Monday, January 31, 2011

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY / Suzanne Collins

This captivating thriller completes the best-selling Hunger Games trilogy. Katniss Everdeen is again pitched against the might of the Capital, but this time she has the sinister underground rebel force of District Thirteen on her side.

Katniss is chosen as a mascot to promote the rebel cause and her every move is once again directed, manipulated and controlled for the benefit of the watching pubic. Her partner in the games, Peeta, has fallen into the hands of the Capital and Katniss's every move endangers him.

The revolution against the Capital is in full swing and has broken out onto the streets. As the rebels descend upon the capital they must battle through a series of macabre booby traps, a bloody war which Katniss describes as a real life hunger games.
If you've already read the Hunger Games then you've probably not wasted any time getting your hands on this latest instalment. Suzanne's style is dangerously addictive, and the pace of her writing makes them really difficult to put down. Mockingjay is by far the darkest of the three and for that reason it was slightly less enjoyable to read.

In this book, the weight of all that Katniss has been through and done really begins to take its toll. As the battle wages on, her sense of what she is really fighting for and who is on her side is shaken. With so much of her former life destroyed, Collins subtly starts to question Katniss's own motives in still fighting. Does the rebel cause really justify the loss of human life?

Although this type of psychological debate isn't usually associated with easy reading, I honestly could have finished this in one sitting if life would let me! Collins's style is light and flows so well that I just find myself turning one more page and then just one more and then.. Katniss's inner struggle didn't hamper the plot at all, and allows Collins to flesh her heroine out without idealising her.

I'm not a 100% sure how I feel about the ending of this book, and would love to hear the thoughts of any other Hunger Games addicts. The epilogue felt off beat to the rest of the novel to me, it just didn't feel like the Katniss of the earlier books. I guess I'm just being stubborn, having never been a complete lover of happy ever after.

Overall though, this book still delivers the thrills, gore and suspense of the earlier books and I still can't recommend this trilogy enough.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Far North by Marcel Theroux


Where I got the book: my own selection, from the library.

Makepeace is a survivor in an age where drought and famine have wiped out most of the population. A remnant of a religious community that settled the farthest northern reaches of Asia, Makepeace struggles with the choice between isolated self-sufficiency and reaching out to other humans in an age where brutality is the norm.

Far North is a compelling book. I've always loved end-of-days novels, and if you've ever read John Wyndham's 1950s classic The Chrysalids (and if you haven't, you're missing out on a great book) you would probably, as I did, place Makepeace's society a couple of hundred years before the farming communities of that story, and find an echo of the older book in Theroux's novel.

What kept me turning the pages of Far North was the writing. Theroux's descriptions are wonderfully evocative, his writing crisp and unadorned. This keeps the story moving along at a fast pace, and I stayed up late because I just had to finish the last hundred pages.

Far North is a little short on plot, in my opinion, and the narrative takes sudden, unexpected turns that are both frustrating and intriguing. So if you're the sort of reader that likes all loose ends woven in and tied with a neat bow, you won't find that here. If you're of the camp that believes a novel should reflect life's untidiness, you'll love the meandering action. I hope that, like me, you'll grow fond of the unlovely Makepeace and find yourself projecting the character into the future.

I'm giving Far North an "excellent" rating for the writing and the author's imagination. It stopped short of rocking my world, but I'll be looking out for more books by this author.



Wednesday, January 26, 2011

TWENTIES GIRL / Sophie Kinsella


I don't normally go in for so-called chick lit but I've got an unashamed book crush on Sophie Kinsella and I don't care who knows it.

Twenties Girl tells the tale of Lara Lington; daughter to two anxious parents, niece to one awfully rich uncle, ex to the devastatingly handsome Josh and great niece to a rude and unassuming ghost.

Yep that's right- ghost. Despite never meeting her great aunt Sadie when she was still alive, Lara now can't seem to get rid of her. Sadie, appearing as a lithe and mischievous 23 year old, is determined to retrieve her favourite necklace and won't leave Lara alone until she's found it. After the initial shock has passed, Lara begins to realise that having a ghost around can actually be quite an advantage. But how will she ever find the necklace, and why does it mean so much to Sadie? And more importantly, has she gone completely off her rocker or do ghosts really exist?!

Like her other novels, this is a light read with plently of laughs. If I have one criticism it's that her narrative voices all seem identical. It's no wonder though since her characters are all instantly likeable: funny, human, quirkly, slightly obsessive and ever so real- even if the subject matter is exactly the opposite of that! Even though the plot is pretty daft, I loved how refreshingly different it was.

