Friday, May 31, 2013

Switched by Amanda Hocking

Book 1 of The Trylle Trilogy
Synopsis: Wendy has moved to a new town, but there are already people who are far too interested in her. After she meets another new student, Finn, her life takes a turn into another world. There she finds she has another (non-human) family with some high expectations of her.

Like a lot of avid readers, I have a To Read list and I make an actual effort to get to those books. I also have a passel of web bookmarks that are essentially a To Read If I Live Long Enough to Get to These list. I had heard about Amanda Hocking, the e-publishing darling, and put her on the latter list. Honestly, I misremembered her name as Jennifer something so it's really just dumb luck that I saw the final book of this trilogy on the shelf and went in search of the other two. After reading some other similar trilogies set in a supernatural world with teen heroine and two hot alpha males pursuing her, I was thinking I was done with this formula for the foreseeable future. The writing tends to be mushy (as in soft, like fan fiction) and the characters are underdeveloped and overdrawn to the point of caricature. Although I wish I could say Trylle is a huge exception and my faith in YA fantasy is restored, I can say that I hope this is the beginning of an upward trajectory in quality.

Switched leads off with a difficult teenager who can't seem to stay in school or in any one town for long. Wendy Everly and trouble are joined like a chain gang. She's not a bad kid, but her unlucky streak is taking a toll on her and her family, which consists of her older brother Matt and aunt Maggie since her mentally unstable mother tried to kill her as a child. See, unlucky.

Stealing Harper by Molly McAdams

Synopsis: Bad boy meets good girl and acts like a lunatic. Good girl wisely dates bad boy's best friend. DRAMA all over the place. Seriously, people die and stuff.

Sometimes you wish you had never met a book. Like unseeing something horrible that is now seared on the backs of your eyelids so that you see it even with your eyes closed. This review is helping me exorcise this book from my mind, though, and I am so done with this sadistic author. I was by turns, engrossed, repelled, aghast, infuriated, and just boggled. That's a lot to go through for a novella of around 150 pages. I didn't realize this is a companion story to Molly McAdams' previous novel, Taking Chances, which tells this story from Harper's point of view (an excerpt was included in my copy). There were allusions to people and happenings that I believe are more fleshed out in that first book and made reading Stealing Harper feel like I started watching a movie from the middle. Anyway, it's not rocket science and I caught on. Who couldn't since this is hardly Romeo and Juliet. These kids make Romeo and Juliet, amazingly stupid impulsive teenagers, look like wise, dignified Nobel Peace Prize winners. I can only pray that people this neanderthalic exist only in McAdams's imagination.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Last Word by Lisa Lutz

Synopsis: Isabel Spellman is now owner of her family's private investigation firm, which her parents intended for her...someday...and not in a hostile takeover. This means war and the Spellmans do that in their own special way.

Is this "The End"?

I am confused.

If you've read any of the Spellman books, that last sentence will be very familiar. I feel very one with Isabel right now. When I heard the next Spellman book was called The Last Word, I had a sense of foreboding. Was it going to be the last word about the Spellmans forever? After reading blurbs and Lutz's website, I felt better. It is only the "latest" installment. But then I actually read the book and it sounds like it is The End. Clearly, I was psychic and should have had faith in the cosmos. I can appreciate going out while you're still at the top of your game, but I'm going to miss the crazy folks of this series.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Thorn Abbey by Nancy Ohlin

Tess starts at a new school, an exclusive boarding school, Thorn Abbey. She's a smart but poor kid who looks like she is never going to fit in with the scions of the elite. Then she connects with her new alpha-girl roommate and a tragic golden boy. These two were closely linked to a recently dead student named Becca. Strange things start happening to Tess and she begins to wonder if she is losing her mind.

I have to stop having high expectations of books based on their summaries. I may have squee'd like a fangirl when I saw that this was based on Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I had such hopes for this. Those are now crushed like so much dust. I admit Rebecca is a tough act to rework successfully. It's a novel about dark obsession and it is so atmospheric. Nancy Ohlin adapted the bones and guts of the original fairly well, but the spirit is disappointingly not there. The characters are decent, but they're not deep enough to sustain the creepiness and the am-I-going-crazy aspects. Tess is sweet and naive, as she should be, but her infatuation with Max is a little...childish. As in, Tess sees Max for the first time in class, and thinks:

"OMG, He's hot. He's looking out the window and brooding. He must be deep."

And then at the end of class,
"OMG, he looked at me for two seconds, he might like me! I'm in love!"

At which point she runs up to him and starts saying random things. So random that he outright tells her she is strange. This is rude but makes more sense than she does.

To say this is idiotic behavior for a freshman in high school is an understatement. Tess is almost backward in her boy-craziness. I might get this, barely, if she were in, say, middle school. It's lazy characterization and plotting, and it is not in keeping with the rest of her personality. Tess is at Thorn Abbey because she's academically gifted. I like how intelligent and articulate she can be and I love that that is why the nice guys are attracted to her. In fact, her awkward social interactions are more a result of the collective drone thinking than her ineptitude. Fortunately, her backbone solidifies and her brain switches on, at least when it comes to interacting with other people.

