If only I had some memory serum...big spoilers!, November 8, 2013

'Allegiant' Veronica Roth

**

First off: Spoilers. There will be lots in here. Well actually, only one, which is really what it all comes down to, and which, I suspect, is going to make this series both notorious and wildly successful for the foreseeable future. And btw, I gave this 2 rather than 1 star because it kept me reading till the disastrous ending, which must mean something. But anyway, about *that* ending:

First of all, I don't call the ending disastrous because it's tragic. There are novels with devastating endings built on tragic love stories that I've nevertheless loved - "At Swim, Two Boys" and "As Meat Loves Salt" come immediately to mind. Or in the YA realm: "The Book Thief" or "The Sweet Far Thing" or "The Amber Spyglass." Yet while I loved all of those books, I hated "Allegiant", to the point - two stars not withstanding - where I wish I'd never read it.

As a writer, that's something I don't say lightly; in fact I don't think I've ever said it at all, about any book. And the thing is, I don't hate it because Tris died. I get the Christ analogy. I get that sacrificing herself to save everyone she loves is the obvious culmination of being both Abnegation and Dauntless. Thematically it makes perfect sense, and executed differently, it might have made a poignant ending, rather than one that made me wish I could scrape it out of my head. What it killed it for me is that the story wasn't strong enough support the death of the main character, and in so many ways that there really isn't any room for equivocation.

To begin with, the plot was riddled with holes. For instance (and ignoring the most ridiculous ones) what good is it going to do to 'reset' this one facility to forget their prejudices and save the memories of another small group of people, when there's no evidence that the rest of the world isn't working on the same prejudiced principles, doing the same thing? None of the kids plotting the insurrection have been any further than the GP facility. What do they really know? And then, who exactly is left in Chicago for the reader to care about, once the main characters have left? If Tobias had been left behind, and was in danger of being reset or killed or whatever, then I could have begun to understand Tris's choice. But condemning him to grief and misery because It's The Right Thing To Do and My Brother's Doing It For the Wrong Reasons? It doesn't wash.

Speaking of characters: none of the supporting cast is particularly well fleshed out, and as a result I didn't really care about any of them. The relationship between Tris and Tobias was the reason I kept reading. So take that away, and yes, it feels like a betrayal. In fact I'm guessing this is the root of most of the vitriol over this ending - not that Tris died, per se, but that the reader isn't left with anything redeeming to look to, any bright spot amidst the loss. All we get is a Tobias more broken than he was already, and a society that's miraculously healed within two years of its extremely virulent problems. And that's a pretty paltry offering when you've invested nearly 2000 pages in a love story.

I also resented the gap between the gain and the enormity of Tris's sacrifice (never mind that she was doing to one group of people exactly what they'd planned to do to another.) Maybe the future of humanity did depend on 'resetting' the scientists, but if so, the evidence eluded me. It read as if Tris died for the dubious honor of re-educating a building full of bigots, and for the love of her wishy-washy brother who tried to kill her. Why? What about her love for Tobias, and his for her? What about his brokenness, and how much he needed her to be whole? And then, there's a whole world beyond the research complex that she knew nothing about, except by hearsay, and that, therefore, could easily have undone what she died for the next day. It all left me mentally screaming: 'Whyyyyyy?'

But the deal-breaker for me comes not in the writer-analysis, but in the mommy-analysis. I have an 11-year-old daughter who is a very precocious reader. And while I generally don't censor what she reads - 'The Book Thief' and 'The Mortal Instruments' and 'Ender's Game' are some recents - I would never give her this book, for the simple reason that the main and most identifiable female character, who is otherwise actually a pretty decent role model for young girls, dies to save someone who really doesn't deserve it. Liberal commie-mommy that I am, I can't bear to propagate the attitude that women's primary value is in giving to others at the expense of themselves. Yes, selflessness is admirable, and necessary if we aren't all going to sink back into the Cosmic Soup. But angsty, dramatic, half-baked heroics? Spare me.

By sarah on 09 November 2013 |

Great Book With a couple of Major Flaws (Spoilers), October 4, 2013

'The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer' MIchelle Hodkin

****

I haven't reviewed any YA books for a while, though I do read a fair number of them, mainly because they are so similar that I keep saying more or lee the same thing. But days after finishing 'The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer' I still find myself thinking about it (a bit obsessively, to be honest). And I think that's because the good things about this book are so good, that the annoying things about it grow by comparison.

So, beginning with the good: I loved, loved, loved the premise of this book, partly because it automatically made the narrator unreliable, which is always interesting, but moreso because she was unreliable by such a timely and telling means. Her situation is so common in the modern, western world: high-achieving child of high-achieving parents takes a tumble, and the well-meaning parents throw everything possible at the child to try to 'fix' her, without ever stopping to see and address the real problem. True, the reason for Mara's emotional instability - the death of her best friend in an accident she can't remember - is pure Gothic drama, but her frustration with her family's overzealous efforts to try to make it go away are 100% authentic teen. At times it's authentic enough to make you squirm: i.e. Mara caught on the front steps between her boyfriend who's waiting in the car, and her mother who's trying to make her swallow an antipsychotic before she'll let her go.

The best thing about this book, for me, was creeping claustrophobia of the first-person narration: the intensity of being in the mind of this girl who everyone believes to be crazy, as she begins to wonder if they're right. Because of that, the whole thing came crashing down for me when it became clear that there was a supernatural reason for her apparent madness. This book would have been so much more interesting if it had remained a psychological thriller. Instead, about 2/3 of the way through, it became a rather tired rehashing of 'Carrie'. In fact, Mara even alludes to that story. And I don't really get why this had to go the paranormal route, except that that's been the done thing in YA for the last few years. It could have been a great mind-game novel, especially with the (big spoiler coming!) Jude plot-twist at the end.

