Wednesday, July 30, 2014

On the importance of good translations

I have been reading Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo for at least two months.  It is neither boring nor didactic, and I just wasn't sure why I couldn't get into it.  This is as chock-full-o'-revenge as you can get, really.  There's plots, counterplots, counter-counterplots, secret identities, banditti, murders, secret passageways, and betrayal! 

Finally, I came to realize that as I read, I was constantly noticing how poor the translation was.  It seemed very literal from the French, and not lively at all.  It was flat.  Being a cheapskate, I nipped over to Amazon and got a free copy for my Kindle (I am not getting into the Amazon/Hachette feud here) in French. 

I know this sounds like the most pretentious thing ever, but hear me out.  I actually feel as if I am reading this book the way Dumas meant it to be read.  It's like that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door of her house and everything bursts into color.  Music swells, the violins hold vibrato, annnnnd ... TA DA!

You certainly don't have to read a book in the original language in order to enjoy it.  I wouldn't have even been able to read the title of Anna Karenina or Crime and Punishment, much less get through the book, had not some awesome translators made it accessible for this non-Russian speaker.  By a rather odd chain of events, I happen to have focused on French rather than Spanish in school, like most of my peers.  This means that I have very little practical language ability here in the States, but I can read French novels ... in French.  Whoop-de-doo. 

Even had I not been able to read French, I'm pretty sure I would have noticed the awkwardness of this (nameless) translation.  You see, I feel victim to CLS (Cover Lust Syndrome), which is quite common among librarians and book bloggers.  This copy of The Count of Monte Cristo had an embossed leather cover, a ribbon bookmark (bonus for me because I lose or otherwise mangle my personal bookmarks), and gold-edged pages.  It was, in short, blingtastic.  Sometimes I would just pet the cover ever so gently to feel the soft swirls and whorls of the leather.  I have, however, learned my lesson.  If the translator isn't clearly named, I will not buy the book.  I will research the translator as I did with my Anna Karenina.  I paid more just to get the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, and it was so worth it. 

Now I am lingering with the Count, but for other reasons: I am enjoying Dumas writing so much that I'm moving just as slowly as before.  Yet, I hope, this time I read with more insight.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Gathering of ZZZZ's

My competitive nature draws me to book lists.  I challenge myself to read as many of the listed books as possible.  I even keep a list on my computer of the 1001 books to read before you die (as decided by some dude, who wrote a book about it), because even if I don't read them all (and I won't, because I've tried some of them and hated them with a hatred that was more than hate), I still get good ideas for more obscure books, especially when it comes to pre-19th century literature.  That's how I found Moll Flanders, for example, which is about ten thousand times more interesting than Robinson Crusoe.  I actually think Defoe wrote women better than he wrote men.  But I digress.

As you might imagine, I love the website  There's one on there for all of the Newbery Award Winners.  I can't remember whether I've expressed my opinion on book awards before, but it is that these awards, while mildly useful in locating well-written literature, approach the scope of books published from a very limited viewpoint.  Basically, it's a committee of a few people deciding what the "best" children's book written that year was.  I tend to generally disagree with these choices, especially when the winner has an obvious agenda that the committee can hold up and say, "See!  We picked a book that talks about racism!  We picked a book that talks about abuse!"  While those are certainly worthwhile and important topics, sometimes the writing or characterization in that particular title is seriously lacking, thus making me wonder whether it was the issue that won the award, not the book.

And now, of course, we have the giant misstep made by ALA in their rules for being on an awards committee.  You can read Roger Sutton's take on it here and the awesome Kelly Jensen's discussion here.  I won't go into it too much because they've expressed my point of view much more eloquently than I ever could.

All of this rambling comes down to this: I generally do not enjoy the Newbery Award winners, and often I question why, in fact, they were chosen as winners.  However, I also believe that as a librarian, I should be professionally aware of these books and make them available to young patrons without bringing in my personal bias.  Therefore, Friday, I snagged our copy of A Gathering of Days because it was short and it was in journal format, which I really like for kids literature.

Whenever I read a book that chronicles life in the 1800s, I can't help but compare it to Laura Ingalls Wilder's books.  I grew up reading those books and they'll forever shape how I view accounts of farm and prairie life in the 1800s.  While Laura Ingalls Wilder's books contained lush, detailed descriptions (especially of food!  Oh, the food scenes!), Joan Blos' A Gathering of Days is Spartan and, well, dull.

I am struggling to comprehend how this is held up as one of the best of children's books.  I don't see any kid appeal in this volume.  If you are an insomniac, you should read this book. 

A Gathering of Days consists of short diary entries written by a Catherine, a girl living in rural New England.  She's happy with her father and younger sister Matt (Matilda), being the woman of the house since her mother and baby brother died four years ago.  There are some vague story arcs, all of which are revealed in the jacket blurb.  So, if you read the summary, you pretty much know everything that happens in the book.  The first mini-plot involves the theft of Cath's school workbook.  It's later returned with a poorly spelled note in it that says something like, "Pleez Miss Am Cold" or whatever.  Cath and her friends, who are utterly forgettable and named Asa and Cassie (brother and sister), leave one of Cath's mother's bridal quilts out in the woods.  They assume that the writer of the note was either a runaway slave or an escaped indentured servant.  Then there are various exceedingly-thinly-veiled discussions of how everyone is human and deserves rights and to be free and so forth.  This is evidently intended to show the reader a) how progressive Cath is and b) that slavery is wrong.  Okay, maybe if you were a kid in the seventies whose parents supported segregation, I could see how this might Teach You A Lesson.  Maybe. 

The second mini-plot involves Cath's father remarrying a woman named Ann.  Cath is very happy for her father and then inexplicably resents her stepmother as soon as she arrives. She won't even refer to her by name--not even in the diary--and only uses "her" and "she," which, when there are multiple females involved in Cath's narrative, is excessively confusing. 

The third part involves the death of Cath's friend Cassie, which is not a spoiler at all because it says so right in the summary.  Also on the first page of the book.  It's the least dramatic death I've ever read.  For all Cath's insistence that Cassie is her best friend, the instance of her death is pretty much like, "Cassie died this morning.  I am sad." 

I was also under the impression that Cath liked Cassie's brother Asa, but she helps him give a lock of his hair to another friend named Sophie, and doesn't really mind that he likes Sophie.  I am so confused!

I wonder if the author was trying to evoke some sort of "Puritanical restraint" with the entries in this book.  Yet, Cath's writing is so bland that it's robotic.  Even if you're taught to be stoic, you still have feelings. 

Since I didn't learn anything from this foray into past Newbery winners, I am currently reading the very first Newbery Winner ever: The Story of Mankind.  It is by turns hilarious, bizarre, and ridiculous.  At least it is not boring.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Walled City

The downside of receiving ARCs as a librarian is that when I find a book so good that I want to hand it to every teen I meet, I can't.  It's not published yet.  I am physically prevented from giving someone an awesome book.  For a librarian, that's a horrible form of torture.  After breathlessly devouring We Were Liars by E. Lockhart as snow fell past my window earlier this year, I didn't think I could make it to May, the official release date of the book.  I wanted to talk it up and I wanted to talk it up RIGHT THIS SECOND.  I did what I could, but I still wanted to be able to hand the book to someone and say, "Read this.  Now."  That's how I feel about one of this fall's releases: The Walled City by Ryan Graudin.  We Were Liars, but I am so impressed by the solidity of the narrative and Graudin's refusal to rely on the now-standard YA tropes of dystopia, special-snowflake syndrome, or the dreaded love triangle.

