coraa: (werewolfy)
This was one of my Books & Breakfast books, and it's one of the kind of books that I'm never quite sure how to review. Because I really enjoyed it! But I have no idea whether my enjoyment of it will translate to anyone else, because I enjoyed it for pushing a very particular set of my buttons.

To talk about this, I have to back up a bit and discuss The Werewolf Problem.

I love werewolf books, in theory. Werewolf: The Apocalypse was my first RPG, and I played the hell out of it, and Werewolf (old and new) remains my second-favorite set of games. (Changeling, game of my heart, is still #1.) While everyone else who gamed in my area was about blood-drinking and backstabbing, I was more about howling at the moon and ripping my enemies in half. I love Blood and Chocolate and Sergeant Angua and Elfquest (where, okay, they aren't werewolves per se, but close enough) and the Brecilian Forest quest in Dragon Age.

And then, with the supernatural romance/new urban fantasy explosion, there was a big upsurge of werewolf books!

And they let me down, man. Because I quickly came to realize that having werewolves in supernatural romance was often an excuse to have a male character who was either a) a creepy stalker, or b) a raging, possessive, controlling jackass, who in both cases a and b tended to have crazy double standards for gender into the bargain, and somehow it was Okay because it was because he was a (were)wolf! It totally wasn't his fault! He couldn't help being a stalker or a jackass and a hypocrite on top of that because *insert bizarre handwavey discussion of wolf behavior here*. Often with "bonus" scene in which the male werewolf bites and turns the human protagonist in a distressingly rapey way.

(Side note: Wolves are not like that "naturally;" claims that they are are based on outdated and rather poor science, based on wolf behavior in artificial situations. It is just as thin an explanation to me as every "well men can't help being dicks" explanation. If you like a romance in which the guy is a gigantic dick, own that. Don't blame the wolves!)

So I have slogged through many a werewolf romance in which the guy is a werewolf and the girl is a human and the werewolfyness is an explanation for him being a raving jackass. (Occasionally the girl is a werewolf too, but then there's usually some handwavium about how he's stronger and more dominant because he's a male werewolf, and my eyes roll out of their sockets.) I liked some of them, I retain a fondness for Bitten by Kelley Armstrong despite its faults, and Mercy Thompson (who, okay, were-coyote, but close enough), and a few others. But mostly I decided that the genre and I wanted different things out of werewolf books.

And then I read Nightshade (no, I had not forgotten that that was the ostensible topic of this post!), and let me tell you what, within the first chapter or so it was established that the main character, Calla, was a young female werewolf who actually hunted! And fought! And was strong! And was going to be alpha of her new pack! And was totally cool with that—and so were her packmates.

So: yeah. Sold. I had been looking for a werewolf book with a strong female werewolf who was smart and tough and assertive, and I found one, and that was basically all I needed.

There are also some interesting deconstructions of some of the things that do bug me about werewolf romances. Some of the characters expect that Calla will be "feminine" and will eventually submit to the male alpha... and that attitude, as it turns out, is not natural in the wolves-are-just-like-that handwavium, but is just as artificial as similar attitudes about human women. Calla has to make some tough choices: while she resents her parents trying to protect her, it turns out that they aren't trying to protect her due to generalized parental overprotectiveness, and she needs to face that she is genuinely putting herself and her pack in danger. Also, I found Calla's relationship with her younger-but-not-much-younger brother entirely plausible (I myself have a younger-but-not-much-younger brother, with whom I get along well), and rather charming. Even more, I appreciated that her younger brother didn't have any cliche grumpy "I am a DUDE and should be ALPHA instead of YOU" angst: he occasionally fights with his big sisters, but he also accepts her as alpha.

It's not a perfect book, by any stretch. There's a love triangle, and I know a lot of people (myself included) are getting kinda bored of love triangles. The book is awfully talky in places (and I hear the sequel is worse). It's set in Vail, CO, but was written by someone who actually hadn't been to Vail, and it kinda shows. And one of the members of the love triangle has a kind-of-ridiculous set of useful skills, on account of how he apparently deliberately modeled himself on Indiana Jones, right down to the whip. (I admit it, I laughed when he broke out the whip.)

