Friday, May 25, 2012

ASH


Review of ASH by MALINDA LO

The person who recommended this book to me didn’t do it justice. She described the book as a “twist on Cinderella” and let slip one way in which ASH veers away from the original story. What she neglected to mention is how many other twists Lo weaves throughout to recraft her own haunting fairy tale.

For starters, my friend neglected to mention the fey twists and, hence, Sidhean, who plays the vital role of the fairy godmother but in an unexpected and creepy manner. Yes, he’s Ash’s secret, magical helper who mysteriously provides everything Ash needs, but Lo pulls from other legends about the fey: their favors are never free. That combined with stories about their eerie fascination with mortals make this a different tale. For one day of freedom, Ash must promise Sidhean herself.
 
Lo’s Ash strikes me as a much more compelling character than the ever-suffering Cinderella. Oh, Ash bears similar burdens, but her self-destructive nature seems a far more relatable consequence of her life than Cinderella’s bland and passive apathy to her cruel stepfamily. While not overtly suicidal, Ash’s actions brought the topic to my mind, in particular people who walk the line of suicide - they may never actually try to kill themselves, but they act in ways that they know are dangerous or harmful for little to no gain. All her life Ash has been warned about the peculiar, treacherous fey and explicitly told what not to do. Yet Ash does those things, knowing full well the consequences. She’s so unhappy with her current life that she deliberately tempts fate. She does everything her mother ever forbade as though daring, even begging, the fey to come and take her.

Then Ash meets Kaisa, the king’s huntress, and begins regretting her recklessness. At this point she’s already caught in Sidhean’s enchantments, but Kaisa makes Ash long for a real, human relationship and only now does she understand that what Sidhean wants is no trivial payment.

Lo writes in a subdued and restrained voice that captures the mystery of the fey and allows readers to imagine Ash’s emotions more often than stating them directly.  Readers usually fall into two camps regarding fairy tale twists: those who’ve had enough retellings of the same tales and those who never tire of them. I fall in the latter category. I’m always intrigued to see how someone will take the same material and sculpt into a different story. ASH is a beautiful, lingering retelling with many more twists that I haven’t even mentioned!

Friday, May 18, 2012

THE LAST HUNT


Review of THE LAST HUNT by BRUCE COVILLE
(fourth in THE UNICORN CHRONICLES)

This book has been over a decade in the making! I didn't rush to read it - after all I've waited years - but when I finally opened the cover to the first page I actually felt a flood of giddiness accompanied by the ecstatic realization, I’m reading the final book in THE UNICORN CHRONICLES! And you know what? It doesn't disappoint. In fact, it soared above my expectations!

By now it's no secret that I consider pace one of Coville's greatest strengths, but he still raises the bar even higher in that regard. This entire book, much thicker than the first three, takes place over only five days - the five days of Beloved's Last Hunt. Five action, adventure, revelation, and loss packed days.

What really demanded my adoration, though, are all the shocking twists Coville weaved into this final installment. Yes, he answers questions for which we patiently awaited answers, but he also provides fascinating explanations for details I never even hesitated over, not to mention a greater backstory to the entire world of Luster that I dare anyone to claim they predicted. However, despite the dozens of mysteries that Coville closes with tantalizing explanations, he leaves some (and even creates more) puzzles, riddles, and secrets about which we never learn the answers. Perhaps intended to add to Luster's sense of wonder, but I can't help wondering if Coville's deliberately leaving the door open to return to this world again with a new story.

Ah, the end. Don't worry - I won't spoil it. The nail-biting pace propelled me through the novel until, with dismay, I noticed how few pages I had left with only a bleak outlook at best. Throughout the book I kept wishing for as little death and confrontation as possible for characters I've come to treasure, but as the ending neared I felt blindsided by the realization that I expected a happily-ever-after and Coville might be about to finish with a devastating tragedy. With only a few chapters left and so many wounds (metaphorical and literal!) wide open, I feared bittersweet might be the best outcome for which I could hope. There will be death, sacrifice, and heartbreak. The question that held me captive: how much?

Friday, May 11, 2012

TRADE SECRETS


Review of TRADE SECRETS by YVONNE COLLINS and SANDY RIDEOUT
(based on a review copy)

As a tangent from any actual "reviewing": I read TRADE SECRETS as an ebook (because it's currently only available in that form). I must say I'm definitely not converted; I'm a print book loyalist. However, for all the other ebook skeptics out there, TRADE SECRETS is worth reading regardless of form. The story called to me whenever I wasn’t reading and, had the novel not been an ebook, I imagine I would have finished the entire thing in one day!

The authors took me by surprise by writing the second book in this trilogy in Kali's perspective. In retrospect, it's a logical approach, since it gives each girl a chance at center focus, but emphasizes their relationship over any one individual by shifting that focus periodically. And it's fun seeing the same characters through a different protagonist's eyes. For example, Brody, Kali's brother and now Zahra's boyfriend, may have seemed sweet and romantic from Zahra's perspective, but he's a pain in the butt to Kali and, frankly, not very supportive. However, I missed Zahra! She really won me over in the first book and, while I enjoyed Kali's perspective, too, for the first few chapters I found myself longing to sneak into Zahra's viewpoint every time she entered a scene. I found Kali a little less likable than Zahra, but note that's less likable, not unlikable. She's very into appearance and you can see this reflected in how often she mentions what everyone's wearing, how they're styling their hair, how much makeup girls use, etc. She's also boy crazy. So while Zahra circled around a few possible love interests and flirtatious encounters, Kali's perspective brims over with boys and more boys. The traits I already listed didn't endear her to me, but I did relate to Kali's interest in environmental issues, something about which neither Zahra nor Syd care much. (As a sidenote, Kali's equal passion for environmental activism and makeup struck me as potentially hypocritical, given that many big cosmetic companies aren't particularly eco-friendly. However, hypocritical certainly isn't unbelievable and there's at least a little hypocrite in everyone!)

