Saturday, July 31, 2010

Review: Wonderful World, by Javier Calvo

"Calvo's first novel to appear in English is a frenetic and magnificent mashup of family drama, mob revenge story and surreal mystery featuring a gigantic enforcer obsessed with comic books, a 12-year-old girl fixated on Stephen King, a namby-pamby antiques dealer on a mad quest and a crime lord with a penchant for women's coats. Thirty years ago, Barcelona antiques dealer Lorenzo Girault was imprisoned for shady dealings. Now, his son, Lucas, insinuates himself into the seedy underworld to discover who was responsible for his father's ruin. While conspiring with Mr. Bocanegra, the crooked proprietor of a strip club, and Iris Gonzalvo, a failed actress, Lucas simultaneously combats his mother's efforts to usurp his share in the family business and watches after his disturbed young neighbor and only friend, Valentina Parini. Lucas's adventure is overlaid with a portentous filial dream and portions of a fictitious Stephen King novel that may hold clues to his father's fate, creating a rich and complex structure." product page

I have a long list of books I want to buy. A long, long list. And with such a long list it’s hard to keep track of exactly why I wanted to buy each book in the first place. Some of them I may have read a one line summery of and thought it sounded cool, or it might just be that the book has a truly excellent cover, or maybe I’m adding books to the list in my sleep... My point is there are a good number of books on my list that, off the top of my head, I know little about. So when the fourth Wednesday of every month (the day I get to buy some books) rolls round more often than not these books get neglected in favour of the ones I'm actively wanting. But! I don’t just have a list, I also have a boyfriend. A boyfriend who, when the fancy takes him, will randomly buy me books off my list. And I mean randomly. He uses to pick I believe.

This is how I came to own Javier Calvo’s Wonderful World. I’m pretty sure this book ended up on my list because of the cover. Because come on guys, is that an amazing cover or is that an amazing cover? But is it the kind of book I normally read? Not so much. Books about gangsters and mobsters and such are pretty low on the hierarchy of topics I like to read about. And even lower than that are books that have been translated into English. Not, I hasten to ad, because I don’t like to read books by non-Western voices, but because I spend the time wondering if all the little sentence quirks and what not were the original author’s or the translator’s.

And this is pretty much the biggest problem I had with Wonderful World. Javier Calvo, you see, has a very distinct way of describing things. For example, he describes the way one character, Isis, drinks as (this is paraphrasing, mind you direct quotes are for, like, people who can be bothered getting up to fetch the book…) ‘Isis brought the glass to her lips as though she was only wetting them, but the liquid in the glass lowered considerably.” And every time Isis drinks, and she drinks a lot, we get that same ‘wetting her lips but liquid lowering considerably’ line. Every time. And this happens throughout the books again and again. These elaborate, sentence long descriptions are repeated over and over, word for word, sometimes on the same page. And it happens with little things, also. In one scene a character is wearing green plastic glasses with star shaped frames, so every few lines you have to read ‘green plastic glasses with star shaped frames,’ which gets old, fast.

It reads like the translator has done a very literal job, instead of maybe changing the exact wording to make the novel flow better. I am not even a little bit familiar with the Spanish language, but it seemed to me like maybe there were instances were a single Spanish word had been translated into several English ones, and so very time that one word appeared a whole sentence was inserted. Maybe. On the other hand, I have to consider that maybe this jarring repetition was intentional on Calvo’s part, and the original Spanish text reads the same way. Because surely someone had to read the translation before it went to print and I don’t see how it could have make it to the shelves as is unless it’s supposed to be that way. Really, I can’t stress enough how over the top the book is with these repetitions. In the section where we meet Lucas's mother for the first time Calvo refers to her skin as surgically smooth every single time she talks. It's very distracting.

But enough on this possible translation error possible stylistic choice that didn’t agree with me. What about the rest of the book? Did I like it? Well, maybe… The majority of the characters were unlikable. Did I say majority? I meant every single one except for our “hero” Lucas Giraut. And I wouldn’t even describe Lucas as a a likable guy, I suspect that while his enigmatic ways endeared him to me a lot of readers will dislike him greatly. Unfortunately scenes from Lucas’s point of view are few and far between. Which makes sense, because I don’t think the book would have worked if we saw too much of his inner workings, but still. In my limited experience with the genre the characters of Wonderful World seemed pretty typical of mob stories. This is one of the main reasons I don’t lean towards “mob” fiction, actually. The stupid, violent goons who populate so many of these books don’t interest me at all, stupid characters from any genre rarely interest me. And this book is just packed full of stupid people doing stupid things.

