Friday, July 31, 2015

THE FAIRY'S MISTAKE


Review of THE FAIRY’S MISTAKE by GAIL CARSON LEVINE
(first in THE PRINCESS TALES series)

I adore Levine’s work. Known most for her first book ELLA ENCHANTED, Levine always hits that perfect balance between sweet and smart in her various fairy tale twists and retellings.

In THE FAIRY’S MISTAKE, a well-intentioned fairy stirs up trouble by not thinking through the consequences of her actions. She rewards a kind-hearted young girl with the gift of jewels tumbling from her mouth whenever she speaks and punishes the girl’s selfish sister with the curse of bugs and snakes emerging in a likewise fashion. Cruel fate, though, twists the reward to a punishment and the punishment to a reward. Rosella, the generous and compassionate jewel vomiter, doesn’t care that much for wealth...but everyone around her does. Not only does she find herself swarmed with false friends constantly urging her to talk on while they catch the precious stones falling from her lips, but this “reward” hurts. Rosella’s throat soon feels scraped raw from the jewels that manifest there every time she speaks and scratch their way up into her mouth to cut her gums and crack a tooth if she isn’t careful. Meanwhile, Rosella’s self-centered sister Myrtle learns to make spiders and vipers slithering from her mouth work to her advantage. No one else likes those things much either, so she holds the threat of speaking over people’s heads until they give her what she wants.

The story’s smart, the writing’s smart, and the characters are smart. Levine twists familiar tales in unexpected ways, fills the pages with amusing and witty quips, and crafts characters who can always think their way out of tough situations.

One can easily read these slim middle grade novels in one sitting. They’re timeless stories, too - great read-a-louds for younger children and still entirely enjoyable as an adult.

Friday, July 24, 2015

I DON'T KNOW


Review of I DON’T KNOW: IN PRAISE OF ADMITTING IGNORANCE (EXCEPT WHEN YOU SHOULDN’T) by LEAH HAGER COHEN

Cohen opens this dissertation on ignorance with a personal story from grad school. In her first week, a professor started a class with instructions that used a word Cohen didn’t know. From looking around she could see everyone else following along without any perceivable difficulty. This discouraged her from raising her hand to ask what that word meant, which then led to her spending most of that class, as well as a few subsequent ones, thoroughly confused. 

Our society discourages honest admission of what we don’t know. It makes us look weak, we’re taught. It makes us look dumb. Cohen lists a few of the many books on faking knowledge, books that usually provide just enough information on common topics of conversation that one can pass as informed and credible. In actuality, we miss out on opportunities when we refuse to say, “I don’t know.” Most obviously, the opportunity to genuinely gain new knowledge - but the message here is that perception of intelligence is valued higher than actual intelligence. A lot of people would rather everyone think them smart than actually be smart. Centuries of experience and evidence have demonstrated that people who recognize how little they know are often wiser than those who think they know everything.

We aren’t born with this fear of admitting ignorance; we’re taught it. Young children usually have no difficulty conceding gaps in knowledge. Then they almost inevitably experience some form of ridicule for not knowing something. In some cases, the teasing is mild or friendly and doesn’t really affect the lucky individual’s confidence. However, for others the experience feels shameful or humiliating and socially trains the child to feign understanding to avoid further embarrassment. To emphasize this point, Cohen shares another personal story, this one of her niece answering a teacher’s question with “I don’t know” only to be called into the hall where the teacher yelled at her for her stupidity. Even classic children’s stories send a clear message that “I don’t know” can be embarrassing or even dangerous. In “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the subtext acknowledges that most people will go foolish lengths to hide what they don’t know. In “Rumpelstiltskin,” the miller boasts to the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold leading the king to demand the daughter perform this feat or else. Admitting “I don’t know” would mean her death.

Cohen quotes a teacher who repeatedly said, “If you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you” and I instantly flashed back to my similar experience in high school with an English teacher. He would grade our papers, but refuse to explain why students received the grades they did. “If you can’t figure out why you got a C on your essay, I can’t help you,” he would say. This infuriated me. What are you doing here then? I wanted to scream at him. What’s the point of a teacher if not to draw attention to the student’s possible gaps in knowledge or technical weaknesses? If I knew all my own shortcomings, I wouldn’t need peers or mentors.

