Friday, May 31, 2013

SPEAK


Review of SPEAK by LAURIE HALSE ANDERSON

I knew I would love this book and yet I avoided it for years, because while I expected from all I've heard that the story would be amazing I also expected it would be dark and possibly a hard, painful read. As I've mentioned before, dark content doesn't ruin a book for me if the author handles it well, but it's never been a selling point and I don't seek out dark books. In fact, I try pacing the darker stuff I read, because I'm perhaps an overly empathetic person and well-written tragedies, violence, traumas, etc. can leave me depressed for days or weeks. (I've found reading something light at the same time and switching between dark and light significantly lessens this effect.) SPEAK did have its difficult moments, but it still exceeded all the gushing reports about its brilliance.
I'm not sure what percentage of people who have already heard of this book know the gist of the premise, but I'll work under the assumption that you don't know what it's about. Someone told me exactly what SPEAK examines and that didn't in the least spoil the book for me, but I'm going to avoid spoilers at first in case that's your preference and then give warning before I start talking more candidly about content. 
 
So the spoiler-free summary: Melinda's drawing into herself. She hardly even speaks anymore, a quirk interpreted as disrespectful by most adults and weird by most of her peers. "Drawing into herself" might be both an accurate and incorrect word choice at the same time. While some of her solitary behavior is by choice, she's also being ostracized by pretty much everyone else at her high school for calling the cops on a big party last year, an act that effectively ended most of her friendships and any potential ones.

What stuck me immediately about SPEAK, something no one in all their raving had mentioned, was the fantastic writing style. Anderson makes some unique, unusual writing choices that totally work for this voice and this character. The book isn't told in chapters, but rather four huge chunks - the quarters of Melinda's school year, cut up into quick scenes each with their own title. For that matter, Melinda's voice comes through so strongly that she feels like a real person. That's what makes the story so impacting. An otherwise identical book with a flat protagonist would equal a flat book, but because Melinda feels so real I ached that I couldn't reach in and help her. That being said, the fact that I couldn't orchestrate her actions made her own victories all the more pronounced. Now I understand why this book has become such a beloved classic. 

If you haven't yet read SPEAK and want to do so without any spoilers, now is the time to stop reading this review.

What many of you may already know is that this is a book about rape. I already knew that going into the book and, though Melinda doesn't use that term for quite a while, I expect I would have guessed as much early on and I certainly don't think knowing so before she says so in any way diminishes the emotional impact. What makes SPEAK incredible is not the content, but the character. Melinda feels so real it's like discovering this horrible trauma happened to your own friend and she's been keeping it a shameful secret all this time.
I specifically read the tenth anniversary edition, definitely worth checking out for the additional material. The book opens with a poem crafted primarily with snippets from all the emails Anderson has received over the years about SPEAK. I can't think about it too much, let alone quote from it, or I might start crying again. Beautiful. And exactly the kind of evidence needed in censorship discussions as proof that works with dark content can be healing, lifesaving even, when they're well-written and reach the right hands.
At the end of the book there's also an interview with Anderson that I found fascinating, sometimes horrifically fascinating, unfortunately. One question in particular and her entirely unexpected answer will probably stick in my mind the rest of my life.
Have any readers ever asked questions that shocked you?
I have gotten one question repeatedly from young men.
These are guys who liked the book, but they are honestly confused.
They ask me why Melinda was so upset about being raped.
Anyone else feeling like the floor just dropped out from under them? Anderson goes on to say, “The first dozen times I heard this, I was horrified. But I heard it over and over again.” She presents her own interpretation, one that makes sense to me. Anderson suggests that men are raised to think sex isn't a big deal. With that mindset, being forced into having sex against your will seems annoying and perhaps unpleasant, but it’s just sex so what's the big deal? Anyway, learning so many young men out there still don't see why a woman could be so scarred by being raped shocked and depressed me. The good news is that both this book and Anderson’s responses to questions like that work towards battling those attitudes. Discussion leads change.
If you haven't read SPEAK yet it's about time you do.