I read a horrid blurb of this that described it as Divergent meets Memoirs of a Geisha.  This book is absolutely nothing like Divergent and has pretty much nothing to do with Memoirs of a Geisha either, considering that Graudin's inspiration was Hong Kong's Kowloon Walled City, and Memoirs of a Geisha is set in Japan.  I really hate it when blurbers think that Asia is a homogeneously populated country, rather than a very large continent bursting with very different cultures.

In fact, Graudin's book is so good that no one needs to compare it to anything.  After a bombardment of dystopias, sci-fi romances, fantasy sci-fi romances, angels, witches, vampires, more witches,
and altered humans books (this encompasses but is not limited to androids, cyborgs, GMH (genetically modified humans) and zombies) ... it is such a relief to read a book with a story that is real and terrifying because it probably happened many times in Kowloon, and it is still happening all over the world.

The Walled City is not a fantasy.  The titular Walled City has nothing to do with a post-apocalyptic Earth or aliens or anything like that.  It's an old fort to which the neighboring thriving city sent its poor, its undesirables, and its criminals.  The buildings crawl helter-skelter toward the sky, letting little sunlight reach the actual ground inside the city.  There are alleyways too small to fit a human being, but large enough to act as a freeway for the massive rats that lurk in the city.  The greatest and most dangerous rats are the members of the crime syndicate that controls the Walled City, lead by Longwai.  Longwai has his hands in everything that is rotten, disgusting, and inhuman, including sex trafficking.  He runs a brothel that sells the bodies of girls who themselves have been sold by their families in exchange for a few coins.

A few years ago, Jin's alcoholic father sold her lovely older sister, Min Yee, into prostitution within the Walled City.  Jin Ling, always the more energetic and daring of the two sisters, hacks off her hair, dresses as a boy, and acts as a message runner in the Walled City while trying to find and rescue her sister.  Along the way, she acquires a cat named Chma (because he sneezes a lot and makes a "Chma!" noise when sneezing), a tarp under which to sleep, and, most recently, a set of nice boots from the leader of a local teen gang.  This puts Jin in grave danger.

Meanwhile, Dai, a rich boy from the outer city, counts down the days until his exile in the Walled City is over.  In order to execute his escape, he must gather information on the aforementioned Longwai to pass to a government agent.  To do this, he needs to insinuate himself into Longwai's organization, so he offers to act as hostage while a runner delivers messages and drugs for Longwai.  The best runner in the city is, of course, Jin Ling, who has no idea that her sister is in the very same building where she goes with Dai to receive her first assignment.

Jin doesn't trust anyone, Dai hates most everyone, but they have to work together (however uneasily) for both of them to get what they want.  Min Yee provides her services exclusively to a government official who is obsessed with her.  He wants to take her away from the brother and ensconce her in another cage--a prettier one in the city, but a cage nonetheless.  However, one day, while Dai reconnoiters, he meets Min Yee and recruits her as a spy within the brothel.  For Min Yee, this is the first boy she's met who hasn't treated her with contempt or solely as a sex object.  Does she take up the official on his offer, or does she trust this young boy who's stolen her heart and promised to free her?

This is a breathtakingly relentless novel of double-crosses, young love (which I didn't hate!), survival, and class differences, rendered even more poignant by the knowledge that people are still sold as sex slaves, that people are still jammed in slums where filth is normal and death inescapable.  It's a sobering narrative, but not once does Graudin turn it into something maudlin or politicized.  It is what it is.

Much like We Were Liars, I can't fully articulate or pinpoint what it is that made this so good.  Perhaps it's the matter-of-factness of the whole thing.  Perhaps it's that it is grounded in fact.  The characters of Jin, Dai, and Min Yee are all well-rounded and real.  I could envision these people and I understood their motivations.

I only noticed one tiny misstep, and it was about language.  I can't give the exact quote because it would be a huge spoiler, but one of the narrators compares a name and a word and says that they sound the same.  They sound the same in English, but not in Cantonese.

Minus that tiny, tiny thing, this is an exceedingly well-written book that would make an excellent companion to Patricia McCormick's Sold.

Two thumbs way, way up!

I received an ARC of this title from NetGalley.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Find love, find death, find life ... In the Shadows.

Forgive me, Melvil Dewey, for I have sinned: I have not seen any of Jim Di Bartolo's magnificent art until I picked up In the Shadows, a book which he co-authored with Kiersten White.  It's heartbreakingly beautiful and creepy all in one fell swoop.  I'm no art critic, but when a picture makes you feel hurt or lonely or terrified ... that's art.  It's not just paint on paper, but a living creature that crawls into your soul and makes a little burrow there.  My own soul is a little honeycomb.  Nooks and crannies safeguard works of art--written, visual, and auditory--that have touched me, but I always have room for more.

Lately, I have been despairing over the state of some young adult literature.  I tire of the special snowflake heroines, the brooding heroes, the patently evil governments, and the body objectification. However, when I was ordering books for the library, I found one that had rather a plain title: In the Shadows, but it was a hybrid wordless graphic novel/written story.  Intrigued, I later checked it out when it arrived on our shelves, heavy with rich, shiny paper.

Ms. White and Mr. Di Bartolo, you have restored my faith in the brilliance, originality, and daring of young adult literature.

In the Shadows has a dual narrative: one that is completely wordless, done in brilliant illustrations by Di Bartolo, that spans a length of time.  It is mysterious at the beginning, but not so obtuse that you give up--no.  You want to know more.  Who are these people?  Who is this young man?  It perfectly balances White's short chapters, which are like little tidbits of Gothic mystery that force you to keep turning the pages.

Before this, I'd not read anything by Kiersten White, but I am definitely more likely to do so now.  There are five main characters: Charles, a young man dying of (I think) tuberculosis), his devoted brother Thom, a mysterious young man named Arthur, and sisters Cora (the worried and sensible one) and Minnie (the brave, spunky, kiss-the-boys-and-make-them cry one).  One day, Arthur arrives at Minnie and Cora's house with nowhere else to go.  He carries with him a suitcase that is his fate, his destiny, and possibly his undoing.  Minnie and Cora's mother takes him in, and the girls accept Arthur as a brother, although Minnie feels something more.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Charles and Thom's rich, bullish, swagger-filled father is brought to his knees by a mysterious woman.  He sends Thom and Charles off to America so that Charles may benefit from the sea air--but in reality, he wants them hidden away.  The five young people form a friendship that is cemented by threats from a mysterious group called the Ladon Vitae.

The teens' exploits felt authentic, and their relationships were complicated but never angst-ridden.  What I liked most about the written narrative is that it doesn't give much away.  The reader has to fill in the gaps using the illustrations and her own imagination.

This book also contained romances that didn't make me want to vomit.  They were sweet and true.  There was none of that "I fell into his melted chocolate eyes" humbug.  And when you're finished with the story, go back over Di Bartolo's narrative again--it will take on a whole new meaning.

Most highly recommended.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Young Avengers Vol. 1: Style > Substance

Every so often, a book comes along and it's so deliciously brilliant that I simply cannot express my thoughts in a cohesive, thoughtful review.  Young Avengers by Kieran Gillen is one such book/series/comic/bundle of AWESOMESAUCE.

I got that same wild grin on my face as I had when I met John Green, or Mark Waid, or Gene Luen Yang.  It looks a little bit like I'm terrified because I AM SO HAPPY.  Unfortunately, I was making this face when I came out of the break room at work, so...

With the exception of the execrable Avengers Arena, I'm quite liking the Marvel NOW! (NOW GOSHDANGIT!) titles.  Young Avengers has the same lightness and humor that Hawkeye does, only perhaps even more so.

Naturally, Kid Loki is my favorite.  Yes, because Tom Hiddleston.  Tom Hiddleston is a good excuse for a lot of things, let me tell you.  Kid Loki's voice is pitch-perfect: the privileged godling meets trickster god meets teenager meets snark factory.  He's utterly hilarious and perfectly devious.  I haven't read any of the other Young Avengers incarnations, but Gillen does a good job of bringing new readers up to speed on most things, including Loki's morality crisis.