But seeing as it wasn't, let's move on to my other major grip - Noah. Before anyone freaks out, I liked him - a lot, actually. I certainly liked him better than most of the YA love interests I've read of late, and that's why he's also one of the things that's most troubled me - even haunted me - about this book. Taken on his own, he's a great character - funny, flawed, intelligent, with a hidden heart of gold. Put him with Mara and the chemistry is explosive, not to mention the quality of their banter, especially before she falls for him. But there is no way that Mara's mother, as a trained psychologist, would give her carte blanche where he is concerned. For on thing, he's the kind of guy who would make any mother leery - and trust me, we can spot them at 20 paces! But more to the point, the first rule of treatment for any serious psychological disorder is not to begin a romantic relationship. In AA, for instance, they tell people to see if they can take care of a plant, then a pet, before they even think about getting involved with another person. Mara's mother definitely wouldn't be okay with Mara dating.

But my biggest issue with Mara/Noah was that she herself didn't have more issues with his reputation. We learn within paragraphs of his introduction that he's slept with every girl in school and broken all of their hearts. I was hoping, especially after his confession about his non-fling with Anna, that we would find out the rep was actually completely false. That would have been far more interesting, and easier to swallow once he and Mara do get involved. But no: he really is an a**hole.

I do get the appeal of a bad boy - I think all women do - but there's bad and there's BAD. I'm no prude, and if Noah's badness = riding a motorcycle, writing graffiti, cutting school, smoking joints, partying all night, I'd have still been okay with Mara falling for him. Nor did I need him to be a virgin. But to pathologically use and hurt people is unforgivable, and I couldn't figure out why Mara didn't think so too. She protests for a while, but then his extreme sexiness apparently makes her disregard everything he's done. Ugh, really? This is what we're selling to teenage girls as desirable?

The fact that he treats Mara as kindly as he does later on only confuses things further. Love 'em and leave 'em types just don't change their stripes that easily, and even if they did, what makes Noah treat Mara differently from the girls he's used like kleenex, before he even knows anything about her? There's a sort of half-baked 'I knew you before we met' caveat toward the end, but it really didn't convince me.

So, four stars for a gripping story and a better-than-average premise. But this could have been 5+++. Hoping some of this is resolved in the sequel...

By sarah on 09 November 2013 |

Old Lady Review +spoilers so WATCH OUT!, September 18, 2013

'Clockwork Princess' Cassandra Clare

*****

In case you didn't get it from the title, there are going to be spoilers aplenty in this review so Close Now or Forever Hold Your Peace!

K. That said, with 1300+ reviews on here, and most of them 5*, I realize there really isn't much need for another one. Except that what everyone's love/hate of this series/book seems to hinge on is the epilogue, and at a ripe old 39 years, I seem to have a different take on this one than the average reader.

I came to Cassandra Clare, like many of you, via the Mortal Instruments. And while I really liked those books, I never quite loved them. There are many reasons why, but the main one was that I found it hard to swallow Clary+Jace. I loved the character of Jace (Clary not so much), but he reminded me of too many boyfriends past for me to quite believe that he could be Clary's happily-ever-after. Particularly at age 18 (or whatever they were supposed to be.) I've always had a bone to pick with Disney for mass-marketing the myth of happily-ever-after, and in so many ways, M.I. fell afoul of that too.

Okay, I understand that this is teen (or 30-something-mommy) fantasy fiction, and yet there are so many great fantasy books out there that look at relationships in a slightly more realistic light. I.e. that they are messy: not your-lover-might-be-your-brother, silly-messy, but I'm-not-sure-who-I-really-love messy. Trust me: it's more common than you might think.

Which is why I loved the Infernal Devices trilogy so much. And in particular, the ending. I was right there with Tessa, not knowing which guy was the right choice. To me - as to her - they were both the right choice, but she could only have one. And to me, it makes perfect sense that she could love Jem and have a full life with him after Will died. For one thing, Will had died a long time ago. For another, I have to imagine that in 130 years she'd matured enough to realize what we old ladies have generally realized: that love is never absolute. It's a constantly evolving creature. Some of us may have one true love. Some of us may have many, and if they're truly true, they won't detract from, but build on one another.

So go Cassandra Clare for challenging the Disney myth! And all of you teens who think I'm insane, re-read this when you're 40. :-)

By sarah on 09 November 2013 |

Hmm, July 3, 2013

'Gone Girl' Gillian Flynn

***

This is one of those books I would never have read if I hadn't been going on a loooong plane journey. And for that, it was perfect: addictive, not requiring too much brain power to follow the twists and turns. I was hooked early on, and read voraciously until the (yes, annoying) end.

Having said that, this is also one of those books I ended up cursing, because it could have been so good if it hadn't gone so badly wrong. Still reading? Okay, here are my gripes, and they do contain spoilers, so you've been warned!

1.) Amy. Yes, she was fun to hate, but ultimately she was irritatingly unbelievable. You all know the term Mary Sue? Well, Amy is the anti-Mary Sue: so good at being bad that I stopped believing in her long before the book finished. Don't get me wrong, I love the Amy's-a-sociopath twist as a concept, and didn't even find it predictable. But as it played out, Amy's character became more and more impossible. No one is good at everything, yet Amy is apparently knock-out gorgeous, MENSA smart, and so charming that no one ever questions the certifiably bizarre things that happen to her. She's able to get the best of everybody, all the time, and I think that's why the book's ending annoyed so many people, including me. It's not just that we expect the villain to get her just deserts, it's that she doesn't even have to struggle not to get them.

