Monday, April 29, 2013

THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS


Review of THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS by KRISTOPHER JANSMA
(review based on advance reading copy)
While I'm convinced this book will appeal to many different types of readers, I kept thinking as I read it, "Boy, is this ever written for fellow writers." Any bibliophile will catch the countless recognizable aphorisms and themes about writers and writing. For starters, I feel like I've met the unnamed protagonist! Okay, maybe not him specifically, but he's a type, at times a mash-up of many, very real author cliches including: the tortured creative soul, the substance abusing writer, the author who blurs the line between truth and fiction, the writer who intertwines his self-worth inextricably from his writing, the artist entrapped in a dramatic doomed romance, the overall self-destructive creator, the virtuoso consumed by a competitive friendship, the writer who can’t write fiction but only fictionalized memoir, etc.

At first, the chapters read more like individual essays than a novel, each chapter a specific excerpt from the narrator's life. Oh, and did I mention that, in addition to being a nameless protagonist, he's quite the unreliable narrator? I went into the novel buying everything the narrator told me until his own work appeared within the story. To say his fiction is heavily influenced by his own life is an understatement. Wait. Unless his life, or his perception of his life, is actually heavily influenced by his fiction. That becomes the head-scratching question that propels the book as our narrator's "true" stories become more outlandish and he even changes the names of supposed "real" people.

The stories within a story element impressed me, especially the fact that Jansma not only wrote this amazing book but includes excepts of the narrator's writing as well, excerpts that do indeed have their own style. While I'm tempted to focus on how much writers will love this book, that's excluding all the bibliophiles who don't write not to mention anyone who likes a good enigma of a story.

Friday, April 26, 2013

THE SELECTION


Review of THE SELECTION by KIERA CASS
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I have a soft spot for characters like America Singer. Her voice charmed me from page one and made this entire book a fast, easy, enjoyable read. America speaks her mind, candidly, a trait I admire in people on and off the page and believe makes for less common plot and relationship dynamics. So much drama in stories comes from lack of communication - the secrets characters hide, the lies of omission, the unvoiced emotions or poorly phrased feelings - that I relish stories with frank, blunt characters, especially in a book like THE SELECTION with a premise particularly susceptible to tiring amounts of competitive deception.

So what is that premise? Numerous reviews describe it as "a cross between The Bachelor and THE HUNGER GAMES." People aren't plagiarizing that description from each other; the same comparison popped into my head word for word before I noticed it in so many other reviews, probably because it's so apt. In this future society, the royal family marries princesses off to foreign countries to cement alliances (not so unusual) and marries princes off to their choice out of 35 randomly selected girls from the public in a televised competition (okay, much more unusual). The royal family, distanced from the troubles of their people, believes this competition - called The Selection - helps the lower classes feel closer to both their leaders and a life of luxury most can barely even imagine. As some of you reading this might already be thinking, I feared this book might be too predictable. We already know the protagonist, America Singer, will be chosen for The Selection, even though that development takes a few chapters. I assumed before opening the cover that America would somehow distinguish herself from the 34 other girls and that the prince would pay her special attention. In other words, my greatest fear starting this book was that I already knew too much about how the story would play out for it to be enjoyable. I was happily mistaken. Yes, I correctly guessed much of the plot's core, but where Cass surprised me is with the prince Maxon and the relationship between him and America. While in some ways the idealistic Prince Charming, Maxon has far more depth than I anticipated and their relationship develops brilliantly. In summary: if a wee bit predictable, THE SELECTION's still a lot delightful.

Back to THE HUNGER GAMES, though, THE SELECTION deconstructs reality television in a similar fashion...without the violence. Or, it can be argued, that Cass explores a different branch of reality television closer to pageantry that overlaps many themes in THE HUNGER GAMES. I do want to clarify that THE SELECTION falls much closer to The Bachelor than THE HUNGER GAMES. While a dystopia, it's a subtle dystopia and we're so close to the character that we don't see much beyond her. Also, Cass sprinkles some intriguing politics into the story here and there, but then hardly touches those plot threads while the story mostly fixates on The Selection and romance elements. 

