coraa: (bookworm)
Ever since Diana Wynne Jones passed away, I've been doling out the new-to-me books a few at a time to make them last. This is one of my most recent "new" reads.

It's clear from the beginning that magical things are going on at Melstone House, because Andrew is first informed that his grandfather has died and left him the place by his deceased grandfather's ghost. But Andrew can't figure out exactly what's going on: why everyone keeps referring to his "field-of-care," what document he's supposed to be finding among his grandfather's voluminous papers, or why Aidan Cain has run away and sought him for help. But he'd better figure it out quickly, because something sinister is rapidly encroaching on the property...

This is what I think of as a very typical Diana Wynne Jones book: set in a world almost but not quite ours, with a large cast of highly eccentric characters, a scale that is small but with potentially far-reaching results, and a protagonist (or protagonists) who is always just one step behind the rapidly-unfolding (and rapidly-complicating) plot. That said, "typical Diana Wynne Jones" is in no way a criticism. This book contains many of the things that I like about her as an author, particularly the large, eccentric, mostly-likeable cast of characters and the way all the tangled plot threads tie up at the end in a big, messy climactic ending. DWJ does the "gloriously chaotic ending" better than pretty much anyone I can think of.

Some of the things that I liked about the book are hard to talk about outside the spoiler cut, like the way it plays with a certain set of tropes. Let me just say that it manages to deal with some common tropes in way that are a little uncommon without hanging a big "I am subverting this trope! Look at me subvert!" sign on it.

The book did some other things that I think of as classic Diana Wynne Jones, and again, in a good way. It is very funny, in some places funny enough to make me giggle out loud. The humor is character-based, which is my favorite kind. And that ties in with another thing I appreciated: serious emotional subjects are handled with a sensitivity and a deft touch that makes them feel honest without being sledgehammer-like. There is one scene where a character grieves, and it felt completely real to me, but it wasn't like wading through a quagmire of angst.

I wouldn't say this was one of my very favorite DWJ books. It's very light, and again, it's doing something she has done many times. But good DWJ is great by most other standards, and this is definitely good. I'd recommend it, especially as a book to read if you're having a bad day.

Spoilers have a magic stained glass window. )

Enchanted Glass, by Diana Wynne Jones
coraa: (bookworm)
Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones

After Diana Wynne Jones passed away earlier this year, I started rereading some of my favorites of her books. (Not in any kind or orderly or organized fashion; for that, see [livejournal.com profile] swan_tower's DWJ project.) It's hard for me to actually decide what my favorite DWJ book is. Archer's Goon is a possibility, Charmed Life is a possibility; Witch Week is a possibility. But Howl's Moving Castle is a strong contender for favorite. It's also one of the earliest DWJ I read: after Archer's Goon but before Charmed Life.

The book is set in a mildly fairy-tale-esque world—fairy-tale-esque enough that its protagonist, Sophie, knows that (being the oldest of three children instead of the youngest) she is not meant for great things, and is only going to get into trouble if she sets off to seek her fortune. So she settles into the boring but sensible work of trimming hats at the hat shop her father owned before he died. But the Witch of the Waste arrives on Sophie's doorstep with a curse, and sets her off to seek her fortune (and cross paths with the wicked magician Howl) whether she planned it or not.

I think the thing I love most about this book, have always loved most about it, is how grounded and sensible it is. For instance, Howl has a pair of seven-league boots that Sophie and Michael (Howl's apprentice) use to visit one of Sophie's sisters. Seven leagues is twenty-ish miles... and of course it's hard to steer or navigate if you go ten miles at a step. And the way Sophie justifies sticking around Howl's castle is by acting as a housekeeper... complete with details of exactly how much work it is to clean up after a layabout wizard and his teenage apprentice if they haven't cleaned in years. (It made me want to go do some spring cleaning of my own, in fact.)

The characters are really what make this book. Well, and the setting (I love the odd combination of fairy-tale and realistic of the world, and of course the castle is marvelous). There's a plot involving the Witch of the Waste and a missing prince, but it's really an excuse for Sophie to be clever and sensible and no-nonsense, and for Howl to be brilliant and lazy, and for Calcifer the fire demon to be... thoroughly Calcifer, and so on. Even the more minor characters, like Sophie's sisters and the dog, are so beautifully-drawn even in just a few lines that I feel like I know them, and would happily have tea with them.

This is part of the genre I think of as "cozy fantasy," and it's one of my ultimate comfort reads. It's funny and warm, tremendously readable, and I highly recommend it.

(The Miyazaki movie tends to split the opinions of fans of the book. While it has the same story, in fairly broad strokes at least, it turns the sensibility of the book upside-down: where the book is pragmatic and grounded even in its more magical details, the movie is dreamlike even in its more mundane details. I think that's why it feels so different—at least to me—even though the characters and plot are largely similar. I like both, but they are very much not the same.)

I have not yet read the sequels, partly because I'm afraid that very few things could live up to this book. Those of you who have read Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways: what do you think of them?

And now for some spoilery commentary:

Spoilers express their feelings with green slime )
coraa: (house mouse)
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O'Brien

When Mrs. Frisby's frailest child, Timothy, comes down with pneumonia, the doctor insists that he cannot be moved—cannot be taken outside—must remain safe and warm indoors. This presents a problem, though, because Mrs. Frisby is a fieldmouse, and the entire family must move house from the garden to the stream banks soon, lest their home be torn apart when the farmer plows the garden. Mrs. Frisby's quest for an answer leads her to a crow, an owl, and finally the mysterious rats who live beneath the rose bush... and who have an unexplained connection to Mrs. Frisby's late husband.

Oh, I adored this book when I was a kid. I read it for the first time when I was eight? nine? and then again every couple of years until I was in high school. This was my first re-read in a long while, though, and I was pleased by how well it stood up.

In a lot of ways, it's really a remarkable little book. If you leave aside the fact that Mrs. Frisby is clearly too intelligent to be a 'normal' fieldmouse, there's no magic in the book at all. Mrs. Frisby achieves everything she does through courage and fortitude, and the rats do their part through wits, intelligence and good planning (as well as a dose of bravery of their own). And, while the book does include unusual, even superhuman (superrodent?) characters, the heroine is a quite ordinary fieldmouse, a mother, sensible and kind and determined, and while there are other remarkable characters she remains central throughout. (Although I confess, I had a confused little cross-species crush on Justin. I still kind of do.)

Another thing about the book: there really aren't any villains. Even the humans who appear as antagonists are more like forces of nature than "bad guys," which makes perfect sense given their roles in the lives of the animals on the farm.

I think those two things are why I never really could love the movie The Secret of NIMH. On its own, it's not at all a bad animated film—and I'm not a stickler for accuracy in conversions of book to movie; I know that what makes a good book doesn't necessarily make a good movie. But The Secret of NIMH added both magic and a villain, and, to me, that took away a lot of what had made the book special.

Anyway. This is quite clearly a middle-grade book, but if you can see past that, I think it holds up quite well. I just reread it in one gulp, one sitting, one long bubble bath, and I'm glad I did. Highly recommended.

