Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses (A Court of Thorns and Roses, #1) by Sarah J. Maas

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Rating: (DNF)
Date Read: August 04 to 05, 2016
Recommended by: the Vaginal Fantasy Group’s alt pick
Recommended to:

DNF @ 38% because slow and boring.

I don’t think this book would have worked for me in any mood. There’s just too much that bothered and not enough to entice. Not even the fae “mythology” was interesting enough to pull me in. Not to mention the meandering writing featuring a young “feisty” protagonist and her long-suffering POV were a huge hindrance.

Plus, there’s an overwhelming “YA-ness” to the writing that irked me: lots of self-evaluating inner monologues; lots of discussion of good vs. evil; lots of self-righteousness; lots of characters to hate; lots of descriptions of lavish clothing and decor; lots of ridiculous “logic.” And to top it off, the “beast” wasn’t a beast but a beautiful cursed fairy lord in a mask–OMG, so frightening–and the heroine was an overly self-righteous, self-sacrificing caricature. It’s hard for me to believe this book isn’t a parody of high fantasy YA.

I completely lost interest around 15% when the main character Feyre killed a fairy lord in wolf form and wasn’t punished for it–because a life for a life made too much sense in this world? Instead she was offered a chance to live out the rest of her life in leisure in the opulent fairy realm. As punishment. That’s her “punishment” for killing a fairy. Rolled my eyes so hard I sprained a muscle.

But I pressed on anyway to no avail. Finally had to give in when it looked like nothing was happening and that Feyre and the beast were just frolicking through the fairy countryside for a couple hundred pages.

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Review: Updraft (Bone Universe, #1) by Fran Wilde

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Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date Read: June 03 to 07, 2016
Recommended by: book club’s pick
Recommended to:

Not really a review, just some scattered thoughts I had after reading this book.

After seeing so many positive reviews and hearing so many people praising this book, I couldn’t wait to read it. Almost all the book blogs made it sound just fascinating–a city made of bone towers, wings and flying contraptions, sky monsters, a conspiracy, steampunk-ish technology, I think there were even mentions of otherworldly ecosystems. So a lot of hype, more than enough hype to get my attention. Turned out, the book was a let down. I wouldn’t go as far to say it was bad, just not right for me.

My biggest issue with this book was not being able to make sense of the setting, nor was I able to connect with any of the characters, but that’s a lesser issue than the setting. The point of reading genre fiction, for me, is all about the setting/world building. If a book can make me feel immersed in its world like I had lived there for the duration of the read, and it’s a great world, then that’s all I need, really. Just simple as that–“simple” hah! Characters, plot, narrative, story arc, prose, etc etc. all take a backseat to world building. But here in bone universe of Updraft, very little about this particular world seemed right and very little about it made sense. I think I checked out of this adventure around the point the Singers were introduced because I got tired of things not making sense, but ironically I continued reading to see if the ending made any sense.

This book without a doubt is a coming-of-age dystopian YA. Maybe if a few blogs and reviewers had mentioned that early on, I would’ve reigned in my expectations and gone in with the knowledge that the writing might not have been a good fit for me. YA is not my thing, neither is dystopian fiction, and together they… are really really not my thing–personal preference. That plus the world building inconsistencies made it an uphill slog. And this book had all the genre trappings of teenagers being angsty while rising up to challenge an oppressive ruling body. If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve all read too many stories like it before. And if I had known that early on, it would’ve changed my whole reading experience.

Maybe my expectations were too high, maybe I shouldn’t have fallen for the hype, maybe I should’ve read between the lines (of blog posts and reviewers) more. Or at least wait until a few friends pick up the book before deciding whether or not to read it myself. I wasn’t disappointed exactly because I’m not the book’s target audience, but it really was too bad it didn’t work out.

* * * initial reaction * * *

I was so looking forward to enjoying this one, but it just wasn’t meant to be. There are just too many things wrong with it, so I’m amending my previous rating because I don’t see what everyone sees in this book.

The bone world and the world-building is where all my issues lie. Nothing about these bone towers makes any sense to me, not even when I look at it from the context given and the logic of the bone world. And the more I think on these things, trying to unpack them, the less sense they make.

How is this bone world, way above the clouds, livable, let alone sustainable? Where do these tower people get their water? And I haven’t even touched on the baffling dystopian social structure or the flying contraptions yet.

Still can’t believe this book was nominated for a Nebula or that it won the Andre Norton. Then again, Uprooted by Naomi Novik winning the Nebula still baffles me too, so… yeah.

