Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ciudad


This is going to be a very short review.  I only read a few pages of this graphic novel, and I stopped reading for two main reasons.

1)  The art.  Being that this is a graphic novel, I expect the art to be of good quality.  Now, it's certainly possible that the artist's work wasn't rendered correctly in electronic format, in which case the publisher should be ashamed.  The art looked like dotted lines that vaguely formed shapes that looked like they could be people ... or Cthulhu.  I'm also not a huge fan of B&W comics--I prefer colored, but sometimes B&W really adds to the storytelling, although here it does not.  If this is simply a formatting issue, I apologize to the artist.  If it seriously looks this way in print, I apologize to readers' eyeballs.  Yeesh.  I am by no means an artist, but I'd like to think that I have some taste in the art department.

2)  The dialogue.  Mostly it consists of the f-word.  I think the author couldn't figure out dialogue, so just said, "Oh, F-word.  I will use the f-word constantly because uh, that makes stuff gritty ... and stuff."  Also, some of the dialogue is in (Spanish) (evidently, in this comic book, parentheses denote a different language, instead of using different lettering or line weight or something) but the main guy character responds in English and everyone gets along all right ... except for the shooting bits, which honestly ... I don't care.  

I know I sound harsh, but this was utterly pointless and a waste of even the few minutes I gave to considering it, and the time it took me to write this review.

I received an ARC of this title from NetGalley.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Killer Instinct (The Naturals, #2)

The first few seasons, I watched the TV series Criminal Minds with my family.  I'd never heard of profiling before, so I thought it was a really interesting, fictional take on how profilers recreate the motives and methods of criminals.  Plus, the show had Mandy Patinkin ("Hello.  My name is Inigo Montoya") and Shemar Moore.  I stopped watching once Mandy Patinkin left, mostly because the humanizing influence that he brought to the show disappeared.  While it once dealt with the emotional trauma of doing such a job day in and day out, it now tortured characters in really horrific and gratuitous ways.  Patinkin has cited the violence-as-entertainment factor as the main reason for leaving the show.  And I say, good for him for realizing that his job was affecting his mental state in a negative fashion.

"But wait!" you cry.  "This review is supposed to be about Killer Instinct.  With a name like that, isn't it the same bloody, gratuitous violence that you just discussed?"  Nope.  While Jennifer Lynn Barnes, author of the series (Killer Instinct is book two; The Naturals is book one), does introduce a serial killer in each book, there's actually not a lot of violent content.  Instead, she explores the relationships between the teens who are the Naturals--people with extraordinary abilities that come in awfully handy when looking for killers.  Some, like the narrator Cassie and the troubled son-of-a-serial-killer Dean, are profilers, meaning that they can recreate a person's thought patterns and motivation.  They get what makes people tick.  Michael reads emotions.  Lia can both spot a lie and lie perfectly herself.  Sloane has a fantastic memory and can run massively complex calculations in her mind.

I can't really discuss The Naturals here without totally giving anything away, but let's just say that the resolution left Cassie unsure of her abilities and unsure of who she likes more, Dean or Michael.

Oh.  My.  Goodness.  I liked a book that had a love triangle in it.  Granted, it is a smallish love triangle, but it's cute and not overbearing and Cassie has legitimate reasons for being attracted to both Michael and Dean.  It's kind of like if you (ahem, "I") had to choose between, say, Benedict Cumberbatch and David Tennant.  Can't I have both?

We learn a lot more about each teen's past in Killer Instinct: why they are who they are and why they can do what they do.  Cassie, because she's a profiler, can recreate a killer's mind inside her own, and she's haunted by what those people do to their victims.  In a sense, she becomes them for a short period of time.  One of the FBI agents running the Naturals program says that this is Cassie's weakness: her empathy.  It might destroy her.

The adult FBI agents in the book aren't all Evil Adults, either.  They have secrets and emotional wounds, too.  They want to protect this group of very special kids, but at the same time, they know that other people might die if the Naturals don't use their abilities to catch criminals.  Catch-22.

The Naturals had a touch of Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad books about it; Killer Instinct shares a plot point with Barry Lyga's I Hunt Killers.  If you like either one of those, I think you'll love The Naturals series.

I'm actually really horrible at reviewing books that I enjoyed, particularly books that I enjoyed that don't fit my usual pattern.  By all accounts, I should have hated this.  Love triangle?  Nope.  Super-special snowflake characters?  No way!  Yet, something about Barnes' plotting and pacing kept me racing through this ARC. She also writes excellent banter between all of the teens. At the end of the day, it probably won't win the Printz, but it doesn't really want to.  Killer Instinct is an engaging YA thriller, and those are hard to come by.

Highly recommended (but read The Naturals first!).

Sisters with a Smile

Road trip!  I've been on many road trips.  Actually, I suppose it was the same road trip, repeated annually.  We rarely deviated from our course.  Going from Wisconsin to Colorado takes you across the flatlands and fields of Illinois, the bluffs and fields of Iowa, and the fields, fields, and more fields of Nebraska.  I would advise against breathing when you exit the car in certain parts of Nebraska--the steer holding pens make everything taste like poop.  Cow poop.  The time in the car isn't what the commercials show it to be--I never flung my hands out of a convertible in an expression of liberation.  It's really quite boring, and somehow also exhausting to just sit all day.  I have a little brother, and while I don't remember fighting with him constantly as a kid, I do know that when I was older, I'd needle him quite a bit.

Not proud of it.  But it's true.

However, I think the dynamic between brothers and sisters and sisters and sisters is very different.  My brother never wanted to borrow my clothes or makeup, nor was he into boy bands that made me groan.  I never felt like I was competing to be the "best daughter" because there was only one daughter.  Plus, my relationship with my brother was very different because he has Bipolar Disorder and is on the spectrum.  When he was little, he was very, very sick.  I knew I would never have a cereal-commercial family, and now that I'm older, I'm perfectly fine with that.  As a kid, that's hard to swallow.  But everything is different when you have a sibling with a disability.

Strangely enough, now that we're both grown-ups (numerically), we are a lot alike!  We can riff off of movie scenes for ages, to the bewilderment and eventual exasperation of our parents.  But I'm not going to lie and say that growing up together was easy, because it wasn't.

So, Sisters.  Raina Telgemeier has a gift for writing about everyday experiences and making them compulsively readable.  She doesn't write about special snowflakes or The Chosen One or anything like that--just ... kids.  Teens.  I think that's what speaks so strongly to the tweens and teens who have been begging for Sisters for months.  Telgemeier's art and stories tells them that their experiences are totally normal.  Totally.  Normal.  If exclusion is all you feel at school, then a sense of normality, of fitting in, and of the hope of being, one day, to look back and laugh at all of this--that can be a real savior.  I used far too many commas in that last sentence.  How's that for a non sequitur?

I was so excited to receive an ARC of Sisters, and I am rather angry with myself.  How do I explain this?  I tried to match Raina's experiences of siblinghood (not a word; now a word because I said so) with my own.  I failed.  This has absolutely nothing to do with the book and everything to do with the reader (ahem).  I didn't love Sisters as much as I adored Smile, but I'm pretty sure that's owing to my own perspective.

See, with Smile, I could totally relate.  My teeth were--how shall I put this?--jacked up.  When my front top two adult teeth came in, the bottoms pointed away from each other.  They looked like wings.  I got brackets on those two teeth to rein them back in towards each other.  I'll never forget when they took them off.  This being Ye Olde Darke Ayges of Dentistrie, they basically took a metal rod on which slid a very heavy washer or bearing.  To remove the bracket, they placed this rod on my tooth and let the metal washer slide down (fast!) and slam into my tooth at a speed designed to dislodge the bracket.  So, it was basically a mini sledgehammer inside my mouth.  One set of braces down, four to go.

Yes, I had braces five times.  I don't swallow properly due to having had gigantic tonsils as a kid and being unable to breathe through my nose.  Yep, I'm a mouth-breather.  So, somehow I learned to swallow incorrectly, which means my tongue pushes my front teeth apart and doesn't hold my back teeth out to the side.  So instead of looking like an even "U," my teeth look like an omega.  Many sagas, tears, brackets, and angry orthodontists were to follow.  So I grabbed onto Smile like a life-raft: here was someone else who also had horror stories about braces.  Okay, so her teeth still look good, while mine are shifting around restlessly in my mouth, but still!  The pain of braces!  I could have danced for joy when I discovered Telgemeier's Smile.


Note: the review of Sisters will actually start now.  It is rather short compared to all of my blathering (see above).