Sophie Kinsella is a pro at writing romance and this book is no exception. She knows exactly how to write real chemistry, and yet often has it pop up naturally where you weren't expecting it. She allows real emotion to build up between characters and doesn't just limit this to love interests. Her writing style is easy to read, and the dialogue light and funny, if slightly predictable.

Well worth a read if you fancy being distracted for a couple of hours but not one to treasure a copy of forever. Warning: not to be read when you're due to catch a train. I made it by the skin of my teeth.

The Ask and the Answer


This is the second book in the Chaos Walking Trilogy, and I must say, it's my least favorite. It has some cool features, such as the young main character discovering he has powers he can exert with just thoughts--which Ness actually fits into the story world rather than adding them simply because they're cool.
The frustration comes in with the two main characters' apparent inability to stand up for themselves. Time after time, they do things they disagree with or even find repugnant, with their only opposition being some denial that the acts will change them.
I still think it needs to be read in spite of the flaws, though, as the trilogy wouldn't be the same without it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

POSSESSION / A.S. Byatt

Today I finished POSSESSION by A.S. Byatt and the more I think about the book, the more I cherish it. It's richly imagined, and richly written and involves many characters who are all likable and recognizable, if not always (though they are often) lovable.

The subtitle "A Romance" may imply a love story, which it is in part--it follows academics Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell, who fall for each other while on the trail of a love affair between the two Victorian poets they study respectively. But it's so much more than that. It's also about the love of language and poetry, the love of writing and creating art, the love you may feel for a particular time and place, for solitude, for learning. Well, you get the idea.

A warning: the beginning can be off-putting. There are poems by each Victorian poet, letters, excerpts from scholarly works by certain characters. There's also a wide cast of characters, all of whom get their time in the spotlight. The result of all this, is that you can't get into a quick reading rhythm. I think it's important to know this going in. Take breaks. Read at your leisure. The plot picks up in a natural way, eventually.

Byatt knows she doesn't have to pull any tricks to keep you reading. Every word and character is a piece of mosaic and Byatt has the pattern all worked out. Trust me, it's worth a little effort for the piece of art you can step back and admire at the end.

The ending, too, is pitch-perfect. When I finished this book I had no thoughts of, "I wish she had done this differently." Instead, I thought, "It's so sad that this happened but I was so happy about this other thing."

And perhaps the highest praise of all: When I finished POSSESSION, I felt like it was all real and true and that the story had always been there, waiting to be told.

CRASH INTO ME by Albert Borris

Crash Into Me by Albert Borris
Young Adult Contemp
Simon Pulse, 2010
(paperback edition)

Suicide is something quite personal for me, having been a suicidal teen once myself and now married to someone who deals with regular bouts of suicidal depression (he has bipolar disorder), so I was a little leery to read this book. Not because I thought it would rouse up those feelings inside me again, but because I was afraid that it wouldn't do them justice.

I've read about suicide in fiction before, and it always goes one of two ways. 1) The author portrays it so well that it makes you sick. 2) The author portrays it so poorly that it makes you angry.

I'd prefer the first one. When feelings of suicide are presented realistically, not sugar-coated or preachy or just plain wrong, it makes for an engaging read. The problem is, it also makes your stomach churn because you know it's real. There are really people out there who feel this way and believe they would be better off dead and/or the world would be better off without them in it.

This story is so real in its portrayal that it did, indeed, make me sick to my stomach at times. But that is the very reason why I'm recommending it, especially for teens. What I loved the most about this story was that it explored more than one aspect of what it's like to be suicidal. Not all suicidal teens are the same. Not all become suicidal for the same reasons. Some want attention. Some want to disappear. Some can't deal with life. Some can't deal with death.

And that's why this story is genius. Because it follows not just one but FOUR teens on a "celebrity suicide road trip", in which they have all agreed that at the end of the trip they will off themselves in Death Valley, California. It also flips back to their online chats that led to them deciding to do this in the first place, intertwining both stories until they finally mesh. The tension is always high. The feelings are always raw. And by the time you get to the end, you've become so attached to these people that you're trying to physically reach your hand through the pages and pull them out of the story so you can save them.

Favorite quote (p. 145):

"No one stays suicidal forever. You either die or you get over it."

Cover Art: 3 stars
Title: 3 stars
Writing: 4 stars
Story: 5 stars
Characters: 5 stars
Ending: 5 stars

Overall Rating: 4 stars

~Lydia

Sunday, January 23, 2011

FEVER CRUMB / Philip Reeve


This book has got me so confused! Normally I form an opinion about a book in the first chapter, and yet this book has me still undecided after the last page.

Fever Crumb is an extremely rational girl who is abandoned as a baby and brought up by an eccentric but kind engineer. Set thousands of years in the future, the novel opens in the London ruins of a civil war. A superior race, the Scriven, have been outnumbered and ousted by the underdog humans.

