Monday, January 17, 2011

Review: The Murder Of Bindie Mackenzie, by Joclyn Moriarty

I read Joclyn Moriarty's first book, at the time her only book, back when I still fell into the YA demographic. Of all the many (many, many) YA books I read when I actually was a young adult, this is one that really stuck with me. It was called 'Feeling Sorry For Celia' and was about a long distance runner named Elizabeth and her troubled best friend, a new best friend, and, of course, boys.

I loved this book. It was insanely funny, (like, don’t read it somewhere were laughing aloud is frowned upon) but not at all lacking in feeling. Elizabeth starts the book with terribly low self esteem. She composes letters in her head from various departments (ie, the department of being a teenager, the department of being a daughter and so on) telling her how badly she's failing at everything, and perhaps she should just crawl into a refrigerator and stay there? Watching Elizabeth slowly learn to like herself is pretty awesome, and never falls into cliched, after school special kind of territory. And although I know that this does fall into after school special territory, it made YA me feel like I could maybe stop hating on myself so much too.

So you would think that, having loved 'Feeling Sorry For Celia' so much, that I would have kept on top of the author's later works? Well, uh, no. By the time she published more, I was starting university, and the thing is, around this time, I got the (stupid) idea into my head that I was now too old to read YA. Not because people would think I was lame if they saw me reading it, but for some bizarre reason I thought that I would no longer enjoy it. That I was too mature for it. I actually would get a little sad sometimes, thinking of all the awesome books I had read while in high school that I could never enjoy again.

It's only been in the last few months, since I've started keeping up with book review blogs, that I've realised that you're never too old to enjoy YA, and that my previously held opinions were pretty dumb. Hell, if anything, now that the subject matter of the books is not so painfully relevant I enjoy the books more. This resulted in mad re-readings of all the books I had loved, and the gleefull acquiring of the books my then favourite authors had published since.

Which brings us, finally, to the later books of Jocelyn Moriarty. (Or, as I like to think of them, the books of many names. Seriously, what kind of a book needs an entirely different name for it’s Australian, UK, and American releases? It’s madness!) There were three books following Feeling Sorry for Celia, featuring the same public and private school and overlapping many of the same characters, but which don’t really need to be read in order.

Let us first talk about the Murder of Bindie Mackenzie. If there was a museum somewhere were unsympathetic protagonists were put on display I am sure Bindie Mackenzie would feel right at home there among all the Logan Nine Fingers and Jamie Lannisters of the world. The girl is just not likable. She doesn’t murder innocent woman or kick puppies, she’s annoying in a much more uncool way. She’s smart, she knows it, and she doesn’t understand why people don’t seem to want her help. Think Hermione Granger, but turned up to eleven. Everyone has known someone in their life like Bindie Mackenzie. The high strung girl whose school uniform was always immaculate and who, if your teacher was late to class, would go and find her.

Man, didn’t you hate that girl? The other characters in the book certainty hates Bindie, and that’s how the story kicks off. Bindie, who had always believed herself universally liked and admired, learns that her classmates really can’t stand her. So, naturally, she seeks revenge. Hilarious, ineffective, revenge. The plot, and this is true of all the Moriarty books I’ve read, seems to be doing not much of anything until, BAM, everything comes together at once. It’s never boring, Moriarty has that skill of making the most mundane of activities interesting to read about, but you do start to wonder if it’s all going somewhere. Trust me, it is.

I’ve complained before about how Stephen King will sometimes take an awesome premise and then shoehorn some classic horror into it. Moriarty is a bit like this too. She writes awesome YA books that deal with stuff every single young adult deals with, but she just can’t stop herself from throwing something really out there into it. Like suicide pacts or ghosts or running away to in the circus or, in this case, dun dun dun, murder! Which annoys the ever living hell out of me when Stephen King does it, but this added larger than lifeness is something I really enjoy in Moriarty’s books.

Another author I think of when reading her books is J.K.Rowling. Like Rowling, Moriarty is a master at scattering offhand events throughout her books that later turn out to be of upmost importance, which is something I always enjoy. It make the whole book feel like a self contained puzzle, where everything has a purpose.

But Moriarty’s greatest skill has to be her characters. You see, you start the book agreeing with the mean things Bindie’s classmates say, and laughing at her failed attempts to get back at them, but as the book progresses we slowly start to learn more about Bindie Mackenzie, and while she doesn’t get less annoying, you certainty start to feel for her. Moriarty is a master at slowly revealing information. There are no shocking revelations that make you stop and go, ‘wow! Poor Bindie!’ but something is hinted at here, something peeks out from between the lines over there, and before you know Bindie is a three dimensional character and you’re hoping everything turns out alright for her.