Sisters tells the story of the Telgemeier's family road trip from California to Colorado to visit Raina's aunt and cousins.  Her little sister Amara (to whom Telgemeier dedicates the book) is crammed in the van, along with their little brother.  Mom drives and Dad will fly out to meet them later.  For the longest time, Raina wanted a little sister.  Little sisters are like dolls, right?  You play with them and love them and kiss them and feed them ... or not.  Amara is nothing like what little Raina wanted or expected, and they have totally different personalities.  For example, Amara loves snakes and creepy things.  Raina.  Does.  Not.  So, of course, Amara has to get a snake just to tick off Raina.  They bicker all the time.  Raina and Amara bicker their way all the way to Colorado Springs, and that's just the warm-up for when they get there.  Hoo boy.  Unfortunately, I personally couldn't relate to those exchanges.  Even when you fight with your brother, it's different, somehow.  I felt like I observed Sisters, and I really enjoyed Sisters, but it didn't touch me in the same way Smile did.

However, I know that this will resonate with gajillions (scientific number) of tweens.  Telgemeier really has a gift for taking a simple story and adding layers to it so that the main characters do learn something in the end, but not in a didactic or heavy-handed way.  They change very gradually--just like real people!

And the art.  Can we talk about the art?  I am such a huge fan of her style.  It's simple but still manages to convey tons of emotions, especially angsty teenage emotions!  The ARC that I had was only partially colored, but I would imagine it's mind-bogglingly good in full color.

I don't want to talk too much about the actual story because it would give so much away, but trust me: you'll really, really like it.  You might even love it.  And when you're done, go hug your little brother or sister or cousin or doggie or whomever may have ever made you feel jealous or petty.  Because, really, you know you love them and that they're not as awful as they might seem.  Unless your sibling is Justin Beiber, in which case, there is no hope.  Sorry.

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Allergy Alert

Allergies have interrupted my regularly-scheduled everything!  I broke down and took some allergy medication today and promptly forgot about a meeting!  Oh, dear.  (Please imagine that Winnie-the-Pooh-style).

Reviews coming up:

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier (!!!)

Killer Instinct by Jennifer Lynn Barnes (!!!!!!!)

I've finally gotten into The Girl on the Train, a UK-based murder mystery.  At first, I thought it resembled Tana French's work too much, but it's really hitting its stride here.  Also, I did NOT know that you could buy premixed gin and tonics at the convenience store in the UK.

Look, Brits.  You've got Doctor Who, Benedict Cumberbatch, Neil Gaiman (okay, the U.S. stole him, but you made him), mushy peas (weird, I know, but I've got a soft spot for legumes!), like every great rock band ever, and premixed G&Ts?  Who said the British Empire ever fell?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Princess Ugg, Volume 1

Some mornings, before coffee has taken full effect, I find myself pondering the strangest things on my drive to work.  Last Friday, I was thinking about a phrase that kept cropping up in many of the reviews of Princess Ugg on Goodreads: "fish out of water."  Technically, a fish out of water is a dead fish.  I know that it actually means being totally out of one's element or natural habitat, as a fish belongs in water and so to put him anywhere else causes him to react strongly.  And then die.  So I thought about the morbid connotations of this phrase, and how blithely we use it to describe various works of film and literature.  "A fun twist on the classic 'fish out of water' tale" is like saying "a fun twist on death by drowning in air!" which, I admit, is a bit morbid.  That's why I need more coffee.

At any rate, I never once thought to myself while reading Princess Ugg, Volume 1 "Oh, this is such a standard story;" I thought, "I love what Naifeh is doing to the princess tropes."  And really, what's so wrong with using a familiar idea, as long as you inject life and humor into it?

Well, uff da!  Ted Naifeh's latest awesome leading lady, the Princess Ülga, has stolen my heart.  No, really. She's holding it for ransom with her massive battle axe.

Princess Ugg is a ridiculously fun romp though Pretty Pretty Princess Land from the eyes of an outsider: Princess Ülga of the Grimmerians (think Vikings with a broad Scottish brogue) wishes to fulfill her mother's wish that the Grimmerian war with the Frost Giants be solved in a different way.  To do so, Ülga feels she must learn how to be a princess, so she travels to the five kingdoms to attend princess school.  If you think that she took the nearest palanquin or carriage, you thought wrong.  She rides her exceedingly large mammoth, Snorri, right into the city, where she crashes into another princess, knocks her into a dung heap, and escapes one of the royal guard ... falling right through a glass window to land in front of her headmistress.  Let the games begin.

Her father's immortal raven companion, Odin (all the mythology people please geek out now), keeps tabs on her while she's at school and provides the reader with a hilarious running commentary on Ülga's progress ... or lack thereof.  For example, here's Odin's opening lines:

"Attend, O travellers from distant lands, for I shall sing unto thee ... of swords and sorority ... of high adventure ... and higher education!"

I knew at that precise moment that I would love this graphic novel.

As you can imagine, none of the other Pretty Pretty Princesses are pleased to room, eat, and learn with Ülga--they mock her by calling her "Princess Ugg" (which, of course, calls to mind the shoe for modern readers--zing!).  She is so unlike them, but the great part is that she is proud that she is different.  Ülga does not walk into this situation saying, "Make me just like them," but rather "Teach me how to be even more awesome than I already am."

In the end, Ülga realizes that book-balancing and fork-choosing and minuet-dancing are not her priorities, but the art of diplomacy--ah, that would make her a very good queen indeed.  Her first attempts at diplomacy, many of them involving a nefarious unicorn, are hilarious yet heartfelt.

Naifeh keeps this light-hearted and witty without being overly silly, and I've utterly fallen for Ülga.  I can't wait for more of her adventures and I will most definitely be buying this series for the library!

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.

The Return of Zita the Spacegirl

The first volume of Zita the Spacegirl blew my mind.  A strong heroine who has super-fun adventures all over the galaxy with blessedly non-humanoid aliens?  Yes!  The geek was strong with this one!  I had to start The Legend of Zita the Spacegirl twice, however, since it just didn't grab me in the beginning.  Zita, replaced by a fangirling alien, and no one really notices?  Hmm.  But, I did end up enjoying the book in the end.  Just not as much as the first one.


Unfortunately, I feel like in The Return of Zita the Spacegirl, we see even less of Zita and her original crew.  Hatke doesn't introduce a ton of new characters--there are just a lot of panels with Zita running, or escaping, or running.  I miss Piper.  I miss Strong Strong.  I miss Madrigal.  Yeah, they show up in the end, but it's not the same.

In The Return, Zita has been captured and tried for her "crimes" in space.  Her captors sentence Pizzicato, AKA Mouse, to death, and Zita to imprisonment (which didn't make a lot of sense to me, but, whatever.  Alien injustice at work?)  Zita's cellmates are a sentient pile of rags called Rags, and a somehow-still-alive skeleton named Femur.  Their banter is actually pretty fun, and I wish they had played a bigger role in the story.  Mostly, Zita keeps attempting and failing to escape, thus receiving more and more punishments from the Angry Green Man who rules this asteroid and is going to conquer Earth just as soon as he finds the crystal that will allow him to zip across dimensions.

Zita didn't really have to do much in this volume, which disappointed me.  Even the finding of the last crystal was a deus ex petros--super bizarre and done pretty early on in the book.

However, as a kids graphic novel, it has a lot of heart and a great message for girls everywhere.  Namely, YOU ROCK.  And:
I did like was the ending.  However, if I were reading Zita all over again, I'd probably just read the first volume, as it is the most fun of all of them and employs a wide cast of characters.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Girl from the Well

I have come to the conclusion that narrative style affects some readers more than it does others.  I mean, that's pretty obvious, but the virulence of some people's reaction to the narrative style of this book, The Girl from the Well, or We Were Liars, which also had a really distinctive voice, demonstrates that it's really a matter of taste, not necessarily of ability.

Granted, I read this in e-ARC format, so any final formatting choices in the print version didn't appear in my version (apologies for the Very Late Review).  The only odd thing was the random appearance of the author's name in the middle of a sentence, which threw me off when I was expecting to read another name.  You'd have something like, "Tark walked over to an empty table RIN CHUPECO."  Silly ARC.

Anyway, I do like the quasi stream of consciousness style that Chupeco employs in GFTW.  If I were a ghost who's been drifting around the mortal plane for a few centuries, I wouldn't let anything like commas stand in the way.

On one level, this is a ghost story.  Mostly because this is a story in which ghosts are legitimate entities who can interact with live humans.  However, I don't think that the Chiller channel will be adapting this as a screenplay any time soon.  It's also a story about finding purpose, escaping your past by living through your nightmares, and revenge.

