Monday, July 29, 2013

Caged Warrior by Lindsey Piper

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I read this concurrently with Avery. Given the similarities in violence and depravity and my general unlikelihood of reading such themes, it is a strange coincidence. While it might have been tempting or even involuntary to contrast them, each book stood quite independent and enjoyable in its own right.

While the gladiator-like violence and harsh slave culture won't be for every reader, Lindsey Piper creates something beautiful in the midst of darkness. She renders relationships and characters organically - the changes are slow, real, understandable. While the action propels the characters toward a goal, it's really about Nynn and Leto.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Deepest Night by Shana Abe

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I read The Sweetest Dark in order to read this book, which was helpful factually but not emotionally. I despised a primary character in the TSD and if I hadn't known that person, this book would have been even more enjoyable. Even forgetting the tinge from TSD, I found TDN's plot a bit hard to follow. It's an epic adventure compressed in too short a time frame, I think. A sprawling tome wouldn't have been too much in this case. Despite the rushed quest, TDN's strength is in the more complex feelings Lora develops as she comes more strongly into her powers. Without the distraction of novelty, she seems to consider more aspects of a given situation than she did in TSD. She is also more in control of her actions, although there is still an overarching lack of choice since something from Book One is still dictating from afar. Lora was a great character in the first book with lots of spirit and smarts, and Abe builds ably on that strong foundation. She gains more dimension and depth, as does Armand, Lora's ally, who is well-fleshed out in an appealing, realistic way. The other relationships established in the first book also take on nuance, mostly through Lora's wiser perspective. Her main female friendship particularly tickled me with its bite and sweetness.

It saddens me that I kept thinking that the two books of this set could have been something brilliant without said hated character. Lora is her weakest and most passive with that person as her actions (without that noxious influence) in this book attest. She truly comes into her own here in a way that wasn't fully hers in TSD. She bears the triumphs and the burdens of her choices and they make your heart ache in that involuntary way with characters who earn your affection. So while the plot isn't perfect, the characters make this well worth a read...just skip TSD. You'll never miss it.

The Sweetest Dark by Shana Abe

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Given the number of YA books I've read this year, it's takes a lot to stand out from the paranormal/love triangle/angsty crowd. TSD has the distinction of its setting - WWI England - that gives the formula a little more interest. Unfortunately, Abe doesn't really do much with it other than the faintly Victorian attitudes about social interaction and the uneven availability of electricity. Otherwise, the characters and plot follow the trend of a plucky heroine, Lora, whose latent powers are summoned through the tug-of-war between two beautiful boys, one blond and one brunet. As any YA reader worth her salt knows, the guy with the opposite hair color as the girl will prevail.

Predictable is forgivable. YA is a guilty pleasure for me so I'm not looking for surprises. Still, would it kill an author to write a thoughtful, plucky girl? Is that oxymoronic? Teens are emotional, okay, but something between the ears can help make actual sense of the drama once in a while. I would like to see a girl function with a normal amount of faculties without merely being tossed from one emotional, impulsive wave to the next. Usually by a questionable male, no less. SMFeministH.

My other problem, and with this book in particular, is Lora's total lack of agency. From the moment of her birth, her destiny has been written. Okay, it's a magical world, such shit happens. But it's Jesse who sets the immediate action in motion via WORLD WAR. That's sick, fiction license or not. Lora is briefly aghast at the means by which he has called her, but if she has any kind of soul, I see years of psychotherapy in her future. That's a horrible burden to leave her with. Although Jesse is meant to be a benevolent character, the level of manipulation and the imbalance of power/information triggered low-level nausea whenever he appeared, which is most of the time. In the book he's 17, but in my mind his character felt like a much older and inappropriate age for Lora.

Despite these abysmal and all-too-common flaws, Abe does create a decent plot and smooth reading. I pretty much read it in one sitting. Lora is an orphan who begins at an exclusive school as a scholarship student. She uses her street smarts, sharp tongue, and stiff spine to fight off undermining fellow students. Lora is a lovely mix of humble and proud, gracefully handling those that believe someone of her status doesn't deserve dignity. Other than her semi-idiotic trust of Jesse, she is an exceptional girl-woman character. The other female characters were all well-constructed and unique. Maybe Abe is awkward writing men. I also didn't quite buy the world Abe built, but that just may be a personal bias - twists on old mythology are harder to swallow than the paranormal worlds of late. I have a few of her adult books set in the same world that I'm about to begin reading, so I reserve judgment there.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Dance of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin

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Dance of the Red Death is the conclusion to Masque of the Red Death, which re-imagined Edgar Allan Poe's story of the same name. At the end of Dance, I looked up when to expect the next book and was surprised to see that this is it. The story does reach an endpoint of a kind, but I was definitely left wondering how at least three important characters' fates were going to be resolved. 