But.

Female alpha werewolf, running around on the mountaintop, hunting and fighting, solving mysteries, and being a stone cold badass. It hit me where I live, is what I'm saying. And if you like that kind of thing too, well, maybe it'll do the same for you.

Nightshade, by Andrea Cremer
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)
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: (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: (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: (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: (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)
Crown Duel, by Sherwood Smith. (Also available as an ebook version with additional content at Book View Cafe; the BVC version is what I used for my reread. Crown Duel was originally published as two books, Crown Duel and Court Duel, now combined into one very satisfying volume.)

(Disclaimer: [livejournal.com profile] sartorias is a friend of mine, although I first read Crown Duel many years before I met her.)

When Meliara and Branaeric's father, the Count of Tlanth, dies, the siblings swear that they will rise up in revolution against the wicked king Galdran. But, although they expect the other counts and dukes and princes to rise up with them, they end up fighting alone in a guerrilla war doomed to loss. At least, doomed until Meliara falls afoul of a trap and becomes the captive of Shevraeth, one of Galdran's commanders. He delivers her to the capital, but she escapes, and her flight across the countryside is complicated by the fact that politics are a lot more complicated than she expected. And so is war.

I read this for the first time in college and I loved it. And the thing I loved the most about it was Meliara. She's smart, she's determined, she's idealistic to a fault, and she has no intentions of giving up. Ever.

But what I want to talk about as regards Meliara, really, is her flaws. Because she's one of the most flawed sympathetic characters—or perhaps one of the most sympathetic flawed characters—I've read about recently. If I may make a digression: for many years, I was involved in Pern RPGs online. (Yeah, I know.) And one of the things I came to notice most of all was that people realized that their characters needed to have flaws... but they always created flaws that weren't really flaws. She's got a fiery temper and always defends her friends! (Defending your friends is more sympathetic than not.) She's really beautiful but is painfully modest about it! (Insulting your own gorgeous appearance is just a way of fishing for more compliments.) She's too sharp-tongued for her own good! (An excuse to be witty and sarcastic at the expense of everyone around you.)

"Stubbornness" was often listed as a flaw-that-isn't-a-flaw, because most people see tenacity and sticking to your ideals as a good thing. But Meliara's stubbornness (and she is stubborn to the point of being pigheaded) is a real flaw: she alienates people who can help her, she clings to her interpretation of incidents even when that interpretation turns out to be wrong, she holds her opinions past the point where a reasonable person would recognize that they didn't have all the facts and might want to reassess. She's stubborn as a mule, and sometimes incorrectly so, and often to her own detriment. It's a very real flaw.

And yet it's not an unsympathetic flaw. I recognized, the first time I read the book, that Meliara was letting her own limited experience color her encounters... and yet I also understood it. I have been that person, who lets an old slight color her interpretation of future events. And I admired and liked her for her tenacity, her willingness to endure discomfort for her ideals, even while I wanted to shake her for being so mule-stubborn.

The other thing I loved about the book was the romance. I won't talk much about this outside the spoiler cut, but the romance is exactly the kind I like: between two strong personalities, growing gradually over time, so that I wound up rooting for the romance even before the heroine did.

Spoilers below the cut )

At any rate, I am thrilled that I have A Stranger to Command, the prequel, on my bookshelf to read.
coraa: (changeling)
The Bones of Faerie, by Janni Lee Simner

(Disclaimer: [livejournal.com profile] janni is a friend of mine, although I read The Bones of Faerie before I met her.)

Before Liza was born, the world of faerie and our human world went to war. The war is long since over, but her world bears the scars: blackberry brambles invade homes and strangle their inhabitants, food plants resist the harvest, dandelions bite, and trees reach out with sinister intent. Magic—the latent malicious magic left in the plants, and pockets of wild magic left around the world—is the enemy, as are children with strands of shining-clear hair that indicates the touch of magic. All such things found within the safe confines of the village must be destroyed. Liza knows this; it is her life. But when Liza's sister is born with glass-transparent hair, and her father exposes the child on the hillside to die, everything changes. Liza's mother vanishes... and Liza's own unexpected magic power reveals itself: she is clairvoyant. And so she must flee her father and her village, and go out into the deadly danger of the faerie-touched wilderness.

