Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Iron Trial of zzzz

Remember that scene at the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where Brother Maynard deciphers the writing of Joseph of Arimithea to find out that the grail is in the Castle of Auugghhh?

I felt a lot like saying "Aaaarrrggghhhhh" when I was reading The Iron Trial by Cassandra Claire and Holly Black for two reasons.

1) I was looking forward to it because I adore Holly Black.
2)  It was so derivative.

Librarian Confession Time: I have not read Harry Potter.  I'm okay with that.  However, it's such a pervasive part of our culture--especially book culture--that I'm pretty familiar with the gist of it and some of the terms and characters and so forth.  I know Hedwig is the owl and I know about the Sorting Hat and all that jazz.  I also know that there was a big brouhaha over Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series.  Evidently, Clare had been active on Harry Potter fanfic boards and had posted a fanfic that seems to have turned into Mortal Instruments.  After finishing The Iron Trial, I read about this a bit more online and it was seriously falling down the rabbit hole.  I read pages and pages of detailed comparisons with side-by-side quotations of Clare's work and another author's work.  However, since I am not a really invested Harry Potter fan (no slash fanfic for me EVER, please and thank you), I assume that J.K. Rowling would have done something about the Mortal Instruments series if she felt it were really blatant plagiarism, and I was willing to give Cassie Clare a try (although honestly, she is milking that cow until its udders shrivel up and die).

And then I read The Iron Trial, and I said, "Oh."

Wait, let me back up a teensy bit.  I realize that coming-of-age stories, outsider-becomes-hero stories, boarding school stories, and The Chosen One stories were done long before Rowling ever wrote Harry Potter, and they will continue to be written.  Other reviewers cited Percy Jackson as an example of this.  It does have that formula of Chosen One + feisty girl + fun guy, but it's so much fun that HP never even crossed my mind.

In The Iron Trial, Callum (who is irritatingly referred to as "Call" and not "Cal" during the entire book, which made for some awkward sentences) knows that he has special abilities.  His father's been warning him about this all his life.  All he has to do is fail the test to get into the Magisterium (that's Mage school, for all you muggles (oops, wrong series)) and life will be great!  Except even though Call fails all the tests, he still gets in (not a spoiler, obviously, because that's what the book is about) AND gets chosen as one of the best teacher's students.  Unfortunately, this means he has to work as a team with snooty Tamara and popular dude Aaron, plus deal with the jerkwaddery of legacy student Jasper (who is so over-the-top nasty that things get ridiculous).

There's ... stuff ... that goes on.  Like Call's leg doesn't work properly, and it pains him a lot, so he feels left out.  Call also makes Very Stupid Decisions that go against the rules and then he decides not to tell anybody anything because he can be his own person (cue dramatic theme music) and become whomever he wishes to become.

People more well-versed in the Potterverse could probably pick out loads of similarities between this book and Potter--I mean, even I got the basic similarities.  

Actually, I was most disappointed by the lack of Holly Black's voice in this.  She generally does dark and quirky, and the majority of this book doesn't approach dark or quirky.  Even Doll Bones, her middle grade book, was still really creepy.  This is not creepy.  Or dark.  Or snarky.  It's not dangerous or rough or real.  

For kiddos who eat up quest stories and fantasy, this might be a great selection.  However, as an adult reader, I can't recommend it.

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.

Monday, September 29, 2014

What ... was that? The Merciless leaves me speechless.

As we inch further into fall (egads!), publishers practically start throwing horror novels at the market.  It's as if October is the only month of the year people wish to read scary stories.  This is, of course, not true, but publishers bank on Halloween and the whole autumn-as-death symbolism to bring us more horror stories.  Or should I say, "horror" stories?

The two novels that I reviewed earlier, Welcome to the Dark House and Creed, released this month.  I honestly can't complain about a surge in creepy books, because as a librarian who has to fill up displays of teen books, I appreciate the extra material.  It makes my life a million times easier.  As with any book, though, the fact that it's been published doesn't mean it's the best thing ever written.  The majority of the books I read for review purposes (as opposed to something I personally love or that's been on my Read Before Death list) don't end up wowing me (exceptions: The Girl from the Well, Blackbird, and The Walls Around Us).

One of the big problems in the horror/thriller/mystery genre is that everybody wants to be the next Stephen King.  Rather, publisher's blurbs want to make you think that this author is the next Stephen King.  This puzzles me, because a) Stephen King is not the only person to have written really good horror, and b) I honestly don't feel like Uncle Steve is that terrifying.  What I appreciate about his novels (confession: I haven't read a lot of them) is his attention to character development and atmosphere.  He explores humanity, and that's why his books are so scary: humanity is monumentally horrible.

This leads me to The Merciless, by Danielle Vega.  I first heard inklings of this book at C2E2 2014.  Penguin had a small book booth with ARCs.  I snagged an adult dystopian that I still haven't read (oops), and as I was putting it into one of my numerous geeky totes, I listened to the Penguin rep pitch The Merciless to a teen girl beside me.  She said it was super scary and about witches.  I thought, "Nope, not for me."  Plus, the ARC itself was massive--it's almost like they printed it on legal paper--and heavy.  When I have to schlep ARCs, nerd tchotckes, prints, t-shirts, and signed comics back to my hotel, I am going to be very selective about what I put in that tote.  The Merciless stayed behind, and I honestly never thought I'd hear of it again.

Flash forward about four months.  What do I see popping up in journal reviews but The Merciless?  It now has a minimalist pink cover with gold embossing, and one review actually said this might need a warning label.  Did I order it for the library?  Duh.  If nothing else, it would be a provocative choice.

After reading the reviews, it was clear that the Penguin rep was probably a bit confused.  Or she might have been overwhelmed by seeing a Mystique cosplay walk past.  That gets me every time.  The Merciless is not about witches.  Fundamentally, it's psycho Mean Girls who have a serious fundamentalist Christian addiction.  And that massive ARC that I saw has been slimmed down to a novel that I read in one day.  Maybe too slimmed down ... but we'll get to that in a moment.  What could have been a really interesting character study is instead a series of horror vignettes enacted by extreme stereotypes.

To put it another way, bad and gross stuff happens pretty much nonstop to people who are boring.

Sofia Flores moves around the country approximately every six months because her mother is an Army medic.  They bring along her Grandmother, who had a stroke a few years back and now only sits and says her rosary.  Sofia loves Grandmother dearly, and has wonderful memories of her stories and their time together in Mexico.  Sofia's mother suffers from that YA book syndrome called Absent Parent Syndrome, because she's conveniently missing and disengaged from her daughter.  She doesn't seem to know that Sofia suffers at each new school she attends.  The last time was particularly bad...

But that's all behind her now.  She can start out again at a new school in this ultra-conservative Southern town.  Right on the very first day, she's invited to sit with the cool girls.  The Plastics, if you will.  Riley, the leader, makes Sofia feel warm and loved almost right away.  Alexis (Lexie) is a pale blonde paragon of Southern girlishness, and Grace is a funky ex-Chicagoan.  Riley and her friends take Sofia under their wing, letting her into their secret place--a half-finished house in a subdivision that tanked when the economy did.  There, they drink wine and talk about boys and condemn Brooklyn, a vaguely punk/emo/goth girl at their school.

Riley, Lexie, and Grace are convinced that Brooklyn is evil and that her soul needs to be saved.  Sofia isn't so sure.  But hey, she's got friends now, right?  What wouldn't you do for your friends?

Well, Sofia becomes an accomplice in the kidnapping and torture of Brooklyn.  Hooray friendship?

From this point on, I had to struggle through a litany of torture and the main character's bad decisions.  Or rather, lack of decisions.  Riley decides that they need to exorcise Brooklyn, which is really a laugh (a sad, mocking laugh) because they don't know what they're doing.  All of their religious-speak is totally unconvincing.  There's a scene where they "baptize" someone and Riley and Lexie say you have to "accept Jesus into your heart" or something like that in order to be baptized.  In the name of Research, I'm trying to find a source for Lexie's "exorcism" speech, and I keep finding all these websites screeching, "Warning, to be performed by a priest only!"  Ladies, should have paid attention to the warning!