And don’t get me started on the way women are treated. Now, straight up, I get that in a book told from the point of views of unpleasant, dumb, violent men is not going to be a feminist touchstone, but still. There is one character, Hannah, who owns a gallery and is a super successful business woman (with a whole mess of issues) who pretty much becomes a slave to one of the gangster’s penis. Like, literally a slave to it, she just can’t resist it. There's one scene where's she's telling the guy, who's sprawled naked in front of her, to get up and leave but when his penis gets erect she forgets whats she's saying and kneels reverently in front of it. All of her intelligence flees in the face of the all powerful penis. Even more distasteful, there’s a scene early on in the book where the gangster who is actually the most likable, in a dumb puppy kind of way, accidentally rapes his own sister. The scene serves no purpose in the overall scheme of things, it’s pretty much never mentioned again and I’m pretty sure it was there to show how dumb the guy is, and also for a spot of light comic relief. Right.

What saved the book for me was this subtle (and not so subtle) subplot running through the whole thing. The events in Calvo’s fictional world coincide with a fictional worldwide release of a Stephen King novel (also titled Wonderful World. Ah, I love the smell of post modernity in the morning!). Calvo actually ends each of the book's three parts with an excerpt from this non-existance King text and that is one book I would really like to read. (For one, the weird repetition thing doesn’t happen here, which I guess is a point in favour of it being Calvo’s doing, not the translators…) It’s a little ironic that Calvo’s storytelling skills are at their best when he’s pretending to be someone else, but the three Stephen King Wonderful World chapters in the book are excellent examples of how to tell a story right. There’s also a nice contrast, as in the pretend King text there is a father desperate to save his son, while in Calvo’s Wonderful World parents are vilified.

Overall, despite my many complaints, I did enjoy the challenge this book presented. While I was reading it I can honestly say that I enjoyed it, or was at least moved to keep reading, it was only when I wasn’t reading it that that the annoying things came to mind. I think it’s good for any avid reader to occasionally step outside their comfort genres, if nothing else it might result in the longest review you’ve ever written… If this genre is one you enjoy, or if you're a fan of post-modern fiction, then it's a pretty good bet you'll find something to like here.

How did I get this book? My boyfriend *cough*enabler*cough* bought it for me

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Review: Looking For Alaska, by John Green

"Sixteen-year-old Miles Halter's adolescence has been one long nonevent - no challenge, no girls, no mischief, and no real friends. Seeking what Rabelais called the "Great Perhaps," he leaves Florida for a boarding school in Birmingham, AL. His roommate, Chip, is a dirt-poor genius scholarship student with a Napoleon complex who lives to one-up the school's rich preppies. Chip's best friend is Alaska Young, with whom Miles and every other male in her orbit falls instantly in love. She is literate, articulate, and beautiful, and she exhibits a reckless combination of adventurous and self-destructive behavior." product page (WARNING: The rest of the description contains crazy spoilers, so avoid it!)

I love books set in boarding schools. From Harry Potter to John Marsden’s very excellent and funny ‘Gatsby,’ if you stick a bunch of students in a building together I’m pretty damn happy.
I think its because having so many people living together creates so many opportunities for mischief and drama, and also because I find the student/teacher relationship a hundred times more interesting than the teenager/parent one.
So considering that I had already read and loved Paper Towns (review forthcoming, eventually), and that it was set at a boarding school, I was pretty much sure that I would like John Green’s Looking for Alaska.
Which should have guaranteed that I wouldn’t like it, or at least that I would be a little disappointed by it. But sometimes the universe forgets to be contrary and you’ll start a book expecting to really like it and, against all odds, you’ll actually end up really liking it.
The plot is simple; Miles, who likes to read biographies and memorise people's last words, convinces his parents to let him to boarding school where he hopes to find a fuller life.
Now maybe it’s me, but does that sound boring or what? It’s probably because summaries of books I usually read include words like “superhero” or “apocalyptic” or “blood thirsty ninja-pirate-zombie-robots.” If I were to encounter an adult mainstream book that that plot I’d consider re-reading Twilight before I’d touch it, but YA books, especially YA books by John Green, have a secret weapon that makes up for the lack of ninja-pirate-zombie-robots (from Mars!): the characters.
A well written young adult character is worth twenty well written adult characters, in my book. And a young adult character written by John Green? Worth another twenty again.
Take Miles. The kid is endearingly pretentious. He reads biographies of famous poets but thinks poems are boring, he dismisses the kids in his Florida home town and goes all the way Alabama in search of some new ones. (Is Alabama very from Florida? My knowledge of how the USA is laid out is being not so much…) He gets all bent out of shape when his new roommate doesn’t immediately offer to take him under wing, and yet, for all that he’s pretty damn likable.
The supporting characters are just as real and engaging, and you get the feeling that John Green could have written a book from any of their point of views and it would have been a damn good book.
The only character I had a tiny issue with was Alaska herself, and that’s only because I’ve also read Paper Towns and she seemed remarkably similar to that book’s Margo Roth Speigleman. The way both girls act, their flaws and personality quirks all line up. Even the way Miles would obsess over and describe Alaska echoed the descriptions from Paper Towns. (Or the other way around rather, as Looking For Alaska was published first). I’ll have to read more books by John Green before I form an opinion, but I do hope he has more than one kind of hyperactive, quirky female character in his repertoire.
The thing I liked most about this book was the skillfull way Green builds up a sense of dread. The most obvious way he does this is by breaking the book down into bite sized sections, each one titled ‘x hours before.’ My reaction: X hours before what? X HOURS BEFORE WHAT? Something good? X hours before puppies and milk and sunshine? Hope for puppies and milk and sunshine all you want, but there’s more than enough clues to hint that that something unpleasant is coming.
And the characters are just completely clueless, because obviously they can’t see the ’40 hours before’ hanging over their heads like we can.
And eventually we hit 0 hours before, and the book shifts to ‘x hours after’ and while this isn’t as easy and light to read as the before section of the book, I think the After section was a richer and more fulfilling experience. Really the before and after parts of the novel read like two different books, but at the same time the book needs both of them. The after would not have been as powerful without the before, and before would have seemed too shallow and easy without the weight of the after.
Wow, it’s really hard to talk about this book without spoiling things. So I’ll leave it here with a final urge for you to go out and buy this book, or any book by John Green. I’ll even recommend the ones I haven’t read yet, completely confident I am of their awesomeness.
How did I get this book: my boyfriend bought it for me 