Meanwhile, Kate Bishop (Hawkeye) is involved in an amorous fling with Noh-Varr, an alien infused with insectile abilities.  I mean, wouldn't you follow a dude who comes in with lasers blasting and then says, "Follow me if you want to be awesome."  !!! DFTBA, Young Avengers!  Plus, he decides to stay on with the group because Kate promised "to explain the Earth custom known as "hot make out.""  *dead*

And unfortunately, Wiccan has used his I-can-make-anything-happen magical powers to bring back Hulkling's mom from the dead ... except it's not really his mom.  It's like if Play-Doh took over your parents.  Yeah, it may seem good at first, but a) Play-Doh smells vile and b) when your parents become murderous Play-Doh drones, things aren't so great.

We don't know much about Miss America other than she kicks serious butt.  Of which I highly approve.  And now, to end, some choice Kid Loki quotes:

Kid Loki: "And in passing, as a pagan deity, I must say that is a terrible name.  Are you even a Wiccan?"

Wiccan: "What should I do?"

Loki: "Well, I've got a list of suggestions for alternate pseudonyms you could peruse--"

Wiccan: "Not about that!"

Later, Loki orders his food in the diner in a very Thor-like manner, flinging up his hand and bellowing, "Bacon engulfed in a floury roll!  With the ketchup condiment!"


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Quiet sobs of desperation over the state of YA fantasy

Snow Like Ashes (Snow Like Ashes, #1)Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch

Oh my.  Oh dear.  You know things are not going well when you are 1% of the way into your ARC and the protagonist is already talking about how hot yet unattainable her sparring partner/king (yes, you read that correctly) is.  ONE PERCENT.

Look.  If you like a lot of angsty romance and inner turmoil, you'll probably like this.  I made it a whopping 5% of the way through before I threw up my hands and said, "Enough!"  In case you don't know how I feel about sappy romance:

Bill Cosby no

That's not to say I don't mind a romantic book or romantic themes.  My favorite book of all time is Pride and Prejudice, and I just finished another YA book with a very nicely done romance in it.  But the whole tee-hee-he-touched-me-I-am-all-blushy-tee-hee thing just makes me want to smack people.

I also really enjoy fantasy.  High fantasy.  I thought I'd be a perfect match for this book.  However, instead of introducing this world gradually, it falls on you like a heap of snow from a rooftop (Wisconsin girl here).  The main character, Meira, is an orphan and one of eight survivors of her kingdom, Winter.  Yes.  Somehow, when Spring Kingdom invaded, only fifteen people managed to escape and only eight of them are left.  The rest of the citizens are either dead or slaves.  THANKFULLY, the escapees include the heir to the throne, Mather (like Cotton Mather).  UNFORTUNATELY, Winter is one of the kingdoms whose male heirs do not have magical powers.

Say what?

Here's some infodumping for you: "The world may seem balanced--four kingdoms of eternal seasons, four kingdoms that cycle through all seasons; four kingdoms with female-blooded conduits, four with male blooded."  I'm sorry, that doesn't at all sound "balanced" to me.  It sounds insane.  Also, I don't think that "female-blooded" and "male-blooded" make linguistic sense.  We talk about warm-blooded and cold-blooded because it describes body temperature, not gender.  Just plain "female" and "male" would have worked just fine.  Nitpicky but necessary.  What's up with the kingdoms and conduits and such?  Glad you asked!  
"Somewhere beneath the Season Kingdoms lies a giant, pulsing ball of magic; and somewhere in our Klaryn Mountains there was once an entrance to it.  Only the four Season Kingdoms' lands are affected by the chasm--in the extremity and consistency of their environments--but every king and quean in Primoria, Rhythm, and Season, possesses a portion of that magic in their conduits and can use it to help their kingdoms.  The four Rhythm Kingdoms hate us for the fact that this is all we have, magic in objects like a dagger, a necklace, a ring.  They hate us for letting the entrance get lost to age and avalanches and memory, for living directly atop the magic and not tearing our kingdoms apart to dig down to it."

I am going to attempt to parse that.  So, somewhere on this planet? continent? landmass? there is a blob of magic.  Since, you know, magic coagulates into "pulsing" blobs and all that.  It makes some areas of the land stay certain seasons all the time and other areas rotate through the seasons.  This seams rather reasonable to me.  Coming from the land of cheese, construction, bratwurst, and snow, I'd be quite happy to have real rotating seasons.  Or even to live in eternal spring or summer.  But nooooo.  Evidently these people are real whiners and can't be happy with what they've got so they start rampaging around conquering other kingdoms.

Each ruler of the magical-ish kingdoms has a "conduit"--Winter's was a locket--that let the ruler control the magic.  This is an exceedingly Bad Idea.  Anyone can just steal it or destroy it--that's what happened to Winter!

The "Rhythm" kingdoms (4 seasons) are angry that the other kingdoms didn't strip the land of its magic in order to ... do what exactly?  I DON'T KNOW.

And Meira wants to fight for her kingdom, except she really rots in hand-to-hand combat.  So Sir (that is his name, kinda) orders the crown prince to train her.  Hm.  If you were a ragtag band of survivors trying to retake your kingdom and get your prince on the throne, would you really have him spending time teaching an orphan girl how to parry a sword blow?  Really?  There is so much facepalming caused by this that I may be bruised tomorrow.

Other reviewers have said, "This is better than Throne of Glass!" which I also strongly disliked (polite terms) because the Super Assassin of that book, Celaena Sardothien, didn't do anything.  The reader was just repeatedly told, "She's the best assassin ever!"  i have a feeling Meira will end up being that character.

Now, you can rant and rave and white knight all you want because I didn't get past 5% on this.  That's fine.  Go right ahead.  But if I can find that many problems in just three chapters of a book, it is not happening.  Ever.

I received an ARC of this title from Edelweiss.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Science. Bad. The Manhattan Projects.

It's yet another case of how-did-I-get-started-reading-this-itis (and I honestly cannot blame this one on my Goodreads buddies): The Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra.  I just finished volume four, and it's been a while since I read volume three, so I only vaguely remembered the details of everything, but ... this was was back in form (I didn't like three very much) with its signature gory style and twisted humor.  

This is not your mother's Manhattan Project.  This is an alternate, infinitely crazier version of the confluence of geniuses from whence sprang the atomic bomb.  In this America, Feynman plays straight man (in comedic terms, you dirty-minded people!) to the wild antics of Einstein, Oppenheimer, Von Braun, and their über-muscular General Leslie Groves.  These are not the scientists you think you know--ohhhh no.  

Oppenheimer?  "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds"-Bhagavad-Gita-quoter?  Actually, this isn't Robert Oppenheimer, it's his twin brother Joseph Oppenheimer.  With a meaty twist on the split personality concept, good brother Robert mounts a war inside bad brother Joseph's brain, but Joseph is passing for good boy Robert, with no one the wiser.  He's a thoroughly messed up dude, and let's leave it at that.

Wernher Von Braun is missing most of his limbs and uses robotics to move around.

Albert Einstein zips into an alternate dimension and trades places with his multiverse version Albrecht Einstein, a rather nasty chap who lacks any moral compass.  Zip.  Nada.  Zilch.

Harry Daghlian, who actually did accidentally irradiate himself in our history, does not die of his accident, but instead dons a special radiation suit.  In the comics he looks something like this:

which is pretty awesome.

There's also a brain in a jar but I cannot for the life of me remember who that is--a little help, anyone?

Toss in a supercomputer loaded with FDR's personality, the Illuminati, and a Freemason Harry S Truman who engages in orgies at the White House, and you've got a smidgen of the crazy awesomeness of The Manhattan Projects.

