Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Selection - Kiera Cass

This, my friends, is an extremely odd book. The combination of YA, dystopia and what is basically The Bachelor creates a book that seems like it should be bizarre but is oddly readable. I got curious about it when I was working at HarperCollins and it was going to be the big hot thing. Obviously interested, I grabbed a copy when I could get a chance.

The Selection takes place in an America of at least a few hundred years in the future. In this new land, the new prince of country must take his queen-to-be from one of the common people, an idea of uniting royalty and nation. These girls are picked from random from each of the remaining states and sent to live in the palace as they slowly get whittled down, reality show style. 

The other significant part of the plot is that, in this dystopian society, there is a sort of caste systems of Ones, Twos, Threes all the way down to Eights (the homeless). Each person is born into their caste and it's very hard to move in and out of them. The Threes and above pretty much have it made while the lower classes have to work very hard for food and the like. 

Our heroine, America Singer (I know), is a Five, the artist class, making her a (can you believe it?) singer. She earns her money performing at events and parties but is also in a family of seven, helping to earn their keep. Secretly, she is also in love with the boy next door who happens to be a Six (oh no!), the servant class and much below her. Not that our plucky America cares.

Now, obviously or this book would be quite short, America gets picked to represent her area in the Selection and is whisked away to the palace to court Prince Maxon (along with thirty four other girls.) Of course, she doesn't really care about winning the prince's heart so much as earning money for her family (there is a generous compensation awarded to the girls' families) and just eating some good meals at the palace. But when she actually gets on quite well with the prince, will she find that she might truly want this?

What I liked about this book is that it was more than it appeared. There are hints at an underground war being fought and secrets behind the government that could bring down the nation (there are no history textbooks, the subject only being taught orally and rarely.) I'm really quite intrigued to find out more about this country that Cass has created because it actually sounds interesting. 

Along with that, America is actually a quite likable character. Although I detest her name, her personality is well written and relatable. She's a good female lead, if I'm a bit annoyed with her random love affair with Aspen, the boy back home. She's plucky and high spirited but she also doesn't mind wearing a pretty dress once in a while. That's my kind of girl.

The character that I surprisingly liked the most, though, was Prince Maxon. He was adorable! Not used to women and clearly enjoying getting to spend time with a bunch of pretty girls (but in a little boy in a toy store way, not a letchy way), he just stands out as the one character that doesn't have an ulterior motive. He genuinely wants to find a wife (if not just a friend) and wants everyone to be happy. He may not be as dashing as Aspen but he was sweet and I liked him.

The Selection is not a book for those that hate the very idea of The Bachelor and such but it's definitely for someone that likes a good dystopia. It has girly elements but at its heart, it's a story of a messed up world and some young people that are just trying to find their place in it. I'm looking forward to the next one and think you should give it a try.

Monday, 25 June 2012

The Marriage Plot - Jeffrey Eugenides

I don't know about you guys but do you ever have a novel that you're completely into, devour quickly, and then look back and wonder what you actually thought about it? Like maybe your brain was in a different place while you were reading and now, on the other side, you're not quite sure what you think. These are my feelings on The Marriage Plot.

The book follows the lives of three Brown college graduates: Madeleine, Mitchell and Leonard. Madeleine is an English Major, in love with her troubled boyfriend Leonard and the ideal woman for her freshman year friend Mitchell. The book explores the lives of the three while they navigate a first year out of college.

Let me just say that the first bit, set on the day of graduation is spot on. Told mostly from Maddy's point of view, it is amazing how perfectly Eugenides captures being an English major. I mean, I know he was one (at Brown, no less) but reading something that is just so perfectly reflective of your own life experience is always a treat. Name dropping Derrida and Eco, making fun of people who think they know so much about author intent and mentioning the blasphemous but ultimately true motivation of all English majors (that we just want to read stories) really just hit home. I ate it up.

His characters, as well, are wonderfully fleshed out. Maddy, although our heroine, does have her weak spots. She is a bit too privileged and a bit too quick to pass judgement. Mitchell (my favorite character) is a religious studies major who isn't religious so much as just curious and undergoes a transformation in both spiritual and mental areas. Leonard, Maddy's biologist boyfriend, spends most of the novel being described more than observed but when his chapter comes, he becomes a larger than life character as well. All three main characters, as well as various side characters like Maddy's family, were as real as if they graduated in my class.

