Saturday, October 20, 2012

Fever by Lauren DeStefano

Fever by Lauren DeStefano
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

As soon as I read DeStefano's first book in this trilogy, Wither, a few weeks ago, I knew I had to devour this book ASAP.

While this book didn't quite grab me the way that Wither did, it was nonetheless a compelling and worthwhile read.  DeStefano picked up right where we left off, and instead of falling into the typical trap where the second book is largely filler, she immediately threw Rhine and Gabrielle into a difficult situation- and their difficulties just kept on coming.

This book was slower than the first, and does drag in places.  Despite DeStefano's wisdom in keeping the plot moving, many of the characters we grew to love in the first book were entirely absent from this one, and at the end of the day, not much progress (if any, actually) was made toward a permanent solution to Rhine's dilemma. We did get deeper insight into Rhine, the deliciously twisted Vaughn, and into Rhine's brother Rowan through her memories of him and her search for him, though, so the book was far from wasted.

DeStefano also gives us no shortage of new characters to love. Much attention has been given to Maddie, the child who ends up accompanying Rhine on her journey.  However, I was more taken with the enigmatic Silas, and sincerely hope we haven't seen the last of him.  I'm always a sucker for a character who is rough around the edges but has a heart of gold, and I think I've found one in him.

I continue to struggle to feel anything for Gabriel, and as he remains Rhine's main love interest throughout this book, this is a real problem.  He is loyal, I get it.  But beyond that there is little about him to grasp onto, to root for, to care about.  In truth, if he is never heard from again in the conclusion, I wouldn't much care- and sometimes I'm not positive Rhine would either

The problems with world building in this book remain.  However, in the interest of enjoying the books and DeStefano's gorgeous writing, my advice to picky readers everywhere is to just do what I've done and let that go.  While it's all very well to fuss and fret about world building, and intellectually it can be fun and fulfilling, when novels are as gripping and well written as this I think energy is better spent enjoying them.

I am really looking forward to seeing how DeStefano pulls everything together in the final book.  I think if I were her I'd need a thousand pages- and I wouldn't mind if she wrote them.  January can't come soon enough.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Reached by Ally Condie Giveaway!

Yay, it's already time for my first giveaway!  I'll be giving away one copy of 'Reached' by Ally Condie, my most anticipated book of this fall!

The winner will get one copy delivered to them November 13, 2012, the day the book comes out.  Your choice of E-book or hard copy :)

Have fun!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Everneath by Brodi Ashton

Everneath by Brodi Ashton
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

I was at the Pubic Library, foolishly judging books by their covers again, when I picked up this gem.  If anyone also knows where I can pick up the dress the model is wearing, that would be greatly appreciated ;)

Everneath tells the story of Nikki Bennett, who six months ago willingly traveled to the underworld as a sacrifice of sorts.  While there, she was used to 'feed' Cole, an immortal, in a ritual called 'the feed' that occurs every 100 years. During each feed, the immortals each feed off of one human's emotions, draining them until nothing is left.  Afterwards, Nikki chooses to return to the surface for 6 months, knowing that after that time has passed she will be forced to return to the underworld- this time forever. During those six months she struggles to make peace with Jack, her ex, and with her family, all the while searching for a way to defeat the inevitable.

I truly enjoyed Brodi Ashton's debut.  She brilliantly incorporates both mythology and flashbacks to Nikki's present day universe.  While I did find some of the flashbacks to be more worthwhile than others, none were disruptive to the flow of the story and I enjoyed Ashton's writing style generally.  While she could stand to offer a bit more description in places, her flow and pacing were impeccable.  I also enjoyed how she played with the myths, giving them subtle and interesting twists for the reader to think about and enjoy.

In Nikki, I found a strong protagonist who has a very real sense of morality and a backbone that is refreshing.  She is also someone who is flawed and makes mistakes, but who also constantly seeks to learn from them and avoid their repetition.  Like most people, I really related to that.  While the romance angle is played heavily, I did feel that Nikki is her own person who is ultimately determined to make her own choices.  While the other characters did not grab me in quite the way she did (possibly due to the fact that the story is told  in the first person) Cole is also fascinating as a character. Jack, while at times slightly generic, is likable and commendably loyal.