There is one way in which the book dates itself: the rats have gender roles, and the males seem to be in charge. I think the strength of Mrs. Frisby's character (in both sense of the word—she's as well-rounded, and as courageous, as anyone in the book) makes up for the implied gender inequity among the rats, but mileage may vary.
coraa: (bookworm)
Uglies / Pretties / Specials / Extras, by Scott Westerfeld

Tally can't wait until she turns sixteen: then she'll get the surgery to become Pretty, move to New Pretty Town and enjoy constant entertainment and parties, and—most importantly—be reunited with her best friend Peris, who, being a few months older than her, is already Pretty and enjoying his new life without her. But while she's waiting, alone, for her sixteenth birthday, Tally meets Shay. Shay is the same age as Tally, and is an exciting daredevil with a fascination with history of the old Rusty civilizations... and she's not as enthused as Tally about getting a shot at being Pretty. But when Shay runs away, Tally finds out that everything's more complicated than she had suspected.

The Uglies series is fairly distant-future science fiction, set in a world that sought to resolve the inequities of human life and the problems of ecological depredation (after "our" society collapsed and burned, literally) in two ways. First, most human needs (both material and emotional) are satisfied by the city; second, the city makes everyone look the same: everyone is Pretty. (You may be thinking, as I was, that that's overly simplistic, but the book does know that. It's just that Tally doesn't know that, not from the start.) But the price of being both beautiful and well-cared-for is relying wholly on the city, and its omnipresent monitoring, and its secretive leaders.

Tally doesn't care about that at the beginning: she's fifteen, almost sixteen, and she misses her friend, and she wants to join the 24-7 party going on in New Pretty Town. This probably makes her sound pretty shallow, but it's a) pretty believable to me, and b) part of her character trajectory in a way I find very satisfying. One of the things I liked about the book is the way Tally matured and grew throughout, not only in terms of learning about the society she lives in but also in that she discovered strengths and a moral core of her own. And she does it gradually, rather than by large Important Epiphanies. To put it another way: she grows up. And a big part of how and why she grows up lies in her tumultuous friendship with Shay.

While reading this, I wound up thinking a great deal of the "Female Friendship in Fantasy" panel at Sirens. Tally and Shay are best friends, and yet they wind up at odds with each other regularly (sometimes in romantic conflicts, but often not). While I might have preferred a bit less in the way of romantic conflict, I did like that that wasn't the only thing they wound up arguing over, and I liked that the relationship between Tally and Shay was the most important one in the books. That's not something you see all that often. And it did remind me of a few of my friendships over the years. (I also liked that neither Tally nor Shay was wholly right, when they argued. Often one was partly right and the other was, too, or one was perhaps more purely morally right while the other was more pragmatic, or both had totally sympathetic reasons for being at odds. And it wasn't all about "girl rivalries:" they really were friends, which made the times they were at odds all the more affecting.)

I also appreciated the way the plot snapped along, lively and compelling. I kept reading on because it was really hard to stop.

The series isn't perfect: the story stumbled a little before it caught its stride (I wasn't totally hooked until the second book, Pretties), and I wasn't always sure of motivations of certain characters, and—while I liked the romances, actually—I wasn't as enamored of the romantic rivalries (although they were thankfully not the focus of the story). But the books do a good job of keeping up tension and interest without becoming repetitive or overly grim, and I read the whole quartet in about two days. The plot just zips along. I like that.

The other thing I noticed was Westerfeld's hand with invented slang. I know that any discussion of invented slang tends to be very personal and hard to quantify beyond "it worked for me" or "it didn't work for me"—and I know that there are certainly people for whom the slang in the Uglies series didn't work—but it did work for me. (With the occasional exception, but overall, it worked.) I found the slang believable as slang, and I didn't have any trouble following it.

It's hard to speak of anything but the first half of the first book in anything but the vaguest terms without spoiling, partly because the end of each book contains a major hairpin turn. (I am, in retrospect, glad I am reading them now that the whole series is complete.) So I'll continue under the cut, with the understanding that there are potentially book-breaking spoilers for all four books there.

Spoilers have spinning flash tattoos )

Recommended, especially if you like science fiction that explores social issues and social programming.

A caveat: as is probably obvious even from the titles, this is a series that deals with what it means to be pretty (or Pretty), what it means to not be pretty, what it means to be unusual, and so on. Especially early in the series, Tally is bluntly critical of her own "ugly" (normal) appearance, and longs to undergo her society's coming-of-age surgery and become beautiful. In addition, the series deals with brain modification and brain damage in an unflinching way. This is, absolutely, not something the series accepts uncritically (quite the opposite, in fact), but if you're likely to find a lot of discussion of physical appearance and/or brain modification triggering, well, then you probably ought to know.
coraa: (bookworm)
Starting my book-every-couple-days resolution off right...

White Cat (Curse Workers, Book 1), by Holly Black

Cassel Sharpe grew up in a family of workers—people with the inborn (and, in the USA, illegal) ability to perform magic on others by touching their hands to their target's bare skin—but he himself is no worker. His mother is in jail for using her emotion working ability to scam a rich man; his grandfather is a retired death-worker, with half his fingers missing due to blowback from the killings he's done; his brothers work for one of the crime families that both use and protect curse workers. But Cassel's attempt to live a normal life is destroyed when a white cat invades his dreams, literally, leading him to sleepwalk up onto the roof of his boarding school. And worse. It doesn't help that Cassel himself, though not an illegal curse worker, nonetheless has a history that includes a really horrific crime.

It's a noir con artist story, based on a comparatively obscure fairy tale, with alt history and magic and great worldbuilding! What's not to like?

I really enjoyed this book, and a big part of that is because of the setting. There's a lot of urban fantasy that uses the trope 'our world, but magic,' but Black's take (entirely lacking in weres and faeries and vampires) is fresh and interesting—even 'magic is illegal,' not itself a new idea, goes in some directions I hadn't seen before. In this alternate US, not just alcohol but also magic-working was made illegal in the 1920s; unlike alcohol, the criminalization of working was never lifted. Accordingly, by the 'present' of the story, magic is almost entirely in the hands of organized crime families. Everyone wears gloves all the time (except with trusted intimates), because bare hands are as plausible a threat as an unsheathed knife.

The characters were as well-realized as the setting, even though most of them were pretty unlikeable. (I did like Cassel and his friends, and a couple of others, but mostly the cast is a bunch of nasty folk—which I actually appreciated: it undercut the all-too-common fantasy trope of your thieves and assassins who all conveniently have hearts of gold.) They were all solid and believable, and even when they occasionally did stupid things they had plausible motivations.

But mostly I thought the plot was very good, half caper (Cassel's family were all curse workers, but even more fundamentally, they were all con men and women) and half mystery, with a strong dose of magic. If I hadn't known from Holly Black's talk at Sirens, I wouldn't have realized this was a fairy tale retelling, because the feeling of it is more noir, or possibly heist film, or both. It's one of those books where the twists and turns made me think both, "Wow, I didn't see that coming!" and "Oh, but of course!" at the same time, which is quite a trick and also very satisfying to read.