I know [livejournal.com profile] janni has referred to this book as post-urban fantasy, and that's a label I like quite a bit for it. And a big part of what I like about it is the setting, the post-fantasy-apocalypse North America. It's set, not in a vague post-apoc location, but in the wilderness near St. Louis, Missouri, and though the isolated villages themselves have a culture of their own (a culture born of the vastly changed world they live in), I love that it's actually set in a specific place, that it touches on the atmosphere, the landscape, and the landmarks of a particular place. I don't even know Missouri, and I loved that the book felt set in a specific place.

I also like the way that the book focuses on the small elements of a post-apocalyptic world. The scarcity and preciousness of food; the dangers of injury and illness and the high value placed on medicine; the tremendous dangers of venturing outside the sanctuary of established enclaves. The dangers in The Bones of Faerie are the dangers of traveling in a pre- (or post-) industrial society, but magnified: rather than brigands or wild animals or hunger or exposure, it's the landscape itself that will do you in. I also just like the concept of a fantasy apocalypse: not one where science destroyed civilization, but one where magic did; not one where nature is crumbling in the face of humankind, but one where humankind is crumbling in the face of nature.

That leads me to the other thing I really like, which is Liza herself. She knows perfectly well that the world outside her village has a fairly high chance of doing her in, but she also knows (from bitter experience) that if her 'faerie' gift, her magic ability of clairvoyance, is discovered, she will also be killed. She considers the odds and takes the chance that an uncertain fate beyond the village is preferable to hiding and living in fear within the village. I like that a lot. She's smart, tough, and survival-oriented. Even when the odds are against her, she acts rather than giving in. And so, even though she's not a physical badass in the mold of, say, Alanna or Katsa, she makes my list of awesome girl characters with agency.

No book is flawless, so there are some things that twigged me. I expected more of an explanation of how and why the faerie war started than I got. And I kind of wanted more of an explanation of the fundamental difference between faeries and humans. But those are minor complaints; I'm hoping to see more of the worldbuilding in the forthcoming sequel.

Spoilery discussion under the cut )

And now, on to a book I don't expect to like as much (although, who knows, I could be surprised): Vampire Beach: Bloodlust, which I got in a random YA book grab bag. I can't wait. ;)
coraa: (bookses)
Liar, by Justine Larbalestier

You're getting so many of these because I'm in A Mood and am working through my backlog of books I want to review/respond to.

Micah is a compulsive liar. She tells you so on the first page of the book. She also tells you that she's going to tell you the truth in this narrative... but whether she's telling the truth about that is up to you to decide. And that makes it hard to provide even the most basic summary of the book: which of the shifting mosaic of things-Micah-says do I pull out to try to describe the book? Because almost any of them could turn out to be untrue.

Start with this: I'm fairly sure that Micah is telling the truth about being a teenage girl living in New York. I'm fairly sure she had some kind of relationship, perhaps romantic, perhaps not, with Zach. I'm fairly sure that, when Zach disappears and then turns up dead, that it causes a crisis point in Micah's life. And I'm fairly sure that Micah is ill in some way, although whether the illness is the 'family illness' she describes or not is up to debate.

I'm not sure of anything else that happens in the 300+ page book, and that fact will give you a clearer idea of what the book's like than anything else I could say about it, I think.

I liked Micah, although after her introduction I didn't trust a single thing she said. She's completely unreliable, totally, because she's a compluslive liar, and if you're one of the people who are allergic to unreliable narrators, this book is not for you. It doesn't try to sell you on the idea of an unreliable narrator. Instead, it revels in the uncertain. I don't hate unreliable narrators, but I also am not particularly drawn to them, and Micah's story didn't bug me. But that may partly be the way I read it: on page one I decided that I was going to sit back and enjoy the ride, rather than trying to second-guess and predict what was true and what wasn't. I think I enjoyed the book more that way than if I was distracted looking for 'slips,' but mileage may vary.

