So…

I made a new blog. I’m moving all book-related posts over there, so this blog will now be all ace, all the time. Here it is!

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Published in: on August 17, 2011 at 9:20 PM  Leave a Comment  

Shadow Touch by Marjorie M. Liu

This book was literally the only book I could finish during my vacation in Ireland. I guess that’s a positive thing, right? Anyway, while I enjoyed parts of it, particularly the romance, the overall package didn’t work as well for me.

Artur, a member of Dirke and Steel introduced in the previous book, can access the memories and emotions of any object or person he touches. Elena can heal broken bones and cure cancer, an ability she has no idea why she even has, but one she is willing to use for the benefit of others. Their paths intersect when they are both kidnapped by a powerful, sinister organization called the Consortium, which is dedicated to studying humans with psychic and magical abilities and using their powers for their own benefit. Their first meeting largely takes place within each other’s minds, which creates a mutual connection whose reach and strength allows them to look after each other whilst getting to know each other on a very personal level. Artur and Elena’s romance continues to develop against the backdrop of their effort to prevent the Consortium from potentially gaining the control of one of the largest crime syndicates in the world.

Marjorie M. Liu is quickly becoming the master of writing romances that occur over absolutely unrealistic spans of time that I somehow manage to believe in nonetheless. In this book, the majority of the romance takes place over the course of one to two days! This should be completely ridiculous! But because of the nature of the romance – the fact that most of their original communication occurs in each other’s minds, combined with both of their abilities to touch and learn about each other on a psychic level due to their individual powers, means that the shortness of time it takes for them to make a move on each other gains a lot more plausibility than seems possible.

Another thing Marjorie M. Liu is becoming exceedingly good at is writing heroes who are physically powerful, skilled in violence, and are vested with protecting their love interest, but who aren’t muscle-bound stupids constantly reveling in their own masculinity. Artur has a particularly dark history, what with his former employment with the Russian Mafia as hired muscle, and so he never lets his guard down even for a minute due to his violent past. Furthermore, his psychic ability makes him extremely vulnerable to touch, since everything he comes into contact with carries the history and memories of the person handling them, and in his line of work, that includes a lot of horrific and obscene memories. Despite all his physical strength and multiple capabilities, he keeps his past and his emotions locked away so as not to harm himself or anyone else with the memories of all that he’s done. However, when he starts falling for Elena, he doesn’t go, “FEELINGS? What foreign concept is THIS? I am a MANLY MAN and I don’t need FEELINGS!” Instead, like Hari in Tiger Eye, Artur becomes a giant sweetheart whose interactions with Elena are tender and lovely to read about. Really, it’s less a battle about what he feels as opposed to if he’s able to let Elena into his mind to judge for herself what kind of man he is.

I won’t deny, it was a little strange reading about Artur because I kept picturing him as a Russian version of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, but he’s actually a huge teddy bear who needs and deserves one million hugs and kittens and rainbows. Also, he’s not a sex god and the first time he and Elena have sex isn’t perfect! I love him even more for it. Again, like in Tiger Eye, this relationship is based more on emotional intimacy, openness, and trust than it is on lust and physical attraction, though the latter is still there.

Elena was decent, but her back-story was paper thin, especially compared to Artur’s. She has a vaguely described bad history with her mother, she grew up on a fruit farm that she now owns, and has an ability to heal people that she doesn’t really understand how it works. That’s it. As a result, it was difficult for me to fully understand the person Elena was at the time of the book because I couldn’t put together what made her who she is. She was suitably brave, heroic, and capable, which was good. Still, when placed next to Artur, Elena was not as well-drawn a character, and it did make it difficult for me to understand what Artur saw in her, whereas I fully got why Elena was interested in Artur.

The plot of this book was, to me, a lot weaker than the first book. The entire captivity sequence didn’t come together fully, I think because the stakes weren’t made as clear. There was too much disconnect between Beatrix Weaving, the head of the Consortium, and her lackeys, who are supposed to do her bidding. Really, the lackeys felt like they each had their own agenda that never matched up with anyone else’s, and so it was impossible to figure out why Elena and Artur had been captured and what the hell was going on. Which might have been the point, but it mean that I had little vested interest in approximately half of the book. Things pick up in the second half and the plot and action tightens considerably. And while the events in this book lay the ground for what looks like a series arc, it’s still too open-ended right now. As it stands, it looks as though Dirke and Steel’s enemies are doing evil and attempting to take over the world because they want “power”. Whatever that means.

This series really is becoming addicting. The books aren’t weighty, thinky-thought types of books, but they’re fun, engaging, and easy to read. One could say that they’re “light” reads, but I think it’s more that what you see is what you get. You get awesome action scenes, cool psychic abilities, and a romance that makes you go “aww” (well, it makes me go “aww” at any rate). Still, Shadow Touch was definitely a step down in terms of plotting and pace, and I hope those problems are rectified in the next book.

Published in: on July 30, 2011 at 1:10 PM  Leave a Comment  

The DUFF by Kody Keplinger

“The Duff” is what Wesley labels Bianca one night while she’s sitting by herself in the club, sipping cherry coke as her friends are out dancing. “Duff” stands for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.” Bianca is insulted enough to throw her coke in his face and resolves to stay far away from Wesley, who is notorious for sleeping with every and any girl who asks. However, she later happens to kiss him rather enthusiastically and realizes she very much enjoyed it. Combined with a home situation quickly going to hell, sleeping with Wesley seems like just the thing to help her forget her life for a little while, even if she still thinks he’s a despicable person. But, as it turns out, Wesley actually gets where Bianca is coming from, and the two of them actually might be compatible in ways outside of a good sexual chemistry.

