Friday, May 27, 2016

THE GIRL WITH THE MERMAID HAIR


THE GIRL WITH THE MERMAID HAIR by DELIA EPHRON

This book lured me in with young Sukie’s eerie obsession with her new mirror. Well, old mirror. It’s an heirloom from her grandmother, gorgeous, except for the cracks that appear from no known cause and work their way across the surface over the course of the story.

Ephron takes a surreal, magical realism approach to a teenage girl’s emotional struggles. I’ll admit the style of this book is not to my taste. Everything feels too loosely connected for me, like an abstract painting. We have simple characters, a vague setting, and pieces of a plot that link together more by Sukie’s emotional journey than anything else. However, I see the appeal in the story nonetheless and would highly recommend it for fans of Francesca Lia Block.

Sukie’s infatuation with her mirror is probably what I liked most about this story, especially the metaphorical subtext. In truth, I can’t easily tell you what this book is about other than being a teenager and using the mirror as a metaphor for truth. Sukie doesn’t always like what she sees reflected in the mirror, but, she figures, mirrors don’t lie. Except perhaps cracked ones do. I confess as a long-time fantasy reader I immediately spotted the fairy tale twist potential of this theme and hoped for something of that nature, but Ephron takes the story in another direction.

Friday, May 6, 2016

CLEOPATRA


Review of CLEOPATRA: A LIFE by STACY SCHIFF
(review based on an audiobook, read by ROBIN MILES)

Cleopatra is an iconic figure, but most people don’t know the distinction between legend and history. Foremost, we portray Cleopatra as a manipulative seductress. While the facts do suggest Cleopatra had a distinct charm and political prowess, records suggest her mind was a much stronger weapon than her body. In fact, many accounts comment that Cleopatra wasn’t actually that attractive. Her beauty came from her personality and intelligence.

I loved this biography, but can acknowledge that it won’t be for everyone. For one thing, it’s rather dry, focusing on dates and names especially at first. For another, it contains a lot of speculation on various possibilities where we simply don’t know the real truth. Last, this is really geared more towards people who know very little about Cleopatra. While no expert myself, nothing in this book took me by surprise. Perhaps some specifics, but overall it’s all what I have already read or heard about Cleopatra.

A big part of why I nevertheless found the audiobook so engrossing was the voice. Miles has a fantastic reading voice: clear and articulate with the right amount of subtle, well-timed inflection that avoids any monotone-feel. It felt like listening to a good friend go on and on about a passion. I can’t say for certain exactly how to divide the credit between Miles’ voice and Schiff’s words, but regardless the passion is contagious.

While some readers may prefer something a little more revolutionary in content, this is an exceptional, in-depth biography of a remarkable woman.

Friday, April 29, 2016

WATERSMEET


Review of WATERSMEET by ELLEN JENSEN ABBOTT
(first in the WATERSMEET series)

Shunned by her village for her dark skin, Abisina has grown used to her life in the shadows. She lives in an overtly bigoted society that outcasts anyone who strays from a specified physical ideal. She’s not without bitterness, but you could say she’s found peace with her lot in life. Until a tyrannical ruler comes to her village, warning everyone against tolerance, spreading the fear of spiritual repercussions unless they cleanse the village of the toxic outcasts. In the course of one speech, Abisina’s harsh life goes from one filled with bullying and insults to a full-fledged fight for survival. Her mother speaks of an impossibly wonderful place called Watersmeet where they’ll be safe. It sounds too good to be true, but at this point Abisina doesn’t have anything to lose by striking out in search of something better.

Thematically, this is a story about prejudice above all else. War also plays a big role, but that ties in with what happens when people start dividing into groups and facing off against each other. Though a victim of prejudice herself, Abisina doesn’t recognize her own narrow-mindedness as she strays out into the bigger world full of all kinds of people (or creatures, in the case of a fantasy novel).