Except it's not really about exorcisms or demons.  It's about hatred, pure and simple.  Riley is a psychopath who hates Brooklyn.  Brooklyn also has some major issues and hates ... well, most everyone.  In an ultra-religious town, what better way to revenge yourself on someone than to do it under the guise of religion?  Most wars in history were fought under the banner of "religion."  Riley is almost like a cult leader, with her friends/minions Lexie and Grace doing whatever she says.  Although Sofia claims that she's trying to escape and help Brooklyn, she doesn't try very hard.

All of the different tortures that Riley inflicts on Brooklyn seem straight out of a Chiller channel original movie, and seem to have no purpose other than to shock.  I think that if an average teenage girl were to undergo what Brooklyn does, she wouldn't be conscious after the first few minutes.

So, there's like 130 pages of blah blah blah, run around, hide, plot, try to escape, fail, blah blah blah.  Suddenly there's a ta-da moment and everything that happens after that is even more unbelievable than the preceding pages.  I guess the ending was supposed to be provocative or something but it had been foreshadowed from a million miles away.

The Merciless tries really, really, really hard to be edgy, but just comes off as desperate.  However, it was a quick read, and I was mildly amused by the one-upmanship of straight up crazy.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Hey, it's okay...

not to finish a book because it makes you feel uncomfortable.

Oh, no.  The Internet is going to come after me with pitchforks and torches.  People will screech, "But how will you learn??? You are prejudiced!  How can you call yourself a librarian if you limit what you reeeeeaaad???"  The Internet gets a little hysterical at times.  Just a wee bit.  In case you haven't noticed.

I requested an ARC of F.G. Cottam's newest book, The Lazarus Prophecy, because I've had Dark Echo (another book by Cottam) on my to-read list for a while.  The summary for The Lazarus Prophecy intrigued me: a Jack the Ripper-esque serial killer stalks London, while DCI  Jane Sullivan stalks him.  His murders are horrifying, because they involve muliation and sacreligeous writings.    Jane and the Yard enlist the help of a seminary dropout turned theologian named Jacob.

Meanwhile, an ultra-modern emissary from the Vatican climbs up a mountain in the Pyrenees to confront an order cloistered there.  They had received instructions from a cardinal in Rome to cease their rituals immediately, and the guard dog priest had been dispatched to ensure that the elderly men of the priory heeded the edict.  He's exceedingly proud of his athletic prowess and pragmatism when it comes to spiritual matters.  This guy is the worst houseguest ever.  He just stomps in, yells at the elderly friars, takes their sacred text, climbs back down the mountain, and gets hit by a car.

Now things started taking a turn for the truly bizarre, and I started feeling like this wasn't the book for me.

The titular Lazarus Prophecy isn't some sort of metaphor (which I erringly assumed from the get-go). Nope, it's an actual prophecy (in the book) uttered by Lazarus.  Yes, that Lazarus.  Back-from-the-dead Lazarus.  From the Bible.  According to the brothers living in the Pyreneean priory, "Lazarus was a sinner, judged before the Almighty and found wanting.  They believed the real miracle was that Lazarus was summoned back, not from death, but from hell.  They believed he had learned something there of Satan's plans for humankind."  Whoa whoa whoa.  What?

After Jesus' death, Lazarus goes to Peter (Saint Peter) and is very distressed by his "burden" of knowing what's going to happen.  Peter, being a rather bang up fellow, relieves him of this burden, absolves him of sin (?), and creates a Super Special Secret Society to deal with the threat relayed by Lazarus.  This threat is that Satan, being rather bored down in Hell, is going to send demons to the Earth.  The Super Special Secret Society basically just has to pray really hard and this keeps demons locked in the basement of their Super Strong Fortress.  At this point, I just said no.

I'm uncomfortable reading books about demons.  Also, when I thought about the argument presented in this book, it just didn't make sense to me.  All that follows is with the caveat that I am not Catholic, but I am Christian.

First of all, one could argue that the book inherently assumes that the Catholic beliefs about Hell, the Devil, and Jesus are all what actually govern the world, and not, say, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam.  Generally when authors do a sort of woo-woo evil they'll rename it and say it's XYZ, which influenced a particular belief or set of beliefs in religions all over the world.  This just bothers me from a diversity standpoint.  It might be excessively nitpicky, but it's just the sort of thing I notice, particularly with renewed emphasis in the book world for more diversity.

Secondly, proceeding from the assumption that this is all real, it doesn't really jive with what the Bible says, or with what I've learned about Hell.  In the original languages, the words that the cardinal and the Friars of the Most Holy Order of St. John's Gospel (the guys on the mountain) translate as "hell" are more commonly rendered "grave" (she'ol and ha'des).  The cardinal refers to Matt. 16:18 and quotes "The gates of hell shall not prevail against it."  Then the cardinal muses, "The problem was that if Matthew had quoted correctly, Christ had certainly believed in hell.  And it was his teachings their faith was supposed to serve."  The word used in the verse is ha'des (grave), so death will not prevail against the Church or congregation.

Admittedly, all I know about Hell I learned from Dante.  I'm not sure if people still believe in the Harrowing of Hell (referred to in Canto IV of Inferno (please note that I got out my copy and reread the canto and considered quoting it all here, but this is not an essay on Inferno.  I've written enough of those, thank you.)), but that's when Jesus supposedly descended into Hell and removed all of the righteous who had been there.  They had to wait in Hell until he died and his sacrifice was applied to open the way to heaven.  It's a bit like a celestial vacuum cleaner.  This supposedly happened while he was dead but before he was resurrected to Earth.  So if you believe this, then Jesus calling Lazarus back from Hell, as per the Brothers' prophecy, was a bit too early.  Why didn't he bring back all of the righteous who had been languishing in Hell?

Now, obviously this is a work of fiction, and it's not meant (at least, I don't think it is) to replace a person's religious beliefs.  However, that aspect of the story really caught my attention and made me think.  And when we got into the fact that there was an actual demon running around, I decided this wasn't something I wanted to read anymore.  And okay, I cheated and skipped to the end, and it seemed pretty lame.

Since I read an ARC and not the final copy, all of my quotes may be slightly different.  But I did notice, too, that some of the writing was rather awkward.  I expected this to be on par with Tana French and S.J. Bolton.  I struggled through sentences like, "His cell was lit by votive candles in a metal holder from which wax palely drooled."  How does something drool "palely"?  Candles are by nature pale and this detail doesn't really need to be there.  I also really loved this gem: "Even a renegade Jesuit would not naturally be misogynistic."  Excuse.  Me.  Anyone can be a misogynist (not to encourage people or anything).  I didn't realize that being a Jesuit automatically meant that you were incapable of being a misogynist.

Neither did I find the characters particularly compelling, and you could totally see the romance coming a mile away.  Jane Sullivan is the stereotypical successful-yet-socially-awkward-and-repressed woman.  As far as I can tell, she hasn't any hobbies or close friends.  But she is, of course, extremely sexy.  Duh.  You can't be a main character if you are not super-hot (authors try to get around this by making the character unaware that he or she is hot, but that doesn't fool me).

All in all, I'd recommend it for fans of the author, and also people who don't mind reading about demons, but I'm not ashamed to say I just didn't feel comfortable (and really compelled) to finish.

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Defending the Glorkian Warrior

Recently, The New York Times ran an op-ed (I hate to link to it, but it's here) about the deadultification (not a real word, because according to this piece, I would not be a real adult) of America.  The writer bemoaned the lack of the "good old days" (HA HA HA!) when kids went off to college, got married, made casseroles, and read Adult Literature (that must be capitalized by the way, to emphasize the extreme maturity and literary quality of these books that serve as makeshift doorstops).  This doesn't happen anymore, because ICYMI, the patriarchy is dead.  So is sexism.  Which means misogyny and rape are all things of the past, right?