Fever Crumb emerges for the first time from the protective bubble of the engineering world to become technical assistant to the illusive archaeologist Kit Solent.

On the journey there Fever's distinctive looks and mismatched eye colour rises the suspicions of the last of London's Scriven hunters, and they begin to follow her. The bookish Fever begins to realise how little she really knows about her own life. Is Fever really Scriven? What is Kit Solent hiding? And why does he seem to have been waiting for her?

The presence of an invading nomad army hovering on the outskirts of London soon ties all the elements of the story together. However, I did really have to force myself to preserve with the first half of the book and came very close to abandoning it. Although it's great that the characters and the setting are so unique and fresh I found them very hard to relate to and emphasise with. The language is playful but sometimes erred on the wrong size of irritating for me.

I was disappointed since I'd read some great reviews, but I had a real difficulty maintaining an interest in the story. Perhaps it's down to the fact that I read in short bursts a lot, or that I've never been crazy about science fiction.

Nevertheless, the ending is cleverly thought out and original and the action did speed up towards the end. Would still only really recommend to those lovers of teen science fiction. I know you're out there!

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Dragon Reborn - Robert Jordan

This is a review of the third book of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. If you haven't read the first two, I suggest you go do that, but only if you have no responsibilities in life at all. Don't pretend you can read this series and be productive. You can't. Learn from my folly.

One thing strikes me about every single book in this series I've read. As I'm reading the book, I have hundreds of niggly little complaints to air, but by the end of the book they're all gone. I can't go into much detail without ruining things, but the point is that if you have any spare time at all you should really read these books.

One of the things that really shines in every book in the series so far is the originality of the basic conflict. (The setting is great, too. See: the review immediately before this one.) In most epic fantasy series, up to and including The Fantasy Series, The Lord of the Rings, the conflict can be outlined as an ultimate battle between good and evil in which some magical widget is crucial to the outcome. In the Wheel of Time series, there is indeed an epic battle between good and evil, but the outcome is in no way dependent on a single magic sword. Or ring, for that matter. No, the fate of Robert Jordan's world rests on the fates of his main characters, who are central threads in the pattern woven by the Wheel of Time. I think this, together with the worldbuilding, is the reason why these books are so great. Jordan successfully extracts all the wonder involved in showing us around this new globe he's build while deftly avoiding the whole focus on a Great Battle Between Good and Evil and instead focusing on telling the stories of his characters.

...I can't even think of anything to criticize. Buy this book and the two before it; then put them in a safe till your next vacation.

________________________

Demerits Uh.
Merits Everything.

Verdict Can't be arsed to write this bit. Must start book four.

_________________________

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Great Hunt - Robert Jordan

This is a review of the second book of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series; if you haven't read the first one, I suggest that you go do that.


We pick up where we left off; the Dark one was bound in Shayol Ghul from the first moment of creation, and our hero Rand may or may not be the umpteenth incarnation of the Dragon, who opposes the Dark one. Or maybe he doesn't, I don't know.

This book was frustrating, because it was close to perfect. Robert Jordan was a hair's breadth away from creating something that could very well stand the test of time and become a classic, and he didn't, which makes his few mistakes the more irritating. I will only mention the good parts in passing, because if I described them fully I would break our sacred 60,000 word limit. Jordan's world continues to be realistic and original, and the plot develops the characters and is engaging while still avoiding dei ex machinae. All in all, The Great Hunt is a very natural continuation of the threads begun in The Eye of the World.*

Now for the Sins. Firstly, there's something that has bothered me since the first book. For the most part, we don't get any explanation of how the evil characters think, what their motivations are, or any indication whatsoever that they're anything more than cardboard cut-outs. Why is the Dark One evil? Why does he even exist? Why do the Trollocs and Fades serve him, and from whence did they spring? Why does he want to ruin the world? It is very possible that all these questions will be answered in later books, but there should at least have been some hints by now. I hate to be a one-string harpist, but Tolkien, who created the granddaddy of all black-and-white good-versus-evil books, gave the evil characters complex and real back-stories and motivations.

Secondly, I know I rave about the worldbuilding, but there is a discordant note in this symphony. Actually, there are several bits and pieces that don't quite seem to fit. The world seems to exist in a technological stasis that has been maintained for more than two thousand years, which strikes me as unrealistic. Also, the Seanchan from over the western sea have apparetly, as a society, been able to maintain a single purpose for thousands of years: to reclaim the lands of Artur Paendrag. Really? An entire nation devoted to a single goal for century after century? We Americans can't keep going in a single direction, politically, for more than a decade or so.