* * * * *

Not quite 3 stars but close enough to round up.

I don’t know what exactly it is about the setting and world-building that bothers, so will have to think on them some more, but in general, almost everything about this bone world is not sitting well with me. There are too many questions about infrastructure, environmental upkeep, and basic ecology and evolutionary things that are keeping me up at night.

Btw, this is a coming-of-age, rite-of-passage, dystopian YA told in first person, and it’s very obnoxious obvious. I wish I’d known that going in because I was not prepared for all that teenage angst and foolhardiness.

Review: The Gates by John Connolly (Samuel Johnson #1)

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: October 31 to November 11, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by: Steph from Bookish
Recommended for: fans of Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams

♫ Can’t feel my face when I’m with you ♫

Or, you know, an hour after shoveling the driveway and sidewalk in 15° weather with 3° windchill. Good times.

I am blessedly snowed in today and too comfortable to leave the vicinity of my plushy sofa, not after that “grueling” hour outside. Normally I’d read (of course) but the ereader needs a chargin’ and I’ve been neglecting this blog for too long. Apologies for the unplanned hiatus. Part of the reason is real life; I write every day, not about fun things like books, but about annual predictions and other abstract things. So whenever I sit down to write, it feels like work, even when I write about fun things like books. The other part of the reason is I read much faster than I write, oftentimes jumping from one book to the next without a break. Breaks, even short ones, tend to lead to reading slumps for me, so by not stopping, I’ve been able to plow through a great many books in the last couple of months which I will compile in a “catching up” post later.

For now, this book, this charming little book, deserves some attention because it’s pretty damn good. It’s been a couple of months since I read it and it still makes me laugh.

I first encountered John Connolly when I read The Book of Lost Things and loved it. He has a way with words and a lovely, captivating way of weaving darkness into his writing. The story is a fairy tale as fairy tales are meant to be told. It’s chilling, beautiful, and memorable. I expected The Gates to be similar, but to my surprise, it’s a lighthearted hilarious romp through a sleepy town in rural England.

The plot is simple but you’ll have to take it for what it is and not ask too many questions–amateur Satanists accidentally open a portal to hell and a few hellish creatures escape to clear the way for the Great Malevolence; unfortunately for them, precocious 11-year-old Samuel Johnson foils their plans again and again; it’s then up to him, his dachshund sidekick, and a couple of friends to save the world. The writing is a riot, especially the narration and footnotes, almost every page had me laughing out loud. And the characters, main and secondary alike, are endearing.

Although this book was written for a younger (middle-grade) audience, it could be a hit with older readers too. The unnamed narrator is witty and charming and only occasionally patronizing, but that’s for the benefit of older readers. I’m sure much of what they find hilarious would fly over the heads of most middle-grade readers, such as references to debauchery within the Church during the Dark Ages. Another thing I like about the narration is its uniquely British way of telling the story, that occasionally breaks the fourth wall, though not enough to take you of the story. For instance, the way in which the narrator explains natural science, the universe, and the inner workings of CERN is all factually correct but hilariously summed up.

The best thing about this book, though, is its re-readability. I will never tire of John Connolly’s sense of humor.

Rather than continuing to tell you about how great the writing is, I’ll just leave these choice passages here.

Demons

He had never really speculated about this before, since demons came in all shapes and sizes. Indeed, some of them came in more than one shape or size all by themselves, such as O’Dear, the Demon of People Who Look in Mirrors and Think They’re Overweight, and his twin, O’Really, the Demon of People Who Look in Mirrors and Think They’re Slim When They’re Not.

Nurd, the Scourge of Five Deities

The title “Scourge of Five Deities,” which Nurd had come up with all by himself, was technically true: Nurd had been something of a bother to five different demonic entities, but they were relatively minor ones: Schwell, the Demon of Uncomfortable Shoes; Ick, the Demon of Unpleasant Things Discovered in Plug Holes During Cleaning; Graham, the Demon of Stale Biscuits and Crackers; Mavis, the Demon of Inappropriate Names for Men; and last, and quite possibly least, Erics’, the Demon of Bad Punctuation.

[···]

“You know, there’s a demon who looks after the little bit of toothpaste that you can’t squeeze out of the end of the tube, even though you know it’s there and there’s no other toothpaste in the house. There’s even a demon of shyness, or there’s supposed to be. Nobody’s ever seen him, so it’s hard to know for sure.”

[···]

There was a wail, then a splash, followed by a long, smelly silence. Finally, Nurd’s voice spoke from the darkness.

It said, somewhat unhappily, “I appear to be covered in poo.”

