Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Review: The Pawn

"Daxton offered me his arm, and I had no choice but to take it."

Pawn (Blackcoat Rebellion #1)
Aimee Carter
346 pages
goodreads link

Rating: 4.5


I was bored, the kind of bored where nothing really seems appealing. I figured a nice YA dystopia would be just what the doctor ordered and I'd heard decent things about Aimee Carter's other books. Take a tyrannical government, marinate it in an oppressive system of rules, add just a pinch of science fiction, garnish with romance and serve on a bed of rebellion. Yum.


I stayed bored. There are other flaws, but that one is the most egregious.

Kitty lives in a future dystopian Washington, DC. America is essentially a monarchy and all citizens are classified according to a standardized test they take at seventeen. It dictates where the live, where they're allowed to go, what their jobs are, etc. Kitty's smart as hell, but she's majorly dyslexic, so her test doesn't go too well. She turns to prostitution, but instead gets picked up by government officials who tell her she'll be rewarded if she agrees to help them out. Kitty agrees, only to find out that by "help out," they meant be surgically altered to take the place of the prime minister's niece so no one finds out she's dead. Politics ensue.

It's not the most novel concept, but more has been made out of less. Unfortunately, it reads like Baby's First YA novel. Everything is shallow, there's no nuance or subtlety. At one point, a character sits down and spells out the titular chess metaphor for anyone who anyone who might have missed it (get it, a pawn can become a queen if she makes it across the board!). The politics are a little too juvenile be plausible and the antagonists are way, way too obviously evil- I mean, seriously, the prime minister can't just be a dictator? He has to hunt humans for sport too? My eyes nearly rolled out of my skull when I read that.

For the first time in my reading history, I wish Carter hadn't avoided the obvious love triangle, because at least it could have introduced some passion. Kitty herself isn't half-bad- I love a protagonist who makes logical, reasoned decisions- but her loyal boyfriend is blander than dry pasta.

Carter does get points for a few major twists that I honestly didn't see coming. At each one, I thought "oh wow, this is it, it's going to get interesting now!" But then...it wouldn't. Those sparks of light never really caught fire. In her defense, I think the biggest (and best) twist is likely to be addressed in future books, which would have been fine if this book was compelling enough to keep me waiting around for the sequel.

There's probably more I could describe about some of the side characters, the "My Fair Lady" portion of the story, but...I just don't care. I have no idea why this book is earning such high ratings. Some things were better, some things were worse, some things were more engaging, some things I wanted to end so we could move on. I read it, it passed a couple hours, it ended. Carter's ideas made for a good foundation, but I wish someone else had built the actual house.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Review: Hyperbole and a Half

"Maybe everything isn't hopeless bullshit."

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened
Allie Brosh
369 pages
Summary Link

Rating: 9


This will be the funniest book I own.


This is now the funniest book I own.

I was introduced to the perfection that is Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half comic/essay blog a couple years ago. I'm not a big blog reader, particularly not of people's personal blogs, but my friend Joyce sent me the link to The Fish Story while I was at work. Joyce apparently wanted me to get fired, because this is not a story you should read at work. It's not a story you should read anywhere near other people, in fact, because then you will have to deal with them staring at you. They will be staring because you will be laughing a bit too much and it will alarm them. I laughed so hard I cried, sitting at my very public desk, making undoubtedly ridiculous noises as I tried (and failed) to be hysterical as quietly and unobtrusively as possible.  

Humor is a tricky thing to explain, but whatever it is, Brosh has it in spades. She transforms the moments of her life into hilarious illustrations that I wish I could plaster around my room. However, silliness isn't the only quality offered here. Brosh brings truth as well, the kind where you say "oh, yes, that's it exactly! Finally someone figured out how to explain it!" Sometimes that truth is also silly ("Clean all the things? No...internet forever!"), but sometimes it's deeper. As strange and non sequitur as this sounds, if I was trying to educate a person about depression, I would suggest to them two texts: one would be Andrew Solomon's Pulitzer prize-winning tome The Noonday Demon, and the other would be Brosh's illustrated essays about her own personal struggle. She perfectly captures what it feels like to be depressed, while still managing to imbue it with a wry humor. If that's not an incredible skill, then I don't know what is.   