Monday, May 27, 2013

FAERIE AFTER


Review of FAERIE AFTER by JANNI LEE SIMNER
(third in the BONES OF FAERIE trilogy, review based on an advance reading copy)

I didn't even know there would be another BONES OF FAERIE book, but what a wonderful surprise! As in earlier books, there's an understated style that lets characters and events speak for themselves rather than bashing the reader repeatedly with overdramatized emotion. I admire Simner's direct simplicity: most lines concisely convey their meaning without embellishing the word choice past practicality. Although she does have quite a knack for haunting, vivid description.

Some books feel like they exist in your mind (You can close your eyes and picture every detail.) and then some books feel like they exist all around you (It's as though you've been transported.). Simner's books always fall in the latter category, relocating me to her fantasy worlds, an especially creepy effect with FAERIE AFTER since I felt a teensy bit in danger myself whenever she described the crumbling of the fey world. Luckily, I resisted any paranoid glances or exclamations of "The sky is falling!" that might alarm those nearby. Bonus detail: I read this on a plane!

Like everything else in this story, the characters come to life. I particularly respect how varied and nuanced Simner makes each individual. No cookie cutter characters here. No Mary Sues. The focus remains close to Liza, but unfolds into big themes applicable on much larger scales. For example, consider the faerie character Nys. He holds Liza accountable for actions committed against faeries by humans she never met. Prejudice, anyone? Then there's a masterful scene involving rescue and sacrifice. I want to say more, but I don't want to spoil it. I'll settle for: It would be hilarious if it weren't so poignant.

FAERIE AFTER moves at a brisk pace, so I'll keep this review short, sweet, and spoiler-free. Last word: if you haven't read this series you're missing out.

Friday, May 24, 2013

THE WINTER GHOSTS


Review of THE WINTER GHOSTS by KATE MOSSE
Right away I noticed and admired the writing in this short book. While I enjoy Mosse's work sometimes writing quirks, like an abundance of passive voice, distract me a little from the story. None of that here. In fact, the story flows very naturally from beginning to end and, especially considering the wide-margin page-formatting and short chapters, reads in a quick flash. Certainly a contrast to the tomes of LABYRINTH and SEPULCHRE!

As seems to be Mosse's style, the story has a slow, suspenseful build, though arguably slow to a fault. Perhaps as much as the first third can be summarized as: Freddie misses his deceased brother to the point of mental instability. Oh, and he's crashed his car. However, the story (in my mind) doesn't start until he attends a celebration in the town where he's found shelter and the evening takes a strange turn. Then everything moves faster. I won’t say more, because we’re well into the book by that point and I don’t want to spoil it.
In some ways, this is hardly an original story, but Mosse pulls together familiar tropes and specific, unique characters and histories in such a way that everything feels right.

Monday, May 20, 2013

WITCH


Review of WITCH by MARIE BRENNAN
(second in the DOPPELGANGER duology)

Disclaimer: If you haven't read WARRIOR, don't read this review. Major spoilers about the first book in the duology.

I've actually read both WARRIOR and WITCH before. I usually never re-read books, but I make exceptions for some of my favorite books read pre-blogging days. (It seems a shame for a fantastic book to miss out on a glowing review, because I read it before 2011.) Most of the time when I re-read books for my blog, it reminds me why I don't usually re-read: everything's too predictable (well, I know what happens!) and I rarely feel a book as much the second time around. WITCH turned out to be a delightful exception. I forgot most of the major plot twists and said twists both surprised and affected me like I was reading them for the first time. (Granted, this could just as easily be a negative comment on my memory as a positive comment about the book.)

