Saturday, August 31, 2013

And I Am Outta Here

I Am Number Four
by Pittacus Lore
Published by HarperCollins
1 Out of 5 Stars

You know the most suspenseful, well-written part of I am Number Four? The cover: "Three are dead. I am number four." Pretty kick ass, huh? I certainly thought so, which is why I read it. Now I wish I had just left it on the shelf and let the power of those two lines remain my only association with the novel. 

I'm about to point out several flaws to which many people will say, "Yeah, but it's young adult fiction." To them I say that just because a novel is labeled as "young adult" doesn't excuse sloppy writing, simplistic plotting, and stock characters that make the cardboard cut-outs of Will Ferrell at the local movie theater look three dimensional, complex, and full of depth. There is some damn fine young adult science fiction out there (I offer The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins or theChaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness as prime examples of intelligent, well-written young adult fare), but I Am Number Four should not be listed among them. 

The initial premise is that Number Four (aka John Smith) is an alien from Lorien who, along with nine other children, was sent to earth as a small child to escape the destruction of his planet by the Mogadorians. The plan is for the children to survive and later return to repopulate the planet. Knowing the Mogadorians would hunt the children down, they are bound together by a charm that prevents them from being killed out of their numeric order. When one of them is killed, a spiral scar is seared into the leg of the remaining Loriens, signaling the threat level to the next in line. So far, so good. This is, unfortunately, when the whole thing starts falling apart:

1) Lorien was a planet that was being destroyed by pollution and mistreatment of natural resources by its populace. Fortunately, before it was too late, the Lorien people got their collective act together to save the planet. As a thank you, the planet gave powers known as legacies to some of the citizenry. These legacies begin to manifest as a Lorien becomes a teenager and, guess what?, if you save your planet right now, you don't just get one superpower, you don't even get two superpowers, you get a whole shitload of superpowers! These include hands that glow like flashlights (lame), the ability to communicate with animals (meh), a fireproof body (getting better), invisibility (now this could be something worthwhile), and telekinesis (Yahtzee!). The overt environmental message here is blatant and didactic: save your planet and your planet just might hug you back by giving you some really cool shit.

2) Not every Lorien receives powers. Those who got the planetary shaft in this deal became known as "cepans" whose job was to train and protect those with legacies. Why? If you have magic powers, why do you need a bodyguard? When the Lorien nine were sent to earth, each was given their own cepan to help raise and protect them until their legacies became evident. This makes a little more sense, but also raises the question of why didn't they send young adults whose powers had already matured to earth? Instead, Lorien is basically destroyed by the Mogadorians and the fate of the Lorien race is put on pause while they wait for their saviors to stop drooling and shitting themselves. Apparently, "intelligence" was not one of the legacies bestowed upon the Loriens. 

3) There's not a single authentic character in the entire novel. John is bland vanilla-ville. He complains and whines his way through the novel. Sarah's sweetness is gag-reflex inducing and, despite the inevitable romance between the two, there's absolutely no chemistry. They seem to have fallen in love in the span of 5 nanoseconds and then spend the rest of the novel swapping the vapid sweet-nothings typical of a couple in a Valentine's Day commercial for Zales. 

4) For two people who have spent the last several years hiding and trying to survive long enough to return to Lorien, John and his cepan, Henri, seem intent on getting their asses handed to them. They both know that the three other Loriens have been killed, they know the Mogadorians are closing in, and they know John is number four. So what do they do? John openly uses his powers and draws more attention to himself than a neon light outside a strip club, Henri goes and stirs up a nest of Mogadorians in a town two hours away, etc. However, do they get the hell out of Dodge? Nope. John manages to convince Henri every time that he's tired of moving and he's finally in love, concerns that are legitimate IF YOU'RE NOT FREAKIN' NUMBER FOUR! I would think all of these would take a backseat to the fact that John's number is literally up. 

5) Simplistic writing with only the vaguest descriptive touches. The one that really killed me was "It's a great house. A classic family home with bedrooms on the second floor, an attic where one of her brothers has his room, and all of the living spaces - the living room, dining room, kitchen and family room - on the first floor." What teenage boy has walked into a house and thought, "You know, this really is a classic family home? I love the layout. Very traditional." 

6) A flaw unrelated to the book: I've seen the movie previews and noted that Timothy Olyphant plays Henri (I won't lie--this, too, initially drew me to the book). Dear God, do not let this connection forever ruin Raylan Givens for me. 

I could go on, but I won't. Basically, the author has taken equal parts Superman, X-Men, and Twilight, blended them together in a concoction as delightful as swill and served it with a heaping side-order of teenage angst, a la "I feel so out of place and no one understands me. Maybe it's because I'm really different. Special. And not the short bus special, but really special special." Having said all of this, pre-teens and teens may love the book--in fact, many of my 10th grade students think it's the most awesome thing ever. I'm in favor of anything that gets them to read, but this is too predictable for most adults or teenagers with more literary sensibilities.

Friday, August 30, 2013

They're Back . . .

Curse of the Spellmans
by Lisa Lutz
Published by Simon & Schuster
3 1/2 Out of 5 Stars

3 1/2 stars for this one.

Curse of the Spellmans is the sequel to The Spellman Files, a novel about an unconventional family that runs a private investigation firm. I really enjoyed The Spellman Files--it's light, amusing, and there is an inventive quality to the narrator, Izzy Spellman's, manner of conveying her story. Because of her training as a P.I., Izzy tells us everything in the form of case file reports and transcripts of secret recordings. What worked for the first novel lost some of its quirky charm for me in the second novel simply because I expected it. However, that is not to say that I didn't enjoy Curse of the Spellmans, because I certainly did.