In physical book terms, this is a well-constructed book. The art is obviously more condensed than it appears on the website, but it's not too small and she did a good job on the layout. There's a good mix of old material from the blog with some great new stories (Brosh breaks down the exact content on the site). It's definitely worth the money. 

The only reason I didn't rate it a perfect ten is because it doesn't include the fish story. 

[In blog-related news, I've finished a horrific two-week cycle of exams at school, and thus should have a more regular schedule of posting from now on!]

Friday, October 25, 2013

Pick Three: Vampires

It's almost Halloween. Let's talk vampires!

Here it is: Stephen King's Salem's Lot is the best horror novel. I don't just mean the best vampire book, I mean of all the stories of monsters and murders and evil that stalks the night, this is the best. No "vegetarian" vampires consumed with angst here; these are old school vamps. The kind that lurk outside your window in the dead of night and tap tap ever so softly, begging to be let in. The kind you think of when the pine tree outside your window goes tap tap on the glass and you sit up in bed all night with the light on, waiting to be devoured. It's fantastic horror and it's a fantastic story.  

I know I just made fun of contemporary vampires, but I'm a product of the '90s. While I might despise the "sparkly" variety, I'm no purist either. My vampires wore trench coats, fought crime, and brooded. Christopher Pike's The Last Vampire series was a staple of my middle school life. A powerful, ancient female vampire killing baddies and trying to overcome demons from her past? With the added bonus of Hindu deities? What's not to love? The series has subsequently been reissued with less...colorful...covers, but Christopher Pike without neon just isn't right.

I know, I know. Hear me out. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, is a great read. Grahame-Smith hasn't just peppered someone else's story with "and then vampires attacked". He's done the research and worked through a compelling alternate-universe...that just happens to involve blood drinking. Vampires as slave-owners makes so much sense that I'm surprised I hadn't seen it used before. This is one of those rare books that my mother, my father, my younger brother, and I all enjoyed.

And those are my three quick picks for vampires books! I considered doing the same for werewolves, only to realize the sole werewolf-involving book I've ever read is Twilight. Ouch.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review: Vicious

"You can't kill him."
"That may be. But half the fun is trying."

Victoria Schwab
368 pages
Summary Link

Rating: 9

+50 points to Slytherin


I've been reading a lot of books blind recently. I had added this to my "to read" pile a while back, but now that I've gotten around to it I don't remember why. I know it possibly involves evil superheroes and two enemies trying to destroy each other. Which is, frankly, all I need to know to make me ready to love it.


I try not to abuse the highest ratings, because then they lose their power. But Schwab's Vicious made the cut. This book deserves a full-length review and usually I know what I want to say, but this time I can't figure it out. "Fully developed characters," "gripping story," "great writing," "immensely satisfying," &c, &c. It's all true, but boring to spell out. There are some books that are good, and then there are books with that little extra something. That hook. You feel it as you read, that this one different. This one is better than the others.

For me, that realization came when I was reading a specific passage explaining the downward slide of one character for normal girl to, well, casual evil. Schwab wrote in such a way that I got it, I felt in my bones how tragic it was, how easy and inevitable it would have been.

This is a book about bad people but some of them are worse. Bad people, old foes, brothers-turned-adversaries. Villains. And you're drawn to them anyway. I found myself grinning along with Victor before wondering just what the hell kind of a person that made me. You get swept up in the mission and forget that morality should be involved. It's just so delicious, the idea of power and revenge. I'd like to say I worry I'd be exactly the same, but I try be honest with myself in all things and worrying implies uncertainty. Vicious knows damn well that we'd all be exactly the same.

Monday, October 14, 2013

'Tis the Season: Halloween Thoughts

I've started getting invitations to Halloween parties, so I'm of a mind to think about spooky things. The scariest book I ever read? There are two answers for this. One is genuinely a great horror novel (and I'll talk about it in an upcoming post on vampire books) and the other, well...