I think this was a successful book, in that it appeared to be trying to do something tricky—create an at least somewhat sympathetic narrative about a compulsive liar, in which the reader can't ever be sure of anything, and yet still be emotionally satisfying—and, as far as I'm concerned, does so. It was a page-turner, but won't be one of my favorites, I don't think, just because the narrative was very uncomfortable. Of course, it was supposed to be uncomfortable, I think, which is why: successful book. But one I appreciate intellectually more than I enjoy or love.

Larbalestier has said that she deliberately wrote the book so that the ending could be interpreted at least two ways (or possibly three). Actually I can think of a dozen ways to interpret the ending without thinking very hard, and I'm sure I could come up with hundreds more if I tried. But I'm going to talk about that under the cut, because it's necessarily spoilery of a few major plot points to do so, and I think this is a book that ought to be read with as few spoilers as possible. (I was told, in fact, not even to read the jacket copy.)

Spoilers below the cut )
coraa: (didymus)
How to Ditch Your Fairy, by Justine Larbalestier

In the city of New Avalon, most people have a fairy—an invisible spirit or power or maybe just a chunk of free-floating luck that gives them a particular ability or advantage. Charlie's best friend Rochelle has a clothes-shopping fairy: when she goes shopping, she can always find something super-flattering that fits perfectly... and that is on extreme markdown. Charlie's mother has a Knowing What Your Kids Are Up To fairy, and always knows intuitively when Charlie's gotten herself into trouble. Charlie's classmate Fiorenze has an All The Boys Like You fairy. And Charlie, Charlie has a parking fairy. Charlie hates her parking fairy and wants to get rid of it, and she also hates the way Fiorenze's fairy is jerking around the boy she likes. But her plan to fix both of those things only makes everything worse.

This was a very fun book, very light. What I think of as a bathtub read. It reads very quickly; I finished it in one sitting. And I found Charlie very likable, even when I had those moments where I-the-reader realized that what Charlie was trying to do was very ill-advised. Like Charlie's envy of the All The Boys Like You fairy. I had enough perspective to realize that that would be more of a nightmare curse than a blessing, but it didn't make me see Charlie as an idiot for not realizing it, since I'm not totally sure I would have realized exactly how bad that could be at age 13 or 14. Similarly, at first I thought Charlie was being kind of whiny for wanting to ditch her fairy (a parking fairy wouldn't be my first choice, but it'd surely be better than no power at all?), but I became more sympathetic when I quickly realized that she kept being dragged along (and, in one case, actually kidnapped) on trips she didn't want to make because people wanted to take advantage of her power.

So, anyway, the book was very character-centric and the plot is almost wholly character-driven. Indeed, the 'external' plot, which involved betting on high school sports, seemed the weakest part to me; its most important influence was the way it affected Charlie, and the parts that didn't involve Charlie directly just seemed to fade off. That didn't bother me too much, because I read much more for character and worldbuilding than for plot, but it felt like that subplot was a bit of scaffolding that could have been excised without much detriment to the book. But that's minor. (Also minor: because I'm a worldbuilding junkie, I wanted more of an idea of what was up with New Avalon, its somewhat-unusual social structures, and why they had fairies when nobody else did? Or perhaps other people did but didn't realize it? But again, the book was so character-centric that I have trouble faulting it for not getting into more worldbuilding geekery.)

Anyway. Fast, fun, light read. Recommended, espeically for plane trips and rainy Saturdays. And bathtubs, if you're a bathtub reader like me.

Some more thoughts, that are spoilery )
coraa: (girl with book)
Fire, by Kristin Cashore

In the Dells, there are two types of animals: normal animals, which behave as animals do in our world, and Monsters, who have the shape of animals but fantastic colors—and power over the human mind. A brown horse is a horse; a turquoise horse with a snow-white mane, that can snare you with its beauty and destroy you for its own purposes if it so chooses, is a Monster. Fire, named for her red-and-magenta-and-yellow-and-gold hair, is the last living human Monster, but her exceptional beauty and her power over men causes her considerably more grief than joy. Worse, the troubles in the Dells can be traced directly back to her Monster father, who was beautiful and sociopathic, and Fire's quest is as much about proving that she is not like him as it is about ameliorating the damage he did.

