Friday, July 27, 2012

LET'S PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED


Review of LET'S PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED by JENNY LAWSON
(review based on an advance reading copy) 

Concise review: hilarious.  

Oh, that's considered lazy now, is it? Very well then.  

I read parts of this memoir while on an elliptical at the gym...and I'm fairly certain the people next to me now think I'm crazy, because I couldn't entirely muffle those frequent giggles and snorts. 

Not every line is funny, of course - you have to wait for those that resonate with you - but this book did have me choking on my own laughter more than once. There’s a rambling quality that either means Lawson has mastered conversational tone or honestly jotted down every tangent that came into her head without a filter! Be warned that the humor isn't for everyone. Many stories revolve around her father’s obsession with taxidermy (gore and guts included) and I suspect Lawson might have coprolalia (what many people inaccurately refer to as Tourette’s syndrome). If neither of those things turn you off, then read on, brave soul (pronounced: na├»ve innocent.).

Though humor’s the selling point, this is foremost a memoir and Lawson doesn’t steer away from tough subjects, such as loss. Once or twice she admits she simply cannot make something funny. Ultimately, this memoir follows someone who knows how to find humor where you wouldn’t expect it. A kind of glass half full mentality…except the glass is more than a little cracked, if you know what I mean.

If you want a teaser, check out this post on Lawson’s blog (the origin of her fame for those who don’t know) about perspective, marital disputes, and a giant metal chicken. If you laugh, you must buy this book!

Friday, July 20, 2012

BITTERBLUE


Review of BITTERBLUE by KRISTIN CASHORE
(review based on an advance reading copy) 

The greatest strength of this book might double as its greatest weakness. Cashore's first two books, GRACELING and FIRE, focused on female protagonists absurdly powerful through magical gifts they never earned. By the premises alone, we have empowering, dynamic characters and clear, complex themes that condense to the paradox of gifts that are as much curses as blessings. BITTERBLUE, however, focuses on a "normal" woman. True, she's a queen with a terrifying past that led her to take the throne before puberty, but if we're fixated on magical normalcy (Is that an oxymoron?), then Bitterblue is of the non-gifted majority. Her personal strength - emotional, intellectual, and physical - must come from her character and effort alone. Greatest strength of the book - no contest - and I admire Cashore for branching out this way. Unfortunately, the end result is a somewhat unfocused story. Bitterblue never struck me as a remarkable or unique character and her battle remains rather abstract to the end, more about her inner conflict with doubt and a traumatic past than any external struggles. I liked the book throughout, but I kept waiting to love it and that never happened. When I finished, I almost thought I must be missing pages. Any resolution is...gentle. Not quite open ended, but leaning more that way than towards a tidy wrap-up. 

Fans of GRACELING and FIRE will enjoy seeing characters they recognize weave in and out of the plot. I relished seeing Katsa and Po's romance through another character's eyes. Understandably, Bitterblue talks about how such a passionate, all consuming love sometimes makes those outside of the couple feel immensely lonely and unfulfilled. However, I still wish the FIRE and GRACELING worlds remained apart. While this novel reveals some fascinating connections between the two previous books and characters, there's a "tip of the iceberg" sense that makes the end feel more like the start of another book. (Perhaps intended?) 

The romance element also distanced me from Bitterblue. I felt zero chemistry between her and the guy she likes. However, I did sense sharp electricity between her and a few other characters that she never even considers in that regard. 

Leck has been the villain in every book. Even in BITTERBLUE, he haunts his daughter after his death. By now, I had grown bored of him. In some respects, he's a terrifying villain, but too purely evil to hold my interest or provoke worthy discussion. Then Cashore pulled the rug out from under me in BITTERBLUE. Much of the story follows Bitterblue's quest to understand what horrible cruelties her father did, why he did such things, and, most importantly, why some people seem so intent on locking away that part of their land's history, to the point of killing those who speak openly about Leck's reign. Leck started to bore me, because his cruelty defies rationale more complex than "he's insane," but when the big reveal comes around, this latest twist to Leck's sick games makes sense with horrifying logic.