I stumbled over one major revelation later in the story, because I couldn’t follow the leap of logic that led Abisina to her correct conclusion. It felt too much like the character knows this now, because the author needs her to know this now. How she suddenly knew something with such certainty that struck me as random threw me out of the story.

This is the first in a series and, though I gripe and grumble about last minute realizations that I’m reading a first book rather than a standalone, I admire how WATERSMEET feels like both. There’s a satisfying story arc and as well a fulfilling ending, with only the faintest hint of more story to be told. I suppose it’s really first books with sudden cliffhangers that send me into fits.

Without spoiling too much, Abisina learns by the end that she may have won one battle, but not the war. Especially if we’re talking a war against prejudice. That’s a long, complicated war potentially impossible to ever “win.” But Abisina intends to do her best.

Friday, April 22, 2016

PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS


Review of PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS: THE FATE OF LUCIE BLACKMAN by RICHARD LLOYD PARRY

This is the first true crime book that I’ve ever read. In general, I find real darkness much more upsetting than fictional darkness (and I’m hardly alone on that count). When I read or watch an invented act of violence, I can comfort myself with the fact that it’s pretend. Books and movies based on true events almost always strongly affect me, because I’m an extremely empathetic person and I find myself thinking about the real life victim, her family, her friends, her final moments.

Someone recommended this book to me primarily because it’s about a British girl murdered in Japan and he thought I, as someone born in Britain who has studied Japanese language and culture, would find much of the cultural context fascinating. He was certainly right there.

Though in many ways horrific in the facts, I enjoyed this book far more than I expected. For starters, the writing surprised me with its subtle skill. I often find that my enjoyment in nonfiction hinges on the writing. An author can know his material, but if he can’t write smooth, appealing sentences that transition easily from one idea to the next, the material alone won’t hold my attention. Parry took a complete stranger to me, Lucie, and made her feel like a friend - or at least like her fate could happen to one of my own actual friends. We tend to disassociate ourselves from dreadful news stories with reassurances of how we differ from the victims, weighing those differences as proof that the same thing couldn’t happen to us.

Aside from the writing, the other reason I liked this book is because there is simply so much that is psychologically compelling. If everyone in your book group can handle the heavy content, talk about great fodder for discussion.

First, there’s the nature of what Lucie was doing in Japan: hostessing. For many Westerners, this at first explanation sounds like an escort service. A Japanese hostess provides the pleasure of her company in exchange for money. However, that company does not include sexual services. Some have compared it to being a modern geisha, which a stretch but alludes to the fact that the girls pour the customers’ drinks for them and generally attend to them with ease and grace. Mostly, though, the girls carry a conversation. If the customer wants to vent about work or droll on about his boring hobby, they listen with (usually feigned) fascination. If the customer brings current or potential business partners, the hostess does her part in making the customer look good to his peers. If the customer is quiet, the girls keep the conversation alive. If the customer tells bawdy jokes, the girls smile politely. However, the customers understand that the girls’ obligation ends there. The hostess will not be sleeping with them. If that’s what they want, there are other places the customers can go. Usually the only customers confused by this invisible boundary are non-Japanese. Parry cites first hand accounts of Europeans frustrated when a hostess won’t come back to their hotel rooms and demanding to know why she flirted so aggressively then. Answer: because that’s what the client paid for, flirting but not sex. One anthropologist called it an orgasm of the ego. A hostess is being paid to make the customer feel good, just not in the same way as a prostitute. Having studied the Japanese language and culture myself, I’m already familiar with hostessing and some of the common cultural confusions and nodded along at Parry’s explanations of why Lucie’s job clouded people’s understanding of the case. Many Westerners assumed her fate should be an expected possibility with her job.