In retrospect, this is a pretty dark book, but it didn't feel dark in the reading, if that makes sense. Nasty things happened, and things happened that made me cringe for Cassel, but in a way that was exciting and compelling, not that made me feel flattened by the Cement Truck of Grim.

This is one of those books that I am glad I wasn't spoiled for, so I'll put my further thoughts under a spoiler cut.

Spoilers pull a fast one on you )

Anyway, highly recommended. Especially if you like stories about con men, or noir, or just urban fantasy with an original and interesting setting. The second book's coming out next year, and I can't wait (but this story ends at a place where I didn't feel like I'd gotten cliffhangered, which I also like).
coraa: (girl with book)
The Dubious Hills, by Pamela Dean

(This is a really hard book to synopsize! That's my way of saying that if the following sounds boring or dumb, that's my fault, not the book's.)

In the Dubious Hills, knowledge is divided up amongst the adults of the community, each of whom have their own purview. Fourteen-year-old Arry has the knowledge of pain, and the soothing thereof, just as her uncle Oonan has the knowledge of broken things and the fixing thereof. The community has thus lived in peace and balance for hundreds of years, relying on one another to fill the gaps in their knowledge. Things begin to shift, though: Arry's parents have disappeared, leaving a hole in Arry's family that she must struggle to fill; pains appear that are not physical and are not easily soothed, and Arry does not know what to do about them. And then there are the wolves who do not act like wolves, black and silent as shadows, who come into the village offering a bargain that will change everything, one way or another.

This was a lovely novel, strange and quiet. It takes a handful of starting premises ("what if knowledge was split up tidily between people in a community, rather than spread out messily among them as in the real world?" "what if magic spells existed and were very effective, but could only be practiced by young children?") and explores them in a way that's very thorough without turning them into engineering. In that way the book is remarkable: we have magic whose nature and origin is pretty thoroughly examined that, to me, still manages to remain mysterious, mystical, even numinous.

Part of the reason for that is that everything is explained slowly, gradually, in pieces; you see the world from the point of view of Arry, for whom all of this is both old hat (she's lived in the community her whole life) and new (knowledge comes to people around puberty, which was fairly recently). The mystery deepens before it's explained, and the whole complex system by which the country runs is revealed bit by bit rather than in infodumps. It's really impressively-done.

The story itself is very domestic: there is magic but no big battles, and much of the book is taken up in conversation. Much of the tension of the book is taken up in Arry's attempt to figure out what is hurting her brother and sister and what (and whether) she can do about it. Most of the magic (which is performed by speaking spells, and the spells are lines from English poets, a touch I appreciated—at one point Con, Arry's sister, creates a glass of intoxicating beverage by reciting, "O for a beaker full of the warm South") is used for little things, like kindling hearthfires and lighting rooms. This makes it sound boring, and it isn't at all: it's just very personal. It's about the fate of home and village, not the fate of the world.

The only other book of Dean's that I've read, and the one I hear talked about far and away the most, is Tam Lin. Tam Lin was a book that I appreciated and admired but couldn't feel attached to, because it gave me the curious feeling of hovering anxiously on the outside of a clique that I was not cool enough for—probably not an unreasonable thing to feel, because, duh, faeries, and certainly more about my own issues than about the book itself, but still uncomfortable enough to put a barrier between me and the book. This had a lot of the things that I admired about Tam Lin, without the parts that I couldn't enjoy.

So: This book is probably not for everyone, but I enjoyed it very much indeed, and recommend it to anyone who thinks it sounds interesting. It's about knowledge and doubt, and family, and community, and the things outside us and within us that challenge what we know. I love domestic fantasy, fantasy where the magic involved is strange and slow to unravel, and stories in general where the stakes are no less real because they're personal.
coraa: (changeling)
And now, a palate-cleanser in the form of a book I plain loved.

Changeling, by Delia Sherman

Neef is a thirteen-year-old mortal changeling, the human half of the human-for-faerie swap that happened when she was too young to remember. Though there are many changelings in New York Between (the parallel New York inhabited by supernaturals from all the cultures that make up New York City), Neef is the only Changeling of Central Park—in part because the Wild Hunt of nasty, brutish, anthropophagic faeries make Central Park their home. Neef is protected from the Wild Hunt by the word of the Green Lady, the Genius (in the sense of "spirit of a place") of Central Park. But when she runs afoul of the specific, complicated, and unforgiving rules of the supernaturals, she must embark on a nigh-impossible quest... with help only from her rather peculiar faerie changeling counterpart.

I enjoyed this book tremendously. It's YA (or perhaps middle-grade? I'm not so clear on the boundary between those) urban fantasy, where by "urban fantasy" I mean the older Charles de Lint/Bordertown/War for the Oaks school, not the newer vampire boyfriend school. Furthermore, it's one that acknowledges the multicultural nature of the USA, which means that there are not only pooka and selkies but also rusalka, tengu, hu hsien, talking animals, moss women, and kraken. And that's not even counting the Fictional Characters who have enough spiritual presence to show up. I love this type of urban fantasy, so that immediately pleased me.

The other thing that immediately pleased me was Neef herself. Neef is smart, determined, cheerful, and likable; it was a pleasure to spend a couple hundred pages with her. She screws up, but in ways that I found sympathetic, not in ways that made me roll my eyes. And when she screws up, she rolls up her sleeves and gets to work fixing it. I liked that she was a girl/young woman protagonist for whom going on a Quest was a perfectly natural option, and I liked that she was perfectly willing to take it on.

Something else I liked, but it's near the end of the book, so, spoiler cut:

Spoilers crash the Midsummer Dance )

Anyway. I have to make one brief caveat: Neef meets the faerie half of her changeling swap, and the faerie-girl-who-lives-among-mortals has behaviors that look like OCD or autism-spectrum to me. This is mythologically supported (many supernatural creatures are described as having compulsions or as socializing in unusual ways, and the changeling's behavior is explicitly tied to those myths), and I think it's handled very sensitively and well (the changeling is portrayed as happy and content with herself, not broken or in need of saving, and indeed she is as much responsible for saving the day as Neef is), but I know some people have issues with "magical disabilities." Still, aside from that, I'd thoroughly recommend this one. It's quick, light without being shallow, genuinely funny in places, and just plain delightful.
coraa: (girl with book)
Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games), by Suzanne Collins

This is the third (and final) book in the "Hunger Games" series, and as such it's difficult to talk about without spoilers for Mockingjay, and almost impossible to talk about without spoilers for the prior books. So I'll keep the outside-the-spoiler-cut brief: I still think this trilogy is worth reading, but this final book left me feeling curiously deflated. I won't say it was a bad book, or that I didn't enjoy it, but I really, really wanted to love it and I... didn't. Couldn't. I liked it okay, but after the lead-up, it left me feeling disappointed.