Sometime during my young teen years, I was at sleep-away camp deep in the woods of West Virginia. Being the kid I was, I had of course packed a bag full of books, and being the strange kid I was, they were all horror books. I think I even lugged Stephen King's The Strand up there with me. In hardcover.

My version did not have this cover.
I'm not sure why I thought this was a good idea. I was a pretty anxiety-ridden child and sleeping in the dark in the woods already terrified me. Sleeping in the dark at home terrified me too. I'd like to say that my love of literature was stronger than my fears, but I'm pretty sure I was just plain stupid. I found myself reading Watchers by flashlight, an old '80s Dean Koontz horror novel (back when he could still write a good yarn) about a Frankenstein-esque murdering monster called "The Outsider" and a super-intelligent friendly dog. We're not exactly talking Man Booker Prize here, but it's a gripping enough tale (~of terror~).

One night, I wake up and have to go to the bathroom. We're supposed to use the buddy system, and given that it's the woods at 2 am, I would have peed on the floor of our cabin before going out there alone. So I woke up my best friend and dragged her off to the bathrooms. Nothing untoward happened, though we did have a minor freak-out about a moth the size of our heads. It wasn't until we were walking back that something went CRASHING through the woods off to our right. We clutched at each other and rabbited back to our cabin like the hounds of hell were upon us. Certain of our impending deaths, I practically leapt all the way up to my top bunk without touching the ladder (everyone knows the people on the lower bunks get murdered first). Eventually, when The Outsider failed to come crashing through our flimsy screen door, my heart rate descended from "tachycardia" to "brisk jog" levels, though I'm not sure I slept at all.

I do, however, remember that I didn't stop reading my horror novels. I just switched to The Stand, because a plague couldn't sneak up and dismember me in my sleep.

And that's how Watchers ended up being one of the scariest books I've ever read.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Review: Perfect Ruin

"Would the people of the ground think Interment is a paradise, or a punishment?"

Perfect Ruin (Internment Chronicles #1)
Lauren DeStefano
356 pages
Summary Link

Rating: 7


I liked Wither, DeStefano's first book, though I didn't love it. I thought her second book was much stronger, but I wasn't invested enough in the characters to finish the trilogy. I wasn't especially excited about this new book, particularly because the blurb feels so generic- girl in dystopic society, tries to live quietly in her planned out life, meets dangerous new boy, predictable drama ensues. I expected a CW teen drama TV show. I've been sick all weekend though, and bored with my other reading options, so I decided to give it a whirl.


It's rare that a blurb makes a story look worse, but this one did. Against all my assumptions, Perfect Ruin is a jewel of a book.

Everything written in the summary is technically correct. Morgan Stockhour is indeed a teenage girl living in the floating sky-city of Internment. Her life there is generally calm and pleasant, with her best friend and her betrothed, but Morgan can't quite let go of thoughts of what must lie on the forbidden ground far below. Then a murder rocks the city, Morgan meets the boy who stands accused, and is drawn further into the secrets of the city.

I was pleasantly surprised when DeStefano avoided the cliches I assumed were coming, particularly the oh-so-obvious love triangle. Instead of taking a bite out of that poisoned apple, she decides to build believable characters with multifaceted relationships. The people don't feel like macguffins there to move the story forward or add romantic drama, they feel like people with histories whose decisions are motivated by their pasts and personalities (you know, like real people). Plus, I felt an inexplicable love for the bizarre-yet-wonderful duo of characters appear in the final quarter.

(I speak, of course, of the Prince and Princess. Maybe it's because I just watched a bunch of The Legend of Korra, but I could not help constantly imagining them as Desna and Eska, despite their objectively being nothing alike. On the other hand, they are both kind of insane, have a weird conversational style, and always hang out together...perhaps a preppy version of them?

You will take me to your rebel machine.