This book is both like and unlike Graceling, Cashore's first novel, a book that I recognized as imperfect but still loved. Both feature a superhuman protagonist, but where Katsa in Graceling was a perfect fighter and survivalist, Fire is perfectly beautiful and has powers over the minds of others. (If you want to be very, very overly simplistic about both the characters and gender stereotypes, you could say that Katsa has a 'masculine' power and Fire a 'feminine' one. But it's a whole hell of a lot more complicated than that.) The reason that I don't believe that Katsa or Fire are Mary Sue characters, though—despite the fact that, on the surface, you could make an argument for either one—is that the challenges they are faced with are proportionate to their skills... and their powers cause them as much difficulty as they do advantage.

(As a side note: I am increasingly frustrated with the label 'Mary Sue,' although I think there was some value to its original definition. I think its definition has slipped to the extent that it's now often leveled at any female character who is attractive, interesting or powerful, and I think that's a shame. But that's a rant for another day.)

In Fire's case, this difficulty is immediately obvious. Because of her beauty and her powers, men tend to find her attractive, often beyond their ability to resist... whether she wants them to or not. Anyone who has ever been the target of persistent unwanted attention can already see why this is a problem, but to spell it out: sometimes, yes, the men want to love and cherish her, or obey her, but sometimes they want to rape her, or hurt her or destroy her for not wanting them in return, or simply because they're angry that she has such power over them. And while some women are Fire's allies, others hate her for the way she attracts attention. There's a particularly poignant bit where Fire is traveling with an army, and the army's commander gives her a guard of about twenty people. Part of the reason for this is to protect her from opposing forces, and part of the reason is to protect her from animal Monsters (Monsters crave the flesh of other Monsters beyond all else, which seems to be the only thing keeping animal Monsters from completely overrunning the ecosystem), but she quickly realizes that her entire guard is made up of straight women and gay men, because their main purpose is to protect her from the very army she's helping.

And the funny thing is, this made me identify with her a great deal. I'm hardly such a raving beauty that I drive men insane and provoke fury in women, and yet I've had that experience, of the uneasy realization that someone has an interest in me that I don't reciprocate, and that I can't tell whether they will mean me harm or not, and that I have to be very careful. While Fire's beauty isn't something I can relate to my personal life, Fire's dilemma is.

The other thing about Fire that I like is that she has agency. The path she will take is not clear, and over the course of the book she decides it, figures out what she wants to do and needs to do, and does it, despite the fact that she has to go against the wishes of the other people in her life to do so.

My criticisms of Graceling were the prose and the worldbuilding; the former I found, not bad exactly, but flat, and the latter I found somewhat generic. They've both improved in Fire, but they're both still her weakest points; the prose is still clunky in places and the setting is still medievaloid. But they're also both improved, which is a good sign. I'm hoping that the trajectory continues and the prose and worldbuilding improve again for her third book, Bitterblue, which I'm very much looking forward to.

Some spoilery musings under the cut )
coraa: (bookses)
(Yes, I'm going through these at a rapid pace. I've got a backlog to post.)

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

In Mary's village, all life is focused on two things: preserving a vestige of humanity within the fence, and keeping the Unconsecrated -- the vicious, shambling dead -- out. To that end, life is extremely restricted, and each villager knows his or her role well, and follows the instruction of the religious Sisters who rule the village.

Mary, though, dreams of something else -- something beyond the village. So she chafes at the restricted possibilities for her life, dreams of the ocean... and is fascinated when someone arrives from outside the village.

This book had a lot of promise, which is, I think, why the flaws made me pull my hair out. I could see how great the book could be, and so I winced all the more when parts of it fell flat. It really was a page-turning read, with a lot of intriguing ideas, and so the holes in it frustrated me.

First, the good things: the book was written beautifully. Ryan has a lush, lilting voice, and that meshes well with the wild dangers outside the fence and with Mary's dreamy, searching-for-the-horizon personality. It read so easily and so enjoyably that, even with its faults, I'd be happy to read the next book.