Review: The Scar, by China Mieville

"The Scar begins with Miéville's frantic heroine, Bellis Coldwine, fleeing her beloved New Crobuzon in the peripheral wake of events relayed in Perdidio Street Station. But her voyage to the colony of Nova Esperium is cut short when she is shanghaied and stranded on Armada, a legendary floating pirate city. Bellis becomes the reader's unbelieving eyes as she reluctantly learns to live on the gargantuan flotilla of stolen ships populated by a rabble of pirates, mercenaries, and press-ganged refugees. Meanwhile, Armada and Bellis's future is skippered by the "Lovers," an enigmatic couple whose mirror-image scarring belies the twisted depth of their passion. To give up any more of Miéville’s masterful plot here would only ruin the voyage through dangerous straits, political uprisings, watery nightmares, mutinous revenge, monstrous power plays, and grand aspirations." product page

I bought one of Mieville’s earlier books, Perdido Street Station, for two reasons: 1) The cover appealed to me, and 2) it was very thick. I was a poor uni student at the time you see, with a very limited book buying budget, so doorstoppers represented much better value.

By the end of the day I’d learned two things about the book: The nice smelling German backpacker who was getting off the train as I got on was a big fan (‘China Meiville! Very cool!’ He exclaimed as he passed me), and 2) the first chapter featured a graphic sex scene between a man and a lady insect. (The English language doesn’t really have a word for the peculiar sensation of reading about flushed bug genitalia on a train surrounded by strangers.)
What can one say about Perdido Street Station? You’ll love it or you’ll hate or, more likely, you’ll love and hate it at exactly the same time. And what more can an author hope for than that?

I found Perdido Street Station to be such an intense and overwhelming read that it put me off China Mevielle a little. Not in a bad way, it was more like when you eat a bar of super dark chocolate and have to go a few days before you can eat some more. Except just replace days with years, because that’s how long it took me to find the strength to return to Mieville’s world of Bas Lag.

I was expecting the Scar to be as draining and awesome and frustrating as Perdido. Original settings wasted on a meandering plot, quirky characters getting a little lost amongst all the chaos, clear and sharp scenes book ended by lengthy blocks of confusing prose. But it seemed, to me at least, that the Scar displayed all that I loved about Perdido Street Station, and discarded all that I didn’t.

Or, to put in another way: I loved every single thing about this book. Seriously. While devouring it I would often set it down, get up from my cosy reading nest in front of the fireplace, find my boyfriend and shout ‘how can this book just keep getting better?’ It’s like it defied some law of literary physics, the way the Scar would just keep ramping up the awesome.

Floating cities and pirates and sea monsters and vampires (vampires!) and mutiny and, and, and, argh! How can one book contain so much awesome? It seems like every time you turn a page in the scar there are ideas that other authors would gladly devote entire works to exploring, but for Mieville it’s all just part of the background. Which is what makes the world of Bas Lag so dense and fun to explore and believable. Yes, believable. A race of mosquito like beings who live in exile because their women folk once took over the world? Believable. A distant land where the upper echelons are undead? Believable. A scar in the sky through which the Gods entered the world eons ago? Believable! And don't even get me started on Uther's crazy ass possibility sword....

The cast is populated with good people doing bad things and bad people doing good things, and you fall in love with some of them despite the awful things they have done, and you feel desperately bad for some them again in spite of the awful things they have done at the end you realise that there is not one character in the book who is wholly without blame for the all the catastrophic bad stuff that goes down. And frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

There are plots and sub plots and sub sub plots and yet the book never feels crowded, and when the book ends there were no loose ends. Consider that for a moment. The Scar features a huge cast, with scads of POV characters, and every single one of them has their own story arc and at the conclusion of the book every one of those arcs has come to a satisfactory (which is not to say happy, no sir) conclusion. It all ends so perfectly that I don’t feel the slightest desire for a sequel. It all ended so perfectly that I actually find the idea of a sequel to be vaguely repulsive.