But enough of my complaining. The few flaws that there are do nothing to change the fact that that the fundamentals are sound.
_______________________
Demerits
: Two-dimensional evil characters. A few isolated things didn't make sense.
Merits: Everything else. Robert Jordan can join the very thin ranks of true high fantasy authors.

Verdict: A case of Poblano sauce with no milk.
_______________________


*Keeping your reviews spoiler-free is hard, man.

Monday, January 17, 2011

HOW THE HANGMAN LOST HIS HEART / K.M Grant


The wooden steps creaked as Dan sat down, his legs two solid logs in front of him. He found an apple in his pocket, inspected it and rubbed at the blood splatters. 'Bite?' he offered. Alice made a revolted face and he shrugged. 'I haven't had any breakfast yet,' he told her, basking in the feeling of a job well done. 'Never do, somehow, on execution mornings, although I make sure the wife gives me a good dinner after. Mutton pie tonight.

Alice Granville's determination to recover the recently severed head of her beloved Uncle Frank wins her an unlikely accomplice in the shape of his executioner, Dan Skinslicer. Uncle Frank has been declared a traitor to the English throne and his head is morbidly displayed as a deterrent. Alice drags Dan on a fast-paced and slapstick quest to steal back the head and reunite it with Uncle Frank's body.

As you can probably tell, this is a light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek read. Although my local library had it listed as a teen book the simplistic style, slapdash humour and blood n' guts gore would probably better suit the 10-14 range.

It's a fast read with likeable characters and K.M Grant's humour shines through in the ironic and ridiculous dialogue and narration. Grant saves the best lines for Alice's clownish and aristocratic relatives:

Lady Widdrington, hearing the rumpus, ordered Ursula to throw open their windows. She was fond of riots and this sounded like a good one. As Alice and Dan galloped by a second time, the old lady recognized them and waved. 'That's my girl,' she cried, imagining that she was at the racecourse. 'Did we have a gamble, Ursula?'

The language and style is fresh and imaginative throughout, and the ridiculous plot becomes part of the story's charm. Parts of the narrative did become repetitive and the sub-plots were a little disjointed at times, especially that of Lady Widdrington and her hideous wigs! The romantic storyline came across to me as inauthentic and out of place. Barring that though, this is a easy, charming and funny read for gruesome kids and the young at heart.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS by Stephanie Perkins

 Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
Young Adult Romance
Dutton Books, 2010


Blurb from GoodReads:


Anna is looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. Which is why she is less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris—until she meets Étienne St. Claire: perfect, Parisian (and English and American, which makes for a swoon-worthy accent), and utterly irresistible. The only problem is that he's taken, and Anna might be, too, if anything comes of her almost-relationship back home.


Oh, dear sweet novel, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways...

1. A viewpoint character you can connect with right away, feel concern for, and who you want to succeed. (She has a gap between her front teeth and she's a film fanatic. Win.)

2. Beautiful detailed descriptions of Paris without crossing into "boring, let's get on with it" territory. I felt like I was there.

3. An LI (love interest) who you can justify being an LI. Meaning, you want these two to be together in the end. You can see why they're a good fit. The romance is deeply justified, not shallow.

4. Supporting characters who each have their own unique personalities, their own issues, yet they do not overshadow the main issue at hand, the romantic tension between the MC and the LI. Every character in this book has realism. There are no cardboard cut-outs or unpurposeful stereotypes.

5. Subplots that make sense and feel relevant to the main plot.

6. Full of "take your breath away" moments. Too many to count.

7. A refreshingly natural writing style. Not over-the-top, or in-your-face, or being sarcastic for the sake of being sarcastic. The writing is fluid and easy to read.

8. High tension and fast pacing without leaving you exhausted from reading. You just feel like you must keep reading... one more chapter, one more chapter, just one more chapter... and then suddenly, you're done.

9. The pages feel like silk (not even kidding. That was the first thing I said to my husband when I started reading the book-- were these pages printed on silk? This is the silkiest paper I've ever felt in a novel. My fingertips are in love.)

10. The typeface adds to the overall adorableness of the story. How often do I mention page texture and typeface in a review? Yowza. This book has it all. The whole package is amazing.

I could go on. But then I'd give too much of the story away. This novel deserves every bit of the high praise it has received. And it's a debut! I cannot wait to read Stephanie's next two novels, which are companions to this one, and whatever she has in store for her readers down the road. She is definitely one to follow.

Cover Art: 5 stars
Title: 5 stars
Writing: 5 stars
Story: 5 stars
Characters: 5 stars
Ending: 5 stars

Overall Rating: 5 stars

I borrowed this book from the library, but I have put it on my "absolutely must purchase whenever I have the extra cash" list. Because I already want to read it again.

