Friday, October 28, 2011

LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES

Review of LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES by LAINI TAYLOR


Anyone who read my zealous review of Laini Taylor’s most recent book DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE might not be surprised to learn that she’s making her way up the ranks of my favorite authors. Since I enjoyed DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE so much, I have been reading her older works. I’m loving everything. I finished LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES, a collection of three stories, in one day.


Taylor’s writing is spectacular. With all her books and stories, I find myself pausing to admire utterly unique turns of phrase, many of which so concisely capture the current emotions or situation that you wonder how you’ve never read or heard this combination of words before. Now it’s time for some honesty: as a writer working towards publishing my own books, sometimes admiration for brilliant authors can be tainted with a little of that ugly sentiment: jealously. Somehow Taylor’s writing, stunning as it is, doesn’t stir up any envy. It inspires. When I read writing like this, I remember why I love to read, why I love to write, why my life is practically devoted to these two activities. Taylor’s writing is entirely her own, a goal to which most authors aspire, and it shoves its way past your mind towards those emotion-laden concepts: your heart and your soul.


All three of these dark stories tantalize and linger. Both fresh and familiar, they tap into folklore and fairy tale elements, but the emotions make them relevant to today and any day. The title of the book makes more sense once you read the stories; all three of them utilize kissing as a key component. In fact, the pronounced overarching theme of the collection echoes off the page: love and wanting.


For the first story I want to share an excerpt from the brief prologue, which succinctly captures the premise and tone of the tale:


There is a certain kind of girl that the goblins crave. You could walk across a high school campus and point them out: not her, not her, her. The pert, lovely ones with butterfly tattoos in secret places, sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? No, not them. The girls watching the lovely ones sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? Yes.


Them.


The second story has a slight ELLA ENCHANTED feel with magic that binds one’s will until overwhelming helplessness makes them feel trapped in their own body. Due to one strange woman’s peculiar relationship with a demon, the innocent victim Anamique is cursed as a baby: if she ever utters a single sound every person in the room will die. Unlike ELLA ENCHANTED in which the protagonist knows without a doubt that her curse is real because it affects her every day, Anamique constantly battles doubt. What if the real curse is that some cruel person has convinced her of this mad, fictional spell? What if she’s silencing herself for no good reason? Of course, testing the curse would be a dangerous game. As usual, Taylor plays well with her setup and this story, if it didn’t break my heart, still fractured it again and again.


The third and last story is the darkest and most mature, closer to the type of fairy tales for which the Grimm brothers are famous rather than the happily-ever-after, mellowed-down-villain versions in abundance today. For this one, I fear telling you too much will ruin the experience, so suffice it to say that this story plays with folklore about the more sinister fascinations that fey folk have with mortals.


I loved every story in LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES too much to rank or compare them. Each is its own unique and beautiful tale. And Laini Taylor is definitely an author to watch!

Friday, October 21, 2011

WHO FEARS DEATH

Review of WHO FEARS DEATH by NNEDI OKORAFOR


This is an ominous tale worthy of shudders, not due to any fantastical beasts but because the story is filled with the dark side of humanity that, sadly, doesn’t feel at all unrealistic or exaggerated. The redemptions here are plenty: strong writing, haunting characters, stirring relationships, and politics both familiar and magical. Despite the book’s virtues, it wasn’t easy to stomach the violence and cruelty that’s almost mundane in Onyesonwu’s life. This is a beautiful, terrible book and I’m grateful that it was difficult to read.


Onyesonwu has been dealt a painfully inequitable burden in life: she is a child of rape and her lighter skin marks her as such. Those who don’t think she should be killed still hardly consider her an equal. Right near the start of the book the war rape of Onyesonwu’s mother, along with many other women, is described in vivid, excruciating detail. I have read my share of violence, including a lot of rape, but this particular scene skyrocketed to the most agonizing that I have ever read. I was quite seriously tempted to toss the book to the floor and bolt to the bathroom. My stomach rebelled not so much at the level of violence but at just how real it felt. Honestly, though, I think that’s good. There’s something irresponsible about rape scenes that are easy to read. I’m not against violence in books but I do find myself worked up when it’s clearly thrown in there for “spice.” If I’m going to read a rape scene, I want it to make my skin crawl like this one did. I want to be reminded that this really happens - this part isn’t fantasy - and that the emotional consequences last far longer than the actual rape.


However, if you think you’re through the worst of it after reading that scene, think again. Before I even had a chance to compose myself, I stumbled into the circumcision scene. The sting of this one doesn’t lie so much in violence, but more in how it’s drawn out. It’s clear that Onyesonwu can leave at any point, but she has a desperate hope that her peers will accept her if she goes through the same eleventh year rite as all the other girls. I won’t revel whether or not she goes through with the circumcision, but it’s a long scene that actually roused my adrenaline as I mentally begged Onyesonwu to leave while she still could. Okorafor describes each minute in detail, reminding the reader that Onyesonwu’s opportunity to back out is ticking away.