I’m aware that there are people out there who did not love this book as unreservedly as I did, so if you want to know if this book has any flaws possible you should ask them. In my eyes, the Scar is perfect. (It almost makes me want to reread Perdido Street Station…)

How did I procure this book? It was gift from my enabler (read: boyfriend)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Review: The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner

"Things are not what they seem in this story of wit, adventure, and philosophy. Gen, an accomplished thief incarcerated for stealing the king's seal, is dragged from his cell by the king's magus, who is on a quest. The prize is Hamiathes's Gift, said to be a creation of the gods that confers the right of rule on the wearer. During the quest, the magus and Gen take turns telling the youngest member of their party myths about the Eddisian god of thieves" product page

So you know how in cartoons when a character needs to portray an air of innocence they slump their shoulders, shove their hands in their pockets and whistle?

Megan Whalen Turner’s ‘The Thief’ is pretty much the literary equivalent of the innocent whistle. It devotes great effort to convincing the reader that Gen, the titular thief, isn’t up to anything, and in the end is about as convincing as whistling cartoon character.

Any magician will tell you if you don’t want the audience to see what you’re doing, then give them something else to look at. Turner doesn’t do this, she just hides away Gen’s true plans and motivations which, considering this is a first person novel, doesn’t leave the reader with much to see inside of Gen’s head. He complains of being tired and hungry a lot, and he spends a lot of time describing the other characters and their interactions, but… that’s about it.

He makes no effort to escape or to change his situation, simply passively going along with what his captors tell him to do and passivity is rarely an interesting trait in a protagonist. And yes people who have finished the book are going to say, ‘but, but, Megan! (er, Megan as in me, not Megan as in the author...) Gen had a plan all along!’ To which I reply that that’s no excuse. Look at the Artemis Fowl books, for example. They’re aimed at a younger audience than this one, so that removes any silly age argument, and one of the coolest things about them is that the reader rarely knows what Artemis is really up to until the final reveal. Half the time the reader doesn’t even know he is up to something. Artemis Fowl is a world champion poker player next to The Thief's innocent whistle.

Another thing I like about the Artemis Fowl books (I’m a big fan, can you tell) is that Artemis is a genius and we actually get to see evidence of him being all smug and geniusy. Gen is supposedly a super awesome thief, and yet we see no evidence of his skills. Yes we see the results, occasionally throughout the book Gen will mention an object he apparently stole a few pages earlier but we never actually see him steal anything. Imagine if every time a character got into a tight spot the writer simply skipped the part where they got out of it? Or if Sherlock Holmes just announced that he knew who the bad guy was without ever explaining how he figured it out? How are we, the reader, supposed to believe in Gen’s skills when we never actually see them in play?

So not only are most of Gen’s thoughts hidden away, we never see any evidence of his supposedly awesome skills. Couple this with the fact that for much of the book nothing happens, and you can see why a reader might get a little frustrated. There’s only so many campfire stories and descriptions of olive trees that a girl can take!

Now you might think from all this negativity that I didn’t much like this book at all. But honestly, despite its flaws, it was a pretty fun and easy read. There were some pretty clever turns of phrase scattered throughout, and once things actually started to happen (nearly three quarters of the way in, mind you) things picked up dramatically.

I might eventually pick up the next books in this series, but I’m not in any huge hurry to do so.

How did I come into possession of this book? I bought it

Review: Half of the Percheron Trilogy, by Fiona McIntosh

"Joreb, the zar (or ruler) of Percheron, is well served by his military leader, the handsome Lazar, who fought his way to freedom from slavery. When Joreb dies an untimely death, Boaz—Joreb's 15-year-old son by his beautiful, intelligent and ambitious first wife—becomes zar" product page

