Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"Havemercy" by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett

Summary: Margrave Royston is a magician exiled for a dalliance with an ally prince.  In his brother's country home, he meets and begins to fall for Hal, an intrepid young man and the tutor to his brother's children.  In the city, Rook is a member of the Dragon Corp, a select group of men in charge of flying the metal dragons who are the country's best defense against neighboring enemy Ke-Han.  When Rook gets in trouble for inappropriate behavior with a diplomat's wife, Thom, a university student, is brought in to give the Dragon Corp sensitivity training.  As war with Ke-Han grows more dangerous, all four are brought closer to the center of the conflict.

Musings: Despite my affinity for fantasy, Havemercy isn't my typical fare, but I was dragged into reading it by a (literally) breathless student who raved about it.  In truth, Havemercy wasn't quite what I expected, which unfortunately isn't a compliment.

Jones and Bennett have set up an interesting world--one with magicians with particular Talents, metal-but-also-alive magic dragons, and a longstanding feud with Ke-Han.  Unfortunately, the world building typical of an epic fantasy is mostly pushed aside to focus instead on the characters' minute thoughts and feelings.  Each of the four men--Royston, Hal, Rook, and Thom--takes turns narrating, and for much of the book their musings make up the entirety of the narration.  Royston languishes out in the city; Hal feels uncertain; Rook is ticked at everyone; Thom is nervous.  But nothing else happens!  Royston and Hal sit in the country.  Thom wanders around the Dragon Corp's home feeling useless while Rook scowls at him.

To make matters worse, the characters are exasperating! Thought it's clear almost immediately that Royston and Hal are attracted to one another, they never do anything about it. They stand close. Their hearts pound.  They quiver. They sigh. That's it! Within the first hundred pages all I could do was scream "just do it already!" in my head whenever I read about them together.  Don't get me wrong--I enjoy a good pining--but without any action to interrupt all that quivering, the not-really-relationship just gets annoying.

Similarly odd were Rook and Thom.  Though their relationship is platonic, as opposed to Royston and Hal's romantic relationship, Thom obsesses over Rook in the same way as Royston and Hal obsess over one another.  I just couldn't understand it.

Jones and Bennett also have the habit of reusing certain traits over and over again: namely, blushing.  Oh my goodness, this novel is an absolute blush-fest.  Between Hal, Thom, and Balfour (another member of the Dragon Corp), there must have been well over a hundred episodes of blushing in the novel.  There has to be other ways to indicate a character's personality and reaction!

The part that my student was most excited about--the metal dragons--were disappointingly absent from the book.  It's quite a ways in before the reader even meets a dragon, and after that they appear for only a few short episodes.  I would have loved to learn more about Havemercy's (Rook's dragon) temperament, evolution, and relationships.

There's some excitement toward the end when the action picks up, but it's too little squished too tightly together.  The ending is satisfying (something I had worried about considering the book's part of a trilogy), but I just wasn't all that invested by the time it was finished.

Although women exist in the world in which Havemercy is set, they don't exist within the plot of the book.  There are no female characters, and in fact, women are never mentioned except in relationship in Rook's sex jokes.  It's another thing that just comes across as odd.

Havemercy has some good ideas and characters.  Truthfully, I had a lot of fun bashing it in my head as I read, but it didn't come together as a great book.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

"Luka and the Fire of Life" by Salman Rushdie

Summary: Luka has grown up hearing the elaborate stories about Magic World from his father, Rashid Khalifa.  When Luka curses Aag, a cruel circus owner, Rashid falls into a deep sleep from which he cannot be awakened.  Luka learns he must travel into Magic World and steal the Fire of Life in order to save his father.  Along the way, he meets the beings of his father's stories and uses his own knowledge of Rashid to save his father.

Musings: Luka and the Fire of Life is a somewhat deceptive book, for though it has, on the outside, the trappings of a children's tale, it's a book that recognizes and rewards its adult audience.  The novel has the style of traditional myth storytelling with a modern day setting, with an enjoyably anachronistic result.

The intrepid protagonist, Luka, travels into Magic World--his father's storytelling world--in order to find the Fire of Life.  This world is populated by an unusual mix of historical mythology (the gods and monsters of practically all cultures, from Native Americans, to ancient Greeks, to Asian folklore), invented creatures (like the Insultana of Ott, an otter queen whose society spends much of its time vigorously insulting each other), and modern pop culture (Luka advances through Magic World like he's playing a Nintendo game; heck, even Doctor Who gets mentioned!).