Izzy Spellman is now 30 years old and has spent half of her life working for her parents' private investigation firm. Because she was exposed to this lifestyle in her impressionable years, Izzy is pathologically suspicious of everyone and everything, and she lacks the ability to compartmentalize her work life and her personal life. With skills like surveillance, lock picking, on-the-spot lying, GPS tracking, and performing routine background checks, woe upon you if Izzy thinks you're hiding something from her. As one might expect, this wrecks any chance Izzy has for a normal romantic relationship. Izzy fast-forwards through the whole "getting to know you" stage of a blossoming romance in favor of gaining DOB and SSN to rummage around in the prospective romantic interest's background. This usually leads to some serious trust issues on the part of the men who fall for Izzy and, as a result, Izzy is still single. It's just this pattern of thinking that leads her to believe that her next-door-neighbor-and-potential-future-boyfriend is hiding a criminal past behind his suspiciously average name and an even more suspiciously locked door in his home. In addition to this mystery, Izzy's family members seem to have secrets of their own and Izzy, a complete stranger to the concept of personal privacy, begins to ferret out why her brother's wife seems to have disappeared, why her mother runs suspicious errands at 2:30 a.m., why her father is rapidly losing weight, and why her loner sister suddenly has friends no one in the family has ever met.

If this sounds like another light, chick-lit screwball comedy, it is. These novels don't focus on the serious investigations of the Spellman Agency. Instead, they revolve around what happens in a family trying to keep secrets and boundaries when their bread-and-butter is to cross boundaries to discover the secrets of others. The mysteries really don't matter. They're simply vehicles for getting to know this bizarre and dysfunctional and frequently amusing family. 

Childhood's End

The Stolen Child
by Keith Donohue
Published by Nan A. Talese
4 Out of 5 Stars

Feeling ignored and tired of his infant twin sisters getting all of the attention, young Henry Day decided to run away one day in the 1940's. Henry never returned home; in fact, he ceased to exist, but no one noticed. Why? Henry was abducted by the hobgoblins who lived in the nearby forest and a changeling was left in his place--a changeling who had been studying everything about Henry and knew how to mimic him so perfectly that no one could tell the difference. The Stolen Child follows the boy and the changeling for the next 30 to 40 years and tells their story in alternating first person narratives that, in the beginning, are a little confusing, but rightly so as both children are confused about their identities as they each adapt to their new world. Their lives run parallel to one another and occasionally intersect to disastrous results.

A friend of mine described this book as "melancholy," and I think that's the perfect adjective to sum up my feelings after reading this book. For one, the changelings are not villains. They are all children who had their lives stolen from them and are now biding their time until they can reclaim what was forcefully and brutally taken from them. As a result, I feel sorry for both Aniday (the name given to Henry after he becomes one of the changelings) and Gustav (the changeling who takes Henry's place). Often in a fantasy, you get the joy of hating the evil-doer or the monster lurking in the dark, but here the evil is something nebulous and never clearly defined. I think this is partially due to the allegorical nature of the plot. In a sense, life is the monster in that it's a force of nature that can't be stopped or reasoned with. For each of us, our childhood must eventually end and, as children, we often can't wait to grow up and find out who and what we'll be. To do so, we have to cut ourselves away from the child we were so that we can embrace the adult we'll become. We leave a "changeling"--a collection of memories, childish desires, and emotions that revisit us throughout our lives, but the child version of ourselves is like a stranger we once knew.

Also, as we get older, many of us look back on the innocence of childhood with a sense of nostalgia and think, if only upon occasion, "if only I could go back" or "wouldn't it be great to be a child forever?" The answer provided by Donohue is no; that the romantic view of childhood is just that--the tinge of rose-colored glasses. The changelings are not The Wild Boys; sure they are given to fun, frivolity, and mischief, but theirs is not a life to be envied. It is a constant struggle for survival against the harsh elements and the encroachment of man as civilization and suburbia threaten the wilderness where they are able to secret themselves away. They long to grow up and are trapped in tiny bodies while their emotional and mental maturity continues, unimpeded. They wait and they yearn and they think about all they will never have and all they will never be.

In presenting the changeling myth for modern times, Donohue has given us a haunting and beautiful examination of childhood and the search for identity. And he has done so in humanity’s most enduring medium: that of myth.  

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Family That Spies Together

The Spellman Files
by Lisa Lutz
Published by Simon and Schuster
4 Out of 5 Stars

I'm one of those people who will forgive anything of a movie or a novel as long as I enjoy the characters. If I like the characters, if I find them amusing or admirable or realistic, I'll gladly read hundreds of pages in which nothing really happens just for the pleasure of their company. This is one of those novels and, as such, while I enjoyed the hell out of it, I probably won't actively recommend it because I don't want anyone wondering, "I don't get it. What did she think was so special in this thing? Nothing really happens. Sweet bibliophilia, she book raped me!" And then there are the awkward months of refusing to make eye contact with me in the hallways, the whispering behind my back ("She's the one who book raped Edna"), and the nervous tics that will inevitably manifest themselves when I'm spotted with a book in my hand and approaching someone. And so I will not insist that anyone read this novel, although I think a person might enjoy it if he willingly chooses to read it of his own free will with no pressure from me whatsoever. 