I kind of want this book to be required reading for every sex-ed class taught in every single school in the United States. It has so much that is right with it in terms of portraying sexual relationships in all their confusing, complicated, awesome glory. One of the best things about all the sex was that the authorial voice never indicated that any of the characters were wrong in their actions. Sure, Bianca sleeping with Wesley in order to ignore all the problems in her life is probably not the best decision she could have made in terms of her emotional health, considering she’s convinced she wants Wesley to die a horrible death. Same thing with when she had sex with her first boyfriend – he was a lot older than she was and their entire relationship was a sham. But Bianca is never cast as doing something wrong because she has all this sex. The sex isn’t the problem – the reasons why she has it might not be completely A. OK, but sex itself is not to blame.

This is absolutely amazing. I can’t remember reading another YA book where a girl has this much sex and isn’t called a slut or a whore. Bianca does wrestle with that problem a bit herself. Does sleeping with Wesley so much outside of the context of a relationship make her a whore? After all, she makes it completely obvious Wesley that she’s screwing him only because he helps her forget about all the things going badly in her life. However, Wesley puts the kibosh on her doubts when he tells her, “What you are is an intelligent, sassy, sarcastic, cynical, neurotic, loyal, compassionate girl.” I can’t describe Bianca any better than Wesley just did right there.

Another thing that was a pleasant surprise – I’ve only read one or two YA books that included oral sex, but I definitely have not read a book before this one that has a guy going down on a girl rather than the other way around. THIS. YES. MORE OF THIS PLEASE. There are not enough positive, happy examples of cunnilingus in mainstream media, and that includes YA fiction. Also, as a side note, there’s a lot of sex that occurs over the course of this book and they are all written well. Since sex scenes are ridiculously hard to Get Right, kudos to the author on that.

The concept of the Duff was a really good one, and I loved how it was a comparative word, rather than a definition. A person is only a Duff in relation to who their friends are or who they’re seen with at any given time. Bianca thinks she’s the Duff because she’s not as tall or thin as her friends Jessica and Casey, but as far as Casey’s concerned, she’s the Duff because she towers over everyone, including most of the guys. And it’s probably true as well that every person has felt like the Duff of their group of friends at least once in their life.

I did wish Wesley’s problems with his parents had been given more attention and detail. All we have is that they’re away most of the time so Wesley never sees them and feels lonely. Which is understandable and sympathy inducing, but compared to the depth that Bianca’s family problems are given, it feels weak. Similarly lacking depth was Toby, Bianca’s long-time crush, whom she starts dating. He pretty much has no flaws, which makes his perfection a flaw, and I hate characters that I like that. They’re not flawed, they’re boring.

Also, for the time that Bianca’s trying to convince herself that she hates Wesley, she’s particularly one-note in her hatred and her thoughts about him. It’s sort of repetitive in that she has to keep thinking about how he sleeps with every girl ever and he’s so slimy and icky and she hates every fiber of his person. With regards to this, the writing did feel simplistic and a little forced.

I am really glad that this book currently exists and is being sold in bookstores and read by teenagers. It is, without a doubt, one of the most sex-positive YA books I’ve read, and that alone makes it worth reading. There are some elements lacking needed detail or emotional fortitude, rendering them more simplistic than they should be, but they’re made up for by two relatable, flawed, fucked-up characters who actually manage to bang out a decent, working relationship in the end. All in all, I am pleased with this book.

Published in: on July 15, 2011 at 2:29 PM  Leave a Comment  

Tiger Eye by Marjorie M. Liu

Even more so than contemporary YA novels, I am extremely picky when it comes to reading romance novels. Among the many reasons why that’s so, one is that it’s hard for me to find romance novels that aren’t all about the sex and where an actual romantic connection isn’t a mere afterthought. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but those types of stories aren’t what I’m looking for. However, I’d heard a lot of good things about Marjorie M. Liu’s Dirke and Steele series, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Dela, a master sword-smith with some psychic affinity to metal, is enjoying a trip to China when she buys an ancient riddle box from a mysterious shopkeeper. The riddle box, as it turns out, holds an immortal shape shifter named Hari.  Two thousand years ago, an evil Magi imprisoned him in the riddle box to be used and abused by whoever had possession of riddle box. When Dela accidentally summons him in her hotel room, he immediately takes her to be yet another master who has summoned him to be her slave, but as Dela continues to treat him like an actual human being, he begins to trust and slowly maybe even love her, as does she in return. Their budding romance takes place amidst ongoing attempts on Dela’s life and the reappearance of the magi who trapped Hari after two millennia, whose motives no one fully understands.

I was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining a story this was. There are two separate threads going on simultaneously, the action and the romance, and neither of the two overshadows the other. Instead, they work in tandem to create a satisfying whole, and Dela and Hari’s relationship plays an integral part to the resolution of the plot. The world the story takes place in is almost identical to ours, except for some covert magic.  Multiple people have their own psychic powers or shape shifting abilities, the former of which is mostly alluded to while the latter is related to the central conflict. Certain paranormal elements weren’t as fleshed out as they could be, but they still felt like an intrinsic part of the world and not just forced in for the plot’s sake.