The tone throughout is light, often filled with wordplay and fun "wink-nudge" cleverness.  Even random moments are enjoyable, such as when Nobodaddy (the phantom being who is slowly replacing Luka's father) asks, "Do rats tell tales? Do porpoises have narrative purposes? Do elephants ele-phantasize?" (34).  Or take this exchange:
"Are you familiar," he said finally, "with the Bang?"
"The Big Bang?" Luka asked. "Or some other Bang I don't know about?"
"There was only one Bang," said Nobodaddy, "so the adjective Big is redundant and meaningless. The Bang would only be Big if there was at least one other Little or Medium-Sized or even Bigger Bang to compare it with, and to differentiate it from." (38) 
Luke and the Fire of Life is a somewhat sequel to Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which follows Luka's older brother.  Although Luka can certainly be read as a solo text, I did wish I'd read Haroun first as I think it would have been enjoyable to re-encounter recurring places and characters.

Knowing almost nothing about Rushdie going in, I expected a much more austere work than I found.  Instead, Luka and the Fire of Life rang more like a kids' book with adult appeal (perhaps like a Pixar movie), which certainly isn't an insult.  I did find my mind occasionally straying, as the light tone, for me, also meant the book wasn't completely engrossing.  Reading it aloud or hearing it in an audiobook version might have helped.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

Monday, March 21, 2011

"Packing for Mars" by Mary Roach

Summary: A fun and informative look into space travel, particularly the research that has gone into sending humans into space.

Musings: Packing for Mars has made the lists of engaging nonfiction, and I would completely agree with that classification.  While the book is not a comprehensive look into a particular area of space travel, it's exhaustive in covering all the random questions people are likely to have about going into outer space.  How does one relieve oneself? What kind of food makes it into space?  Fortunately for the reader, Roach has a schoolboy's curiosity and an academic's depth of research.  What makes her book all the more compelling is that she relies primarily on first-hand accounts (oral histories, astronaut autobiographies, personal interviews with NASA researchers) and personal accounts (experiencing zero gravity in a parabolic flight; traveling to a remote "Mars simulant" research area) to explain space research rather than citing other books.  I liked the omnipresent personal; it included me in the material.

Roach spends a significant time exploring the research that has gone into and is currently going into aspects of human travel into space.  Things we take for granted here on earth can be substantially different in the confines of space, and minute research must go into every aspect of outer space travel.  This includes things like hygiene--how does one keep clean when zero gravity makes using water difficult? How does being confined into a small, enclosed space affect personal health?  No question is left unanswered, including whether or not anyone has had sex in space (unfortunately, it seems the answer is no) and the myriad of difficulties of space defecation.

One of the things I was most struck by is how research must go into not only solving practical problems (e.g., keeping an astronaut properly nourished with calories and vitamins) but psychological problems as well (e.g., an astronaut might be able to live off a dog-food like kibble, but what effect would that have on morale and the mission as a whole?).  Time and again, on-the-ground researchers have had to face the reality of in-the-moment astronauts.

In the end, though, probably the best part of Packing for Mars is the random tidbits.  For example, the condom-like wrappers for male urination only come in large, extra-large, and extra-extra-large sizes (surely a reflection of the size of astronauts' egos rather than, ahem, something else).  Carnation Instant Breakfast began as a potential, low-rated, and rejected form of astronaut food (file under: not at all surprising).

I listed to the audio version of the book read by Sandra Burr.  Initially I was put off because Burr sounds eerily similar to my GPS' voice and had some of the same weird intonation.  I kept wanting her to say, "In--(pause)--500 feet, turn left on--(pause)--Main Street."  Eventually I got over it and wasn't distracted.  Burr does a nice job of keeping a light tone and subtly does Roach's sarcasm and humor without going overboard.

I suppose I consider myself someone who is interested in the weird and random, and I'm glad Roach has done the work for me.  Truthfully space travel isn't something in which I would say I have an innate interest, but Packing for Mars is so compelling that I'm ready to Google NASA and see what's going on right now.

Friday, March 18, 2011

"Wench" by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Summary: Tawawa House is an Ohio summer resort where white slave owners can take their slave mistresses for part of the summer.  At Tawawa House, four women form a close friendship.  Lizzie loves her master Drayle and hopes he will some day free their two children together.  Mawu hates her owner Tip and desperately wants to escape, which is all the more tantalizing in free-state Ohio.  Rounding out the group are Sweet and Reenie.  Over the course of several summers, each woman must make a choice about the price of remaining a slave and the price of attempting freedom.

Musings: One of the challenges of writing about American slavery is that so many books have already been written on it.  Perkinz-Valdez takes on one particular appalling aspect of slavery--the sexual abuse of female slaves by their white owners--through a unique setting.  Away from their owners' wives, their children, and the plantation, Lizzie, Mawu, Sweet, and Reenie are exposed to new possibilities, both exciting and dangerous.