The themes in this book are also strong, and if they are not all that unusual, they are still well done and worthwhile.  Ashton's examination of the nature of sacrifice, heroes, and what makes us truly human are all thought-provoking and under her direction never seem stale.  I also appreciated that she did not seem to think it was  necessary to hit the reader over the head to make a point.

So, why four stars out of five? The truth is simply that, while I thoroughly enjoyed the book, there wasn't anything that blew me away.  In keeping with this, there were two major 'twists' in the book that I spotted coming literally a hundred or more pages before they were revealed.

I also felt that there were some unexplained gaps in the story.  Some of these were clearly intentional and came as a natural result of the fact that the story is told in Nikki's voice and there is a lot she doesn't know.  However, I couldn't figure out why there needed to be a 'feed' at all when the immortals like Cole can just feed off anyone's emotions any time. Why totally empty one person? I also never understood what debt was left to be paid and why the girls who were fed off of had to pay it.  Was draining them of their emotions and lives not enough for some reason?

Overall, I do recommend this book to anyone who likes young adult paranormal or romance stories, and to anyone who enjoys mythology.  It is a fun, fast read that will give you a lot to think about.  I'm definitely looking forward to the sequel!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

If you want a book that will positively EXPLODE 100 pages from the end before tapering off into the disheartening mess that came before, you need look no further.

For those of you late to the party like me, The Magicians is about Quentin Coldwater, quite possibly the most unlikable character in the history of American literature.  He is accepted into a magic school, graduates, and then finally goes on a wild quest culminating in a particularly jaw-dropping magical fight scene that almost makes the rest of the book worth it and situates this tome safely in the three-star zone.

I have many issues with this book, large and small.  While Grossman's overall writing style is solid, avoiding gaffes of epic proportions, his well-noted overuse of similes is not exaggerated. On one page alone, the following similes occurred: "as if she were floating in a swimming pool;" "like she was blown from Murano glass;" "like a faltering radio signal;" "thin as taffy;" "translucent as cellophane."  I am probably missing one or two due to sheer desensitization.  Grossman also has a knack for putting in details- but not always the details I'd want to know.  I learned more about Quentin's pee than I have ever learned about the pee of another character in any book I've ever read.  We learn when it is acidic.   We learn when it is orange.We learn when he goes to piss against a tree.  It would be one thing if this served a point, but it did not.

Either Grossman or Quentin is sharply misogynistic.  I am not sure which, but will confess I spent most of the book thinking it was Grossman before the last 100 or so pages when I was confronted with the fact that he might know what he's doing  after all.  One woman was, in Quentin's estimation, too pretty to be a paramedic.  Another was described as too pretty to be a magician.  Yet another was described as projecting "both toughness and kindness."  Based on this description ALONE, she is described as "to the best of Quentin's ability to gauge these things, a lesbian."    I won't even touch on the implications of some of the sex in this book.

I was unfortunately left with the vague impression, even at the end, that Grossman wasn't quite sure what he wanted to do.  Is this a legitimate fantasy novel? Is it a satire or parody? Is it a cunning subversion of the genre?  I kind of think maybe it tried to be but Grossman ended up taking himself too seriously for that.

I was not exaggerating when I called Quentin unlikable.  I won't dwell on this overly much, but he is determined to be unhappy, and feels no real remorse for anything whatsoever until the very, very end of the book.  In fact, in life according to Quentin it is the world's fault for not being awesomer and other people's fault for whatever bad things that he himself did.

I did generally enjoy Grossman's writing.  At points, I was taken aback by his way with words, such as when he says "The little girl's hooded eyes expressed a precocious acquaintance with adversity" or during some of his better crafted similes.

Furthermore, in Alice, Quentin's love interest for much of the book, Grossman creates a superb and nuanced character, the moreso because you only figure her out slowly, coming to gradually understand her depths.

I'd recommend this to anyone who doesn't mind a dark book whose characters struggle with morality, anyone who thinks they might be able to read it as a satire, anyone who wants to explore the dark side of the magical, or anyone who loves a good simile ;)

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Various Positions by Martha Schabas

Various Positions by Martha Schabas
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Please note that this review may contain light spoilers. However, it does not contain anything I believe would truly diminish the experience of reading the book.

I picked this young adult title up hoping for some light weekend reading about a dance academy.  Instead, I found a heavy book about dance, yes, but also about sexual awakening, the breakdown and dysfunction of family units, lying (or at least truth that is evasive and unclear), and the ugliness of mental illness.  I'm not sure, based on other reviews, that Schabas intended the last- and it's quite obvious that if she did, most readers did not get it- but for me mental illness and its consequences dominated the book.