Mrs. Abernathy

“I can make it so that you simply fall asleep and never wake up again. But if I choose, I can ensure instead that you never sleep again, and that every moment of your wretched existence is spent in searing agony, gasping for breath and begging for the pain to stop!”

“It sounds like gym class,” said Samuel, with considerable feeling.

The verger and the vicar

“What do we do now?” asked the verger.

“We’ll call the police,” said the vicar.

“And what’ll we tell them?”

“That the church is under siege from gargoyles,” said the vicar, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world.

“Right,” said the verger. “That’ll work.”

[···]

“Mr. Berkeley,” said the vicar patiently, “in case you haven’t noticed, the dead have arisen, there are gargoyles bouncing around on the church lawn, and we have been insulted by a stone monk. Under those circumstances, [the deceased] Bishop Bernard’s conversational skills are unremarkable.”

Biddlecombe’s finest

Biddlecombe’s police station was a small building set in a field on the outskirts of the town. It had replaced an older building on the main street that had become infested with rats, and which was now a chip shop that nobody frequented unless they were very drunk, or very hungry, or rats visiting their relatives.

[···]

“We’re going to put a stop to it, Constable,” said Sergeant Rowan, with the kind of assurance that had kept the British empire running for a lot longer than it probably should have.

[···]

Two members of the Biddlecombe First XV rugby team had been swallowed up during evening training when, somewhat against the laws of nature and, for that matter, rugby, a pair of fins had erupted from the ground and the unfortunate players were dragged beneath it by what very much resembled sharks armed with webbed claws for digging. The rest of the team had promptly harpooned the monsters with the corner flags.

Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green

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Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date Read: June 16 to 19, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by: a lot of people
Recommended for: people who like realistic YA fiction

This book is ridiculous.

Ahem.

I mean, not for me.

Let’s start with some quotes

So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.

[…]

It always shocked me when I realized that I wasn’t the only person in the world who thought and felt such strange and awful things.

[…]

Sometimes you lose a battle. But mischief always wins the war.

[…]

I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.

[…]

I wanted to be one of those people who have streaks to maintain, who scorch the ground with their intensity. But for now, at least I knew such people, and they needed me, just like comets need tails.

[…]

It’s not life or death, the labyrinth. Suffering. Doing wrong and having wrong things happen to you. That’s the problem. Bolivar was talking about the pain, not about the living or dying. How do you get out of the labyrinth of suffering?

[…]

“Sometimes I don’t get you,” I said.
She didn’t even glance at me. She just smiled toward the television and said, “You never get me. That’s the whole point.”

Oh the humanity. There’s only so much of these I could take before the book becomes papier-mache (if it weren’t a borrowed or library copy). I’ve never quoted so much from a book I can’t stand, but I think these quotes are worth noting. They’re representative of the book as a whole. If you like them, you’ll like the book.

Objectively speaking, this book is a quick read and it’s not bad, not as bad as I make it sound. The basis of the story is about teenagers at a boarding school. One of them falls for a girl named Alaska, but it’s unrequited and the rest of the book is about dealing with grief. So it’s a fairly average, sort of nuanced narrative about the pains of growing up that has echoes of its forerunners, Perks of Being a Wallflower and Catcher in the Rye. What sets it apart from Perks and Catcher is all those quotable quotes above and a quirky cast of characters (and a manic pixie dream girl).

I had no expectations going into this book even though all I’d heard were good things about John Green’s writing, and after years of encountering rave reviews of his books and youtube videos, I finally got the chance to see what all the hype was about. His youtube videos–the educational ones–are great. They actually educate and cover a variety of topics and subject matter. I especially like his Crash Course series which covers literature, history, science, politics, and other subjects that might not be taught in some schools like psychology and sociology.

Green’s writing, however, is…just not for me. Not just because it’s YA, but because it’s wordy and tries too hard to be funny, heartfelt, and transcendent, all at the same time. Sort of like Nicholas Sparks but more self and socially aware, and aimed at a younger, hipper audience. So the result is prose that can easily be taken out of context and quoted all over the place–made into t-shirts, banners, posters, movies, etc etc. That’s the sense I got anyway, that Green’s writing tries too hard to be unparalleled and that I can literally see what he’s trying to do by telling this story. It comes across as forced and stiff and sometimes awkward. But maybe that’s a YA thing and it’s way over my head?

So in short, this book is not for me. It didn’t help that I found the plot and characters pretentious and overreaching, and I’m fully aware how that sounds coming from me, someone who counts Cloud Atlas, House of Leaves, and Infinite Jest among her favorites. So this isn’t a critique of the book or Green’s writing, but a reflection of my personal taste and why books like Looking for Alaska don’t work for me.

