Monday, February 25, 2013

TWENTIES GIRL


Review of TWENTIES GIRL by SOPHIE KINSELLA

Sophie Kinsella introduced me to chick lit and, after reading many other authors in the genre, she's still my favorite. For those unfamiliar with the term, let me preface my review with a summary of chick lit. The books are light, entertainment reading and very formulaic. The story always follows a relatively average woman in her twenties who has a specific or multiple problems with all of the following: her family, her friends, her work, and her love life, and sometimes something else, just in case that's not enough! In a relatable, humorous voice we follow the protagonist as everything only becomes worse and worse. One trait common in chick lit: things must get worse before they get better and I never predict rock bottom; the authors always show me there's a longer fall than I imagined. Of course, then everything gets very, very better. The story's topped off with a happily ever after ending: family and friend problems resolved, character realizes and finds what she wants from work, and she always ends up with a gorgeous, wealthy, kind man. In short, chick lit might be the modern version of happily ever after type fairy tales.

I've read most of Kinsella's books and didn't expect TWENTIES GIRL's speculative fiction element: a ghost. Of course, Kinsella focuses on Lara, our heroine, more than the fantasy premise and she definitely pulls off this twist to chick lit. After Lara attends the funeral of a great aunt she never met who died at age 105, she finds herself stalked by the great aunt's rather bossy ghost.

Lara is definitely a little self-involved and a lot of crazy/clingy, but I found her easy to root on nonetheless. Of course, she does grow over the course of the book and how a characters changes counts more for me than how they start off. For the critical minded, chick lit is an easy genre to nitpick. If you haven't read any chick lit books, you can probably still find fault with the genre simply from my bottled formula description above. However, Kinsella always injects said formula with real heart. For one example, the contrast between Lara and Sadie (the ghost), both somewhat selfish and quick to tell the other off, points out how easy it is to recognize others' flaws and how hard to see your own.

The ending in particular is superb. Stellar, surprising, sentimental, sweet, satisfying. I enjoyed the entire book, but the ending elevated the whole story and reminded me why Kinsella's my favorite chick lit author.

Friday, February 22, 2013

THE PEOPLE OF SPARKS


Review of THE PEOPLE OF SPARKS by JEANNE DUPRAU
(second BOOK OF EMBER)

This book impressed me in Chapter One. If you haven't read the first BOOK OF EMBER, avert your eyes now from forthcoming spoilers. THE CITY OF EMBER ended with lead characters Doon and Lina's escape from the city. They intended a return trip, tracing their route backwards, so then they could lead the rest of the town to safety. Only after leaving, though, do they learn it's a one-way trip: you can leave the city but you cannot return the same way. So they send their fellow townspeople one last clue and the book ends with the uncertain hope that the those remaining in Ember can figure out that clue. Anyway, I expected the second book would focus on that clue and everyone else leaving the city, so I found myself pleasantly surprised when I realized that's only Chapter One! DuPrau does indeed have a new story at the ready.

Though connected as a series, these books can each stand on their own, as I'm now expecting will be the case with books three and four as well. In THE CITY OF EMBER, DuPrau examined crisis within a community and revealed the unexpected truth behind this strange town. THE PEOPLE OF SPARKS also examines crisis within a community, but the stories emphasize the difference between internal versus external conflict. THE CITY OF EMBER followed a tight-knit community crumbling within itself against the backdrop of their disintegrating city. THE PEOPLE OF SPARKS, in contrast, lines two different communities against each other. When the ex-citizens of Ember stumble upon another town, the new town, Sparks, feels a reluctant obligation to help. Aware that the decision will cause tension and strain resources, the town leaders of Sparks still agree to host the new arrivals from Ember for six months. Within that time Sparks citizens will teach Ember citizens as much as they can about how they survive in this world, and then the Ember citizens will be sent off to fend for themselves. Of course, the people of Sparks dislike sacrificing their hard earned resources for complete strangers while the people of Ember grow suspicious that this new town isn't really telling them everything they know or doing all they can to help.