This book is about Georgia, a 14-year old with what could best be described as a miserable and checkered home life.  She auditions for, and receives, admission to one of Canada's most prestigious ballet academies, conveniently located within easy driving distance to her home.  As the book continues, Georgia, who is prudish and disgusted by sex at the beginning of the novel, develops an attraction to, and ultimately an unhealthy obsession with, her ballet teacher, Roderick.

I have to disagree with the somewhat disingenuous reviewers who claim that this book is not at all about dance and is all about sex, claiming to have been scandalized and shocked, shocked at the volume and explicit nature of the sex in the book.  In reality Georgia only has sex once in the book, toward the very end, and the scene is neither explicit nor vulgar.  It is true that a large portion of the book focuses on her sexual awakening and the development of a sexual awareness on her part.  While I don't know that I'd let my nonexistent 12 or 14 year old daughter read this book, I didn't find these kinds of feelings or emotions coming from a 14 year old character surprising, and was not put off by them (though I will admit, I could have done without Schabas's descriptions of internet porn involving people running purple popcicles down their 'boobs' (her word) and the like.)

I will admit that the book was less about dancing than I expected, though I'd say that dancing gets a fair number of pages, and that Schabas doesn't flinch away from dealing with some of the real problems in the dance community, from the pressure and the cliquish nature of the dancers to eating disorders.  To me, though, the focus was not sex either.  It was, as stated above, the perils of undiagnosed mental illness and how they will destroy peoples families and lives.  We quickly realize that Georgia's mother has major mental problems, including, at a minimum, major depression so bad that she can't get out of bed to take Georgia to the most important ballet audition of her life and Georgia has to call her sister to do it.  She also possibly suffers from delusions  including the delusion that Georgia's father is unfaithful.  Her dad, in the meantime, literally does not talk to anyone and is almost psychopathic in his desire to cut everyone down.

It comes as no surprise, then, when Georgia begins to suffer from delusions of her own halfway through the book- these centered around Rodrick, her much older dance teacher, and the fact that he wants to have a sexual relationship with her.  They can only be called delusions because, other than touching her thigh a few times while giving her legitimate dance corrections and driving her home once after a very late rehearsal  he literally gives her no encouragement.  None.  In the meantime she becomes increasingly obsessed with him.  None of this was to a degree that was normal.  I was left with the firm conviction that she was mentally ill.  She'd have thoughts such as this to justify the fact that he acted like he had no feelings for her:

"Roderick  knew it was dangerous to put moves on me.  He wasn't in my head like I was, had no proof how I would react."

In the end, after he rejects her as we all know he will, it blows up in her face as everyone believes due to her representations and actions that he actually put the moves on her, perhaps even raping her.  This could have gone in an interesting direction.  Instead, Schabas seemed not to know what to do now that something really interesting and consequential had happened and gave the whole thing up.

And that brings me to what, for me, was the real problem with the book (other than the fact that I'm not positive Schabas even intended the mental illness angle): the ending.  First, Schabas seems to want us to believe that Georgia's mother is not mentally ill, but that her reactions were normal given what she was going through.  I am sorry, but her actions were not normal no matter what she was going through.  Mentally healthy people can get out of bed and can be decent mothers to their children.  She also seems to want us to accept that Georgia has just neatly moved on with her life and that her obsessions and delusions were normal too.  I was 14 once.  So were all my friends.  We had crushes on teachers.  None of us came to believe that they wanted to have sex with us or got to the point of true obsession and ruining their life.  This is not normal either.  Georgia needed help beyond just moving to a new city, which Schabas seems to think would just solve all of her and her mom's problems. Only therapy and possibly medication could possibly do that. Finally, after all the focus on Georgia's sexual maturation, her loss of virginity takes less than a page and is promptly totally forgotten and never mentioned again.  That was unacceptable to me.  All of this prevented me from giving the book the 4 stars I was inclined to and made me think seriously of bumping it to two stars.  All books need some closure and logic, and Schabas did not do that.