Horror and hope are well-balanced in this world, even though there’s such a heavy dose of horror. Onyesonwu’s magic, in a sense, stems from pain, something she struggles with daily. She’s not a pure storybook victim who takes the beatings from fate without doling out anything herself. She can be rash and commits some terrible actions, but I could always understand her motivations and how her traumatic past has filled her with so much anger.


A small, bright light of comfort can be found in Onyesonwu’s friendships. Friends are few and not easy to find for her, but circumstance brings her a handful that prove touchingly loyal, even if their fear of her still shines through on occasion. The romantic relationship that she enters into is also full of such depth that I will probably only undermine it if I attempt to summarize.


One last quirk that I want to mention is the connection to ZAHRAH THE WINDSEEKER. Those who have read the book or my review might as surprised as I was to learn there’s a link between such vastly different books. Well, it’s extremely subtle. Really, just one line, one little detail, that doesn’t play a significant role in this story at all, but will leave readers familiar with both books pondering for long after.


WHO FEARS DEATH is a rough, emotional read. I cringe at telling anyone not to read an amazing book, but this is definitely one that will always come along with a cautionary disclaimer after any gushing. I am filled with admiration for how Okorafor handles such disturbing subject matter, but I admit to still feeling a little traumatized every time I even think about this book. Again, in an odd way, that’s a good thing. I prefer my trauma in books than in real life, because it can be a safe way to learn more about the world without needing to have the same horrific experiences as, say, Onyesonwu. Still, fictional trauma, when done well, drags along the reminder that this is a reality for someone. Those reminders, which can be life altering, are one of the primary reasons I read.

Friday, October 14, 2011

TRIS & IZZIE

Review of TRIS & IZZIE by METTE IVIE HARRISON

(Review based on an advance reading copy)


TRIS & IZZIE transfers the story of Tristan and Isolde to a high school setting. Izzie, our protagonist, has the perfect life until she makes the mistake of fiddling around with magic. Though Izzie has a wonderful relationship with her boyfriend Mark, she senses that her best friend Branna might be a little lonely for a romance of her own. Since Izzie’s mother is a witch, her mind jumps to the easy solution and she tries to use a love philtre on Branna and the odd-but-handsome new guy Tristan. Needless to say, things don’t go according to plan, and Izzie accidentally drinks the philtre herself.


It took me three to five pages to go along with the tone of the book. The description of Tristan and Isolde transferred to a high school setting might have set me up with the wrong expectations at first. The book, while still a delightful read, is more whimsical than realistic, more humorous than tragic. A lot of the dialogue felt slightly more plot-serving than something I can imagine teenagers actually saying and the characters seem more like people from a fairy tale than a real high school campus. While it took me a few pages to accept the atmosphere, it all works well for the story.


The book doesn’t waste any time. We meet Izzie and Mark and see a brief glimpse of their relationship in line one and we have conflict between Izzie and her best friend Branna on page two. The story line isn’t an exact parallel to the Tristan and Isolde tale, so readers can expect some surprises.


A woman torn between two wonderful men, trying to have them both. That sets the writer a challenge to make her likable, and Harrison jumps over this hurdle: Izzie is very likable. She walked into this situation by messing with magic, but it’s debatable whether her feelings for Tristan are her own or entirely forced from the love philtre. Her eagerness to help her friend early on won me over. In fact, most of the characters demonstrate remarkable maturity throughout in their desire for others’ happiness. Definitely a book that inspires faith in humanity.


The role of will in love is perhaps the most prominent theme. Izzie is perfectly happy with Mark until a love philtre makes her fall for Tristan instead. Does that mean her feelings for Tristan aren’t real? Or is the philtre merely an excuse? I saw parallels to alcohol with this, especially in the sense that the substance can be used as a social crutch. “It wasn’t me; it was the alcohol.”


TRIS & IZZIE is a fun read, especially since Harrison makes the story her own. Its greatest strength, in my opinion, is the characters. For all their complications and flaws, all the main characters are good people and their self-sacrifices and loyalty make this book a refreshing alternative to the abundance of dark, dreary stories out there.

Friday, October 7, 2011

RAMPANT

Review of RAMPANT by DIANA PETERFREUND


At first, RAMPANT seems like a twist on unicorn mythology; in Peterfreund’s portrayal unicorns are violent, aggressive, and deadly. However, as the author herself points out, her version of the unicorn is actually the more historically accurate one. Astrid, our protagonist, discovers that she descends from a long line of unicorn hunters and a reemergence of the bloodthirsty beasts forces her into a lifestyle that she can’t even comprehend.