First up, a disclaimer: I only made it through all of the first book and a bit of the second book of this trilogy. Which I guess give you a clue about what I thought of it.
Ah Fiona McIntosh, what do I do with you? Our relationship started out so well. I always love reading fantasy by Australian writers, partly because I’m as patriotic as the next gal, but also because it seems to a genre that Australian writers are good at. And certainty the first trilogy I read by McIntosh, The Quickening trio, was true to that. Those books put a nicely original spin on a reliable old fantasy story line, and the characters were complex and the plot well paced. The ending was a little to convenient for my liking, but not enough that it spoiled the books for me.
This was the second trilogy McIntosh had published, so of course I went out and got a hold of her first effort, The Trinity trilogy. It was… not so good. The characters were walking cliché’s and the plot treated logic like an untrustworthy stranger. But I was forgiving, there was such a difference in quality between The Quickening and these books that I simply assumed McIntosh was improving as a writer with every effort.
Having struggled though half the Percheron trilogy before giving up, I’m starting to think maybe The Quickening was a fluke. The Percheron trilogy, or at least the half I read, was terrible. The only positive thing I can think to say about them is that the cover art is truly spectacular. But then I just get all resentful that such poor books get to have such beautiful covers.
Let’s start with the most important element in a book: the characters. We have the Odalisque Ana, the beautiful girl with mysterious ancestry. Did I mention she was beautiful? Little chance of forgetting, as we are reminded almost every time she appears on stage, and other characters are forever stopping to marvel at just how gosh darn beautiful and captivating she is. She is also kind to small children and animals, and when she sees an old lady being ripped off in the street she immediately jumps in and helps her. (The old lady, natch, turns out to be a Goddess in disguise and gives Anna a magical trinket in exchange for her kindness).
We also have the head of the Zar’s security, Lazar (It's not a coincidence and not very clever that his name sounds so much Lazarus...). Lazar and Ana fall in love instantly, even though she’s barely a teenager and he’s well into his thirties when they first meet. Lazar is moody and mysterious and handsome, women want to be with him, men want to be him, etc. He’s also prone to self pity and petulance, but I think this angst is supposed to make us like him more. Spoiler: it does not.
The only character who is not two shades away from being a Mary Sue is Boaz, the young Zar. Unfortunately McIntosh devotes little time to Boez, and while I obviously don’t know how the book progresses it seems to me that we are supposed to dislike him because, gasp, he wants to have sex with Ana! How dare the Zar want to get it on with a member of his own harem, am I right?
And the plot? You could make an excellent drinking game out of it. Every time destiny gets mentioned, drink. I promise you’ll be seeing double before you’re half way through the first book. Characters who are meeting for the first time decide to trust each other because they sense it's destiny. They make huge leaps of understanding not because they uncover information but because they just know, somehow. It’s appallingly lazy writing. Oh, I can’t think of a reason why character A. would reveal his big secret to character B. I’ll just make it destiny!
In the end I announced to my boyfriend that if I read the word destiny one more time I was putting the book down for good. I barely made it another page.
Maybe the final book fully redeemed all of these flaws, but I doubt even Neil Gaiman could salvage something out of it. (I mean, I haven't even touched upon the the rampant Orientalism or Boaz's mother...)
How did I get these books? I bought them. (Yes, all three... Sigh) 

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Gone, by Michael Grant

"One minute the teacher was talking about the Civil War. And the next minute he was gone." Just vanished—along with everyone else over the age of 13 in a 20-mile radius around Perdido Beach, CA. The children left behind find themselves battling hunger, fear, and one another in a novel strongly reminiscent of William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Things go from bad to worse when some of the children begin exhibiting strange powers, animals show signs of freakish mutations, and people disappear as soon as they turn 14." product page

Sometimes when a book has a really cool concept be it "normal" or speculative in origin, I get annoyed at the addition of other sci fi/fantasy tropes like superpowers or aliens. It's like, the original premise is so cool, why do we need this other stuff in the mix as well? I touched upon this in my review of I Am Not A Serial Killer, in that book the supernatural element was one of the only things I didn't like. Stephen King's 'Bag of Bones' is probably the best example I can think of, the human story in that book was so moving and well written, and then the King flavour of scary stuff (tm) had to come along and muddy up the water.

Michael Grant's 'Gone' is totally the exception. By all accounts it shouldn't be, it is a textbook example of what I don't like. It's a very cool concept (remember when you were a kid and you'd daydream what it would be like if all the grownup disapeared? Grant takes that daydream and runs with it) and the ramifications of the the great poof would have been enough to fill a book, easy. The first few hundred pages are pretty much just that, the kids reacting to everyone 15 and up vanishing. And to be honest, it wasn't all that great.

It was all very familiar, like Grant had a list of post apocalyptic fiction staples next to him while writing it. It wasn't bad exactly, it had just been done before, and a whole lot better.

And then the supernatural element really kicks into play, and the book takes a dramatic upswing. First they discover a barrier that surrounds their area, pretty much exactly the same as Stephen King's Under the Dome, although this book predates that one. (And we don't yet have a concrete explanation for Grant's dome, all signs indicate it's 300 times better than King's). Then we start to learn that some of the kids, not all, have started to develop superpowers. Oh, and animals too are undergoing mutations, the local coyote population in particular.

Once the powers comes into play the book really finds its feet. We have epic showdowns, betrayal, romance, divided loyalties and, like, surfing brah. The one thing I really liked was that despite the fact that the book is obviously intended for a YA audience, it didn't shy away from exploring the darker realities of the situation. Start to consider, really consider, what would happen if every adult disappeared. For a start, think of all the parents at home with babies when they vanish, and then when you realise that it takes the kids a couple of days to think of that... The kids are kids and they act like it, true, but Grant seems to have a good understanding that kids are capable of some pretty amazing stuff, both amazingly good and amazingly cruel.