Sometimes pretentiousness works if it has a point and impresses more than repels. But sometimes it falls short and comes off as trying too hard.

Review: My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: April 17 to 21, 2015
Read Count: 2
Recommended by: found during a bout of spring cleaning
Recommended for: people who like nature

Everything was white, clean, shining, and beautiful. The sky was blue, blue, blue. The hemlock grove was laced with snow, the meadow was smooth and white, and the gorge was sparkling with ice. It was so beautiful and peaceful that I laughed out loud. I guess I laughed because my first snowstorm was over and it had not been so terrible after all.

My Side of the Mountain, written by Jean Craighead George in 1959, is a survivalist story about a boy who runs away from home to live in the Catskill Mountains, and he not only survives but thrives in the wilderness. Twelve-year-old Sam Gribley comes from a large family, and all the Gribleys are crammed together in a small apartment in New York. Sam couldn’t stand living in such a confined space with his parents and all his siblings anymore, so he takes off for his grandfather’s farm in the Catskills. The story begins with Sam already in the mountains preparing his humble tree abode for the first snowstorm. He discusses in detail some of the challenges he’s faced so far and his fear of the storm and not knowing what will happen after. Then gradually, he talks about his life in New York, his family, and how he came to the Catskills.

Sam lives off the land and learns how to be self-sufficient, while skirting the attention of the townsfolk living on the foot of the mountains. It seems everyone he meets is worried about him, everyone but his immediate family, that is. He details his successes and failures and ways in which he learns from both. One of his major achievements is building his house in a tree and another is training a falcon that he names Frightful. The passages where he and Frightful are together are some of the best moments in the book.

It’s not hard to see why this book won so many literary awards and has been a staple on reading lists for children ever since it was published. The writing is clear and descriptive, the adventures are fun and fascinating, Sam is a likable character who adapts easily to the wilderness, and various supporting animal characters are hilarious. They add much needed comedic relief to Sam’s narration.

As much as I still like this book, there are quite a few things I didn’t notice before that bother me now, like

  • Sam’s age
  • the fact that his family didn’t come looking for him (until later)
  • they also didn’t call the police
  • Sam’s extensive knowledge of the wilderness (for a city kid, he’s very well versed in survival skills)
  • the fact that he didn’t take any books with him
  • all the strangers he ran into were kind and helpful

Though none of these things occurred to me when I first read the book. Then again, I was only 9 at the time, so 12 seemed almost grown-up.

Everything came together too easily for Sam. Even some of his biggest challenges were resolved by nightfall. Food was plentiful and easily prepared, supplies were readily available, the weather was mostly fair and mild, shelter was easy to find, storage was easy to built, and no wildlife posed a threat to Sam’s livelihood. No wonder he had such a great time frolicking in the wild. But despite it all, I still love this story and these adventures to this day.

 

I was worried this book wouldn’t live up to my glorious memories of it, and that’s why I haven’t reread it. But after finishing Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, I was in the mood for more survivalist tales. Should have gone with Jon Krakauer instead, someone I’ve been meaning to read for ages now, but I was also in the mood for something easy, upbeat, and fictional. So Krakauer was shelved once again.

My Side of the Mountain was and still is a very special book to me. It introduced me to the beauty of the natural world and made me appreciate nature and wildlife. As a city kid growing up in an industrial working-class community, all I knew was gravel and concrete and the occasional dandelions that grew in between the cracks. I had only seen the Catskills in pictures, but Jean Craighead George’s sweeping descriptions breathed life into those mountains. The sky and trees and streams and even the grass came to life right before my eyes, and everything about the wilderness was just so beautiful, so full of color and life. I hadn’t known it was possible to live off the land and be self-sufficient that far away from the cities; the whole idea was kind of mind-blowing. That was when I started reading more wilderness and survival stories, along with guides and documentaries, and learning all I could so that one day I could have an adventure similar to Sam’s. I haven’t been to the Catskills yet, but I do go camping and canoeing every year in the boundary waters and that’s almost just as good.

It wasn’t until years later that I took an active role in conservation and environmental issues, but it was this book that started it all for me. It made me appreciate the beauty of the wilderness even though I’d hadn’t yet seen it for myself at that point.

Review (and reread): Red Rising (Red Rising #1) by Pierce Brown

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Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date Read: December 28, 2014 to January 9, 2015
Read Count: 2
Recommended by: ads on Goodreads
Recommended for: I don’t know

Not your average YA in that it’s darker in tone and subject matter, just like The Hunger Games but wordier and not as heartfelt.