That's why the thing that really stood out to me did so. All of this supposedly happened in only one year. While I know that it's possible for all the things that occur in the novel to occur in that course, it just seemed highly unlikely. Having been out of college going on three years, myself, I can say that, although I may be more Mitchell than anyone else, I found it hard to believe that characters could grow, change and just live that much life right out of college. Maybe it was different in the eighties. Maybe I just never knew anyone as dramatic as those three. But I still found it a tad bit hard to swallow. Not while I was reading it, of course; while reading, you just nod and accept and move along. It's after you put the book down and you realize how quickly time passed that you really start to question. It's like when you realize that Romeo and Juliet took place in the course of about three days. Too much in too little time.

The other thing that bugged me (and this is just a little thing and just me, I'm sure) were the references that Leonard had to Portland. Now, I'm from Portland, as is Maddy's boyfriend, Leonard. However, in his chapter where he referred to his childhood and growing up in Portland, he made quite a few references that, while technically real places and people, were not the way someone from Portland would actually refer to them. No one calls the Blazers the Portland Trailblazers. No one includes 'at Waterfront Park' when they're talking about the Steel Bridge. Little things, I know, but something that brought me out of the book. Oh well. I can't blame Eugenides for not growing up in my hometown.

All in all, I quite enjoyed the book. I wish there was a bit more focus on Maddy's work and her growing interest in Victorian fiction. And I wish it spanned a bit more time. But the writing was exquisite and the characters relatable and real. Recommended, especially for all you old English majors.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

A Storm of Swords - George R.R. Martin

The thing that really annoys me about reading these books is that I have to be super careful with my reviews. Although this book was published in 2000 and normally I would just warn you about spoilers, now I have to be super careful because most of this won't be televised for another two years. So if you're one of these people that only watches the show, I'm just going to say it now: it will be impossible to review this book with no spoilers. Look away now.

Are those people gone? Good. Let's get onto perhaps the most complex Game of Thrones novels yet, A Storm of Swords.

Now, I had the pleasure of reading the two volume edition, Steel and Snow and then Blood and Gold. I think it was quite nice reading a long novel broken into two like that. It lessened the load, especially having to carry it around in your purse like I do. I would much rather two five hundred page novels than one one thousand page one.

What I loved about Storm of Swords was that it really changed the game. I will try my best to avoid naming names but I just have to say that Martin has no compunction about killing off main characters in this book. There were several times I had to go back and reread sections because I couldn't believe what I had just read. Had that really happened? No, surely. Oh dear.

The Red Wedding, in particular, was entirely hard to take. I can't say that I had been expecting any of it but it was masterfully handled. The entire sense of dread and uneasiness that you couldn't quite put your finger on, followed by the complete surprise as the plan unfurls. I had to honestly put the book down for a few seconds so that I could absorb what I had just read. It was a powerful scene and one that will stick with me, I think, for awhile.

What I think is impressive, as well, is how the second wedding scene of the novel in no way seems lessened by the Red Wedding proceeding it. The second wedding is one that we've been waiting for for awhile and it added a sense of importance knowing what had happened to the other "joyous occasion" we had previously read. I loved finally reading what had been built up over the course of two books and then being punched in the gut by its ending. Who expected that? I surely didn't. And as badly as I wanted to react to it on Twitter, I managed to restrain myself.

The other thing that I really enjoyed about Storm of Swords was the new narrative voices that we got. Firstly, hearing from Sam Tarly's point of view was lovely. He had always been a well liked character and although I saw how it was necessary to switch to Sam, now that Jon was separated from the Night's Watch, I liked that he was the one that was picked. What a lovely place to be, Sam's mind.

Most intriguing, however, was the chapters from Jamie's point of view. The Kingslayer had been a major figure of mystery for two books now. Suddenly getting his perspective was unexpected and very well played. It was really interesting to hear his own feelings on Cersei and Joffery, his position at court, what his role was to play, and how he truly felt about his nickname. Although Arya is undoubtedly my favorite, I think my favorite bits from this novel were the scenes between Jamie and Brienne. Although I'm not stupid enough to hope for anyone's happiness, I do hope for some more scenes between the two of them in future books. They are a great pair.