The Spellman Files is about an eccentric family of private investigators, although it is narrated through the viewpoint of 28 year old Isabel "Izzy" Spellman, the middle child of the family. When Izzy was younger, she knew there was no way that she could live up to her impossibly perfect older brother so she instead dedicated her life to rebellion and anarchy. Izzy was a success in making her parents' lives a living hell--always in trouble with alcohol, drugs, vandalism--however, she cleans up her act (to a point) when her sister Rae is born and emulates everything Izzy does. Fortunately, the directionless Izzy's past makes her a perfect employee in the family's private investigation business. She has no scruples about following the law or the rules, has only a loose interpretation of morality, and actually enjoys detective work. While Izzy has matured, she hasn't lost her razor sharp tongue or the quirks that make her an enjoyable character. 

The novel's plot seems secondary to the character development and, while this would drive a lot of readers insane, I didn't mind it. In the beginning you learn that Rae has disappeared and the police believe Izzy is somehow connected. Through interviews and case reports, Izzy goes back and constructs the family dynamic that exists among the Spellmans. After working for so long in the PI business, they are all paranoid and hyper-sensitive to plots, treachery, and falsehoods, which lead to intrafamily battle royales over real and presumed betrayals. This is a family that loves each other, but they have strange ways of showing that love (it's nothing in the Spellman family for a relative to bug your room, put a wire tap on your phone, run a background check on your current boyfriend, pick the lock to your apartment, put you under surveillance, etc.) The methods used by the Spellman parents to make sure their children are on the straight and narrow often lead to hilarious results and the banter between the Spellman children seems authentic and real. There's no real suspense here and what little there is can be easily pieced together, but that's not the real point of the novel anyway--this is a quick, light read about the bonds that hold even the most unconventional of families together. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Lost Me

Lost Horizon
by James Hilton
Published by Harper Perennial
1 Out of 5 Stars

For the life of me, I have no idea why anyone dearly loves this book. The narrative is plodding, the characters boring and unsympathetic, and the ending--don't get me started on the ending. This was a book club selection that I was actually excited about since its setting is the mystical Shangri-La. I thought it would be an Indiana Jones-esque action and adventure in an exotic Asian setting. What I got instead was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Boring Tibetans. There's no action; all they do is prattle on about how perfect existence in Shangri-La is (so perfect, in fact, it's painfully boring to read about). The discussions are predictably didactic ("duh, duh, double duh" I thought as each new mystery of life was revealed). I am so glad that I checked this out from the library. Now I can't wait to go check it back in.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Gaiman's Otherworldly Look at Childhood

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
Published by HarperCollins
4 Out of 5 Stars

What a dark, macabre, and lovely book. Occasionally, I run across a book like this that gives me hope for young adult fiction (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is another such book that I read earlier this year). 

I know that the book is loosely based on Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, which I've never read (of course, I saw the Disney movie, but I'm assuming they managed to bugger that up like they do everything else--although, I will admit to loving Bagheera, mainly because of Sebastian Cabot's great voice). In both, a baby is abandoned to the care of an unlikely family: in Kipling, Mowgli is raised by the various inhabitants of the jungle; in Gaiman, Nobody "Bod" Owens is raised by the unlikely denizens of a forgotten graveyard. Without having read The Jungle Book, my ability to draw any further comparisons between the two ends there, but what I can tell you is that this is a book that I would have loved as a child and that I did love as an adult. It transcends age because it's a well told, intelligent story that doesn't pull any punches. There's always darkness in Gaiman's fiction--tragedies happen to good people and bad people alike, things go bump in the night, happy endings are tinged with the bittersweet, and sometimes the scariest thing in the world is human nature. 

The book begins with the chilling line, "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife." If that isn't an instant hook, I don't know what is. We quickly find that the hand belongs to the man Jack, who has just killed Nobody's father, mother, and sister, and is now intent on killing Nobody, who is just a toddler. From there, the story is told in a series of vignettes that show Nobody growing up, his adventures in the graveyard (a wonderland to a child with an imagination and no fear of death), and his interactions with the dead and undead alike. There are ghosts, ghouls, vampires, witches, werewolves--none of whom are as frightening as the man Jack, who is still pursuing Nobody after all these years.

The only reason I gave this a 4 instead of a 5 is because of just a wee bit of predictability that certainly didn't ruin the story and would probably be missed by someone younger. Highly recommended. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Delightfully Bizarre Fantasy

The Order of Odd-Fish
by James Kennedy
Published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers
4 Out of 5 Stars

It's difficult to decide what I should say about this book. If I could sum the novel up in one word it would be, well, odd. Or absurd. Or peculiar. And I mean this in the best possible way.The Order of Odd-Fish is a young adult fantasy that drips with the absurdist humor of Monty Python or Douglas Adams. Naturally, this secures me as a fan. 

The novel is about Jo Larouche, an orphan who was found with a note that said, "This is Jo. Please take care of her. But beware--this is a DANGEROUS baby." For that alone, Jo received notoriety, but interest in her quickly fades when it appears that she will be a normal child after all. Jo is raised by Lily Larouche, an eccentric and absent minded former Hollywood starlet who, despite being in her 80's, still parties like she did in her heyday. Through a few twists and turns, Jo and Lily find themselves in Eldritch City, a bizarre land of cockroach butlers, flying ostriches, and the Order of Odd-Fish--a knighthood dedicated to researching bizarre and useless facts when not defending the city. Lily, it seems, was once a member of Odd-Fish. However, after being accused of treason, her memory was wiped and she was exiled to the desert. Now that Lily is home and has her memory back, Jo learns of the circumstances surrounding her birth and a prophecy in which she plays a role in the destruction of the world--finally, Jo realizes just how dangerous she can be.