Then there’s Lucie’s family and friends and their varied reaction to her disappearance, the long and painful search for answers, and the sickening truth. Parry talks about how grieving families are expected to play a certain role in the media and people like them less if they don’t conform to the expected role. Lucie’s mother fit the role perfectly: she cried, she pleaded for help from anyone who could offer it, and she yelled at journalists to give her space during this difficult time. Lucie’s sister Sophie wasn’t that unusual either. Though she frequently appeared more angry than sad, people recognize that as another reaction to grief. Based on Parry’s portrayal, I would say Sophie had little tolerance for fools. He describes ground-out answers to dumb, obvious questions about how she’s feeling and includes her cynical statements about the media, her friends, family, the world, and well, most everything. Most controversial, though, is Lucie’s father. He championed her case in the media, doing everything he could to stir up and hold the world’s attention so she wouldn’t become another cold case. However, he’s faced numerous accusations of enjoying himself a little too much, including that he liked all the fame and attention, that he had fun going to the clubs on the pretense of interviewing hostesses, and that he took advantage of people donating money to search for Lucie and spent it on himself. Parry offers up the possibility that part of people’s negative reaction to Lucie’s father was the fact that he didn’t appear upset. Of the many ways to grieve, completely calm and collected unnerves people the most. 

My review is already stretching out, so let me summarize some other aspects I found intriguing: the media portrayal and what caused Lucie’s story to be such a sensation, the Japanese police and their alarming mishandling of this case, the killer’s long history of using women and his state of mind, and the body image issues that emerge through both excerpts in Lucie’s diary and the killer’s admission that he often preys on “ugly women” or at least their insecurity that they might be perceived as ugly.

I’m sure being a mostly fiction reader affected my perception of this nonfiction book. I worry I talk about these real people a bit too much like characters, and occasionally - especially at grim details - I would catch myself wondering at the writer mind who could imagine such a twisted act...only to realize, “Oh. Right. This is real.” I strongly agree with a quote on the back of the novel: “by turns, a non-fiction thriller, a courtroom drama and the biography of both a victim and a killer.”

While the author’s skilled writing makes this read at times like a gripping, convoluted, and gruesome mystery novel, he also manages to drive home that Lucie is real. By portraying a heartfelt look at her family’s grief, he tugs on the reader’s empathy and it’s easy to spend most of the book imaging how you would feel if Lucie were your daughter, sister, or friend. Definitely too dark for some, but an affecting effort at ensuring a life lost doesn’t equal a life forgotten.

Friday, April 8, 2016

UNMADE


Review of UNMADE by SARAH REES BRENNAN
(third in THE LYNBURN LEGACY series, based on review copy)

In all honesty, this book wasn’t everything I wanted it to be. Instead it’s a bittersweet conclusion to a series I fell in love with upon reading the first book several years ago.

This is the showdown book. The evil sorcerers have all the power and the outlook is bleak for Kami and her friends. Their foremost nemesis Rob demands human sacrifices to fuel and increase his and his followers’ power. Some of the frightened townsfolk think sacrificing some is a good comprise for saving others, but Kami knows Rob’s torment has no end. People might die trying to defeat him, but if they don’t try he’ll keep killing people anyway. I repeat: outlook is bleak.

This series went downhill for me. I adored the first book so much I practically drooled over it. I found the second one good but a far cry from the first. And this third book mostly frustrated me, though I did find a few glimmers of what I so loved originally.

First let me call out what I perceive to be the book’s weaknesses. As I mentioned in my review of UNSPOKEN, all the character dialogue sounds the same. I didn’t mind so much, because “the same” for book one meant “equally witty and hilarious.” However, here I found the majority of every character’s dialogue not only maddeningly interchangeable but highly unbelievable. I simply don’t know people who talk like these characters. Sometimes it occurred to me that much of the dialogue is more along how people think than how they speak: dramatic, long-winded, and, as funny a criticism as this sounds, too articulate. The dialogue is missing a kind of rhythm we find in real life conversation that comes from things like “uh”s, stammering, fragments, poorly or awkwardly phrased sentences, etc. I guess another way to put it is that the dialogue feels like something that has been written, and then re-written and edited to perfection. The problem is that the result doesn’t feel like something someone might say off the top of their head.