Lizzie is the protagonist of the novel, and her story is especially uncertain.  Although she feels the pain and restrictions of slavery, most acutely for her children with Drayle, she is also treated "well" by most standards.  In fact, she deeply cares for and loves Drayle, and the small freedoms she experiences at Tawawa, where she shares a cottage with Drayle much like a wife would, bring her closer to him.  But as Lizzie also grows closer with women like Mawu, her feelings begin to change.  Lizzie's an especially interesting character because of that complexity she faces.

Probably the most difficult aspect of the book for me was the sexual abuse.  I've mentioned several other times that I find depicting sexual violence against women problematic.  I know Perkins-Valdez describes scenes and events that are an incontrovertible part of slavery, and I wouldn't suggest those parts should be hidden.  Nonetheless, I find graphic descriptions of sexual assault so sickening (which it clearly is intended to be) that it was difficult to want to continue to read the book.  Sometimes I felt the desired effect could be created with less, but that's probably more of a personal feeling.

Wench is told straightforwardly, and at times I craved a richer and more nuanced style.  I felt as though events and feelings were being told to me, rather than allowing me to experience and come to know them through the characters.  Some events happened too abruptly, and others were delayed with unnecessary suspense.

Nonetheless, Wench uses a variety of characters to explore the lives of slave women and effectively shows the ways in which sexual abuse played a role in restricting the women's lives.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"Ex Libris" by Anne Fadiman

Summary: A collection of short essays from a book lover, on the strange relationship between book worms and their books.

Musings: Ex Libris is the perfect book for anyone with the idiosyncrasies of the book lover.  Fadiman herself is the archetypal book lover, with an enormous personal library, a career as a writer, and a family whose literature nerdiness knows no bounds.  Compared to Fadiman, I look like someone who's read nothing more than few trashy romances in her lifetime. But even though Fadiman is spectacularly well-read, she never comes off as condescending or pretentious.  Instead, her essays read like a true friend confessing her deep craziness about books--and what a joy it is to read Ex Libris as you, too, exclaim, "Yes, I feel the same! Let's be odd together!"  The essays have a conversational, humorous tone, and Fadiman expertly integrates her life with her knowledge of literature.

Of course, I had some favorite essays.  "The Joy of Sesquipedalians" explores the excitement of discovering a new-to-you word and the disappointment when your assertion that "no one" must know that word is proven wrong.  Fadiman herself has quite the vocabulary, and I'll admit I had to experience that feeling myself several times while reading the book.  "Never Do That to a Book" explores the book purists (never damage or deface a book in any way) and the book eaters (who love their literature through well-worn use).  I'll admit I learn toward the purist side (I hate when my husband uses a remote, for example, as a book mark--it's too big and will distort the pages!). "The His'er Problem" pits the feminist inside Fadiman (not favoring the masculine pronoun) against the grammarian (not standing for pronoun antecedent agreement error).  It's a quandary I face myself.

Ex Libris would be the perfect gift for any true book lover, and it's one that just screams to be shared.  In fact, I've already planned to give a copy of "The Joy of Sesquipedalians" to a student who talked about trying to keep a list of new-to-her vocabulary words in Jane Eyre before giving up after completely filling several pages, and I've emailed a former student telling her she must read several of these immediately!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

"People of the Book" by Geraldine Brooks

Summary: When a famed illustrated Jewish prayer book, a haggadah, is rescued in Bosnia, Australian book conservator Hanna Heath is brought in to preserve the work before it goes on display.  As Hanna investigates the history of the book, People of the Book alternates chapters showing glimpses of the book's history, from Seville in 1480 to Sarajevo in 1940.

Musings: People of the Book was a somewhat disappointing read, though I enjoyed it more by the end than I did in the beginning.  Brooks' March was one of my top ten favorite books in 2009, so I had high hopes.  On the other hand, I'm reading this for a newly-formed book group, and I've had a very bad track record with book club books (i.e. I always hate them), so perhaps People of the Book was doomed from the beginning.

The weakest sections of the book for me were the chapters on Hanna.  She's the Robert Langdon (of The DaVinci Code) of book conservation, and, like Robert Langdon, her travels in pursuit of her trade are laughably exotic as she jet-sets all over the world in pursuit of CSI-style information on the haggadah.  Unsurprisingly, all the experts she meets in her travels are young and attractive.  I found Frau Zweig, the chief archivist of a German museum, the most unlikely and obnoxious; take this description: "In her late twenties, [Zweig] was dressed in high black boots, a teensy plaid skirt, and a tight, electric blue jersey that emphasized an enviable figure.  Her dark hair was cropped in a jagged bob and streaked in various shades of red and yellow.  There was a silver stud in the side of her retrousse nose" (101).  She's really a minor character, but even important characters, like Muslim librarian and love interest Ozren, aren't much better.