Overall, this may have been my favorite book so far. It's a behemoth, to be sure but it's worth it. Go on! Get reading!

Monday, 18 June 2012

Insurgent - Veronica Roth

Remember how I said I hadn't read Insurgent yet? Well, that was a lie. I managed to squeeze a little time in between parts one and two of book three of Game of Thrones. (Yeah. Yeah.) Not to mention that the book reads ridiculously fast. It's definitely something you can get through in a few hours.

Insurgent picks up literally right where the last book left off. Tris is on her way out of Abnegation Territory and headed who knows where while still reeling from everything that has just happened to her and everything she has discovered about the world she lives in. Suffice it to say, things are not going to get any easier for her.

I had the disadvantage before reading this to be working in the Children's department of HarperCollins and helping manage a blog contest for the Insurgent release. While, of course, the job was amazing, having to read thirty plus reviews of a book I meant to read before I could even touch it was super hard and put expectations in my head. I don't want to do that to you but I do want to address some things that I had read over and over in all the other YA blogs.

Firstly, I want to talk about Four. There are such differing opinions on him! Some reviewers think he is heaven come to earth. Others think he is a controlling bastard. I went into the book knowing there were conflicting views and have to say, the people that called him controlling are very much in the wrong. I'm not saying he's a perfect little daisy (I would not date him, if we're being honest. But I wouldn't be Dauntless either, so there you go), but what you really have to look at when reading is how he acts in relation to how Tris is doing. 

You see, Tris isn't doing that well in this book. If you've read Divergent, you know that she went through a lot in the last fourth of the book and is obviously now going to have some issues. What you might not realize as she had been so badass in book one, is that she is still very much a young girl and doing what she had to do is going to scar anyone, let alone her. She reacts badly, to say the least. Is it understandable? Yes. But blaming Four for his reactions seems odd to me. If I were in his shoes, I'd act the same. That's just the truth. He had reason to worry about Tris and he did. End of story.

As for Tris, well, she was getting a tad bit on my nerves, I have to admit. While I do admire her tough, go-get-em style, she does grate on me a bit as too Sometimes I feel like her character is too much a reaction to the pansy heroines of earlier YA (coughTwilightcough) and goes too far in the opposite direction. While I want to like her for being unique in not being some sort of perfect action girl, I guess her flaws are just the kind of things that would make me dislike her in real life and that's a bit hard to get over. 

I don't want this to sound like a negative review, though. It isn't! The plot is really well thought out and interesting, twisting and turning from moment to moment so that you really don't know which way is up. Part of the reason it reads so fast is that you sit down and don't realize you've read forty pages until you look up. It pulls you in and doesn't let you go until it's good and ready. I do really enjoy that.

The other unfortunate thing about reading the reviews, though, was knowing that there was some big twist at the end that no one wanted to spoil. Now, I'm not going to spoil it either, obviously, but I do want to say that if you're aware there's a twist and you're reading carefully, it's not going to be that much of a surprise. It is an interesting direction to take the novel but it is not very shocking as there is appropriate lead up to it. I would like to think that if I wasn't looking for a twist, I would have still seen it coming. Is it a good plot point? We'll see in future books. Is it surprising? Not especially.

Should you read Insurgent? Yes, yes you should. The series is turning out to be super original and interesting, a fun take on a slightly overdone genre. Plus, with the first two titles being Divergent and Insurgent, aren't you just dying to find out the title of the next? Convergent? Resurgent? Non-urgent? Detergent? We'll just have to wait and see.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Divergent - Veronica Roth

As the long-anticipated sequel to Divergent came out last month (and sits unread on my window sill, thanks to Game of Thrones), it seems only right to write up a review that probably should have been posted oh, I don't know, last year.

Divergent tells the story of a girl named Beatrice who lives in a dystopian version of Chicago. This new world has divided itself into five factions: Abnegation characterized by their selflessness, Candor known for their penchant for telling the truth in all situations, Erudite who value knowledge above all, Amity who promote kindness and Dauntless who think only the strong need survive. Each child has a brief test before their sixteenth birthday where they find out which faction they are most suited for and, in a brief ceremony, decide upon their new home.

