Friday, June 29, 2012

FIRE


Review of FIRE by KRISTIN CASHORE

It blows my mind how much I love this book! Cashore’s approach to her premises seems so simplistic but I consider her works modern masterpieces. She exaggerates her protagonists to the point that the hyperbole could be tacky but her stories are so beautifully written that instead the exaggeration illuminates some of the most frustrating paradoxes of femininity.

In Cashore’s first book GRACELING, Katsa had impossible strength - no man, possibly no army, in the world could physically overcome her. In this book, Fire, the title’s namesake, possesses such phenomenal beauty that it drives bystanders to madness. By crude definition, Fire is the quintessential Mary Sue character, so beautiful and impossibly perfect that every man wants her or wants to kill her for not being able to possess her and every woman wants to be her or at least be her best friend and devote their entire self to her happiness. Of course, most authors use this staple unintentionally, but Cashore’s in-depth exploration of such a character and deconstruction of the Mary Sue myth suggests a deliberate choice rather than a na├»ve accident.

For starters, there’s an intriguing magical explanation for Fire’s gift/curse. She’s a monster. In this world, the term “monster” refers to creatures that resemble normal animals/humans except for bright, unusual coloring. (For example, a purple lion.) Monsters also possess the ability to control minds, which might tie in to the fact that everyone perceives them as magnificently beautiful and irresistible. Predator monsters can use this to their advantage since weaker minds will happily walk right into their claws/talons/teeth, smiling until their death.

Fire is the last human monster and it’s a painful existence. She lives more or less in hiding since other people turn unpredictable around her. Even her relationships with those she trusts are complicated by her nature. As a sidenote, I admired the complexity of her relationship with Archer, a childhood friend turned lover. If forced at gunpoint to find fault with GRACELING, my one complaint would be that the male love interest, Po, is too perfect and arguably even stuffs men into the same boxes from which Katsa liberates women. So I found Fire’s convoluted, sometimes hurtful relationship with Archer satisfyingly different.

Since I’ve mentioned how everyone reacts to Fire’s beauty, I should add that Cashore doesn’t actually describe Fire’s appearance very much at all. We know she has unnaturally bright red hair that marks her as a monster, hair that she usually covers in the hopes of prolonging the reactions. Other than that, Cashore doesn’t tell us exactly what such an incredibly beautiful woman looks like. It’s not the point of the story. Besides, as I suggested above, it’s possible Fire’s perceived beauty is a side effect of her mind control powers.

As is typical with Mary Sue characters, Fire’s very much the center of attention. It’s amusing to count the number of times men propose to her in this book, especially when you consider the instances when those men are strangers. Fights break out when she walks through a group of men. Even gay men are drawn to her, if not sexually. Women want to serve her, be her friend, look out for her. What lifts this story above egotistical vicarious living is Fire’s reaction. She loathes this attention. How is she to separate the people who care for her - Fire - from the people enchanted by her monster form? Dozens of men may claim to be in love with her, but perhaps none of them are, certainly not the strangers who run up at first sight declaring love. She might have plenty of friends, but she battles the possibility that she has no true friends, only flies in the web she doesn’t mean to spin.

FIRE is loosely set in the same universe as GRACELING, but you can easily read them out of order or read one without the other. The worlds are quite different and honestly my only annoyance with FIRE is the small connection between the two books. They’re linked by a villain who added little to this particular book and by some geography that didn’t make any sense to me. My one grumble aside, FIRE is one of the most amazing books I’ve read in my life and - sorry for the gushing - I’m awed.

Friday, June 22, 2012

QUEEN OF THE DARKNESS


Review of QUEEN OF THE DARKNESS by ANNE BISHOP
(third in THE BLACK JEWELS trilogy)

QUEEN OF THE DARKNESS builds nicely. Even the opening echoes foreboding. Those who read HEIR TO THE SHADOWS will remember how wicked queens claimed Kindred territories by force and earned a taste of Jaenelle’s anger. At the start of QUEEN OF THE DARKNESS, Dorothea and Hekatah twist those actions and paint Jaenelle and her followers as the power-hungry villains - they claim Jaenelle viciously slaughtered innocent queens simply settling their own rightful territories. Dorothea and Hekatah’s strength may be weakened by the countless enemies they’ve made over the centuries, but if they can turn the Blood’s rage towards Jaenelle instead, they can build enough support for a war.

For all Jaenelle’s power, this magic system isn’t without sacrifice. QUEEN OF THE DARKNESS describes a phenomenon that in short amounts to magical whiplash. A lower jeweled warrior might have the strength to kill another person, but his magic will boomerang back to him after the task, so he better be strong enough to absorb that hit. A higher jeweled warrior might be capable of wiping out an entire army, but that doesn’t mean his own rebounding magic can’t kill him as well. Then add in the fact that it’s even more challenging to target one’s magic. Sending out a blast that will kill everyone in a certain area is much, much easier than sending out a blast of magic targeted towards only killing specific people. These two quirks present enough of a challenge to Jaenelle’s staggering power to keep things interesting.