Here comes the spoiler part. As those of you who read WARRIOR know, the first book in the duology concluded with the revelation that a witch and her doppelganger can be joined into one person, information that challenges much of what witches have believed and, following on the heels of those beliefs, done for decades. WITCH opens on a character both new and old: Mirei, who was once two people - the hunter Mirage and the witch Miryo - before the ritual reunited them into one body. Brennan has set herself quite the writerly task here! How can two people now be one person? Read the book and Brennan will show you! Mirei is masterfully characterized with evident traits and habits stemming from both her Mirage and Miryo halves as well as an underlying, understandable tension when two very different parts of their separate personalities clash in their now combined psyche. (One example: Mirage would never hesitate to kill someone who stands between her and her goal while Miryo values human life even if letting a certain someone live could be her own downfall. What, then, will Mirei do?) Not only is Mirei an interesting character on her own, but her unusual circumstance creates fun, complex dynamics with friends of both Mirage and Miryo, who often notice something off about Mirei before learning exactly what.
As WARRIOR established, when a woman gives birth to a witch she has a doppelganger as well. Usually these doppelgangers are killed at birth so magic will flow into the witch without any confusion. If the doppelganger lives (which happens occasionally, most likely when someone balks at killing an infant and secrets her away), the witch will eventually need to kill the other half herself or else her magic will grow confused between the two bodies and lead to devastating magical damage. All that was before Miryo and Mirage. Though very different young women, they certainly shared at least one common trait: a reluctance to simply accept the norm. Through conviction and determination, they discovered that the doppelganger is not a harmful interloper standing between a witch and her magic. She's part of the witch. Following their instincts, they managed to reunite themselves in one body. Of course, this sends emotional and, by extension, political waves through the witch community. Mirei upturns everything witches have ever believed and, if her interpretations of magic prove correct, that means witches have been making many grave errors for a very, very long time. Some witches want to accept their mistakes, study these new revelations, and embrace the changes that will undoubtedly follow. Others resist, violently. In essence, a civil war breaks out among the witch community, all over Mirei: what she is, what she represents, what she means, what to do with her. 

Brennan doesn't go easy on her characters. She throws not one but many hard choices at every character. That's part of the appeal. When decisions feel too easy, when I know exactly what I would do without a doubt, I struggle to invest in the character: either she makes the obvious decision or she risks seeming stupid. However, when I can't begin to imagine how I would handle the character's troubles - oh, that's the real fun! Though Brennan never overloads her reader with more information than necessary, she does plop us down in a fleshed out world with a realistic mess of tangled politics and no easy solutions.

I also adore that, in this world, magic is innovative, like science. Witches think they know how magic works, until new evidence emerges and proves how little they really know. Innovative magic is a common theme in my own writing and I love seeing it in the books I read. It always seems a little too easy, by my logic, to give humans a rule book about how magic works. We're constantly amending every human rule book in existence: why should magic be a static exception? All these rules books (whether we're talking real or fictional) gradually change over time, but when they change closer to overnight the resulting confusion and disorientation can wreck havoc (again, in both reality and fiction!) I'm glad I read this one again, because I forgot how much I really do love this duology!

Friday, May 17, 2013

LABYRINTH


Review of LABYRINTH by KATE MOSSE
(first in the LANGUEDOC trilogy)

This thick book requires a commitment, but rewards with a brilliant end. I read LABYRINTH for the first time back in my freshman year of college. It took me months and over three quarters of the novel before I felt ensnared by the story, but it became a favorite by the time I finished and earned a spot on my "re-read to review" list. Needless to say, there's an extremely slow build. This story could easily be much shorter, though the length adds its own atmospheric benefits. The characters and historical detail held my attention enough that I kept plugging along, but the pace only breaks into a sprint around the last quarter or so, building towards a fantastic, well-plotted conclusion.

LABYRINTH follows two alternating story lines: in the summer of 2005, Alice makes a strange discovery on an archaeological dig while back in the 13th century, Alais inherits a monumental responsibility. I enjoyed the historical storyline far more than the modern one and found my attention waned easier during Alice's chunks. Mosse's obviously extensive research impressed me, though thankfully she demonstrates restraint and doesn't bog the reader down in unnecessary historical detail. While the book switches between the past and present storylines, these aren't frequent switches by any means. There's a large chunk of each story before returning to the other, a trend that makes investing in the characters much easier but proves annoying if either chunk ends on any species of question mark or cliffhanger. Near the end, these switches also increase in frequency, adding to that building pace.
Two stylistic writing elements distracted me at times: an abundance of passive voice and the switching between present and past tense. (If you're not much of a grammar nerd and don't write yourself, most likely you won't even notice these things.) Near the beginning in particular, before the story had my full attention, I noticed passive voice in nearly every single sentence. As for the present tense, the switching between past and present didn’t throw me as much as the use of present at all. Mosse uses present tense for the present storyline and past for the past. While there's a certain logic to that approach, somehow present tense struck me as awkward for this particular book, enough so that it kept throwing me out of the story. It should be said, though, that I only noticed these aspects on my second reading. In between readings, I only remembered a haunting, spectacular ending and not a thing about passive voice or present tense.