There was one major twist, regardng Sam and Caine for those that have read the book, that made me roll my eyes, and I think the book would have been better served without it, or at least waiting until we were more invested in the characters before revealing it.

But I can forgive that, and I look forward to reading the next books in the series.

How did I come by this book? Bookmooch (it's was terribly ratty though, so I'll probably end up buying a nice copy as well)


Review: How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

"Rosoff's story begins in modern day London, slightly in the future, and as its heroine has a 15-year-old Manhattanite called Daisy. She's picked up at the airport by Edmond, her English cousin, a boy in whose life she is destined to become intricately entwined. Daisy stays at her Aunt Penn's country farmhouse for the summer with Edmond and her other cousins. They spend some idyllic weeks together--often alone with Aunt Penn away traveling in Norway. Daisy's cousins seem to have an almost telepathic bond, and Daisy is mesmerized by Edmond and soon falls in love with him.
But their world changes forever when an unnamed aggressor invades England and begins a years-long occupation. Daisy and Edmond are separated when soldiers take over their home, and Daisy and Piper, her younger cousin, must travel to another place to work. Their experiences of occupation are never kind and Daisy's pain, living without Edmond, is tangible." product page

Reading this book is like drinking a tall glass of water as quickly as you can, in great huge gulps. That slight out of breathness that accompanies downing a drink is one go was with me for all of this after, after every few paragraphs I kept I feeling I had to stop and catch my breath.

It’s Rosoff's writing style that does it. You know how some YA books are, like, written in a style that’s very, like, you know, conversational and stuff? Well here Rosoff takes the idea of a conversational narrator then turns it up to eleven. It’s not stream of consciousness, it’s more like Daisy (the narrator) has come over to your house and it telling you about this one time when she went to England and discovered incest and war.

It’s incredibly effective. The voice of Daisy invades your head like the mysterious army that invades England in the book. Capitalisation and punctuation are treated like vague suggestions rather than rules, and this just makes her voice even louder. All caps, which normally I abhor in books (yes, I'm looking at your J.K.Rowling) are used to great effect, often changing the way a sentence reads and reinforcing Daisy's unique voice.

Even the beginning, which could almost be a modern version of the Secret Garden, wherein hip sms-ing, emailing, possibly but never outright confirmed anorexic Daisy comes to stay with her cousins in the English countryside. There’s this intense contrast between the pace of the writing and the dreamy, surrealness of the setting that I doubt most writers could pull off. And when everything starts to go hell with armies and rationing and brains smeared on the road I started to feel like I couldn’t read fast enough, like if I slowed down the sentences would get away and I wouldn’t be able to catch up.

The characters (because you know all I really care about are the characters) are well done indeed. Daisy is the classic outsider, new to both the country and to the tightly knit family she comes to stay with. Her inner voice is a little rambley and very opinionated but also familiar, and in comparison her cousins are these magical fey creatures who drift about like characters from a fairy tale. The way Rossoff treats all things British reminds me a little of the way Western culture treats Japan, it’s like some crazy kind of sideways Orientalism, where Daisy defines the British by their differences to America.

What stopped me from really loving this book was the ending. It felt a little like Rosoff was writing the book long hand and her pen had started to run out of ink and instead of getting up for a new one she just stopped writing. Not that the ending is truly bad, I suspect it will satisfy a lot of readers, it just left me a little cold.

How did this book end up in my hot little hands? I bought it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Review: I Am Not A Serial Killer, by Dan Wells

"The teenage (and innocent) John Wayne Cleaver swears he is not the serial killer that has emerged in his small town--despite his grisly name and a series of unpleasant and eerie similarities. His fascination with the killer leads him to launch his own investigation of sorts-- one that leads him to the identity of the murderer."
- product page

All discussions of ‘I Am Not A Serial Killer’ take place in a room with a dirty great elephant in the corner, and that elephant’s name is Dexter. There really is no way to review Dan Wells novel of a young man unhealthily preoccupied with the business of serial killers without mentioning Jeff Lindey’s own dark night, Dexter Morgan.

But if we set aside the tv show, (and really how can a tv show and a book be compared?) and focus solely on the Dexter Novels, or rather let’s just focus on the first one, ‘Darkly Dreaming Dexter,’ because that’s the only one I’ve read, in my opinion ‘I Am Not A Serial Killer’ is the superior work.