As for the leading pair, I particularly liked Dela. She manages to present as both a goody-goody and a cold-hearted bitch, but really she’s a person who was raised to do the right thing with regards towards people, but her psychic abilities with metal and her sword forging, in particular, cause her to remain aloof. After all, she feels inexplicably drawn to make beautifully crafted swords whose ability to kill people is inherent in their beauty. That can’t be normal, right? I also liked her because she was efficient and always did what she had to do, no matter how messy or costly the consequences were.

Hari tended to play second fiddle to Dela for me, but his viewpoint was still enjoyable to read. I liked how he was a mix between the standard alpha and beta hero in romance books. He’s big, ridiculously strong, and charges himself to protect Dela, but he’s also a big sweetheart who hates killing and despises himself for murdering so many people over the centuries on the order of his masters. He’s (literally) a big kitty cat, and almost as endearing.

For me, the best part about the romance was that while both Dela and Hari were sexually attracted to each other, a fact that neither of the two spent any time denying, the author didn’t show the need to remind the reader on every single page “OMG LUST RAWR”. The two touch each other and cuddle on multiple occasions, but many of those times it’s to provide comfort or support. I may be ace, but I know that touch between people who love each other can express multiple different feelings, not just lust. Their relationship was definitely touchy-feely, but their touching each other was not made to be sexual all the time. I loved this. Furthermore, Dela and Hari developed a close relationship, both physically and emotionally, but the author never implied that it was lust or sex that was the determining factor. Instead their relationship was built on – get ready for it – mutual trust, understanding, and love! I know, rite?

Still, there were moments when I thought their romance was getting too mushy, and I felt certain assurances of love and devotion were repeated once too often than necessary. It stopped short of overwhelming me with mushiness, but everyone’s tolerance level is different. Also, the set-up of the plot was somewhat lazy, as Dela never says why she’s in China in the first place. I’m assuming she was just taking a vacation, and since she has a lot of money, it’s not too implausible of an assumption, but that lack of detail makes the set-up of the story look shaky, something that could have been easily avoided.

Added to that, some suspension of disbelief is needed with regards to the speed at which the romance develops, considering the entire book occurs over a span of approximately a week. Usually, I would find it ridiculous as well, but it didn’t bother me as much this time, possibly because there was no shilly-shallying, each knew they were into the other, and they always had excellent communication (another good thing to build a relationship on!)

On the whole, this was an enjoyable book to read and the writing was pretty darn good. I tend not to read in long stretches (I usually read in spurts), but in this case, the book gripped me and wouldn’t let me go. There were some rough spots, but it’s a solid book, and I can see later books in this series getting even better, considering this is the first book the author ever published. I’m excited – I like finding romance novels I actually like.

Published in: on July 4, 2011 at 8:28 PM  Leave a Comment  

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

I wanted to like this book after having read and enjoyed A Northern Light, which was an excellent historical fiction novel. Revolution is both contemporary and historical in that there are two stories, one set in each time period, connected to each over via the French Revolution. However, maybe because of the dual storylines and narratives, the book itself was extremely messy in certain places, causing the book to not be as good as it could have been.

Andi has never recovered from the death of her ten-year old brother Truman, and neither has her mother. Constantly fighting her growing desire to commit suicide, Andi loses herself in her guitar playing, the only thing that lets her escape her pain. As a result, she is about to fail out of her uber-ritzy private high school, particularly as she has done absolutely no work on her senior thesis. Forced into accompanying her father on his trip to Paris to concentrate on her work, Andi finds a diary in an old guitar case, written by a young woman during the French Revolution. The author, Alexandrine, acted as a companion to the young Louis-Charles XVII, the surviving son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and dedicated her life to him during and after the Revolution in whatever way she could. In reading Alex’s diary, Andi feels a connection in the love they both felt for a young boy in their care and the cruelty of a world that appeared to not care about their fates.

Easily the best part of this book was Alex’s diary entries. The author must have done a huge amount of research, and it shows. She brings 18th century Paris alive and captures the multitude of emotions surrounding the Revolution – the rage, the fear, the desolation, the need for revenge, even the teeny-tiny specks of hope. So much happens, and so quickly. Reading about the revolution is like watching a Greek tragedy – you know everyone dies in the end, but you can’t help but follow along in their paths towards destruction. I also liked Alex because she is a survivor. She has dreams of being on the stage, and she uses her acting abilities to great effect to look after Louis-Charles both before and after the Revolution. She dedicates herself to a small, sickly boy doomed to die, casting off any cares for her life to bring what joy she can to his.

Before I became a hardcore fantasy reader, I read a ton of historical fiction in elementary school. I’ve read very little since then, and this book reminded me how much I miss it. The author provided a bibliography to all the books she used in her research, and even if I don’t pick up any historical fiction anytime soon, I will definitely copy down some of the books she used to look up at a later time. Both the French and Russian Revolution are two historical periods I enjoy reading about. I guess I really like tragedy.

Also interesting was Andi’s thesis topic about the musician Amadé Malherbeau and her research about how his musical influence shows up in a variety of different musicians’ work, even in the twenty-first century. If Among Others was about the love of books, then Revolution was about the love of music, and how music too survives and evolves to create a lasting impression on the world to come. I’m not really a music person and recognized very few of the works mentioned, but the love was still present.