A final word about the author and her writing, especially as this is her first work.  I picked this book up on a whim mostly based on it's cover.  I'd never heard of the book or Schabas, but the picture was pretty (yes, I know, so shallow) and reminded me of the fact that I used to dance myself and still love a good ballet.  Despite rating the book only 3 of 5 stars,  Schabas is a talented writer and I hope she will write more.  Her writing style is clear, smooth, and concise, and I think she could do great things with a more polished ending and a clearer focus on what she is trying to convey.  I will definitely give whatever she reads next a try.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Where We Belong by Emily Giffin

Where We Belong by Emily Giffin
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

This book cemented for me the fact that though, while I like Emily Giffin, it doesn't seem as though I'll ever love her.

The premise of the book is that Marian, who I would definitely say is the protagonist despite the fact that the narration is split equally between her and her daughter, Kirby, gave up her child for adoption 18 long years ago.  Now, at the age of 36, Kirby finds her and both their worlds are turned upside down.

I'd like to begin with a word about Giffin generally.  She writes New York city like a mezzo soprano might sing a love song- with rich, warm, compelling undertones.  Anyone who has ever been in New York City and loved it will long to be there again.  This isn't to imply that the book focuses much on New York- it does not- but the snippets Giffin incorporates are lovely, the more so due to their understated nature.

Unfortunately, beyond that, I was unable to become fully immersed in the book.  Maybe it was due to the glib, utterly stereotypical portrayal of adoption and the emotions of the persons involved in adoptions.    Maybe it was the fact that switching between two viewpoints constantly didn't prove the best narrative technique in this book because it didn't allow me to become fully engaged with either Marian or Kirby before being yanked back to the other.  Maybe it was because my ex boyfriend once flirted with a 18-year-old named Kirby at a New Years Eve party in New York City right in front of me and I never fully got over it. (True story.)

But I think it was mostly because Giffin seemed determined to make Marian as unlikable as possible, and most of the other characters either as stereotypical as possible or as utterly incomprehensible as possible.  A novel where you can't really relate to or root for any of the characters is a bleak novel indeed.

I honestly don't know what exactly it was.  Giffin has proven herself well able to make characters doing bad things come across as sympathetic and easy to relate to.  (See Something Borrowed if in doubt.)  However, the problem with Marian is that, throughout the story, she is never made to face the consequences of her actions in any real way.  She continues to make excuses for her heartless, immature, and arguably morally reprehensible decisions and never expresses anything I'd consider to be real remorse.  In the meantime, people forgive her left and right after what could only be described as supremely minimal effort on her part.

I vaguely gathered that we were supposed to dislike her boyfriend, Peter, but I couldn't.  I mostly saw a mature person who was unlucky enough to be dating Marian.  She continually acted out against and blamed him for her own poor decisions, refusing to listen to what were reasonable concerns and suggestions from him.  I actually ended up feeling he was too good for her and that he dodged a bullet- and when the story swung too predictably for it to even be a spoiler to her and Conrad, her 'baby-daddy' I felt strongly that he was too good for her too.

However, unlike some, I greatly enjoyed the ending of the book.  Some describe it as a cliffhanger or a disappointment or a setup for a sequel.  I think those people don't understand what Giffin actually did- leave things slightly ambiguous, just like in real life, while allowing Marian to show her first real character growth in realizing that she can be at peace within herself and move forward.  To me the book was not about romance as much as it was about finding yourself and forgiveness, though, so I approach this from that angle.

I also truly enjoyed Kirby's voice and wish we had gotten to know her better.  I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes Giffin's other novels, clear and crisp writing, or a feel good book that does not require you to think too hard.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Wither (The Chemical Garden, #1) by Lauren DeStefano

Wither (The Chemical Garden #1) by Lauren DeStefano
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Much as I try to fight it, occasionally I find myself judging a book by its cover.  Wither was that kind of book.  It was recommended to me by a friend because of my recent penchant for young adult dystopia, and like any careful reader I decided I should look it up before hunting a copy down.

My research left me feeling disappointed and uncertain about whether I should pick it up.  While the premise of a world where everyone is dying before their 25th birthday was intriguing,  a lot of discriminating readers seemed to think that the book was something of a joke, written by someone who doesn't fully understand what dystopia is or how to craft a universe.

And so, I tried to resist it.  But the cover kept calling to me until I couldn't stand it anymore and just had to pick the book up off the shelf.

I'm glad I did, and I'd like to make clear that, despite the complaints which do follow, I genuinely enjoyed this book and in my heart of hearts wish I could give it 5 stars.