Here's the deal: if you died in an awful way and you were not at peace, you might linger around to exact vengeance on your killer.  These yuuri (ghosts) stay until their task is complete, and then they find fulfillment in a sort of heaven-like place.  Okiku has been a yuuri for centuries: she's the girl in a classic Japanese story who is framed for breaking one of her master's ten treasured plates (I guess he had a thing for plates!) and was then killed and thrown down a well.  She has a fear of the number nine as a result--nine plates=death.  She was never able to revenge herself on the person who killed her, so instead she's roamed the world, locating child-killers and killing them.  Afterward, their corpses resemble those of the drowned (as Okiku died).  Getting rid of murderers=a good idea.  Vigilante justice=not so moral.  But that might change.

Okiku notices a boy one day--no, not like that.  Thankfully, there is pretty much zero romance in this book, which made me enjoy it even more.  This boy, Tarquin or Tark, has a dark shadow following him around, and Okiku knows he's in danger.  She's intrigued (in her detached Daria-esque way) by Tark's bizarre tattoos: five of them.  And they move.

The story goes from avenging serial killers to a mental hospital to a remote shrine in Japan.  Sometimes Okiku's voice recedes, and she simply narrates the action.  But when something disturbing occurs--like the appearance of a child predator, for example--she begins her counting; it relaxes her.  I didn't mind these intrusions (265) into the narrative (1) about these kids (2) fighting forces far beyond their comprehension.  I know people for whom counting is a solace and I try to understand as much as I can.  For me, the counting habit is what helped make Okiku interesting.

Because yes, for all that other reviewers claim that the characters are flat, I say nay!  Okiku is neither a heroine nor an anti-heroine, but she is both and yet none as the mood takes her.  Tark's mother, Yuko, is absolutely fascinating, and his cousin is likable without being perfect.

The horror scenes themselves are also exceedingly well-done.  Never over-the-top, but still super creepy.  Chupeco never lets the pace flag, so this is a fast-moving thrill ride with some serious atmosphere.

One quibble I have is that the ending battle scene/showdown was a bit confusing, especially because it relied so heavily on elements of Japanese myth and superstition that I, as an American, am not familiar with.  Why did they salt the mirrors?  Why could Okiku pass through?  A little more background on the rules of being a Japanese ghost would have been helpful!

Overall, this is a solid teen horror novel.  I hope to read much more from Rin Chupeco!

I received an ARC of this novel from Edelweiss.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What I'm Reading Wednesday

As I admitted on Twitter earlier today, I misread someone's blog post tag of #WoW as meaning World of Warcraft, which made exactly zero sense in the context of the blog.

Then I realized, "Oh.  It's Wednesday."  Then I decided that people need to pick an acronym and stick with it, so as not to confuse those of us who are currently under the influence of allergy medications.

I've been on vacation for the past two days.  I refuse to use the word "staycation" except as I have just used it, as an example of a word I will not use to refer to my life.  The point is, I wasn't anywhere in particular, except at home, doing necessary things like cooking, grocery shopping, making brownies (very necessary!), buying new gym shoes because mine are ripping at the seams, and so forth.  I also cleaned out my closet and deemed myself most productive.  I also experienced a violent attack of sneezing, sinus-slamming, and eye itchiness every time I set foot out of doors.  Hoo-ragweed!

I expected to read a lot more than I did on my days off.  I actually read very little, and what I did read was not with the intent of finishing a book, but rather starting yet another one!  In addition to the ever-present Count of Monte Cristo (in which I have made progress, I assure you!  Things are getting verrrry devious now!), I am currently reading:

The Girl From the Well by Rin Chupeco.  Some bloggers and book reviewers didn't like this one because of the writing style.  I think it's very well done and I've noticed no strange formatting or structuring (possibly because I'm still reading the e-ARC, oopsies).  It's wonderfully spooky and I love the ghost's narrative voice!

Killer Instinct by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.  This is the second book in a series; the first one was The Naturals, which is basically like a teen Lie to Me meets Criminal Minds.  It's a really well-done thriller for the age group, and Killer Instinct totally sucked me back into Barnes' fictional group of teens with hypersensitive crime-fighting abilities.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.  I think I got this one from Amazon's First Reads program, but I'm not sure if I'm loving it or not.  Also, what's with the title formula "The girl + preposition + place"?  Very popular nowadays, it seems.

The Best American Mystery Stories of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Otto Penzler.  This is a very long book (over 600 pages--although I am reading it as an e-ARC so that may change a bit in physical format) of which few of the stories really seem necessary.  I am not ashamed to admit that I skimmed some of them, but others (so far) have been rather extraordinary.  As always, anthologies are a mixed bag.

You Can Date Girls When You're Forty by Dave Barry.  Dave Barry read Fifty Shades of Grey so I didn't have to.  You, sir, are a national treasure.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Underground: My First Murakami

Did you know that there is an article on Wikipedia entitled, "List of people claimed to be Jesus"?    I suppose I shouldn't be excessively surprised; Wikipedia is the Amazon of information, containing tons and tons and tons of stuff while simultaneously engendering mistrust or negative feelings.  Personally, I don't think Amazon is the devil--especially since I just ordered, received, and used the new OPI Glitter-Off Base Coat (yes! This stuff is the best!) when Ulta didn't have it--but they do have questionable marketing tactics, engage in number-fudging, create weird websites to support themselves, and have pretty bad factory conditions.  So, like pretty much every other Western conglomerate.

But I digress: Wikipedia.  I found the Jesus List by perusing the article on Aum Shrinrikyo, a cult that  was started in Japan by a man named Chizuo Matsumoto, later called Shoko Asahara.  If the name rings a bell (however faint in your mind), it's because Aum perpetrated the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack in 1995.  I was in elementary school at the time, but I remember it, vaguely.  I never thought much about it, even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 or the 2004 Madrid train bombings.  However, I found this book, Underground, on Goodreads when I was adding some of Murakami's fiction to my to-read list.  Underground seemed the least threatening and most accessible, so I started with it.

To be honest, I don't think you get to hear much of Murakami in this work, apart from his very brief analysis at the end of the first part.  However, I couldn't imagine the book being more powerful any other way than it is right now.  Murakami recounts stories told to him by victims of the attack, and in the second part, written later, he interviews former members of the Aum group (none of whom were directly implicated in the attack of 1995).

Some readers dislike the repetitive nature of the first set of interviews: they do follow the same pattern because each interviewee is recounting what he or she did on the day of the attack.  Each person's voice is distinct, and their descriptions of their initial reaction to finding out there was a problem on the subway often match up--it's eerie.  This is a wonderful, thoughtful glimpse into a culture very different from modern America.  The people in this book stayed on the trains or in the stations even after experiencing frightening symptoms (like, you know, going practically blind) out of a sense of duty.  They had to get to work; they had to stay at work; their symptoms didn't matter; other people were worse off--these are sentiments repeated by many of the interviewees.  People who later had to remain in the hospital for days simply walked off of the sarin-soaked train cars and went to work.  Because that was their routine.  That was simply how things were.

One striking point that really drove home this rather intense concept of routine was the precision with which victims recounted which subway car they boarded and at which door.  I commuted in Paris for about 9 months.  All those months using the Métro, I didn't care about boarding a specific car or standing in a specific place or anything.  I just needed to get to work.  If there was an opening in a car, I'd take it.  Honestly, I don't think I ever planned my route so minutely as to board the same car every day.

Granted, the Métro is very different from the Tokyo subway (after all, Japan is the country that employs people to smush other people into trains just so they all fit.  I'm not normally claustrophobic, but I don't think I could ever ride one of those trains), but the mindset of these commuters was utterly opposite of my own.  And I loved that.  I loved getting inside of their heads and seeing how their upbringing and how their culture shaped how they viewed work, family, love, and their own health.

The victims' stories share a strange sense of detachment.  One man, Mitsuo Arima, said, "I was taking a hay-fever remedy at the time, so I thought [the darkness of vision] might be a reaction to the drug.  It was different from my usual, so maybe this was a side effect.  But everything was still dark when I reached my office ... It was still a toss-up between hay-fever and sarin."  When I get sick, I automaticlly assume the worst.  Many of the sarin victims attributed their lethargy, dizziness, and loss of vision to "having a bad day" or stress.  This was after they knew they had been on trains contaminated with sarin.  I do believe that they convinced themselves of this because they did not want to leave work or whatever engagement they had that day.

I readily acknowledge that my conviction of what I would have done has been molded by the events of my lifetime.  Watching the terrorist attacks of September 11th and living in a country whose laws and procedures have been irrevocably changed by that has made me extraordinarily sensitive to odd things.  Strange bags at my workplace?  Call the police.  That is my gut reaction.  The Tokyo passengers didn't have that point of reference--they saw their country as peaceful and just not the kind of place where "things like that" happened.  So personally, this is a really fascinating book.  I see how people thought and reacted in a time period very different from my own.