In the beginning, I wasn't crazy about the novel. I thought it was trying too hard to be bizarre, but once the characters find themselves in Eldritch City, the bizarre quality feels right. I would highly recommend the novel to young adult fantasy fans.  

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Don't Wait to Meet Audrey

Audrey, Wait!
by Robin Benway
Published by Razorbill
4 Out of 5 Stars

What to do when you come to the realization that, behind the pretty packaging, your boyfriend is basically a self-centered, narcissistic asshat? If you have a brain in your head, you dump him, of course. And that is precisely what Audrey does. Normally that would be the end of the story--except that Audrey's boyfriend has his own band, a modicum of talent, the inspiration for the ultimate break-up song, and a record executive coming to see his gig on the same night that Audrey dumps him. And so, out of Mr. Shallow's pain and anguish, the song, Audrey, Wait! is born, and it's not long before it's sweeping the country and racing up the charts. Suddenly, Audrey is famous and not coping so well. 

At first, I thought the idea that Audrey would become so famous for simply inspiring a hit song was a little over the top, but when I look around at the number of people who have become famous for doing absolutely nothing other than allowing cameras to follow them through their every waking moment, I had to admit that it's certainly possible. I like that Benway portrays Audrey realistically, bumbling through her new found fame and making mistakes that exacerbate the situation (such as talking to a reporter who doesn't register sarcasm, finding out a video of her making out with another singer has gone viral, allowing her fame to alienate her from her friends, etc.). I also enjoyed the fact that Audrey and her friends seem authentic. They're sarcastic and intelligent without becoming unbelievably hip, a la Nick and Norah of the infamous Infinite Playlist. There are quite a few funny moments, a fairly predictable romance (but, alas, such is the familiar landscape that is young adult lit), and an intelligent, funny, and strong female character. However, what really sold me on the whole concept is Benway's message about the pitfalls of fame--a message teenagers need to hear in a celebrity crazed, electronic media-based society. All in all, this makes for a fairly enjoyable read for adults, but a winning recipe for the target audience (I say this with authority as my female students love this book).

A Dark Fairy Tale With Mixed Results

Sea Change
by S. M. Wheeler
Published by Tor Books
2 Out of 5 Stars

**I received a free copy of Sea Change from Tor in exchange for an honest review.**

A fantasy bildungsroman, Sea Change follows the isolated, lonely and headstrong protagonist, Lilly, as she explores the limits of friendship. Born into a prosperous house to parents who fight as fiercely as they once loved, Lilly is a disappointment to her father because she is not the male heir for whom he hoped and the birthmark that blemishes half of her face ostracizes her from the townspeople who fear she is a witch. It is not until she meets Octavius, a young kraken who can appreciate the beauty of her intelligence and compassion, that Lilly finds a kindred spirit with whom she can share her innermost self. When Octavius disappears and trouble at home forces Lilly to choose loyalties, she sets off on a quest to free the only true friend she's ever known--but the price may be more than she's willing to pay.

With its dark fairy tale quality, female protagonist, and unusual take on gender roles, Sea Change should have been a safe bet for me. And while S.M. Wheeler certainly creates a fantastic journey for Lilly and does not shy away from the more horrific, gruesome aspects of life, the novel struck me as being somewhat uneven. The transitions that occur in Lilly's life are indeed sea changes, often abrupt and unpredictable events that turn her entire life upside down, but the result was that I often felt as though I was reading a disjointed narrative. Certain events are given too much weight (such as the lengthy interlude with the bandits, during which Lilly's original intent for being there--a bit of clever trickery on her part regarding promised wealth in exchange for her life--is forgotten for several pages), and others are sadly given too little (the kraken appears very seldom in the book and only serves as the motivation for Lilly to undertake a quest that leads to self-discovery).

I also found Wheeler's syntax and phrasing to be confusing, often cluttered or inverted for no particular reason or to any desired effect. There are also several instances where references are made to people, objects, or events as though the reader should remember them from a previous mention--which never existed. By the end, I still found myself re-reading sentences and grasping for the meaning.

Despite this, I found myself experiencing a sea change in regard to the book once Lilly set off on her quest. Whereas I found the beginning overly long and tedious, Lilly's adventures after leaving home became compelling and I looked forward to seeing what peculiar character Wheeler would introduce us to next: a skinned witch, a troll who exacts an unthinkable price, a pair of homosexual bandits (I particularly enjoyed Wheeler's depictions of sexuality and the domestic, devoted relationship between these two men--even though they were every bit as violent as Neverwhere's Vandemar and Croup), the dark-wife who dines on memory, a zombie tailor whose specialty is the sought after Coat of Illusion, and many others. After a time, though, it seemed that too much was being crammed into one book. Some restraint in the number of characters may have resulted in a more streamlined narrative that was able to showcase these characters in all of their macabre and magical glory.