My only frustrations with this book both had to do with the end. First, the ending entirely fixates on romance at the expense of all else. While that's true for most of the book, it didn't bother me earlier, because the romance is so well handled. I can't be too specific for spoiler reasons, but the 99% romance 1% everything else thought pattern did bother me in the wrap up. Second, turns out THE SELECTION is the first book in a series! While I have nothing against series (I quite enjoy them), I like to know whether I'm reading a series or a standalone before starting the book and I find myself perhaps disproportionately annoyed when this information appears to be deliberately withheld for marketing reasons. For a series, the end of THE SELECTIONS is actually quite satisfying (though be warned that The Selection - the competition - doesn't finish in book one), but when I expect a novel will conclude, it's jarring when it simply cuts off instead. Also, on this topic, I really think this story could have been one book. Again, I have nothing against series, but I firmly believe stories should be as short or long as necessary to tell the tale in the right manner. Some are cut down and others dragged out from their ideal length, usually for publishing reasons, and in this case, while I liked the book, lengthening it into a series feels like stretching a good thing too taunt. I loved THE SELECTION, but I'm not convinced there's enough meat in this story to fill more books. I already have an advance copy of the next one, though, so fingers crossed! 

Monday, April 22, 2013

LISTOMANIA


Review of LISTOMANIA

This book is, well, a big book of lists. No, no, wait, keep reading! It’s way cooler than it sounds. No matter what your passions, interests, or hobbies, there’s something in here to fascinate everyone. LISTOMANIA is really a big book of random, interesting trivia, but presented as well-designed lists.

The lists are divided into nine categories. These categories are somewhat arbitrary, but they give a wealth of unreleated information some organization. Rather than speak about these lists in vague terms, let me give you some specific examples. There’s the list about “things that fell from the sky.” Apparently, frogs and toads are one of the most common unexplained “rains.” I also liked the list of “addictive substances ranked.” People discuss and argue over the most addictive substances, but Dr. Jack E. Henningfield suggests that addiction can be divided into five different factors: withdrawal, reinforcement, tolerance, dependence, and intoxication. With those criteria, LISTOMANIA ranks heroin, alcohol, cocaine, nicotine, marijuana, and caffeine. Just because a substance scores highest in one aspect of addictiveness doesn’t mean it will be the leader in all. The list about “places on earth that are still unexplored” definitely appealed to my curiosity. The Atrato Swamplands in South America have yet to be officially explored due to impassibility as well as large numbers of both mosquitoes and alligators. I’m sure many people will enjoy the list of “lies that movies tell us.” I nodded my head along and/or laughed aloud at a few of these common movie misconceptions, including “running in high heels is easy.” Another oddity list, “unsolved mysteries,” still has my mind turning. In particular, the case of the Mary Celeste, a merchant ship that was completely abandoned in the Atlantic Ocean in 1872, caught my attention. I’ll leave you to read the specific details in the book, but it’s certainly a perplexing event. If any of these lists intrigued you, know that I’m barely scratching the surface of all the enthralling details packed into LISTOMANIA!

I should mention that these aren’t simple, dull 1, 2, 3, left justified lists of black text on white paper. The graphic designers behind this book clearly deserve as much credit as the researchers and writers. Each page is wondrously designed with a visually appealing layout, simple illustrations, and a clear logic. Naturally, it’s reminiscent of the same attention to detail that comes to mind when we think about lists!

I’m convinced anyone would enjoy this book, but writers in particular should take note; it’s a writer’s goldmine! The “unexplored places” and “unsolved mysteries” lists that I mentioned above should serve as enough evidence of LISTOMANIA’s imagination-provoking powers, but consider also “military blunders,” “lost civilizations,” “people who mysteriously vanished,” “cases of stolen glory,” and “famous ghosts.”