Really, this whole hefty book is worth the investment because the story rounds a corner to a marvelous, memorable ending. Forgive the worn metaphor, but the denouement calls to mind the satisfying snick of a final puzzle piece finding its place.

Monday, May 13, 2013

SCENT OF MAGIC


Review of SCENT OF MAGIC by MARIA V. SNYDER
(second in the HEALER trilogy)

I loooved the first book in this series. While I did have some nitpicky complaints, I found TOUCH OF POWER addictive and compelling. Unfortunately, SCENT OF MAGIC feels far too much a middle book in a trilogy than a book in its own right. I still have high hopes for the final book in the HEALER trilogy, but I found many annoyances with this middle installment.

The book does pick up pace in the last third, but the first two thirds involve excessive downtime and much musing on the inevitable, impending battle with Tohon. Confrontations don't start occurring until that last third, though everything happens faster then. In addition, new characters never really distinguish themselves and the politics and military strategy often seem lacking in logic and rather arbitrary. Avry also feels more unfocused to me now; TOUCH OF POWER made me feel I had a good sense of her character - her priorities, morals, values, etc. - but sometimes her thoughts or actions in SCENT OF MAGIC made me feel like I don't know her at all. Last, Avry's victory at the end struck me as far too easy: it's won more by stupidity on the part of a villain than through her own strengths.

When I looked at my list of criticisms versus praise I hesitated to review this book, but the truth is that I did enjoy SCENT OF MAGIC. After some thought, I realized I keep trying to review it like it's great literature and by that measure it falls short of my expectations. However, it's fantastic fluff/entertainment reading that held my attention, even at slower parts, and I intend to finish the series. I believe Snyder's building towards a much better third and final book and the end of SCENT OF MAGIC certainly sets up a unique final conflict.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Random Acts of Reading - Mother's Day Suggestions


I'm a guest blogger for Random House's blog - Random Acts of Reading. Click here to check out this month's post about books we recommend for Mother's Day.

THE DIAMOND OF DARKHOLD


Review of THE DIAMOND OF DARKHOLD by JEANNE DUPRAU
(fourth BOOK OF EMBER)

The first two BOOKS OF EMBER followed Lina and Doon and then the third backtracked, serving as a prequel with a new cast. For the fourth book, we return to familiar characters. The two towns decided to work together at the end of THE PEOPLE OF SPARKS. Now, in THE DIAMOND OF DARKHOLD, Doon has reason to believe they missed an essential mystery on their way out of Ember, so he and Lina head back towards their abandoned cave city.

I've enjoyed all the books in this series, but none held my attention like the first. There's that "putdownable" quality. (A word that only exists among avid readers.) I found myself happily returning to the latter three books, but only THE CITY OF EMBER kept calling me back from other tasks.

Some characters in DIAMOND feel a little caricature, but Lina and Doon (among others) always stand out as believable people and keep me invested. Mostly, I'm thinking of the Troggs right now. An imaginative reader can fill in convincing backstories, mindsets, motivations, etc., but from what appears in the book they didn't satisfy me.

While the whole story's entertaining, I particularly loved the ending. DuPrau not only resolves the mystery of the diamond, but concludes this series with the perfect note and tone.

Monday, May 6, 2013

THE DIVINERS


Review of THE DIVINERS by LIBBA BRAY
(first in THE DIVINERS quartet, review based on an advance reading copy)

This one hid on my maybe-read list for a long time. I loved Bray's GEMMA DOYLE trilogy, but the premise of THE DIVINERS didn't appeal to me. I worried the book simply wouldn't be to my taste. I've never been "into" the flapper era, serial killer plots, or this type of magic (a good adjective alludes me, but “diviners” gives an idea). However, I've always believed that when a book's really well-written it doesn't matter if it's what you usually read or like. The catch, of course, is deciding what's worth your time with so many great books out there - how often do you go with ones you know you'll love versus take a chance on something you might not like? While that's a question for another day, I took a chance on THE DIVINERS and the book rewarded me with a captivating story.

Mind you, the story didn't hook me immediately. As I expected, the plot's draped in trappings that don't overlap with my usual interests. I enjoyed the book from page one, but it wasn't until the core of the story emerged and the characters won me over that my skepticism flipped into adoration - I'm talking a good chunk of pages and chapters.