I look forward to reading Wheeler's next novel as there is a lot of promise in Sea Change, but there's also a lot of room to grow.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Drug Deal Gone Wrong in a Novel Done Right

Dog Soldiers
by Robert Stone
Published by Mariner Books
4 Out of 5 Stars

I began this book thinking it would be about the Vietnam War told from the perspective of an in-country reporter named John Converse. I came to find that, while a few early scenes were set in Vietnam and Converse did occasionally reflect on his time spent there, the focus of the book is a drug deal that goes wrong--horribly, horribly wrong. However, I still loved the book. It has a bit of a Pulp Fiction or Guy Ritchie film feel to it. None of the characters are likable people and they have the moral sensibilities of a gnat, but they're entertaining and a reflection of the shifting values embodied by the time period (when asked why he tried to move heroin from Vietnam to the U.S., Converse replies, "You hear stories over there. They say everybody does it. Being there fucks up your perspective"). Like most Vietnam novels, Dog Soldiers is liberally sprinkled with black humor for those who can find and appreciate it. I would read the novel all over again just for Converse's remembrance of being fragmentation-bombed in Cambodia--a particularly harrowing and well-written scene of self-realization. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Great for Young Readers, but Watered Down Mythology for Adult Audiences

The Lightning Thief
by Rick Riordan
Published by Scholastic
3 Out of 5 Stars

I hate trying to review a book like this because I'm never certain if I should review it from the perspective of an adult or from the perspective of the intended audience. As a result, let me take a stab at both.

If I were reviewing the book from my perspective, it would be more of a 2 to a 2 1/2. The book is fun, especially for those who love Greek/Roman mythology, and Riordan has some inventive twists. For instance, the half-blood children of the gods are often diagnosed by their teachers as being dyslexic and ADHD. The dyslexia is a result of their brains being hard-wired to read only in Ancient Greek and the ADHD is the result of their hyper-alert, battle-ready reflexes. When a new character appears, it's also fun to guess which Greek myth is making its appearance as a modern day incarnation. However, the characters, especially Percy and his friends, are flat and never really come to life. The gods also seem watered down; they practically scream PG-appropriate and the gods were, if anything, X-rated in their endeavors. For adults, the Incarnations of Immortality by Piers Anthony or Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips are just as entertaining and able to include all of the sex and violence inherent in the original mythology. Also, my biggest pet peeve--why did Riordan feel the need to make Pallas Athena, a virgin goddess, the mother of so many children? I don't see the necessity of such a blatant disregard for myth; the plot offers no explanation or justification for this erroneous portrayal. And it doesn't seem the slightest bit necessary as Annabeth never seems to do anything worthy of "Wisdom." Wouldn't it have been just as easy for the character of Annabeth to be the daughter of Demeter or Aphrodite? 

Having said all of this, back when I would have been part of the target age group (I'm guessing 9-12), I would have loved this series. If I had children, I would gladly purchase every book and read them together. I can see where children would love the constant adventure and the gods and monsters that appear on practically every other page. If a series like this can get children to read and to love mythology, then that's definitely worth a 3 star rating.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

How to Write a Young Adult Novel

How Not to be Popular
by Jennifer Ziegler
Published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers
4 Out of 5 Stars

Definitely one of my more enjoyable forays into young adult literature. Sugar Magnolia "Maggie" Dempsey is the surprisingly well-adjusted daughter of hippie parents. While loving and supportive, her restless parents uproot Maggie every few months and move to another part of the country. As a young girl, Maggie loved the adventure and diversity of her parents' nomadic lifestyle. However, Maggie is now in high school and this latest move has resulted in a break-up with her first serious boyfriend. Tired of making friends only to tearfully leave them a few months later, Maggie decides that she will protect herself this time by refusing to make friends. Thus begins her quest to become unpopular.

The book is laugh out loud funny as Maggie does her best to shun popularity through a series self-inflicted, horrifyingly embarrassing situations. The problem is that she's unwittingly setting trends as she goes against the social hierarchy of her new school. No matter how hard she tries to be a social outcast, she becomes the new "it" girl.

What makes the novel so relatable is Maggie. Maggie's smart, but not precocious. She's level-headed, but not so much so that she doesn't screw things up along the way. She's neither obnoxiously mature or immature--she just seems like a real teenager. And, to top it all off, she's funny and not wistfully pining for a vampire--my current requirements for young adult heroines.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Huckleberry Finn's Old Man

by Jon Clinch
Published by Random House
3 Out of 5 Stars

Well, I'm not really sure what to say about Finn. I can't say that I loved it, nor can I say that I hated it. I wish that I had read Huckleberry Finn before reading the book so that I could make more comparisons between the two, and I would have known more about the story line that inspired Clinch. 

I admire that Clinch didn't try to imitate Mark Twain's writing style; to have done so would have robbed his portrayal of Finn (who I understand, even in Twain's work, is hinted at being a dark, morally bankrupt character) of authenticity. However, Finn is so bleak a character that I really couldn't get into his story. Had he taken more initiative, I might have cared more. Instead, Finn bullies his way through life, allowing himself to be carried along by events rather than attempt to influence those events. I think that is intentional as Finn is like the river that provides him with his identity and his livelihood--cutting its own path through the land, a path that is not always the best or most obvious. 

There are some intriguing twists--Finn's black sheep status in a wealthy family, the sadistic and racist Judge Finn (who is the true villain of the novel), the revelation that Huckleberry is a mulatto. While I can't praise the novel, I can admire the craft and care that went into its writing, and I don't think Mark Twain would have been the least bit offended. In fact, I suspect he would have been delighted with Clinch's original take on the story of Pap Finn.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Ready for Volume 2

Artifacts Volume 1
Written by Ron Marz
Illustrated by Stjepan Sejic and Michael Broussard
Published by Image
4 Out of 5 Stars

Well, that was a pleasant surprise. I'm unfamiliar with the Top Cow universe and picked this up on a whim because it was on sale. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it always opens my wallet. Flipping through it, I didn't expect much--women sporting cleavage that would make Barbie feel inadequate and some religious imagery that brought on PTSD flashbacks ofPenny for Your Soul. I just knew this was going to have more Catholic fetishism than a Madonna video. Forgive me, Top Cow, for I have sinned.