Spoilers leave the arena behind )
coraa: (changeling)
Lament: The Faerie Queen's Deception, by Maggie Stiefvater

Sixteen-year-old Deirdre is a gifted harpist who regularly plays in competitions and for events such as weddings. Although she is surrounded by music (her aunt is a diva, her best friend James is one of the best bagpipers in the area), her life is fairly normal until she meets Luke—a gorgeous, mysterious, gifted flautist—at a local arts festival. After they play together, she finds herself drawn to Luke... and frightened by his companions, whose appearances are heralded by carpets of clover and the scent of thyme. And she has reason to be frightened, she discovers, as the strange fair folk threaten Deirdre, James, and her entire family.

My reaction to this book is decidedly mixed. In a lot of ways, for what it is, it's a good book: there's a real sense of mystery around the fair folk, there's a twist on the faerie queen theme that I hadn't run into before, and Deirdre's dilemma in choosing between sweet, reliable, mortal James and dangerous, exciting, not-quite-human Luke is well-portrayed. The problem is that I'm not quite in the target audience, which means that my reactions to the book are sort of irrelevant to what is the target audience. Although they're not irrelevant to my general LJ readership, so I'll post them here anyway, with the caveat that I know perfectly well that I'm not the audience for this book, and the audience might love it to pieces.

First: what Stiefvater does right. The book is well-written, vivid, and lucid, and Stiefvater did a good job portraying the oddness of the fair folk. There was a take on the faerie queen that I hadn't ever seen before, and since I've read a lot of faerie fiction, that's impressive by itself. (More on that under the spoiler cut.) And while I am not in the target audience for the 'longing for a dangerous bad boy' thing, I found it believable, and while I wanted to shake Deirdre and ask her wtf she was thinking sometimes, it never edged over into thinking she was stupid. Just infatuated.

My biggest problem with the book (and a problem that has nothing to do with whether I'm the target audience or not) is the fact that Deirdre does so little to move the plot. For most of the book, things happen to her, and she does as other people say. Even when she turns out to have not insignificant magical powers, she rarely actually uses those powers to do anything. They're mostly there to mark her as special, rather than to serve as tools for her to use. I found that frustrating.

And now, onto the things that are not the fault of the book, but rather the preferences of the reader. I'm getting awfully bored with "he's arrogant and keeps secrets from me and he may be evil, I'm not sure, but he's soooo hot." That isn't to say that I don't understand the appeal (I have had bad-boy fictional crushes in my time, and not just when I was twelve, either), or that I think it's morally wrong to have an ambiguous bad-boy romance. I've just seen enough of it that I'm... well, it takes a lot to make it stand out. (Much the same way that the Farm Boy With Secret Past Goes On Quest Against Evil Overlord narrative has to do something pretty exciting to interest me these days.)

The same is true of the fair folk in general: a book has to either do something really unique, or else do the more standard faerie tropes thing remarkably well, to catch my interest. It's not that faerie books are bad. It's that the more of anything you read, the harder you are to impress. I think this is just plain true in general. (Side note: I also think that's why sometimes when a book with science fiction or fantasy themes hits the mainstream, that's why sff readers are often unimpressed with it. Something that's fresh, new, exciting, mindblowing if you don't know the genre might be old hat if you do. And it goes both ways: writing on interpersonal themes that impresses the hell out of sff readers is often yawnworthy to romance readers, who get a steady diet of interpersonal fiction.)

Spoilers ahoy! )

I'm not quite sure what to say in conclusion. I wouldn't say this was a bad book, and if faeries or love triangles including mysterious men of dubious intent push your buttons, it might even be a great book. I just am picky on those points, so it wasn't quite for me.
coraa: (ed reads)
The Adoration of Jenna Fox, by Mary Pearson

When Jenna Fox awakens from a year-long coma, her parents reassure her that everything will be fine, and her memories will return. But even from the start, Jenna knows that something is wrong. Why can she remember recent history with textbook precision, but know nothing of her best friends? Why did her family move abruptly from Boston to California—leaving behind not only careers and friends but also most of their possessions? Why can her grandmother not stand even to be around her?

If you're irritated because you've figured out the twist from my summary, have no fear: I figured out the twist within the first ten pages, and I'm terrible at figuring out plot twists, so you're not spoiled in any meaningful way. This isn't a book where figuring out the mystery is the key: the mystery is revealed before the halfway point. It's a book where it's not the secret but the crashing aftermath of the secret's revelation is the point.

This is a book for you if you've ever read Gift of the Magi and thought, "Okay, so she doesn't have her hair and he doesn't have his watch—what does that mean for their lives, their relationships, their self-definitions?"

Making Jenna sympathetic is quite a task, because she starts out blank: an amnesiac with no idea who she is. And I'm not a big fan of blank female characters. (Confession: Rei from Neon Genesis Evangelion bugs the snot out of me, because there's no there there. And she's a fan favorite, but I can't... give me shouty Asuka any day; at least she's got something going on inside her head.) But, although Jenna starts out pretty blank and remains pretty helpless, I liked her a lot because she was smart and determined to figure out what was going on, and acted within her very limited circumstances to change her future. Which I appreciate a great deal.

The rest I have to say is spoilery, so, cut.

Spoilers behind the cut )

Recommended. And if you get impatient with the fact that you figure things out before Jenna, remember: that's not the point.
coraa: (bookses)
Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Lia and Cassie were best friends, sharing secrets and books and milestones, and, as they grew older, also the bond of both wanting to be thin, thinner, thinnest. Then they had a falling-out, and a few months later Cassie died, alone, after leaving many many messages on Lia's cell phone. Now Lia is seeing Cassie's ghost (or perhaps they're hallucinations or delusions brought on by hunger and guilt and depression), luring her deeper into the icy liminal world of the mad, the dying, and the dead.

Wintergirls is a painful, intense, and beautifully lyrical book. (That word, lyrical, is badly overused, including by me, but in this case I think it's absolutely appropriate.) It's also not a book about anorexia: it's a book about a girl with anorexia, and there's a big difference. The main difference is that this isn't a Problem Novel. (If you don't know what a Problem Novel is, count your blessings; if you do, you're probably wincing along with me.) Lia has anorexia, Lia's anorexia is central to the plot and its realities are not shied away from, but the book is fundamentally about Lia. It doesn't use Lia as a puppet in a morality play. And that's crucial, to me.

I tagged this post with 'magic realism' because it's a rare example of a book where there's a fantastic element that may or may not be really present, and either interpretation is just as valid all the way through. Lia may really be haunted by Cassie, may really be in the process of being summoned to a beautiful and lifeless underworld of death and madness and rose-thorns and eternal winter, or she may be hallucinating, or she may be delusional from grief or hunger or depression or all of the above. If you need your fantastic elements to have concrete resolutions or explanations, this book is probably not for you, but I loved the way it hovered perpetually between both explanations without selling either short.

The other thing I loved was the fact that the mythic elements were there but weren't overplayed. The parallels between Lia and Cassie/Persephone and Hades are set up from page one, but they don't become heavy-handed or take over the book. They're just there, and they may be in Lia's mind (she is a fantasy reader, after all) or they may be real, or they may be both.