I read this book when it first came out and really liked it, but looking back, I think that was because it’s so reminiscent of Suzanne Collins’ sparse style that it brought back memories of when I first read The Hunger Games. Now that some time has passed, I’ve come to see that Red Rising doesn’t have much going for it on its own. Barely anything about it is original, except for the setting being on Mars. Overall, I found the book difficult to get through a second time, esp the first half, because things I’d overlooked before became too glaring to ignore. If not for the huge buddy read, I don’t think I’d get through it.

While it’s very much like every other YA dystopian novel published in recent years, right down to the survival-of-the-fittest games and oppressive caste system, Red Rising doesn’t have the heart or that spark (or characters like Katniss) to light its pages and carry the story. It’s kind of a drag actually–first person POV’s usually are for me. Sparse writing about hardship, grief, and loss needs strong characterization to hold the story together and keep readers interested, and sparse writing about hardship, grief, and loss in SFF needs a sense of realness and relatability to anchor it in our consciousness. Furthermore, it needs sharp commentary to make it memorable, to take it to that next level of relevance, but I understand that’s not what some authors aim for, which is fine but it’s a huge missed opportunity when a book about taking on an oppressive society doesn’t take the chance to make meaningful critiques that may or may not relate to current events. Just saying. It’s no wonder I don’t recall much about Red Rising; it’s not the kind of story that stays with me.

All right, on to the actual book. The setting is oppressive, dystopian, and on Mars. The population is divided into groups by the colors of their eyes and other physical and mental traits, all of which are the result of specialty breeding. Golds rule the universe, Reds are slaves, and other colors in between have their own specializations. Eugenics is an interesting theme to explore, but it’s not well explored or executed here and that’s why this book is young adult and not adult fiction. The scope is rather narrow with the focus being mostly on physical looks/altercations and might, and the single character POV is too limiting.

Anyhow. The Society is especially cruel to the Reds. They work the hardest, have the highest mortality rate, but receive the least recognition and are often scorned and abused by the other colors. This treatment, which goes back centuries, is permitted. The explanation for it is quite contrived, I must admit now that I can’t ignore it. And yet the Society has functioned like this for over 700 years. Within the Red population, there is separation between high Reds and low Reds. High Reds are permitted to live above ground and hold menial jobs; low Reds live below ground and never know there’s a whole world thriving on the surface of Mars.

Darrow, the main character, the titular Red Rising of this book and Golden Son of the next book, is a low Red helldiver; his fate, to forever live and die underground, and his job, to go deep into to the caverns of Mars and mine precious resources. It’s part of the work that keeps the planet running. Most helldivers don’t live past the ripe old age of 25. Darrow is only 16 at the start of the book, and he definitely sounds like it–this is what I mean about the scope of the story being narrow/limiting. He’s married to his childhood sweetheart, Eo, and what a lovely delicate gal she is. We all know what happens to lovely delicate characters in dystopian fiction–they don’t live to see the end because they get refrigerated early. Too early, in this case.

Eo’s death is the catalyst Darrow needs to rise up and take action, otherwise he would’ve been quite content living out the rest of his short life as a Red, burning away in those deadly mines. The real action gets rolling around the time Darrow begins his preparation to be become Gold, but things don’t necessarily pick up until more than half way through the book when he successfully infiltrates their ranks and the war “games” begin; I’d forgotten how much you have to wade through before things really get going. New characters, more interesting than Darrow, are introduced when Darrow takes part in these survival “games.” And then more things happen and a few characters die violently, and the end of the book makes you want to start Golden Son. That about sums it up.

The writing style is all right most times, though too often it is lofty and repetitive like the way idealistic young people tend to be when they speak of big-idea concepts like freedom and liberty and such. It’s not that bothersome once I got used to it, but it definitely took some time getting used to. I’d wager it’s the main factor that determines whether or not you’d like this book. I didn’t notice it much during the first read, but it’s hard to ignore during the reread. Darrow as a narrator is efficient during intense action sequences; Pierce Brown knows his ways around an action scene. However, during lulls between these scenes, Darrow has a habit of reliving past wounds (Eo, Eo’s death, Eo’s dreams) and wallowing in guilt and despair (Julien, Titus), so much so that it becomes repetitive. He spends a lot of time tearing himself apart all the while trying to survive these war games at this ridiculously sadistic school. I should sympathize, but I don’t feel anything for him or any of the other characters.