There's an impressive mythology at work here that has a smart religious element. There are 13 ancient artifacts that have selected bearers/protectors throughout the centuries. Sara Pezzini is the current bearer of the Witchblade, the artifact created to balance the forces of good and evil (represented by The Darkness and The Angelus, both of whom are the embodiment of two artifacts). The remaining artifacts are scattered among other characters, such as The Magdalena (the protector of the Catholic Church and wielder of the Spear of Destiny) and Tom Judge (the ex-priest, recent denizen of hell, suspiciously John-Constantine-look-alike bearer of the Rapture). Of course, with 13 artifacts, there's an extensive cast of characters so I'll leave it there. 

If the 13 artifacts are ever brought together, it will bring about an apocalyptic event. Naturally, there's always some asshat who wants to bring about the end with the intention of rebuilding the world as he sees fit. It's no different here and it's not long before the artifact bearers have chosen sides: those determined to keep the artifacts apart and those who will stop at nothing to bring them together.

The artwork is beautiful, though conventional and features scantily clad babes that did nothing for me but will probably have the fellas hoping for a wardrobe malfunction. (I mean, seriously, I've seen Victoria's Secret models clad in gauzy nothings that probably offer more protection than Sara Pezzini's Witchblade "armor".) The writing, blend of mythologies, and universe-building is impressive. There are angels and demons and androids and icemen and assassins and even a DRAGON! Well, at least hints of a dragon. That's enough to count me in for the second volume.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Shusterman Envisions a Strange Resolution to the Abortion Debate

by Neal Shusterman
Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
3 Out of 5 Stars

I'm a little on the fence about this one. Shusterman has created a fully realized future, and that's definitely part of the genius of this young adult novel. When authors write about the not-too-distant future, the world about which they write is completely unrecognizable (too many new gadgets, too many new species from outerspace, too many shifts in cultural view) which is fine but, for me, it sometimes causes a disconnect. I can't really empathize or identify with the characters because I can't relate. Shusterman's future is at once recognizable and vastly different from our own, which only adds to the horror of Unwind

In the novel, children who are unwanted at the age of 13 (for a variety of reasons: they're juvenile delinquents, they're not artistically talented enough, they fail to show intellectual prowess, or they have simply been abandoned) can be "unwound" for spare body parts. Because medical science has perfected a process that allows for every part of the unwind's body to be grafted onto the recipient's body and because the unwind never "dies" (the unwind is awake and conscious through the entire process), then this practice is acceptable because it saves the lives of others without technically ending a life. Medical science no longer bothers with trying to cure disease; they simply replace affected body parts with healthy young ones. 

In addition to this fascinating premise is the shift in religous thought. Parents who are zealous in their religious beliefs begin tithing their 10th child to show their piety to God and, in this world, it's easy to attain 10 children as the practice of "storking" is acceptable by law. Storking is the law that allows the mothers of unwanted children to dump their children on the doorstep of an affluent house, so long as they are not caught in the act of doing so (even this act is religiously based; the law cites the story of Moses as the first "storking"). The "storked" family is required, by law, to take the child into their own family--thus, tithing also becomes a socially acceptable way of getting rid of children one does not want. Tithed children are raised from birth knowing that they will be unwound and are accordingly treated like martyrs.

Here's my main complaint with the novel. All of the above sounds like an intriguing premise, but I find fault with the catalyst for all of this social change. In the novel, the abortion issue becomes such a heated debate that it eventually leads to the Second Civil War, known as The Heartland War, in which the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice proponents literally go to war. After a prolonged battle in which we can assume many lives were lost, the process of "unwinding" is proposed as a compromise to end the war. Since a child can be retroactively unwound at the age of 13, the Pro-Choice side is appeased and, since the child never technically dies, the Pro-Life side is appeased. To which I call "bullshit." Because such a solution doesn't take into account the motivation behind each side of the issue. 

Granted, there are shades of gray all over the place when we talk about abortion, but, for Pro-Choice proponents, the issue is about a woman's right to have control over her body and not be forced into an unwanted pregnancy. So how would being able to unwind a kid later on appeal to the Pro-Choice advocates? If a kid is 13, they're now a separate entity from the mother and, in addition, the mother has already had to endure the physical part of an unwanted pregnancy. Kind of defeats the whole premise of the Pro-Choice argument, no? And as for the Pro-Lifers, I think it's safe to say most are fundamentalist Christians who would never be like, "Oh, so the kid doesn't 'die' since he or she is still alive when we slice and dice them? Well, golly gee, why didn't we think of this sooner?" If that were okay with them, then I think they might not be so vocal on the stem cell debate as, technically, that's what unwinding is--using one life to save another life. 

So in the final analysis, I think that's where Shusterman dropped the ball. Granted, it could be argued that both sides might be willing to consider such a flawed proposal simply to end a violent and bloody war, but I doubt it. Still, I would highly recommend the book for its intended audience as it presents an action-based story that's not didactic in its presentation of the issue and will motivate teenagers to think about it in new and different ways. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

But Where's the Ass Kicking? I Was Promised Ass Kicking!

