Monday, February 28, 2011

LOVE INC


Review of LOVE INC by YVONNE COLLINS and SANDY RIDEOUT
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I loved this book! The writing flows incredibly well, which I always find especially impressive when two authors collaborated on a work. The characters are relatable, likable, and even have that rare sense of "hey, what's my best friend doing in this book?" I quite literally couldn't put it down.

As implied by the title, LOVE INC focuses on romance. Zahra's separated parents send her to group counseling where she coincidentally discovers that her boyfriend is three timing her with two other girls from the group. (I'm not giving away anything that isn't on the back of the book.) Spurred by this betrayal, the three girls start a morally questionable but hilarious business called Love, Inc. Their mission: provide romance help in whatever form necessary: matchmaking, mediation, surveillance, or, in a special cases, revenge.

Though the book orbits around the theme of romance, each character's life is realistically fleshed out with interests and problems in other areas. The three girls all have estranged parents and you can see how each of their individual circumstances has played a role in their perspectives on romance and life in general. Zahra also struggles with her Muslim ancestry, and blames all her family tension on her mother's desire to reconnect with her culture.

This book is funny. So many books hook with drama or tragedy rather than humor that I treasure those that can make me laugh aloud. The characters in LOVE INC are prone to bickering in that sweet, familiar way that veils the tender affection of close relationships.

A preoccupation with romance seems to conjure up stereotypes of feminine and naive, but these girls are strong! Their business stems from cynical roots with the belief that all relationships are failing in some manner or other. Rather than simply accept this declaration, they fight against it with the hope that they can help mend people's fragile hearts. I was also surprised and pleased with how firm all of these girls are on wiping their hands of the three timing cheater previously mentioned. So many books cannot resist the drama of bringing an awful relationship back to center focus. Not this one. When the girls say they will not settle for a cheating boyfriend, they mean it! And good for them!

My only issue with this book is that it ended. However, I was thrilled to discover it is the first in a trilogy (though it doesn't read like one), so more is on the way. I will eagerly be anticipating the next book.

UGLIES

Review of UGLIES by SCOTT WESTERFELD

(first in the UGLIES series)

UGLIES is set in a futuristic world where, at the age of sixteen, each individual undergoes an operation to make them "pretty," an attractive average of all humanity's features. The goals behind the operation are equality and peace; if people look the same, status will not be based on appearance and if the playing field is leveled, there will be less to fight about.

The protagonist Tally Youngblood strikes me as an average individual thrust into remarkable circumstances. Everyone always tells her how amazing she is, but really she often stumbles accidentally into rebellion. Tally is eager for her operation, convinced that her life doesn't even begin until she turns pretty. Her new friend, Shay, is the one who longs to keep the "ugly" body she was born with, and feels discomforted by her lack of choice. Shay is the true rebel, but she drags Tally along for the ride. (Then Tally takes the credit.)

The book is definitely a quick read. The story has a fast pace, and easy flow so that you can fly through the book in a few hours. Westerfeld's writing is so accessible that he makes writing look easy, but if you read closer, you will see how much he has thought through his imagined world. His concepts of predominant futuristic technologies are very believable, though he doesn't overload you with technical explanation (which actually adds to the sense that these technologies are so mundane that people readily accept them). He also has a clear timeline for the average human's life in this world, including government-regulated changes that occur at each step. He has even sketched out a history for what led to this current world and their coveted operation into prettiness.

The themes of UGLIES, primarily beauty, conformity, and environmentalism, are incredibly relevant in our world today. The very nature of the plot raises an almost limitless list of questions about beauty. How much of attraction is rooted in appearance? If everyone looks similar, what steps will people take to stand out? There is also a scene when Tally sees an old magazine (from our time), is disgusted by how skinny the models are, and struggles to believe they were once considered the gold star of beauty. This begs the question: how much of beauty is a socially constructed concept that fluctuates with time and location? Tally's world frequently equates beauty with health, which explains why she finds an underweight person unattractive.

By making everyone look so similar, Westerfeld also raises this theme of conformity. Tally actually wants to conform, very much, but always has friends who push her to fight her instinct to blend in. Conformity does have its strengths, but that's a whole essay in itself! Where does one draw the line? Tally's city began the operation with good intentions of creating a more peaceful, less destructive world. At what point did they go too far?

Environmentalism concerns show up in a big way in this book, because past human failures in a sense created Tally's world. People from our time, now called Rusties, leeched off the earth until they nearly destroyed the planet and all humanity. Only small communities survived to rebuild into Tally's future. The restrictive nature of their government stems from genuine concerns that people will repeat their past mistakes if not rigorously monitored. This tension is a great strength of the book, because, unlike many dystopian works, the government is not a straightforward power-hungry "bad guy." They take away rights to protect humanity, and it is up to each individual to decide if the price of peace can ever be too high.