First, the basic premise: due to genetic engineering gone horribly wrong, everyone in America is dying by their 25th birthday.  In reaction, people are marrying young and attempting to produce children.  However, some of the girls are being married off against their will into polygamous marriages.  Rhine is one such girl.  Kidnapped and sold into marriage to the very wealthy Linden at the age of 16, she is left to struggle with her desire to escape from her gilded prison, her twisted father-in law and his hunt for a cure, and her grim knowledge that her time on earth is limited.

Second, the rotten truth: everything you've heard about how the universe DeStefano creates is ridiculous, improbable, even impossible, is basically true.  However, before I commence complaining, I should say, without qualification, that if you are able to really suspend disbelief, the universe is fascinating.  Despite this, I was often left with the unsettling feeling that, were I to ask DeStefano herself a direct question about the universe, she would not know the answer.  Furthermore, I didn't ever feel like the universe DeStefano painted was one that could conceivably occur.  A world where all Americans embraced genetic engineering, could afford it, and not a single person chose to have a baby that was not genetically engineered not only didn't ring true- it was unfathomable.  Making it moreso was that this book is set what appears to be less than 100 years in the future.

Unlike some, I was not freaked out by the polyamorous or polygamous aspect of the book. I actually know people, in real life, who will admit to being polyamorous (though not polygamous), and who are not embarrassed by this.  In fact, I dated one once, though for a variety of reasons mostly centered around me and my old fashioned ideas, we were monogomous during our time together.  I'd actually be willing to let that go, even considering that, again, it is almost impossible to imagine a world where polyamory, much less polygamy, would be viewed as acceptable in America.  However, while I could understand how, in this universe, a 13 year old might marry, I couldn't understand how society had devolved to a point where it was acceptable for a 21 year old to sleep with a 13 year old.  I also couldn't understand why, if polygamous marriages were somehow vital to the survival of the race, some girls were just being killed while others were viewed as SO valuable as wombs.

 How we are supposed to accept that all of the world, other than parts of North America, are gone, is beyond me.  How we are supposed to accept that, after a flood, the parts of North America that remain are parts that would absolutely, 100% be underwater (Florida and New York, respectively) and not mountainous regions, is also beyond me.  This doesn't even touch on the science aspect of the story, which is a mess.

If any of this is likely to be a deal breaker for you, it's best that you just steer away from this book.

However, somewhat to my surprise, I found that it was not a deal breaker for me.

DeStefano's prose is steady and flowing, almost like a river. It lulls you into a sense of comfort and is genuinely pleasant to read.  However, she is also capable of creating waves and storms with her words, masterful at capturing the tensions beneath the surface and the calm before the storm. Her writing is crisp, her word choice is exquisite, and everything about her writing style screams to me that I want to read more by her. I devoured the book in two sittings, no small feat given how my life is currently structured, and am currently determined to get the next book in the series, Fever into my hands as soon as possible.

However, even more striking than DeStefano's prose is her masterful grasp of character.  It has been a long time since I read a book where I was truly invested in all the characters, both major and minor, and where those who I did not know much about, I wanted to know more about.  Rhine is a strong female character who is sure of what she wants and unfailingly human. I found it generally easy to identify with her, her reactions, and her hopes, fears, and dreams.  I could understand the conflict she felt about Linden and her determination to see her brother again was extremely touching.

I found DeStefano's sketches of Rhines's 'sister-wives', Cecily and Jenna, to be equally compelling.  They were well sketched characters who both grew enormously throughout the course of the book.  Cecily's transformation, in particular, was beautiful to watch, as she changed from a naive, somewhat selfish imp to a loving mother who was willing to make sacrifices for others.  Linden is a nuanced character and while we learned more and more about him as the book progressed, I was left feeling that there was more about him to learn and that I wanted DeStefano to have a chance to tell me, though I do think the book ended exactly where it should.

I do have some minor complaints about some of Rhine's actions- for instance, it did not make sense to me why she felt she could not tell Linden that she wanted to contact her brother, as I don't believe he would have denied her that.  In addition, her interactions with Gabriel, a servant at the house, did not move me to the extent that I think DeStefano hoped they would, and I had a hard time really believing that relationship.  However, overall, the characters and their relationships to one another were strong and believable.

I had to take a star off because of the problems with the world and some of my issues in understanding Rhine, but I have high hopes for the rest of the series and am really looking forward to whatever DeStefano does next.