You have got to be kidding me.  I'm being excessively polite in this post.  I will simply express the opinion that I believe the author of this article to be delusional at best.

Forever arguing that things were better as they were (x) amount of years ago is untenable.  I don't particularly want to write an essay on the relationship between societal and technological change and expected behavior of "adulthood."  If adulthood means that I put on a dress and pumps to vacuum my apartment à la Mrs. Cleaver, I'll pass, thanks.  What if reading novels by John Green and blogging and geeking out about stuff is the new definition of adulthood?  None of those things are bad--and to attach a moral judgement to a genre of fiction boggles the mind.  Let's go back to the basics: murder is bad.  Rape is bad.  Theft is bad.  Young adult fiction is not bad.

I'll take one more quote before moving on, because if I don't stop here I'm going to explode like Mugatu. "We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content."  Guess what, A.O. Scott?  In many cultures, it's not seen as failure to live with one's parents--it's a sign of respect for family and for maturity.  Plus, just talking about in the United States, as you so repetitively pointed out in your essay, this is not the Mad Men era.  Kids cannot just walk out and get a job and find a mate and keep their jobs forever and ever, amen.  For a lot of people, living with their parents is the only option.  Or should we just toss a generation out on the street (as though we haven't done that already in many other senses)?  And have you had a traumatic experience with dodge ball that you cite it as part of the downfall of adulthood as you wish it to be?  

So let us turn now to The Glorkian Warrior Eats Adventure Pie.  Like its predecessor, The Glorkian Warrior Delivers A Pizza, this graphic novel is unabashedly silly.  The titular Glorkian Warrior doesn't have the sharpest mind, to put it mildly, but through pratfalls, lucky escapes, and the help of his awesome talking Super Backpack, he manages to bumble through all right.  In Adventure Pie, we encounter our hero attempting to fight a bubble monster, but he's thwarted in his quest for glory by another Glorkian, Buster Glark.  Buster is a bully Glorkian.  Our Glorkian heads home to hang out with his little green alien baby who likes to suck out his brains and a young Glorkian named Gronk.  

Due to repeated sessions with Alien Baby and his own smattering of brain cells, the Warrior and Gronk get in a fight about where their brains actually are.  The Warrior maintains they're in his elbow, and Gronk says they're in one of his eyeballs.  After some stupid yet weirdly logical arguing, Gronk convinces the Warrior to take him out on patrol.  Unfortunately, the Warrior succumbs to Baby Alien's voracious appetite and collapses.  What follows is a zany quest to revive the Warrior and hold off attacks by that big meanie, Buster Glark.

There are fart jokes (the Warrior is always concerned about "tooters").  There's rampant silliness.  And it is unbelievably hilarious.  I'm completely shocked that the ratings on this on Goodreads are so low.  People are all offended that this has fart jokes and a main character who's not the brightest crayon in the box and a small alien who talks like the stereotypical Neanderthal.  How is any of that "bad"?  Is it murder/rape/theft?  No?  Maybe you should unwind yourself and actually just laugh once in a while.  Is it so very important to you to be considered hip and cool and worldly and that the only things you find funny are ironic jokes made by television shows from Iceland?

The Glorkian Warrior made me laugh.  He lifted the fog of depression I'm in, if only for a little while.   He loves pie.  How can I not love him back?  It doesn't make me a bad person or a bad adult to love The Glorkian Warrior Eats Adventure Pie.  Life is so full of horrible garbage that I just need a jolt of silliness.  I worry about race relations in the wake of Ferguson and I worry about air strikes in the Middle East and I worry about people shooting down passenger jets and I worry about unrest in Scotland after the independence vote.  Let me enjoy something purely entertaining.  Give me my Glorkian Warrior.

An ARC of this title was provided by Netgalley.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What I'm Reading Wednesday

The usual suspects plus:

The Merciless by Danielle Vega.

The Wake by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy.  So happy to get this ARC from DC Comics!


Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld.  I started the ARC a while ago and wasn't feeling it, but its recent release made me curious.  I'll try this once more.

Capture the Flag

Rats.  I really wanted to like this one.  Unfortunately, if I had to give you an elevator pitch, it would be: "dull 39 Clues wannabe."

That was way harsh, Pam.

I know.  And I'm sorry.  The author seems so nice.  She's a teacher, for pete's sake.  Yay teachers!  But this just did not work for me.  I found myself skimming, and it's not even a long book.

In the beginning, there's a heist.  It's vaguely Ocean's Eleven, vaguely Mission Impossible, but it was mostly just sadly improbable.  At the Smithsonian, there's a gala underway.  The original flag that inspired Frances Scott Key's The Star-Spangled Banner has been undergoing intensive restoration work and will soon be unveiled to the public.  For now, though, it's in a vault.  A Prominent Individual arrives at the museum and requests a special viewing.  Because the director of the museum does not want to get on the wrong side of this Prominent Individual, she agrees that a group of four may go down to see the flag.  However, the staff member who takes the group down notices that there are five people in the group.  This is, again, explained away by POWER and PRESTIGE.  Through a series of more improbable mix-ups, one man manages to hide in the room and not set off any pressure, temperature, infrared, or (insert spy-type thingy) alarms.  He escapes the museum with the flag rolled up.

Cut to the next day.  Three kids at the D.C. airport are fighting over a wall socket.  Anna is the kind of character who sets my teeth on edge.  Overprivileged and underexperienced, she doesn't learn much over the course of the story.  Her father is a Congressman from Vermont, and she wants to be a top reporter, so it's totally normal for her to barrel up to people and ask them questions in order to "get the story."  Fine.  Whatever.  José is there because his mom is the main textile historian working on the flag, and he and his meteorologist father are flying back home.  José loves books--especially Harry Potter--and he also quotes way more famous people than a middle schooler should even know existed.  Finally, there's Henry (confession: I completely forgot his name and I just read the book yesterday).  Henry's the least memorable of all the characters (see above).  He's constantly playing his GamePrism and likening real-life situations to some game that he's played before.

Because the Annas of this world have to be bothering somebody at all times, she tries to interview the U.S. Senator and Presidential Candidate, (confession #2: I can't remember his name either) Smarmybottom.  It's something-bottom, anyway.  I think.  He keeps Tootsie Rolls in his cowboy hat and is losing in the polls to the governor of Vermont, who bakes cobbler to stop politicians from fighting.  If only life were that easy.

Then, suddenly, doo-doo-doot-de-doo-doo-doot!  Newsflash!  The Star-Spangled Banner has been stolen! Egads!  Anna decides that the thieves must be snowed in at the airport just like everyone else (because when you plan a heist involving a national icon, worrying about a plan B is just too much dang work).  She rousts Henry and José from their huddle around the electrical outlet and they set off to find the flag.

Over the course of their roamings, they encounter: a man with a snake tattoo, a large poodle named Hammurabi, an international music group, a young Pakistani boy, oddly chatty luggage handlers, and lots of suitcases.  They do not encounter responsible adults.

I don't want to rain on anyone's parade, but I'm going to anyway, because neener-neener-neener, I can.  Absent Parent Syndrome is a serious issue affecting tween and teen lit.  I understand it if a character's parents have died and he/she needs to deal with their deaths, or if they are unable, for some reason, to be fully present for their children, but giving Anna the Careless Workaholic Politician Dad and José the Spacey Meteorologist Dad doesn't do them any favors.  I can't believe that a parent would totally forget about his child during a massive weather crisis at an airport.  Isn't that when you strap your kids to your body because the zombies are going to attack now?  Am I in the wrong book?

For all of the action in the latter two-thirds of the book, it's surprisingly boring action (is that an oxymoron?).  I found myself skimming through it because you could really just sum it up in: "They rode a lot of conveyor belts and almost got caught lots of times, but for convenience's sake, none of the adults really mind three children sneaking around the airport."

Yes, The 39 Clues had exotic locales and slightly over-the-top villains, but it was engagingly written and the action never let up.  Amy and Dan Cahill emotionally go through a lot after losing their parents and their Aunt Grace, and they do have an adult chaperone (hee).