The stories of the ex-Aum members also grabbed my attention, but for different reasons.  It was fascinating to see how each person exhibited many of the same thought patterns and tendencies--for example, a loathing for secular life, frustration with violence, suicidal thoughts, and social withdrawal.  They found solace in this cult because it offered seclusion.  For those wishing to die, it promised the end of the world.  As Murakami points out in his analysis, "Shoka Asahara was talented enough to impose his rehashed narrative on people (who for the most part came looking for just that)."

The concept of Self and narrative are strong themes in the book.  Many of the victims and the ex-Aum talk about Self and either losing the Self, bringing the Self to enlightenment, or making peace with the Self.  I suppose this corresponds with Freud's ego, or perhaps what Western countries would call a soul.  The inner person.  Murakami talks about how as we grow and live, the Self begins to describe a narrative.  It is a simultaneous dream and living of that dream.  We imagine and we create our narratives, then we live them, and in living them, we imagine them.  It's very circular but also very poetic.

I wish that the book had been structured so that Murakami's commentary fell at the end, instead of the middle, but I assume that since it is his work, he deemed it acceptable to publish in this way.

The one very small thing that irked me a bit was how the concepts of cults, religion, and fanaticism were handled.  The reader learns very little about Aum itself, and hears snippets of its beliefs, but not all of them.  Presumably, Murakami's Japanese audience would be more up to speed with these concepts.  When interviewing the former Aum, "I decided to be a more active participant.  Sometimes, for instance, the conversation began to swerve too much in the direction of religious dogma, which I felt was inappropriate."  I find this technique very odd, especially in a book where the main perpetrators of the violence belonged to a nominally religious organization.  If you are going to interview ex-members, why not let them talk about what they believed?  Who is Murakami to decide what is and is not appropriate?  That sentence is really saying, "I felt uncomfortable, so I made them stop."

Murakami and his interviewees talk more about spirituality and intense feelings that specific beliefs, which, as I understand it (very poorly indeed) is rather common in Japan--the majority do not profess to belong to any particular religion.  Yet, mysticism crops up a good deal, and it seems that the Japanese society did not reject such things outright.  Levitation and out of body experiences and so forth.  But that is a very, very small thing compared to the sheer power of the whole work.

I didn't think that a book comprised of witness narratives would be so utterly compelling and thought-provoking.  I kept asking myself, "What would I have done?  Would I have gone to work?  Would I have gone to the hospital?  Would I be angry afterwards?"  Many of the interviewees gave answers opposite to those that I would have, and that was really illuminating.

I'm really shocked that this book isn't more widely recommended.  I've been talking about it a lot at work and recommending it to my coworkers.  After having read a little Murakami, I feel that now I might be able to take the plunge into a big Murakami!

Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

There are a lot of books on the shelf...


...and not all of them can be amazing.  Not all of them can become my favorites.  I cannot like all of them.

Sometimes, I feel disingenuous for saying that I am a teen librarian who loves YA and, at the same time, writing mostly negative reviews of teen books.  Do you know something, though?  I recommend books that I personally disliked to teen patrons who enjoy books in a similar vein.  When I read something, I'm always thinking about who would like this even though I did not.  Take, for example, The Murder Complex.  I didn't love it, and I didn't hate it.  I thought it had some issues, but I'll definitely read the trilogy.  However, I enthusiastically recommend it to fans of post-apocalyptic/dystopian/sci-fi series.  Even though I kept trying to connect with Dashner's Maze Runner series and failing, those books are never on the library's shelves.  They're popular, which means teens are reading them, which means--holy cow--teens are reading and I am a happy librarian.

All of my negative, ranting, frustration-laden posts about teen ARCs I've requested actually serve a purpose other than allowing me an outlet for my mild literary rage.  I get it out of my system by writing about everything I found wrong, and then objectively look at the book in terms of appeal to the teens who use my library.  Teen literature is one area of the library where, I think, you can get away with rotating titles more frequently.  YA fads are mercurial.  I cannot have a stagnant collection consisting of Classic Teen Novels All Libraries Should Own.  

The other great thing about getting e-ARCs and going through them is that sometimes, I find one that's really, really good.  I'm tickled to have read it and I cannot wait to throw it at my teens at work.  Figuratively, of course, although I'm sure they'd love to see me pitching books around.  

I'd say that for every ten ARCs I request, I enjoy one.  But when I do enjoy it, I enjoy it.  

Disclosure: This post was written in an attempt to avoid going to the gym.  It did not succeed.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Quick Recap of Red Queen (What I Read of It)

When I started reading The Red Queen by Victoria Aveley, I had hopes that it would be different from the books that have been disappointing me.  I ... liked it?

Let's face it, I have a soft spot for fictional pickpockets.  Mare is a Red in a world divided into Reds and Silvers; the colors refer to the color of their blood.  Reds are humans like we are today, while Silvers would be termed superheroes.  Silvers have powers, like controlling fire, being extremely strong, or mind-control.  There's also a war going on--this war seems to be occuring simply to drive certain parts of the plot forward.  All teens who are unemployed at a certain age are conscripted, and conscription is basically a death sentence.  Mare has already lost her older brothers, and she's next, along with her friend, Finley.  Thankfully, Mare's little sister Gisa has a great talent for sewing and embroidery, so she works for the Silvers in their fancy city.

There was an interesting scene in the beginning of the novel where Finley and Mare go to what's basically a gladiatorial spectacle.  You'd think that in this type of society, with the level of disdain that the Silvers have for the Reds, the Silvers would watch the Reds battle it out as the ancient Romans threw wild animals and slaves into the arena to fight.  However, these battles allow Silvers to showcase their different abilities.  Finley and Mare watch one that has an unusual outcome, but the ominous foreshadowing that happened with the victor just petered out.  Anyway, Finley and Mare, both faced with conscription (and therefore certain death) try to find a way to get smuggled out of the city. Except it costs a lot of money.

Mare, who is quickly sliding into the Clueless Heroine role, decides that she'll sneak into the Silvers' city with her sister and try to steal something from them.  This is clearly a BRILLIANT idea, since Silver's can read minds, teleport, you know, catch you stealing from them.  Whatever.

Alas, a Super Secret Underground Rebel Group (necessary in these types of books) attacks two government buildings.  The Silvers proceed to beat up all the Reds in their vicinity.  A Red crushes Gisa's "sewing hand" so she can never work again *faints* and will also be up for conscription.  Mare, feeling guilty, does what any self-respecting guilty person would do: she goes to a bar.

There, she attempts to pickpocket a man, but he catches her.  He is young and handsome (yawn), and gives her money for trying to steal from him, mostly because he's impressed with her spunk.  Ha ha.

Question of truth: How many readers have already guessed who the mysterious Hot Guy is?

The next day, Mare is summoned to work at the King's Palace.  She has a mysterious benefactor who recommended her for the job.  She hangs out there, doing her servant thing, until a Fateful Day.  There must be a Fateful Day.

In choosing a Queen, the Crown Prince has the option of picking from noble Silver girls who must show off their talents to him in a sort of Miss America pageant, sans bikinis.  The last hopeful summons lightning, and to her infinite surprise, Mare is able to control it.  Hold!  She is not a Silver, and therefore cannot do magic!  But she can!  She is a ... SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE!  What to do, what to do?

The king, up til now described as horrible, ruthless, and uncouth, does the least logical thing.  He gives Mare a new identity as a long-lost Silver noble and engages her to the Crown Prince's younger brother.

If I were a ruthless and horrible tyrant, I would kill anyone who threatened my power and hold over the people.  Mare clearly does that by her very existence, and any tyrant worth his or her salt would have simply made her disappear, and then use the Whispers (people who can enter others thoughts) to create false memories of the event.  Boom.  Problem solved.

However, if that had happened, the book would have ended and we wouldn't have had a vehicle for drawn-out romances and double-crosses and the old survive-at-court trope. Ugh.  I stopped about here.  I also read the ending, which was even more improbable.

An early blurb of this must have described The Red Queen as "Graceling meets The Selection."  Now, I haven't read The Selection, nor do I intend to, but I know the gist of it.  I love Graceling with all my heart, and The Red Queen is nothing, nothing like it.  Thankfully.  I'm a bit mystified at all of the fangirling over this book, with multiple fainting/grabby GIFs in the reviews and how this is teh best book EVAR GUYZ and all that.  This borrows so heavily from Red Rising and numerous other dystopian-lite romances that I can't take it seriously.  And honey, a pretty cover is not a valid reason to rate a book you haven't even read yet with five stars.

I received an ARC of this title from Edelweiss.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Number the Stars: A Newbery That Doesn't Stink!