I wanted to like this book more than I did. I’ve heard only good things, but for some reason it fell a little flat for me. All of my criticisms are specific, petty complaints that individually can’t ruin a book for me, but together kept me from being enveloped into this imagined world. After some thought, I realized all the little details that distracted me can be summarized into two main points: the story often felt both unbelievable and contrived. However, because the book raises such imperative topics with an incredible candor I still consider it a worthwhile read.


The fact that I found a book about killer unicorns unbelievable deserves a mental chuckle, but fellow readers, especially fantasy readers, know what I mean. I have read many books with preposterous, ridiculous, or plain silly premises that somehow suspend any skepticism and unfold a “what if” in your mind like it really could be an alternate universe just out of our reach. I wanted RAMPANT to be one of those books where each character, setting, conversation, and action comes with a clear mental picture that will forever live on in my mind, but I found myself constantly distracted by little things. In particular I wanted to picture these unicorns, since they clearly differ from standard depictions, but descriptions sometimes clashed and I could never form a mental image. The chaotic action scenes also left me confused and I often had to re-read passages multiple times. Astrid’s voice never clicked into place; she always felt more like a character than a person and for that matter a character trying a little too hard to be a teenager. I often struggled to follow her sudden mood or opinion changes and couldn’t understand the logic behind her actions and decisions. Other characters suffered similar fallbacks. Caricatures is too harsh an assessment since all of them are so close to feeling realistic, but some tiny detail in each made them fall short of convincing me.


Whenever I use “contrived” to describe a book, I mean that I’m too aware of the author. The story wasn’t quite fleshed out enough and I often saw major events as mere plot devices, which detracted from any emotional impact. I can’t explain why, but I foresaw Astrid’s cousin Philippa’s latter role in the story as soon as she was introduced. I also wanted to know more about how magic works, why unicorns behave the way they do, and why only certain families can hunt them. It really bothered me that Astrid and the others simply go along with murdering unicorns, because people tell them they must do so without any additional explanation. It’s only at the end of the book that Astrid and her fellow unicorn hunters begin asking questions I feel they should have asked before they ever picked up a weapon.


I still think this book is worth reading! Despite the fact that I never fell in love with the story the way I anticipated, I found it enjoyable throughout. Yet even that isn’t why I consider this book worth reviewing and recommending. RAMPANT contains some primal themes and the nature of its premise allows for a much franker discussion of sensitive topics than teenagers, or adults for that matter, are likely to find many other places. The subjects I want to mention are sex (which is really an umbrella label for a LOT of different discussions) and endangered species.


One part of unicorn mythology that stays fairly consistent is the creature’s fascination with female virgins. In RAMPANT and countless tales before, virgin girls pacify the wild, hostile unicorns and, thus, are often used as hunting tools: the bait to lure the prey. The nature of this mythology already creates a preoccupation with purity and virginity that cannot be untangled from the rest of the story and pushed aside. Astrid’s mother desperately urges her daughter to preserve her virginity, but less for the usual reasons and more because if Astrid is no longer a virgin she cannot be a unicorn hunter. At times Astrid is even tempted to sleep with someone merely to escape a path she feels forced into by her mother. This metaphorically addresses how many teenagers (and, yes, adults as well) sleep with people for the wrong reasons. The book also tackles rape with a rare openness. In particular, RAMPANT forces readers to acknowledge exactly what can be considered rape. There are many different kinds, but women whose experience doesn’t fall under extremely violent penile penetration by a stranger are often even more likely to keep their mouths shut. The experience is humiliating enough without explaining the details to everyone.


Another forefront theme is unicorns as an endangered species. In fact, those who know of these creatures’ existence already believed them to be extinct, but unicorns are reemerging. Part of why I couldn’t invest in this story fully is also why I think it’s important discussion fodder. Astrid and her fellow unicorn hunters are told very little: unicorns are evil monsters and the teenagers must kill these beasts. I was deeply bothered that none of these girls demanded more information before they followed orders and slay, by gruesome means, what seemed to be more like animals acting on instinct. Humans, along with other creatures, have a widely acknowledged fear of the unknown. Oftentimes, what scares us or differs from us we would like to see erased from the world. Though my opinion did alter a little as the story unfolded, at first I saw unicorns more like sharks or crocodiles: predators but not evil and certainly not deserving of intentional, violent extinction.


While I regret that the story didn’t wrap around me as I had hoped, I still find myself pondering the candid discussions to which it leads the reader. The metaphorical but frank discussion of sex doesn’t impose any opinions, but rather poses question after question to be collected and considered. The theme of endangered species also branches out into other serious topics about killing and fear of the unknown. Whether or not you can jump into Astrid’s world, you will find an abundance of relevant, noteworthy issues stuffed into these pages.