2.) Amy's parents. Never mind that their bestselling book series would never get off the ground in Real Life, how can two well-educated psychologists fail to notice that their daughter is a sociopath? Even allowing for a bit of denial, given their stillbirth history, it's hard to believe they never noticed anything weird about their daughter's recurrent victimhood. Parents know when something's not right, and parents of sociopaths generally admit to having known, even if they never spoke up before the proverbial s--- hit the fan.

3.) Amy's disguise. So she dyed her hair, put on glasses and gained a few pounds. The woman is all over national T.V., and more to the point, the people in the hotel admit to watching the news stories about her. They are suspicious of her and ultimately steal a lot of money from her. Did they seriously never click that this was Amy?

4.) Amy's planned suicide. Really? I mean, REALLY? This woman would never actually kill herself over a cheating husband. What would be the point? Where would her satisfaction in revenge come from if she dies as well? Makes no sense.

5.) Desi. Another apparently clueless victim. Yeah, he thinks she's hot and he's a bit neurotic to boot. But again, no suspicion of her after what went down with them in boarding school, and what he knows went down when she framed her husband for murder?

6.) The fingerprints on the stuff in the shed. Amy hauled all of that stuff up to the bedroom and put her husband's fingerprints all over it and he never woke up? What about the forensic guys - wouldn't they see that these things had not been handled in the way a real, waking person would handle them?

7.) The crowning glory, the pregnancy. First of all, she got pregnant mighty fast. But second, and most important, I can't see how she would ever have been able to do it without her husband knowing. I've been through infertility treatments. Unless you've signed something, both partners have to sign off on everything, every step of the way. So yes, I think in the end that the conclusion was a dirty trick.

And so - an entertaining read, but so very, annoyingly flawed!

By sarah on 09 November 2013 |

Such a Letdown, May 13, 2013

'Caleb's Crossing' Geraldine Brooks

***

FYI, some spoilers in here!

So: I've read all of Geraldine Brooks's novels, and really enjoyed them. 'Year of Wonders' definitely makes it onto my top 10 of historicals (if you ignore the absurd epilogue) and I am a fussy reader! After a few recent attempts at historicals that just didn't deliver, I bought this figuring, given the author, that it was a sure bet. Unfortunately, I was wrong. This book falls into that category of novels that too many good writers seem to put out when they've become famous enough that anything goes. It's as if they feel pressured to come up with another story, and the editors check out and sign off on a mediocre offering because it's going to sell regardless...eeech.

Don't get me wrong: Brooks's prose in 'Caleb's Crossing' is still beautiful. But the story is, at best, confused, and at worst, tedious. As others have pointed out, this book has been disingenuously marketed as a story about the first native American to graduate from Harvard. In actuality, the novel skims the surface of Caleb's fascinating life, while focusing on a fictitious, oppressed-smart-girl narrator who's become a somewhat tedious stock character in Brooks's work. Which is sad, because this could have been an amazing study of parallel, marginalized lives in a colonial society if Bethia and Caleb had been given equal air-time.

Likewise, so much was suggested but left undeveloped in the plot, which could have made the novel much more interesting. The early relationship between Bethia and Caleb, for instance, suggested future romantic tension, which then entirely failed to materialize. Okay, 17th century puritan society would have precluded any serious relationship between these two; on the other hand, the relationship they DID form was equally improbable, as are a number of Bethia's actions by comparison. As in: would a girl who would willfully swallow a hallucinogenic drink pilfered from a native medicine man really never even consider the romantic possibilities with her native best friend? And then, when a love interest for Bethia does eventually happen along, he's nowhere near as interesting as Caleb. I could never quite understand why she was overcome with lust for the irritating Samuel, while apparently impervious to it with Caleb. So many interesting secondary characters remained equally, frustratingly undeveloped - Makepeace, Anne, and Joel to name a few.

So, yes, a disappointment. I wish Brooks would go back and write Caleb's story from Caleb's point of view!

By sarah on 09 November 2013 |

Haunted, February 27, 2013

'As Meat Loves Salt' Maria McCann

*****

I finished this novel a good month ago, and knew I wanted to review it, but I was so blasted by it that I couldn't get my head together to do it. I thought that in a few days I'd get a grip, but it didn't, and to be honest I still haven't, so I think I'll just go for it. And BTW there are a few spoilers in here, so read at your own risk!

First of all, I should say that those five stars up there might be misleading. Amazon translates them as 'I Love It' and I'm not sure that I do. I have enormous respect for the author for taking on such an ambitious project, and doing so well by it. I think the writing and world building are fantastic, the characterizations fascinating, the whole premise enormously compelling. But it's all also deeply disturbing, and I feel more haunted by it than enamored.

Why? Well, that's where I lose the plot a bit...

Actually, the plot is ostensibly simple: two soldiers meet in Cromwell's army, run away to London, fall in love and into an impossible affair that ultimately destroys them. So far, so gay Mills & Boon. Except that it's not. For one thing, every stage of the plot is given a luxurious amount of time to develop. I'm aware that a lot of readers disliked this and felt it made the novel drag as a whole, but I liked the fact that it wasn't just a war story, or a romance, or a domestic drama, but all of them, and none of them. They were all given equal air-time, all aspects fleshed out.