The exceptions to this are an antagonist whose act of villainy happens too abruptly, and a "dystopia" reveal that happened too unexpectedly (before, I would have categorized this as utopic). They could have been worked out better, and frankly, Internment didn't really need to get dystopic. It's already an island you can't leave, and social/religious mores mean you can't even talk about leaving. That's sufficiently negative without sacrificing subtlety and nuance. We didn't need to be beaten over the head with a literal government conspiracy forcing us to agree that one side is The Bad One.

The true strength of Perfect Ruin, though, is in its prose. It reminded me a lot of Lauren Oliver's Delirium, another story carried by the beauty of its writing. Like in Delirium, DeStefano succeeds in making you feel the emotions of the main character. Morgan is haunted by the fear that their world might be too small, that she'll one day go mad like her brother and try to jump. She's worried that it's never going to be enough. DeStefano also deftly interweaves the story with the religious beliefs of Internment's inhabitants, how they pray to the God of the Sky to keep them safe and tell stories about figures like Micah and his Boat of Stars. There are words here that go right into your heart; I kept using the highlight feature on my kindle.

It's altogether possible that it's too similar to Delirium- Morgan talking about the edge and her brother could have been Lena talking about love and her mother- but I didn't mind.  The writing is simple and moving and lovely, and it elevates the whole book above most others in the same genre.

Thus, unexpectedly, I'm now upset that I'll have to wait for the next book in the series. Yet another thing to add to my release date calendar.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review: The Thousand Names

"Can you be haunted by someone who isn't dead?"

The Thousand Names (Shadow Campaigns #1)
Django Wexler
528 pages

Rating: 8

+25 points to Hufflepuff for normalized inclusion of a gay character and non-western culture.


This might be the first time in my entire life I read a book without even glancing at the blurb. I literally had no expectations other than what I gleaned from glancing at the cover. A dude with a desert cloak and some swords? So umm...a high fantasy story about some sort of arabian assassin/warrior who has to save a kingdom by overthrowing evil? I went into The Thousand Names almost completely blind.


Oh boy. Oh boy. Usually when you stumble around in the dark, you end up banging your shins and swearing. But sometimes you turn on a light to discover you're in a treasure-filled cave.

The Thousand Names does indeed involve a desert and some kingdoms, but that's about all I got right. Khandahar (read: the middle east/north africa) is in an uproar due to a recent religious uprising. They expelled the unbelievers, their old royalty, and the Vordanai Colonials (read: europeans). But a new Colonial colonel has arrived lead the army to retake Khandahar and reinstate the former government. The narrative alternates primarily between Captain Marcus D'Ivoire, who heads up a Colonial garrison, and Winter Ihernglass, a rank-and-file soldiers just trying to get by without anyone finding out she's secretly a woman. There are also some snippets from one of the Khandahari leaders to give a taste of what's happening from their perspective. It follows them from battle to battle across the country, into more and more complicated personal and political situations, and ultimately toward some strange magics.

Wexler's choice of narrators is absolutely perfect. When dealing with a story involving grand armies and politics, it's easy to get lost, but he's has brought the story down to a personal level. The plot is intriguing and clever, but it's carried on the shoulders of the characters. The writing is so clear that I know these people. None of them are one dimensional or lost in the mix, not even the side characters. Wexler doesn't even neglect the back-story.

It was also an inspired decision to have the main characters not be, well, the Main Heroic Characters. That probably needs clarification, so here goes: Marcus, while certainly a senior captain leading up the army, isn't the guy in charge of everything. That's the fantastic, enigmatic Colonel Janus (who reminded me of Terry Pratchett's Patrician Vetinari). Winter, while smart, capable, and qualified, isn't some sort of graceful, "blades flashing in the sun" warrior woman. She's just a scrawny soldier with some brains, trying to escape a difficult past and a lover she left behind. They're just people. It reminded me a lot of Joe Abercrombie, a favored author of mine, though without the grimdark "the world is full of fucking ugliness and bastards" tone; just a story about some people trying to get by in a rough world the best they can.