This is a very different book than Prom, which I also enjoyed very much, but I think the comparison actually makes them both stronger. Lia is different in almost every way from Ashley in Prom (Lia comes from a privileged background and Ashley is poor, Lia takes everything seriously and Ashley takes very few things seriously, Lia is obsessed with control and Ashley is mostly fine letting things come as they are), and yet they both struck me as entirely believable teenage-girl voices. And I was both like and unlike both of them, and I identified with both of them. It shows that Anderson has pretty impressive scope and range.

Anyway. This is an intense and lovely book, albeit not an easy one to read. But I finished it in an afternoon, more or less, and so I'd recommend it for sure.

(Those of you who have read other books by Anderson: are they also this good? After two-for-two I'm interested in getting more.)
coraa: (matilda reads)
Archer's Goon, by Diana Wynne Jones

The Goon who showed up at Howard's family's kitchen table, huge legs stretched out to take up the whole room, said he was from Archer, and that Archer wanted his "two thousand." But according to Howard's father, the two thousand Archer wanted was not money but words. And it wasn't just Archer who wanted it: all seven of the family of wizards (or whatever they were) who farmed the town wanted those words, for purposes of their own. And they were prepared to make things quite uncomfortable if they didn't get them....

This was the first Diana Wynne Jones book I ever read, and while I've always been bad at picking favorites, this might be it. (That's your warning that this review is mostly an encomium.) It's part of what I call DWJ's odd standalones—odd not meant as an insult but as a genre designator—a class which includes A Tale of Time City, Fire and Hemlock, The Homeward Bounders and Eight Days of Luke. I say "odd" because they're not quite like anything I've found by anyone else: they are all set in our world, with secret or hidden magic, and the secret or hidden magic manages to be simultaneously very mysterious and very mundane in a way that's difficult for me to explain but that delights me to no end. And then there's DWJ's distinctive dry sense of humor, which permeates this book particularly.

Anyway. Archer's Goon. One of the things that I love most about this book is the way that the plot is a truly satisfying, sense-making, interesting plot that springs fully from character. In fact, it springs so fully from character that, on my first read-through, I was fairly certain that the plot was just an excuse for the characters to be fascinating (and fascinating they are, and often likable too)... and then at the end everything slotted neatly and inevitably into place precisely because of the way the characters had spent the prior two hundred pages being fascinating. It's beautifully done, and it's something I appreciate because I read books for character first, and so a character-driven plot that works so well is immensely satisfying.

And oh, the characters! There's Howard, the main character, who is smart and wry and sensible and daydreamy all at once. There's his little sister Awful, who I love to pieces: she's one of the least-romanticized child characters I've ever seen (she lives up to her name, let's just say), and who is nonetheless quite charming in her own Awful way. There's the Goon, who I came to like a great deal almost against my will, on the first read-through, and who now on re-reads I like from the beginning (which works, too). There's Howard and Awful's parents, who are delightful and infuriating by turns, and who neither solve the problems themselves nor are particularly useless. (Well, Howard's father is kind of useless, but for reasons that are in character and not just 'it's a kid's book, he has to be useless.') And then there are Torquil and Hathaway and Ginger Hind and Archer and Dillian and Shine and on and on. The book has a ton of characters, and they're all distinct and interesting, and some of them I love and some of them I want to punch in the nose and it all works.

There are other things that I love and want to talk about, but they're, hmm, varying degrees of spoilery. Here, I'll give you two cuts: one for things that are mildly to moderately spoilery but that, IMHO, won't ruin your book-enjoyment, and another for things that I suspect you would not want to know before your first read-through. (If you click the first cut, have no fear; I will make it boldingly clear at what point the spoilers switch over.)

Moderate spoilers )

Big bad spoilers )

Anyway, this is a beautifully-plotted book with a lot of great characters, and I'm sad that it's out of print. Recommended.

EDIT: Spoilers welcome in the comments, so be aware of that if you are unspoiled!
coraa: (matilda reads)
Prom, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Ashley's got more important things to worry about than the prom: graduating despite all her detentions, her troublesome boyfriend, her job as a costumed rat at EZ-CHEEZ-E, figuring out what on earth she's going to do with herself once she does graduate. But when the math teacher absconds with the prom funds, her best friend Nat (head of the prom committee) is heartbroken, and while Ashley doesn't care much about the prom, she does care a great deal about Nat. So she signs up to help Nat figure out how to hold the prom after all... a process that quickly snowballs into a comedy of errors.

Despite dealing with what might look like heavy issues (living without a lot of money, the difficulty of doing well in school when you also have to work and watch your siblings, a, um, problematic boyfriend, feeling like you don't have a lot of options for your future), Prom is a funny book—and more importantly, it's funny not because we're laughing at Ashley's problems but because we're laughing, wryly, with her as she observes the sheer ridiculousness of it all. (And also, the serious issues are thoroughly interwoven with sillier ones: Nat's crazy grandmother, Ashley's eccentric father and her believably goofy younger brothers, the mania of the prom committee, her mother's obsession with the prom, and so on.) Ashley is in over her head, but she attacks everything with cleverness and a sense of humor, and even when she was flailing around I was on her side and cheering for her.

It helps that I liked Ashely a lot. And I identified with her. In some ways, she isn't much like me in high school at all (I was a nerdy overachiever, and I knew I was going to go to college), but in other ways, she really is (I identified so well with the working-hard-all-the-time-and-still-having-no-money thing). But I think the biggest thing is that I identified with her because she sounds like a believable teenager to me. Now, I'm probably not the best judge of this, since it's been almost a decade since I was a teenager, but I can definitely tell an inauthentic teenage voice. (This is why, even though I usually love McKinley, Dragonhaven didn't work at all for me.) Ashley felt very real. I also believed her female friendships, particularly with Nat: she clearly loves Nat very much while still seeing Nat's flaws, and she has a great mix of admiration, annoyance and amused tolerance that reminds me of my relationships with my friends in high school.

Anyway, I really liked this. It's a fast read and a funny one without being mindless, and I loved Ashley's voice and point of view. Frankly, if you can check a sample, do, because if you like Ashley's voice I expect you'll like the book, and if you don't, I expect you won't. But, generally, recommended.
coraa: (girl with book)
The Stepsister Scheme, by Jim Hines

Thanks to her own strong and kind nature, and the supernatural help of her dead mother, Danielle de Glas (aka Cinderella) is now free of her malicious stepmother and stepsisters. But even as the princess of the realm, Danielle can't put her troubles behind her, as she soon finds out. Her stepsister returns with new and inexplicable magic powers, attempts to kill Danielle, and then kidnaps Prince Armand. Danielle must rescue him...but fortunately she doesn't have to do it alone. She gains the help of the Queen's most trusted aides and "secret service:" Snow (White), a master magician and expert at mirror-magic, and an incorrigible flirt; and Talia (aka Sleeping Beauty), who used her fairy gifts of grace and poise to become an unparalleled martial artist. And Danielle soon learns that her mother's grace has not quite left her yet. But since the rescue will take them into Fairy, it's possible that even these skills won't be enough.