The only part of the plot I didn't like was the last bit in the Diggers' colony, probably because it was so obviously going to fail, and because it was the wedge that drove Jacob and Christopher apart. But then again, there's something to be said for the very deliberate, awful inevitability of it. The (maybe) re-introduction of Caro at the end also left a bad taste in my mouth. On one hand, I'd been expecting it since the horrific scene where we leave her at the beginning. But the way the author used it seemed a bit facile and rushed - the only part of the plot for me that did.

As a historical novel, it doesn't really get better than this. Throughout, the historical detail is meticulously drawn, from the barbaric slaughterhouse of a Reformation battlefield, to the gorgeous love-letter, to what's on the breakfast table. This, too, seems to have earned McCann criticism, but personally, I thought it made for a very rich world that I was sad to leave. It's an unusual time period in fiction too - the only novel I've read that comes close to McCann's photo-realistic portrayal of 17th century England is Geraldine Brooks' 'Year of Wonders' (which is another must read, btw, as long as you ignore the absurd epilogue.)

The love story at the heart of the novel is compelling too. Though McCann uses a number of romance-novel tropes (looong reveals, painful delays, soul-eating guilt, Heathcliffish hair-tearing) and though it's clear from the moment Jacob and Christopher meet that it isn't going to end well, their story is still completely gripping. And even though it's obviously going to be a train wreck, I wouldn't even call the ending predictable. I guessed fairly early on what was going to happen to the two main characters, but I was way off about *how* it would happen. Which I love in a novel!

I think the thing that hangs most people up about this book, and likely the reason it got under my skin to the extent that it did, is Jacob's mental state. I hesitate to say madness, in the same way I hesitate to brand him a horrible person, even though it seems most readers are firmly in one camp or the other. There's no doubt that Jacob does a lot of awful things, and never seems to learn from his remorse in the aftermath, but somehow I couldn't just dismiss him as bad. Likewise, though he talks about hearing voices and he's clearly paranoid, I think it's too simple to ascribe everything he does to schizophrenia or some other mental illness.

My personal theory about why he was so angry and destructive is one I haven't seen come up in other discussions, and is based on one tiny, crucial and apparently overlooked reference in his conversation with Zeb in London. Zeb is describing the day that Jacob beat him (and maybe more) in the orchard, he says that when Jacob attacked him he said something along the lines of, 'Now father's gone, I have to take his place.' Which I construed to mean not just that their father had beaten Jacob, but also, assuming Zeb's suggestion of sexual abuse is true, then their father probably sexually abused Jacob, too. Which would explain a whole lot about his anger, memory holes, lack of empathy, sensitivity to what he perceives as betrayal, etc.

But in the mind games, there's also Christopher to consider. A lot of reviewers describe him as a good man, but I don't think that does his character any more justice than calling Jacob a bad one. Christopher is a golden boy, grew up wealthy and indulged by his aunt, apparently did more or less what he liked. It's clear by the way that he's treated in the army that he's charismatic, and used to getting what he wants from people. I was beginning to suspect that his halo might not be quite so shiny, and that he might actually be a bit manipulative, when he threw over Nat. This is a young boy who's been devoted to him and whom he's presumably encouraged as a lover, but he abandons him in the night to run away with Jacob, apparently on a whim. At which point I decided Christopher was definitely manipulative, also self-serving and fickle, and possibly a lot more interesting than he initially seemed. It's important to remember, too, that Christopher is only shown to us through Jacob's eyes - and how reliable is that view? That's a large part of what makes this book maddeningly compelling, I think - that like so much else in what happens to Jacob, we'll never know the true story.

I think, though, that what got to me most about this book was that despite everything, the author still made me desperately want Jacob and Christopher to be together. Even though I knew it was never going to happen, I kept hoping they'd find a way to live happily ever after until the moment they destroyed each other. And a month later, I still find myself obsessing about it. So I guess that's why this book gets five stars, even though I still feel vaguely traumatized by it: this is that rare story that grabs you, and won't let go.

By sarah on 09 November 2013 |

Not Jane Austen, February 10, 2013

'A Proper Education for Girls' Elaine DiRollo

*****

I loved this book. It's is exceptionally well-written, and worth reading for its dark wit alone. But it's also has more to offer. Yes, it's Victoriana, but it's not Victorian. The era it's set in is the lens through which DiRollo chooses to show us the foibles of human nature, how we love and how we choose to show it. Not like Jane Austen, as some reviews complained? Of course not. It's a modern novel. But that doesn't make its points any less poignant. I hope Elaine DiRollo keeps writing.

By sarah on 09 November 2013 |

Interesting, January 18, 2013

'The Crossing Places' Elly Griffiths

****

I read this after reading Erin Hart's excellent 'Haunted Ground', that having started me on a Bronze Age burial kick. While not as good as that book, this is still a notch above the average forensic thriller. A lot of reviewers complain that they found the heroine unlikeable, but actually, her insecure, intelligent, and yes, somewhat prickly character really appealed to me. She was very real, her reactions to events believable and interesting, and made the mystery(s) she became involved in better-than-average.

That said, I really wanted the Bronze Age burial to play more of a role in the story than it did, and once it was tied to a modern missing child case it became all too predictable. It was obvious quite early on who the culprit was, and that character wasn't deep enough to make the why all that interesting. Even what I think was meant to be a twist at the end was clear from a mile away. So, though I did enjoy this book, I'm not desperate to read the next in the series.