John Wayne Cleaver is definitely the more likable protagonist. Not because, unlike Dexter, he has not given into his murderous urges. A character has to commit some epically heinous acts for me to hate them for it, and even then a clever author (I’m looking at you Geroge R. R. Martin) can have me back in love with them in a matter of pages. So no, I don’t prefer John because he’s still technically innocent. Actually, in many ways I would say that, despite the lack of murders committed, John Wayne cleaver reaches much darker depths than Dexter. By making Dexter more or less sexless Lindsey neatly sidesteps the issue of sex. I don’t know what it says about our society, but violent murder seems to be easy to forgive, whereas any sexual crime is not. I would say that Dexter’s interactions with Rita make his crimes much easier to take. He can dismember a man gleefully and the go home to Rita and play the role of sweet father figure to her kids. It makes him kinda hard to hate. Dan Wells does not take this, what some might call easy, route with John. He likes a girl, insofar as he is capable anyway, and his interactions with her oscillate from almost sweet to incredibly disturbing. This was almost a side plot to the main story line, and I will be interesting in seeing if Wells explores it further in the later books in the series.

I think it comes to down the inner monologues. Dexter is prone to great passages of serial killer angst, which works really well in the brief overhead snippets we hear on the show, but reading slabs of it is enough to make your eyes bleed purple. It’s not that John is without this angst, indeed he even has his own Mr. Monster in the same vein as Dexter’s Dark Passanger, but somehow his struggle is just so much more interesting. Maybe it is because he hasn’t killed yet, after all. When Dexter fights his inner monster there is a lack of tension, we know that it is inevitable that Dexter will cave and kill again. But for John this struggle is still a struggle. There is real tension when he fights to keep his monster at bay (and a note here to say I find the descriptions of John’s dark side, describes as a literal monster caged in his mind to be more effective the shadowey presense of Dexter’s dark passenger), because the reader just doesn’t know who will win.

Of course, the main way in which I Am Not A Serial Killer differs from Darkly Dreaming Dexter is the supernatural element. I sometimes resent the introduction of the supernatural where I was not expecting it, but I can see what Wells was trying to do here. The evil monster (it’s not really a monster but I don’t want to spoil it) provides an interesting reflection to John. John is human, the monster is not, and yet which more humane? This observation is for the reader to puzzle over, I don’t think it even occurs to John to ask himself this question, that he would even be capable of asking it. Which, I suppose, is an answer in itself.

My only real complaint with I Am Not A Serial Killer would be the ending, or rather the final climax. Not all of it, mind you. There is a moment of bitter struggle between John and his inner monster that is thrilling to read, and just proves what I was trying to say about the lack of tension between Dexter and his dark passenger. But there are few coincidences that bothered me a little, and it seemed liked maybe John got off a little too easy. (But nothing compared to some of the scrapes Dexter miraculously comes out of clean in the show, but of course I said there was no comparing book and show, so…) I would also have liked to see more interactions between John and those around him. His therapist, especially, was an interesting guy. But these are incredibly minor complaints though, and certainly it hasn’t stopped me from bumping the book's sequel, "Mr. Monster," to the top of my books to buy list.
How did this book find its way into my hot little hands? I bought it


Review: A Brother's Price, by Wen Spencer

"In a world where males are rarely born, they've become a commodity-traded and sold like property. Jerin Whistler has come of age for marriage and his handsome features have come to the attention of the royal princesses. But such attentions can be dangerous-especially as Jerin uncovers the dark mysteries the royal family is hiding."
- product page

Do you know what I hate? When you’re recommending a book to someone, or maybe you’re just telling them what the book you’re currently reading is about, and as soon as you say it’s science fiction or fantasy you get the look. The ‘oh, you like reading that stuff? Mine is a more refined taste.’ Seriously, I hate it. Half the time these people who disregard speculative fiction so readily barely read at all, or they only read what their favourite famous person tells them to, and I’d bet they’d never really tried to read a fantasy novel before.

Yeah, I sure do hate those people. Ignoring that fact that, well, I am one of them. ‘What are you reading?” I might ask. (But I promise I won’t interrupt your reading to ask you because I hate that as well). “Oh,” you’ll reply, “it’s this really good romance-” Whoops, and now I’m giving you the look. Romance? Really? I don’t read that stuff myself…

So you’ll imagine my surprise when a quarter of the way through A Brother’s Price I realised that what I had thought was going to be a light science fiction story was actually a romance novel. I couldn't even justify it and say it was science fiction with a romantic subplot, it was definitely a romance with a science fiction sub plot. It was trashy romance with a thin, wavering science fiction subplot.

If I’m being really honest I would say that apple flavoured bubble gum has more in common with fresh apples than A Brother’s Price does with actual science fiction. Its concept- what if one man was born for every ten woman- doesn’t seem to be more than an excuse to pepper the novel with some of the worst examples of the helpless woman stereotype I have ever seen, except the helpless woman are actually men, so that makes it ok apparently.

The women ride about tending to the land and keeping the law and drinking beer straight from the bottle, while the few men in the book stand about wringing their hands and getting rescued by the women. The female characters are strong and independent, while the males either passively accept what the women say is best (and are thus marked as good), or are prone to tantrums and sulking, (and so we know they are bad). What I’m trying to say is, if Price hadn’t done a gender switch this book would probably offend anyone with half a brain, or else not got published at all.