A Secret History:  The Book of Ash #1
by Mary Gentle
Published by Eos
2 Out of 5 Stars

The story of a female mercenary in the 15th century, A Secret History: The Book of Ash has an interesting premise, so I settled in with a hot cup of coffee and prepared to witness Ash kick ass, preferably Tarantino style. And then I waited . . . and waited . . . and waited . . . and it's the last page . . . and, holy shit, no ass kicking in sight! Not one can of whoop-ass opened. This, of course, pissed me off. 

I'm not really sure how to describe A Secret History, but I can list what I consider to be its shortcomings. Obviously, these did not bother others as much as they did me. The book is highly rated, which is why I expected as much from it as I did. 

A) There are actually two story lines: one takes place in the present day and is a series of e-mails being sent back and forth between the author and the publisher. Apparently, the author's source material has been compromised as many of the historical documents he used in researching his non-fiction account of Ash have been mysteriously reclassified as fiction. These e-mails bog down the narrative and can be summed up as follows:

Publisher: I have serious doubts about your source material. What is going on? You have to tell me!
Author: I don't understand it either. But I'll look into it. In the meantime, you won't believe what I've found! I can't believe it! Did I mention that you won't be able to believe it? The world won't be able to believe it! But here's a tidbit to tide you over [insert tidbit here].
Publisher: Received your last e-mail. This is amazing stuff! But I have a problem with your source material. What is going on? You have to tell me!
(And repeat, ad nauseum)

B) The character of Ash is completely unbelievable as a mercenary captain capable of inspiring men to trust in her leadership. She struts around in armor, cusses a lot, and . . . basically, that's it. Then again, from what I've seen of the "rousing and inspiring coach monologue" of football movies, maybe that is enough to inspire men to beat the crap out of one another. She doesn't do much of anything other than be pushed around by events. She seldom seems in control and never really makes any decisions that demonstrate her skill as a warrior or tactician. In part, this is because Gentle introduces us to 8 year old Ash (apparently just so she can have Ash raped as a child and witness her brutal retaliation, thus establishing why she would so whole-heartedly embrace a life of violence) and then jumps forward to Ash in command of her mercenary band known as the Lion Azure. She leap-frogged what would have been the most interesting part of Ash's story and the part needed to solidify the reader's belief in Ash as a warrior: how did Ash rise to power and come to command her own army?

C) Even though it's sloppily explained by the contemporary historian translating the history of Ash as his attempt to modernize the language of the story, there are a lot of modern idioms and phrases used that take away from the authenticity of the time period and which I doubt any true historian would so gleefully sprinkle throughout a text.

There are a few mildly interesting twists, but the one dimensional characters and lack of fidelity to the time period mean that this is a series I won't continue. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Complex Look at Racism

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky
by Heidi W. Durrow
Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
4 Out of 5 Stars

It's easy to see why there's so much fuss over this novel. Much as Nella Larsen did in her exemplary novel Passing and the novel Quicksand, Heidi Durrow explores both interracial and intraracial racism in a compelling and unique way. Throughout the novel, there are several nods to Larsen (the mother named Nella, the protagonist who is half black and half Danish, the exploration of racial tensions in America when compared with the more colorblind European societies, the epigraph taken from Passing). However, while it's clear that Durrow was inspired by Larsen, there's never any doubt that this novel is Durrow's own.

Set in the 1980's, the novel primarily follows the story of Rachel Morse, the only survivor of a tragic accident that claimed her mother, her brother, and her sister. Her father, who serves in the military, is too grief-stricken to take care of her and instead sends her to live with her grandmother in Portland, Oregon. Feeling abandoned and alone, Rachel creates a new identity for herself and tries to cope with her increasing alienation. Having grown up in the more racially tolerant Europe, the biracial Rachel struggles with the sudden realization that she is black--but not black enough. She's taunted for her light skin, her soft hair, and her unusual light blue eyes. Her black peers think she's an "Oreo," talking and behaving as if she were white. Her grandmother tries to reshape Rachel's past, obliterating any positive memories she may have of her white mother. As Rachel grows up, she struggles to find acceptance and belonging (looking, as most teenage girls do, in all of the wrong places), confronts being seen as a beautiful object and an exotic curiosity by the men in her life, hopes for a future that may hold more than a secretarial job and a three bedroom house, and unearths the truth about what happened on the day that she and her family fell from the sky.

The novel is not for readers who like linear narrative. Instead, it's fragmented into chapters that are told from the varying perspectives of Rachel, Jamie (a boy who witnessed the tragedy and who may be the only remaining link between Rachel and her father), Nella (Rachel's Danish mother who doesn't know how to cope with living in a society that judges her children by their skin color), Roger (Rachel's father), and Laronne (Nella's employer who is left to clean up what's left of the family's belongings and to try to piece together the reasons why the family fell apart). Each character is given a distinct voice and back story that somehow intersects with Rachel; I could easily believe them to be real people. Because the novel moves from past to present and between these points of view, there are no quick and easy answers and reading often feels like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle. However, the end result is a realistic portrayal of how tragedy can destroy a life, but that the resilient can eventually prevail. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Intriguing Role Reversal

Written by Mark Waid
Illustrated by Jean Diaz
Published by Boom! Studios
4 Out of 5 Stars

In Irredeemable, Mark Waid explores what would happen if one of the world's most formidable superheroes flips a switch and becomes the villain. The Plutonian turns his back on humanity and instead indulges in creating the violence and destruction he once sought to stop. When the superhero who once kept you in check has now bumped you down to number 2 on the FBI's most wanted list, what's a super villain to do?