By sarah on 09 November 2013 |

Tedious January 18, 2013

"The Lake of Dreams" Kim Edwards

**

I picked up this book because my ten-year-old daughter found it at a book sale and was desperate to read it, and I wanted to see if it was appropriate (she's a very mature reader.) Looking at the blurb, I can see why she was intrigued - I was too. I love a good Gothic family saga, and from the description, this had all the hallmarks: old house, locked cupboard, secret papers, oh my!

Instead, this is a tedious trip down memory lane for the heroine, who comes back to her rural American childhood home from her new life in Japan because of mom's health scare. It's unbearably predictable: mom's considering selling the family house, brother's moving on with his life while she can't seem to, old flame is still in town and just happens to be single the whole thing brings up unresolved feelings about her father's death...and so on.

And that locked cupboard with the papers? It turns out to involve a closet skeleton in the form of an ancestor who was - wait for it - a suffragette! And (semi spoiler alert) might have had an illegitimate child. It was at this point that I chucked the book across the room. It's a pretty slim book not to finish, but I really couldn't do it. I told my daughter she was welcome to read it, but after my description, she declined. Comment

By sarah on 09 November 2013 |

Loved this!, January 18, 2013

'Haunted Ground' Erin Hart

*****

I stumbled on this book looking for something set in Ireland, to get the speech patterns in my head for something I was writing. Five seconds into it, I was hooked! I've always been fascinated by the phenomenon for bog bodies, and this book gives such great insight into them. I also liked that this wasn't the 'typical' bog body (can't really say more without spoilers.) That Ms. Hart managed to make me care as much about the 'red headed girl from the bog' as I did about the living characters, says a lot about her writing skills. Likewise, the way that she gives the secondary characters some context (home lives, interests, reasons why they do what they do) makes this a far richer novel than the average forensic whodunnit. I think that's also why, while I guessed the culprit fairly early on, I was still gripped until the very end. All of this added to an intricate, beautiful and pretty darned accurate portrait of modern western Ireland and, well, I wish I'd written it!

By sarah on 09 November 2013 |

Doesn't Live Up to the First, January 18, 2013

'Lake of Sorrows' Erin Hart

***

I loved the first book in this series, 'Haunted Ground', and so, despite the mixed reviews I bought the second. Unfortunately, the mixed reviews were right. Though there's an interesting premise (two bog bodies found killed the same way, but centuries apart) it's as if the author didn't quite believe in it enough to let it be the center of the story, as the red-headed bog girl/missing modern woman juxtaposition was in 'Haunted Ground'. Instead, as other reviewers have pointed out, this meanders around the back stories of seemingly every minor character (and killing some off) before finally assigning blame in a way that, to avoid spoilers, I'll just say comes off as an afterthought. I wonder if Ms. Hart has picked the wrong genre? She'd write a great Irish village saga that has nothing to do with forensics or bog bodies.

By sarah on 09 November 2013 |

Accomplished but Tedious, January 18, 2013

'Wicked' Gregory Maguire

***

I've been meaning to read this one for a while - as in, years. I LOVED Gregory Maguire's books as a child in the '70s and '80s, read 'Mirror Mirror' and thought it was pretty good, so figured this one would be amazing, given all the hype (and, yes, the spinoff musical.) Instead, I keep finding myself looking at my kindle percentage counter and thinking, 'Seriously? Only 54% done?' And so on. To be honest, I'm not even sure I'm going to finish it. I WANT to like it: as a historical novelist I truly appreciate the depth of thought that's gone into the plot and the vast, immaculate detail in the world-building. As a cranky, over-indulged reader, I enjoy the tart humor. But I can't warm to any of the characters, and for me, that's what makes or breaks a book. At a good 2/3 of the way through, I don't really care what happens to Elphaba, and I don't think that's just because I know how her story ends. If she'd begun as a sympathetic character, then I'd be interested in knowing how she ends up 'wicked', or perceived as such. But she doesn't and so, frankly, I don't. Add to that that though the plot is intricate, it's also very dry and, well, three stars for the massive feat, but not sure I'd recommend it.

By sarah on 09 November 2013 |

A Mixed Bag - 'Rapture' by Lauren Kate

****

I haven't uniformly loved the books in this series (yes Fallen, not so much Torment) but I do love the series overall. Though it isn't always pitch-perfect, 'Rapture' is still a great ending to the - quadrilogy? Well, series. In particular I'm glad that Kate didn't try to spin it out any further, as seems to be happening too much these days with series in this genre. There's a definite, logical progression in the development of the two main characters throughout the four books, and the way that their quandry pans out in the last book makes good on that trajectory. Though both the 'twist' regarding Luce's true identity and Luce & Daniel's ultimate fate are somewhat predictable, they're still satisfying. And let's be honest: there isn't much that isn't predictable in teen paranormal romance novels. Which is part of the reason those of us who love them, love them!

Having said that, there is another twist at the end regarding Luce's history which I didn't see coming, and which is actually one of the reasons why I didn't give this book five stars. Rather like Primrose's fate in the Hunger Games, the revelation of the second forgotten section of Luce's past, presumably put in there for effect, seemed to me unnecessary and rushed. More to the point, it depleted what had, for me, been the driving force of the plot and character arc: Daniel & Luce's unwavering love for and devotion to each other. It also detracted from Luce's character itself. One of the things I've liked about this series is that Luce isn't necessarily the most perfect and beautiful girl in the room, but Daniel still loves her best, because of what's in her soul (as he tells us repeatedly.) But the final revelation about Luce's past [slight spoiler alert] was gilding the lily. We already have three major characters in love with her - this fourth one pushes the situation from just-about-believable into Mary Sue territory. Especially when there are so many other desirable females in attendance... Anyway, to say more about that is to say too much. But I'd be interested in whether other readers felt the same way.