Even with the gender switch, I’m troubled. Spencer is a decent writer, nothing overly impressive but her words are clear and the plot (what there is of it) cracks along. Her female characters have depth, believable and unique motivations, flaws and scars. So really there’s no excuse for her male characters being such shallow caricatures that always seem to be one shock away from a fit of the vapours. Possibly Spencer was trying to make some kind of cutting social comment that I didn’t catch, but I have a nasty suspicion that she wasn’t doing it intentionally, that it was more of a ‘oh, look, the women are acting like good strong men and the men are wringing their hands like silly woman!’ kind of deal. Which bugs me, actually.

And even if we forgive this, there’s just so much potential here that gets wasted. The base concept is sound, and Spencer does touch upon some interesting implications of a society were men are a scarcity. The world has a sense of real history, with a major civil war that ended only a generation before still effecting the land. The problem is Spencer wastes much of this potential, discarding everything that does not serve the romance between a farmboy and the royal family. I think if the novel had of focused on the farmboy's grandmothers, who we learn were spies in the civil war and kidnapped a prince to be their husband, I suspect this would have been a far better book. Or if we focused on the royal sister Hayley who is AWOL on a mission of revenge for much of the book, or even if the plot between Farmboy and the sisters had have involved more than loving gazes and walks in the gardens, it would have been a better book.

Which I guess is like saying if it were a wholly different book, then I probably would have liked it. If romance is your thing give this one a shot, but just don't tell me because I might give you the look...

How did this book get into my hot little hands? Bookmooch


Review: The Rise Of Renegade X, by Chelsea M. Campbell

"Damien Locke lives in an alternate universe inhabited by superheroes, supervillains, and regular people. If you are a hero, a letter H appears on your thumb when you turn 16. If you are a villain, you get a V. On his 16th birthday, Damien gets an X. He is half hero, half villain, the product of a one-night stand between his mad-scientist supervillain mother and superhero father Crimson Flash..."
-from the product page  

There is nothing, and I mean nothing, that I won’t forgive a book for if it gives me fantastic characters. Plot holes? Cliches? Incest? Like the annoying girl you tolerate because her brother is way hot, I’ll welcome all those flaws it the characters are bitching.
And boy are Chelsea M. Campbells characters bitching!

Which is not to say that the book is full of plot holes and clichés. Incest on the other hand… No, I kid. (Although, Damien does spend an unusual amount of time dwelling on this mother’s sex life…) There is little that is clichéd about Renegade X’s plot, which surprised me. Oftentimes in books like this, which is to say books that feature superheros (and villains!) of the author’s own creation, certain characters will mirror other, more well known comic superheros. Perry Moore’s excellent “Hero” for example is peppered full of awfully familiar superheros, including one from another planet whose only weakness is a certain kind of crystal…
There is none of this with Campbell’s superheros. It’s surprising how refreshingly original they are. Even when their abilities are not so unique, such as shape shifting or flying, Campbell avoids comparison with “real” superheros completely.

And there are no major plot holes, or at least none that immediately jump out me. Well, no, that’s not true. I did wonder why, if every villain is clearly identifiable by the V on their thumb, were they not all just thrown in prison? Or at the very least why were they allowed to have a school where torture and mayhem were on the curriculum? (Nothing in the text suggested that Villmore’s purpose was a secret to the general public). The world building, perhaps, is a little scarce, but Campbell outlines the “rules” of her universe clearly enough and then sticks to them.

But these faults are niggley and, as I said, the characters! Oh man, the characters make up for everything! She could name her heroes Superguy and Wonder Lady and have more plot holes than Twilight and I would still be here raving about this book.

Damien, in particular, is excellently written. There is much to be said in favour of characters who are always quick with the right comeback, who say the things that we would never dare to. This type of character is common in speculative fiction, think your Loche Lamoras and Kvothes, and Damien has this element in spades (his snarky sense of humour had me laughing out loud more than once, and I’m normally a very quite reader). But unlike the other dashing anti-heroes I’ve mentioned, Damien would also fit in very nicely in a mainstream YA novel. Something witty by John Green or David Levithan.

This is because, despite his super powers, Damien is a kid a kid with a set of problems that any coming of age novel would be happy to have. He’s meeting his Dad for the first time, he’s worried that his Mum has less time for him now she has a new boyfriend, he still has feelings for his ex and on top of it all he has to decide if he wants to devote the rest of his life to good or evil. Well, ok, maybe that last one is not so common…

The rest of the cast is just as well fleshed out as Damien, with all of them from main to minor, expertly toeing the line between realistic and comic book over the topness.

Fans of good old fashioned YA coming of age tales, and fans of comic books, and especially fans of both will find much to love here.

How did this book get into my hot little hands? It was gift from my enabler (read: boyfriend)