Hooray!  In my unofficial Newbery Challenge, I've successfully completed Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, and I liked it.

I know, I'm as shocked as you are.  

You're probably wondering what sort of planet I'm from because I had not previously read this for school.  I went to a private school (gosh, not like that--I was a scholarship student!) and so we didn't have to stick to the traditional curriculum for grade school English.  I rather wish we had read Number the Stars, because then it would have given me a ray of hope when we did our historical fiction unit.  Johnny I-fused-my-thumb-to-my-palm-with-molten-silver Tremain and Across Five Aprils (Civil War yawnfest) nigh on sucked the life out of reading for fifth-grade Pam.  We read those out of School Tradition.  Yuck.  When studying the Holocaust, we read The Diary of Anne Frank, which was, of course, outstanding.

So here I am, a grown-up librarian, reading Number the Stars.  Full disclosure: I read it at the gym.  It's a really quick read, but a surprisingly powerful one.

Annemarie's reality has been the Nazi occupation of her home country, Denmark, for the last three years.  She knows to be careful around the soldiers, and spunkily despises them for their inability/refusal to learn Danish.  Annemarie lives with her parents and little sister Kristi in Copenhagen, and goes to school with her friend Ellen Rosen, who lives in their building.  She knows that Ellen and her family are Jewish, and has a child's curiosity about other traditions.  Ellen's family is pretty awesome and open about their beliefs, and they allow Annemarie and Kristi to observe Shabbat preparations.  However, Annemarie never thinks of her friend as being different because of her religion, but rather simply observes that it is a part of Ellen and who she is.

One night, Annemarie's parents bring Ellen home with them, explaining that her parents had to go out of town.  In reality, the Nazis announced that they would be relocating all of the Jews in Denmark on the night of one of their holy days.  Annemarie's parents don't understand the full scope of what relocation entails, but they know that it is dangerous and wrong, and so they help the Resistance hide their Jewish friends and neighbors.

Lowry creates so many impactful yet simple visuals with this book.  In order to conceal Ellen's heritage from the Nazi soldiers, Annemarie yanks Ellen's Star of David necklace off of her neck and clenches it in her palm the whole time that the soldiers search the apartment.  At the end of the chapter, she opens her hand and sees a Star of David imprinted on her palm.  Like the necklace, Annemarie's decisions and actions leave a mark on her and shape her character.

It's a very short book, but there's a lot of great information in here on the Danish resistance, the Danish monarchy, and the mass evacuation of the Danish Jewish population to Sweden.  Lasky's endnote is particularly illuminating.

What I think I liked most about this, however, was the lack of what most kids would call "a real ending."  As in The Giver (the first book I ever read that had an ambiguous ending!), Lasky doesn't give everyone a happy ending, nor does she explicitly describe everyone's lives after the war.  Yet, it's also a satisfying ending, for no matter what happens, we--and Annemarie--know that she showed true courage and friendship, and that's not something to be taken lightly or be forgotten.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

East of West: Vol. 2: We Are All Insane

East of West, Vol. 2: We Are All OneEast of West, Vol. 2: We Are All One by Jonathan Hickman
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

It's been a long time since I read volume 1 of the TPs of this series, but I cannot remember why I rated it so highly.  Maybe I was feeling generous that day.  Maybe, that day, sneaking my reading in at Barnes and Noble because the library didn't have this series yet, I felt like I'd found something new and different.  That was in the earlier days of my comic book/graphic novel reading.

Now, I'm unsure about this whole setup.

I do like the setting of the book: this alternate America split into several sovereign nations after a particularly drawn-out Civil War.  Unfortunately, life kind of stinks everywhere and the rulers seem to be mostly tyrants, not elected leaders.  But no one will have to worry about that much longer, because the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse have come to Earth, built a GIANT white tower in the middle of the desert, and promptly lost 1/4 of their number, namely, Death.  Death is an all-white (as in, zero color at all) cowboy who fits the cowboy-anti-hero mold.  He has a gun and shoots people with it a lot.

Um, if he's Death, wouldn't he have, I don't know, some sort of supernatural death powers that would kill people, instead of a six-shooter?

Anyway, he's looking for his son (all this was discussed in vol. 1, and I honestly don't remember why, but I'm rolling with it), who's been kidnapped by the remaining Three Horsemen, because they think he is the Beast that will bring about the Apocalypse (which is a really overused word: the Greek means an uncovering or a revealing, not "end of the world.").  I kept rollin my eyes at this.  Also there's a guy with some sort of generic Sarlacc fused to his body.  Also also, the leader of the Union is a servant of the Three Horseman who is a combination of Cruella De Vil and Morticia Addams.

If the sole purpose of this comic's existence was to utterly confound people, it has succeeded (except for the self-righteous readers who say things like, "Well, obviously you're just not smart enough to catch its real meaning" and so on.  Vomit).  I have very little clue as to what I just read.

There's also all this pseudo-spiritual stuff in here as taglines and chapter openers, and it feels cheesy.

This book makes me feel grumpy.  But I might skim the third volume just to see if Hickman can drag any part of this story out of the deep pit it's currently in.*

*I know, I just ended that sentence with a proposition.  I feel bad about it, but not as bad as if I'd created a horribly pretentious sentence in order to avoid the no-proposition-at-end-of-sentence rule.


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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Wicked Thing Is Deliciously Sweet

One of the few complaints I have regarding A Wicked Thing by Rhiannon Thomas is the title itself--it's veering off into pink Harlequin territory rather alarmingly.  Also, I'm not quite sure what the title is referring to--it has little to do with the deliciously, slightly fluffy story within.

I am a huge, huge sucker for fairy tale retellings.  As of late, I've been underwhelmed.  Everything has to try to be The Hunger Games meets the Brothers Grimm, which, FYI, doesn't work out so well. Or people try to do high fantasy and really end up writing 600 pages of nothing at all, which is also depressing.


To my extreme delight, A Wicked Thing is a wonderfully fluffy, delicious confection threaded with solid self-empowerment sentiments.  The author, Rhiannon Thomas, writes a blog called Feminist Fiction, which, of course, I've now added to my reading list of blogs.  Some of her topics aren't things that are in my sphere of knowledge--like Game of Thrones--but her reviews of books are thoughtful and don't pull any punches.  This is not a bootlicking book blog, of which I've discovered quite a few.  Anyway, after having learned that about the author, I understand why A Wicked Thing dealt with the themes that it did, and that ending!  The ending was my favorite part!

This article discusses just four of the numerous global incarnations of the sleeper mythos.  I found it telling that the version that most kids in the states are familiar with, the Briar Rose incarnation, " completely neglect[s] the second half of the tale that takes place after her marriage. Like the eldest of the four tales, the story closes with the simplest of ‘happily ever afters.’"  Indeed, that's where the fairy tale most often ends: there's a kiss, maybe a dance, a marriage, and a "happily ever after" (Lethologica, 4/16/2011). The princess barely knows her new prince, and yet they still get married.  How does that work?  I mean, I'm not even dating anyone and I have marriage anxiety--how can you marry someone you just met???  

Anyway, Princess Aurora is awakened from her magically-induced slumber by the well-meaning, ever-blushing Prince Rodric, who claims he's her true love.  After all, doesn't the story say that Aurora can only be awakened by the kiss of her true love?  Fortunately, Aurora has a good head on her shoulders and doesn't react well to a) being kissed by a stranger, b) finding out that she's been repeatedly kissed for a hundred years without her consent, and c) automatically becoming engaged to Rodric.  And Rodric's not a bad guy--he's shy and sweet and just as trapped as Aurora.  "A bit hapless, a bit unsure, but nice.  yet he was a stranger, a strange, ungainly boy who claimed her as his own, and she did not know what to do.  She had nothing else..."  

Some might argue that Aurora should have, from the first, proclaimed her independence and just run away.  But consider her situation: everyone she knows is dead.  Her family is dead.  The fairy who cursed her has disappeared.  The new royal family (really, a bunch of usurpers) whisks her out of her tower and places her under lock and key.  Aurora is disoriented, alone, and (importantly) fiercely loyal to her country.  She won't leave her people, especially once she finds out that the king is wicked and cruel behind his jolly facade, and that the people don't have enough to eat.  She's willing to sacrifice herself to this loveless marriage in the hopes of bettering her people's living conditions.  Well, at first she is.

Aurora has a few skills that the new royal family doesn't know about.  Like lockpicking.  She's able to slip out of the castle and mingle with the citizenry.  At a tavern, she meets a roguish, likeable guy who opens her eyes to the truth about the King and the state of Alyssinia (her kingdom).  I don't blame Aurora for falling for Tristan, and I like her even more for the decisions she makes regarding their relationship.  You might not like Aurora when the book starts, but at the end, I wanted to give that girl a high five.