Your enjoyment of Red Rising will depend on your enjoyment of YA in general and dystopians with YA flairs specifically. While it’s better written than others of its kind published in the last decade or so, it doesn’t really stand out on its own. For me, this book is a compact review and reiteration of major (YA) dystopian themes and tropes. So it’s all right as an introductory crash course, but wouldn’t work if you’re looking for something new or groundbreaking. In short, recommended for readers new to the subgenre; not so much for anyone bored by over saturation of dystopian things.

Lastly I should mention I listened to the audio for my reread, and it changed my perspective of the whole book. Funny how that happened; I didn’t expect it to affect me so much. The narrator, Tim Gerard Reynolds, has a voice with a special talent, and that is to highlight every single flaw in the text that I would have ignored had I been reading. Nothing against his voice or accents, but there’s something about the way he narrates that makes these flaws so damn noticeable. Although I wouldn’t say he “ruined” this book for me, I did enjoy it a lot more before the audio.

So will I read Golden Son? Yes, probably in the next few weeks. But no more audios.

*

* *

* * *

* * * * spoilers * * * *

Continue reading

Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: June 20 to 27, 2014
Read Count: 1
Recommended by: Martha
Recommended for: horse lovers

This book is everything YA mythological fantasies should be but aren’t, at least not for me. The writing is great, the characters are memorable, and the plot actually leads to a climactic ending. There’s an actual race, not just a staring contest style stand-off. Jokes aside, The Scorpio Races is one of those books that the less you know about it the more you’ll enjoy it.

The writing is what impresses me the most. It’s better than I expected and far better than the usual stunted YA prose. The narrative is atmospheric and magical, the characters are well-developed and sympathetic, the setting is a character itself, and the water horses are angry and violent, yet strangely alluring. Every scene and every confrontation is written so precisely that the action is pushed right up to the edge without going over into melodrama. Every moment leading up the Scorpio Races takes the story that much closer to inevitable chaos and death. After reading this book, I actually felt like I’d spent some time on the cold misty shores of Thisby.

 

On to the actual story:

The time is the turn of the century and the place is the fictional island of Thisby, a hard place to survive, surrounded mostly by cliffs and rocky ledges and one long stretch of cold beach where the Scorpio Races take place every year. Nothing grows on this island, and so most families are struggling to get by. For orphans like Sean Kendrick and the Connolly siblings, life is even harder, and they’re barely hanging on. Sean is a skilled horseman and a sort of capaill uisce (water horse) whisperer. He’s a novelty on the island, but chooses to live a quiet life and plies his trade at the Malvern stables, where he trains and races capaill uisce for the Malvern family. He dreams of earning enough to run a stable of his own one day. Puck Connolly and her brothers lost both their parents to the sea some time ago. Now at the risk of losing her older brother to the lures of the mainland, Puck decides to take her chances in the Scorpio Races to keep what’s left of her family together. Since she’s the first girl ever to run in the races, she faces opposition from the “traditional” factions of the island, but she also has a few quiet supporters. The winner of the race gets a hefty cash prize, and it’s implied that he or she would be taken care of for life.

What Thisby lacks in resources, it makes up in an abundance of blood-thirsty sea monsters that only look like regular horses but have a tendency to be…carnivorous, quite carnivorous actually and unpredictable. Riders of the Scorpio Races have to either buy or catch a capaill uisce, train it (while avoid getting eaten themselves), and train it well enough so it could run in a race. For Sean, this is hardly work, but dedication and a life-long love for horses, both land and water kind. For Puck, it’s a matter of survival and obligation. Her parents were most likely killed by these things, and their deaths hang over her head every time she gets near a capaill uisce.

Puck, on her love for Thisby

I realize then that I can’t remember how it is that we found out that our parents were dead. I just remember them going out to the boat together, a very rare occasion indeed, and then I remember knowing they were dead. Not only can I not see the face of who told us, I can’t even remember the telling. I lie there with my eyes tightly closed, trying to bring the moment back to focus, but all I can call up is Sean’s face and the sensation of the ground rushing by beneath Corr.

I think that’s the mercy of this island, actually, that it won’t give us our terrible memories for long, but lets us keep the good ones for as long as we want them.

It’s inevitable for these two kids to get together. They share similar past experiences and a love for horses which only bring them closer together. But the romance, though light and implicit, takes a backseat to the races, the capaill uisce, and most of the story. Both Sean and Puck have a lot riding on the races this year, and they both have to win because their livelihood depend on the prize money, but many obstacles stand between them and the finish line, mainly jealous vindictive son of a wealthy man and Puck’s inability to handle a capaill uisce.