In volume four, Joseph Oppenheimer has led a coup along with General Westmoreland, who generally dresses and acts like Rambo-meets-Colonel Kurtz, and wears the ears of his enemies around his neck.  The rest of the scientists are imprisoned at Los Alamos, and Westy is interrogating them in exceedingly painful ways.  Thankfully, or unthankfully, depending on how you look at it, a giant blue alien with four brains escapes, thus allowing the scientists to escape.

Did I mention that this alien talks like a dudebro, man, and just wants everyone to chill?  It's a pretty hilarious mashup.  In the ensuing mayhem, look for a cameo by Nick Pitarra standing next to (I think) Frederick Terman.  

This volume is so much better than volume two, They Rule, where I seriously thought about abandoning the series.  Although there's still a lot of crazy stuff going on here, the humor has returned, and that's honestly the best part about this series.

That, and the naked Harry S Truman parading around the Oval Office in full secret society regalia.  And evil Albert Einstein.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Atlantis Gene

Pure mental candy.  Tasty, tasty candy.

It's no secret that I'm a sucker for end-of-the-world-conspiracy-theory-thrillers, bonus if there is a super-secret governmental SpecOps team involved.  They're just fun reading, and heaven knows I need fun reads in between my Serious Reads and my Facepalm Reads.

I was actually looking for a different book to borrow with my Amazon Prime Kindle Lending Library whatever-it's-called membership (oh, to quickly address the question "Is Amazon's new subscription service going to replace libraries?" the answer is "No."), but I found this and it seemed fun AND it was in a series, so I started it on the plane ride back from vacation.

Fun stuff.  There's a super-secret organization (YES!) that secretly controls and manipulates the world's spycraft.  David is a member of this organization, and one day he finds out that they've been compromised by an even more super-secret organization of Evil People With No Morals.  As their safe house in Jakarta is compromised, David and his fellow workers race to decode messages intended to save the world.

Meanwhile, medical researcher Kate is drawing closer to finding a successful treatment for autism.  After a tragedy that almost destroyed her life in the States, she flew far, far away to work on something that would better mankind.  Noble stuff, although I do take exception to the concept of "curing autism."  Autism cannot be defined as symptoms X, Y, and Z.  That's why it's called the spectrum.  When the super-super-secret bad guys attack her compound and kidnap two of her study subjects--two kids!--she is determined to get those kids back.

The fun of reading a book like this is you pretty much know how the story will go, but it's always interesting to see how the author develops the twists and turns, what kind of villain we'll have, and so forth.  It's not about originality, it's about entertainment and execution.  And on those fronts, The Atlantis Gene succeeds quite admirably.

As you may have guessed from the title, this does delve a bit into genetics, but what the Evil Guys are really doing is ... well, it's complicated.  Suffice it to say that this book involves Nazis, Antarctica, submarines, close escapes from death, baby daddies (not kidding), and transdimensional portals.  The portal bit at the end actually got a bit muddled for me--I wasn't quite sure who was where and fighting whom.

Riddle tosses quite a few winks at his predecessors (in a loving way, of course).  When Kate and David are hiding out from the Bad Guys, Kate wants to go with him to track down the kids.  He says, "This is not like the movies where the hero and girl go off on a grand adventure for the sake of plot convenience."  Zing!

I would recommend this for a fun, escapist read.

Monday, July 21, 2014

How Not to Write YA Horror

As I mentioned recently, I'm on the lookout for solid YA horror to hand to my kids, particularly when they've got gore on the brains in October.  So far, I've found very little that I can recommend wholeheartedly.

Perhaps part of the problem is that if teens really want gory, horrifying stuff, they'll probably just head over to adult or watch a movie.  I'm not saying that's a perfect solution, but it is a common situation.  Horror books featuring teens and written with a teen audience in mind are not very common.  I've read more adult-oriented books with teen or tween protagonists--one that comes to my mind is the most excellent Wink.  So-called teen scream books just aren't popular in the collective consciousness like they were when Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer made a splash in the late 90s.

I've been trying to request more galleys of YA horror in thehopes of finding something that I can happily recommend.  I may have to stick with just spooky, like the excellent Lockwood & Co. series by Jonathan Stroud, or Constable and Toop by Gareth Jones.  My latest foray into horror with the book Creed by Trisha Leaver and Lindsay Currie gave me high hopes at first, and then dashed them on the pointy rocks of  Unbelievably Over-the-Top Villainy.

Creed begins with three teens going to a concert.  Dee, her boyfriend Luke, and his brother Mike, are headed away for a secret weekend celebration of Dee and Luke's anniversary.  Dee's backstory is actually really interesting and felt promising: she was placed in foster care after her father was thrown in jail for abuse.  She doesn't trust men in general, but she's finally come to trust Luke.  Mike is there because ... Dee can't lie or some lame excuse like that.

Anyway, they take a shortcut (Bad Idea 1), stop for Twinkies (Bad Idea 2--those suckers don't disintegrate!), and forget to buy gas, which is not just a Bad Idea but also a whaaaat? situation.  It would have been more believable had they blown a tire or found out that someone had poured sand in their gas tank whilst buying Twinkies or something.  Anything other than "I forgot to buy gas."  Especially when Dee pipes in that her new family always makes her fill up the car after every trip.  This was so unbelievable that I may have groaned in pain.  That sets the theme for all of their subsequent decisions: stupidity.

Instead of hunkering down in the car (point: there's no heat / counterpoint: there are three of them and they can definitely generate heat, plus there's clothes in the trunk), they get out and start walking in a winter storm toward where they think a town might be.  Mike grabs a tire iron, which is probably the most sensible thing anyone does in this book.  As they walk through the abandoned town of Purity Springs, the only sound is the emergency siren.  The streets, homes, and shops are utterly deserted.  There's also a particularly effective creepy-graveyard-scene, which made me think, "Hey, maybe this would be okay.  I hope aliens show up."

Dangit.  No aliens.  After sleeping in one of the cookie-cutter houses on a cookie-cutter street, Dee wakes up to find that Luke has gone foraging in the night and found a fundamentalist discipline manual in every single house.  It advocates serious beatings and blood-letting to release evil and so on.  A boy named Joseph just sort of shows up and claims to a) want to escape because b) his father is evil and going to hurt his sister.  The Three Wise Men say, "Gee golly, let's go with this guy because we have no other choice!"

Yep, they leave the tire iron behind.

As it turns out, the town of Purity Springs is run by Joseph's father, who is flat-out insane and has somehow managed to a) convince an entire town to beat their children and wives to death in order to save their souls and b) not show up on any map or garner any attention from the authorities.  Literally no one in the outside world knows what's going on.  Of course he captures them and tortures them and blah blah blah.  That's where I quit--52% of the way in (or out).  The multitude of bad decisions made my brain hurt.

I *think* they were trying to go for a Stephen King vibe here, what with the isolated winter setting, the madman, and the depressing denouement.  However, King's works thrive on the meticulous crafting of the characters.  Here, the characters are flat and boring.  I didn't care about any of them.

So, if you want to write a YA horror novel, please don't:

Make your characters stupid
Make your characters boring
Use a cliché villain and blame it all on AHH RELIGIOUS FANATICISM! 
Let them forget the tire iron

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley and the publisher.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Rise of Aurora West

I read Battling Boy almost a year ago, so I admit that the world Pope created in that graphic novel is not as fresh in my mind as I'd like it to be. I do remember enjoying the comic, and now that I think really, really hard, yes, there were monsters in the first one. I think. The Rise of Aurora West is actually a prequel to Battling Boy.