~Lydia

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Vladimir Nabokov/LOLITA

Back in the fall, when the American Library Association sponsored its annual "Banned Books Month," I told The Missus that I planned to participate by reading a banned book.

"Which one?"

"I'm not sure yet. But I think it's gonna be Lolita."

"That figures," she said, smirking.

A while later, I mentioned on my blog that I was well into the book. One commenter -- a woman -- said:
I don’t like to admit to many that I liked [Lolita's protagonist] Humbert in that weird and terrible way. I mean, I know he’s awful and everything. I know he is wrong, and I don’t exactly want him to win, but…

Let's pretend we've never heard of Lolita. So then what was going on here? Why might anyone have banned Lolita in the first place? Why would my wife say that it "figured" I'd select it, from among all the banned books which I hadn't read? Why would my correspondent hate to admit that she liked a fictional character, even an awful one, and why the "weird and terrible" disclaimer, and especially, what, oh what could she have meant by that "exactly"?

Enough pretending. Even if we haven't read it ourselves, and don't know the details, I think many -- most? -- reasonably well-read readers will know of Vladimir Nabokov's notorious novel. In brief (and please skip the following paragraph if you want no spoilers at all):

Late 1940s. Middle-aged Englishman who calls himself "Humbert Humbert" narrates the story. Humbert has a thing for young girls, between the ages of 9 and 14 and of a certain type: slightly built, most often blonde, flirtatious -- perhaps without knowing it -- but virginal (not necessarily in fact). He calls them "nymphets" (a term which Nabokov apparently invented himself, just for this book). Humbert moves to a suburb in the northeastern United States, taking a room with a young widow, Charlotte Haze. Discovers that Charlotte has an unconsciously seductive 12-year-old blonde daughter, Dolores -- "Dolly" to her mother, but dubbed by Humbert "Lolita." Humbert eventually marries Charlotte, expressly for the opportunities it may provide him to be alone with his stepdaughter. Charlotte is struck by a car and killed. Humbert takes off in his battered car, with Lolita, on a cross-continental odyssey during which he gets what he thinks he wants. Things turn out to be not so rosy, especially (although not exclusively) for the person whom Humbert ends up killing. The end.

Right off the bat, then, we have the ingredients to answer all those "why" questions -- the principal ingredient being: Humbert Humbert is a manipulative pedophile. In the mid-1950s, when Lolita was published, just saying the word "pedophile" in a non-clinical context was probably enough to make people recoil; placing one at the center of a first-person narrative back then probably guaranteed opposition to the book.

Nowadays, while we live in a nominally more "liberal" culture, "Think of the children!" may be a phrase which invites satire but pedophilia remains maybe even more firmly on the list of taboo subjects for conversation and even private reading. The Ick Factor is off the charts for everyone but its disturbed practitioners, regardless of our positions on the yardsticks of morality or politics; we simply know too much about the long-term consequences of the sexual abuse of innocents to find thinking about it at all "entertaining."

So how on earth could my friend claim that she -- she! -- liked such a monster, even in a weird and terrible way? Was it really necessary for her to qualify I don't want him to win with that exactly?

Um, well... yeah.

Because the thing about Lolita, especially because of its (theoretically more disturbing) first-person point of view, is the extent to which it summons empathy for the narrator. Almost none of us will share his particular lust; nearly all of us will know the experience of lusting, unhealthily, for something which is unhealthy in the first place. Humbert can no more resist his obsession for nymphets in general (or, of course, for Lolita in specific) than he can resist the urge to show off, verbally, bursting pretentiously and reflexively (for example) into weird esoteric words or untranslated passages of French whenever he feels the normal range of English doesn't suffice. In that range of yielding to uncontrollable impulse -- whether trivial or monstrous -- lie the rest of us.

And I think that's why we respond to Humbert. We don't want him to "win," to commit the sin or to get away with it, but we recognize the tug of the forbidden something. We don't him to win... but...

A note on the language: Nabokov, a native Russian speaker, sometimes complained about the relative clumsiness of English. But ye gods, could the man construct some beautiful sentences. I can't remember reading a book recently in which I highlighted so much. Here's one brief passage, chosen at random from midway through the book (it wasn't even one of my highlights):
She had entered my world, umber and black Humberland, with rash curiosity; she surveyed it with a shrug of amused distaste; and it seemed to me now that she was ready to turn away from it with something akin to plain repulsion.

The wordplay, the rhythms, the progression of meaning and tension from start to finish: if I could regularly construct sentences which so perfectly balanced all those elements, I think I could go to my grave a happy man. (As I said: we all have our unreasoning lusts.)

So do I recommend Lolita?