What I loved the most about exploring Kali's perspective, though, is how her voice further builds the relationship between the three girls almost as a fourth character of its own. By crude sketches, Kali, Zahra, and Syd have nothing in common, but what they do share goes deeper: values, morals, and similar fears about being hurt again. While I liked Kali a little less based on interests, her voice carried a subtle note similar enough to Zahra's that I could understand how their two personalities would resonate. In fact, this topic ties in nicely with the story's matchmaking theme. Kali works hard on developing quizzes and formulas for evaluating the compatibility of potential couples. While effective to an impressive degree, Kali's tests still fail now and again, because some things simply aren't that easy to measure. On paper, Zahra, Syd, and Kali shouldn't work, but their friendship is the strongest relationship in this book.

While the premise may emphasize romance and the storyline fixate on friendship, what really hooks me is how many different - all compelling - storylines the authors packed into one novel. In TRADE SECRETS, Kali attempts a serious relationship rather than her usual flings with the hope that the experience will make her a better matchmaker and possibly even a more well-rounded person. However, this proves a greater challenge for her than expected and Kali actually winds up with quite a few different romance plotlines crammed into one book. In family matters, she wants to meet her father, a secretive mission given both her mother and Brody's strong resentment of a man who put his music before his family. Kali also wants to follow her father's musical footsteps, a decision not well embraced by Brody or her mother who both make frequent condescending remarks about such ambitions. To make matters worse, Kali must go up against her rival Hollis in a music competition. Hollis lacks Kali's experience or dedication, but, annoyingly enough, she may very well have more natural talent. Meanwhile someone's luring away Love Inc clients and Kali suspects Hollis may be her opposition there as well. Those are just some of Kali’s storylines. Syd and Zahra each have their own subplots. For just one example each, Syd fears her father’s much younger fiancĂ© might be cheating on him while Zahra finds herself in a tricky, torn-loyalties position dating the brother of a close friend.

Without any spoilers, I did think the girls, especially Kali, got off far too easy this time around. They were playing with fire and I just hope they count themselves lucky they only received minor burns!

Friday, May 4, 2012

ONE BOOK IN THE GRAVE


Review of ONE BOOK IN THE GRAVE by KATE CARLISLE
(fifth in the BIBLIOPHILE MYSTERIES series)

So far this is definitely my favorite book in the BIBLIOPHILE MYSTERIES! I'm biased from the start, because BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is my favorite fairy tale and Brooklyn's restoring a gorgeous old edition of said classic. However, it's more than that; this particular installment in the series feels more personal, and more intense than any of its predecessors, probably because the case dredges up old demons from Brooklyn's past.

As a teenager, Brooklyn had a crush - that never really went anywhere - on a boy named Max, a boy beloved by many who went on to become an accomplished and admired paper maker. After a dramatic and entirely unhealthy relationship with a barely sane woman named Angelica, Max found the love of his life, Emily, and they became engaged. Since Max was a brawny gruff beast of a man and Emily a soft, quiet beauty, Brooklyn gifted them with an old copy of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST as their engagement present. Then everything went wrong. Max drove off a cliff and died in a terrible car crash, and Brooklyn always suspected Angelica of wrongdoing. As if that's not enough, a few weeks after Max’s death someone broke into Emily's house and stole the BEAUTY AND THE BEAST book that Max lovingly inscribed to her.

But that was three years ago and Brooklyn has moved on from an unsettling trauma that shook up her along with everyone else in her community. That is, until the copy of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST turns up again. Not only does the book stir up unwanted memories, but when Brooklyn tries to follow the trail of its past owners, she encounters murders, motives, and far more twists than she possibly could have expected.

Apparently, my victory of guessing the culprit in book four was a one-time-thing. I made numerous guesses along the way and not a single one was anywhere close to the truth. There are a lot of bizarre, impassioned, and obsessive people in ONE BOOK IN THE GRAVE who might have their own twisted logic behind violent actions and despite inventing my own outlandish possibilities I still didn't call the right one.

One trend has been increasingly attracting my notice throughout the series and now it's built up my attention enough that I have to comment. Whether Carlisle did it deliberately or not, she has created a character that captures some very complex and relevant questions about how we measure a woman's strength. In the first few books, I read maybe a handful of lines that made me pause, but now I see these instances in nearly every chapter: where Brooklyn thinks something stereotypically girly, romantic, and gooey, such as how safe she feels in Derek's arms or how complete she feels when they're together, and then proceeds to chastise herself for such pathetic thoughts. She's torn by her own desire to lean on Derek, both physically and emotionally, to seek him for comfort, protection, love, etc. versus her conviction that a strong woman doesn't need a man or, well, anybody. I see this trait in Brooklyn reflected not only in countless contemporary books staring female protagonists, but also in real women I know. It's a paradox: the desire to be independent versus the desire to find true love. I could go on - this is hardly a neat and tidy issue and I can feel it tempting my rambling impulses - but I'll leave it at that for now; maybe future BIBLIOPHILE MYSTERIES will prompt more discussion on this topic!