The pace feels both slow and not at the same time. Most of the book builds towards the inevitable climax, but every moment's still enjoyable. Both the short chapters and dynamic, varied characters also counteract any sluggish feeling to the plot. Though thick, the fantastic writing makes THE DIVINERS an easy, natural read.

Bray clearly did some intensive research for this one! There's a lot of slang, among many other details, frequently reminding us we're in a different time period. In general, the writing's very atmospheric. Overall I cherished that fact, but sometimes the description grew a bit long-winded. A perfect example would be near the end of the very first chapter when two pages describe the wind.


THE DIVINERS has that recent YA staple, the love triangle. In fact, it might be more a love square. Regardless, the romance doesn't hijack the story and each individual relationship develops satisfyingly slow so I understood and felt the emotional shift.

I confess the moment of victory near the end struck me as too easy not to mention somewhat forced. That aside, what an adrenaline-pumping showdown! With so many lead characters, I feared some of them might be expendable in the writer's mind, making the danger all the more pronounced. There's not one character here whose death I wouldn't mourn.

Add THE DIVINERS to my growing list of "first-book-in-a-series-disguised-as-a-standalone." I know now, thanks to Locus magazine, that THE DIVINERS is the first in a quartet, but I didn't realize that until after finishing this book. Bray found a more satisfying conclusion than I expected, but it's still very obviously a series with much left unresolved. However, it's not at all obvious where the next book will go from this point, so I look forward to some surprises there.

Friday, May 3, 2013

THE ARCHIVED


Review of THE ARCHIVED by VICTORIA SCHWAB
(first in THE ARCHIVED series, review based on advance reading copy)
I bet it won't surprise you to say I have a thing for books, libraries, reading, etc. So I also have a thing for book-focused fiction, whether there's a bibliophile character, lots of people reading, a bookstore or library tied into the plot, or - my favorite - a book-related magic system. THE ARCHIVED falls into the latter category, using books as metaphors for death and afterlife. When someone dies, they become a History shelved in The Archive while people like sixteen-year-old Mac work capturing and returning Histories that awaken.

There's a slow build, though Schwab makes every moment enjoyable. As much as the first third feels far more world-building than plot focused with only a subtle tingling sense of something unusual. In fact, most of the story avoids a clear front and center conflict. Rather a handful of odd, suspicious, and problematic developments pop up in such a manner that you don't know where to watch for the explosion.

While slow, that first third's also very character-centric, always a big plus in my mind. I love Mac's character: self-destructive but understandable. As if the "library of the dead" premise isn't intriguing enough, Mac has lost not one but two of the most important people in her life: her grandfather (who handed this responsibility down to her) and her little brother. Obviously, those deaths make her Archive work much more personal. Through much of the book, Mac battles torn loyalties between her work and her brother, often asking senior staff members to let her sit by his History.

I found the writing superb, the kind that fades back rather than steals focus from the story. Only one minor element threw me out. At one point, Mac refers to her father as a ghost. I reeled from this twist only to realize a few paragraphs later that she meant a metaphorical ghost, someone figuratively drained of life and passion. Probably a metaphor that would do better in a book that didn't have real ghosts! Of course, I'm mostly mentioning this because that's the one word choice that distracted me.
As much as it fascinated me, the magic system wasn't quite as clear and defined as I wanted. Schwab takes the immersion approach of plopping the reader down into Mac's world and letting them pick up how things seem to work without any info dumps. However, I'm often willing to forgive the odd info dump if it tells me something I really want to know, especially if it's well-handled. (Dump has a negative connotation, but I do think info dumps can be well-written.) Even after finishing the book, I don't feel like I 100% grasp how The Archive and Histories, etc. work.

As I've said, Schwab layers and intertwines so many smaller conflicts that you don't know where to watch for the explosion...and there is indeed an explosive end when everything crashes together in an abruptly breathtaking pace and high stakes climax. I loved those dramatic chapters, but the story doesn't wrap up that well afterwards. It builds to a chaotic, crazy ending and then winds down far too fast from so much commotion. Also this is another first in a series that makes no mention of such fact. The end definitely reads as one piece in a greater story without much significant resolution. Nevertheless, I have high hopes for the rest of the series and can't read to read the next one!