However, there were multiple parts of this book that did not work. First off, Andi’s family and background felt ridiculously over-the-top. Her father’s a Nobel Prize winning geneticist, her mother’s a world-class painter, Andi’s apparently a tested genius, and she attends a private school were students are gifted and talented enough to regularly get movie deals and get direct quotes from world leaders for their papers. I can believe in a school entirely filled with filthy-rich kids. Those exist. I can’t believe in a school where every single one of those kids is a genius. The entire set-up was too incredulous for me to fully suspend disbelief.

Andi, herself, I could take or leave. She never made much of an impression on me past the fact that she was filled with overwhelming grief for her brother Truman and that she loved music. It’s not that she was badly written, but more that she never became more than just a character. I was invested in her story inasmuch that through her, I could learn more about Alex’s. I didn’t care so much about Andi’s outcome.

The real kicker was the last fourth of the novel when (SPOILERS) Andi manages to hit her head and travel back into 1795 where she meets Amadé Malherbeau, whose life and music she’s been studying for her thesis, and continues on the work of Alex in her quest to provide Louis-Charles happiness from his prison in the form of fireworks. At some point, she also lets Malherbeau listen to her iPod and he gains inspiration to write down the music that would later influence those self-same musicians. When Andi wakes up, she uses her little trip into time to reveal Malherbeau’s previously unknown heritage as a member of the aristocracy and write her thesis about his music.

I’m sorry, but WHAT? It’s never really made clear if Andi actually went back in time or if it was just a dream induced by bonking her head, but there’s a strong implication that the reason Malherbeau wrote his music was because he was able to listen to Andi’s iPod and because he drew inspiration from Andi taking over for Alex on fireworks duty. This is supposed to be a contemporary/historical novel, and then the author randomly introduces a speculative element in the form of time travel, and it’s so lazily done as to be insulting. The reason we have Malherbeau’s music and everyone else’s music is because she lets him listen to an anachronistic device filled with music that hasn’t even been written yet? Really? Really?

(OK, I just searched online and it turns out Malherbeau is fictional, so actual musical historical continuity isn’t as much of an issue. But even so, I intensely dislike how time travel was used in this book. The more I think about it, the more it pisses me off).

The scope of this book was ambitious, and it was executed reasonably well for three-fourths of the book, but it all came crashing down by the end. Honestly, I was done with the book when Alex’s diary ended. I’ll probably still read any future books the author writes, provided that their historical fiction, because that’s what she writes so excellently. Ah well.

Published in: on July 2, 2011 at 2:02 PM  Leave a Comment  

Among Others by Jo Walton

I’ve written on many various occasions that reading books about books is one of the most incredible things ever in this world. Doing so never fails to put a smile on my face or send me to a world of where unicorns and magic really do exist. All of these things happened as I read Among Others. Even aside from just a visceral OMG!HAPPINESS! response, this book is beautifully written and carefully constructed, all of which it makes it one of the loveliest, not to mention heartwarming, books I’ve read this year.

The story draws on many events and circumstances of the author’s own childhood and teenage experiences, lending a semi-autobiographical aspect to the story. Still, this book is very much about Morwenna, a Welsh teenager in the 1979 who can see and talk to fairies and perform magic. Mori’s mother is mad and a witch, and an attempt to stop her from gaining more power results in the death of Mori’s twin sister and the crippling of her leg. Afterward, Mori is placed in the care of her father whom she’s never met and sent to an all-girl’s boarding school in England. Living in new, unpleasant circumstances, Mori’s love of science fiction is what keeps her sane. Still, Mori is tempted to use magic to give her a place and group of people with which to belong to, and her mother remains as an ever-present threat.

The book is told through Mori’s diary entries, which were written in a detailed manner without losing their diary-like quality. Certain thoughts or explanations aren’t included because Mori doesn’t want to write about them, which gives the entries a personal feel that many books written in a diary format don’t have. Mori herself is a withdrawn person, set outside and apart from her home and the family she lived with and grew up among. Her intelligence and sensible nature set herself apart from her new classmates, as does her crippled leg. Combined with the fact that she considers many of the social conventions she’s expected to follow to be ridiculous and her somewhat dodgy family history means she is, effectively, a complete outsider. As such, her view and understanding of the world is wildly different from that of everyone around her, which adds to the personal nature of the diary entries. She’s prickly and cold on the outside, but her love for books and her loved ones know no bounds. There were times when I thought Mori felt too cold and detached, which made her less sympathetic, but on the whole I loved reading about her and admired her bravery and her determination to make something out of her situation. I wish I could be as brave as she is, especially when it comes to voicing my own opinions in a public setting.

Of course, a big reason why I loved Mori was because of her love of speculative fiction and her avid consumption and ponderings on the books she’s read. A really cool thing is that she includes all the names and authors of the books she reads, which led to the creation of another “books to look out for” list. I’m not well read in old school SF (the only authors whose books I’ve read extensively are Anne McCaffrey and Marion Zimmer Bradley), but I would like to become better acquainted, particularly with books that aren’t hard science fiction because those put me to sleep. Integral to the entire book are a love of science fiction and fantasy and a love of reading. Anyone who has grown up with books as constant companions and for whom reading influenced their childhood in a way little else did can find something to identify with in this book. One of my favorite quotes is about libraries, of which she uses both the one in the school, the town, and the interlibrary loan system:

“Libraries really are wonderful. They’re better than bookshops, even. I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts.”