Another aspect that really drove me up the wall (hi, I'm typing this from the ceiling because I'm not quite sure how to get back down) was the barrage of references to other books and films.  J.K. Rowling should get a cut of the royalties for this because José quotes her work constantly.  It's "Harry Potter" this and "Dumbledore" that.  At one point, Anna says that their life is just like National Treasure!  No, honey.  As much as I dislike Nicholas Cage (except for in Raising Arizona), National Treasure was a fun romp through history with a hefty dose of secret societies and Jon Voight.  Maybe this book needed more Jon Voight...

Finally, I need to address the use of race and culture in the narrative.  Anna, who is the super-awesome-leader-girl, is white.  José is part white and part Mexican.  Henry is African-American (or mixed, I can't quite remember which).  So, it seems like the diversity super team.  Anna's dad agrees with the goofy senator on immigration reform, which prompts an interesting little dialogue between Anna and José.  She, of course, "doesn't think" about how that would make José feel, and patronizingly tells him that her dad only doesn't want to let in the "bad" Mexicans.  José's basically like, "Um, no."  And that's it!  Anna never learns anything else!  There's never any other dialogue about it!  We also learn that Henry's "famous ancestor" (oh yes, each of the children are descendants of a famous figure in American history) was a freed slave who helped sew the flag.  There was some comment made like, "Yay, she was free in the North!"  That also felt awkward.

There's also an excessively silly secret society in the book, but it's so silly that I can't even go there.  It's so silly it's inexplicable.

Needless to say, I'm definitely not reading the sequel.  That felt like the longest 240 pages-with-large-font-and-needless-drawings I've read in a long time.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Kill Switch

James Rollins' Tucker and Kane books may be the only dog-related fiction that I will willingly and happily read.  After too many harrowing childhood experiences with tragic animal fiction (Black Beauty, Shiloh, Old Yeller), I stay far, far away from books about or involving dogs.  When everyone raved about The Art of Racing in the Rain, I said "Nope."  People mooned over Marley and I buried my nose even further in either a nonfiction account of infectious diseases or a high fantasy or a fun adventure novel.  That's how I found this duo: in a Sigma Force novel by James Rollins, one of my absolute favorite thriller/adventure writers.

Tucker Wayne and Belgian Malinois Kane are ex-Army Rangers who, on occasion, help out the Sigma team.

In The Kill Switch, their first standalone novel (Rollins also did a short story prequel called Tracker which I highly recommend), Tucker and Kane are doing routine protection for a Russian magnate in Novgorod.  Okay, so that's not exactly everyone's just-another-day-at-the-office, but when you're a former soldier with PTSD and you've kind of appropriated your partner (technically, Kane belonged to the U.S. government until the end of the Sigma book, where they transferred ownership to Tucker in recognition of his assistance) from the Army and you don't particularly like killing people, protection is a pretty decent gig.

Note: I have zero (0) experience in anything military or protective services.  This is all pure conjecture on my part.

Anyway, after a tense and twisty chase scene that sets up the book, Tucker gets a call from Sigma.  They need him to do a routine escort mission and get a scientist out of Russia.

By now, we all know that "routine" never works that way.

Tucker ends up with not only the scientist (who is irascible and not exactly super-grateful for his rescue), but also the scientist's daughter and his lab assistant.  They're being hunted by the GRU, Spetsnaz, and a Swedish sniper-turned-assassin named Felice Nilssen.  Plus, there's a mole in their midst, reporting on their progress to an Evil Russian General (yes!).

It's a fun ride from the frigid tundra of Russia to the burning desert of Namibia, and the bond between Tucker and Kane is really the highlight here.  I felt the plot could have been a bit more intricate, although Tucker's not a spy--he's a soldier.  So, maybe that's why he didn't see all the double crosses coming?  But I didn't mind that too much, because I was so fascinated by the Kane's ability to understand over 1,000 words and string together complex commands.  Yes, dogs really do this and they do it in combat situations.  Everything that's written from Kane's perspective is believable and interesting.

The one thing that really irked me was at the end when Tucker meets his handler in person.  He's always imagined her as a "librarian."  But whoa!  She is sexy!  She does have glasses, but they make her sexy.  This makes her "definitely not a librarian."  I wish the mousy librarian trope would die a thousand fiery deaths, along with the sexy librarian stereotype.

This book was co-authored by Grant Blackwood.  He seems to mostly co-author things, which I suppose is a pretty good gig.  However, I felt like Rollins' usual exuberant voice was tempered somewhat by this collaboration.  I haven't read his collaborations with Rebecca Cantrell, so I couldn't tell you if that issue was specific to this book or just a by-product of working with another author.

Happily, this is the first in Tucker and Kane's very own series, and I hope to see them working with Sigma again soon!  Lots of fun.  Woof.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Tastings

I generally know very quickly whether I'm going to like a book or not.  When I was younger, I'd soldier through a not-so-hot title out of a sense of duty.  Not to finish the book was a sort of failure, and as a perfectionist, failure is a shameful thing (I know, I know, I'm working on it).  I figured there must be something wrong with me, not with the book.  In those days of yore (ha!), I had the time to plow through pages of mediocrity.  I commuted to school, so on the hour bus ride to and from the parking lot, I had the time to read things that today I would never finish.

Supposedly, whenever somebody says, "It's not you, it's me," that means it really is you.  It's a bizarrely passive-aggressive cut. However, in the case of books, I take it at face value.  It's not me, it's the book.  Which means it's the book.  So I don't feel so awful about leaving it behind.  Someone else will find it and enjoy it.  I think.

I request an inordinate amount of galleys from Netgalley and Edelweiss, and that does have a purpose.  I need to see what the publishing trends are for YA literature in particular, and then skim through some of the titles I'm unsure about for the collection to evaluate them.  My evaluation process is not "I hated it, so we're not buying it."  It's not my collection.  It belongs to the taxpayers.

However, I don't want to buy items that are poorly written and edited (from a technical standpoint) or that belong to a genre or subgenre that have been statistically proven to be unpopular in our area.  In fact, many of the books that I've blogged about personally disliking I've ordered because they've been requested or I know they will go out.  However, since there is a limited budget for books, it's really helpful to get a sneak peek.  There's also a finite amount of space, and I have to keep a sharp eye on my collection and rotate things around our branches in order to keep the shelves from exploding.  And that's with tons of things already checked out.

But enough about collection development!  On to the book tastings!  These are a few titles I began recently and then put aside rather quickly.

Girl on a Wire by Gwenda Bond

Kirkus, whom I normally agree with an alarming percentage of the time, gives this a good review.  I got 5% of the way in and was rolling my eyes.  I received this as part of the Amazon First Reads program, and it seemed the least bizarre of this past month's offerings, so I picked it.  I generally go for their sci-fi or action books, but that category was lacking in September.  Girl on a Wire was already on my radar as a YA book anyway, so, hey, why not?

Sometimes--okay, rarely--I do things against my better judgement.  99% of those decisions are book-related.  Here's the thing: I do not like circuses.  I find them creepy and exploitative and cruel.  So why in the name of Cthulhu did I pick a book set in a circus?  Well, there was the free e-book aspect of it, but otherwise, I'll call it a momentary lapse of sanity.

The premise of this book is that the MC (who is rather boring) is a tightrope walker in her family's traveling circus, the Amazing Maronis.  They receive an offer to join the Cirque American (no, that's how it's spelled in the book; we'll get back to that in a moment), which is like the Harvard of circuses or something.  But (you knew there was a "but" coming!), the CA is run by MC's family's mortal feuding enemies.  What is this, Borgia Italy?  I think Bond was trying to do some sort of Capulet and Montague (main girl's name is Jules, main boy's name is Remy) thing but I didn't read far enough to know or care.  I got hung up on the fact that the MC runs away from home, hitches a ride at a truck stop, and totally puts her life in danger just to force her father to join this other circus.  It's an epically stupid temper tantrum.