I personally don’t have much trouble admitting ignorance, though I did more so in the past. The shift came about (big surprise coming) because of books. I read a lot, 1-2 books a week, 50-100 books a year. I can’t read everything, though. No matter how much I read, I’m acutely aware of how much I still haven’t read. When people ask if I’ve read a book, I always admit when I haven’t. I understand why some people find admission difficult, though. The truth is that, yes, sometimes people are rude or condescending because I haven’t read such and such classic or bestseller. Over time, though, I decided that’s their problem, not mine. There are tons of books in the world, not to mention tons of other interests, hobbies, and things to know outside of reading. How shortsighted to judge someone for knowing less than you in one small area of all there is to know in the world.

Certain jobs reinforce this discomfort with the phrase “I don’t know” even more. Medical professionals, for example, make diagnoses, recommend courses of action, and estimate probability of success. In many cases, they don’t know things with absolute certainty. Unfortunately, the majority of patients expect utter confidence from their doctors. They want medical advice to feel absolute, like it’s God’s word and not that of a flawed human working within the limits of our (and his or her) medical understanding as well as our technological capabilities. Cohen also discusses how in work environments many employees would rather make a mistake than admit uncertainty from the start by asking a question.

The book skims the topic of death, but raises interesting points. Death is a big “I don’t know.” Some people struggle with that uncertainty more than others. Some look for explanations or ideologies that they can wholeheartedly embrace so they can replace “I don’t know” with confident conviction, a more comfortable emotional state.

As the title implies, the book also touches on when “I don’t know” can be harmful. There’s a chilling example of children feigning ignorance rather than speak up about abuse. Not to mention far too many worldwide examples of countries, groups, and individuals alike using “I don’t know” as an excuse not to take action, the look-the-other-way mentality.

Despite my lengthy review, this is an extremely short book at only 114 pages. I finished it in a single hour-long sitting. While I enjoyed it thoroughly, it does feel like it’s skimming the surface, more a discussion starter than an in-depth exploration.

Occasionally, some of the various points and stories feel a little disjointed. I found this further proof that the book might benefit from being longer. Many short points feel like they could be whole chapters.

If you’re at all interested in this book, you really have no excuse not to read it since it’s such a minimal time investment, especially proportional to the value of the subject matter. I for one hope to see “I don’t know” more frequently embraced as, rather than a moment of avoidable weakness, an integral stepping-stone to obtaining priceless knowledge.

Friday, July 17, 2015

DREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS



Review of DREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS by LAINI TAYLOR
(third in the DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE trilogy)

I felt both extremely excited and quite a bit hesitant about this final book in Taylor’s ambitious, addictive trilogy. I adored the first book in this series so much that I went read everything else Taylor had written. However, I liked the second one far less and so worried about whether this third and final novel would redeem the series or resonate even less. While I have some reservations, I found plenty worthy of appreciation, both in the series’ overall arch and this final installment.

DREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS opens with a brand new character. She’s an interesting edition (significantly more so as the story progresses), but she’s not the reason I bought the book. The author did this in the second in the series, too - opening with secondary characters and plotlines when I cared more about addressing major cliffhangers right away. We return to everyone and everything eventually, but patience is a must for this one.

I found DAYS OF BLOOD AND STARLIGHT, the second book, a little too dark for my taste and, this latest one, DREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS a little too melodramatic. The very first chapter begins with high stakes drama as supernatural creatures bring their war into the human world. From there, these pages overflow with self-pitying “woe is I” sentiment and an everyone’s-hurting-inside theme. (To be fair, the self-pity is entirely justifiable, merely draining when all condensed together.) I even found the writing I adored so much in the first book too indulgently unrestrained now. (A lot of lines would be more affecting if they took the “less is more” adage into account.) Additionally, there’s an abundance of wildly theatrical lines foreshadowing more tragedy in upcoming chapters. I will admit, though, that sometimes the author saved scenes from sensational melodrama with heartfelt sincerity. Some emotional scenes simply struck me as far too viscerally real to belittle them for said emotion.