As a regular library user since I was nine, I absolutely agree.

This book falls more under the “magic realism” label than pure fantasy, and magic here works through logic used to explain religious belief and the concept of fate. Magic does not work directly, but manipulates events and people so that the desired effect occurs. For instance, Mori does magic to bring together a group of people that she can belong with. However, it is easy for other people to brush off whatever occurs as coincidence or as predetermined by multiple other factors. In this case, magic is like fairies. You believe in it or you don’t. The fairies themselves are just as difficult to fully pin down. They exist, but have no identifiable origins, desires, or motivations, and they can only work magic through human assistance. It’s a quiet magic system, and it took some mental adjusting to get used to, but it meshes well with reality, and if magic did exist in our world, I think this would be the most probable form it would take.

I’m having a really hard time writing this. I’m trying to show why this book is as amazing and wonderful as it is, and I feel like I’m doing poorly. I raced through it in two days, even though I wanted to slow down and savor it, but I couldn’t help myself. The story is deeply personal, and it’s that aspect, combined with the writing, content, and Mori herself, that make this book as terrific as it is. It has books, it has magic and fairies and growth and love and sex positivity and a whole lot more in between. Just… just read it. I can’t explain myself anymore than I already have.

Published in: on June 29, 2011 at 10:52 PM  Leave a Comment  

Pink by Lili Wilkinson

Reading contemporary novels, particularly YA contemporary novels, is always an interesting exercise, as I have realized that I have this tendency that I don’t have with fantasy novels to compare myself or what I would have done to the actual character and their actions, and this tendency gets worse when I start recognizing traits that we both share. Maybe because I somehow translate “contemporary” as “relatable” in my head? I don’t know, my brain works in mysterious ways. All I know is that the result is I end up getting a lot more pickier about the book in question as opposed to a fantasy book, and that’s precisely what happened here.

Ava wants a change. She can’t wait to start Billy Hughes School for Academic Excellence where she can set herself apart from her ultra-radical, ultra-feminist parents, as well as her equally radical and feminist girlfriend, Chloe. There, she can wear pink clothing, do her schoolwork without being told she’s Submitting To The Man, and maybe even see if she likes boys or not, because although she loves Chloe, she’s not sure that she’s really and fully a lesbian the way Chloe is. Although she fantastically screws up her audition to the school musical, she joins the stage crew to spend more time with her new, popular friends, even though the stage crew is filled with misfits and “freaks”. What then occurs is a series of mishaps and realizations as Ava tries as hard as she can to be “normal”, and keeping all her separate worlds and identities from colliding and slowly realizing that boxes and normality hurt more than they help.

First off, there are a lot of things about this book that make me smile, most notably, the stage group kids, who call themselves the Screws. They’re each derived from certain character tropes, but they interact and joke in a way that reminds me so much of all my friends, both in high school and college. I loved how they all bonded together over the many things they loved and through those good times,  mutual respect and friendship grew as well. Also, there were some well-placed shout-outs to nerd-dom and even Tamora Pierce that made me smile.

I also liked how Ava’s curiosity as to whether she liked boys wasn’t cast as though she thought she was a lesbian, but really, she might be straight. She knows that she’s attracted to girls, but, to her, being a lesbian means hanging out in dark coffee shops and liking obscure poets and films. Ava basically attaches a certain culture to being lesbian, one she feels she doesn’t entirely fit in with, and because she likes typically feminine things, she thinks that might be an indication she might like boys as well. It was somewhat disconcerting that the words “bisexual” or “bisexuality” were never mentioned even once, but I still liked how the result was that, even for sexuality, labels aren’t always important to categorize how you feel for someone, particularly when it comes to gender. If you like someone, you like someone.

Ava herself was a lot harder to like and there were many times I wanted to reach in and smack her silly because her actions were not in “stupid” territory as much as they were in “I have my head completely up my ass” territory. All her life, she’s never really been her own person. First she adapted her parent’s ideals and followed their wishes. When she met Chloe, she became the person she thought Chloe would love the most. At Billy Hughes, she has to juggle being both a “popular” person and a part of the Screws. Each gives her something she wants, but she can’t put all those pieces together to become her own person because she so desperately believes she needs normality, and lesbianism and stage crew aren’t part of that realm. This desire, of course, causes her to be extremely insensitive and even manipulative at certain points as she tries to arrange other people’s lives to fit her expectations of what is “normal”. It also causes her to be ridiculously silly when it comes to Ethan, the guy her new popular friends convince her to get involved with. The dude can’t even remember her name, and yet she’s convinced he remembers her and is interested in her!

Part of my frustration stemmed from the fact that Ava was spending so much time placing herself in a box rather than asking what it was she liked to do, what were her beliefs? Throughout the book, both of those things were derived from the people whom she happened to be around at the time. Eventually she and other characters are able to reconcile the various boxes they fit or want to have fit, but I kept wanting more from Ava.

Also, there was one section on page 152 that was pretty racist, when one of the Screws spills some brown paint and they’re cleaning it up, and one of them pretends to be a Native American and says, “How… I am Paints With Hands.” It was honestly shocking to read that, as the entire book is about how no one fits into specific boxes with regards to any characteristic, including race. I get that it was supposed to be a joke, and Ava then says he’s being childish, but that’s not a rebuke for the actual racism inherent in what he said. That whole section seemed to be written callously and without thought that it perpetuates a harmful stereotype.