I received an ARC of this from First Second, and it's not inked/colored, and I hope it will be. My main issue was that there was so much going on in each panel (my ARC was also a bit smaller than the full-size TP of Battling Boy) that it was sometimes difficult to follow the action. The monsters look a lot alike when rendered in black and white, but I think a jolt of color will resolve this nicely.

The best part of this book is the titular heroine. Aurora West is the daughter of Haggard West, Arcopolis' resident hero. He's actually a scientist superhero (think Tony Stark minus the playboy attitude plus Superman's jawline) who uses research and his own personal library to defeat monsters. Also a jetpack, but the emphasis is on brains and strategy. He's training his daughter Aurora to assist him in ridding Arcopolis of its monster menace, which just sort of showed up out of nowhere over a decade ago. The monsters aren't very smart. Actually, that's giving them too much credit--they're very dumb, which makes the complicated heists they've been pulling off quite puzzling.  Someone else has to be pulling the strings.

This story arc weaves around Aurora's personal quest to find out who exactly killed her mother. The more questions she asks, the more she realizes the answers may be hidden in her own subconscious, and heaven knows I love a good twisty-mind-bender. The ending finds Haggard and Aurora a bit closer to the truth, but they'll have to really fight for it in the days to come.

Pope does not over-sexualize Aurora. He makes her smart and inquisitive and brave and also pretty kick-butt in the fighting department. However, she's not perfect, which saves this from having a totally inaccessible heroine. Even her dad, Haggard, isn't always on the superb end of superhero-dom. 

I'm curious to see where this version of Earth (it's a version of Earth--maybe in a multiverse way?) and its superheroes and monsters goes next.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Robogenesis. So help me, I'll probably read the third one too.

My friends know that Robopocalypse and I did not get along.  We had a rocky relationship, one built on the misunderstanding that this was going to be an intelligent book about a robot apocalypse.  *Fun and unrelated fact: my coworker informed me that this is his favorite type of apocalypse.*  Anyway, not only did I dislike the writing of the book, but the characters--even the ones that were interesting--didn't have any sort of resolution or purpose, and some of them disappeared mid-book.  Then there was the ending.  My, my.  I sincerely believe that Wilson wrote Robogenesis solely because he finally realized how utterly ridiculous the ending to Robopocalypse was.

From here on out, there be massive spoilers to both books, so if you dare to follow me into the binary simulacrum of a heart of these books, meet me after the jump.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Female body objectification by a female author, or, Why I Did Not Like "Welcome to the Dark House"

Let us begin with a simple statement: I like scary books.  I also like scary movies and TV shows--but not the tacky, gory kind.  More like the mind-bending X-Files kind.  Also, I mean, Fox Mulder, but I digress.

If a scary book has well-drawn characters and palpable suspense, it kind of doesn't matter how goofy the nominal premise of the horror is.  I mean, if you say, "Hey, I just read a book about an evil hotel!" it sounds a bit silly.  But, if you reframe that as, "I just read a book about an alcoholic father's descent into madness and ultimate redemption triggered by an evil hotel," that sounds a bit better.  That's The Shining, by the way.

Unfortunately, the teen horror of which I've received ARCs lately has very little to recommend it.  I thought Laurie Faria Stolarz's Welcome to the Dark House would be different.  Naturally, I was wrong.

It's not even so much the actual horror part that put me off--that had the potential of being cheesy yet readable.  The premise is that a character/web personality called "The Nightmare Elf" sets up an essay contest for teens.  Winners will spend a weekend, all expenses paid, at a retreat themed around the works of a famous horror movie director, and they will also get to see a sneak peek of his new project.  

The first character we meet, Ivy, is the most realistic of all the teens.  She's haunted by recurring nightmares triggered by a tragedy in her past: a serial killer broke into her home, killed her parents, and was about to kill her when the cops arrive.  In her dreams, however, the killer succeeds in stabbing her as well.  She's haunted by this, and even a crazy-yet-fun family life with some neo-hippies can't exorcise these demons.  So, she writes her story down and sends it to the Nightmare Elf with a strange, desperate hope that he'll make the nightmares go away.

This is where I say something utterly cliché, like, "But the nightmare has just begun."

Now that that's out of my system, here's what goes wrong: pretty much everything else.  There are seven teens who win the contest and go to this house in the middle of nowhere, Minnesota.  The story is narrated by six of them.  Even barring the poor formatting of my e-ARC, I could not tell the difference between any of the characters' voices.  Not a one.  To say it was confusing is to be polite.

My main beef, however, comes from the strange descriptions of the girls in this book.  I think the author was trying to establish that the guy characters are creepazoids, but there is repeated body objectification and visual undressing.  Here are just a few samples:

"I could see her reflection in the widow glass. Her dark blond hair was pulled back from her face, accentuating her wide green eyes, her pinched nose, and her perfectly pouted lips.  Perfectly balanced features."  Beauty isn't everything, except for when it is.

Another girl has "angular cheeks, a pinched nose, a high forehead, and a perfectly pointed chin.  Plus, her lips look naturally full."  Evidently a "pinched nose" is attractive?

Ivy "sits down on Taylor's bed and the vee of her dress opens ever so slightly, exposing three solid inches of plump ivory skin."  Did I fall into a bodice-ripper?

"I put my mental video camera away, zeroing in on the silhouette of her body beneath the thin cotton sundress--her curvy hips, her narrow wist, and the soft mounds of her chest.  It's almost too much to handle, and I don't quite know where to look."  

Why would you write this?  Why would you do this over and over and over again and never point out how utterly wrong and disgusting it is?  By writing this, you tell boys that it's normal to look at girls as solely sexual objects and not as, you know, other people.

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.  All quotes are from the uncorrected proof and are subject to change.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Gretel and the Dark

It's a curious feeling when a book grows on you.  Not literally, obviously.  That would be downright out of this world and you better bet I'd be callin' Ghostbusters!

I mean that strange kind of peace that you find after you struggle against a narrative, initially.  It doesn't matter why--any reason will do, or no reason at all.  It's not what you thought it would be, you don't like the narration style, you think it's overdone (I like my hamburgers medium, thanks), or you just don't think it's "your thing."  But something tells you to keep reading.  Keep trying.

The more I read, and the more I read because of my job, the less guilt I feel about not finishing a book.  My time is limited, and it is precious.  At the beginning, I wanted to quit Gretel and the Dark.  It didn't deal as much in fairy tales as I had hoped, and the self-indulgent whimperings of a sexually-frustrated psychologist in fin-de-siècle Vienna didn't exactly scream "Read me!"

Maybe it was the utterly gorgeous writing of Granville that won me over.  She manipulates words like a master, and her characters are fully realized.  Before I realized what had happened, I was deep within the story, hungrily eating it up, and wondering exactly how the two narratives fit together.  I won't spoil that for you.  You get to find that out on your own, and delight in it.

I cannot say that Gretel and the Dark is a story about X.  It's a story of many things, of many layers.  This would be an excellent companion to The Book Thief--not just because of the setting, but because of its unusual way of exploring World War II.

The aforementioned psychiatrist, Josef Breuer (ha!  It's not Freud!) treats a young woman who was found naked and senseless.  She is exceedingly pretty, but she looks strange--definitely not a woman of fashionable Viennese society.  Her blond curls are cropped, and she has numbers inked into the skin of her arm.  She claims to be an automaton, with no human feelings, no family, no past, and no future.  She gives no name, so Breuer names her Lilie.  He's obsessed with her and wants her as a lover, but at the same time, Breuer is ashamed of his age and his desires.  Seeing Lilie gradually open up to his assistant, Benjamin, tortures him.

The narrative begins to alternate with that of Krysta, an exceedingly spoiled young girl who's recently moved with her father to a new house next to a zoo ... or so the adults tell her.  Krysta must be read to be believed--her temper is a rare thing.  She torments her nursemaids, rules her father, and eventually sneaks in to see the animal people living in the zoo.  The ones her father treats.  The ones with shaved heads and tattoos.  The rabbits of Sachsenhausen.