I felt no connection to Hannah as a reader and no understanding of her personality.  In particular, Hanna's absurdly dysfunctional relationship with her mother was irrelevant and over-wrought.    I was happy when her chapters ended and the chapters following the book's history began.

These historical chapters were a little more interesting, particularly since the protagonist of each is vastly different from the protagonist of the others.  The characters range in age, sex, religion, and nationality, and it was interesting to see the ways in which so many different people became involved in the life and protection of one book.  However, again, I felt a lack of connection with the characters.  In borrowing Dan Brown's Langdon, Brooks also seems to have borrowed Brown's lack of style.  There's a lot that happens, but little in the way of subtlety or character development.  It's like someone had read the book to me and then asked me to summarize it in detail; the plot points would be there, but it wouldn't be interesting.

There's strong emphasis in the book on the ways in which Jewish, Christian, and Muslim individuals worked together.  It's a worthwhile message, but the relationships on which the message is built often felt forced and fake, making the message itself feel heavy handed. It's fascinating to see the way in which, throughout history, these religions have co-existed peacefully and then persecuted others or been persecuted, but there was no nuance in the way these complicated relationships occurred.

In the end, People of the Books is a literary idea done with dull commercialized fiction writing.  If you're interested in reading one of Brooks' works, I would definitely recommend March over this one.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

"Gardens of Water" by Alan Drew

Summary: After a catastrophic earthquake in Turkey, two very different families are forever linked.  Sinan is a Kurd living in the country with his wife, teenage daughter Irem, and son Ismail.  In the apartment above them was an American family: the father Marcus, the teenage son Dylan, and the wife who dies saving Ismail in the earthquake.  When Americans, led by Marcus, set up a refugee relief area for those affected by the quake, Sinan and his family join the many others living in tents.  But the new situation also allows for a growing relationship between Irem and Dylan that will have repercussions for both families.

Musings: Gardens of Water is a story of two individuals torn between what they want and believe.  For Sinan, that means balancing his love for his children with his religious and cultural beliefs, and his preference for his son with his conflicting feelings about his daughter.  In the refugee camp, no longer in a role as provider of the family, Sinan must confront these conflicting feelings for the first time.  Meanwhile, the teenage Irem tries to balance her desire for freedom from the life her mother has led with her unwillingness to give up her family, culture, and religious beliefs. The novel shows that there are no easy answers for either individual, but that, inevitably, choices have to be made.

What I like most about Gardens of Water is it's full-fledged characters, from Sinan and Irem to Marcus and Dylan.  No one is a true hero or villain, as each one struggles with her or her own frustration, failings, and attempt to make sense of the universe.

Surprisingly for a book built on character development, the action moves quite quickly.  Short chapters and alternatively following Sinan and Irem keep the pace quick, even though the book centers around Sinan as a whole.

I know very little about Turkey and the conflict with the Kurds, and nothing about the 1999 earthquake, and I enjoyed learning more.  Although the author is an American, it felt as though all the characters were treated with respect as individuals with important similarities and differences.

Negative Reviews

Note: I wrote this post on Friday, but I wanted to edit it, so I didn't publish it yet.  Then, I read this post, "I Love Bad Reviews", by Justine Larbalestier this morning.  And she said what I wanted to say, but better. That's what I get for waiting! I'm still posting mine, but I highly recommend reading Justine's thoughts on the matter.

Every couple months the blogs seem to blow up about the issue of negative reviews (I've only seen this in the YA blogs, but perhaps it happens elsewhere). I feel pretty strongly about the issue, so I thought I'd share.

First, I think it's a problem if bloggers look at reviews as a service to authors to help improve the authors' writing.  Authors have plenty of people to help them with their writing--crit partners, writers' groups, agents, etc. Truthfully, it seems pretty egotistical to think whatever you have to say is going to be so monumentally earth shattering that it will drastically improve the author's future writings.  If you see problems, the author most likely a) already knows or b) doesn't see them as issues.  Therefore, writing reviews with an author audience in mind seems wrong.

So, that means book reviews are for two basic purposes:
1) To allow you to express your thoughts on books
2) To inform other readers about books

Both of these are worthwhile and important purposes.  I write my reviews because I desperately need somewhere to get out my thoughts (my husband only wants to talk so much about books he hasn't read!).  The OCD part of me likes the style, organization, and feeling of culmination reviewing each book I read gives me.  I read many other blogs to be informed about books I might like to read.