In other words: Disney Princesses crossed with Charlie's Angels.

I've read a lot of fairy tale retellings. I mean, a lot. All of the Windling/Datlow fairy tale anthologies, all of the Fairy Tale series of books that included Yolen's Briar Rose and Brust's The Sun, The Moon and The Stars, Robin MckKinleys' oeuvre, Tanith Lee's fairy tale books, Donna Jo Napoli, and on and on. You'd think this would make me tired of them, but it actually hasn't.* I still love a good fairy tale retelling. And this scratched the itch in a way I enjoyed very much.

* Well, that's not true. I have grown tired of a certain kind of fairy tale retelling that feels, to me, self-consciously ugly, adding nasty things just to make it more Gritty And Real. Thank you, no. But that's not a problem specific to fairy-tale fiction at all.

First off: the characters. The three princesses are different and distinct, without their differences being used to mark one as 'better' than the other. (This is surprisingly uncommon.) Danielle is genuinely kind and good-hearted in a way that's backed with steel: to be honest, the character she reminds me of the most is Tohru from Fruits Basket. She has the same, well, genuine kindness that Tohru has, and the narrative makes it clear that that isn't meant to be a default virtue for a woman. Instead, it's something that Danielle has to work at, and it doesn't make her a pushover (although Talia might not agree); in fact, Danielle may have the most strength of character of any in the group.

Snow is the magic-user of the group, specializing in (what else?) mirror magic. In that sense she's her mother's daughter, since her mother was a powerful enchantress. Snow is the most conventionally beautiful of the three (Danielle and Snow are both also beautiful, but in different ways), and she enjoys being beautiful. She's also a flirt, and she likes men; this is, as in real life, sometimes to her benefit and sometimes to her detriment. Crucially, her prettiness and her flirtyness don't make her stupid: she may in fact be the smartest of the trio, although she's probably the least world-wise.

Talia is the badass, of course. As Sleeping Beauty, in addition to exemplary beauty and a beautiful voice and so on and so forth, she got supernatural grace and poise from her fairy godmothers. And she uses it... to be an elite martial artist beyond compare, pairing her (super)natural ability with lots and lots of training and practice. She's the physical powerhouse of the group, and also the most suspicious and ruthless, a trait that is probably necessary to counterbalance Daniellle's kind heart and Snow's naivete. Talia, in short, could kick your ass.

The book is set in a secondary-fantasy world that borrows more from fairy tale than from mythology or history. The country they live in, where Danielle is princess, is sort of an alternate France (or maybe France/England); the mountainous country Snow hails from is more like Germany/Austria, with dark woods and high mountains; and Talia is from a Middle Eastern analogue. But most of the action of the book takes place in Fairytown, a place that's an amalgam of northwestern European folk and fairy tales. (Not so much mythology. In other words, you'll see variants on hobs and pixies, but not Tuatha de Danaan. This is actually sort of refreshing, as fairy tale retellings that track things back to Celtic mythology are pretty darn common.)

So, let's see. The book is in two of my personal mental book categories: it's a romp (meaning that it's a pretty fast-paced book with good characters and exciting action, more fun than seeeeeeerious), and it's a bathtub book (meaning that it's the kind of thing I'd read at the end of a hard day, and also the kind of thing that I could happily read in one or two sittings). It's not Great Literature but it's not supposed to be: it's a ton of fun, a fantasy adventure that features not one but three strong female characters, all of whom are different.

Why do I keep mentioning that? Because, outside of certain kinds of YA fantasy, it's surprisingly rare. These days you generally do at least get The Girl (not always, but more than you used to), but usually in terms of major characters The Girl is all you get. Books with more than one female protagonist aren't all that common. Books about more than one woman working together and/or being friends (rather than being romantic rivals) are even rarer. The fact that this book features three such characters is just plain awesome, and that overshadows any nitpicks I might have with the book.

A bit more, spoilery: )

Anyway. Recommended, especially as an airplane or bathtub or bad-day book, and doubly so if you like strong female characters. I bought it on the Kindle, read it on a plane ride, and actually liked it well enough to buy in paper copy so I could lend it to people.
coraa: (post apocalyptic far future medieval ass)
Iorich, by Steven Brust

Though Vlad ought, by all rights, to be staying as far away from Adrilankha as possible, once again his personal entanglements draw him back into danger. This time it's his friend Aliera e'Kieron, who has been charged with using elder sorcery... a capital crime. She's guilty of it, of course, but the more important question is: when everyone has known for years, what's the political motivation for charging her now? And how is Vlad going to keep her from going to the Executioner's Star... especially when, for reasons that are unclear to him, both Aliera and all of their mutual friends are not exactly helping?

Here's a funny thing: I went into Jhegaala expecting to be a bit disappointed in it, because it was a backstory-book featuring only three characters we even knew (except for a brief cameo from Noish-Pa); I went into Iorich expecting to find it satisfying because it deals, once again, with Adrilankha, with Aliera and Kiera and Sethra and Morrolan and Kragar and Cawti and Lady Teldra and all the rest. And yet, while my understanding of what the books were about was dead-on, my responses were completely opposite.

Oh, it's not that I didn't like Iorich. I did. If it were anything but one of the Vlad Taltos series, I would say I enjoyed it very much indeed. It was clever and tense and interestingly political, and of course I enjoy Vlad's narrative voice and his interaction with Loiosh (Loiosh!), and Sethra and Kiera and Aliera and Kragar and all the rest. And I really, really, really liked a lot of the worldbuilding details, of how Imperial law and justice work, and so on. I was looking forward to Iorich for those details, and I wasn't disappointed—plus, the major Iorich character, Aliera's lawyer, I quite liked. We're used to seeing Dragaeran society from the POV of those who are above the law (the upper-crust Dragons, Sethra, the Empress, etc.), from those who are sort of beneath the notice of the law (Teckla and Easterners), and, well, from criminals (Jhereg). Seeing Dragaeran society from someone who is immersed in the middle-class position and whose whole life is within the law rather than above, below or around it was pretty cool.

But the problem is... between this and Dzur, I'm beginning to feel like Brust is stalling. It's not enough to really hamper my enjoyment of the books, but if we get a few more Vlad Taltos books that sidestep the major plot questions raised in Phoenix and especially Issola, I'm going to begin to get impatient.

And I can't discuss any more without getting into spoilers, so assume spoilers for the whole series after this point. )

Anyway, I don't want to make it seem that I didn't enjoy this one. I did. And if you've read the Vlad books this far, you should read it, too. But probably in paperback.

(If you haven't read the Vlad series, be aware that this is one of those series that, IMHO, really has to be read in publication order. Start with Jhereg and work from there.)
coraa: (bookworm)
Thief Eyes, by Janni Lee Simner

(Disclaimer: I know the author and consider her to be a friend.)