Daemon’s also back in this book. While everyone else has grown comfortable and even peaceful after years in a kind queen’s court, Daemon provides contrast - he’s still on edge, unsure of his place, and uncertain who to trust. Although I was a little surprised by how abruptly Jaenelle and Daemon fall into a relationship. While I understood from the first book that Daemon always fantasized himself the born lover of Witch, I didn’t catch on that everyone else assumed as much as well. Jaenelle and Daemon work well together as they settle into a relationship, but the universal assumption that Jaenelle would want no other did startle me. However, it’s more to discuss. The author might simply intend the two to be viewed as soul mates, but I have another possible interpretation: Jaenelle asked that the consort ring be set aside for Daemon and no other and it wasn’t until she was twenty-five that he finally arrived to claim it. I wonder if it’s really a coincidence that a woman with such a traumatic childhood would choose as a sexual partner a man who won’t be around for years.  

As the book hurtled towards a dramatic end, I honestly couldn’t tell if that ending would be happy or tragic, but one certainty struck me full force: I love this series either way.

Friday, June 15, 2012

GRACELING


Review of GRACELING by KRISTIN CASHORE

Plot and characters aside, even the magic and the worldbuilding of Cashore’s work intrigue me. Some people are born with each eye a different color - this indicates they’re “Graced” with a magical gift, a superior skill. Some can bake cakes that rival any other dessert in the world, some can run faster than any non-Graced human, some can fight, sing, dance implausibly well, etc. Our protagonist Katsa has a killing Grace. She can touch someone on the back of the neck with one thumb and kill them with absolutely no effort, for example. Her ability to kill didn’t even require any training; however, she did self-teach control. Now she exhibits impressive mastery over her Grace, adjusting her unnatural strength to merely stun victims rather than kill them. Unfortunately, she’s still a weapon. By law all Gracelings born in this land must be sent to the king as soon as their eyes change. If the king doesn’t find their Grace useful he can dismiss them, but otherwise they’re his property to use as he wishes. Thus, Katsa finds herself the vicious, trained pet of King Randa, to be unleashed at his whim on those who displease him and therefore feared by everyone who recognizes her.

This novel challenges our understanding of gender since there’s no man Katsa cannot overpower. And I don’t mean overpower with enough effort; I mean there’s no man she cannot overpower with ease. There are countless books that star women warriors, but often these warriors must work even harder than the men to make up for size or build or lack of natural talent. Katsa’s a different kind of character, because she’s a born woman warrior. Many find characters like this - who don’t need to work for their gifts - annoying, but Katsa prompts a different dialogue. Her ridiculous invincibility only makes it all the more exciting and provocative when she encounters conflicts that render her Grace useless or, even worse, a weapon to be used against her and others. That’s what I loved about Katsa from the start. Her Grace is as much as a curse as a gift, because it makes her by definition a weapon. Though not for traditional reasons, men still want to possess her, to use her. It may take an entire army to physically subdue her, but Randa’s prepared to send every able body he has against Katsa if she doesn’t do as ordered. She’s too valuable a weapon to lose. So Katsa becomes a prisoner of her own empowering gift.

I mentioned I loved the worldbuilding in GRACELING and one of my favorite things about this magic system is that it throws us curves. Gracelings aren’t born with their Grace written on their forehead. Their eyes indicate they must be Graced with something, but it’s up to them to figure out what. Someone might think their Grace is one thing only for future events to force them to redefine it. So, even as a fantasy book, the human understanding of magic has an almost scientific taste by its imperfect scope.

I admired the writing as well. Even thought it’s third, not first, person, the writing actually mirrors Katsa’s personality. Rather than elegant, flowing, beautiful prose, the sentence structure is predominantly short, blunt, and clipped, to the point without any unnecessary words or descriptions. The very writing captures Katsa’s curt and brusque personality, easily annoyed by anything superfluous and fixated on whatever she needs in the present moment.

This might be an easy book to brush off for an over the top heroine, but I challenge those of that mindset to look deeper. Stronger women may be becoming more common in fantasy, young adult, and literature in general, but Cashore’s work still pushes the boundaries of how we define gender and what we mean by the word “strength.”

Friday, June 8, 2012

THE DOGS OF WAR

Review of THE DOGS OF WAR by LISA ROGAK

If there's one thing that rivals my love of books that would be my love of dogs. I've raised three Guide Dogs for the Blind and worked in a training intensive doggie day care. So when I saw this book about military working dogs, I snatched it up. I don't know much about MWDs, but I do have a good idea about dogs' capabilities and know they far exceed most people's expectations...in this case, even my own!

