety and the other is only to be taken when asked to do so by an official). When Cassia starts to question things, suddenly she starts to see a large number of things that she'd never seen before -- indications that the world isn't perfect and that there is a resistance to it all. Her naive understanding that the greater powers wouldn't see what she's up to is in keeping with the "realistic" depiction of someone waking up to all this, but it's still somewhat frustrating that Cassia is so slow to pick up on things. There's also nothing particularly interesting to Cassia that would endear her to a reader, beyond the simple fact that she experienced the glitch that showed her an alternate future with an alternate match. On the whole, I found the characters to not be as well-developed as I wanted them to be, and yet Condie was able to pepper the story with interesting details. (The swatch of dress fabric that each girl gets to keep from her Matching dress, the use of food as a means of control, the limited choices given to people as recreational activities.) The world itself was well-drawn, but the characters that inhabited it all seemed to be filling sketched-in roles to further the plot. Kyle is quiet and strong, a little too perfect and yet that's all necessary to move the plot along. Xander is annoyingly understanding of Cassia's confusion. Cassia's parents are more complicated than Cassia realizes at first and the story might have benefited from their greater involvement.

On the whole, I just don't understand this novel's appeal, unless teens today just never read The Giver, as there's an abundance of dystopian novels out there right now that. There's enough here to suggest that Condie has bigger ideas for the rest of the installments in this series, but obviously it was hard for me to really lose myself in the story as I didn't find many things to feel particularly original. A re-telling or update is one thing, but this seems to be passing off so many themes as its own that I found it somewhat distasteful. Coupled with characters that I didn't feel any deep emotion for and, well, I just don't understand why this has held on to a bestseller spot for weeks now. Hopefully the rest of the series will allow Condie to show some real creativity beyond small details.

3.08.2011

Cloaked

Once upon a time in Miami, there lived a boy who dreamed of making shoes...

Aside from the whole Miami bit, it sounds like it could be straight out of Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm, right? Well, Alex Flinn is leading the charge (or at least she's up there in the front lines, holding a really big heraldic banner or something) in transforming fairy tales for the modern age, mashing them up to create fun new stories. With their origins in older fairy tales, books written by Alex Flinn always feel like you've read them before, back when you fell into her targeted demographic (or maybe it's just that she makes anyone with an appreciation for whimsy believe that they are, once again, in her targeted demographic), and that makes them feel cozy. Cloaked is her latest and it's quite charming.

Johnny and his mother run the shoe repair shop in a posh South Beach hotel, across from his best friend Meg and her family's coffee counter. Dad disappeared years ago and with financial difficulties aplenty, Johnny and his mom work night and day to keep themselves afloat. His dream is to become a famous shoe designer and he spends his free time (or what little there is of it between repair jobs) sketching masterpieces on heels. He's no flighty kid, though; Johnny knows that there's no such thing as magic and it's hard work that will get him someplace... hard work and maybe a lucky break. Enter the much-photographed partying Princess Victoriana. If she got photographed wearing his shoes, he could launch his career and she's scheduled to check in to his hotel, but how to get her the shoes? As the hotel prepares to cater to the princess's every whim, nothing could prepare Johnny for the Princess singling him out to ask for his help. She invites him up to her room and tells him a secret: her brother, the crown prince, has been turned into a frog by a witch. If the princess agrees to marry the evil son of a rival monarchy, the witch will change the prince back -- otherwise, the prince is doomed to be a frog until he's kissed by a girl with love in her heart. The princess insists that she can't even trust her personal bodyguards, as she fears that one of them is spying on her, and so she needs the help of one who is hard-working and loyal. Johnny is about ready to declare her totally insane when he accidentally makes use of a magic cloak given to him by the princess which transports him to any location he wishes. Suddenly, the world is full of magic and used-to-be-humans turned animals -- and Johnny will need a great deal of help from six swans, a rat, a fox, and his best friend Meg if he hopes to save the prince and achieve happily ever after... but is "happily ever after" even close to what he might expect?

For Cloaked, Flinn draws upon a number of classic fairy tales, many of which have fallen out of popular knowledge: "The Elves and the Shoemaker," "The Frog Prince," "The Six Swans," "The Golden Bird," "The Salad," and "The Fisherman and His Wife." It's unfortunate that the Disney movie The Princess and the Frog came out before this book, but so it goes. Little girls already knew the whole princess-kissing-a-frog outline and this simply returns to the roots of the tale. The other stories are threaded in for a delightful mix of flight and fancy, with the ultimate moral being that it really is hard-work and a good heart that will triumph over all. Meg is a wonderfully competent girl while Victoriana proves to have a great deal more substance than the paparazzi would have folks believe. Johnny is a winning hero, even if he isn't the stereotypical male lead that one tends to find in YA novels. (He isn't a brooding paranormal creature, for one.) Johnny is a young man who means well and works hard... just the kind of guy that those of us older than the intended teen readers would encourage our younger selves to sigh over, as he's sweet and caring even if he (like most boys) can be a little clueless. He's the stereotypical male best friend who too often doesn't get the girl... cute and sweet with a heart of gold and his only real stumbling comes from (a) trying to do the right thing or (b) having issues expressing his real feelings. Ah if only they were all so easy in real life... and all liked shoes to this degree.

Overall, the best description for Cloaked really is "charming," and I hope young adult/older-than-young-adult readers agree. This book is perfectly fine for even the younger teens, as there isn't really any objectionable content. Flinn's got a knack for updating classics (just check out Beastly, her previous book which is being made into a movie that hit theaters this past weekend) and I'm already looking forward to her next creation.