I never insist that people should read a book just because it's regarded (by critics or the public or, well, by me) as a "classic." With Lolita, maybe more than with most books, I'd think carefully before diving in. What's the threshold of behavior which you'll accept in your characters? Can you get past the nominal subject of a novel like Lolita? Are you after a quick read, or a book which will equally compel reading for a half-hour burst and then being put aside for an hours-long inner Hmmmm...?

Depend on how you'd answer those questions: that's the best advice I can give. I didn't find Lolita an easy book to read, and I'll probably never read it cover-to-cover again. But I'm very very happy, yes, happy that I have read it. And I can easily imagine dipping from time to time back into its (weirdly, terribly) bracing waters.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Robert Jordan: The Eye of the World

The blurb on the front of this book - at least, the edition I have - says that "Jordan has come to dominate the world that Tolkien began to reveal." This is a bad blurb, because it's misleading. If you go into this book expecting a modern Tolkien, as I did, you'll be disappointed and unhappy and will become cross. Even now, when I'm able to enjoy this book on its own merits, I am doomed to write this review by comparing it to the Lord of the Rings.

Robert Jordan seems even more unsure of his books's relationship to Tolkien than I am, which contributes to the book's lurching start. Like the Fellowship of the Rings, this book begins with a group of untraveled country folk led on a desperate flight from a dark lord by a wise mage, and there are a few moments that I could swear were copied from the Lord of the Rings frame by frame. In this early phase, even the worldbuilding (which later on is the strength of the novel) is clumsily done.

About two hundred pages in, Robert Jordan suddenly finds his feet and from then on the book is amazing. Like most fantasy novels, The Eye of the World can be judged by its setting, which is complex, well developed, and impressively not really Tolkienesque at all. Where the tales of Middle-Earth focus on an inexorable and slow fall from grace, Robert Jordan's world moves through a repeating cycle of seven ages. There are no grim men returning from the wild to lead kingdoms and find elven wives here, but there are men who were once kings wandering around killing Troll-things. And so on.

Along with their setting, epic fantasy novels live or die by their endings; since these types of books focus on some great and terrible evil, there are many unique ways for them to mess this up. Some sort of a magic power that the hero pulls out of his hat with no foreshadowing, the plot strangling itself through its own complexity, the Great Dark One Beyond the Ken of Mortal Man being killed in a brawl - none of these things happen at the end of The Eye of the World. What does happen is well-executed and satisfying without falling into the trap of obsessively tying up every single plot thread.

All in all, this is more than just a fun read, although it is that. Robert Jordan has written a book that adds to the lore of fantasy without being overly derivative. You should read it. (If you're reading epic fantasy, you should also read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and A Song of Ice and Fire, by the way.)
____________
tl;dr:

Demerits: Starts off thinking it's Tolkien. Stumbles a bit.
Merits: Everything else.
Verdict: Cake.

Sherwood Smith/INDA


Inda is the second son of a Marlovan prince. His destiny, to be the military commander for his older brother, who will succeed his father as prince, has been set for him since his birth, and Inda is shaping up to be a military genius in training. The summer he is ten, Inda is sent to the Marlovan capital city to train at the princes' academy with a crop of other noble second sons from around the kingdom. It's clear that war is on the horizon, because this training of very young boys is unprecedented. Threats are escalating from pirate attacks, neighboring nations, and most frighteningly, the mysterious Venn from the north. The young princes may be playing war games, but the pressure they feel to master the art of war is very real.

Inda immediately begins to shine as a star pupil at the academy, and to win loyal friends among the other second sons. But the royal city is a dangerous place, and adult politics trickle down quickly to the young princes. Inda and his friends, particularly the king's second son, are being targeted, by both older princes and by adults. When unthinkable tragedy strikes, the blame falls unfairly on Inda, whose life is upended in a most dramatic way.

Inda is the first book in a four-book epic fantasy series, and follows Inda from ages 10 to 16. It's not a Young Adult book--it's epic fantasy, written in the style of adult epic fantasy, and is certainly morally complex enough to read as an adult novel. I do think there is crossover potential, though.

The book is packed with rich characters and high adventure, battles, romance, pirates, politics, duty, and ghosts. There is very, very little magic, and to me it almost reads like historical fiction (albeit the history of a made-up world). I haven't read any other of Smith's books, but from what I've read about her oeuvre, her series are all set in different epochs of this world she has been building and writing about for the past forty years--in other words, a very richly developed and highly consistent premise.

Since I finished reading Inda in December, I've recommended it to (or bought it for) about fifteen different people, all for different reasons--there are many facets of appeal.

