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: (bookses)
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. YA novel.

Junior has spent his whole life in the town of Wellpint on the Spokane Indian Reservation, as has his whole family back as long as there's been a rez. When time comes for him to enter high school, he decides to go to the local (all-white) non-reservation high school, twenty miles away, in what is quite literally a search for hope. He grapples with personal problems -- the fact that he is kind of a goofy-looking dork, joining the basketball team and what goes with it -- and broader ones, such as the problems of community, identity, and where he belongs, which ties together with the high-school issues when his basketball team plays against the reservation high school's basketball team. "It was like being Indian was my job, but it was only a part- time job. And it didn't pay well at all."

...I don't like that summary much at all, because it makes this sound like a pretty cliche caught-between-two-worlds novel, and it's really not, at least not to me. For one thing, it's very specific. I don't know much about the Spokane tribe and reservation (shamefully little, considering I grew up right there), but I do know the landscape the book is set in, and I've walked a hundred times through schools exactly like the little non-reservation high school he describes. It's not a book about some kid in some culture clash; it's very much about this kid, this culture clash, this environment, this place. Also, Junior's voice is sharp and funny and very real, as are his comics (as drawn by Ellen Forney). He's intelligent (in a sarcastic kind of way) but also basically a teenage boy, and I believed both things about him. I liked him, which always helps. Even though his experiences and mine are radically different, and he as a character is radically different from me, he was very familiar -- the 'being a goofy-looking dork' thing, the sarcasm and wit, were things I recognized.

The one thing about this book is that, despite being very funny, it's also got points of being very depressing -- Alexie doesn't sugarcoat problems on the reservation, and the alcohol and poverty and racism is pretty grinding, both to Junior and to me as a reader, even though the novel doesn't set up shop in angstville and live there. The complexity of the issues involved, and Junior's approach to them, his wit and his stubbornness, keep it from being a downer book, but there are surely downer moments; it's most definitely not fluffy-comfort-reading YA (though it's also not really a lynchings-and-dog-shootings YA either).

I liked it a lot. In general I love Sherman Alexie's work -- have ever since I saw Smoke Signals, the movie based on some of his short stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which prompted me to read that book and Reservation Blues and some of his poetry. (It always seems a little ironic to me that I didn't find Alexie's work until I'd left my hometown -- which is maybe two hours from the Spokane Indian reservation that he is from and writes so much about.) And by the way, I love Smoke Signals, especially the character Thomas; if you like independent movies and haven't seen this one, do, and especially if you're in the Northwest and like regional works.

Recommended.

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