On the whole, Pink was a mixed bag for me. Ava was an extremely difficult protagonist to root for, but she managed to figure a lot of things out in the end. The Screws were probably what made the book for me, because they are the kind of people I wish were more visible in the world than they currently are. The writing was very engaging and I whipped through the book in a single day. Like I said, there’s a lot to like, but there’s also some elements that will turn at least some people off. Peoples’ mileage may vary.

Published in: on June 22, 2011 at 6:38 PM  Leave a Comment  

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

If I were to describe this book in one word, it’d be “hilarious”. Other words I might use would be “astute”, “intelligent”, and “plain good fun”. Honestly, a part of me wishes this were an actual gospel, because then the Bible would be a lot more interesting than it is now.

Lamb is Biff’s story as Jesus’ (otherwise known as Joshua, since that’s what he’d actually be called in Judea) best friend. The angel Raziel has been charged to raise Biff from the dead and have him write his own gospel of Jesus’ life to go along with all the ones previously written by the other disciples. Biff’s gospel does include a portion of Jesus’ preaching and sermons, leading up to his crucifixion, but the majority describes their collective childhood and growing up, as well as their adventures travelling through Asia.

As such, the book pokes gentle fun about Jesus’ story and all the various deeds and miracles Jesus is said to have performed. It’s satire, but it’s not biting, nor is it done with the intent of exposing any hypocrisy or shortcomings of Jesus or Christianity as a religion. It’s more like a top-notch comedy act and, as such, everything is fair game for being mocked or exaggerated for comic effect. If anything, I am impressed at how the author included depictions of four separate religions and twice as many different ethnic and cultural groups, and none of them were caricaturized beyond the confines of satire.

For me, the best thing about this book is Joshua himself. Biff, being Josh’s best bud, isn’t in constant awe of his abilities to heal the sick and wake the dead. More often than not, Josh acts like an idiot and Biff isn’t afraid to tell him when he’s being stupid. Even so, Josh has known from the beginning that he’s God’s son, and throughout his life, he worries over whether he has what it takes to be the Messiah and what exactly it is he’s supposed to do. Josh’s unwavering dedication to his belief that love and kindness is the most important path is written in a way that feels sincere without being overdone or making him look like a transcendent, holier-than-thou saint. To sum it up, in Biff’s gospel, Jesus is human, with human hopes, dreams, curiosities, and foibles.

Biff, on the other hand, is definitely trope-derived character. If this book were a sitcom, he’d be the well-meaning sidekick who’s always tripping over things, losing his pants, and falling in love with every female he meets (which Biff does do). What’s cool about Biff is that he, in some ways, saves Josh from himself. A funny example is that Jesus refuses to tell a lie, even to save the two of them from danger. As such, he needs Biff around to be the sensible one (as much as Biff can be sensible) and navigate their way around the various people they encounter. I did think that his goofy sidekick persona was hammed up too much in how he was almost constantly thinking about sex, or having sex. Biff was definitely the more one-note of the two main characters for most of the book, but he gains some depth in the last portion when Josh begins spreading God’s word and becomes even more invested in Josh’s safety.

I do wish that Mary Magdalene (nicknamed Maggie) had more of her own story as well. In this book, she’s a childhood friend of Josh and Biff’s, but then she’s forced to marry a jackass Pharisee who hates Josh, and she stays with him for several years, finally leaving him once Josh comes back and tours all over Judea with him as he spreads the word of God. Josh forms an intrinsic part of both Biff and Maggie’s lives, but Biff gets to have adventures and learn kung fu. Maggie has none of that, and it’s even more infuriating because the author wrote Maggie as a multifaceted character who was enjoyable to read about, but she was severely underutilized in my opinion.

What surprises me most after finishing this book is how much my estimation of Christianity has risen (no pun intended). It’s  hard not to be cynical while observing how the Religious Right in the U.S. is working hard to dismantle every safety net the government has in place. I know this is a big “duh” moment, but the core message of Christianity is a really good one. A religion based on love and loving everyone is nothing to laugh at, and that makes it even more rage-inducing that so much of Christianity, both historically and in present-day, has been subverted by so-called Christians who have decided to dispense with the “love thy neighbor” part and focus on the “fuck everyone who isn’t like me” sentiment, which, correct me if I am wrong, is not part of the New Testament in any way. In all seriousness, this book helped to remind me that there are many aspects of Christianity that are worthy of praise and Christianity, as practiced by many people, does act a positive force in many peoples’ lives.

On the whole, though, this book is meant to be fun, and it definitely is that. I mean, Biff defeats an evil demon. He, Josh, and Maggie have a hysterical encounter with a statue of a Greek god. And Biff and Josh begin the tradition of eating Chinese food on Josh’s birthday, something still done by many American Jews today. It’s silly and ridiculous, but the author writes it with such a straight face that you can’t help but take it at face value.  It does help to be familiar with the Old and New Testament to some extent when reading, but it’s not necessary. I had a ton of fun reading this book and I’m only sorry I wasn’t smart enough to listen to my friend Noah when he recommended I read this book ages ago.