After Haley's mother disappears during a trip to Iceland, Haley and her father return, and Haley seeks to figure out what happened. But it turns out that "what happened" is a more complicated question than Haley could possibly know, involving her many-times-great grandmother Hallgerd, an equally ancient spell, the fire spirits that dwell beneath the surface of Iceland, and Odin's own servants. Together with Ari (whose presence is, in itself, another problem: Ari is both sweet and attractive, but Haley already has a boyfriend), Haley must figure out what her ancestor wrought, what she herself has done, and how to resolve it before it tears apart Iceland, and the world.

I have to confess: my first response to hearing about this book was delight that a YA novel had been written about one of the Icelandic Sagas. I first read Njal's Saga (the story that is central to this book, and one of the greatest and most famous of the Sagas) when I was in college, and then reread it a couple of years ago. It's a story of both grand scope and intimate detail, and I'd recommend it to anyone. (Don't go with the free Gutenberg translation, as that's a thoroughly expurgated Victorian one; get a modern translation.)

But anyway! Thief Eyes! As I said, I was delighted (after years of Greco-Roman and Celtoid fantasy) to see a fantasy based on the Icelandic Sagas and Norse mythology. Freki and Muninn, both familiar figures from Norse myth, are distinctive and well-rounded characters... but even more so are the characters from the Sagas: Svan the sorcerer, ancient and amoral, and Hallgerd, who reaches across the generations to avoid a fate she doesn't want.

But the star of the show was Haley, an Arizona teenager who happened to be one of Hallgerd's descendants, who came in search of her mother and accidentally fell afoul of ancient magic, and who then had to find a way to turn back that magic. She was tough and determined, but realistically sheltered and sensitive, and I liked that. I also really liked her relationship with Ari, an Icelandic boy who was sweet and shy and charming, a total geek (he kept making Star Wars references, and I loved him a great deal just for that), and attractive to Haley. But Haley also had a boyfriend in the States, Jordan, and while she was undeniably attracted to Ari, she also felt loyalty to her boyfriend, which I found pretty admirable.

The way that Haley's conflicted friendship-and-proto-romance with Ari reflected her love-hate relationship with Iceland and her ancestry seemed to me to be particularly well-done.

Spoilers beneath the cut )

Recommended. And I also recommend Njal's Saga: find it in a recent-ish translation, and enjoy.
coraa: (book wyrm)
Jhegaala, by Steven Brust

While escaping from his enemies, Vlad Taltos travels to the East, the country of his own people. Though his first priority is avoiding being found by those pursuing him, he also wants to learn more about his mother's family. But his arrival in the town of Burz destabilizes a delicate balance, and leads to a gruesome murder—and solving that murder and getting vengeance soon prove more important to Vlad than staying one step ahead of trouble.

(It's getting to be incredibly hard to summarize these books without being spoileriffic for earlier volumes!)

If you aren't familiar with the Vlad Taltos books, they're essentially... how shall I put this. They're snarky first-person narratives about an assassin in what is, from the outside, an epic fantasy setting. Or to put it another way: they're high fantasy done as noir. I enjoy them tremendously, mostly for the main character, Vlad, the aforesaid snarky assassin, and for his familiar, the equally sarcastic scavenger-lizard Loiosh. They should be read from the beginning (that is, starting with Jhereg) and in publication order rather than internal-chronological order. In fact, given that Brust likes to play games with the narrative, reading them in internal-chronological order is very difficult.

Anyway, Jhegaala. As many others have noted, Jhegaala is interestingly placed: after Issola and Dzur, with questions of what happened to Lady Teldra and what will happen to Vlad fresh in our minds, Brust skips backwards several years, to the time period right after Phoenix, when Vlad first got in serious trouble. (Well, more serious trouble than usual.) At first, I was teeth-gnashingly frustrated by that, but after a couple of chapters I was sufficiently interested in the mystery of the city of Burz to not be too bothered.

And the book is a mystery story, as are many of the Vlad Taltos books. There's the mystery of why Burz is such a peculiar town, the mystery of the brutal murders, the mystery of who has it in for Vlad and why (besides the obvious). But it's also a story of transformation. One thing about the Vlad Taltos books that I hadn't recognized until it was pointed out by Jo Walton at tor.com is that, in each book, Vlad takes on the characteristics of the house the book is named for. (Each of the seventeen Dragaeran houses have certain psychological and social traits which determine both their individual personalities and their political efficacy.) In Yendi, Vlad had to be sneaky; in Dragon, Vlad was a soldier; in Issola, he negotiated. In Taltos, he was an Easterner, in name, in nature, and in behavior. And in Jhegaala, he transforms: now he is a witch, now he is a representative of the Empire, now he is an assassin, now he is a sleuth. As such, this is a book in which we get to see a lot of faces of Vlad.

It's also a book in which we get to see Vlad among his own kind, in contrast to... well, pretty much all the other books, in which he interacts mostly with Dragaerans. But more about that below the cut.

Spoilers are mild for Jhegaala but book-breaking for the earlier Vlad books. )
coraa: (bookses)
Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, by Tim Reiterman

One of my quirks: I am squeamish and easily frightened in general; I can't watch movies that are all gory or that are designed to make you jump, and most horror novels are also difficult to impossible for me to read. But I can read accounts of, say, the Charles Manson cult and murders right before bed with nary a qualm. In fact, I... enjoy them is kind of a ghoulish way of putting it, but I find them absolutely absorbing. (I suspect that growing up in a school run by a church that, um, bordered on the edge of cultlike fed my fascination.)

It was in that mindset that I went looking for more information about the People's Temple and Jonestown, site of an enormous and tragic mass suicide/murder. What I found was this book by Tim Reiterman, a journalist who researched the People's Temple and who was part of Congressman Leo Ryan's ill-fated visit to the jungle of Guyana and the People's Temple enclave, Jonestown.

This is not a small book. I read it on the Kindle, but in paper form it apparently runs nearly seven hundred pages, beginning with Jim Jones' childhood and ending with the mass suicide. On the way, it tracks the rise of the People's Temple, including biographical sketches of many of the participants: some of those sketches were necessary to the narrative (such as Tim and Grace Stoen, whose child—who Jim Jones claimed as his own—played a central role in the final tragedy), but some were not directly related. But I appreciated those, even though they made a long book even longer, because they really made me feel the disaster of their deaths. I spent a lot of the book chewing on my knuckles and thinking, "Oh, I hope he/she gets out before the end." Some of them did. Most didn't.

The other thing that the book is very good for is depicting the slow but steady way that a charismatic leader can take a group of people from an idea that is fairly normal (in this case, Christianity plus egalitarianism, social justice, and racial harmony) through intermediate stages to a bizarre conclusion (Jones depicted as God the Father, control of people via sex, beatings and humiliation of anyone who disagreed because they were 'elitists', and finally mass suicide/murder in the name of revolution).

This is not an easy book to read, because if you know anything about Jonestown, you can feel the weight of doom almost from the beginning. It's particularly hard to read about the journey the Concerned Relatives and Congressman Ryan make, knowing what the end result will be. But it's also fascinating, and very useful as a depiction of the psychology of charismatic leadership. (I also liked that, as tempting as it must have been, Reiterman refrained from armchair psychoanalysis. He gave details that you could draw conclusions from, but even when he mentioned Jones' delusions of grandeur and paranoia, he was quoting a psychiatrist who had actually examined Jones.)