Aurora slowly realizes that she's being used, not just by the King and Queen, but by the rebels, and by Celestine (the wicked fairy).  She decides she doesn't want to be currency in their personal wars, but be her own person.  

I also really enjoyed the relationship between Roderic and Aurora.  She doesn't hate him--he's really not a bad person--but she doesn't want to marry him.  To all the interfering matchmakers out there (and I've met a lot of you, thanks!): just because a guy is nice and a girl is nice does not mean they must get married.  "He was a good person, she told herself.  But she did not love him, and every beat of her heart thudded through her, telling her that this was wrong, wrong, all wrong."  YES.  You can like someone without being in love with him or her.  

Apart from the title, my only other regret was that the book doesn't talk much about Aurora's magical powers.  They're briefly explored, but I think Thomas means to deal with them in further books.  I hope.

Overall, this was a lovely reimagining of Sleeping Beauty and a great story about self-worth, choices, and overcoming the fear of being alone.

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

The Doubt Factory

One of the many doubts raised by The Doubt Factory is whether Paolo Bacigalupi actually wrote this.  I've read Ship Breaker (loved it!) and The Drowned Cities (liked it, with reservations), and both books had excellent prose, well-drawn characters, and a wonderfully seamy, gritty feel that perfectly suited the setting.  I had been hoping he'd write another novel set in that post-apocalyptic world, but instead I got The Doubt Factory.


I went into The Doubt Factory knowing it was a Book with an Agenda (BWAA).  BWAA's are not inherently poor literature; on the contrary!  Pretty much all of Dickens' oeuvre consisted of BWAAs.  Cory Doctorow writes fantastic YA and adult sci-fi that contains a lot of social commentary.  Even thriller writers like Michael Crichton have written BWAAs, but they were still compelling, interesting books.

The Doubt Factory is shoddily written, has completely unbelievable characters, and runs on a plot so thinly stretched it could be a model at New York Fashion Week.  It's evident that Bacigalupi (but my reader's soul refuses to believe that he actually wrote this, and/or he is totally trolling us and it will turn out that this was a massive prank) has a cause that he believes in, and that he wanted to write a book about it.  Unfortunately, the plot and characters just hang limply off of the pressing social issue at the heart of the book, which makes for an excessively unpleasant reading experience.

As noted by other reviewers, the book is Hollywood-blockbuster-esque in its product placement.  I am sure that this is to prove a point--that the lifestyle of the main character is all about brand names, money, and status, without a thought given to the marketing strategies of those companies or how they treat their workers.  The constant name dropping distracts from the narrative flow (what little there is) and smacks of desperation.  I started bookmarking each instance of product placement in my e-ARC: "he typed away on a little Sony laptop;" "[Alix] went and got Diet Cokes out of the fridge;" "Jonah wandered into the living room and fired up his Xbox;" "It looked like the German shepherds had a thing for German automobiles.  Every time they came up on an Audi or Mercedes, they went nuts."  Does anyone else find that last situation laughably ridiculous?  German shepherds, smart as they are, are not aware of their pedigree, nor can they distinguish Das Auto from a plain ol' car.  Unless Bacigalupi is implying that everyone who drives a German-made automobile is a drug runner...

If all of this product naming is intended to be an indictment of consumerism, then there are other ways to go about it.  I would have preferred it had Bacigalupi invented his own product names, because this just feels like advertising.

Anyway, the "plot" of the book goes something like this: Alix is a pretty girl who goes to a prestigious private school called Seitz.  One day, she looks out her classroom window and sees a guy punch the headmaster and take him down, then disappear.  The next day, an elaborate contraption spray-paints a message on the windows of the buildings, and thousands of white rats run around campus (I am not making this up).  As the students watch the SWAT team members flee in terror from itty bitty rats, Punching Boy returns and tells Alix that this is all about her father.  What's a girl to do?  Why, obsess over him, of course!  "He'd been smiliing at her.  And she still couldn't shake the feeling that she'd seen him before.  Familiar and frightening at the same time.  Like the smell of an electrical storm looming on the horizon."  Alix thus infers that the boy likes her because he smiled at her after he punched the headmaster.

Right.

But oh, the logic continues to crumble.  When he sneaks up on her in a crowd, she chases after him and is again mesmerized by his epic hotness and Brooding Aura of Mystery.  "She could see herself reflected in his mirrored lenses.  It made her feel small.  More like a little girl than a grown woman ... He's tall, she thought inanely."  "Inane" is exactly the right word for it!  Later, she even lets him in her house.  What is this girl thinking?  She keeps saying that she doesn't know why she's doing what she's doing but she's going to keep doing it because this guy is so darned intruiging.

Wait, what happened to that plot summary I was doing?  Well, the book derails into this morass of Bad Decisions, so I had to follow, unwillingly.  Anyway, when Alix tells her father, who works in PR or something--she doesn't really know--he freaks out and gets some super-secret private security firm to guard the house and the family.  Alix gets her very own bodyguard, whom she nicknames Death Barbie.  From here on out, Alix's sole purpose in life is to escape Death Barbie and maybe see that hot stalker/terrorist again.  Her friend Cynthia, who is THE stereotypical caricature of an Asian-American student--brilliant overachiever with perfect SATs--engineers a ridiculous escape involving wigs and an old Dodge Dart.  All of this so that Cynthia and Alix can go to a rave in a barn in the middle of nowhere and drink and take drugs.  Yay!  Alix is so happy to be "free" that she doesn't realize ... well, that's a spoiler, but most readers will pick up on what's going on.

The band of vigilantes, led by Moses (Alix's hot dude), tries to enlist her and tells her that her father is not an innocent PR guy, but rather the TOTALLY EVIL LEADER of a corporation that manufactures doubt about deadly products.  For example, delaying placement of warning stickers on aspirin about Reyes Disease so that the company can milk a few more billions out of the product.  Yes.  I agree.  This is a Very Bad Thing.  But I honestly don't know how many teens want to read a novel about it.

The second half of the book is a rather standard conspiracy-caper-thriller, with a predictable yet simultaneously implausible ending.  The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this is an enormous practical joke and Bacigalupi will release the real book as a surprise.  If he did that, he would have become a big player in the doubt factory world.

I regret pretty much every minute I spent reading this.

Netgalley provided an ARC of this title.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Newbery Challenge: The Story of Mankind

As I mentioned in my review of A Gathering of Days, I like lists.  I like the satisfaction that comes from checking off every single thing on a list.  However, while I have neither the time nor the inclination to read all of the Newbery Award Winners, I was curious to read the first book ever awarded that honor: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Van Loon.

I swear that I put a mark or note on every single page of the ebook I downloaded from Project Gutenberg.  This book is that crazy.  "But it's so old!" you cry.  "Surely, that must excuse him some things."  Okay, maybe a few.  But there is some bat-guano-crazy stuff going on in this book and I just have to get it all off my chest.  I hate having guano on my chest.  Stinks to high heaven.

Let me preface this by saying that (obviously) I was not a child in the early 1920s.  I do not know what other material kids had to read besides their textbooks for school, and since Van Loon at least has some fun with this story, I can see how it would be more appealing than dry academic works.  Slightly more appealing.  Fortunately, Van Loon does acknowledge that his writing is biased.  Unfortunately, he doesn't say anything like that until the end of the book.

Like most literature of the period written by old white dudes, this book is Euro-centric, offensive, short-sighted, and ... offensive.  I had to throw that in twice.  Van Loon has an odd mixture of religion and Darwinism going on as well, which really threw me off.  I think the best way to tackle this beast is to just go right down the line of his "story."

Van Loon gives a very abbreviated version of the theory of evolution, which consists mostly of a floating cell that becomes other things that become more things that become humans.  My favorite bit was how Van Loon describes the discovery of fire.  Setting: one of the various Ice Ages.  A cave.  A humanoid is cold.  Annnnd action!
"Then a genius bethought himself of the use of fire. Once, while out hunting, he had been caught in a forest-fire. He remembered that he had been almost roasted to death by the flames. Thus far fire had been an enemy. Now it became a friend. A dead tree was dragged into the cave and lighted by means of smouldering branches from a burning wood. This turned the cave into a cozy little room."
Handy, huh?  Yay fire!  But wait for this gem of a non sequitur: "And then one evening a dead chicken fell into the fire."  This is How Man Discovered Cooking.  Hooray!

Then we skip ahead a lot in time to the Egyptians and hieroglyphs, which Van Loon really likes talking about, and the pyramids.  We find out that the Nile River "taught the people who lived along its banks the noble art of 'team-work,' " unless you're like me, and the words "group project" inspire terror and despair.