Needless to say, LISTOMANIA inspired me to dig deeper into the bits and pieces that interested me the most. I plan on re-reading the whole thing so I can take notes on the parts that really shocked, amused, or moved me and then delve into my own research on those topics. This one’s a treasure, all right!

Friday, April 19, 2013

THE PROPHET OF YONWOOD


Review of THE PROPHET OF YONWOOD by JEANNE DUPRAU
(third BOOK OF EMBER)

I started this book with no predictions. The story opens on new characters and establishes itself as a prequel to the earlier two books. While I enjoyed THE PROPHET OF YONWOOD, by the end I concluded that it's much more a prequel than the third in a series. You could read this book without reading any of the others or you could skip over this one, only reading books 1, 2, and 4 of the quartet, without losing any of the story. There's a loose connection to the other books right at the end, but mostly THE PROPHET OF YONWOOD tells a separate tale.

Still, certain themes run throughout all the books. Mob mentality leaps to mind. In every BOOK OF EMBER so far, individuals' IQs plummet as they group together and play off each others' paranoia, suspicions, etc. In every book, divisions that didn't previously exist appear within a struggling community. The trademark of this series, though, is that it usually takes a child to show the adults what they're doing wrong.

THE PROPHET OF YONWOOD follows Nicole. Though I say you could skip over this book and still understand the series overall, Nicole does have a worthwhile story. When she and her aunt travel far from home to check out inherited property, Nicole invents some goals for herself: 1. Keep her aunt from selling the house 2. Fall in love and 3. Help the world. I won't spoil anything here, but I will say that the way in which Nicole achieves some of these goals is both surprising, amusing, and heartwarming.

Monday, April 15, 2013

THE AMBER SPYGLASS


Review of THE AMBER SPYGLASS by PHILIP PULLMAN
(third in HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy)

The final book his Pullman's epic HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy opens with a powerful, building tension. I've already raved about his worldbuilding skills; this whole series feels real (extra impressive with fantasy) with vivid characters, striking settings, complex politics, and countless debates and themes one could probably contemplate over an entire lifetime.

In THE AMBER SPYGLASS, Pullman utilizes a unique writing strategy: little snippets of a scene between chapters. For an even more compelling twist, the excerpts from the scene cut off mid-sentence and pick up from the same place at the end of the next chapter. This approach slowed down the realization, for me at least, about what was going on, culminating in an even stronger reaction when the truth sneaked up on me.

I felt Lyra lost a teensy bit of her spunk in THE SUBTLE KNIFE. Apparently, what it takes to finally startle that child is tossing her into another world. Okay, that's fair. In THE AMBER SPYGLASS, though, she steadily gains back some of the confidence that lessened in the last book. She and Will set about changing the world - actually all the worlds - without even trying and Pullman pulls off the "prophesied-one" cliché with sincerity and depth.

Pullman also sprinkles tantalizing details about the infinite other worlds into the story, but there's a looming "tip of the iceberg" sense. These details wake your imagination past what's on the page, blossoming out into an endless list of possibilities: worlds, creatures, soul/dust manifestations, culture, etc.

I also admired how this vast, ambitious epic fantasy winds down and wraps up. Certain formulas become common in any genre, but THE AMBER SPYGLASS avoids any simplistic conclusions and delves into the sacrifices and complications still remaining even after bigger problems have been handled. It's no wonder HIS DARK MATERIALS has become such a beloved, popular classic! The trilogy definitely belongs on my all-time favorites list!

Friday, April 12, 2013

THE HOUSE OF GAIAN


Review of THE HOUSE OF GAIAN by ANNE BISHOP
(third in the TIR ALAINN trilogy) 

I gobbled up books one and two in this trilogy and THE HOUSE OF GAIAN followed suit. SHADOWS AND LIGHT stuffed plenty more characters into an already crowded plot, but that only keeps the pace of THE HOUSE OF GAIAN rushing along as we hop between different viewpoints, sometimes with very short chapters. 