Caveat: The book was originally published in 1982, and while I didn't notice anything egregious as regards mishandling of gender or race, it also wouldn't shock me if it was there.

Recommended, but only if you're in a buoyant mood.
coraa: (bookworm)
Immortal, by Gillain Shields

When Evie's grandmother becomes ill, Evie has to go to live and study in Wyldcliffe Abbey School for Young Ladies, a boarding school for upper-class young ladies. Except Evie isn't from a wealthy family: she's a charity scholarship student. Her only allies are her friend Sarah, fellow scholarship student (and possibly-crazy girl) Helen... and Sebastian, the mysterious boy she meets by night. But something dreadful is going on at Wyldcliffe, something that ties together the mysterious death of the school's founder with the more recent drowning of a student.

At first I was kind of baffled by this book, because I was reading it as a YA supernatural romance. Which it is. It wasn't until I realized that it was also a gothic that it started to come together for me. There's a big creepy building with an Ominious History! A mysterious death of a young woman—a drowning in the lake—right before Evie arrives! Strange, half-seen figures and whispered mysteries! Doomful portents by a crazy woman! Attempts on Our Heroine's life by people jealous of her! There's even a gypsy prophecy, seriously. And, of course, Sebastian, who we meet when he almost runs Evie over with his giant black horse, no joke. In that sense it's highly entertaining, and it was fun to play spot-the-gothic-trope.

The problem was that it either needed to be a bit less melodramatic, or quite a lot more. Shields seemed to be trying to walk the line between a semi-realistic modern fantasy and an over the top brooding gothic romance, but the balance didn't... quite work for me. And the tone felt a little off. There's a bit at the beginning where Evie arrives at the school and sees the sign over the door: WYLDCLIFFE ABBEY SCHOOL FOR YOUNG LADIES, but the paint has peeled off, revealing an ominous message. Unfortunately, the ominous message is: WYLDCLIFFE BE COOL OR YOU DIE, which... just felt off for a gothic romance, I dunno.

The characters are a mix. I liked Evie early on, when she was sensible and irritated at the turn her life had taken, and was performing small rebellions to get away from the other students, who tormented her. But she bought into the Romance and Mystery a bit too quickly for me; I was hoping for her to stay more levelheaded. On that note, I really did like her friend Sarah, who avoided the mean girls by planting a garden and riding her horses and being pretty reliably clearheaded... except for the part where her great-great-great grandmother was Romany and left her a bit of second sight. (This should also stand as a warning for those for whom that would be a deal-breaker. It's brief and it's touched on only lightly, but it is there.) But that was so briefly touched on that I just internalized her as "Sarah with the garden and the horses" and liked her quite a bit. The parts where Sarah and Evie were trying to figure out the mysteries of Wyldcliffe Hall were my favorite bits, and I enjoyed them enough to make the read overall very pleasant.

That said... Sebastian. He's a gothic hero, which means he swans around by moonlight, rides a giant black horse (although it's a mare, which is refreshing!), wears archaic clothing, is pale and tormented-looking, and makes vague, mysterious statements a lot. Unfortunately, also sort of a genre staple, he's arrogant and controlling, and he never really gets called on it. Sigh. Again, I think if the book was just a liiiiiiitle bit more melodramatic, I would have found that awesome; as it was, it was just realistic enough that I found him irritating and wanted Evie to hook up with Sarah.

The reason Sebastian makes me frustrated enough to pull my hair out, under the spoiler cut.

Spoilers meet by the lake of drowning at the midnight hour )

Overall, an enjoyable enough book (apart from the hair-pulling frustrating of Sebastian), but nothing I'd recommend people run out and find.
coraa: (girl with book)
Meridian, by Amber Kizer

All her life, Meridian has seemed to attract dead and dying small animals and insects. A bit morbid, but you get used to it. But on her sixteenth birthday, Meridian witnesses a fatal car crash... and everything changes. Her parents hustle her on a bus to see her great-aunt (without even giving her a chance to say goodbye to her younger brother), who breaks the news to her: Meridian is a Fenestra, a person born to help the souls of the dying pass into Heaven, or Paradise, or whatever you might call the benevolent afterlife. But the Fenestra are not alone: the Alternocti have the same mission, but they strive to draw the dying into Hell. And they see the Fenestra as their sworn enemies.

This was a very... odd book. Not bad, and certainly not badly-written, but odd. The cosmology was particularly really strange, although internally consistent. What happens to you after you die seems to be determined by who is nearest you when you die: if you die near a Fenestre or a Sangre (ie, good) angel, you go to Heaven; if you die near an Alternocti or a Nocti (ie, bad) angel, you go to Hell; if you die with none of the above nearby, you reincarnate. It doesn't appear to matter what kind of person you were, or what you did in life, or what you believed in life, or any of that. This is played perfectly straight, and with a surprising unflinchingness: when a small child dies near a mature Alternocti, it's later said that her soul is in Hell. As I said, it's a very... weird cosmology, to me, but it's played totally straight, so I can't fault her consistency of worldbuilding. If there are sequels, I kind of hope they deal with that, and address the question of whether an innocent soul sent to hell by a malicious Alternocti can ever be saved and sent to heaven, or at least put back in the reincarnation cycle. If not, though, this is a really quite fatalistic book, and very depressing if you think about it very long! (Especially since it's implied that Sangre and Fenestra are pretty badly outnumbered, which means more people are sucked to Hell at random than to Heaven, although it sounds like most people reincarnate.)

(Side note: I've seen the book described as if Meridian was herself an angel, or part-angel. That made me cringe a little, but from what I can tell, Fenestra aren't angels at all: they're humans who are sort of like... like an angel's administrative assistant.)

I actually liked Meridian, who was confused, frustrated, and frightened, but in a very realistic way. While she didn't get a chance to do much, it was obvious to me that that was because she was swept up in circumstances beyond her control, not because she was an inherently passive person. At first I was piqued at the climax, in which it (being vague to avoid spoilers) appeared that Meridian was going to be saved by someone else—but then I realized it followed a fairy-tale pattern, where she was saved by people who she had helped earlier in the book. And that's not an ending I mind nearly as much.

I guess, in conclusion, I'm not sure what I think of this book. I liked Meridian, and while the romance didn't grab me, it also didn't strike me as ridiculously improbable or over the top. But the cosmology is very, very, very strange, and I wanted more exploration of the repercussions. Maybe we'll get that in a sequel. (Also the villain struck me as seriously one-dimensional, which bugged me.) Anyway, while I wouldn't strongly recommend it, as it didn't reach out and grab me, it was an enjoyable enough read—certainly I'd rec it as airplane reading.

A couple more spoilery things, under the cut.

Spoilers.... )

Anyway. Recommended with reservations; it's an entertaining enough way to pass a few hours.

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coraa

April 2013

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