In summary, this is a quick, easy, enjoyable read, but not to be dismissed or belittled for that. There is ample material here that you can discuss at great length! Read, enjoy, digest.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

SEPULCHRE


Review of SEPULCHRE by KATE MOSSE
(second in the LANGUEDOC trilogy)

SEPULCHRE hooked me from the start with the terrifying action of a riot at the Paris Opéra. I recently read reviews of this book that claim it was "slow" and "never got going." That shocks me. I read every single page with zeal. Even the short chapters add to a fast pace. So I pondered this for a while, trying to figure out why people (and it did seem to be a fairly common opinion) would find this book slow. I came up with two possible explanations (and I also decided to avoid reading reviews before writing them from now on): 1. Mosse's first book, LABRYINTH, was a big hit, and sometimes it is simply impossible to compete with yourself. However, that explanation is a little dismissive of the claim, so I present theory 2. There is indeed more suspense than actual action. If you're looking for more of the mob energy from the beginning of the book, you'll find few of those scenes. Rather, quite similar to LABRYINTH, the story has an ominous sense of a threatening presence looming closer. There are still plenty of moments of high action, but most of the story is devoted to character development, the interweaving plot threads, and this building sense of doom. Mosse writes with a careful attention to every passage and character that easily held my attention, and I cared about each moment, big or small.

As with LABRYINTH, Mosse interweaves the past with the present. The conclusion that these plot threads will intersect is inevitable, but Mosse still manages to withhold exactly how. The story alternates between siblings Léonie and Anatole from 1891-7 and Melanie from 2007. Léonie is a vibrant, spunky, but very naive young woman who adores her brother Anatole, though she resents that he is clearly keeping secrets from her. Melanie is an American who finds herself in France; the party line is that she is doing research for a biography, but she privately admits that personal reasons have contributed to this pilgrimage.

Another potential reason some fans were disappointed might be that the protagonists aren't that likable, at least not Léonie and her brother Anatole. For me, that's not an issue. I don't need to like the main characters to enjoy a book; I need to find them believable. I did, however, like Melanie, even if she was rather cynical, but I wasn't as fond of Anatole and Léonie. That said, they were certainly believable human beings, so their story held my attention nonetheless. I disliked Anatole, because he keeps too many secrets, sometimes long past when there was reason to do so, (though it's still understandable why he would be reluctant to share yet) and in keeping those secrets, causes all the harm he was trying to prevent and more. His younger sister Léonie is a spoiled, ignorant girl bordering on woman who is only brave before things become scary. Yet her ignorance and naivety, while a little off-putting, also adds a childlike innocence to her character, a sense that she hasn't grown up yet, and that made me wish I could protect her from the threats she walks directly towards, not knowing any better.

There is a strong theme of fate, destiny, choices, and, specifically, tarot cards, in this book. I was impressed with how Mosse handled the subject. Destiny is tricky to even approach without a scoffing response from your more cynical readers. Mosse balanced destiny with decisions, and fate with choice, leaving the readers to decide for themselves: design or coincidence? Mosse’s understanding of tarot cards added an intriguing layer to the story without so much information that it distracts, and even sparked my curiosity, so now I want to learn more about how tarot readings work.

I do agree with the majority of readers that SEPULCHRE wasn't quite as brilliant as LABRYINTH, and I will touch on why. The story follows a similar pattern to LABRYINTH with the past and the present interwoven until they collide, but SEPULCHRE didn't pull off the climatic moment at the end as well, when understanding floods your brain until it might overload, and in just a few pages a book leaps from good to great. LABRYINTH seemed to link together like a perfect circle, while SEPULCHRE feels more like a chain link that is so near closing and yet refuses to close all the way. I also found one of the antagonists too evil. I don’t resent a book for a truly terrifying and despicable character as long as they are still believable and their motivations clear. The main antagonist from the present plot thread felt very real and understandable, but the antagonist from the past (who I am not naming to avoid spoilers) bordered on mental illness in how bent he was on cruel revenge. That may very well have been Mosse's intent (he is ill), but I think the story would have been stronger if he had some speck of light in him.

I agree that SEPULCHRE isn't quite as impressive as its precursor, LABRYINTH, but that shouldn't change the fact that it held my attention start to finish, drew me entirely into Mosse's world and is definitely worth reading.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A TALE DARK AND GRIMM


Review of A TALE DARK AND GRIMM by ADAM GIDWITZ
(review based on an advance reading copy)

This book is both hilarious and morbid...and for children! Rooted in the perspective that middle grade readers are prepared for the true Grimm tales, Gidwitz spins something new, and quite remarkable. Each chapter in this book is a twist on one Grimm brothers story. Don't confuse this with a collection of short stories, though; the plot is connected by the children Hanzel and Gretel, who, for understandable reasons, strike out on their own in search of better parents.

Gidwitz never tries to trick the young reader into turning the page to something more violent than they can handle. The voice of a narrator helps to alleviate any terror with comic inserts, warnings when something scary is about to happen and philosophical interpretations of moments that, while true to the original Grimm tales, might be a little hard for an eight year old to grasp.

True to the real Grimm stories, and not the "happified" versions of said stories, A TALE DARK AND GRIMM emphasizes that light can be found in the darkest places. Hansel and Gretal grapple with betrayal, loss, cowardice, and plenty of twisted characters on their journey, but through this struggle they also find loyalty, love and a greater understanding of themselves and others.