And does it turn out alright for her? Well, uh, check out the title of the book…

This book? I bought it

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Review: The Engineer Trilogy, by K.J. Parker

There was a time, years ago now, when literally all I read were fantasy trilogies. I enjoyed that the longer format allowed for a story of more epic scope and that there was more time to spend getting to know the characters. But I had this fear of buying the first part of a trilogy, and then not being able to get a hold of the next volumes. (This was before I was able to internet shop, you see). So, if I saw a trilogy that sounded cool more often then not I’d just buy all three books then and there. What can I say? I was still living at home and didn’t have bills to pay.

Which is how I came to own thee parts to K.J. Parker’s Engineer Trilogy, ‘Devices and Desires,’ ‘Evil for Evil,’ and ‘The Escapement.’ I read the first one and a bit of the second and then just kinda stopped, I think possibly uni got in the way? I don’t know, I had a habit of not finishing books back then, for no real reason. (The reading habits of past Megan makes now Megan shake her head). I remember the trilogy, what I read of it, being dense and hard to get through. But in a good way. Like an extremely rich chocolate cake of which you can only eat one sliver at a time. Certainly my memories were positive enough that I recently decided to finish the damn thing, even though it meant rereading the first part again. (This is the reason I doubt I’ll ever complete the Wheel of Time trilogy, I just can’t bring myself to reread 10 volumes…)

My memories were correct, these are not books that lend themselves a fast reading, but as I said, that’s not a bad thing. The books are set on what I would guess is a small continent. On one side we have close neighbours the Vadini and the Eremians, who have only recently ended a centuries long war. On the other side of the continent are the Perpetual Republic, a dark skinned race who settled on the continent relatively recently. These guys are pretty epic engineers and had established a firm monopoly of all metal worked goods. They’re also pretty anal when it comes to deviating from their established blueprints. Think the Church in dark ages if someone tried to deviate from the bible… One guy, Ziani, makes some little improvements on a doll for his daughter and is sentenced to death for it. Pretty harsh, no? So anyway, he escapes to Eremia and sets about crafting an insanely intricate plan to be reunited with his family, and never mind if thousands of bodies are left in his plan's wake.

This is the trilogy’s driving plot which constantly pushes events forwards, but there are a number of other plots which eddy around it. We have the young duke Valens, ruler of the Vadini people, and his technically innocent but really not correspondence with Vetriz, the wife of the Eremian duke, Orsea, who is himself crippled by his own perceived shortcomings. And there’s Psellus, the Perpetual Republic bureaucrat who becomes slowly obsessed with understanding Ziani. And we can’t forget Mikal, an important Eremian nobel who’s honour is so unbending it’s bound to shatter….

And this hasn’t even stretched the surface of it all! If meticulously crafted plots are your thing, than you can really look no further than this. Every event has a cause and effect, with both tragedies and triumphs occurring naturally and with a sense of inevitability. You will find no deux ex machinas in the pages of these books, which is fitting when you consider that the closest any of the main races come to religion is the Perpetual Republic's blind adherence to their specifications.

Which makes for a refreshing change, to read a fantasy trilogy without any gods. I do occasionally enjoy books where the gods take human form and wander about missing shit up (Jenniffer Fallon's 'Demon Child' trilogy being an excellent example), but too often the inclusion of gods/God can become a short cut for the author. In the godless Engineer trilogy each character is responsible for their own lives, with no fate or destiny to nudge them this way or that. It’s a theme that runs strongly throughout the text, questions of choice and how much blame a man (or woman) should take for the result of their actions. Do the ends justify the means, and should an eye be taken for an eye? As I said, without the interference of some all knowing omnipotent presence to offer easy answers, it offers up some fascinating questions. (Which, upon finishing the books, I have answers for).

But of course would what really makes this book appeal to me is the characters. They’re a flawed, three dimensional bunch, and I would be hard pressed to identify which of them are bad guys and which are good. There are no heroes and villains here, just people. My favourite character is easily Duke Valens. Forced to take command after the early death of his father, Valens is an extremely competent and well liked duke. But what we can see that his adoring people can not, is that the guy’s a little bit of a sociopath. I wish that more of the trilogy had been told from Valen’s unique point of view. I also enjoyed watching Psellus's slow transformation from a laughed at pen pusher to, well, I don’t want to give anything away…

I do have some minor quibbles with the ending of the triology. Considering how well rounded the other aspects of the book are I felt that the way the author handled the portrayal of a fourth race, a nomadic people who live beyond the desert, to be, well, I don’t want to say racist, but let’s just say I found it a little problematic. I also had a little trouble buying Ziani's plan, once the whole of it had been revealed, it seemed like some of the stuff he claimed to have figured out and done was just a little bit of a stretch. Lastly, while if you look at the three books as one very long tome is is all balanced perfectly, but if you take each book on its own merits then the second volume suffers from some pretty bad middle book blues.