My main concern for this final book regarded the romance. Taylor handles that far better than I feared, but still didn’t persuade me entirely. In the first book, I felt gloriously floored by this haunting tragedy of lovers ripped apart and one turned numb and cruel by his loss. Spoiler alert if you haven’t read the first book. What Akiva did - blaming an entire race for his love’s death and working towards their complete extinction in revenge - is genocide. I didn’t resent the first book for this violence; I found it painfully heartbreaking but a stronger story for being such. However, to me the second book then elevated Akiva’s actions - as though he wouldn’t have murdered so many hundreds (thousands?) of beings if not for how much he loved Madrigal and how much her death destroyed him. In other words, I felt the series romanticizes genocide. When Akiva discovers Madrigal resurrected as Karou and must come to terms with what he has done, I found it all immensely grim and affecting, but I wasn’t rooting for them to reunite. Honestly, I hoped she would find a new love interest. And book two seemed to set the stage for a reunion in book three. I will say, though, that DREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS does a superb job of emphasizing the utterly vital role forgiveness plays in any kind of lasting peace. However, there’s a difference between forgiving (letting go of anger towards) someone who killed countless of your kin...and dating him. Nevertheless, Taylor swayed me far more than I expected, not merely regarding the romance but about the magnitude of forgiveness, and I cherish books that can do that: really challenge your perceptions.

I love Ziri. Speaking of forgiveness, he embodies the concept. Life beats him around with a mind-boggling lack of mercy and yet he never lets this change him. Sure, he despairs, but he doesn’t turn bitter. He self-pities - a little - but he never so much as considers vengeance. I hesitate with this adjective, but he’s the epitome of a pure soul: all self sacrifice for the bigger picture with only brief wistful glances towards what he would have liked for himself.

The humor frustrated me at times. What worked so well for the first book turned forced in the second and flippant in the third. This is a dark book, a dark series. Trying to make such a horrific war funny or even cute only comes across as dismissive.

I have mixed feelings on the ending. Avoiding explicit spoilers,  the book feels like it cuts off before telling the rest of the story. If the author didn’t have a section at the end where she talks about the satisfaction of finishing the series for good, I would suspect it wasn’t actually finished. The end does provide closure for several main plot threads...but unleashes new ones in the last few chapters. I did admire all the extra complexity woven into an already elaborate story, but I didn’t like new conflicts being raised at the last moment, conflicts we’ll never see resolved.

All in all a solid finish to a bold, exceptional series that will stand out in my memory for years. I’m still eagerly watching for whatever Taylor publishes next.

Friday, July 10, 2015

A FEAST FOR CROWS


Review of A FEAST FOR CROWS by GEORGE R.R. MARTIN
(fourth in the A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series)

Same old, same old if you’ve read earlier books in this series - but if you loved them that’s not a bad thing. Betrayal, murder, rape, and on it goes. We meet new characters and lose even more, but the elements nevertheless start feeling very familiar. I kept a metal list of who I thought might die next - kind of an irresistible game with a book like this (and I couldn’t accurately predict anything; I have to give the author that).

I will mention that most people I know who lost interest in this series did so during this book, often before finishing it. I suspect perhaps due to what I mentioned above about same old, same old. That feels an odd statement regarding a story so layered and complex, packed with an abundance of vibrant characters, and overflowing with turnabouts and twists. However, sometimes stories with such wide scopes can feel less focused compared to simpler stories that connect with fewer or even a single character’s experience. A story about humanity overall can easily feel much less universal than a story about a single individual. It’s emotions we connect with and that’s hard if we don’t spend enough time bonding with single characters. Martin introduces quite a few new viewpoints in this installment. (Well, perhaps he has to after killing off so many previous viewpoint characters!) I grew increasingly interested in each as I kept reading, but at first it frustrated me opening the novel with brand new people I don’t yet care about when there are so many already established ones with unresolved storylines. There’s even a note at the end of the book explaining that this novel grew too long, so rather than divide it in half the author focuses on certain characters in A FEAST FOR CROWS and will focus on others during the same time period in the next book, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS. So be prepared to learn hardly anything new about some of your favorite characters in this installment.