Please note that this isn't an entirely impartial review, as this book factors in to my professional world, but this is still a truthful review written in my personal space, so weight my opinion as you will.

3.07.2011

City of Bones

Seriously, guys, why did none of you tell me that this book featured a redhead from Park Slope? Had you clued me in, I'm sure I would have read this much sooner... but as it is,I picked up City of Bones because I suddenly felt out of the YA loop having never read a Cassandra Clare book. Overall, I would say that this book (and series in general) gets points for the storyline and certain details, with an added bonus for doing something I haven't yet encountered in a YA novel. The writing itself isn't particularly noteworthy (and at times can be a little lacking), but Clare can certainly craft an epic storyline and carry the reader along with her... so by the time you realize there are some massive plot issues, you've finished the book and have already bought the sequel.

Clary (short for Clarissa) Fray lives a fairly normal life for a fifteen-going-on-sixteen-year-old in Brooklyn -- she goes to school, she hangs out with her best friend, Simon, and she argues with her mother. At the under-age club Pandemonium, however, she witnesses what appears to be a murder -- until she realizes she's the only one who can see both the victim and the assailants, all of whom appear to be quite young and covered in strange tattoo-like markings (including one boy that Clary finds distractingly handsome). She rightly guesses that seeing things no one else can see isn' a very good sign... and in fact, it's the first indication that she's seeing the world clearly for the first time in her life, though this makes life infinitely more complicated.

The paranormal catch to this series is angels -- well, specifically, the Nephilim, which are supposedly the descendents of men and angels and are entrusted with the sacred duty of protecting the world from demons. This involves some complicated politics when there are also vampires, werewolves, fairies, and warlocks/witches wandering about the earth, too, all of which the Nephilim tend to group together as "Downworlders" and treat like second-class citizens (even lower on the totem pole than regular ol' people that are called "mundanes"). Clary discovers that she can now see everything because even though she was raised as a mundane, well, there are things that mom wasn't telling her... and can't, because it appears she's been abducted from their home. Clary is "taken in" by Jace, Alex, and Isabelle, who may be teenagers but they've been fighting evil for years. Jace, the handsome boy who caught her eye, continued to be frustratingly fascinating and Clary's attraction to him causes major issues with best friend Simon. In order to save Clary's mom and discover just what (or who) is behind the recent rise in demon activity in Brooklyn, they must all band together... but along the way, they might just uncover far more unpleasant things about themselves.

All in all, City of Ashes is a fascinating ride into Cassandra Clare's fantasy world, provided you don't look too closely at it. Think of it as a theme park ride -- not quite as quick as a roller coaster but definitely something where you're not encouraged to take a backwards glance. (Seriously, one photograph or detailed discussion with anyone older than eighteen would totally have ruined the course of events in this entire series. The blanket "mechanical things don't work well in the angel city" doesn't quite cut it, I'm sorry.) The sexual issues are rather intense for a YA novel and I'd probably refrain from handing this series off to the younger teen set. The characters themselves seem to be a little young for what they're all dealing with, really. As with all first novels in a series, there's a lot of information being thrown to reader/Clary at a fast pace, but Clary is usually a bit slower than the reader to pick up on things. (PS The author's surname Clare and the main character's name of Clary? That's just a bit too close for me to be comfortable with this author's level of character association.) Clary is sadly a bit too much of a cookie-cutter YA heroine (beautiful redhead but unaware of her attractiveness, far more comfortable in jeans and a hoodie, has an impressive artistic talent, endearingly clumsy, etc.) and she's not terribly bright. Clearly a good amount of work went into this first novel, though, as I feel like the detail given to Clary's life in particular was very well presented (references to Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain series did not go unappreciated), even if other details were sadly lacking. Isabelle and Alex might be secondary characters but some thought went in to their backstories -- or at least Alex's as he struggles with his sexuality. Unfortunately, the villain Valentine is very Voldemort-wannabe -- or perhaps Tom Riddle, as we haven't gotten to full-on snake-face just yet -- and I was rather disappointed with him. One doesn't quite get the level of fear that he inspires in the older set (and while I thought this might be a book one thing, it's actually true through the whole series). Jace is slightly too perfect, but at least here one can trust in Clare to add in a good amount of complications to his character, as this is clearly just the beginning for him. I appreciate his snarky and too-quick humor as a way to move the book along, and hinting and his capabilities for self-destructive behavior that will undoubtedly come out in greater force in future books. Clary's attraction to him is incredibly sudden and predictable. Simon's love for Clary is obvious and also predictable -- but even if Simon is the token guy-best-friend-in-love-with-the-girl, he's at least an endearing depiction of one. The twist that comes with this odd threesome is interesting... something the reader will guess quick enough (aka LONG before Clary), but I still found it fascinating, if only because I haven't encountered in YA lit before. It becomes the dark question that will drive readers on to the next book, as the general storyline might not be quite as compelling as that twisty question, even if the rest of the storyline is grand in its scale. Very Star Wars, folks... and Clare even directly references Star Wars earlier in the book, so the savvy reader (who has somehow avoided spoilers for this book) will pick up on that early on.

Fans of paranormal YA have probably all discovered Clare before me, so this is all old hat to you. On the off chance that you're like me and haven't, but enjoy the genre, then I would recommend giving City of Ashes a read. Don't expect too much from it or over-analyze it and I think you'll find that it's quite entertaining and engaging, as Clare has created quite an intriguing world, even if it does require some suspension of disbelief... beyond the usual, I mean, because we're talking about half-angel ass-kicking demon-fighters.