While enjoyable, THE PEOPLE OF SPARKS does display a little bit of middle book syndrome. We explore the world some more, meet new characters, and follow a similar escalation of conflict, but there's the sense of much more awaiting readers in later books. I'm wildly curious to see where the story will focus in books three and four and how DuPrau will conclude this series.

Monday, February 18, 2013

THE SHADOW QUEEN

Review of THE SHADOW QUEEN by ANNE BISHOP
(seventh in THE BLACK JEWELS series) 

Yes, one can argue that Bishop might be milking the success of her BLACK JEWELS novels, but I for one am thrilled that the books keep coming! (I hope she never finishes with that world!) With each installment, she adds further layers to the characters and the universe. In the case of THE SHADOW QUEEN, Bishop takes a step back from the glamour and immense power of most of her characters and follows someone new: Cassidy. 

At the start of this book, Cassidy's still hurting from the loss of her first court. She's a good person and a good queen, but she isn't the type who dazzles people. She's isn't attractive. She wears a Rose jewel, a light jewel low on the spectrum of magical power. She isn't wealthy and she doesn't promise valuable connections to those who serve her. So when a gorgeous, young queen with a darker jewel comes along, her court, even her Consort, betrays her without hesitation and declares, with hurtful wording that burns in Cassidy's memory, that they would rather serve the new queen. 

Then there's Theran of Dena Nehele. Before Jaenelle's Witch storm wiped out all the evil queens, his was a war-torn land of bloody battles, terrible tortures, and hiding for survival. He's also the descendant of Lia and Jared from THE INVISIBLE RING and now he's ready to reclaim his family's estate. Except Dena Nehele has no queen to rule the land. So he goes to Daemon and begs, in memory of Jared, for a queen from Kaeleer. Daemon confers with Jaenelle/Witch and she sends - that's right - Cassidy. 

I detest Theran as a person, but I relish him as a character. He's an antagonist to be sure, but one with a good heart buried under superficial, misguided layers and genuine concern for the land, its people, and his cousin, Gray, a victim of the vicious queens who ruled before. Theran has the same shallow reaction to Cassidy as most people. After visions of a beautiful, powerful queen, he's disappointed - by her appearance, by her magical strength, by the fact that she loves digging around in the dirt (non-pompous people usually pronounce this hobby as "gardening"). Regardless, he's a complex character who could easily become an ally or an enemy but either way adds intriguing layers to the story. 

It's always interesting, as well, seeing the same characters through new eyes. Jaenelle's usually described in larger than life terms by those who love her and cherish her for what she has done for them, but Theran's initial reaction's a little different: he notes her less than appealing appearance and considers it odd that a man as handsome as Daemon Sadi would settle for such a woman. It's a little tidbit, but it emphasizes the age-old adage that beauty's in the eye of the beholder and whenever someone treats Jaenelle with such disinterest it diminishes her faint Mary Sue quality. 

Kindred also play a larger role in THE SHADOW QUEEN. *Big grin.* Since Kindred refers to animals with the same intellectual capability, not to mention magical power, as the Blood there's plenty of potential for humor, potential that Bishop doesn't waste. As one example of many, when Theran tries to ignore the little dog Vae, she uses craft to float herself on air so she can bark right in his face. Yup, if real dogs could, they would.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Reading Dry Spells


Discussion Topic: Reading Dry Spells

Just because you love to read doesn't mean you love to read everything. I'm not referring simply to genre tastes, but to those harder to name elements. I say I love fantasy, but I've certainly read multiple fantasy books in a row that didn't appeal to me, despite my pre-read conviction that they would.

I call these “reading dry spells”: when you read book after book that doesn't appeal. Needless to say, these spells are discouraging. I've talked with many other readers who find dry spells so off-putting that it halts their reading for weeks to months until they can gather enough motivation to take a chance once again on a book they may (or may not) love.