Typical for a character-heavy story, there's a lot going on, so even as I draw attention to certain plotlines and conflicts, keep in mind that I'm still omitting mention of many others! Two in particular ensnared my focus. First, multiple threats loom over Ari and Neall, but in THE HOUSE OF GAIAN one of those finally descends on their quiet, content life. Second, Morag has been a sad character throughout. As the Gatherer - with the power not only to "gather" people's souls but to do so preemptively (meaning her weapon is death) - making friends doesn't come naturally. Her ability alienates her from others and weighs down on her conscience. I nursed hopes that the third book would include an uplifting turn for Morag, since she's been bonding with many characters and finally earning her way into a makeshift family, but sadly that wasn't the case. A vision warns her that she will bring something terrible to those she loves the most. Unfortunately, due to the vagueness of the vision, she cannot know for certain what actions will and won't lead to a horrible outcome. It's a tragic plot thread and unexpected in how it plays out. 

Bishop handles the inevitable clash between good and evil well by working in plenty of surprises, most of them nasty. After the building tension and then the high drama climax, the ending, though, is surprisingly gentle. The story tappers off with relationships and lesser problems continuing past the page. Don't be alarmed - the conclusion satisfies - but the resolution rests primarily in the main conflict, the war itself. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

CINDERELLA ATE MY DAUGHTER


Review of CINDERELLA ATE MY DAUGHTER by PEGGY ORENSTEIN

I approached this book with no small amount of skepticism. While the issues rank high on what's important to me, I knew my final opinion would depend how Orenstein handles the content. She didn't disappoint. First off, even when I completely agree with an author, it's off-putting when passion descends into ranting; I'm pleased to say these essays struck me as constructed with care and thought. Orenstein also finds humor in what can be a depressing topic. Last, I appreciated how openly she shares her own experiences as a mother, even owning up to when she might make mistakes, send mixed messages, or be hypocritical.

For anyone thinking, "Okay, so what is this book about?" it's a look at girly culture and how we raise daughters. Orenstein examines everything from toys to movies to social media to body imagine to beauty pageants. One criticism: the focus remains analytical rather than proactive. If you're looking for solutions in these pages, you'll be disappointed. For that matter, if you devour feminist literature and want some new insights, you might find CINDERELLA ATE MY DAUGHTER rather same old, same old, except for some specific statistics and quotes.

Still it's a thought-provoking read that touched on many issues close to my heart. Early on, Orenstein addresses the concern that men and boys might be more limited by gender than women, or at least just as much but in different ways, a thought that crosses my mind every time I notice sexism against men. For one specific, simple example, consider clothing. Women fought for the right to wear pants and fought longer to wear them without judgment. Men or boys who wear skirts are still ridiculed and bullied. However, Orenstein mostly only raises this concern so she can specify that her book will focus on girls. She did, though, contribute a sad anecdote about a father happy to buy his daughter a hot wheels set but furious when his son begged for a tutu.

Orenstein also calls out a common fear in feminist circles: is the message that women can be anything sometimes contorted into women must be everything? Some women, rather than feel they've been given more freedom and more options, feel an absurd pressure to be both feminine and masculine, to be traditional and boundary-pushing, to do all the housework of a stay-at-home mom while maintaining a busy career, etc. Ideally, feminism provides women with more choices, but some garble the message into further criteria added to the list of what makes an ideal woman. I laughed out loud at a quote from Orenstein’s daughter Daisy: “How come…Mulan has to be gentle and strong but Shang is only strong? (p. 188)” Yup, smart kid.

Near the end, there's a well-presented discussion of how appearance, sex, confidence, body image, self-esteem, etc. all tangle together. I resonated with the look at why sexually forward girls disturb some people. There's nothing wrong with a sexually forward woman. Promiscuity, provocative clothes, flirtatious behavior, etc. is neither evidence for or against a woman's overall confidence and strength. Note, though, I wrote "woman," not "girl." Females flaunting and showcasing their bodies and sexuality turns disturbing when they're not adults but children and most likely too young to even understand why such behavior earns attention. Orenstein posits, with research backing up her claim, that this trend of sexualizing young girls leads to confusion later in life regarding these topics of sex, appearance, etc. As some suggest, early sexualization teaches girls to be sexy, but not to feel sexy. It becomes a kind of performance and the girl...well, the doll.