I wish I could say the same for Ohlin's take on the main thread of the story: dead Rebecca's grasp on the living. Where Ohlin was taking the action was apparent from a football field away. I get that teen readers aren't into subtlety, but the twists and turns are so obvious that letting the characters catch up is painfully tedious. If even the atmosphere of the original was there, it would have made up for the slooooooow characters here, but there is zero creepiness. Instead, Ohlin takes this all paranormal, which is an easy out in explaining what has been going on. The end really wraps things up too tidily and forces a happily-ever-after that won't really work in the long run. The resolution makes a mockery of trauma and grief just as the plot did with obsession and malevolence. Take those away and the story is a shell with no heart. Even if you don't relate Thorn Abbey to Rebecca, everything is just kind of flat and lifeless, perhaps with the exception of the romance. That part was actually quite lovely. It makes me think that if Ohlin hadn't bound herself to the plot of Rebecca, she could have created an appealing story that could breathe with a life of it own instead of being a shadow of a far better work.

Erasmus Hobart and the Golden Arrow by Andrew Fish

Middle school teacher, Erasmus Hobart, creates a successful time machine. He travels to medieval times to meet Robin Hood and see if he really existed. Erasmus bungles his arrival and unwittingly upsets the legend-in-progress, dangerously changing history if he can't put things right. Swashbuckling, thieving, and a lot of running ensues.

Andrew Fish's literary hero is Douglas Adams. That is either a cause for concern or celebration because it either boils down to utter pain or mild joy for the reader. I am so pleased to say that Fish mostly succeeds in his goal and I hope he continues to mine that vein for some time.

If you are expecting similar subject matter to the Hitchhiker books, you're out of luck. However, if you have an open mind about what can be done with the flippant, yet laser-like insight of Adams, you're in for a good time. Fish's hero, Erasmus Hobart, is a middle school history and physics (little mind-boggly there) teacher at an all-boys school in present-day England. He's a product of the system and has a weary affection for the antics of his prepubescent students. As a former bullied child, he takes smug pleasure in thwarting the swaggering sandwich-smashing upstarts, sometimes with a well-aimed board eraser, while also trying to teach the hapless victims not to further their miseries with kick-worthy comments. I took a lot more glee in these bits than I probably should have - in America this screams litigation - and the book is full of these kinds of small incisive details that creates instant empathy with the characters.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Legacy by Cayla Kluver - Book 1 of The Legacy Trilogy

Alera, heir to the patriarchal kingdom of Hytanica, is coming of age to marry and be crowned queen. Her father has chosen his successor, Steldor, and will abdicate as soon as Alera weds. Being a traditionally-raised girl, Alera tries to comply with her parents' wishes, but her instincts keep getting in the way of her good intentions. At the same time, a nearly twenty-year stalemate with the belligerent, matriarchal Cokryi nation is falling apart as an ancient prophecy's reckoning draws near.

Hytanica, the setting for this series, is a medieval-ish city-state. According to legend, the country is protected by a magical sacrifice performed by the first king. There doesn't appear to be any magic in Hytanica other than that legend, though. The country has a chauvinistic philosophy (women defer in everything to the men including submitting to beatings, men are protectors, all women should aspire to be devoted housewives, blah, blah, ugh), conservative social mores (modesty in dress, strict adherence to manners, knowing your place), an agrarian economy, a reluctance to change, and a state religion (thinly veiled Catholicism). A recurring theme is chastity, which I thought was brave and unusual in a mainstream YA novel because it actually plays a key role in the plot and it's not preachy in the least. Of course, chastity is in keeping with temporal setting, but it's handled logically and not judgmentally. Kluver's ability in peeling back the layers that make up teenage thinking and feeling is uncanny. Her insight into her characters' behaviors rings so very true to their established personalities and how people that age feel.

Alera, as the Hytanican heroine is interesting because she is in keeping with her times for the most part. She's not assertive or particularly sharp - her foresight is pretty pitiful on a couple of occasions. Thankfully, the first-person voice narration saves her. She may not act like the gung-ho girl heroes (but neither is she a snively clumsy damsel-in-distress) I've come to expect in this genre, but her thoughts tend to be independent, wanting to reach her own conclusions and get at the truth whenever she can. I respect her thinking and motivations and that's the way she earns her way into your heart. Alone, her personality isn't that appealing. Her main redeeming qualities are wanting to do right and learning from her mistakes. As far as I can tell she has no hobbies, no real friends besides her younger sister, no great skills at anything. In retrospect, that's not that strange, right? We're supposed to identify with her and if she's too specific, it's harder to get there. She even appears sort of nondescript with brown eyes, brown hair, not small, not big, not sweet, not mean.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Scrap by Emory Sharplin

Synopsis: Tucker, leader of a troupe of orphans in a small town, meets an unexpected benefactor at the bakery where she works and steals. The benefactor is a mysterious girl her own age who belongs to the court of the cruel ruler, Ibis. Ibis is enchanted and practically immortal, but he has a lost daughter that he has been trying to find for thirteen years.

Orphans and stealing. Tyrant and magic. Gypsies and royalty. It's a grand world Emory Sharplin has imagined. The beginning grabs you and unfolds the story beautifully. The initial world-building (in some indeterminate time with tunics and horses and beheadings) is decent with just one element of magic - a charmed bracelet - that gives a hint of things to come. There were a couple instances of vocabulary use that didn't mean what the author was intending. It gave me a hint that the author was fairly young and a little digging revealed that she is all of seventeen. In retrospect, this bit of extra information didn't help me enjoy this book. I was more impressed with the writing and fairly controlled structure. The pace was okay and the story was logically progressing. Then some things started jumping out at me: the dialogue, the characterization, the utter lack of internal conflict/inspection. All of these pointed to pretty untried life experience. The characters are mostly in their early teens, so maybe that is all well and good. Accurate even. But then there is no sense that anything that the kids do is a product of their thinking or ability. They're just crazy lucky. And that's when what promise the book had withered.