Anyway, the Amazing Maronis go to California to sign a contract with their enemies, the Flying Garcias (I am not making this up) and Jules is mesmerized by a dark-haired boy she knows to be a Maroni, and therefore off-limits.  Then there's a weird masquerade dance, where Jules ends up with Remy (of course), who "tangoed us into the crowd with steps that weren't a tango."  What does that mean?  This was just beyond bizarre.

And then there's the whole thing with the name of the circus.  Cirque is French for "circus," and Jules says they want to be "continental," so I would expect the name of the circus to be in French: Cirque Américain (although technically it would be américain but let's just roll with English capitalization for now, okay?).  However, Jules says it's "pronounced Americ-ah-n."  Rhymes with:

7% and done.

The Only Thing to Fear by Caroline Tung Richmond

This received poor reviews from the journals, and because I am a glutton for punishment, I had to see for myself.  Or read for myself.  Whatever.

It's not awful.  It's just awkward.  It could have been better.  The premise is that the Nazis won WWII (I love a good alternate history!) and are running what used to be the United States.  Zara lives with her Uncle Red on their farm.  One day, she encounters a German Sentinel in the field.  Sentinels are genetically enhanced humans (Übermenschen!) who gave Germany the advantage in the war.  He delivers a message that all the townspeople should gather in the square.  Now, why the Nazis haven't rigged up some better sort of communication system is just beyond me (super soldiers? Yes.  Communication infrastructure?  Eh, not so much).  Anyway, everyone shows up and finds out that the current Hitler has fired his right-hand man (who was also a Hitler).  This is a Big Deal.  At the meeting, Zara sees "a tall boy with a flop of messy blond curls ... It was Bastian Eckhart, the Colonel's son."  Bastian is clearly being set up as the Forbidden Love Interest.

Meanwhile, people are being tortured and Zara begs her uncle to let her formally join the American Resistance.  Being a Grumpy Grown-Up, he says no.  She, being headstrong and mildly TSTL, decides to do things herself!  She follows a family friend through the forest to the Nazi camp on a raid for medical supplies.  When a security camera almost catches her friend on tape, Zara uses her magical wind powers to blow the camera back into place.

And that's where I stopped.

There were other issues as well.  For example, Zara is the Cluelessly Hot Girl ("Oh, my brown hair is ugly! No one will ever love meeee!" as men throw themselves at her.)  When the sentinel arrives, she has this gem of an observation: "There were a few townspeople--always men, it seemed--whose gazes lingered on the shape of her eyes and at the slight curve of her hungry waist."  I'm a bit puzzled by the phrase "hungry waist."  I assume it refers to the fact that Zara usually doesn't have enough to eat, but what does that do with having curves?  "Hungry waist" sounds like her waist is a predator.  Oh, wait, that's all the men around her.

DNF at 19%.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley.

tl;dr: It's not me, it's the book.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Walls Around Us

I've written about ten different introductions to this review and hated all of them and this is the best I could come up with.

You see, my mind has been blown, and when one's brains are scattered about the room in squishy grey blobs, it's quite difficult to write a coherent review.  But I'll give it a go and we'll see what results.

Well.  I've been sitting here for about ten minutes and all I can think of is "I am Groot!" which, as a declaration of awesomeness, isn't bad, but I don't think I can make it into a full review.

Amber is an inmate at a girls' correctional facility.  Her roommate, D'amour, is hooked on a drug that the girls distill from a plant that grows outside of their cell.  Amber's mother abandoned her to the system, and the girls inside have become her family.  Prison is a safer home than home, because at least the rules are always the same and your stepfather doesn't beat her and her little sister.  At least, not any more.  Even though the other girls don't make Amber part of their little groups and cliques, that's okay.  She's got her book cart.

Amber would make a great librarian: her daily rounds with the book cart fulfill her.  She delivers stories and flights of fancy to other girls who need them.  That's probably why when, one night, when all of the doors unlock and the guards disappear, Amber doesn't really want to try to escape.  Not like D'amour or Annemarie or any of the other girls whose flight becomes a wild bacchanal of violence.  To top off this eerie night, Amber sees a girl ... a girl who's not an inmate.  Someone from the outside ... someone who asks for "Ori" ...  only there's no Ori in the compound.  At least, not yet.


Now, some people might stop here and say, "Ehhhh, I usually don't do paranormal stuff."  That's usually what I would say.  However, I think on the paranormal/magical realism spectrum (which I just totally made up for the purposes of this review), this falls slightly more on the "magical realism" side.  Magical realism is a tricky beast to define--Arizona State University has a web page filled with quotes by Real Scholars Who Write Theses With Epically Long Titles.  These Real Scholars try to define magical realism, but as evinced by the sheer mass of attempts, it's difficult.

Here's how I do it:  paranormal involves ghosts, vampires, werewolves, angels, or other metahuman creatures acting out their own intricate mythology.  So, there will be rules that govern how vampires act, for instance.  Generally, paranormal novels involve a main character who is a regular human (a mundie or a muggle or a meathead, whatever you will) suddenly encountering the rules of the paranormal world and struggling to deal with it.  There's conflict.

In magical realism, the world is our own, and elements of the paranormal seep over some sort of barrier, but the paranormal or magical aspects are accepted as part of how the world works.  It's an acceptance that there is fantasy in our reality and everything depends on how we individually process reality.

Back to our regularly scheduled review...

Now we cut to sometime in the near future.  Vee (Violet) was Ori's best friend.  Since Ori went to prison, Vee's gotten all her parts in ballet.  Orianna had innate talent, the kind that won't let you look away from the performance.  The kind that socks you in the gut.  Vee can do technical ballet work, but it's not effortless or easy.  However, she's now gotten into Juilliard.  She's gotten everything she's ever wanted.  Except Ori isn't there.

Right away, you know there is something majorly wrong with Vee and her perception of reality.  It was pretty easy for me to guess what was going on, but Nova Ren Suma's exploration of Vee's rationalizations and delusions was absolutely riveting.

We keep flipping between Vee and Amber's narratives up until the end, which I had to read a few times to allow it to soak in.

The Walls Around Us is special.  I'd feature it in a literature class along with E. Lockhart's We Were Liars for an exploration of unreliable narrators, guilt, and justice.  Nova Ren Suma tackles big, big themes in this book and handles them deftly.  She leaves just enough up to the reader to decide.  Is Vee's life one big excuse, or does she actually believe what she says she believes?  Is Amber deceiving others, herself, the reader, or all of the above?  Does she do so on purpose or not?  You could make cases for multiple readings of the same scene or the same narrative.

At first, Ori seemed too good to be true, but then I realized that the reader only knows Ori via the narration of two other people who have proven themselves to be unreliable.  Is Ori really the golden child that other people think she is?

I was in a slump, and this book reached down and gave me a solid kick in the behind with its uncluttered but graceful prose and mind-bending story.  This is a most highly recommended read, and I suppose I wouldn't even mind if a professional reviewer used the word "luminous" in her review, even though that descriptor normally makes me ill.  Except "luminous" isn't exactly the right word; if there were a word to describe a glowing mass of darkness and deception, it would apply perfectly to The Walls Around Us.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Poison Eaters and Other Stories

Oh, Holly Black (fun fact: I just typed that as "Oh, Holy Black!" so make of that what you will)!  You are delightful.  Your stories are delightful, by which I mean dark and raw and wonderfully offbeat.  In a world of love triangles and heroines who say they are "too skinny to be hot," you give us people who ... wait for it ... actually act like people.  Or fae, depending on the story.  They are cruel and petty and flawed without having the dreaded TSTL* syndrome.

I serendipitously happened upon The Poison Eaters and Other Stories while browsing the library's e-book collection.  Currently, I'm in a reading rut.  I just finished Nova Ren Suma's brilliant The Walls Around Us (review coming soon, I promise), and nothing else felt quite right after that.  Anthologies are wonderful palate cleansers.  They're like the appetizer party tray of the literary world.  You can blow through them quickly, they keep changing flavors on you, and there might be one or two things in there that you don't love, but you eat them because you paid for them.  Unless that's just me.