Puck again, on her uncertainty

I balance my cakes in one hand and take Dove’s reins with the other, leading her toward the cliffs. I think about George Holly’s comment about food tasting better in memories. It strikes me as a strange, luxurious statement. It assumes you’ll have not only that moment when you take the first bite but then enough moments in front of it for that mouthful to become a memory. My future’s not that certain that I can afford to wonder what will become of the taste later. And in any case, the November cake tastes plenty sweet to me now.

Lovely story, beautifully told.

 

I really like Maggie Stiefvater’s writing and will definitely look for more of her work in the future. I think she has a uniquely easy way with words and the story just pours off the page effortlessly. I’m most impressed by her control of the story and the ways in which she incorporated the water horse mythology into the narrative. And I like that she deviated from most YA fantasies by not letting the romance subplot take up too much time and space. It’s more part of the setting than the plot, and that’s something we don’t see much in YA.

Some thoughts re: The Fault in Our Stars and John Green

Most recently John Green did a whole thing on Twilight (here and here for more details). I went from disliking him but still interested in reading his books (or just this one) to pitying him because he seems so out of touch with reality and completely misses the point on why books like Twilight are deserving of “harsh” treatment. Critics aren’t making things up; they’re just pointing to what’s already there in the text.

It’s absolutely terrible that Stephenie Meyer had been and is still being personally attacked over her books. We should always call attention to these things, BUT that doesn’t mean we should overlook all of the controversial things Ms. Meyer chose to write about. That’s great that Mr. Green wants to stand up for and align himself with a fellow author (really it is–no sarcasm at all), but he doesn’t have to pretend to elevate her writing to a level unbeknownst to her critics to show his support. (Just say you support another author. We understand. By pretending there’s depth to be found in Twilight, you’re making me doubt everything you’ve ever written. This goes for everyone, not just authors.)

Tens and millions of people can be wrong, Mr. Green; this happens almost every day all over the world. (This also happens to be terrible evidence btw because tens and millions of people have been wrong in the past about a multitude of things and tens and millions of people will continue to stand on the wrong side of many things in the future.) The point is lots of people can be wrong, and lots of people can be wrong together. Just because so many people love a deeply troubled story like Twilight doesn’t mean there are depths to it that are beyond its critics’ reach and understanding. All those tens and millions of people loving Twilight doesn’t erase the fact that it’s a troubling book. Everything that’s wrong with it is still there, right in the text, whether or not you choose to see it.

Love and support whatever you want, but don’t choose to ignore its problems. You aren’t doing anyone or even yourself any favors by being willfully ignorant.

Continue reading

Review: Sabriel (Abhorsen Trilogy, #1) by Garth Nix

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date read: April 17 to 18, 2014
Read Count: 2

“Death and what came after death was no great mystery to Sabriel. She just wished it was.”

The first time I read this book I did not like it and had to abandon it at page 25. Now after having finished the whole thing in less than 36 hours, I realized I hardly gave it a fighting chance and that wasn’t fair because it’s actually good. Garth Nix surprised me in that all the objections I had about Sabriel as a character are remedied later on in the book. I have never been bored enough with a book to abandon it only to like it a lot after a second try. The writing is much better than what we’ve come to know as YA fantasy. It has depth, vibrancy, and distinct style of narration that doesn’t weigh the story down–given the subject matter, you’d expect to be pounded over the head repeatedly with lectures on morality. Moreover, the world of Abhorsen and its characters are dark and ambiguous and violent, usual for YA which only makes it all that more interesting.

The story starts with a night of confusion and urgency, and then it moves on to the “present setting,” which I think might be post-WWII English countryside. Sabriel, the only daughter of a powerful mage called Abhorsen, grew up in a boarding school on the South side of the Wall, far away from all the violence and dark magic of her home in the Old Kingdom. She has some basic magical knowledge and is familiar with the ways of the dead, but has had very little training. One day, she receives news of her father in distress, and then later she finds out that he’s gone missing somewhere deep within the North, possibly at the center of magical and necromantic unrest. So Sabriel leaves school and makes her way North to her father’s house, hoping to retrace his footsteps to track him down.

The journey starts out as a quest, with a little adventure on the side, then soon turns into a mission to save the land from an invasion of death. Zombie apocalypse, you ask? Well… yeah, I suppose. A lot of side characters die and whole populations are wiped out over night. The body count is unusually high for a coming of age story, but then again, necromancy is a force to be reckoned with, so the body count makes sense.