I once said to a friend, "I think a lot of people don't read, because they've read something they didn't like and it put them off reading in general." Regardless of whether or not you agree with my comment, my friend's response is amusing: "That's like saying, 'Oh, I had a really unpleasant conversation with a nasty person, so I don't think I'll ever talk to anyone else ever again.'"

Avid readers adore books, well, because they've encountered so many books that they adore! Of course, that doesn't mean they haven't read disappointments as well. What makes us lunge for another book even after we finish a terrible one? What makes some readers trust in books as a whole even after stumbling across dreadful ones? What story flaws can make our overall enthusiasm for reading wane? For me at least, the wonders so outnumber the disappointments that my dry spells are few and far between. My pace may slow a little if I read many books in a short time that I dislike, but I never come to full reading deadlocks.

How do you pull through a reading dry spell? The obvious answer is with good books, but, unless you re-read an old favorite, you're still taking a chance on a book that might not meet your tastes. If you want to read something new, you could ask for a recommendation from another reader whose taste you trust. Or you could always let the dry spell do its work: rather than forcing yourself to read when you’re not tempted simply wait until you find a book that you couldn’t resist if you tried. One habit I've developed that significantly helps with dry spells is reading multiple books at once. If I spend months wading through one book that didn't really hold my attention to then follow that up with two more that are equally unimpressive it's hard to flip open the pages of yet another book that might not meet my expectations. However, with multiple books, I can switch between them depending on my mood and depending on which ones I'm enjoying the most. Also, if I do read a lacking novel, odds are that I'm also in the middle of one (or two or three) that are incredible at the same time!

Monday, February 11, 2013

SARAH REES BRENNAN

 
Interview with SARAH REES BRENNAN

SARAH REES BRENNAN was born and raised in Ireland by the sea, where her teachers valiantly tried to make her fluent in Irish (she wants you to know it’s not called Gaelic) but she chose to read books under her desk in class instead. After college she lived briefly in New York and somehow survived in spite of her habit of hitching lifts in fire engines. She began working on THE DEMON’S LEXICON while doing a Creative Writing MA and library work in Surrey, England. Since then she has returned to Ireland to write and use as a home base for future adventures. Her Irish is still woeful, but she feels the books under the desk were worth it.

What are you reading right now?

CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein. I'm loving it! I've been a fan of the author since her take on Arthurian legend, THE WINTER PRINCE.

What first sparked your interest in writing? 

I was terrible at ballet. No, I really was, but I taught myself to read super young and was endlessly fascinated with stories from then on. That inspired me to become a writer from a pretty young age...as I recall, I was five, and when I was seven I wrote my first book. (It was very, very bad, and about ponies.)

What do you love the most about writing? The least?

I love getting the ideas, and thinking about the characters and planning my favourite scenes, and writing when it's coming in a flood...and I hate when there's a revision you have to make, but it's hard to do and means losing something you love.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

I'm very linear, because otherwise I'd write all the exciting bits and none of it would make any sense. I like to write with my writing friends if I can, and loud music if I can't...sometimes I write in front of the TV! Very much not the ivory tower type: I feel like to write about the world, writing in the world helps.

What are your passions?

Reading, obviously. ; ) Narratives of all kinds, so theatre and cinema as well. Swimming and travelling!

What inspires you?

History. Fiction. Travel. Landscape art. Everything is inspirational! 

Why fantasy?

Fantasy is a way of talking about reality, writ large. Writing about dragons tells us our own dragons can be defeated: writing about thunder gods describes how we feel when we hear thunder.

Why young adult?

Young adult was the first fantasy I loved. I read Tamora Pierce's SONG OF THE LIONESS before I read THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and my love for fantasy was cemented by reading Diana Wynne Jones and Margaret Mahy, both primarily writers for children. It's a very exciting time in your life, when you change most.