Friday, July 13, 2012

HUNTRESS


Review of HUNTRESS by MALINDA LO
(review based on an advance reading copy)

HUNTRESS takes place in the same world as ASH, but many centuries earlier. The Fae have that familiar mysterious, eerie taste, so when the Fairy Queen extends an invitation to the king to visit her in her city, Tanlili, many question her intentions. Instead, a group of representatives go in the king's place, including his son, the prince, along with our two heroines, fellow students Taisin and Kaede. 

Lo takes an unusual, though not unheard of, approach to this story. In the first chapter, Taisin has a vision that reveals the ending, or at least part of it. Yes, this technique did detract from the suspense of the slow-paced journey. However, the story builds to a beautiful ending, both original and real, heartbreaking and heartwarming, and possibly more impacting when one adds Taisin's original vision to the equation. 

Certain themes - love, choice, sacrifice, ambition - would remain the same even if Lo had edited out the spoiler vision near the beginning. However, her approach coaxes out new themes, predominantly what all prophecies ask in one way or another: fate vs. choice, destiny vs. will. Does the vision show the inevitable, does it warn Taisin of a fate she fears so that she may avoid that destiny, or does it push her towards the future the vision depicts? 

The perspective threw me for quite a few chapters. In retrospect, the viewpoint is omniscient, but the frequent slips from one person to another within chapters jolted me. The story alternates between Kaede and Taisin's perspectives, but every now and then the viewpoint slides into another person for as little as one sentence or paragraph, which almost always made me stumble and re-read. 

One other detail confused me. Call it reader error, but I made an assumption about the book that befuddled me all the way until the end when I realized my misinterpretation. Both the title and the fact that I've read ASH led me to believe this a story of the origins of the first huntress. And, yes, it is. However, if you're searching for that aspect early on, don't. That connection won't fall into place until well near the end. I expected we would meet the huntress on page one and follow her exploits in that position, but in actuality we follow her transformation into her future self, the woman who becomes the huntress on the final page. 

The story definitely hinges on its own ending, but it's a worthwhile read with a lovely, rewarding finale. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Cliffhangers - Suspenseful or Irritating?


Discussion Topic: Cliffhangers - Suspenseful or Irritating?

If you follow my reviews, you've probably already noticed my thoughts on cliffhangers popping up here and there, often very opinionated...and sometimes even contradicting each other! In a horrifically generalized statement, I detest cliffhangers. However, I can name books with cliffhangers I adored. So what's the distinction?

My problem with cliffhangers is that they're often an easy, arguably cheap, way to hold the reader's attention. Have you ever found yourself in the following situation: you turn on the television, you watch a few minutes or even seconds of whatever show’s currently on, you intend to change channels but the show ends on a cliffhanger right before commercials, you don't like the show...and yet you have to know what happens next. This is what irritates me about the cliffhanger technique. The need to know "what happens next" proves that humans are curious beings, not that the story's high quality. Caring about what happens next is what counts.

Cliffhangers play more off our curiosity than our empathy or intellect. Strong characters, plots, and themes should hold a reader's attention without cliffhangers. The books I love best are ones where I do desperately want to know what happens next, but not because the author withholds secrets to lure me forward - instead because I love these characters (or perhaps themes) and I care what happens to them, be it dramatic or mundane.

I'd be curious to know how many people agree with me versus how many love cliffhangers. I'm a writer as well as a reader and I'm shocked by the common opinion among writers that the more cliffhangers packed into a book the better the book. One piece of advice I frequently encounter when reading articles or books on the craft of writing is to end every chapter on a cliffhanger. I balk at this, because, as a reader, I hate that method (and I do buy into the advice "write what you want to read"). So I would be very curious to know if readers really love the cliffhanger as much as writers think.