Anyway, tortured metaphors aside, this is really wonderful collection.  I had no idea that The Coldest Girl in Coldtown started out as a short story, and it makes a great companion to the novel.  "The Dog King" is a fantastic twist on werewolves that involves palace politics and assassinations, while the final scene of "The Night Market" was probably one of my favorite things in the entire book.  The titular "Poison Eaters" is also brilliant.  Because they're short stories, it's difficult to summarize them without giving everything away, so just trust me on this: The Poison Eaters is worth tasting.

*TSTL=Too Stupid To Live

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What I'm Reading Wednesday

In addition to the Usual Suspects, I'm reading:

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma.  This is the first book by her that I've read and I'm excessively mad at myself for not having read any of her other works earlier.  I'll probably finish this in about ten minutes, but it's a review that may have to marinate a bit.

The Atlantis Plague by A.G. Riddle.  This title contains one of the words in the English language that never ceases to befuddle my typing fingers.  In my mind, "plague" should be spelled "plauge."

The Lazarus Prophecy by F.G. Cottam.  First of all, what's up with all of the posh initials-only please authors?  Just kidding!  I'm partial to J.R.R. Tolkien myself, just because it seems like he added an extra "R" in there for fun (although I know perfectly well that he didn't).  It also sounds a bit like a piratey "Arrrrrr!" if you slide his initials together. Obviously, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual book by Cottam.  I'm enjoying it, although it is more Dan Brown-esque than I thought it would be.  We shall see.

NOTE: Because I have a very hazy grasp of time this week, I am posting this on a Thursday.  Whatever.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Fairest, Vol. 4: Of Mice and Men

Well, poosticks.  After requesting an e-ARC of this I realized I completely forgot to read Fairest Vol. 3.  Oops.  I've not been as vigilant as I'd like to be (or really, as I used to be) about keeping up with the Fables t.p. volumes, but I have to kick it into gear for the Unwritten/Fables crossover (yes, I know that already technically happened, but the library hasn't gotten the volumes in stock yet).  I promise to remedy all of these sins posthaste with a massive checkout binge tomorrow, but as for today ... Fairest, Vol. 4: Of Mice and Men.

Let me be blunt: This was not good.

The fact that this was not good made me Not A Happy Librarian.

Apart from the storyline (or "storyline"), what irked me the most was the art.  It was scritchy and sloppy and no one really looked like themselves, or they looked like three other characters at once.  I barely recognized Beast when he walked onto the page, and Cindy lost a lot of her spunk in the lackluster drawing.  The background characters are hastily sketched in, and don't reflect the global nature of the settings.  For example, when Cindy and Company are in India, literally nobody looked like they would be from India.  They were all pale-skinned people (or slightly tanned people) with black hair and distinctly Western European features.  Whitewashing much?

Now, what really confused me was that this volume of Fairest is all about Cinderella, who already has her own 007-esque spy spinoff series.  So, why are we retreading what's already been done with the character?

To add insult to injury, this doesn't read like a title in its own series, but rather an enfeebled attempt to sneak into the original Fables series.  You get all the spoilers, like Bigby's death, which, if you haven't read that far in the series (ahem, *raises hand* (to be fair, I did already know about that particular spoiler, but others may not)), really ruins things.  It also demands a good knowledge of the Fableverse and who did what to whom and betrayed this side or that side when and how.  My brain can only hold so many things so I totally forgot a ton of this stuff.

But all of that could have been avoided had we just focused on the ladies of Fables instead of trying to write a supplement to the Fables and Cinderella series.

The so-called plot of this one involves a rat army unwittingly created by a mouse who turned into a man.  Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but mice and rats are two separate species, and a heavily enchanted mouse would only beget mice or mouse-hybrid offspring, and not rats, correct?  I mean, I think I know enough about genetics to figure that much out.  Good ol' Mendel and his peas and all that.  So where did the rats come from???  And why can Cindy's mouse friend suddenly perform heavy-duty magical healing?  And SINCE WHEN did getting shot in the temple not mean DEATH?

I know that the Fableverse and the lives of the Fables within rely on human belief in their stories.  A fairy godmother is a strong fable because her archetype appears in many, many fairy tales all over the world.  This gives her power and would mean a quicker "respawning" (for lack of a better word) if she were to die.  So, why not let her die and then come back?  That's what I'm assuming will happen to Bigby

Not only does the author ignore practicalities, but he also ignores the rules of the Fableverse.

Read it if you must, but I wouldn't recommend this to the casual comic reader.  It's too heavily invested in well-established story lines and the art is pretty crap.

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Nesting patterns of African swallows (which are not migratory, and therefore, couldn't carry a coconut to Britain)

Sorry if you were expecting a Monty Python writeup of some sort.  None of the members have released a memoir recently (that I know of).  I'm talking about a middle grade book called simply, Nest.  If it had stayed as simple and true as its title, I think it would have been a lot more successful.

Nest is the story of Chirp (Naomi), a young girl fascinated with birds, living on Cape Cod in the 1970s.  It is a Problem Story, one in which the main character Confronts Adversity, Learns Life Truths, and Cries A Lot.  Bonus points if the main character a) runs away from home, b) engages in a reckless relationship, or c) physically alters him/herself in order to visually express some sort of trauma.  There are extremely good examples of problem books: Mockingbird, Sure Signs of Crazy, Wonder, The Higher Power of Lucky--all of these talk about real life problems without going completely over the top.  In writing Nest, I think the author got a little too excited with the Causes of Major Life Problems and tossed most of them in.

From here on out this review will become quite spoiler-ridden, so proceed at your own risk.

This is not a poorly-written book.  Some of the scenes are extremely powerful and well-done--like when the heat is overpowering in Chirp's classroom and she just has to get some air.  Or her rock, meet glass catharsis.  Whenever Ehrlich gets into descriptions of dance, it's wonderful.  You can feel the movement she's describing.  However, other aspects of the story don't work as well.  Even Chirp's namesake interest, birding, feels tacked-on.  She'll go for chapters without talking about birds and then suddenly we're slammed with a full-on paragraph of facts about wood ducks.

The plot catalyst for Nest is that Chirp's mother, a dancer, suddenly gets tired and cranky, and one of her legs drags behind her.  Chirp's father, the world's most clueless and insensitive psychiatrist ever written, takes her to the doctor and the family finds out that mom has MS (multiple sclerosis).  Treatment for MS did exist in the 70s.  It's not like it was the Dark Ages.  Chirp's mother would have had a CAT scan and an MRI to help the doctors better understand the progression of the disease, and then therapy (pharmacological and physical) should have been prescribed (note, I am neither a doctor nor a medical historian, so please don't hold me to this as a matter of life and death).  Instead, it sounds like the doctors just handed Chirp's mother a bunch of painkillers and said, "See you later!  Good luck with that!"

Suddenly, Chirp's mom develops acute onset depression.  Then she checks herself into a mental hospital.  Then she and dad decide that the best course of action is electroconvulsive therapy, which I think the author chose to put in there solely because it sounds Really Scary to the kids who would be reading this.  I don't think ECT is inhumane, and it really does help some people, but it's not a panacea, either.  I've never had ECT, but there was a point in my struggle with depression where I did seriously consider it.

Then Chirp's mom comes home, and a few weeks later commits suicide à la Woolf (she drowns herself in a pond).

Wait, what?  I can't find the exact quote right now to save my life, but the doctors tell the family that, in fact, Mom had always been depressed, but it just flared up when she received her diagnosis.  All of the descriptions of Naomi's mom paint an artistic soul, but a vibrant and generally happy one (as all humans are both happy and sad normally).  It was almost like the author decided that MS wasn't a "good enough" problem, so then we had to add depression, but that wasn't stressful enough either, so how about suicide?  "Gratuitous" was the word that came to my mind.