How was THE DEMON’S LEXICON born?

I saw a documentary about human children who had been brought up by wolves, and I wanted to write about what a member of a dangerous, fantastical species raised by humans would be like.

How was UNSPOKEN born?

I read other books about romances in which the couple could read each others' minds, and it was always romantic, unproblematic, and proof of soulmatery. And I always thought it would be more complicated and embarrassing than that. Then I had the idea to combine that with Gothic mystery. ; )

UNSPOKEN whiplashes back and forth between hilarious and intense (and I mean that as a compliment). Which was more fun to write: the humor or the drama?

Thank you for the compliment! Both, I think. I love writing jokes, but I couldn't write a book that was all jokes -I  tried once - but I also can't write a book without humour. I don't care about the dangers characters face, unless those characters have a sense of humour!

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Writers write. Don't talk about wanting to do it more than you do it, don't worry too much about publication or your own flaws - write, write, write and you'll get better.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?

I'm secretly a spy. (Oh no, I wasn't supposed to tell you that...)

Friday, February 8, 2013

Random Acts of Reading - Picture Books


SEVER


Review of SEVER by LAUREN DESTEFANO
(third in THE CHEMICAL GARDENS trilogy, review based on an advance reading copy)

I enjoyed WITHER and loved FEVER, so I went into SEVER with high expectations. Rhine has a lengthy, ambitious, and unusual - for lack of a better term - bucket list. She wants to find her brother and stop his new destructive goals, find Gabriel, free herself permanently from Vaughn, and ensure the safety of Linden and Cecily, to list a few of her objectives. Given her life expectancy of twenty years, her time left has dwindled down to the point that the more cynical could lament, "Why bother?"

Since book one, I've praised DeStefano's complex characters. Many authors can craft well-developed characters, but where she really impressed me in SEVER is showcasing their change and growth. Cecily's probably the most prominent example. If handing out simplistic labels for these characters, book one would have earned her "shallow simpleton." By book three, she has enough self-awareness to perceive how others see her and to realize the horrible consequences of some of her past actions. Sadly, for all the negative adjectives one could throw at her, Cecily was a bright, bubbly spark in an otherwise dull, doomed world and the entire story flickers to a darker tone with her fading optimism.

In the first book, I struggled a bit with Vaughn as a character. Then those problems disappeared in book two. Now some of my same issues come back into play. He's a bit too "the-pure-evil-villain" for my tastes and he's the only one I constantly struggled to pin down long enough to understand. Every time I think I have a handle on his motivations and thought-process, a new action or statement will challenge that, so I try again. He also emerges as the root for Rhine's every problem and that frustrated me, as well. I'm teasing spoiler boundaries now, so I'll just say that most of her problems can be traced back to Vaughn and in some cases I think it would be far more compelling if he had no part in that specific dilemma.

I also wish the story didn't go into the science behind the virus at all. I consider THE CHEMICAL GARDENS trilogy soft sci-fi. Science fiction imagines where science can go. Hard science fiction logically explains how this new science works, sometimes so convincingly that you marvel we can't actually utilize it. (Sometimes, we can!) Soft science fiction doesn't explain the new technology; usually the science fiction premise is background to the real plot. In this case, I consider THE CHEMICAL GARDENS far more character-focused than science fiction focused. Anyway, so far the virus hasn't been explained very much, but as Vaughn desperately searches for a cure some bits and pieces of explanations come through and a lot of it doesn't make sense. For one vague example, one of the details about a potential cure strikes me as the first thing anyone with any grasp of science would have thought to try. So I would have preferred no scientific explanation than lax attempts.

I confess the ending didn't live up to my hopes, but I didn't really think this trilogy could possibly end in a way I would love. Satisfying or unsatisfying don't quite cover my response. Satisfying is too generous and unsatisfying too harsh. Appeased might be the best word to describe my feelings on the end. Ultimately, I think the story was bigger than its box. DeStefano created such a wide-scoping, ambitious world that I can't imagine any perfect ending with only three books. Perfection's overrated, though, and this is a captivating trilogy I won't soon forget!