I love these people. All of them, even the total bastards and the ones I just knew were secret spies and sorcerers. I have opinions about them that I want to share. I want to introduce them to my friends. I found myself caring about battle tactics because they cared. I realize I've strayed into gushing instead of reviewing, but I can't help it. I'm sure there are flaws (the first few chapters are too in-media-res and it took me a while to get oriented and invested), and sequels will reveal if Wexler can handle the genre shift from this sword-and-sorcery soldier's tale to the epic-fantasy toward which he's building. But I'm just too damn glad I found this book to care.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Review: What's Left of Me & Once We Were

"We'd been born with our souls' fingers interlocked. What if we'd never let go?"

What's Left of Me (Hybrid Chronicles #1)
Once We Were (Hybrid Chronicles #2)
Kat Zhang
343 pages & 352 pages

Rating: 6 ; 6


YA dystopias may be my jam, but that doesn't mean I love all of them. I've read dozens that I've promptly forgotten five minutes after I turned the last page. It's kind of what I've come to expect. I had slightly higher hopes for What's Left of Me, mostly because I loved the premise. It has a certain high-concept charm. But I wasn't holding my breath.


It's nice when a story comes along that actually sticks with me. 

What's Left of Me introduces us to Eva and Addie, two souls living inside one body. In their world, everyone is born with two souls, but they're supposed to "settle" and have one soul fade away during early childhood. Addie and Eva never settle; Addie becomes dominant and takes control of their body, but Eva is still there, a secret voice inside her head. Their AU-version of America only allows the single-souled, and hybrids considered a dangerous threat. Addie and Eva spend fifteen years hiding their status, until befriending some fellow hybrids who teach Eva how to assert control again. Unfortunately, they end up getting caught.

First of all, Zhang totally pulls off the premise. The world works. She doesn't go too deep into explaining things, but provides enough to paint a clear picture. The plot is simple, but solid. I liked that she kept it small- no one is trying to save the world, they're just trying to save themselves. It works on a believable level. Nothing about this book overreaches or tries to mask weakness with epic plot or melodramatic romance.  

Zhang also manages to competently juggle a number of characters, most of them living inside the same body. They all had their own unique voices; I felt like if I were living with all these people, I'd be able to tell them apart. I liked Eva and Addie, who are fairly realistic teenage girls, without any particular talents or specialties beyond finding their own courage. Heck, I even kind of liked the main male characters and their relationship, and that's usually where I get the most critical.

What's Left of Me doesn't have towering heights, but it also doesn't have any lows. Overall, Zhang's written a good, steady book. 

(I'm going to talk about the sequel now, but only in general terms. So no real spoilers, but if you don't even want to know any vague plot points, stop reading now!) 

Once We Were picks a month or two after the first book ends and asks "what do we do now?" Eva and Addie learn more about how to function as hybrids, with all the difficulties that entails- particularly with regard to relationships. They also start wanting to do more than simply hide. 

Some reviewers have been referring to this book as "filler", which might be true from a plot perspective, but it's not from a character development perspective. Eva and Addie have to deal with feelings about their own (lack of) bodily autonomy and grapple with questions about morality and rebellion. This book is about their growing up. Plus, the plot felt realistic- they're a bunch of teenagers, the best they can do is fight the only way they can, even if it doesn't actually change anything on a macro-level. I do grant that the pacing in the first half could have been quicker.  

I also wish we had gotten to see more of Addie- though both books are narrated by Eva, this one seems a bit too heavily focused on her. Also, Lissa and Halley strangely disappear as main characters. We did get some new people too- some of them felt extremely under-characterized (I know nothing at all about Emalia, Cordelia, or Warren), but others captured me right away (I want more Sabine and Josie!). I think Zhang's writing is improving too; the addition of a few short, poetic dream sequences really made the story shine. 

I know it's not for everyone, but I'm a big fan of books dealing with teenagers and terrorism. Once We Were reminded me a lot of Animorphs or The Tomorrow War at times, asking those sorts of difficult questions. What are you allowed to do to fight for freedom? Does there have to be a right time? How far is too far? Zhang does a good job depicting Eva and Addie's struggle to find answers, without coming off as overly certain that there is one absolute right answer. 

Between the two books, Zhang has earned my respect. With any luck, the third book will be out next year.