The book's other major downfall is the many loose ends it doesn't tie up. And they're some pretty major ones: what, for instance, was the deal with Trevor's spontaneous combustion? That has been nagging me since the beginning of the series, but everyone just seems to accept it without explanation, with no mention made among all of the big revelations at the end.

And then, why do so many of Luce's close friends have to die? I actually hold JK Rowling somewhat responsible for this one - she was determined to kill off lovable characters as if it would somehow give the books greater adult credibility. Now this tendency seems to have infected the genre and similar ones. Can't good ever just plain triumph over evil? Do there always have to be major sacrifices? It's annoying, especially when the sacrifices seem just too simple.

Another peculiarly major oversight for Kate: in her Big Decision at the end of the book, Luce agonizes over what it might mean for her and Daniel and their angelic friends, but she never spares a thought for the human friends and family who stand to lose the most from her decision. In fact they never even cross her mind, which seems strange at best, given how important they've been to her in the past, and what she's learned about loss from visiting her past lives.

I was also ready to complain about the fact that Shelby & Miles seem to just fall off the face of the earth, along with the explanation for Arianne's burns, Roland's allegiance to Lucifer, etc. Then I remembered the strange little book 'Fallen in Love' which came out on Valentine's day. Got it, and it does explain some of these things - though not always particularly well. But that's another story.

At the end of the day this tragic love story does have a happily-ever-after, and it was well enough done to make me smile. So four stars, definitely. I'll be interested to see what Kate comes out with next.

 

By sarah on 11 July 2012 |

One to Clear the Decks For

****

'Angel' (or 'Angel Burn' as it's titled in the US) was one of my favorite YA books of all time. It was just so beautifully written and believable, the characters were so vivid and their love story so touching - all that while still being a page-turner! The middle books in trilogies are often the weakest link, and I really hoped this wouldn't be true of 'Angel Fire'. But when I realized it was going to involve a love triangle - something I think has been done to death in this genre - I decided not to expect too much.

And I was completely wrong! Yes, this book does contain a love triangle, and it does make up a significant portion of the plot, but the three characters are so endearing, and their conflicting feelings so believable, that it works. In fact, the challenges to the relationships in this book - and I can't really say more without giving too much away - were so compelling that I did something I haven't done in years: skipped to the end to see how it all came out. It was just too heartbreaking to keep reading without some light at the end of the tunnel. And I don't think it gives too much away to say that the ending is worth the painful parts - kind of like true love.

So. the reason I didn't give this five stars, like I gave 'Angel':

There are a lot of new characters in this book, but to me, only Seb was as interesting as Willow and Alex. The others never really became more than words on a page to me, and the parts they play in the story entirely two-dimensional. It almost felt like Weatherly only put them there to give Willow (and in one case, Alex) something to bounce off of. It was just too hard to believe that they'd all treat her exactly the same way, when they were such a varied group in such a volatile situation.

Another thing that bothered me was that the emotional climax was almost a verbatim repeat of the one in 'Angel' - different situation, but still basically Alex's hangups clashing with Willow's moral integrity so that he pushes her away when she needs him most, and only realizes his mistake when she's put in peril. I would have liked him to show a little more maturity this time around; in fact, he shows less. But hey, it makes for a great make-up scene!

There were also some sloppy bits that a less picky reader wouldn't notice, or wouldn't care about, but which drove me crazy - like the candles that are somehow already lit in the abandoned warehouse that Willow and Seb run to, allegedly on a split-second decision.

But overall, another great read. I'm really looking forward to the conclusion!

By sarah on 07 November 2011 |

Autumn Reading

As usual, it's been a mix of books for me this autumn, beginning with "The Demon Trappers: Forbidden" by Jana Oliver. **** I got the first book of this series as a review copy, and began reading without expecting much - demons aren't my favorite corner of YA paranormal land. I was completely blown away by the quality of the writing, the depth of the characters and the fact that the plot is based on a girl trying to make it in a man's world - and succeeding against the odds. There are far too many passive heroines in this genre, and Riley was a breath of fresh air.

I'm glad to say that none of that falls by the wayside in this second book. The characters develop, as does the overarching storyline - though probably not quickly enough for some readers. Riley's interactions and deepening relationships with Beck and Ori were handled beautifully, and for me, very believably. Her grieving process for her father was well done as well.

There are a few reasons why this wasn't a five-star book for me, as the first one was. The first of these is Simon. While the plot accounts for Simon's about-face in relation to Riley (and the world in general), it's only barely. He only appears a few times, and in each of them he's the cardboard cutout Angry Young Man. I kept trying to decide whether this was because the author tired of him as a plot line and wanted to get him out of the way, or she wanted to open up Riley's romantic playing field, or she actually has some major Simon-related subplot up her sleeve for a further book/s. I suspect the latter, but if so, I'd have liked to know a little more about these mysterious people he's been speaking to. Seems a little odd that Riley would spend hours driving around Atlanta following recycling trucks, but it never occurs to her to investigate what evil influence has got her boyfriend's ear.

The second is Peter. While it's de rigueur in these books for the heroine to have a boy-best-friend who's secretly pining for her while she pines for the supernatural hottie, this story has plenty of interesting potential love interests in Beck, Simon and Ori. Whenever Peter appears in this book, it feels a bit forced - i.e. she's created this character, and can't easily shelve him, though he really serves no purpose.