I’m very hopeful that magic will start playing a greater role in the story. I’m often more interested in the fantasy elements than the court intrigue and war politics, but the book’s weighted significantly more towards the latter. However, the series has been steadily building towards a magic revitalization that never really comes. The next book is tilted A DANCE WITH DRAGONS, so I’m crossing my fingers that magic - or at least dragons! - will play a significant part.

This is an animated series with dynamic characters and countless interlaced plot threads. I adore the varied cast, though often wish I could focus closely on fewer characters for a deeper connection and understanding. I also find that, while I enjoy the storyline, it’s frequently buried beneath extraneous detail, especially regarding the setting and day to day life. I occasionally catch myself more skimming than carefully reading if pages upon pages focus on the scenery, clothes, food, etc. more than moving the story forward.

That said, the ending is a brilliant setup for the next book and I can’t wait to start it. Dragons, ho!

Friday, July 3, 2015

PURE


Review of PURE by JULIANNA BAGGOTT
(review based on an advance reading copy)

PURE begins with a haunting opening and leads the reader through a sickly wondrous world of unlikely misfortune and all too likely betrayal. This book intrigued me when I first received an ARC before its publication, but despite all the amazing feedback I heard about it, the novel still somehow became one of those that kept finding itself bumped aside for others.

PURE takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where worldwide bombings wiped out a significant portion of the population while mutilating those who survived. Anyone who did survive became fused to whatever they happened to be holding, touching, standing on, etc. at the time of the explosions. Our heroine has a doll in place of her hand. Her grandfather has a small fan in his throat. Another boy has birds on his back. Others are forever joined with another person while some even bonded with sand or other parts of the earth. However, some lucky people escaped both the horror of dying and the horror of surviving. Before the detonations, an isolated dome was built and a lucky few were hustled to safety at the last minute. Themes of class step forward from the subtext once the book touches on who made it into the dome and who didn’t.

Not that it makes any difference to my review, but for those wanting a label I would call this book soft sci-fi. It’s doubtless speculative fiction, but one could argue between fantasy and science fiction. Any technological speculative fiction lends itself to sci-fi, but I always distinguish between what I call hard sci-fi (that delves into almost believable nuts and bolts behind how real science backs up the improbable fiction) and soft sci-fi (that uses science as the explanation without really elaborating any further). Humans being fused to objects or other living things sound more like science fiction than fantasy, but a lot of details aren’t explained scientifically, such as how you can’t cut yourself away from whatever you’re bonded to without dying. Regardless of the label, it’s a great book, but I only mention this because I know many avid science fiction readers who feel frustrated when they pick up a soft sci-fi book that uses the speculative fiction premise as a catalyst for the characters but then doesn’t elucidate how the science works.

I loved this book, because I loved the characters, and quickly, too. The story primarily focuses on Pressia, the girl with the doll for a hand scrambling to survive in the wild wreck of humanity left behind after the detonations, and Partridge, the privileged son of a high power family in the Dome who suspects even his ideal sheltered life hides dangerous secrets he can’t ignore. An interesting side note, though: I’ve primarily seen PURE shelved with adult speculative fiction even though it stars young adult characters. As I discussed in this old blog post, the label Young Adult is far more about marketing than any one defining feature of the story. I can’t easily tell any particular reason PURE makes for better adult fiction than Young Adult except that the publicists no doubt thought it would sell better that way.

My only criticism is that I usually couldn’t picture whatever the author described, be that an action scene or a grotesque creature. The writing still conveyed emotions and impressions easily, so I didn’t feel particularly deprived by not being able to visualize everything - but for whatever reason the writing didn’t convey images to my mind so much as the abstract or emotional gist.

PURE may have been lost in a sea of post-apocalyptic novels around the time of its publication, but the intricate worldbuilding and likable characters make what initially feels like a routine premise suddenly delightfully unique. I certainly won’t wait so long to pick up the next book in the series.