Kami starts to feel too much like a Mary Sue to me. Everyone’s in love with her or plotting her demise. The author and other characters keep telling me how utterly unique and special she is, but I’m not seeing it. (I think she’s impressive girl, but her accomplishments shouldn’t diminish those of plenty of other impressive girls.) And I’m not a fan of the soul mate complex dynamic reflected in Kami and Jared’s stormy relationship.

Most significantly, though, I didn’t feel this book. With the first one, I wanted what the characters wanted so badly it hurt to see them fall short. With this one I often felt more apathetic: “Succeed or fail. Live or die. What difference does it make to me? You’re not real.” That’s the key right there. Making characters feel real, like your friends, like a part of yourself. The characters feel too hyperbolized, as their unique qualities become their single defining quality. Quirky Kami. Moody Jared. Sleepy Rusty and Angela. In this way the characters start feeling too one-dimensional. One of my favorite characters dies and I hardly cared. (Not too much of a spoiler, in my opinion, since this is a character-heavy story and I loved a lot of them.)

Now on to what I liked. As I stated earlier, despite all my criticisms, a few moments in this book reminded me of what I loved so much in the first: a good-humored insight into human motivation. While I say I didn’t feel a beloved character’s death, I did feel the aftershocks. Like Kami’s realization that her love isn’t special. She’s a passionate person who wanted to believe that the fierceness of her love shields those she cares about from harm, makes them exceptions to the horrors hitting other families. Though expressed in pretty much one or two simple sentences in the book, I could discuss this theme at length. Love as protection is a common trend in fantasy, but it’s emotional protection, not physical. Loving someone doesn’t inherently make them safe.

I also adored how the author handles the climax and denouement for the series. While I complain that the characters feel too flat in this installment, their actions near the end are hardly arbitrary. They wouldn’t be able to do the things they do without being the people they are. Kami and Jared’s lifelong experience of sharing a consciousness comes into play as well as Kami’s journalistic talents. My favorite part of the whole book is an article she writes that feels so bursting with passion and determination that it should have it’s own pulse. If all of Kami’s articles are as good as that one, I could read a book full of them.

While I didn’t idolize the second and third books in this series as much as the first, there’s strengths throughout as well as plenty worthy of considerable thought and discussion.

Friday, April 1, 2016

THE SOUND AND THE FURRY


Review of THE SOUND AND THE FURRY by SPENCER QUINN
(sixth in the CHET AND BERNIE mysteries)

Private investigator Bernie and his loyal dog Chet are back, this time working a missing person’s case - following a man who disappeared around the time of a feud over some stolen shrimp. (We’re talking boatload, not plateful, of stolen shrimp.)

Like it’s predecessors in this series, THE SOUND AND THE FURRY is a slim book that reads even quicker than you might expect, due to the fact that the majority of the text consists of dialogue. This means that several pages have very short lines scrolling down the page as the conversation bounces back and forth between the characters.

As always, I enjoyed reading the story through Chet the dog’s perspective. It’s a simple gimmick that adds a whole new spin to a classic mystery story. Chet listens in on human conversations, but often doesn’t follow much of what’s being said, giving the reader more insight into what’s going on than Chet himself. He’s also easily distracted by food, among other things. And he makes for a slightly unreliable narrator. In particular, to hear Chet tell it Bernie has no flaws. He’s perfect. However, the author Quinn does a great job defining Bernie (virtues and flaws and all) even through Chet’s awestruck eyes. Chet’s perspective also provides plenty of giggles - from familiar dog behavior like Chet bragging about how he can sit without his butt actually touching the ground all way or his occasional confusion about who was supposed to go through the door first to his almost embarrassed way of describing Bernie’s short comings. Chet really hates to admit Bernie isn’t perfect, but Chet’s not too impressed with Bernie’s sense of smell.