The third is that the plot takes quite a while to rev up. To be frank, the reason why I read this genre, as a thirty-something mum and professional historical fiction writer, is pure escapism. The best of these books grab you by the throat and twist, and if they don't, equally frankly, they go to the charity shop unread. This book is far from that purgatory, but still, I was more than half way through before I was hiding in the bathtub from the children while I finished another chapter - my personal gold standard.

Regardless, I've pre-ordered the third book with high hopes.

Next was Maggie Stevfater's new book, "The Scorpio Races". *** Having read all of Maggie Steifvater's books - loved the fairy pair, liked the werewolf trilogy - I was looking forward to this one. Partly because I live and breathe horses, but also because, though it's an interesting facet of Celtic mythology, there isn't a whole lot of material on water horses to work with. I was intrigued to see how she would flesh out the mythology.

The idea of a place where people capture and race these monstrous horses is a good one. For me, though, this story never really took off. The pace is slow, up to and including the Big Race. Also, both the menace and the romance are far too obvious to be particularly engaging. The menace is the same one that's been used ad nauseum in horse stories and beyond, while the romance was lacking a freshness that characterizes M.S.'s other novels: the hyper-real Sam & Grace, the wonderfully prickly Isabelle & Cole, the danger of James & Nuala.

Another stumbling block for me was that there were just too many echoes of 'The Hunger Games' in the Scorpio Races: young contestants, mortal danger, desperately needed money to be won. But at the same time the stakes weren't quite high enough, or the danger quite believable enough, or the heroine's reasons for entering quite dire enough, to compare favorably. (Slight spoiler alert.) I thought that the piebald mare could have been used to far greater effect, and also that Puck's choice to ride her own horse diffused a lot of the excitement. I'd have loved to read about her catching and taming one of the water horses, not just hitching a ride on her boyfriend's. The ending is also ambiguous, not in terms of what happens, but in what it means for the characters involved - yetnot in a way that particularly lends itself to a sequel.

Read it if you're a die-hard fan. Otherwise, maybe look elsewhere for your next teen supernatural hit.

Then a non-fiction book - rare for me but really compelling - "Faery Tale" by Signe Pike. **** I almost never read non-fiction. Or rather I do, but usually only as research for my own writing. But I judged this book by its cover - and the fact that my current novel is heavily involved in Scottish fairy mythology, and I thought it might have some useful info - and gave it a go

I'm so glad I did! This is simply a lovely book. So many of these type of books are dry and academic, but this reads like a well-written journal, or a series of letters from a good friend travelling abroad. The premise - young American woman goes to Britain to see if fairies are real - is so simple it could have fallen at the first hurdle. Instead, Signe Pike draws the reader into her search from the very beginning, her scepticism/desire to believe striking a chord in me which I think must be common to many people in this day and age.

So, four stars rather than five... Okay, I know that this isn't and never purported to be a scientific study. In fact the overall sense was that the author's research and subsequent reporting were based heavily on intuition, which is quite fitting given the subject matter. Still, there was an unevenness to the structure that niggled at me throughout the reading. Glastonbury, for instance, got far more air-time than some entire countries, and while this of course is partly a function of how much happened there, I got the distinct sense as the book progressed that the author was rushing through the material faster and faster.

I also couldn't help being annoyed by some of the half-baked observances the author put out as fact, especially in the (very rushed) Scotland section. I know that she was at the end of her journey, and maybe she was out of steam - but then admit it, rtaher than make sweeping statements like Scotland has no live music. Seriously? In the little Borders village where I live, there's a ripping folk music session ever other Thursday, and much more at other venues. Yes, that's a personal gripe, but it points to the generally rushed nature the book takes on near the end.

Still, a fascinating read and a relatively thorough investigation of the topic. Hope she writes more!

By sarah on 05 November 2011 |

Summer Reading

I've been using my three weeks in America to do some guilt-free, research-free summer reading. Have got through 'Incubus', 'Haunting Violet' and 'Starcrossed' so far. The middle one was lovely, didn't blow me away or alienate me, and I'd read more in the series (if one follows, which I hope it does.) As for the other two, I'll put in my Amazon Vine reviews:

'Incubus' by Carol Goodman ***

I started reading with high hopes, and indeed this book did start in a promising way. New-girl-in-town-buys-creepy-old-house isn't the most original premise, but then again it's one that works when it's done well. I was intrigued by the house, the dark woods, the Stepford-esque nature of the faculty of the small college setting. I was even willing to buy it when the eponymous incubus showed up on the scene (though the 'love' scenes were somewhat cringeworthy.) Unfortunately, after that everything became depressingly predictable. The ending's big reveal was obvious miles in advance, as was its slightly smaller big reveal. Entertaining enough for a beach book, but not a series I'll be following further.

 

'Starcrossed' by Josephine Angelini ****

I was somewhat disappointed, given the Greek Gods premise, to find this book very quickly falling into the Twilight formula. Actually, it's more obviously derivative than anything else I've read in this genre. There's the secluded, Gothic setting; the big, mysterious, wealthy family of beautiful people new to the area; the anti-chemistry between the male & female leads which is so clearly begging to be overturned. Even smalle details are annoyingly familiar: there's a creepy prophetic sister, a big tough lug of a brother, a smaller, more wirey brother, a stunning sister all of the schoolboys fall for. If it weren't for the leading lady, in fact, this would be two to three-star territory.