I also liked some of the things that were done with the worldbuilding. It was enjoyable to read a zombie book that was so quiet and personal, and one that was set so long after the unspecified disaster that caused the zombies to appear. (I think it's actually several generations after.) I liked the details of how the villagers worked to slowly increase their protected village, and I was intrigued by the Sisters and by the stranger who arrived at the village. The book definitely kept the pages turning.

The biggest problem was the characters, which is a big problem for me because characters are the number one most important thing in a book for me -- and a big problem because this is a very character-centric book. Mary (the first-person narrator and definitely the main character) was well-characterized enough, but not terribly unique: she was a young woman who felt stifled by the options available at the village and who wanted to see the world. Not bad, and a character motivation that I, in general, like and am sympathetic to, but a fairly recognizable type. That would have been okay if the other characters had been more fully-rounded, but they weren't. The book focused on a core of, let's see, seven characters (eight if you count the dog), and unfortunately each one of them is defined only by their relationship to Mary. One is Mary's best friend and envies her; two are boys who are varying degrees of in love with her; one is her brother, who resents her; one is her brother's wife and has really no traits at all besides being her brother's wife; and one is a kid. The only desires and motivations they express are either a) related to Mary, or b) "not getting eaten by zombies." I really wanted one of them to have a goal or a desire or a response to something or anything that didn't have anything to do with immediate short-term survival or Mary.

The second big problem is that the book gets me intrigued by a lot of mysteries and secrets and then... never really explains them, or explains them in ways that don't make much sense. But I can't get specific about that without spoiling, so, cut for discussion and some flailing.

Spoilers venture beyond the fence )

Despite all my flailing, I'll still be reading the sequel, partly in hopes that some of the unexplained things will finally be explained, and that Mary will get a bigger goal. I'd still recommend this, especially if you like zombie stories and/or smooth, pretty prose, but it's not as highly recommended as some of the other things I've recced.
coraa: (book wyrm)
In the seven kingdoms of Graceling, some children develop eyes of two different colors—and those children will grow up to have extraordinary talents. Some are unparalleled cooks, some are inhumanly skilled acrobats, some can do complicated math in their heads, instantly. These people, called Gracelings, are given to the service of their country's royal family, where they use their skills to the benefit of the king.

Katsa has one blue eye and one green eye, and her Grace is killing. She is the weapon of her uncle, King Randa—and she hates it: hates being a killer, hates that he uses her to hurt and scare his people, hates that everyone looks at her with fear. So she decides, secretly, to use her power to help people instead of hurt them, which in turn embroils her in her country's politics.

My favorite thing about this book was Katsa: she is incredibly competent at some things (one of those being 'hurting and killing people,' to her dismay), but she's also incredibly not-competent at some other things, like understanding people and getting along with them. She's sharp and prickly, expects people to be afraid of her (and to some extent is afraid of them, not that they'll hurt her physically but that they'll act in ways she doesn't understand and can't control), tends towards isolation, and is kinder than she can give herself credit for. She's a good person, but not a particularly friendly one, and I liked that. I also liked that, while she has plenty of flaws and places where she's not the best ever, she gets to be super skilled at what she is super skilled at without being taken down a notch. (It also helps that, although she's supremely skilled, the challenges that the plot throws at her are appropriate for her skills. She still can't breeze through them.) And she gets more and more agency through the book, including through her romance subplot, which I liked.

I also liked her love interest, but I'll have to talk more about that behind the spoiler wall.

The Graces were a very interesting thing, too—similar to many other takes on 'magical powers granted at birth,' but with a few interesting twists. For one thing, just because you're Graced with something doesn't mean you like it. Someone Graced with cooking might very well hate cooking, just as Katsa, Graced with killing, isn't herself a sociopathic murderer. For another thing, the plot really does face the bad side of having some people born with incredible powers; when someone monstrous winds up with a strong Grace, the results are horrifying. (This is also something I liked in How To Ditch Your Fairy, which I'll write about later.) It was a nice change from books in which mages clearly could take over the world, but for some reason just... don't.