I confess that I found the first 50 pages difficult to navigate, just because of the many names (the characters all have titles as well as first names and family names, and just about 100% of them have nicknames, too). But on the advice of a friend I put aside worrying about all the details and kept reading--and am very, very gratified I did. The sheer number of characters becomes manageable as you get to know them all and see how their lives intersect, and Smith has such fine-tuned commitment to character development that I became rather emotionally attached to an awful lot of them. I would recommend this series wholeheartedly, and just advise readers with less exposure to/stamina for epic fantasy to keep plowing through the first 50 pages. Smith and her fans have also compiled online databases where you can see all the characters listed and grouped, if you are the kind of reader who is helped by visual aids. I do think the accessibility of the book is a flaw, but I hope it won't prevent readers from experiencing the richness of the story.

One thing I really appreciate about Sherwood Smith's world is how it scrupulously avoids the black/white good/evil hero/villain stereotypes that pervade the fantasy genre (think of almost all the big players, like Harry Potter or The Wheel of Time series). All of the characters in Inda, even the archvillains, are nuanced characters with complex motivations. Everyone is redeemable, which makes the adventure have much higher stakes, and the tragedy even more tragic. Because of the wide cast of characters and broad scope of the story, I realize my synopsis fails to even mention a lot of my favorite characters.

It's a complex novel, and I hope if you've read it (or end up reading it after this) you'll come back here and chat about it--I find it's hard to write up a concise review. But this is really special fantasy, and I hope if that's a genre of yours you'll give it a shot!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Jane Austen/PERSUASION

Anne Elliot, the second daughter of the struggling Sir Walter Elliot, is 27 years old the autumn her father is forced to move out of his house because he has run out of funds. The family is very ancient and has a very high opinion of itself and its connections, although reality is gradually setting in.

Eight years ago, Anne Elliot was pressured by her status-conscious family to reject the hand of the man she loved, a young naval officer named Frederick Wentworth. Unfortunately, the broken engagement wasn't as easy to recover from as Anne would have hoped, and she never received any other offers, and now it is perhaps too late. By a cruel trick of fate, Wentworth's sister and brother-in-law, Admiral Croft, are to be the new tenants in Anne's old home. It's inevitable she will have to cross paths with Wentworth--who is now Captain Wentworth, a wealthy man of very different fortune and standing--and be reminded of her weakness in being persuaded by her friends and family not to marry him.

This was my last Jane Austen. I'm not going to pretend to review this book, since I'm not an Austen scholar and don't feel like I belong in the conversation. So instead a bunch of tibits/impressions. I studiously avoided any media representations (eg avoided films, plugged my ears and sang "Lalalala" to myself during the part of Jane Austen Book Club when they read Persuasion, etc. I wanted to be fresh and open-minded. (Incidentally, it's also the first published novel I ever read on my Kindle.) I've intended to read it anyway, but this was also on my Fill-in-the-Gaps list.

I really enjoyed the read, although I will admit it is not my favorite among the Austens. In fact, now I can make a hierarchy of my favorites:

1) Pride and Prejudice, which in my opinion is just the richest and bears the most revisiting. I know it was Jane's favorite, so I think that's a good reason for it to be mine, too :)

2) Sense and Sensibility is my favorite story, with my favorite characters. I don't think the writing is quite as rich as P&P, but Jane was younger when she published it, and still had stuff to learn.

3) Emma, because (to me) it's maybe the funniest. So even though Emma herself is SO despicable, I still love her narrative.

4) Mansfield Park, because even though Fanny can be a real trial to read about, I relate to her on a lot of points.

5) Persuasion, which is many other people's #1 favorite. I see why--the more mature romance, and the history of having messed up one's own life offers nuance some of the other books don't--but, as my roommate has pointed out, Anne Elliot is an introvert, and maybe doesn't speak as directly to my personality as some of Jane's other heroines.

6) Northanger Abbey is the only one I really didn't enjoy. I don't like satiric novels and Catherine is insufferable. But hey! I'm still glad I read it.

And those are my random notes. Please feel free to tell me your feelings :) I'd love to hear them.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins


Not only are we in the districts forced to remember the iron grip of the Capital's power each year, we are forced to celebrate it. And this year I am one of the stars of the show.



Katniss Everdeen is once again fighting for her life in this nail biting sequel. Despite surviving the deadly Hunger Games against all odds Katniss and fellow tribute Peeta are far from home safe and dry. Their survival is a direct threat to the Capital which rules them, and the gamemakers are out for revenge.


Fearing for their families' lives, Peeta and Katniss are again forced to play their part as star crossed lovers in the Capital's games. Will this be enough to keep their loved ones safe? And will Katniss succeed in her plan to keep Peeta alive by sacrificing her own life?