This is a book for brave younger readers and anyone, regardless of age, who enjoys fairytale twists, not to mention a well-written, entertaining book.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

HOUSE OF THE STAR

Review of HOUSE OF THE STAR by CAITLIN BRENNAN
(review based on an advance reading copy)


First of all, if you are a horse-fanatic, read this book! HOUSE OF THE STAR is set in a universe where different worlds are connected by magical roads that only special horses called worldrunners can travel. For an added bit of juicy politics, these gifted horses can only breed on Earth.

The story follows Elen, a princess of Ymbria, who desperately wants to become a worldrider. Elen's strongest passion is love: her love for horses, in particular, but her second strongest passion is hate: specifically hate of Caledon, a world that has been at war with her own for her entire life and longer. One might resent such a prejudiced character as Elen if we could not so easily see the brave, kind young girl buried beneath the resentment inherited from her ancestors.

When Elen goes to the House of the Star, a ranch where worldrunners are bred, to learn how to become a worldrider, it seems her life is falling into place. Then she realizes that one of her housemates, a girl she almost accidentally befriended, is a Caledonian. Ria is a welcome addition to the story, because she immediately confirms what I already suspected: the war between Ymbria and Caledon is not a one-sided story, as much as Elen wants to believe otherwise.

As might be expected, Ria and Elen find they must learn to work together if neither intends to abandon the prospect of becoming a worldrider. This doesn't happen easily, though! Despite begrudging attempts to be civil, Elen maintains that Ria is evil, a spy and possibly bent on destroying the universe. Of course, everyone brushes off such embittered claims, but then something terrible and unexpected happens and it seems Ria, acting for Caledon, might actually be behind it.

This is well-written story that held me captive from start to finish. While Elen and Ria's prejudices are no mild mannered dislikes, but writhing, intense fevers of irrational loathing, Brennan still manages to make them both likable! This is in great part achieved through their obvious tenderness for horses, but also because it is clear their hatred is just one of the many negative products of war.

SPOILER ALERT


My only quibble with HOUSE OF THE STAR is how Elen overcomes her hate, by the magical interference of the Horned King. I would have much preferred watching her make the change gradually and through her own adaptation of mindset. I should acknowledge the strong possibility that there was no true magic on the part of the Horned King and, thus, Elen did push away her hate by herself, but even then the Horned King still played a vital role through his trickery. To Brennan's credit, prejudice is a big, bold issue to tackle, but I looked forward to seeing how Ria might win Elen over, and was disappointed when the problem was solved, in effect, with "magic wand waving."

Sunday, February 6, 2011

THE MERMAID'S MIRROR

Review of THE MERMAID'S MIRROR by L.K. MADIGAN
(review based on an advance reading copy)


I have always been intrigued by mermaids, and yet (I'll be honest) I find most of mermaid fiction trips headfirst into a pit of clichés. In the classic mermaid story, a mermaid either longs for the shore and humanity, or a human discovers her own mermaid ancestry and cannot resist the pull of the ocean. While I admit that THE MERMAID'S MIRROR prances right along the line between original and cliché, the story manages never to fall into a disappointing predictability.

Even though I may have called a few twists, the characters kept me riveted. The author treats each one with a humanitarian understanding, building them up from little pieces into extremely realistic individuals. Lena, the protagonist, while admirably independent, isn't a roughly drawn caricature of a "strong woman." She has understandable moments of uncertainty, and feels suffocated by others' expectations. A great part of why I found Lena such a relatable character is that - whatever flaws she does possess - she is not selfish. Though she might sometimes choose actions that benefit herself while hurting another, she feels the full weight of the decision and regrets that independence often comes at the expense of those who wish to protect her.


Her two close friends, Pem and Kai, do not feel like sidekicks, but like other humans whose stories are simply not being told at the moment. Kai is also Lena's boyfriend and I was pleased that their relationship felt balanced. Through Lena's eyes, we understand that Kai is coming on too strong, but he is never demonized. On her side, Lena could have actually tried to talk to him about their issues, or been more understanding that his behavior, though perhaps too enthusiastic, is coming from a place of love. The fact is that they're both people - people learning about who they are as individuals and how they might fit into a couple.


I've already emphasized that I think the characters in this book feel real, but I want to especially cheer for Lena's family. So many young adult books star protagonists whose parents are: absent, preoccupied, cruel, or flat out evil. Not this one! Lena has a loving, supportive family who may have kept a secret or two in her best interests, but are by no means unreasonable or unlikable.


This is not a book about mermaids; this is a book about Lena. Those readers expecting a book chock full of the mermaids implied in the title will be disappointed. Though this is certainly a fantasy book, Madigan's use of mermaids is restrained, which keeps the focus of the story on Lena: her struggles, her relationships, her choices. Like all good fantasy stories, the mermaids serve as a powerful metaphor for reality as Lena finds herself forced to choose between those she loves.


While I foresee the ending frustrating readers who like neat and tidy closings, I enjoyed it myself. I prefer stories where the character's life clearly continues off the page. Unless they've died, that's how it should be! Lena does make some important decisions in those final pages, but I closed the book with the sense that she still has a lot of life left to live.