In Sachsenhausen lives a boy named Daniel.  Krysta first encounters him while he eats worms.  Being the nasty little brat she is, she torments him for it, and mocks him for not eating real food.  Little Princess is so oblivious that she can't see starvation under her very nose.  Just like the traditional fairy tales that her old nursemaid used to tell her, however, Krysta's path becomes very dark indeed.

I have to stop here, for to continue would be to unravel for you what you must find on your own.  It's a narrative trail of breadcrumbs (yes, of course I had to go there) that will lead you to a stunning conclusion.  Gretel and the Dark is very close to modern literary perfection.

Bonus: My weak German got a boost from all of the phrases sprinkled liberally throughout the book, which made me feel smarter than I actually am.

I received an ARC of this title, on which this review is based.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Rachel Rising Vol. 1: The Shadow of Death

Following your train of thought is a fascinating process.  It's amazing how the brain jumps from point A to B and then suddenly, unconsciously, you're at point K.  Yet, you can trace back each tendril of thought, each neurological connection, all the way back to point A.  Brains are fun that way.

I go through much the same process when I choose a book to read.  Sometime, either in the near or distant past, I decided that a title seemed interesting.  More often, I am influenced by my peers and by book reviewers and bloggers that I admire.  So-called professional accolades lay untasted and ignored.  It may have been several hops through Goodreads, or blog posts, or across blogs, for me to have discovered a title, or it could be something as simple as liking the title.

To be honest, I can't trace back the exact process that led me to place Terry Moore's Rachel Rising on my TBR, but I'm pretty sure it came on the recommendation of another blogger.  Overall, I enjoyed the first volume, and will read on, but I do have a few quibbles.

The edition I had was black and white--it seems some people here had a colored version--but black and white completely suits the macabre theme of the comic.  In the opening panels, a hand bursts out of the ground--the hand of a young woman.  No, she wasn't buried alive--she was quite dead when she was buried.  Now, she's not quite dead, but she's not quite alive either.
Rachel doesn't remember dying, but she can see the bruises around her neck, the petechiae in her eye--and of course, there was the whole grave business.  Someone definitely killed her, and she's going to find out who it was.

While Rachel tries to convince her Aunt Johnny, the coroner, and her best friend Jet that she is not, in fact, dead yet (again?  completely?) a mysterious woman appears and compels a young girl named Zoe to kill.  Enter creepy child stage left.  You can't do a horror comic without a creepy child, can you?  Well, ta-da!  One creepy child, fresh.  

Honestly, there's not a lot of action in this first volume, but that's okay with me.  Moore takes his time setting up the characters and letting us get to know them.  Unfortunately, sometimes the art interferes with the character development.  I had difficulty distinguishing the Bad Lady from Rachel (both are blond, white, and pretty), which made for some confusing panels.  I was also seriously confused about Aunt Johnny.  I totally understood, intellectually, that Johnny was biologically female.  Yet, the way she was drawn ... she totally looked like a man.  Not just like a masculine woman, like a man.  Only in later panels was it easier to distinguish breasts on her figure.  I understand that Moore is being diverse in his characters, but diversity should not be obtuse.

It's also refreshing that Rachel is not a vampire, a ghost, a banshee, a werewolf, or any of the other creatures du jour.  She's just dead-not-dead--she could belong in an episode of The X-Files.  This was a solid start to the series, and I'm curious to see what Rachel and Jet do next.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Glory: The Complete Saga Is Not So Glorious.

In fact, it's kind of ... bad.

I haven't been having too much luck with ARCs of graphic novels/comics on Netgalley lately.  Maybe I should stick to my FirstSecond review copies for a while...

I didn't get into comics until pretty recently, so I know very little of comics history or reboots or things like that.  Rob Liefeld, who helped found Image Comics, created the character in the 90s.  I didn't read comics in the 90s.  I read Little House in the Big Woods and everything by Sharon Creech. Perhaps it was that general 90s-ness that put me off of comics for a long time.  I mean, back then, Glory looked like this:

It's a hair band meets Pamela Anderson meets severe failures in drawing human anatomy.  In the first panel, I thought that the rounded ... thing was not a shoulder but rather a buttock.  I'm glad it's a shoulder.  Evidently, the ideal super heroine in Liefeld's mind ran around saving the world with two bowling balls strapped to her chest, teetering along on unimaginably tiny feet.

This is the Glory of Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell's collaboration:

I mean, this is better.  Glory's got MUSCLES.  She's built like a tank.  This is someone I can see being a superhero.

I've been poking around the internet, and it seems that a lot of comics aficionados really like the new Glory.  I have to wonder if that's because the previous incarnation was so bad.  Because I didn't find much to love in the new saga, either.

Cue the dramatic narrator voice: In a world divided by war, two beings unite to create a child.  This brings peace to the realms ... but not for long...

So, Glory's dad is some sort of Underworld creature and her mom is a "goddess," whatever that means.  I don't quite grasp the concept of ending a war by procreating.  It's like they did it just because.  Then, Mom and Pop spend 500 years training Glory for Her Destiny.  I never quite got what that was, because when Glory goes to Earth, Mom and Pop are all, "We're clutching our superhuman pearls!  Don't go mess around with those silly humans!" and Glory's all, "Nyah nyah, loser parents, I'll do whatever I want."  While on Earth, she fights Nazis and attracts the attention of all of Earth's other superheroes who have really stupid names.  The Big Buff Guy who is like Superman on roids doesn't like Glory.  Wahhhh.

Modern day: a young girl named Riley Barnes dreams about Glory, who has now mysteriously disappeared from the world-saving scene.  She tracks her down to Mont-Saint-Michel.  Evidently this whole sequence occurs so that the authors can write "in French," which means, "I wrote some stuff and popped it into Google Translate, yo."  

Okay, I admit it: I am a language snob.  I don't always follow the rules myself, but that's because I'm not a professional writer.  I write for fun.  If you are publishing something, it behooves you to get yourself a copyeditor or something.  I always cringe a bit when I see that comics include different languages.  Now, sometimes they're done well.  Gene Luen Yang is a perfect example of this.  Whenever he incorporates hanzi into the narrative, it has a purpose.  

Characters don't necessarily say things horrifically badly, but they say them unnaturally.  Fabrice, the older Frenchman who Riley meets on the island, announces to the bar "J'ai trouve un americain."  First of all, the lettering leaves off all of the diacritics except for the ç.  The whole time.  This is problematic because gee, those marks aren't just for show or to drive French students crazy; they tell you a) how to pronounce a word and b) which word it is.  Secondly, Riley is clearly female, so she should be "une americaine."  The woman living at the bar who can help Riley, Gloria, replies "J'arrive tout de suite."  That's a perfectly fine construction, but I would have just said, "J'arrive!" because it already implies that you're hurrying.  Another "eek" moment comes when an older man asks his wife if she's seen his wallet, only what he actually says is "Chérie, aurais-tu vu mon portefeuille?" which translates to "Honey, would you have seen my wallet?"  This makes no sense--he's using a future conditional tense.  Also, there's no translation for people who don't speak French, and I would have preferred the two languages to have been written in different fonts or weights to distinguish between the two stylistically.  

Anyway, Riley starts having visions of her future with Glory and Gloria, and it's not a good future.  Glory is convinced that she must build an army to fight The Bad Guys.  Her reasoning is: "because I want to," and because Glory is big and has hair whose mass is larger than my car, all the other superheroes are like, "Okay."  Then she rips off a guy's hand and things are just a mess, both literally and figuratively.  