This is not one of those books that can be read without reading the first one. Dance picks up immediately after Masque. Do not even check out excerpts. I started Dance without reading Masque as it was an ARC and I wanted to review close to its publication date. The first line totally reels you in, but there is too much backstory and entanglements in Masque to try to proceed without it. This turned out to be no chore at all and is an excellent investment of your time if gothic angst and adventurous comings-of-age are your thing.

I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined) by Chuck Klosterman

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Chuck Klosterman writes for The New York Times as "The Ethicist" and is an all-around pop culture guru. Given these two facts about him, it's no surprise that Black Hat is thoughtful, irreverent, and a little subversive. The book is a series of essays dissecting the magnetism of villains. His running mantra is that the villain is almost always the person who "knows the most and cares the least." It's a sticky and pithy phrase that the book tries to prove by examining an assortment of famous and marginally-famous people who are revered by some as villain-hero. On some levels, Klosterman really hits his marks. His self-analysis of his semi-irrational hatred of Rick Helling makes himself the villain, but also the most likeable reflection of him in Black Hat. His strongest arguments for the paradox of villain-worship draw parallels of ideas we are repulsed by, like the 9/11 hijackers, with situations that we can admire on some level, like D. B. Cooper's strange coup. Overall, Klosterman gives his readers some ideas to chew on, certainly on the complications of embracing the evil, which very well might be within. His ideas that appeal to the universal in human nature strike the right notes, but the latter essays veer a bit off the path he meticulously set out in the beginning. At the very least, that phrase is something that will probably pop into my mind whenever I consider the bad guy.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Avery by Charlotte McConaghy

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Avery is about what love hath wrought, for good and ill. The people of Kaya are love-matched in pairs and when one soulmate dies, the other also does. Ava, a young woman, loses her mate, Avery, but somehow eludes death. Feared and rejected by her people as a freak, she devotes herself to avenging Avery's murder by the bloodthirsty Queen of Pirenti. Kaya and Pirenti have been at war for years with no end in sight. The Pirentis are a warrior people in a harsh, hateful society and the Kayans are in every way opposite to them. When Ava is captured by a Pirenti prince, she is sentenced to a island gulag known for its prisoners' drastically shortened life expectancies. En route, the ship sinks and Ava and one of her captors, Ambrose, wash up on the island. Annnnnd cue the boy hates girl, girl hates boy storyline.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin

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Edgar Allan Poe would be pleased by Bethany Griffin's wonderfully gothic riff on his classic tale of madness and immortality. Griffin sets Masque of the Red Death in a vaguely Victorian age. A plague called the Weeping Sickness has ravaged the population with the poorer lower city hit hardest. The ruler, Prince Prospero, has fled with other aristocrats to a nearby fortress where they party while unrest festers in the city. Araby Worth lives with her parents in a luxury high-rise in the relatively safer upper city. Araby's father is the scientist who created the face masks that filter the plague for the uninfected. His status has made him a saint in the eyes of the people. Araby's life would seem blessed but for the death of her twin brother, Finn. Araby's survivor guilt has crippled her life and her relationship with her mother, who wasn't living with the family when Finn died. Araby's coping mechanism is to shun her parents and get high at the exclusive Debauchery Club with her best friend and neighbor, April.

The Girl Who Loved Camellias by Julie Kavanagh

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Marie Duplessis lived for 23 years in the early-1800's (the timeframe of Les Misérables). She grew up abandoned, hungry, exploited, uneducated, amoral. She could do an honest day's work but would do anything for anything in the streets if it paid better. Not exactly a shining heroine from history, her sad story might be a shrill fable for the young and female to adhere to social norms. How wonderful it is, then, that Julie Kavanagh has uncovered so much more about Duplessis than the stark tragedy of a young woman who shouldn't have had a chance but became immortal through art.