After having lived a sheltered life, Sabriel finds herself drowning as the weight of the world is put on her shoulders. The journey takes her from her childhood home to the heart of the Old Kingdom, from innocent schoolgirl to powerful mage, from an unprepared apprentice to a walker among the dead. But she isn’t alone in her mission. She is aided by Mogget, an ancient mysterious being that takes the form of a sardonic white cat, and Touchstone, a not as ancient but equally mysterious displaced young man from the Old Kingdom. Together, they combine forces to search for Sabriel’s father and make a last stand against death.

The complex aspects of the world, various sectors of dark magics, and even each individual character are difficult to sum up without giving too much away. The reader learns about these things as Sabriel is made aware of them. Nix does a nice job of revealing story arcs, otherworldly forces, origin mythology, and other necessary information as the story progresses, and as Sabriel gradually becomes who she is meant to be, we see her characterization improve dramatically.

Last words from the Abhorsen

“Let this be my final lesson. Everyone and everything has a time to die.”

*     *     *     *     *

The reason for my abandonment of the book has nothing to do with the book’s content or the writing. It was because I’d hit my quota of heroic fantasy for the year. At the time, I had just finished Lynn Flewelling’s Tamir Triad, a similar coming of age trilogy about dark magic and high fantasy, and while I really liked Flewelling’s trilogy, I was tired of adolescence and any story that had to do with finding oneself or finding one’s place in the world or both. Time was what I needed to take in this book and appreciate it for what it is–a standout among a sea of generic coming of age fantasies.

Review: Eragon (Inheritance Cycle, #1) by Christopher Paolini

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Rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date read: August, 2011
Read count: 1

Flimsy knockoff

*cough* might as well be plagiarism *cough*

You know that insult, falling off the ugly tree and hitting every ugly branch on the way down? Well, this book fell off the cliche tree and hit every single over-done and beaten-to-death cliche on the way down and then it landed in plagiarism. Every cliche or trope in sci-fi/fantasy is present in all 500+ pages of this… I hesitate to call it a story. The page count may not seem like a lot, but when it’s a story or a poor mash-up of several stories you’ve read before, the read seems to go on forever.

A number of reviewers mentioned that the story is a combination of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. The setting is basic high fantasy. There is an attempt to create a varied world like that of Tolkien’s; however the creatures, languages, and cultures are poorly done. The characters are so obviously the product of a teenage boy’s mind; they’re supposedly “grown-ups” who speak and behave like clueless children. The dialogues are so juvenile and awkward they made me wonder how this book ever became a movie. The “love story” is unintentionally hilarious; I saw a lot of Luke and Leia in the two love birds. (I know, I know. Ewww. But that’s only because we know they’re twins. Much later in the story.) And the overall writing is obviously that of a kid trying his hands at fantasy but ending up mimicking books and series he admired so much that it’s practically plagiarism.

Not long before I decided to read this book I saw a beautiful leather-bound box set of the Inheritance Cycle in a bookstore and thought maybe it’d be a nice gift for a young cousin who was just beginning to read chapter books. Looking back, maybe I should have gotten him the box set. It would have been his first epic fantasy adventure series, so maybe he would have enjoyed the adventure, seeing as how he’d never read epic fantasy before and wouldn’t have recognized cliches or blatant plagiarism in the writing. His lack of fantasy knowledge and deconstruction skills might have let him enjoy Eragon for what it is, trivial rehashing of other well-known sci-fi/fantasy series.

But I have this rule: never buy a book that you’ve never read for someone else, especially if that someone else is a child; only give books you think are amazing, especially to children. It took me about a month to get through Eragon, and by the time I was done, I was more than ready to burn it.

I don’t usually review books I can’t stand, other than maybe to say why I can’t stand it and why others might want to avoid it. Eragon is special though because everyone should avoid it. You’re better off reading or watching the original works from which the book is lifted. There are countless other fantasy books and series that are more worthy of your time and effort.

— — — — —

Sort of related note:

As a trend, I keep seeing reviewers refer to Twilight whenever they want to make a point about how terrible a book is, but I rarely see them making references to Eragon, this equally terrible waste of paper. I’m not making excuses for Twilight, of course; it’s terrible in its own rights, but at least it’s a terrible original text (of terrible origins). Eragon is a terrible copy; a cheap knockoff, as I already said, which is arguably worse than a terrible original idea. And yet, whenever book reviews compare books of equal terrible-ness, many of them leave Eragon out of the mix. So maybe as a reminder, next time you want to point out how terrible a book is, remember to include Eragon.