The book was not without flaws. While the prose style was very clean and readable, it fell flat in places, and sometimes seemed unpolished. (I am pleased to say that Fire is better in this regard; I think Cashore is learning as she goes, which makes sense for a first and second book.) The worldbuilding also felt generic medievalesque (heck, the countries are named Wester, Estill, Nander, Sunder, and Middluns, if that gives you an idea), with the exception of the Graces. Actually, one country -- Lienid -- gets more detail than the others, and I liked it better but I'm afraid the more detail there threw the flatter worldbuilding in the rest of the world into sharper relief. I think I am getting pickier about generic medievaloid—I don't mind medieval, as long as it has some actual flavor, rather than just horses-and-castles-okay-we're-done. But the flaws were minor enough that they didn't take away from what I loved, which was the characters.

This is a book that I think really merits from being unspoiled, so unless you've already read it or you're pretty sure you won't read the book, I'd avoid reading on.

Spoilers have one blue eye and one green eye )

Recommended, especially if you like light-ish YA fantasy. This is one of the books that I read in one evening, and I grabbed the next book (which is actually a prequel) as soon as it came out.
coraa: (girl with book)
This was a good book, and I think I would have liked it better if I hadn't loved The Hunger Games so much.

It's also basically impossible to talk about this without spoiling The Hunger Games to some degree, so if you're really strictly spoiler-phobic, you should probably scroll on by. I don't think any of the spoilers outside the cut are book-killers, though; all the major spoilers for either book will be behind the cut. Anyway, past this paragraph there are spoilers -- mild ones, but still spoilers -- for the end of The Hunger Games, but all serious spoilers for either book are behind the cut.

Catching Fire picks up where The Hunger Games left off, and Katniss is in an awkward situation. Because of the way she survived the Hunger Games, the oppressive, totalitarian government of Panem and the Capitol have it in for her. In order to prove that she was not a deliberate revolutionary -- and, therefore, save not only her life but the lives of her whole extended family -- she has to convince them that she was young, foolish, and desperately in love, rather than sharp-minded, clever, and a little bit ruthless, as she actually was.

To make matters worse, the other Districts -- inspired, largely, by her -- are fomenting rebellions, and the Capitol is, shall we say, not happy.

I really liked the beginning of this, and I liked elements of the whole thing. The writing and characterization remain strong, as in the first book. We got to see things that were only hinted at in the first book: the other Districts, more of Capitol politics, the growing unrest. And I liked watching Katniss deal with the aftermath of the Games while putting on a happy face for the benefit of the Capitol's propaganda machine. (She has to, on pain of her family's lives.) I liked seeing more of Gale. I liked the exploration of Katniss's romantic dilemmas. I also liked that we got to see one of Katniss's weak spots: she was extremely competent at keeping herself alive in the first book, but she's naive about politics, because she has grown up with no political voice whatsoever (even in terms of the smaller politics of her own hometown), and so there are moments where she was in over her head. I liked that: having established her as thoroughly competent, we can now see some of the places where she's not as competent, which makes her more well-rounded.

Indeed, I think my biggest problem with the book was that it felt like Collins wasn't confident enough with exploring new territory. We got tantalizing tastes of it... and then ducked back into a very similar plot as the first book. But I'll talk more about that behind the cut.

Spoilers for both books )

But I still really enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to anyone who liked The Hunger Games -- and I'll be waiting impatiently for the third book.
coraa: (bookworm)
First, a note: yes, I've ready many books between now and the last time I posted. Most of them were non-fiction, because I was on a fit of not reading a lot of fiction. (I do that, sometimes, when I'm brewing a story idea.) I recently got back into reading fiction, with a vengeance -- mostly YA fantasy -- and I realized that if I went back and tried to blog all the nonfiction I've read between June and now, I'll just never do it. So we'll start with this, which I read a week ago and loved, and I may backtrack to blog some particular favorites.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

I heard a lot about this book and how good it was, and, short version: everyone was right. This book is very, very good.

Long version.

Katniss lives with her mother and sister in District Twelve of Panem, a nation that arose out of the ashes of post-apocalyptic North America. Seventy-five-ish years before the story, the Districts tried to rise up against the despotic Capitol -- and failed. To keep the Districts in their place, to reinforce how utterly the Capitol owned them, the Capitol instituted the Hunger Games, in which two teenagers would be drawn by lottery each year to compete. The twenty-four adolescents are set to kill one another, with only one survivor, the "winner."