I didn’t find myself nearly as invested in the mystery itself as how Chet’s telling the story. There’s a secondary plotline unfolding about a potential oil spill that I did found much more intriguing than the missing person’s case, but - no real surprise - the two plot threads do eventually intersect.

Chet finds himself in some serious danger in this book. Even knowing it’s all fiction and having read interviews with the author where he openly shares that he’ll never kill Chet, I still feel very anxious reading about a dog in a scary situation!

The only aspect I take issue with in this series is how dog aggression feels validated. Bernie has trained Chet to bite and draw blood and usually not on command but when Chet deems it necessary. If Chet bites someone, it’s a sure sign they’re a bad person, usually a “perp,” but I think that’s the kind of mentality that belongs better in fiction than real life. As someone who has worked training dogs, I don’t really respect how Bernie has trained Chet. (For starters, there are lots of ways to train a dog to be intimidating without actually encouraging them to attack.) That being said, I will mention that I know very little about police dog training. Now that being said, Bernie is a private investigator not a police officer, meaning Chet isn’t a police dog, so really Bernie’s just encouraging aggression in his canine pet and partner.

THE SOUND AND THE FURRY is another fun read following sweet, simple Chet and his adventures investigating crimes with his master, partner, and best friend Bernie. I think there’s at least one more in this series out that I haven’t read yet, but I hope I get to it soon.

Friday, March 25, 2016

THE PHOENIX DANCE


Review of THE PHOENIX DANCE by DIA CALHOUN

I consider Calhoun a brilliant but tragically underappreciated author. I first discovered her when I read AVIELLE OF RHIA, a unique and spellbinding young adult fantasy that I bought at a word-of-mouth only (and very hard to find) book sale several years back.

THE PHOENIX DANCE convinced me that Calhoun didn’t write one fluke of a gem with AVIELLE but has a real gift for story, character, and theme. THE PHOENIX DANCE is a twist on the classic tale of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” as well as a well-rendered metaphor for manic depression.

Young Phoenix wants nothing more than to apprentice for the queen’s own shoemaker and learn the skills to design and bring to life her own gorgeous shoe creations. Sadly, what her aunts call her “flighty moods” make it difficult for her to be a reliable worker. One day she’s buzzing with excited energy so intense she rushes around producing more quantity and quality than anyone thought possible in such a short amount of time. Then the next day she may feel so wiped and unmotivated that she can’t leave her bed. Aside from Phoenix’s personal problems, the royal shoemaker starts losing the queen’s respect when all twelve princesses completely wear out their new shoes in one night. Determined to help the princesses, the shoemaker, and herself, Phoenix resolves to find out what’s really happening to the princesses each night.

I caught the manic depression parallels pretty early on and the themes become stronger as the novel progresses, but if I had any doubts Calhoun erased them with her note at the end announcing the deliberate metaphor and discussing real life bipolar disorder. In Phoenix’s world it’s called the Illness of the Two Kingdoms. Manic phases are referred to being in the Kingdom of Brilliance, which can be dangerous because people don’t know their own limitations and feel invincible and also because it leads to being in the Kingdom of Darkness, the depressive phase. A medic works with Phoenix on crafting a potion unique to her that will help ground and stabilize her, but Phoenix resents the potion for several reasons. For starters, it has unpleasant side effects like acne, weight gain, and nausea. For another, as much as Phoenix wants to avoid the Kingdom of Darkness she isn’t ready to say goodbye to the Kingdom of Brilliance. A steadier, balanced mood to her seems so bleak and boring. Sometimes she lies about skipping her potion or experiments with dosages despite the medic’s recommendations, in the hopes of finding a balance between her addictive manic highs while still avoiding the depressive lows.

THE PHOENIX DANCE only further convinced me that I need to find and read everything I can by Dia Calhoun as well as continue to talk up this underappreciated author to anyone and everyone who will listen.