Because we're in Biblical times, Van Loon tries to work in both a secular and a religious viewpoint of events recorded in the Bible.  Most of the time it just ends up being really confusing (and I would assume that most of the kiddos reading this back in the day would have been more religious than kids today generally are).  The author states that the name "Babylon" came from when "the Jews saw them  [the ziggurats] when they went into exile in the land of Babylon and they called them towers of Bab-Illi, or towers of Babel."  The subsequent narrative of Moses and the Israelites seems to be cobbled out the author's own imagination.  If he's going to talk about something that is in a holy text, he should at least follow what that says and not make up his own story.  He kind of does the same thing for Islam, too.

I honestly can't summarize the whole book for you because there's so much to talk about.  Here are a few choice quotes with some commentary instead:

"Indeed, ancient Athens resembled a modern club."  Here, Van Loon obviously means a London club of society gentlemen, but I very much doubt the Athenians lounged about playing pool and smoking cigars.

On slavery in the Hellenic world: "But when we talk about slaves, we do not mean the sort of people about whom you have read in the pages of 'Uncle Tom’s Cabin.' "  Yes, he went there.

On how the Greeks beat the Persian Empire: "But the Gods of High Olympus watched over their children and when the Phœnician fleet carrying the Persian troops was near Mount Athos, the Storm-God blew his cheeks until he almost burst the veins of his brow, and the fleet was destroyed by a terrible hurricane and the Persians were all drowned."  Easy-peasy.

"But as no one has ever been able to decipher the Etruscan alphabet, these written messages are, so far, merely annoying and not at all useful."  If you don't understand it, it must be crap.

On the fall of Rome: "Then at last the imperial city sank into a state of utter neglect and despair. The ancient palaces had been plundered time and again. The schools had been burned down. The teachers had been starved to death. The rich people had been thrown out of their villas which were now inhabited by evil-smelling and hairy barbarians."  The hirsuteness of the barbarians was really the last straw.  Also, how do we know they smelled any worse than anyone else?

On the founding of Islam: "The story of Ahmed, the son of Abdallah and Aminah, (usually known as Mohammed, or “he who will be praised,”) reads like a chapter in the “Thousand and One Nights.” He was a camel-driver, born in Mecca. He seems to have been an epileptic and he suffered from spells of unconsciousness when he dreamed strange dreams and heard the voice of the angel Gabriel."  So Mohammed was a fairy-tale man with epilepsy.  This is Van Loon being respectful.

"Heaven knew what fresh hordes of barbarians were ready to cross the Alps and begin a new attack on Rome."  He's really stuck on those barbarians.

On the Norsemen: "They soon learned to speak the language of their subjects and gave up the uncivilised ways of the early Vikings (or Sea-Kings) who had been very picturesque but also very unwashed and terribly cruel."  

On writing in the Middle Ages: "Before the middle of the thirteenth century, a layman who could read and write was regarded as a 'sissy' "

"Then there was Abelard, the young priest from Brittany, who early in the twelfth century began to lecture on theology and logic in Paris. Thousands of eager young men flocked to the French city to hear him."  He also had the sexytimes with a nun named Héloïse and they're more known for their doomed love affair.

De Loon's account of Dante Alighieri is totally bizarre and oversimplified and he also gives a mangled account of The Divine Comedy.  Per De Loon, "Virgil then takes Dante through Purgatory and through Hell. Deeper and deeper the path leads them until they reach the lowest pit where Lucifer himself stands frozen into the eternal ice surrounded by the most terrible of sinners, traitors and liars and those who have achieved fame and success by lies and by deceit."  I have a lot to say about this, but I will restrain myself to two main points.

  1. Dante and Virgil start out in Hell, and then climb to Purgatory, and finally Paradise.  This is symbolic of the Pilgrim's gradually improving state of grace with God and his shedding of his past sinful ways.  They don't go through Purgatory to get to Hell.  This is pretty obvious if you've ever read the poem.  Which this guy doesn't seem to have done.
  2. The Ninth Circle of Hell is reserved for betrayers--not liars or just general "sinners."  Dante's Hell has a very specific hierarchy and even the betrayers are sorted out by whom they betrayed.  Liars are in the Eighth Circle with the Falsifiers.  They have falsified words.  
"The Chinese had never been much interested in religion as we understand that word. They believed in devils and spooks as most primitive people do. But they had no prophets and recognised no 'revealed truth.' "  Hmm.  So a people who built a massive and successful empire with many dynasties and who figured out a lot of scientific principles before anyone in Western Europe even thought about them are "primitive."  This is me restraining my rage.  I think I'm doing rather well!

On royal inbreeding: "Philip was the son of Charles and a Portuguese princess who had been first cousin to her own husband. The children that are born of such a union are apt to be rather queer. The son of Philip, the unfortunate Don Carlos, (murdered afterwards with his own father’s consent,) was crazy. Philip was not quite crazy, but his zeal for the Church bordered closely upon religious insanity."  Well, yes, technically correct, but the language could use some sprucing up.

De Loon offers the world's most succinct, lazy summary of the Thirty Years' War ever: "Everybody fought everybody else and the struggle ended only when all parties had been thoroughly exhausted and could fight no longer."  I beg someone to write that on an exam for Western Civ.  I then beg that person to send me the professor's comments.

"It [the rise of the Mongolian Empire] turned the Slavic peasants into miserable slaves. No Russian could hope to survive unless he was willing to creep before a dirty little yellow man who sat in a tent somewhere in the heart of the steppes of southern Russia and spat at him. It deprived the mass of the people of all feeling of honour and independence. It made hunger and misery and maltreatment and personal abuse the normal state of human existence. Until at last the average Russian, were he peasant or nobleman, went about his business like a neglected dog who has been beaten so often that his spirit has been broken and he dare not wag his tail without permission."  Wow.  That was ... intensely offensive.

On Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette of France: "Even “if” he had possessed the ruthless strength of Napoleon, his career during these difficult days might have been easily ruined by his wife who was the daughter of Maria Theresa of Austria and who possessed all the characteristic virtues and vices of a young girl who had been brought up at the most autocratic and mediæval court of that age."  Buuuuurrrrn.  Evidently, if Maria Teresa was your mother, you were doomed to be an idiot.

On Napoléon: "The Emperor Napoleon was a most contemptible person."  No, tell me how you really feel.

He also had a low opinion of Queen Victoria: "He [Napoléon III] had gained the friendship of Queen Victoria but this had not been a difficult task, as the good Queen was not particularly brilliant and was very susceptible to flattery."

So, pretty much, this guy disliked most everyone and obviously felt he could have done things a lot better.  He peppers the text with bizarre ink line drawings, some of which feel like a joke because there's so many arrows pointing here, there, and everywhere.  One of them contains the label, "Here live the savage Finns."  

If the young men of the 1920s thought that this really was an accurate history of the world, then I suppose I am not surprised that World War II happened.  They were too busy patting themselves on the back for being Awesome Europeans and Americans to notice what that painter from Austria was doing over in Germany.  

For a good laugh, you can read this book.  If you'd like to be horrified by racism, you can also read this book.  And if you'd like to be thoroughly befuddled on the subject of religion, most definitely read this book.  It's an interesting snippet of the beliefs of the time, but ultimately unworthy of being awarded anything.  Except, perhaps, my undying scorn.  I don't give that to just anybody, you know.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The League of Seven

I'm sure that in Geekdom, Steampunk is one of those things that is cool, so therefore it is no longer cool (like how if somebody does/wears/eats something and it's labelled "hipster," it's no longer "hipster.").  This is a confusing facet of our society, but I can't pretend to explain it.

However, since I am not a hipster and I'm kind of a bad geek, I still enjoy steampunk.  I loved Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, and Phillip Reeve's Hungry City Chronicles and Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan trilogy are probably the best YA steampunks out there.  Seeing more kid-oriented steampunk excites me as a librarian, so I was eager to read Alan Gratz' The League of Seven.


What could have been a fantastic juvenile steampunk floundered under the weight of an uneven plot, stereotypical characters, references that pretty much no child will ever catch, and a really troubling portrayal of Native Americans.

The novel follows Archie*, whose parents are librarians and members of a secret society called the Septemberists.  The goal of the Septemberists is to keep the world safe from Horrors Out of Time, Old Ones who occasionally rise up in monster form and attack humanity.  If you've noticed the nod to Lovecraft, hooray!  If you're a child who realizes Gratz is referencing Lovecraft, I might have to talk to your parents.  Anyway.  The whole cycle-of-monsters threat strongly recalls Percy Jackson and the Kane Chronicles books, which (broadly) deal with new iterations or incarnations of heroes to save the world from old, mean gods.  Hmmm...