The doggie hero Stubby is a perfect example. Originally a stray, this little terrier mix bonded with some military personnel. After hanging around military units, Stubby even learned to mimic them: he marched in formation with soldiers, howled with bugle calls, and even learned a doggie salute for which he brought his right paw up by his cheek. When a soldier snuck Stubby aboard a ship during World War I, his superior caught them both but allowed Stubby to stay when the little dog saluted him. While Rogak shares a few amusing stories about this dog’s impressive feats, perhaps the most incredible was when he caught and detained a German spy!

Nor is Stubby the only notable case found here. This book is stuffed with accounts about military working dogs saving one to hundreds of lives. By detecting bombs that humans didn’t notice. By detaining suicide bombers to prevent them reaching highly populated locations. By forcing fellow soldiers out of the way of a bullet or bomb that they didn’t see or hear coming. Even by staying with, and protecting, the body of a dead soldier until someone can reach them.

Originally the dog trainer in me picked up this book eager to learn how exactly one trains a dog to do such astonishing acts. The book didn’t go into that much depth regarding actual training, perhaps for confidentiality reasons, but it’s still fascinating to learn what the dogs are trained to do. I especially liked learning the particulars about what dogs can offer military or law personnel that a human simply cannot replicate. Such as sniffing out a single ounce of cocaine on a plane with the capacity to hold forty-two thousand pounds. Or hearing footsteps of someone approaching even when they’re right next to a fighter jet taking off.

Unfortunately, this still remains a bittersweet book. While I found it uplifting overall, proof that we should look to dogs for an understanding of selfless loyalty and unrestrained affection, it is a book about military workings dogs. Translation: keep the tissues nearby for those stories of sacrifice. (Or even more preferable, curl up with a canine companion happy to offer sloppy kisses as needed.)

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Art of Reading: Re-reading vs. Reading Only Once


The Art of Reading: Re-reading vs. Reading Only Once

All bibliophiles have at least one thing in common: the love of books. Still, as I'm reminded every time I talk to another reader, that doesn't mean we express our affection for the written word in exactly the same way. I'm referring to how we read.

This post's theme: re-reading. Do you re-read books or will you only read a book once? How many times can you re-read the same book? What books make the re-reading cut and what ones fall short?

I don't re-read books. It's not that I don't want to, but I have a list of hundreds of books that I still intend to read for the very first time that seems to grow longer faster than I can keep up. I only have so much time in the day/week/month/year and I want to experience as many different books as I can squeeze into my lifetime!

However, I have re-read books. Never simply for leisure; I stick to my statement above and usually want to try something new. Of course, circumstances come up where it makes sense for me to re-read a book. For example, I've re-read books for classes, for book groups, and for this blog.

When I started reviewing books on here I felt sad that some of my favorites might miss their chance for a glowing review simply because I read them before I started blogging and now can't remember enough details to write an accurate review. So I'm slowly re-reading some books I know I adore. Some examples of books I re-read for the purpose of reviewing them here: 

THE BLACK JEWELS series by ANNE BISHOP
BRUCE COVILLE’s UNICORN CHRONICLES
PHILIP PULLMAN’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy
MARIE BRENNAN’s ONYX COURT series
DRUIDS by JOSH LANGSTON and BARBARA GALLER-SMITH
SCOTT WESTERFELD’s UGLIES series

Still to come - I know I want to make time to re-read and review:

everything TAMORA PIERCE has written
some of EVA IBBOTSON’s young adult work
more of JOHN GREEN’s books
SOPHIE KINSELLA
all METTE IVIE HARRISON’s books
PHILIPPA GREGORY
more JODI PICOULT

Based on my experience re-reading books, I find I never enjoy the book as much the second time around. Oh, sometimes I do pick up on details I missed in the first reading or I even forget big twists so they still take me by surprise, but overall I feel slightly...numbed. Stories simply don't grab my emotions with quite the same intensity the second time around.

Yet I frequently meet people who totally disagree with me on this, claiming that sometimes a second reading, or even a third or fourth, hits them more emotionally than the first time. Others have told me that re-reading a book can take them right back to what was going on in their life the first time they read it, perhaps summoning the exciting emotions of a fresh romance, now long ended. On a different note, maybe the reader used to read this book with a relative or friend who has passed away. Now the story and the characters will forever be intertwined with memories of that relative and re-reading the book can help keep the person alive in the reader's memory. For me, the third book in THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELLING PANTS series by ANN BRASHARES will always hold a special place in my memory for reasons outside the story. In high school a close friend of mine was in the hospital for months and I would come and read her snippets from that book. Because she kept falling asleep, I would sometimes read the same section numerous times; I also skipped ahead when she told me someone else had read her a few chapters. By the end, it’s the most roundabout method I’ve ever taken to reading a book and, if asked what happened, my description might be terribly misarranged chronologically, but I can’t think of that book let alone read it again without fondness for the comfort it brought us both.

How about you? Do you re-read books? Why or why not? If so, what ones?