Now, Beatrice (who will go by Tris for most of the novel so I'll switch to that) has a very different experience. When she undergoes the test, she is told by the now very distressed tester that she is Divergent, meaning that she has the traits of more than one faction. She is warned that she must never tell anyone this fact and has a very tough choice to make at her faction choosing.

I'm not going to say any more than that about the plot. I've really only told you the first two chapters or so. The reason I'm keeping my mouth shut is that I knew next to nothing about the book when I started it and I think that's a good way to go into it. The world that Roth has created is so new and imaginative, not knowing the basic plot made me keep guessing all the way up until the end. It's nice diving headfirst into something with no prior knowledge. It keeps you on your toes.

Suffice it to say, this is another one of those dystopian YA novels with a strong female heroine. They seem to be all the rage these days. However, I kind of like this trend. Not only is each dystopian world completely unique and inventive, I will never deny anyone the chance to portray girls as strong characters that are heroes in their own right, not relying on a man or love interest to save the day. Tris does not need anyone to watch her back. She is strong, even to the point of being cruel sometimes. She is definitely no little girl that needs saving. I wouldn't go so far as to say that she is a good role model for the young girls that are reading these novels as there are aspects of her that annoy me. However, the fact that she can be a flawed character does add to her charm. Not to mention the lessons she is teaching girls. Go out and save the world yourself; you don't have to wait for your sparkly supernatural boyfriend to help you.

Divergent has lots of twists and turns that will keep you reading until you reach the last sixty or so pages where you will find it hard to put down. The end is completely different from the rest of the book and so intense that you won't be quite sure what you're reading until it's over. The ending is one hell of a cliffhanger which is why I'm glad Insurgent is waiting on my bookshelf for me to pick it up. Can't wait to find out what happens next.

P.S. My friend Katrina recently reviewed Divergent (and has a yummy recipe to go with it!) Check it out here!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife - Mary Roach

As you are all aware by now, I'm super interested in horror movies and science fiction. What you probably don't know (but wouldn't be surprised to find out, I'm sure) is that I'm also completely fascinated by the supernatural. I love anything spooky but hands down, one of my favorite things in the world are ghosts. I don't know what it is about ghosts that appeal to me: their need for a backstory, the idea that life goes on after death, just the genuine spookiness of the idea. All of it has drawn me in since I've been young and to this day, they are probably one of the top five things I am interested in.

Now, I have my own beliefs about ghosts, obviously. You can't have been studying up on them since you were five and not have an idea of what you think about them by now. But I'm sure most people haven't done as much in-depth research as young!Molly has and for those of you, I recommend Spook.

Spook is Mary Roach's second book after the well-received Stiff, a novel about the body after you leave it. Spook takes the other side of that coin: what happens to you after you leave your body. 

Mary Roach is super endearing as her books always seem to be about something she was vaguely interested in but knew nothing about so she decides to do a whole ton of research and follow it with a book. I love that approach. Normally, you get books written by people who are experts in their fields and while yes, it's nice to get information from someone you know you can trust on the topic, it's refreshing to read a nonfiction book written by someone that started off knowing as little as you did. It makes the narrative of the research much more appealing and personal, pulling you into it.

Not to mention that Roach is a genuinely excellent writer. She packs what could be a dry expose on spiritualism into a fun and witty adventure through the various ideas and theories people have had over the years. I spent a good portion of my time reading it chuckling to myself and reading portions of the book out loud to whatever friend I happened to be with at the time. I'm sure it was quite obvious I wasn't doing the work I should have been doing in the library.

From ectoplasm to psychics to ghosts to EVPs, Roach tackles all sorts of different ideas on what happens to you when you die. It's a fun journey and one that I would happily read over again. I haven't checked out any of Roach's other books yet but I fully intend to. She's a wonderful writer that makes science fun. Proving, I suppose, that that's possible.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

A Clash of Kings - George R.R. Martin

And so the saga continues. A Clash of Kings is the second book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series and a bigger monster than the first. Not that they're going to get any shorter as we go along.