Helen, however, easily hauls the story up another two stars. Anyone who follows my reviews of YA supernatural romances will know that one of my huge grievances with the genre as a whole is that so many of the heroines are so revoltingly passive. Having spent a lot of my own YA years riveted to Buffy, I just can't abide a leading girl who sits around waiting for someone else to save her, to fight for her, to define her secret talents or otherwise control her life. Or, for that matter, a hero who would want to be with a girl like that. (Isn't a big part of the Buffy/Angel frisson the fact that she can kill him as easily as he can kill her?)

Helen isn't a Buffy - she's warmer, softer, shyer - but she's equally likeable. [Minor spoiler alert.] I love the fact that her first encounter with Lucas involves her trying to throttle him, and nearly succeeding. I also love the fact that even when it comes down to him explaining things and helping her learn about her powers, she can still kick his ass - and everyone else's. And all of this sporting the face of the most beautiful woman ever to have lived.

But it's not just her fighting prowess that impressed me. I also love her humility, her humanity, the way that she cares about her family and friends and never questions putting herself on the line for them. And that even when she inevitably falls in love, she keeps her head screwed on, doesn't forget about everyone else in her life, doesn't waft away into sugary fantasies. I think it's actually very difficult to write a heroine in this genre who remains sympathetic despite being beautiful, having the perfect boyfriend, and superpowers to boot. Angelini succeeds. I'd read book two...

By sarah on 29 July 2011 |

Three Cheers for the NHS

I've got fever. Okay, Mud Fever. Not that exciting in the grand scheme of things - however, since it's traditionally a horse disease, I'm a little freaked out. My two ponies, whom I love beyond reason, have both succumbed to the ailment this (very wet) summer. I've been treating it dutifully, with hibiscrub and some sudocream...and when that didn't work some very expensive powder from the local feed shop...and when that didn't work something gooey, pink and equallly expensive from the vet. And washing my hands till they bleed, I should add. (BTW I would add a grisly image to flesh this out for you, but we haven't yet figured out how to put images on here.)
ANYway: the ponies' Mud Fever started to abate, and suddenly I got a thing in my ear that looks a lot like Mud Fever - at least from what I can make out in the mirror. So I went to the doctor and said, "I've got this thing in my ear, I think it might be Mud Fever. Or a fatal skin-eating bacterium. But probably Mud Fever."
"Right," he said, and proceded to Google it. (Have any of you noticed, of late, your GP's alarming propensity to Google during your consultation? I mean, like I couldn't have fed him URLs!)
His verdict: "The specific bacterium doesn't come up on a Google search. But it does say it can be passed to humans."
So I asked, "Okay - what should I do?"
"Well...you should probably speak to a vet."
Yes, my NHS GP really did tell me to consult a vet! To be fair, he also gave me a prescription for an antibiotic cream. But A VET! Hello? ConDem, are you listening??

By sarah on 07 July 2011 |

Teen Times Two

The title says it all. I'm more or less twice the age of the intended demographic, but I have fallen in love with the YA dark-urban-fantasy-paranormal-romance (pick one or several) genre. True, after 'Twilight' it's a crowded field, and a lot of the offerings are less than brilliant. But the ones that are brilliant really are. Like the 'Fallen' series. Or two thirds of it. I just finished 'Passion' and my thoughts go like this:

After loving 'Fallen' and finding 'Torment' distinctly mediocre, I had my doubts about Lauren Kate's third installment in the series. **** Still, I have to admit I dropped everything when the amazon box shot through the mail slot, and spent the next few days swatting off pets and children so I could read it.

There's a lot I could say about this book, but a lot of it's been said already. Yes, it's slow to start. Yes, it's a very different kind of story from what came before, and that's bound to alienate some readers. But personally, I think it's the best of the series so far.

I mean this partly on an emotional level. In 'Fallen', though I loved the characters and the setting, I could never quite reconcile Luce's pathetic stalking of a boy who's deliberately cruel to her. Even when he got nicer, there didn't seem much point to her infatuation. In 'Torment' it was Daniel who annoyed me, with his patriarchal attitude and refusal to give Luce any reasons for his constant demands. 'Passion' may throttle back on the action, and there are no boarding school antics to keep things ticking over, but Kate wisely uses the breathing space to finally make a case for this doomed love that's spanned milennia. It's here that I finally find Daniel and Luce believable. In fact they also manage to be moving, in places even profound.

'Passion' is also better than the others on a technical level. Okay, not something most teen readers care about or will even notice, but as a historical novelist myself, I was quite impressed by Kate's ability to create so many believable past worlds for her characters to experience. And while twentieth century Russia and Italy aren't too hard to manage, she also bravely delves into some pretty obscure settings: pre-Columbian Mexico, ancient Tibet, and eighteenth century Tahiti, to name a few. It says a lot about her as a writer that all of these disparate settings were equally well-realized.

So why not five stars? First [slight spoiler alert] the Bill 'twist' was obvious to me from the moment he appeared on the scene. I just couldn't buy it that Luce would be so gullible, after all she's been through. Second, Luce ended the previous book on fairly dubious terms with Daniel. Then she's right back in love with him at the beginning of 'Passion'. I would have liked to see her start out still angry and conflicted, and have to work through these emotional obstacles to realize how she really feels about Daniel, and why. The third bummer was heaven. After all of these fabulous, imaginitive historical settings, heaven was straight out of a children's Bible illustration - definitely a letdown.

All in all though, a great novel. I'm looking forward to the last installment, even though I know I'll miss these characters when they're finished.

By sarah on 04 July 2011 |