So here's the thing--if book blog reviews are for those two purposes, then I see no reason not to write critical reviews.  If I review to express my thoughts and then lie about a book that stunk, then I'm not achieving purpose one.  And if I write a more positive review than the book deserved, then I'm failing to accurately deliver on purpose two.

My absolute least favorite types of reviews go something like this: "Yelping Chihuahua Archers by Suzy McSaddlepants was an amazing book.  The story hooked me and the style was so amazing it took my breath away.  I highly recommend this book to everyone I know! It gets 15/10 triple sundae heart points!"  Because if all you do is uniformly praise every book you read (and what the heck does "the style is so amazing" mean?), then your reviews are completely meaningless.  (I will make exceptions for blogs that announce upfront that they will only review books they love.)  To me, you become untrustworthy as a source.

Now, like most others who have weighed on this issue have noted, I don't advocate trashing an author ("McSaddlepants is a total loser and should obviously leave the writing profession and instead become a grave digger, dig her own grave, and die.") or trashing a whole genre because of an author ("Saddlepants' failure to write a compelling young adult dystopian post-modern Western clearly demonstrates that the genre is tired and overdone.").  However, I think it's okay to be critical.  It's even okay to come across as harsh.  You're writing to express your own thoughts and to pass those along to readers--and I want the truth.

I've written a number of harsh reviews.  I loathed The Tattooed Girl (from my review: "This book is terrible. Truly, terrible. Not boring terrible, dense terrible, or cliched terrible- just terrible.") and One Hundred Years of Solitude ("One Hundred Years was an intolerable continuum of tedium."), and I said so in my reviews.  Of course, Oates and Marquez are famous, well-recognized writers, and neither book is YA.

But I also criticized recent YA releases like Wildthorn and The Line because I did not feel they were good books.  I try to specify why, since certainly aspects that bother me might not bother another reader.  But, as a reader, I don't want to waste my time on something I won't enjoy, so I appreciate knowing the faults up front.

I do have a couple things that make it easier to write what I think: I have very low blog readership and I don't hope to become a published author. I suppose if I had tons of readers ready to pounce should I say something wrong or was sending out queries I might be more paranoid and thus cautious.  I'm also not receiving ARCs to review, and like it or not, I think being a common recipient of advance books (and wanting to continue to be a recipient of such) probably does play a role in the way reviews come out.

So, here is my final thought: YA community, please keep writing thoughtful, critical reviews.  The best of YA doesn't get recognized if everything that comes out is deemed absolutely fabulous.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

"Before I Fall" by Lauren Oliver

Summary: Sam, a high school senior, has the perfect life: three absolute best friends, a cool boyfriend (with whom she plans to lose her virginity tonight), and complete popularity.  When driving home with her friends after a night of partying, she's involved in a crash--and wakes up to relive the same day once more.  As Sam lives through one day of her life seven times, she realizes the mistakes she's made and seeks to correct them.

Musings: Before I Fall is a mash-up of Mean Girls and Groundhog Day that, despite treading no new ground, still manages to be compelling.  In fact, the greatest strength of Oliver's writing is that even though the book falls into well-trod characters (the alpha-popular girl; the bullied loner) and themes (popularity isn't what's most important; be yourself!), the characters still feel full-bodied and important to the reader.

The narrator is Sam (i.e. Cady from Mean Girls, once she's popular) a girl who, when the book starts, is a total bitch, just like her friends (notably Lindsay, a.k.a. Mean Girl's Regina George).  Of course, being popular, she and her friends don't actively recognize how cruel they are.  However, I liked that the girls aren't only defined by their cruelty.  They're also honest to goodness best friends, supportive and devoted to one another.

As Sam begins reliving one day of her life, she predictably begins to notice her many faults, recognize what's truly important, and become a better person.  But this standard narrative is also broken up by many mishaps and well-intentioned but hurtful mistakes.

The new love interest, the adorable Kent, is probably too perfect (I said the same thing about Alex, the love interest in Oliver's Delirium--darn you, Oliver, for giving us perfect guys who will never exist), but I can never resist a pining relationship, and it was sweet to see their relationship begin several times over.  Nonetheless, it's not the romantic relationships, but the complicated female friendships that really form the center of the book. (double darn, I said almost the same thing about Delirium too!)

I know this is a book that my 14-year-old female students would love, and I enjoyed it too, despite the overly-exaggerated emphasis on popularity (I know I never looked gaga-eyed at seniors when I was a freshman, though I didn't talk to them either).  The ending may hint to easier solutions than the real world can provide, but it's also an ending that relies on hope, which I can't criticize.