It picks up literally right where the last book left off, exploring the aftermath of the conclusion of the first book. Can you tell I'm trying not to be spoiler-y? This is going to get harder as I go along. Although it seems odd to be worried about spoilers when this book was originally published in 1999. Oh well.

Anyway, the kingdom has become even more split as time goes on and now there are three/four/five (depending on who you count) claims to the Iron Throne. And most everyone has an army on their side. It's no surprise that the epic finale of this novel is a giant battle. It was only a matter of time.

Now, one thing that is very different in this book than the first is its focus. Game of Thrones was all about political double crossing and court rumors. Now that there are tons of people claiming the throne, it becomes a lot more focused around war. Which is to be expected. However, it did make it harder for me to read because, if I'm being honest, I get really bored with battle scenes. Although I know they're necessary, it's very hard for a writer to portray a battle scene with enough intensity and skill for me to actually be able to picture what is going on. If I can't picture it, I get bored and skim. To sometimes disastrous results, such as missing a major character's death. 

I'm not saying that Clash of Kings isn't good. I definitely raced through it, although I did hit a point in the middle where I got a bit out of it. It's just that I'm not in it for the big battles. I'm in it for Jon Snow up at the wall, for the continuing adventures of Arya Stark (does she not have the best storyline?), for cheeky Renly and awkward Stannis face-offs and weird friendships between the Hound and Sansa Stark. All of that was in Clash of Kings and I'm grateful. I just want more of that and less of epic chapters depicting a battle I could only vaguely picture. 

Although if you want to stick Dany in more confusing labyrinthine magic houses, I'm down for that. Because that was awesome.

Clash of Kings is definitely as intriguing as the first, just more about war than Game of Thrones. Which is understandable as they are heading (at?) war time now. And I know it will only get worse. I'm currently 100 pages into Storm of Swords and so far, so good. Characterization please, hold the battle scenes.

Monday, 4 June 2012

A Confusion of Princes - Garth Nix

This book was picked up not so much because of the plot but because it was a new book by Garth Nix. Garth Nix's book Shade's Children was one of my favorite books growing up and I've read it probably fifty times, each time getting something new out of it. It's a very well done science fiction dystopia in a time before they were the popular thing to do. And here he was, with a new science fiction novel out, hopefully just as interesting as his others. I was pumped.

A Confusion of Princes follows a main character named Khemri, a "prince" of the realm, which really just means that he is pretty much a genetically modified human that now has authority over parts of the galaxy. There are thousands of other princes around and each has to fight among themselves to try and become the next Emperor when the current one retires. 

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how to describe the book. There is just so much going on. Nix has created a very elaborate science fiction universe with rules and regulations and dangers. The mark of a good science fiction universe is that it doesn't have to really be explained; you just absorb it as you read. I can say that there were marks of that in Confusion. This world was so complex, from the princes to the priests that served them, to the strange hierarchy and confused hidden world to the rebels that you didn't even know existed until halfway through the book.

But therein lies the problem: Nix has created a ridiculously in-depth world but he doesn't allow himself time to play in it. There is so much potential in Confusion but he rushes through it to his hasty conclusion. Confusion could have easily been a trilogy. It's even nicely divided up into three main sections as you read. Hell, the back cover informs you that this is the story of Prince Khemri's three deaths. If that isn't the invocation of a trilogy, I don't know what is.

I was constantly impressed by how real this world creation was but the entire time, I knew that this was a one off series and I couldn't understand how we were going to reach a satisfactory conclusion with so much to be explored. I'm not saying that the plot wasn't entertaining; it was actually a really well thought out hero's journey narrative with enough twists and turns to make it a really interesting read. The only problem was that it went too quickly through it. I wanted more of him learning out to be a real prince, more of him learning about the rebels and more interaction with the antagonists. It just read as wasted potential.

I don't want to put you off Garth Nix completely because he's a very interesting writer who uses very original ideas to create elaborate worlds to play around in. Shade's Children, which I'm sure I'll write on at some point, is one of my favorite novels of all time. But this was not one of his greatest works. It had potential but it just didn't live up to it.