I don't quite understand Glory's ever-shifting appearance, either.  It may represent her fall from her original glory (ha ha ha PUNS!), or ... I don't know.  But she starts out looking like a titaness with white hair and ends up as a cross between a twi'lek, a frog, and a Transformer.

I really like several of the series that Image is publishing currently: East of West, Lazarus, Chew, and The Manhattan Projects.  Unfortunately, resurrecting Glory may have been a miss.  It was a big mess for me to wade through.

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things

When I was in seventh grade, we read Dicey's Song for school.  I'm not sure why we did the second book in the Homecoming trilogy, but as a student, 'twas not for me to question why.  Literally all I remember of that book is the beginning, where the kids are painting a barn, and Dicey takes off her top because she's really hot, and someone (her brother?  Her grandmother?) yells at her to cover up because her breasts are developing.

I swear that none of this was in a creepy way.  I just couldn't comprehend, as a seventh grader, running around with no top on.  Now that I'm a youth services librarian, I should probably read the whole trilogy, as I'd probably actually get something useful out of it, but even the small, strange sliver of Dicey's Song that I remember didn't stop me from requesting an ARC of Cynthia Voigt's newest book: Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things.

Yes.  I have had this ARC sitting on my Kindle for almost a year.  Eep.  Sorry.  But hey, I did read it (finally) and I am so glad that I did!

Max's parents are Actors.  Not actors, but Actors.  It's a vaguely Victorian Londonish setting, but Voigt leaves it rather vague, which I like.  One day, Max's father receives a Very Important Letter from the Maharajah of Kashmir, requesting his and his wife's presence in India to form a special troupe of actors for the Maharajah himself.  Being more of a larger-than-life dreamer than a pragmatist, Max's father immediately accepts the invitation.  For himself and his wife.  See, Max is forgotten a lot.  He helps out with his parents' theatre, but he's more of a realist.  He often feels left out of their loud, stage lit world.  Thankfully, Max pipes up and basically says, "What about me?"  Parental unit feels suitably abashed and amends their acceptance only if Max can come as well.  The Indian ruler promises a ticket for Max, and all is well.

The morning they are set to sail, Max heads off for his last painting lesson with Joachim.  Max loves watercolors, and he paints because he loves it.  Refreshingly, Max is no prodigy, just a hard worker who relives stress through painting.  As he zips back to the dock, he doesn't see the boat his parents were supposed to board.  After speaking to the harbormaster, he realizes that that boat never existed, and that his parents are in a Very Bad Situation.  Thankfully, his Gram lives just around the corner, and she's a kick-butt librarian.  Together, they work to track down Max's parents.

Only ... there's the trouble of money.  Just like today, librarians don't make a ton of money.  Max needs to survive, and he wants to prove that he can live independently.  In sum, he needs a job.  He comes upon his profession most strangely: he gets a lost child an ice cream cone.  From there it's a wild ride of quests for things lost and hidden.  Madame Olenka, she of the curiously long earlobes,  gets involved (here things get a bit Snickety (not persnickety, mind)) and Max must stay one step ahead of the baddies, find his parents, and manage his self-appointed assistant.  It's a wonderfully charming story with fantastic illustrations by Jacopo Bruno, who is probably one of my favorite illustrators of children's books working today.

My favorite quote:

"The air in the library rooms was silent, full of ideas, the thinking of the writers of books, the thinking of the readers of books.  And not just writers and readers, either, Max thought.  The ideas and visions of artists emanated from tall, heavy volumes of art history in their special shelves behind Grammie's desk, beside equally tall shelves filled with the decisions of lawmakers and the statistics collected by record keepers."

I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Cop Town

Bad boys, bad boys, watcha gonna do?  Watcha gonna do when they come for you?

Oh yeahhhh.  COPS.  "I didn't do it man!"  "Those aren't my drugs!"  "That's not my gun!"  And the always wonderful random naked criminal.  COPS is a pretty great show.  And yet I've never been one to gobble up police procedural books.  I have read some of Tana French's work, and all the drama drove me batty.  However, Netgalley sent me an email proclaiming that I "had to read" this new book by Karin Slaughter, who does a police/crime series.  Her newest book, however, was a standalone and also historical fiction.  I said, sure, why not.  And here came Cop Town.

Overall, I ... liked it.  I surprised myself by liking it.  I didn't love it, adore it, or clutch it to my chest and say it's my new favorite book EVER OMGGGGGG.  It was competently done and had really nice historical touches.  I actually hope that Slaughter continues to work with these characters, as I found them intriguing.

Atlanta, 1974.  Jimmy Lawson drags his partner, Don Wesley, through the dangerous Five Points section of Atlanta.  Don's been shot in the head, and the shooter could be coming after Jimmy next.  Don ends up dying of his head wound, setting off a city-wide manhunt for the cop killer known as the Atlanta Shooter (yeah, this could have been a bit more menacing.  But okay).  Jimmy's a popular guy--former high-school football star with a blown-out knee--and the police force vows to get revenge for his partner's death.  Jimmy's in a cop family in more ways than one.  His twenty-three year old sister, Maggie, is also a cop, and so is his Uncle Terry.  Maggie fights sexism and harassment every day while on the job--a lot of it from her Good Ole Boy Uncle Terry and his cronies.  Her mother, Delia, is no help at all, and her father is in a mental institution.  Yet, Maggie soldiers on, and she's determined to be the one to break the case and prove her idiot Uncle Terry wrong about female cops.

See, Uncle Terry only likes white male cops.  It's his brotherhood, and Jimmy's bigger family.  Terry hates women, all people of any other ethnicity besides his own, homosexuals, politicians, and, oh yeah, he really hates African Americans.  He's not above a little evidence planting to get someone jailed for their race.

Enter Kate.  Kate's husband was killed in Vietnam two years ago, but she refuses to go back and live with her family.  Instead, she joins the police force.  Kate is extremely attractive, blonde, rich, and ... Jewish.  Her mother and grandmother have a powerful story to tell.  Basically, Kate is all of the things people like Terry DON'T want on the police force.  She endures hazing after hazing, but ultimately proves herself and grows up (no, that's not a typo.  You'll see what I mean).

The mystery of the Atlanta Shooter is well-constructed, and the layers of secrets that Kate and Maggie uncover are surprising yet plausible--especially for that time period.  Slaughter represents a wide variety of backgrounds without pigeonholing people.

Exploration of racial tension is fantastic, and lends yet another level to the story.  Atlanta is a "cop town"--one that's run by the white male cops, but that's starting to change.  African Americans and women are entering the police force.  Cop Town as the old timers know it is changing--and it's scary as all get out.

There were some things I didn't like, mostly because they felt extraneous.  Kate's relationship with her doctor friend (and his weird references to 70s porno movies) was bizarre and didn't add to the story.  In the opening chapters, Maggie's difficult home life is described at length (and it's interesting!) but we don't return to it in the same level of detail.  Certain cops *cough Rick cough cough* appear and then disappear on the regular, a rotating cast of convenience.

However, if Karin Slaughter decides to turn this into a series, for once, I won't get all cranky about it.

I would also like to point out that I never have really wanted to go to Atlanta, and I take special pains to never, ever connect at Atlanta's airport.  I'm sure y'all are real nice people, I just ... don't want to go to Atlanta.  Just like other people might not want to ever go to Chicago.  And Atlanta of the 1970s is one scary place.

I received a copy of this title from Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

For Biddle's Sake

Randolph, Rudolph, and Tansy--behold the three princes of the kingdom of Biddle?  Which one do you think is the normal one?

If you guessed Tansy, you're correct!
Ugh, just looking at that makes me feel allergic!