Published in: on June 20, 2011 at 2:46 PM  Leave a Comment  

Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine

I first became interested in this book after viewing and reading the both equally unique cover and premise. After reading the author’s three short stories about the circus that were published earlier (here, here, and here. The latter especially is so beautiful), I was even more excited to get my hands on the book, and when I found a copy in my college bookstore, and twenty-five percent off to boot, I wasted no time in making that book mine. And now here I stand, after having finished reading the book and feeling pretty impressed, and also feeling somewhat uncomfortable about the fact that while I appreciated many aspects of it, I didn’t connect with the novel as well as I did with the short stories

The entire land is a warzone, and has been for maybe hundreds of years, no one knows for certain. Towns are built and obliterated within a week of each other, and all anyone has ever known is war, scarcity, and death. In the midst of all this is the travelling Circus Tresaulti, which provides the only form of known entertainment left in this world. Led by Boss, the powerful and secretive ringmaster, the circus is composed of multiple acts, many of whose performers have been magically altered by Boss. She has exchanged portions or all of their skeletons with copper bones, giving them advanced abilities, with potentially dangerous consequences. It is this magic that, in more ways than one, keeps the circus together and allows them to survive the harshness and brutality of the world they live in.

In my opinion, it is on a technical level that the book shines. The story is written in a very bare-bones style (no pun intended, honestly), and the author describes only what is needed immediately for the scene at hand. The origins of the war, its subsequent history, specific affects on various inhabitants, and hosts of other world-building questions aren’t addressed because those details aren’t necessary. Similarly, chapters are extremely short and the author often makes use of parentheses to include facts or explanations that can’t be derived just from the description of a scene itself. The result is a carefully constructed story that author invites the reader to see how words, sentence, and chapter structure are used extremely precisely to build the story the author intends to tell. In a sense, the story is all bone with little excess fat. On page 99 when Boss muses about all the ruined cities and destroyed buildings, and she thinks, “That’s what happens… if no one cares for the bones of a thing.”

Similarly, Boss’ ability to create and fit the circus performers with magical, copper bones is what makes the circus the entity it is. Because the bones are sturdier and made to accentuate and make easier the performers’ acts, they need not worry as much about wearing out their bodies, not when Boss is there to fix them when they break. Boss herself is the backbone (again, structures!) of the circus, her particular abilities are what created the circus in the first place and is why the circus has continued existing for as long as it has. The circus routinely generates the magic of illusion to entertain and astound their audience; Boss has taken another step forward so that the circus itself is true, magical entity.

Because Boss is so intrinsically tied to the Circus Tresaulti, she is, for me, the most interesting character, largely because she still maintains a sense of her history, which continues to have an impact on her present. I was disappointed that Panadrome, the barely-human musician, whose short story I loved, played such a minor role in the book.  The aerialist Elena’s portions were also intriguing to read about, but otherwise, I felt more of a “take-em-or-leave-em” attitude towards the characters, including Little George, who is the closest thing there is to a narrator.

I guess my main reaction to the book is that I appreciated it rather than enjoyed it, as I would use the word. I read it more to see how the author wrote the story rather than for the story itself, which is what I usually do when I read. Also, it took a while to set up the plot, as the first portion of the book is largely back-story of the members of the circus themselves and what their relationships are to the circus. I already knew a good deal about the circus from the three short stories, so I was less interested in that section as I might have been otherwise. This shouldn’t be a problem for other people if they come to the book without having read the stories.

Also, the plot, a lot of which revolves around two of the performers’ fascination and desire for a pair of magical wings Boss built for someone a long time ago, didn’t quite work for me. I understood why people were enamored with the wings when worn by their previous owner, but I never really got why the performers were desperate to have the wings themselves. Because they signify freedom, maybe? In any case, I wasn’t particularly interested or vested in these two characters’ obsession with them, nor with the various scheming they continually engaged in, all to better position themselves to being able to obtain them.

I almost feel as though I prefer the author’s stories about the circus when they’re written in short format because that way, the starkness of the writing is even more apparent and, as a result, the stories are more concise and pack more of an emotional punch.  This isn’t to say that I think the book isn’t powerful in its own way, but the effect does feel diluted, simply because it’s more difficult to remain engaged with the writing style for multiple pages because of its extreme sparseness. This was somewhat overcome in the latter part when the action picked up and people started acting and reacting to the situation around them and the reminiscences and musings that were frequent in earlier portions of the book were less present here.

I don’t know. Mechanique is a well-written book with an extremely unique story to tell and a different kind of writing t o go along with it. It’s objectively a “good” book in that respect, but there are certain aspects in which it is not a “me” book, and that’s alright. It’s ok to not enjoy everything you read, even when you feel like you should with a certain book and you feel like a twit when you don’t. I also feel like a twit when I enjoy books other people think are stupid. Everyone is different, just like every book, and Mechanique is certainly that.

Published in: on June 11, 2011 at 11:01 PM  Leave a Comment  

Chime by Franny Billingsley

This was such an excellent book. After reading the Book Smuggler’s review, I knew that I would probably love this book as much as they did too, and I’m not surprised to find that I was right, and now I want to read everything else the author wrote, and soon.

Briony is a witch. Not only that, but she is extremely wicked and deserves to be hanged. She informs the readers right at the beginning that this is who she is. Because she is a witch and wicked, she is responsible for her stepmother’s death, her sister Rose’s mental illness, and a host of other wrongs. Her powers come from the swamp and the Old Ones who live there, and she has promised Stepmother never to set foot there again, lest she be the cause of more suffering and death. When an intriguing young man by the name of Eldric begins living with Briony’s family, her fascination with him leads to the development of a friendship that prompts Briony to ask questions about whether she really is as wicked as she believes and whether or not she is capable of being a force for good.