This year, for District Twelve, the lot for the girl fell... to Katniss's younger sister Prim.

Katniss volunteered to take her place.

My favorite thing about the book was Katniss, hands down. She's strong, clever, resourceful, courageous, and calculating -- all without losing her essential humanity, despite the horrors of the Game. She's hard and tough and yet has her moments of sweetness and even vulnerability. And she's smart, and skilled -- because she lives on the edge of wilderness, she has unusual skills at hunting, foraging, and making shelter, and those skills are both effective and realistically portrayed. She's just, oh. Wonderful. And wonderful without being perfect -- flawed without her flaws being stupid or contrived. The book is worth reading just for Katniss.

The plot is straightforward but breakneck in pacing -- I read this book in two great gulps: one night I stayed up until I actually fell asleep on the book, and then the next morning I finished it before I started work. It really was a very compelling read.

And now I need to spoiler cut to continue discussing. )

In summary: I really, really loved this, and I have already pre-ordered Catching Fire, the sequel. Highly, highly recommended.
coraa: (girl with book)
Ghostwalk, by Rebecca Stott

This wasn't a book for me. That doesn't mean it was a bad book -- it just wasn't for me.

Shortly after her mentor Elizabeth dies by drowning, Lydia is asked by her mentor's son -- the man with whom she, not coincidentally, carried on an affair some years before -- to complete Elizabeth's magnum opus, a book about Newton's involvement with alchemy and with secretive alchemical circles. However, it rapidly becomes clear that Elizabeth's death was not an accident, but a murder, and furthermore a murder that ties into a three-hundred-year-old conspiracy.

The problem I had was twofold. One: I apparently lack the gene or acculturation or whatever that makes men who are smarmy, arrogant, lying jerks seem attractive. Lydia's lover -- Elizabeth's son -- is kind of... a jackass, and it's clear that I'm supposed to feel sympathetic to Lydia (and other female characters) for being so magnetically drawn to him, but I'm... not particularly. I mean, I feel bad for them that he lied to them and treated them badly, but then they kept going back and then acting surprised when he, you know, continued to lie to them and manipulate them for his own purposes, and I rapidly lost patience. C'mon! He's always been lying to everyone, including you! Why does this continue to be a surprise? I realize that a lot of people do find that attractive, but it didn't work for me, and in addition to meaning that I disliked the man himself (a fairly major character), it also gradually eroded my fondness for the female characters who kept coming back to be condescended to and jerked around.

Two: Some time ago, when reviewing a YA book about a roller derby girl (I think), [livejournal.com profile] buymeaclue coined the phrase "Too much boyfriend, not enough roller derby." In this book, it was "Too much midlife crisis, not enough alchemy." I find history, the politics of historians, and the history of science and alchemy in early modern Europe really interesting! I kept feeling like I was wading through a lot of upper-middle-class moaning about Life to get to it. Again, not something that I would consider a universal bad, just... not for me.

The alchemy stuff was interesting (it's something I studied myself, once upon a time), and I don't have too many complaints about that. I mean, I think the author overdramatized some stuff (yes, early scientists spent a lot of time on alchemy, because they considered it a valid science, but that doesn't mean that they were all nuts, just that they were misinformed about some chemistry; yes, early scientists/alchemists were very secretive, but -- well, so are a lot of modern research scientists), but overdramatizing stuff for the sake of the story is fine. It felt a bit as though she was trying to rejigger an already-interesting idea to be a bit more da Vinci Code, though, which didn't help my perceptions all that much. But... yeah, if the story had been centered the history, I would have been fine. It just wasn't.

Anyway. Not a bad book, just not a book for me, because the characters were all wrong to get my sympathy and without sympathizing with the characters I don't get very far. (I probably would have put it back down fairly early on, in fact, if it weren't that it was my book club book for March.)

Running Tally:

Total Books: 20
Fiction: 7
Non-Fiction: 13
POC Author: 6

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