In this installment of The Princess Tales, Gail Carson Levine serves up a fantastically funny blend of "The Frog Prince," "Cinderella," and "Rapunzel."  Once upon a time, there was a girl named Patsy.  Patsy loved to eat parsley.  That's all she ever ate.  Unfortunately, her penchant for parsley got her papa into a perilous pickle: the local witch, Bombina (recently returned from fairy jail for turning too many humans into frogs), catches Patsy's pop of pilfering her parsley.  Restraining herself from performing a transformation, Bombina instead demands that Patsy come live with her, and renames her Parsley.  Parsley and Bombina have a really smashing time together--none of that evil, nasty witch stuff--and Parsley even convinces her adoptive mother to stop transforming things.  Parsley grows up to be rather beautiful, although her teeth are permanently stained green.

Meanwhile, back at the castle...

Prince Tansy is having an awful time of hit.  His twin brother-brats, Princes Randolph and Rudolph, constantly do horrible things and then blame Tansy.  Their father always believes the Royal Twits, and so Tansy gets punished.  He's kind of a royal drudge.

Parsley has a spyglass, and she notices all the unfairness at the castle.  When, one day, she finally meets Tansy, Bombina blows her top and accidentally transforms Parsley into a toad!  Shenanigans, of course, ensue.

Another fantastic entry in Levine's oeuvre!

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Sword and the Lion

I think I've had The Sword and the Lion by Roberta Cray on my Goodreads to-be-read list since I joined the site.  Eep.  After checking my surrounding libraries, I decided to purchase the book.  It pretty much gets rave reviews, so why not?

Overall, I really loved this book, but it took me a while to warm up to it, which is strange, since it's basically a fantasy version of ancient Greece.  D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths was a childhood staple--so much so that my parents tired of me checking it out of the library incessantly and just bought me a copy.  Yay!  I'm a sucker for Greek mythology, and I do like reading about Greek history as well.  I remember enjoying a mystery set in ancient Greece: Murder at the Panionic Games by Michael B. Edwards.  I don't remember much about it other than the detective was a priest and athletes were dying and I think it was enjoyable.  Question mark?  Anyway, whilst attempting to figure out the name of the book, I found a whole bunch more Greek murder mysteries I may just have to check out ... of the library!  *snare drum*

And so we come back to The Sword and the Lion (it wasn't a very circuitous route; sorry).  The world created by Cray has obvious parallels with ancient Greece, Persia, Egypt, and so on.  In the city-state of Ghezrat, the yearly festival of Denota, the city's patron goddess, takes place.  In the Cleft, Tephys the high priestess receives messages from the goddess via the steam rising from the Earth.  She is surrounded by novice priestesses, and she has also summoned the Prince of the city.  He really, really doesn't want to be there, in this stinky hot cave with these strange people talking to a goddess he may or may not truly believe in.  Except this ceremony is different.  Instead of the usual, "Have some smashing harvests this year!  Lovely, lovely, must toodle off, now!  Ta!" Tephys receives an ominous message: Haffat, leader of the rampaging Diye Haff, is going to attack Ghezrat.  Haffat is a bit Alexander the Great (in his unimpeded conquest) and a bit Genghis Khan (in his delegation of duties to sons) and definitely under the thumb of his High Priest Knoe.

See, Knoe has brought worship of the fierce lion god Axtekeles to the Diye Haff.  On the plus side, it seems that the lion god really likes the Diye Haff, granting them victory after victory.  On the minus side, Axtekeles requires blood sacrifices.  Nice.  He especially likes them from young, strong soliders--not the prisoners of war.  Nothing improves morale like waking up to find your shieldmate has been bled out on an altar by a (most definitely) insane man who also happens to have alopecia!
Think Arnold Vosloo but with even less hair!

Okay, okay, bear with me here.  Right.  So it boils down to: GIANT ARMY + RAVENOUS AND SEEMINGLY UNSTOPPABLE LION GOD versus ... the Ghezrathi army and Denota's creations: the Dyaddi.

What are the Dyaddi?  Basically, the earth goddess binds a father and daughter together to fight for the city.  Which, if you think about it, is pretty darn cool.  Denota links their minds so that they can share experience and knowledge.  Each Dyad is made up of a Prime (the father) and a Secchi (the daughter).  Part of being a Pair means that the Secchi is promised in marriage to a randomly chosen husband: this way, she will be able to marry and have a family and not worry about men rejecting her for having been a fighter.  This might sound kind of ridiculous today, but consider: in this time period in our history, having a family was a source of pride.  Denota was providing security for the Secchi by giving them husbands (we can go through the whole love thing another time).  Denota also blesses the Dyaddi with uncanny fighting ability--they can kill dozens of men in the time it takes for the regular army to wade into the fray.

The story follows Breyd, a small, independent girl who is a novitiate at Denota's temple when the ceremony occurs.  She has a vision of herself, her father, Menlaeus, dying, and the city of Ghezrat in ruins.  She does everything to avoid becoming Secchi and thus endangering her father, but what will be will be, and Denota chooses her and Menlaeus as First Prime and Secchi.  Thankfully, this means Breyd does not have to marry Creos, the lout that her brother Tarpaen hangs out with and who only likes to beat up women.  Charming fellow.  Instead, she ends up betrothed to ... Prince Apodain, whose mother blackmails the prince into removing Apodain from active military service.  This is, as you can imagine, a disgrace.  Apodain is a brilliant fighter, and the Prince's young, inexperienced, and rather idiotic son sallies forth in his place.

But Breyd has bigger fish to fry than worrying about being engaged to royalty.  She must train so that she and her father become as one fighter.  She must defend the city not only from Knoe the Lion-Priest, but also his allies the Engardi, who have some seriously freaky powers, including a sort of cloaking device.
Like this, but not in space.  Also, no Klingons.

If I summarized the whole book, this would be an excessively long and boring review.  I can make it not-long, but the not-boring part is kind of a crapshoot.

So, let's break it down to the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:

Il buono:  I loved, loved, loved the concept of the Dyaddi.  Cray gives readers a relationships that is seldom seen in fantasy literature--a strong father-daughter relationship.  Usually the father is a) cowed by his wife, b) actively plotting to marry the daughter off to some dolt, c) distant, or d) dead.  The bond between Menlaeus and Breyd is strong and inspiring.

The concept of the traditional mother goddess/earth goddess as a fighter.  People like to talk about "Mother Earth" and all that like the world is some happy ball of moss flying through space.  Seen a volcanic eruption lately?  How about a tsunami?  Avalanche?  Hailstorm?  The powers of the earth are strong and deadly, but we tend to forget about them until it's too late.  The same with Denota (Demeter in the Greek pantheon): the Diye Haff feel that a harvest goddess cannot protect her people.

I also really enjoyed the vivid descriptions of battle, horn calls, and strategy.

Il brutto:  I didn't so much like the pacing of the book.  I'm glad this came as one volume--in today's publishing market, I'm pretty sure they would have broken it up into three parts.  However, I felt like the fighting ended too quickly and the story moved on to something else.  I would happily read a 700 page book about ancient hand-to-hand combat.  The ending felt exceedingly rushed.

Where exactly did Breyd's vision figure into all of this?  Has anyone else figured that out?  Please tell me if you have.

Il cattivo:  The names.  I was so, so confused with the multitude of names that were very similar.  For example, in Breyd's family, her grandmother is Nidya (Niddy), her mother is Nevvia (Nev) and her sister is Nivveren (Niv).  I just called them all Nivea in my head.  Why would you do that to your readers!  I never knew who we were talking about!

Along with the scads of similar names thrown at the reader, there are equally large amounts of character death.  We meet one character on one page, she and Breyd become friends, and then that other person kind of randomly dies a chapter later and Breyd's like, "Oh, well."  Other, more major character deaths seemed pointless.

Overall, however, this is a solid, highly enjoyable fantasy.  It's not the most memorable thing I've ever read, but I enjoyed it very much indeed.