Chirp's older sister, Rachel, really isn't much help with this, because her reaction to everything is to sass everybody about everything.  I realize that most middle-schoolers do this (I did it a lot, with foot-stomping to boot), but she's so staunchly nasty sometimes that I couldn't like her.  At all.  Even when the author decided that it was time to take things down a notch and make Rachel the comforter for Naomi.  There was also this really weird line that doesn't reflect on Rachel at all, but it relates to her, and it's strange: "For the first time, I get it.  Mom was her mom, too.  'You're tired,' I [Chirp] say. She nods her head.  I wrap my arms around my sister's waist and squeeze.  She's not as thin as she used to be."

She's not as thin as she used to be.  SO WHAT?  Big deal!  You've just come to the genius conclusion that your older sister is mourning your mother because you're not the only special snowflake in the world and all you can comment on is how her waist is bigger?  What does that have to do with anything?

In order to get away from the emotional void that is her family, Chirp strikes up a relationship with Joey, the neighbor boy who is routinely beaten by his father (stop me if you've read this plot line a million times before).  One time Joey gets mad at Chirp because she runs home when she sees her mother has returned.  He puts a rotten clam strip in her desk.  Captain Sensitive, this one is.  They go on sleepovers where Naomi intimately details how they sleep next to each other and how warm he is and it gets kind of weirdly sexual.  Once they're run away (of course they have to run away; it's so dramatic) and they're on the bus, this relationship gets even more uncomfortable.  "When I wake up, my face is pressed against Joey's neck.  It's soft and warm and smells like hay.  I keep my eyes closed an extra minute so I can keep sniffing, and then I sit up."  Later, they pet each other in the park: "His hair is soft and beautiful.  I don't even try to get the tangles out.  I just run my hand over it really slowly, because it feels so good, and Joey closes his eyes and smiles."  And the coup de grâce: " 'Someday I'm going to kiss you,' I say, before I even realize it.  'Someday I'm going to let you,' Joey says."

Yet another problem in the novel (how many am I up to now?) is religion.  Naomi's family is Jewish, which only crops up at points in the novel where it might cause some drama, which is mostly around the time of her mother's funeral.  Then it turns into bubke-and-kugel-fest, and Chirp casually drops a line about not having to sit shiva for seven days because her family isn't orthodox.  For younger kids reading this, I think they'd be really confused.  During the Thanksgiving play, Chirp's role is to say grace, and she isn't sure if she should or not, but then the play happens and we hear no more about her unease.

I know I'm making this novel sound really problematic, and it is problematic, but it also has decent prose and the beginnings of good characters.  I have a feeling that critics will swing the opposite direction of me and proclaim this "luminous" and "transcendent" and all those other frou-frou words they like to use in their reviews.

Friday, September 12, 2014

If you want a rah-rah-sis-boom-bah blog post, this isn't it.

Once, I considered myself a fan of Donna Jo Napoli; at least, I would recommend her work. However, after a rather disastrous reviewing of Skin, I realized that the only book I actually liked of hers was Beast, and even that book had some really strange passages in it. Like the lion mating. I suppose it's meant to be edgy, but it freaked me out as a preteen. Ew. The rest of the book was rather good, though. I am a sucker for a Beauty and the Beast retelling. I've not yet read Bound, but I don't know if I want to after making it only 19% of the way through Hidden before calling it quits.

I'm vaguely familiar with the backstory (thanks, other Goodreads reviewers of Hush), and I generally enjoy books with a Norse setting. If this had been written as a more straightforward adventure/escape story, I think I would feel more kindly toward it. But there's this whole hipster stylistic thing going on that made me groan. 

Then, there was the birth scene. But I'm running ahead of myself. The setup:

Brigid and her siblings fled their home in Ireland, where they are royalty, because Brigid's sister refused to marry the man who cut off her brother's hand. Okay, that's legitimate. However, I gather that mom and dad just popped them on a pony and said, "Hey, have a great life!" which is not practical at all. En route to ... wherever, they're captured by Russian slavers. Melkorka, Brigid's older sister, ends up as a slave, and her story is told in Hush. When Hidden begins, Brigid has just jumped off the boat near Denmark and takes refuge in a barn. At this point, she is eight years old.

The main point of concern is the Vicious Man-Eating Pigs in the barn. Yes, I understand that pigs will eat human flesh and can be quite vicious, but I think Napoli might have a porcine vendetta, because she portrays swine as Utterly Evil. As Brigid enters the barn, she relates, "I concentrate. I musn't fall. I musn't release my hands. A taste of my blood could excite hungry pigs into a frenzy. How hungry are these pigs?" Okay, she's eight, and maybe her brother told her scary stories involving pigs. Later, a pig headbutts Brigid awake. "If I don't react fast and hard, the lot of them will attack. I go rigid; I've seen pig attacks. Though these pigs are short, I know they can get vicious ..." Then shepunches a pig in the eye and gets all weepy about it. Yes, I know, she's eight. A whimpering, sniveling, unlikeable, pampered eight-year old who says things like, "It's unfair I had to fight the pig. It's unfair I'm here at all." Wah.
This picture from the Telegraph came up when I ran a search for "vicious pigs." It was too bizarre not to share.
I cannot believe I devoted a whole paragraph to Death by Pig.

When she's not fighting pigs, Brigid hides in the hay and tries not to get caught. This next scene ... okay, full disclosure: I thought it was an unnecessarily graphic description of a drunken man having a poo. "He lurches forward, and though his back is to me, I can tell he's sick. He groans in pain. He yanks wildly at the drawstring on his trousers and now he's ripping them off. He squats and he's stifling yells, I'm sure of it. His head writhes on his neck and the pain goes on and on. Misery like that can only come from a struggle with the devil." It isn't until this "man" yanks out a baby and tosses it to the pigs that I realized it wasn't an epic battle with constipation, but rather childbirth. 

For the third time: yes, I realize that at this point, the narrator is eight years old. But her other comments make her seem very experienced in the ways of life and death. How do you not notice the difference between pooping and having a baby? Do babies really smell like rotten eggs, like Brigid says? And when she starts licking the baby clean ... my stomach did some serious acrobatics. 

One day, she decides that she and Og, the baby, can't survive in the barn any longer, so she goes to the house, where the Norse family immediately decides she must be an elf and Og her elf-baby. Logic? Anyone? As I kept reading, I kept not caring what happened to anybody. I guess eventually Brigid becomes a lady-pirate and nets herself a Man, as any self-respecting lady-pirate does. At this point I was just rolling my eyes so hard and simultaneously thinking of all the other Norse stories I could have been reading that I gave up. 

To be fair, Napoli does give a nicely thorough author's note in the back, with sources, but I don't know of many teens who would particularly care.

I personally would not recommend this, but if you're a die-hard Napoli fan and don't mind the menace of Flesh-Eating Pigs, go right ahead with this one.

I received an ARC from Netgalley.

Also, regarding the cover: I know authors have pretty much zero say over their cover art, which is totally rotten, but I am about 99% sure 10th century Irish princesses didn't wear seafoam chiffon dresses.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


This started out really well.  It's a retelling of The Valiant Tailor or The Brave Tailor, which is a fairy tale that can be found in the Brothers' Grimm tales.  I had to go back and reread it because it isn't the most interesting or original of their collected tales.  Actually, it has a lot of elements of Greek and Roman storytelling in it--and probably other cultures as well--since the main character defeats giants with riddles and subterfuge.  It's like if Homer's Wily Odysseus were a tailor instead of a cunning Greek solider with a propensity for ticking off the gods.  Caution: the following review contains spoilers.

Saville and her father have left their home village after her father's spat with the local tailor's guild.  Basically, dear old dad wants to do what he wants to do (which, according to Saville's narration, is already what he does anyway) but with the approval of the guild.  When the guild refuses his request, Saville's father storms off and moves his family to Reggen, the capital city.  If the tailor were on the internet, we would probably call this an Epic Flounce.

Actually, I don't particularly blame the guild for disagreeing with Saville's father: he's a controlling brute who cares more about his velvets and jacquards than for his own daughter.  If I were a tailor in his village, I'd say good riddance to you!