Monday, February 4, 2013

A POSSE OF PRINCESSES


Review of A POSSE OF PRINCESSES by SHERWOOD SMITH

It's clear from the first chapter that Princess Rhis might want different things for herself than what her family wants for her. Then the story sweeps her away from home to a grand coming-of-age party for a prince that not only includes a collection of young royalty but excludes those pesky adults who drive Rhis so crazy. You can't blame her for being excited!

I found the primary plotline remarkably predictable, but the secondary plotlines and the wide cast of fun, believable characters saved the book for me. The characters bring to life what could be a stale story. Rhis is arguably one of the most introverted of the group, though she can be social and she's always intelligent, good-natured, and welcoming. She has a knack for noticing who's being left out of the fun and making room for everyone to enjoy themselves. Aside from Rhis, the party includes an abundant cast of young princes and princesses, not to mention male scribes whom the prince has enlisted to participate simply to even out the girl:boy ratio. And, as one would expect with a huge group of unsupervised teenagers, complications ensure.

I can't be too specific if I want to avoid spoilers, but let me say that Taniva stole the show from my perspective. She plays a minor role through most of the story and from a distance can seem almost cookie cutter "tough princess," but she steps forward when it counts. She (and her relationship with an individual who shall remain nameless for spoiler reasons) made me laugh aloud many a time and I still can't think back on her without cracking a grin.

Friday, February 1, 2013

GIRL V. BOY


Review of GIRL V. BOY by YVONNE COLLINS and SANDY RIDEOUT

I stand by my claim in my LOVE INC review that these authors have an incredible handle on voice. Luisa Perez remained a likable and relatable protagonist, even when I disagreed with her or could see layers to her relationships that she overlooks. In GIRL V. BOY, Luisa's principal pits the girls against the boys for a high school fundraiser, hoping the tactic will increase motivation. Luisa becomes an anonymous columnist representing the girl's side while a boy will anonymously write a column for the boy's side. It doesn't take long (one column) before they're at each others’ throats and entrenched in stereotypical views about why their gender's better and the other's crazy. You need to set aside skepticism about some of what goes on at this high school, especially when the implausible aspects are actually encouraged by the adults, but once you do the book becomes an amusing and thought-provoking read.

Needless to say, sexism and feminism issues step to the forefront as both dislikable and likable characters do and say ignorant things, so caught up in the competitive, us vs. them, atmosphere. While mostly an entertaining read falling into the chick lit category, there's a slight satiric taste. For all that I liked her, Luisa certainly isn't a perfect, role model protagonist. She becomes so fixated on how sexist she finds her rival columnist, Scoop, that she, too, makes some very broad statements about all males. Her friends point out that Scoop might not even be as sexist as he seems; rather, he could be utilizing a persona to bait her into rash, controversial responses.

Meanwhile, Luisa wants a boyfriend. Obsession with boys and boyfriends has never been a trait I love in characters, but in this case it at least becomes comical. Luisa is so fixated on not dating the wrong guy that she doesn't make much effort to look for a good guy. In particular, she's terrified she might accidentally date her rival Scoop without knowing. That's what makes her boyfriend search so amusing. The story almost turns into a mystery as we catch clues here and there for certain guys being or not being Scoop. The kicker is that Luisa's efforts to avoid Scoop might lead her straight to him.

Every time you think you've figured out a character, the authors throw you a curve - one of my favorite signatures about their work. The LOVE INC trilogy also has a romance-fixated premise, but the real strength of that story lies in the friendships. In this case, family might have stolen the show for me. Luisa's prickly relationship with her sister Grace hums with familiar sibling rivalry, but keen readers will guess early on why Grace really crashes Luisa's romantic moments and chases away potential boyfriends.