I like each chapter to have a sense of closure, as that's often where I pause. When a chapter ends on a cliffhanger I do read on longer than I intended, but I find myself irritated rather than impressed. Usually I read only as much as needed (a sentence, a paragraph, a page) to resolve whatever cliffhanger kept me reading and then I go ahead and close the book anyway, annoyed that it didn't reach that nice stopping point in between chapters.

Don't get me started on chapters that cut off mid-scene or, even worse, mid-conversation! (Hmm, too late.) Sometimes scenes or conversations "black out." They continue off the page and leave room for interpretation, but the scene won't pick up again later; it's done! This doesn't bother me. What annoys me is when a chapter or an entire book in a series ends mid-conversation or mid-scene only to pick up where it left off in the next chapter or book. Why then, I always think, can't the conversation be kept together, whole? It makes sense stylistically if we only see pieces of a certain scene every few chapters if it slowly gives context to the story. But if there's nothing else in between the conversation or scene, I see no point in slicing it down the middle with a chapter or book divide. The clear aim is to keep the reader reading - you already started that conversation or scene, so you follow it across to the next chapter or rush out to get the next book. However, in the best writing we forget the author exists and only think about the characters and the plot. Clumsy cliffhangers make me all too aware that a writer's attempting to manipulate me, thus dragging me out of the story.

So when do I like a cliffhanger? Above all else, the story cannot lean on this tool. Usually when I enjoy cliffhangers the most is when I’m already entirely invested in the story and characters. As I touched on above, I more or less never like cliffhangers that cut off mid-conversation or mid-scene, but rather ones that still possess some measure, however small, of closure and resolution. There may be a lot of questions left unanswered, but the author makes a skilled attempt to draw meaning from this particular stopping point rather than simply cutting off, thus utilizing our primal "need to know."

I've been avoiding specific examples, because they exclude people who haven't read that book, (and they often include spoilers!) but I'll list two for anyone who wants an idea of what cliffhangers I do like. The first: LORD OF THE WHITE HELL by GINN HALE left me absolutely desperate for the book’s sequel. It's my favorite kind of cliffhanger. We know exactly what happens. What I craved to know is how the protagonist recovers. Therefore, my frantic desire to know "what happens next" remained rooted in character. Hale crafted a protagonist I cared about, so that knowing how events played out wasn't enough anymore. The climatic event passed, its ramifications were established, but even as things settled down I found myself desperate to check in with the protagonist and ensure he's emotionally okay. My second example: DARK WHISPERS by BRUCE COVILLE, the third book in a quartet, ends on an intense cliffhanger. However, it also has that magical sense that the book couldn't have ended any other way. Despite leaving plenty of plot threads open, the end is a good stopping point. The characters spent most of the book fighting to keep the villain from accomplishing a certain goal. At the very end of the third book the villain accomplishes that goal. Sure, that climatic ending falls in cliffhanger territory, but there's a clear divide: the third book is the story of a failed attempt at preventing disaster while the next book will focus on the consequences of that failure.

At the root of this pet peeve, I want to love a book because of the complex characters, the unexpected relationships, the intriguing themes, the discussions and questions raised, and the way the story makes me feel. Honestly, yes, I want the author to manipulate me, but it's a fine line. There's skillful manipulation where I forget a writer has carefully combined these elements to tug my emotions here and there and simply fall into the story versus crass manipulation when I'm yanked from the story with the realization that someone's not telling me what I want to know right now in the hopes that withholding juicy secrets will keep me reading. Forgive the ambiguity of this statement, but in the simplest terms I like cliffhangers that feel right rather than ones that feel forced.

Random Acts of Reading - Retold Fairy Tales

Random House invited me to be a guest blogger for their Random Acts of Reading blog - click here to check out the first post I participated in about retold fairy tales!

So do you love retold fairy tales or hate them? Any favorites? It wasn't easy for me to pick one example!