While on the road to Reggen, Saville meets two men, one friendly and one cold, but they're obviously working together as they're bringing a report back of an advancing army of giants who eat people.  However, upon arriving in Reggen, Saville has no one, and discovers that her father has purchased a garret shop (basically an attic) and expects her to like it.  Well, actually, he doesn't care what she thinks because he is a jerk.  Conveniently, he has a fit of apoplexy and Saville realizes that in order to survive, she must become the tailor and make clothing for the king.

So, she's ambitious.  I like that.  She also has a bit of a vengeful side, keeping her father locked in the garret (okay, so he can't move, so it's not like he's going anywhere) and calling him Tailor instead of father.  At first, I thought, ah, this is not your typical YA heroine.

Saville takes in an orphan boy, Will (why does it seem that most scruffy-yet-lovable orphans in books are named either Will or Jack?), to help with the business tasks and take care of Tailor.  Meanwhile, she renames herself Avi and marches in to see the king to fit him for a new suit.  Reggen's king is an incompetent, weak nitwit.  At first I thought he was quite a bit older than his actual age: Saville paints him as a weak, middle-aged fellow, but he's really around her own age.  Hmm.  Anyway, there is kind of a smallish big deal (you know, not a Big Deal, but some fuss nonetheless) about the king's size and fitness level.  He's a bit pudgy, and Saville immediately infers from this that he is weak-willed and a ninny.  Body shaming is not limited to women.  Fat shaming extends to both men and women, and some writers use a characer's size as shorthand for their worth and inner values.  Fat=lazy and stupid; thin=catty OR unsexy (All of the heroines who moan about being "too thin" and "too tall" and having long legs make my eyes roll so hard that they complete a full orbit in their sockets.).  This is not good storytelling, and it is not good human behavior.  Even near the end of the book, when Saville has the opportunity to make more clothing for the king even after he knows she's a girl, he admits that she couldn't possibly feel any "desire" for him because of his body type.

Excuse.  Me.  Look around you.  Clearly the only people in relationships are people who look like magazine models, right?  Oh, wait.  Are you telling me that fat people are capable of loving and being loved too?  Just like every other human in the history of ever (excepting psychopaths and other psychological sports)?  Wow.  And what's more, are you also telling me that people who are bigger than the current social ideal can be smart, funny, creative, hardworking, and really, really strong?  Heavens above!  Where are my pearls, that I may clutch them?  Where is my fainting couch, that I may swoon?

Moving on...

As I mentioned, this is based on a fairy tale where a tailor manages to trick giants into leaving the kingdom alone (important plot point in many fantasy tales) AND performs some labors of Hercules for the king AND marries the king's daughter, who figures out he is a tailor.  Dear ol' dad does the sensible thing, which is, naturally, KILL THE TAILOR (what?  Is he Mugatu?)

The tailor, being Valiant, thwarts this and thumbs his nose at the king.  

I would think that all of that tricking giants business and joining the army (oh yes, he joins the army) and performing these tasks would take up quite a bit of time in Valiant.  Except Saville tricks the giants in the first quarter of the book.  I sat back and thought, "Well.  Now what?"

I'll tell you what: we'll drop heavy-handed hints about dancing 'round the Maypole with giants in peace and harmony because they are just so unbelievably nice (except for the ones that eat humans and wear bones as jewelry--they're naughty giants) AND toss in an awkward love story.

I cannot in good faith call this instalove.  Saville first meets Lord Verras on the road and calls him Fine Coat, which is clearly one of the worst insults I've ever heard.  However, when she's out there messing with the giants in order to save Will, Verras runs out to help Will to safety.  This cements him as the Love Interest in Jerk's Clothing.  And really, Verras isn't a bad guy--he's just really, really stressed out because his cousin, the king, is a nitwit, and his advisors are little better.  After Saville "defeats" the giants, the king proclaims her "champion" of Reggen.  But oh noes!  She is a girl.
Verras saves her life by making her a lady-in-wating to the Princess Lissa, who mostly moans about how she's a pawn in everyone else's games and doesn't get to do anything herself.  Except, hmm, Verras respects her, and the king is a pushover, so I suspect she could really do whatever she wanted. Anyway.  Saville lasts as a lady-in-waiting for like a chapter or something and then sneaks off to help Verras and say inane things like:

"All the way to the Tailor's room, I wondered: what sort of nobleman is that unused to thanks?"  Um, pretty much all of them, honeybunches.  They're noblemen.  By virtue of claiming that title, they proclaim themselves to be better than other people.  Why would they be excited that somebody thanked them.  It would gratify pride but little else.  

"He [Verras] cleared his throat, as though he were unused to giving such praise.  'It just would be easier if you were a man.  Much easier.'  I smiled and gestured to my clothing.  'If only you knew how many times I've thought that.' "  Soooo ... everything would be better if you were a guy.  Way to GO on the female empowerment bit.  Saville isn't proud of who she is--she's ashamed that she's female.  Ew.

Of course Saville and Verras fall for each other, and he demands that she call him Galen, so for the first half of the book he is strictly "Lord Verras" and for the second he is strictly "Galen," which confused me a bit.  I kept thinking, "Didn't he have another name?  Who's this Verras guy ... oh yeah, him."  Saville is convinced that the giants are really good people, so she sneaks out, meets one, lies to him, but also becomes his friend, and then goes back to try and convince Galen that we should be friends with the giants.

Except now there's a bigger problem.  See, the giants aren't attacking Reggen on their own initiative.  If they had it their way, they'd just be mining in the mountains and carving stuff, as giants do (I thought that was dwarves, but okay.  Fine.  I'll roll with this).  A man calling himself the Duke of the Western Steeps, Heir to the ancient Emperor's crown, Holder of the Eternal Heart leads them.  We get another clichéd description of him: "He was tall and powerfully built, reminding me of a warhorse.  His hair was blue-black, like a raven's wing, and was tied back from his face."  The raven-warhorse duke demands a) King Elgin's surrender, b) Princess Lissa's hand in marriage, and c) I don't know, fear?  He's really theatrical with the demands: "I will either sit on this trhone as husband to the princess Lissa, or I will build myself a throne out of the rubble and bones of a ravaged enemy.  It will be mine."  All that's missing is his leather gloved fist shaking in the air.  

So after Saville's nighttime talks with Volar the Friendly Giant yield the information that the Duke leads the army because he is invincible and pretended that he had some woo-woo giant king powers (that whole bit made zero sense to me, so, moving on).  The Duke is invincible because he is a thinly veiled version of Koschei the Deathless, which pulled me back into the story again.  I love a good Koschei retelling.  Yet again, my hopes were dashed when everything fell into place so neatly.  Plus, the Duke really wasn't that scary.  Eh.

I admire that the author decided to take on a lesser-known fairy tale, but had she paced it better, it wouldn't have felt as if the characters just wandered around for three-quarters of the book (the last three quarters, no less!).  I can't understand how Saville could go from loathing someone to loving him (again, not instalove, but more like sudden and acute irrational love), and some of the prose was just so cringeworthy.  Example: "I looked up, hardly daring to breathe, hoping he'd be able to see everything I couldn't say.  Gently--so gently!--he captured my hand and placed it over his heart, pressing it to him until I could feel his heartbeat against my palm."  What's up with the exclamation in the middle of the phrase?  What is this, Shakespeare?  Naw, just good ol' Lord Verras, who "looked at me like I was velvet."  What does that even mean?  You have a good plushiness to you?  You are jewel toned?  You are expensive?  You get static cling in the winter thus causing people like me to avoid velvet like the plague?

Somehow I managed to write reams about this and yet not really go into a ton of particulars about the plot.  That's because the plot has about ten separate plot points going on and we never fully explore them.  

What I learned from this book: If you lie to people, take in a spunky orphan, trick giants, sew pretty clothes, and insist that singing Kumbaya with giants is a great diplomatic option, then you too can marry the prince's cousin!

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.