The Septemberists are the latest incarnation of humans to fight the Mangleborn and Manglespawn (those nasty beasties!) that previous heroes fought and imprisoned at various points under the ground.  There is always a League of Seven to protect humanity from the Manglespawn, and it always contains one of each of the following: "a tinker, a law-bringer, a scientist, a trickster, a warrior, a strong man, and a hero."  So, it's like the steampunk JLA.  The current (of the book's time) Septemberist Council consists of:

Frederick Douglass (law-bringer member), identified as having "wild, frizzy hair" and not for being, you know, a fantastic lawyer, author, and orator.

General Robert E. Lee, member of the United Nations Army (warrior member)

"Lacrosse star John Two-sticks" (I have no idea which member he is)

Why is Robert E. Lee the warrior par excellence?  Had the American Civil War not occurred, would he even have risen to such prominence?  And I'll get to the treatment of Native Americans in a bit, but, yeesh.

So anyway, Archie and his Tik-Tok (a windup man/mechanical man/clockwork man) Mr. Rivets find a Manglespawn in the super-secret lair of the League of Seven.  This Manglespawn creates little Alien-esque face-sucker-type creatures that attach to the back of the neck and control their hosts (I feel like I just read this in Robogenesis).  Archie's mom and dad, as well as the current League of Seven, fall under the control of the Manglespawn and attack him.  The Mangleborn who is trying to escape, Malacar Ahasherat, the Swarm Queen (think big bad beastie who controls insects), brings Archie's mom and dad down to Florida to join up with her ally Evil Thomas Edison, who is using Lecktricty to fuel the Swarm Queen's powers and help her escape.  Archie's parents, being librarians, have read about and know the keys to opening the Swarm Queen's prison.  Then all this stuff happens and a Scottish kid (who of course wears a kilt and has an uncertain accent--by which I mean the author is uncertain whether or not to deploy the Scottish accent, so it appears at irregular intervals) named Fergus get special powers, escapes the employ of Edison, and joins Archie.  Another young person, a girl named Hachi who's a wizard with weaponry, ends up joining their little party as well.

Aided by Mr. Rivets, the three have to find a way to stop Edison and the Swarm Queen and save Archie's parents.  From here on out, the story gets extremely convoluted as the three travel by airship, battle other airships, desecrate a tomb, get betrayed, split up (dear Lord, for the love of all that is good, don't split up! Didn't anyone learn anything from Scooby-Doo?), die (sort of), solve puzzles, and do various other steampunky things like shoot rayguns and ride locomotives.

After the encounter with Edison, Archie's hair turns pure white, while Fergus gains the ability to control and channel lektricity.  Archie feels that they are the new League of Seven, with Fergus being the tinkerer and Hachi being the warrior.  Since he's also exceedingly modest, Archie casts himself as the hero, even though he's having nightmares where the Swarm Queen speaks to him, calling him Jandal a Haad and hinting that he is actually a Bad Guy.  He also discovers that his parents have been keeping a Secret Journal about him (dun dun DUNNN) and he wants to know why they were spying on him kinda-sorta.

Yes, the story of the ethically-torn Chosen One is here again.  Riordan made it work in Percy Jackson with a lot of humor, fun characters, and research.  Here, it just feels tired and shoehorned into a story that has a lot of other stuff going on.

In this alternate past, the United States never became the United States.  European settlers did not maintain control of the land, and the main superpower of the North American continent is the United Nations, which is basically an enlarged version of the Iroquois Confederacy.  The European settlers are referred to as Yankees and have very little political say.  It's a really interesting twist on history, and I think it really had potential.

Unfortunately, the characters who populate the United Nations draw on so many stereotypes that I sometimes wanted to scream.  Hachi, the Seminole girl who ends up joining up with Archie after a battle, is typecast as the wild warrior with almost superhuman fighting skills.  Here's her initial description:  "A First Nations girl a little older than Archie.  She was thin and tall, with dark brown skin and black hair.  A Seminole, Archie guessed.  Maybe Muskogee."  Hachi sits cross-legged a lot, and is described as "the war-chief of their misfit tribe."  I did a double, no, a triple-take when I read that.  Did I just read that?  I read that.  It exists.  I started feeling a little bit ill because I was so angry with how Native Americans were being discussed.

Later in the story, Fergus hops a ride aboard a "Cheyenne-built Iron Chief" train which is attacked by Muskogee.  He encounters "a Muskogee warrior with war paint on his face" and then zaps him with lektricity.

Meanwhile, Archie is presumed dead, but has been rescued by a man named John Otter, who places him  "in a hot, smoky room filled with jars and medical equipment and books.  The air smelled like herbs and dirt."  Since he feels pretty good, he attends a dance where "men and women in costumes decorated with beads and feathers and animal skins danced around in a circle, while the spectators beat drums and chanted in Cherokee."  Because, you know, a Yankee would totally be invited to participate in a spiritual ceremony where people wear "costumes."  Couldn't the author at least have said regalia?

The main Native peoples mentioned in the book are located from the Midwest eastward--no mention at all of anyone beyond Oklahoma.  The way the people are presented in the story, it sounds like the majority of people living in the United Nations are either Cherokee or Muskogee (Mvskoke; later called Creek), since they are on the brink of war in the book.  All of the names are Anglicized names--if the Iroquois had succeeded in bringing peace to the land, wouldn't each nation have been using their own names for themselves in their own languages, instead of the English versions?

All the press I've seen for this book is marketed for younger readers--maybe middle grade.  However, Gratz includes a lot of in-jokes and history twists that will probably sail over the intended audience's collective head, and which are therefore unnecessary.  For example:

  • " 'We're in a Franklin cage.'  'A what?' Archie asked.  'A who?' Hachi asked.  'Did someone just say "Franklin cage"?' Tesla said over the speaker.  Fergus put a hand out to the wall and touched it, but nothing happened.  He nodded.  'Franklin was a Yankee inventor.  He experimented with lektricity,' Fergus said.  'Edison had some of his old papers.  I saw them.  Franklin was a genius.' "  Older readers will recognize this as a play on the Faraday cage.  Benjamin Franklin did, in fact, discover the principle behind the Faraday cage in the 18th century, but Michael Faraday actually built one in the 1830s.  Since this novel is set in the 1870s, I don't see why Gratz couldn't have just left it as a "Faraday cage" unless he really didn't like Michael Faraday and explicitly wanted him dead in this alternate history. 
  • As they are attacked by a Meka-Ninja Tik Tok, Archie yells " 'I don't understand what's happened to them!  They're not allowed to hurt humans!  It's the first law of Tik Toks!' "  Ha ha.   A ha-ha ha.  Yes.  Asimov's First Law of Robotics.  All nine-year-olds know that one.
  • The motto of the girls' school that Hachi used to attend was "Flectere si nequeo superos, Achaeronta movebo," a quote from Virgil's Aeneid.  Because all middle-schoolers have read the Aeneid.  
  • Edison refers to the prophecies of "Batty Blavatsky."  Ditto all of the above but just apply to 19th-century occultist Madame Blavatsky.
The pacing is also really off.  For most of the book, the main characters run around trying to find special objects and clues, and the final battle doesn't take place until 95% of the way through.  I'm still not entirely sure what happened during that battle, either, as it was pretty all over the place.

There was also a really bizarre scene set in Nova Scotia, where a museum/park ranger-type lady approaches the group and says, " 'Comment pouvoir je vois aide?"  Wait, what?  He just plugged that into Google translate, didn't he?  They claim that the woman is speaking Acadian (Acadian French).  Look, Acadian (and also Québécois) are still dialects of French.  They follow standard French word order, although the vocabulary and pronunciation is often quite different.  What the woman says in the book is a literal translation of "How many I help you?" except the verbs are all wrong and in the wrong order.  She should have said something like, "Comment pourrais-je vois aider?" or "Comment puis-je vous aider" or even "Comment est-ce que je peux vous aider?"  It's not like no one in the world speaks French and the author has absolutely no one to whom to turn when he's writing a basic sentence in French, for pete's sake.

I'm sure this will get a lot of hoopla-whoop-de-do as a steampunk for kids, and that people will say I'm being overly sensitive, but I disagree.  This book was difficult to follow, had unsympathetic main characters, and a really uncomfortable treatment of Native Americans.  I would not recommend this, but would skip to other, better kid-friendly steampunks instead.

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley, which only had the cover art by Brett Helquist, and none of the interior art.  Phooey, as I quite like Helquist.



*Only a few days after finishing the book, I could not remember the name of the main male character.  I thought maybe his name was Timmy or something.  That may tell you something about the memorability of his character.  Or the weakness of my neuronal bonding.  You choose.