The most distinguishing feature of the book is the writing and language used, both of which I loved. It’s seemingly straightforward, but then it twists slightly, in a sort of quirky shape that reflects the out-of-shape nature of Briony’s thoughts and the landscape itself. Everything about the language was so evocative and conjured up a modern day world overlaid with a richer, more magical one that not everyone can fully see. An example is how, at times, the language reflects the atmosphere and nature of the swamp, such as the abundance of words beginning with the letter “s”. While I liked the English countryside location for the swamp, a small part of me was wondering how awesome and different this story would have been if it had taken place in the American Southeast, like in the Everglades. The town atmosphere and collective thought-process would have been changed completely, but so many writers have written great horror stories in American swamps that I couldn’t help but be a little curious. In addition, I loved the swamp mythos the author created and all of the different types of Old Ones and spirits, particularly the names they had, such as the Boggy Mun and Mucky Face.

Briony was a wonderful protagonist and her first-person point of view was a joy to read. She believes deep down that she is a witch, capable of doing nothing but evil, but still she has sworn to look after and care for her twin sister Rose, whose mental illness Briony believes she is the cause of. Threaded throughout Briony’s story is her complicated relationship to her deceased Stepmother, the one who first told her that she was a witch. While there isn’t much of an overarching plot, Briony’s struggle to come into her own and consider herself capable of love and worth loving was great all on its own. There were a couple of places where it got a bit tiresome to hear her repeatedly saying that she was a witch and therefore wicked, and look at how wicked she was, but for the most part, it was done well. No matter that she thinks she’s wicked, she still has a sense of superiority over those whom she deems not worth her time. Even as she presents a pleasant, polite face to the world, underneath she’s teeming with all sorts of sharp, sarcastic observations and retorts to everything that’s going around her. She’s incredibly smart and she knows it, but her deep-seated belief in her own wickedness causes her maintain a distant, emotionless front she believes is necessary, lest she be discovered and hanged.

I also really liked Rose, who seemingly has the mind of a child and has practices and statements that no one really understands, but still manages to see and reveal some terrific things. Even though it is Briony who looks after Rose, Rose’s love for Briony shines through strongly as well. She was strong in her own way, and I admired it a good deal.

Another wonderful thing about this book is the relationship between Briony and Eldric, the new boy who comes into town at the book’s beginning. Right away, Briony compares his looks and energy to that of a lion, and she slowly begins to trust him and they become great friends. This isn’t really a spoiler, because it’s kind of really obvious, but they fall in love. What makes this budding love so wonderful to read about is that it is Done Right. The two first become friends, found a secret brotherhood for the honor of all “bad boys” everywhere, and Briony and Eldric take their time falling in love over the course of the entire year. In short, their relationship and how it progressed was realistic and deliciously sweet to read about. At the end when Briony explains to Eldric how and why she loves him… that resonated so much with me that it almost made cry, if I cried from happiness, which I don’t.

If the writing and characters hadn’t already won my heart, the story also contained many meta asides about the power of stories (which, as we all know, is my kryptonite). The Old Ones and the creatures in the swamp depend on Briony for writing their stories and Briony constantly refers to how the situation would have gone if it had been a story, but stories are never like they are in real life, many tend not to reveal the messy and ugly parts that real life is so full of. Also, a huge part of this book is the stories we tell about ourselves and that others tell about ourselves that shape who we are. Stepmother managed to rewrite Briony entirely and thoroughly altered her story. The ending shows Briony struggling to destroy those brain paths and rewrite new ones, using different thoughts and words she would never have said or described herself with before. I loved that, because I identified with it so much. Looking back now, I can see how many of the statements and sentiments I heard repeated over and over again, even if not directed at me specifically, shaped who I became and who I am now, as I’ve either kept them or realized they didn’t fit and so discarded them.

However, one aspect I did not like was that the two main ”villains”, Stepmother and Leanne were, in my opinion, one-dimensional with regards to their evil deeds. All of the male characters that acted abominably were three-dimensional characters whose behavior, while not excused, was explained and given motivation for. Stepmother and Leanne, on the other hand, are Old Ones and are portrayed as seductresses who are believed to woo only (artistic) men in order to feed on their talents. As a result, their “evildoing” is a result of their nature, and nothing else. Stepmother, in particular, feels like she’d fit in quite well in a traditional fairy tale, where wicked stepmothers are abundant. My issue isn’t that Stepmother and Leanne are “evil” or female, but I can’t help but think about how their characters fit in with a larger tradition of having EEEEEvil women, particularly stepmothers, be scheming, seductive sirens who use their beauty and sexual allure to pray on men and children that aren’t their own.

Aside from that issue, Chime is a truly excellent book. I will admit, it’s not for everyone. Some might be turned off by the writing style, some by Briony herself. She’s definitely not the easiest person to like. Still, this really is a beautiful book, and if anyone is even slightly intrigued, I urge you to find a copy of the book and read it. When I finished it, I hugged the book to my chest and silently thanked the author so much for giving me a story that was a joy to read, a protagonist I could invest in, and a romantic couple that I could actually believe in. What more could I ask for?

Published in: on June 7, 2011 at 10:01 PM  Leave a Comment