On these lines, Orenstein laments that somewhere along the feminism road the pursuit of physical perfection became the epitome of female empowerment. I'll keep this paragraph brief, mostly to cut off my potential rant, but consider every movie (or book) in which the turning point for the female star solving her problems and getting what she wants is...drumroll, please...a makeover.

I also nodded my head as I read Orenstein's assessment of Hollywood, in particular the trend of female child stars proving they're adults now by - yes, you guessed it - undressing. Too often a risqué magazine spread marks the public transition from girl to woman.

Of course, I didn't agree with Orenstein’s every claim. Her interpretation of the children's book THE PAPER BAG PRINCESS makes a prime example. For those unfamiliar with the story, in this picture book a dragon kidnaps a prince and the princess rescues him. After defeating the dragon, she's filthy, and no doubt sweaty, and wearing a paper bag, since the dragon burnt all her clothes. Disgusted rather than grateful, the prince tells her to return when she looks more like a princess, so the princess decides she's better off without him. Orenstein says the princess' ultimate spurning of the prince disappointed her because she views it as a rejection of men. She wants her daughter to be strong and independent, but she still want her to be open to love. However, I read the story differently. In my mind, the princess spurns one man. The distinction between our interpretations is whether or not you view the prince as one individual or as standing in for the entire male gender. I could go off a tangent here about how certain characters, especially those of minorities, are often forced to represent an entire group. In fact, Orenstein addresses this herself when she talks about “The Princess and the Frog,” the movie with Disney's first black princess, who unfortunately became weighed down by all the expectations around her. The first black Disney princess isn't as remarkable as some think. (Arguably, more shameful that it took so long.) What will be remarkable is the second and the third and the fourth until there's no longer any commotion about a black princess. But returning to THE PAPER BAG PRINCESS, in my opinion the princess didn't reject all men; she refused to settle for a jerk who won't treat her right. A fantastic, feminist moral by my standards!

As I mentioned, some critique this book for being all complaints with no solution. I guess it depends on what you expect from the author. I view it as a platform for discussion. I don't think one should keep their mouth shut about a problem because they don't have a perfect solution. Some people might not even notice the problem and perhaps if the individual speaks up, someone else might have a solution they hadn't considered. As for myself, I think the only way to deal with a culture that certainly isn't going to change overnight is discussion. I personally like Disney movies, but that doesn't mean I don't see flaws or grumble about painful messages. We're quick to box things into "like" or "dislike," but it's far more productive (as I do on this blog every week with reviews!) to pinpoint and express what aspects you like and which you don't. We can't shelter girls or women from the world or filter out the messages we don't want them absorbing, but we can encourage debate and discussion, encourage questioning. In other words, encourage active thinking over passivity.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Art of Reading: Eating While Reading


The Art of Reading: Eating While Reading

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: eating while reading. So...do you? Or does the thought appall you - food stains! What about drinking? If yes, do you have any favorite reading treats?

I confess that this isn't one of "The Art of Reading" topics about which I feel particularly strongly. For the most part, I don't eat while reading, but not because I have a firm rule. I suppose I do worry about spilling on my books, and then there's the element of hassle - figuring out how best to hold open the book while lifting a fork to your mouth, unwrapping a chocolate, or cracking open a nut, etc. I do eat while reading occasionally, though: usually only when a book has me so riveted that it's either eat while reading or go without food until I finish! However, I drink all the time while reading. Water, obviously. (I hear that stuff’s good for you.) Also, tea. Lots and lots of tea! I grew up in California, but being born in England and raised by a British mother left its mark; she passed along her addiction to PG tips. For me, true relaxation is a book in one hand and a steaming cup of PG tips in the other.