All in all though I found this to a well written and extremely thought provoking trilogy which offers something very different to the plethora of other three book fantasy tales out there.

How did I get these books? Bought them

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Review: The Replacement, by Brenna Yovanoff

From the moment I first heard about the premise of this book I was in love with it. A baby, Mackie, gets stolen from his crib, with a changeling put in his place. This changeling grows up and has to rescue a girl, Tate’s, little sister from the very murky place from whence he came. All of my buttons? They are pushed!

My intrigue at this plot was so strong that even the generic paranormal YA cover wasn’t enough to put me off. (Although the American cover is seven times more awesome...) It did make me a little nervous though, the fact that it was being pretty aggressively marketed as a paranormal, Twilight/Shiver-esque, read. I’m definitely not would you would call a fan of this genre. Girl meets mysterious boy who turns out to be a vampire/werewolf/fairy/leprechaun and they fall in love and save the world, but mostly fall in love. Definitely not my kind of scene.

And the Replacement does seem to tread the same path as it’s paranormal shelf mates, with a notable exception: It’s not told from the POV of the girl who's trying to figure out what’s up with the mysterious boy, it’s the mysterious boy himself who tells the tale.

I have to say this is my favourite aspect of this book. With a simple perspective swap , scenes that are as standard and played out as wacky misunderstandings in a sitcom take on new life. Watching Tate try and figure out what was up with Mackie was a hundred times more enjoyable when I was already in the loop. (Possibly this is why I found Meyer’s unfinished draft of Twilight from Edward’s point of view to be a bazillion times better than the actual published version told from Bella’s.)

There were other things I liked about the book. Unfortunately, what I did like was ultimately outweighed by what I didn’t. My biggest issue is that a lot of things just didn’t seem to add up. Mackie, being from some fey underworld (it's never entirely made clear), is allergic to a great many things. Steel, iron, blood… This I thought was cool. Little details like his mother having to keep the stainless steel knives hidden away, or his sister having to cut his hair with aluminum scissors really worked for me. But I spent the entire book wondering, if Mackie is allergic to blood (and we see several times the strong adverse reaction he has to it), then what the hell is pumping through his veins? It’s not that I wasn’t willing to believe he was running on something other than blood, it’s just the fact that the author never addressed the issue that drove me a little crazy.

So if he has blood, why isn’t he allergic to it? And if he doesn’t have blood, wouldn’t someone have noticed? I mean, wouldn't somebody, anybody, have noticed that this kid was a little odd? This was my second gripe with the book. The human Mackie was stolen from his crib, and the changeling Mackie left in his place. Upon discovering the swap Mackie’s parents decide to love and raise the changeling as their own. Um, ok. I can get on board with that. Even though it is never really made clear I can imagine that losing a child would be so painful that an itty bitty changeling to love would be better than nothing to love. Mackie’s parents raise Mackie to understand that if the townspeople ever learnt what he was they would go all mob justice on his ass and kill him.

Which makes sense, I had no questions about that. But as the book progresses… Well, firstly it becomes quickly clear that this swap-a-baby practice isn’t really that uncommon. So the townspeople are aware that it happens. Given Mackie’s pretty obvious ailments, wouldn’t someone, anyone, have noticed? I guess I just couldn’t believe that, given that the entire town is aware of the very real presence of the fey dudes, no one would think to question Mackie’s many very odd behaviors.

My last main gripe is that Mackie seems to lack any real curiosity about his own origins. He just wants to live his normal human life, which I get, but I just can’t buy that he wouldn’t have questions. He’s not human, he knows he’s not human, and yet he never really wonders about what he actually is. This could have added a really fascinating level to the book, and the whole narrative seems much shallower for its absence. And it turns out to be so easy for Mackie to get in touch with others like him that I have question that he’s never done it before. You might argue that Mackie wants to be human so badly that he has willfully blocked all thoughts of his mysterious origins, but such a stance would at least be an active choice on Mackie’s part. Instead he just comes across as kind apathetic about it, which I just can’t believe.

Which pretty much sums up my thoughts about the whole book; I just can’t believe it. I’ll jump on board with any kind of crazy idea an author wants to throw at me, but it has to make sense in the context of the books world and so much of The Replacement just doesn’t quite fit together.

This wasn’t a terrible read, not by any means. In fact I highly enjoyed the first half or so, but that was mostly because I figured all the things I felt were missing, or didn’t understand, would come into play in the last act. As it became increasingly clear that this wasn’t the case my enjoyment began to fall pretty rapidly. Still, I wouldn’t rule out reading anything else by Brenna Yovanoff, or a sequel to this novel (assuming there is one).

How did I get this book: Bought it (yay for Christmas book vouchers!)