The incredible Hunger Games is a hard act to follow but Suzanne Collins has maintained her distinctive adrenaline fuelled pace in Catching Fire. The sequel delves deeper into the relationships between characters, especially the twisted love triangle of Peeta, Katniss and her best friend Gale.


In any other situation Katniss would come across as a spoilt brat with the choice of all the cookies in the jar. Instead, her dilemma is a direct result of the controlling and manipulative Capital. Katniss's frustration at living a life restricted by others is one which I'm sure many teenagers can relate to.


The boundaries between friend and foe blur in Catching Fire, as Katniss struggles to hold on to her sense of who and what she is fighting for. Katniss's most endearing qualities are also her faults. She is stubborn, impatient, quick to judge and completely human. By placing this apocalyptic story in the hands of such a realistic character, Collins is able to question human morals without preaching. And more importantly, this is done without interrupting the fast paced action.


A must read if you loved The Hunger Games.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

MATCHED by Ally Condie

 Matched by Ally Condie
Young Adult Dystopian Sci-Fi
Dutton Books, 2010

I just finished reading this book earlier today, and it still has me spinning. So forgive me if this review comes off a little fangirl-ish.

The Society that controls Cassia's world (appropriately termed, the Society), is kind of freaky when you look at it from our modern point of view. But the people living in it, at some undetermined point in the future, feel it is... well, perfect.

All of the things that were shown in early studies to be good for longevity--happy marriages, healthy bodies--are ours to have. We live long, good lives. We die on our eightieth birthdays, surrounded by our families, before dementia sets in. Cancer, heart disease, and most debilitating illnesses are almost entirely eradicated. This is as close to perfect as any society has ever managed to get.

Which is all well and good. If you're a ROBOT.

But Cassia never questioned anything that was her "normal" until something "abnormal" happened. On your seventeenth birthday you are introduced to your perfect match. Your future significant other whom you will have children with and share the rest of your life with whether you want to or not.

The story begins at Cassia's Match Banquet. And I don't even want to tell you what happens, even at this early part of the story, which is just the tip of the iceburg of awesomeness. I honestly want you to discover all these things for yourself along the way, as I did.

Things happen quickly for Cassia from that day forward that make her wonder. You're not supposed to wonder about things. When you wonder it leads to questioning. When you question it leads to desire. When you desire it leads to impulsive actions...

I knew nothing about this story when I started reading it, other than that it had received a lot of praise from online reviewers, and that it had something to do with a so-called perfect society where people are genetically matched for optimum health in their offspring. That's it.

So it was a pleasant surprise to read this story and be amazed with each turn of the page, full of intensity and emotion and unexpected twists. I couldn't devour it fast enough.


Cover Art: 5 stars (beautiful and clean; relevant)
Title: 5 stars (snappy; relevant)
Writing: 5 stars (refreshingly crisp and easy to read; no fluff or overwriting)
Story: 5 stars (romantic tension at its finest. and the rest is simply amazing)
Characters: 5 stars (realistic and relateable. wouldn't want any of them done any differently)
Ending: 5 stars (even though you are left hanging a bit because this is the first of a series, the ending is still superb, in my opinion)


Overall Rating: 5 stars (obviously. but I wish I could give it more)


~Lydia

Monday, January 3, 2011

Sarah Waters/ FINGERSMITH

Hello! This is my first review for The Book Book so here goes...

I had never read Sarah Waters before and--I feel I must be honest--I've never read any Dickens. The friend who gave me Fingersmith seemed to think this might make it difficult for me to enjoy the book, but I had no such difficulty. As other reviews have noted, Waters does a wonderful job of sewing period details into the story without ever letting the seams show or making you feel that she is merely showing off.

The story revolves around two young women with highly unusual upbringings: Susan Trinder, an orphaned thief, and Maud Lilly, born in a madhouse and raised by her uncle in the requisite mildewing, creepy house we expect from Gothic novels such as this. Both women were interesting, complex, and likable characters.

As some of you may have already suspected, there is a lesbian romance in the book. As a Waters' novice, I wasn't looking for it, but early on I found myself hoping that the two women would end up together. I think this speaks to the genuine, natural development of their relationship. This provides the sweet and hopeful core of the story.

I will resist saying more because the back of the book sort of ruined some of the twists in the plot for me. Thankfully even if you have a tendency, as I do, to try and fish out the twists before they come, you can still enjoy the ride. One caveat: if you read too slowly, you may find the story drag at times. Devour it in a week, and you'll feel satisfied.

This book is a Gothic treat: there are madwomen, murderesses, creepy gloves, reedy walks, wicked plots, twisted caretakers, and one rotten house. Curl up on a rainy day and revel in it, knowing that the end will leave you feeling as warm as a cup of English tea.