A Shelf Awareness article drew my attention to this topic. For all that I read often, and think and talk about reading as well, I don't put much thought into this eating/drinking while reading discussion, so I was surprised by how many people eagerly chimed in. Many people have favorite reading snacks or even prefer certain snacks depending on the type of book! One woman admitted she uses the book as a snack guideline: one chip every five pages, one chocolate every chapter, and so on.

So how about you? Do you read and/or drink while reading? If so, do you have favorite snacks or even page count reward guidelines? If you don’t like to eat and read at the same time, why not?

Monday, April 1, 2013

RED GLOVE


Review of RED GLOVE by HOLLY BLACK
(second in THE CURSE WORKERS series, review based on an advance reading copy)

I loved RED GLOVE every bit as much as WHITE CAT. The series cuts apart thematically in ways that I find quite logical, a welcome relief from the often arbitrary breaks between books. In WHITE CAT, Cassel fixates on his past - unraveling a knot of events that doesn't make sense. In RED GLOVE, he lives more in the present - dealing with the ramifications of what he learned. BLACK GLOVE, I expect, will likely focus on Cassel's future - his final decisions about loyalty: help a crime family or the law enforcement?

Despite his extremely unusual background, Cassel's first person, present tense perspective feels natural. The story's not only set in an alternate world with magic, but Cassel comes from a family of criminals who use their varied magical skills for everything from petty cons to grisly murders. (If you haven't read WHITE CAT, stop reading here - this review has a couple of spoilers about the first book.) Adding to the list of "not-your-average-teen," Cassel has murdered. As we learned in WHITE CAT, his brothers magically manipulated him into committing these murders, which gives both Cassel and readers ethical wiggle room to cut him some slack, but nevertheless he's killed people. He also cons and manipulates others frequently and without magical coercion, and he often avoids important questions simply so he can comfort his own guilt later with the idea that he didn't know the big picture. True, Cassel isn't a clear-cut good-guy protagonist, but he's fascinating and captivating and believable. I could always relate to his emotions, even if not his actions or his choices. That's one of the wonders of great writing!

THE CURSE WORKERS series flows well and entertains consistently, so you can simply sit back and enjoy a good book. However, if you like digging a little deeper into characters, story, themes, etc, there's plenty of material there. Three themes still linger in my mind after reading the book. First, there's the concept of accountability. Cassel's brothers may have manipulated his actions with magic trickery, but does that exclude him from any blame? To further muddle the question, it's a little blurry exactly how much control Cassel had over his own actions. At times it sounds like Lila used her sleep magic to make Cassel commit the murders. Then his brother Baron claims that Lila only sleepwalked Cassel out of his dorms. Using his memory magic, Baron gave Cassel a forged memory of murdering someone. Convinced he was already a murderer, Cassel went along with murdering again. He may never know for certain, though, if Baron's lying or not, since Baron took the memories of each murder afterwards. Regardless of the how and why, Cassel has murdered and sometimes that knowledge blurs his own sense of ethics. Like anyone struggling with any kind of addiction or indulgence, once you give in a little it's hard not to give in all the way.

Second, there's a strong theme about what's real versus artificial. At the very end of WHITE CAT, Cassel realizes his mother used her emotion magic to make Lila love him. He's longed for her for years, so his mother, with her own warped sense of right and wrong, thought Lila on a platter would be a nice gift. Cassel, though, doesn't want her that way, entranced against her will into feeling something she doesn't really feel. Emotion magic wears off eventually, but it's not an abrupt change  - go to sleep with a curse and wake up without; instead it's a slow transition back to normal. There's no simple timeline, either, meaning Cassel can't never know for certain if the emotion magic has worn off, leaving behind genuine love, or if part, or all, of her feelings aren't really hers.

Third, the entire series studies the immense strength of family roots - for better or worse. Cassel's future feels tragically sealed by his upbringing and I expect the third book will examine this even more. He's in an endless self-battle defining right and wrong and certain influences only complicate an already complex question. Even when he tries stepping back from illegal activities, he finds himself cleaning up after those he loves.

I can't wait to discover how Black will end this incredible series. Watch for my forthcoming review of BLACK HEART!