For Max Damage in Incorruptible, the answer is attempt to fill the void left in Sky City when its protector goes rogue. When Max realizes the Plutonian has seriously gone batshit crazy and may never recover, it causes a bit of an existential crisis. Max reveals that, no matter how terrible he was, in the back of his mind he always knew that men like the Plutonian would keep him from pushing things too far. Civilization was kept in place by the balance between good and evil. Max understands that the scales may now be permanently tipped toward chaos and anarchy, so it's up to him to try to restore balance. 

This role reversal is intriguing, although by the end of volume 1 Max's redemption isn't very convincing. Sure, he destroys anything purchased with his ill-gotten gains, breaks off his sexual relationship with his underage girlfriend, brokers a peace with the local police, and tracks down some bad guys, but how genuine is he? This isn't a complaint as I'm hoping it leads to some complex character development while Max attempts to become the good guy and struggles with his criminal past, but, if not, then his conversion seems conveniently simplistic.

There's some punchy dialogue throughout and the characters are imaginative. Jailbait is the underage girlfriend of Max who can't quite come to grips with the fact that the man who introduced her to the thrilling life of crime and apparently mind-blowing sex has gone all white hat on her. Her reactions are often amusing, especially as we realize that while Max may have gone straight, she certainly doesn't intend to follow suit. Max himself has a peculiar superpower--the longer he goes without sleep, the tougher he becomes. Bullets can't pierce him. Fire can't burn him. However, the hardening of his physical self allows him only two senses: sight and sound. It's only after a good night's sleep that Max can feel all five senses before his body once again begins the hardening process.

The artwork is nothing special; while it tells the story, it does little to enhance it. In the cover gallery there is some work attributed to Rafael Albuquereque of American Vampire fame and I could only imagine how his gritty style might have taken a story like this to the next level.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Burn, Baby, Burn!

Fahrenheit 451
by Ray  Bradbury
Published by Ballantine Books
3 Out of 5 Stars

Fahrenheit 451 is one of those books that I should have read by now. Occasionally, a student comes to me, eyes ablaze with indignation that anyone should ever burn books, and they want to talk about it. "Why would anyone do such a thing? This is impossible! Why would such a world exist?" And, more tremulously, "Could this world ever exist?" As shame and humiliation wash over me, I have to say, "Um, I haven't read it.  But it's on my to-read list!" They look stricken, abashed, as though I have failed them. And maybe I have. If anyone should have read the book about burning books, it's the English teacher, right? Hell, I'm just excited that they get so pumped over it. In a world where student literacy scores are on the decline, where a teenager would rather pick up an iPod than a book, and most students only read 2-3 books a year (except for my room, where I must brag for a moment, we kick some reading ass), the fact that some of them still read Fahrenheit 451 and become incensed gives me hope for the future.

It is a shame that I haven't read Bradbury's novel until now. This is a book that calls out to the bibliophile. It reminds us what a simple and precious thing a book is; what a liberty it is to own them and have the privacy to read them and the right to think about them; what a privilege it is to not have our books censored. Reading is a simple freedom that so many take for granted because they see just the physical act: sitting in a chair and turning a page. What they don't realize is that, in that simple act, an entire person is formed: beliefs, opinions, and thoughts are constantly challenged, reassessed, and reshaped. Reading is the act of constantly taking our measure against the world and deciding if we're the type of person we want to be. Reading keeps us in check and it reminds us there are others out there in very different circumstances for whom we should feel empathy. In short, reading is the very act of maintaining our humanity.

In Fahrenheit 451, however, reading is a freedom that has been willingly renounced by the citizens. As more immediate forms of technological entertainment became available, people simply lost interest in reading.  In Bradbury's world, the living room itself is a wall-to-wall tv, constantly droning on and offering pure entertainment with which the viewer can take an interactive role, but there is no substance. When you're not in the living room, you wear a Seashell in your ear that constantly broadcasts news and auditory entertainment. Silence and introspection are shunned. Perhaps most frightening is that this is eerily the world of today: flat screen televisions on every wall of the house; interactive technology such as video games and computers; iPods constantly delivering a steady stream of noise. In terms of technology, we are living in Fahrenheit 451. As Captain Beatty tells Guy Montag, "School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?" If that doesn't sum up the general direction in which education is heading, then I don't know what does, unless it's when he tells Guy that the educational development can be summarized as "Out of the nursery, into the college and back to the nursery; there's your intellectual pattern."

The novel focuses on Guy Montag, a fireman whose job is to start fires instead of putting them out. Specifically, the firemen exist to burn houses where books are being kept by those few who still cling to the written word. Through a series of events, Guy becomes self-aware and begins to question the world around him--specifically, what threat is there in books and could books hold the key to curing the detachment, the ennui, and the hatred that permeate the world in which he lives. As Guy learns to think for himself, we're taken on a journey through the dystopian world in which he resides.

Now, after all this, you may wonder why I only gave the book a 3. In terms of Bradbury's stance on books and his presentation of what value books should have to humanity, I'd definitely give it a 4. However, in terms of the execution of his dystopian conceit, it isn't quite as powerful as I wanted it to be. This may be because I just finished reading Nineteen Eighty-Four and, compared to the elaborate lengths to which Orwell goes to describe every facet of Oceania's society, the dystopia here felt rather thin. I wanted more background and more history than Captain Beatty presents to Guy Montag, but perhaps that's the way it should be. In a world where thinking isn't valued and knowledge is condensed, it shouldn't be surprising that the characters know very little about their own history.

Friday, August 9, 2013

A Broken Family Tries to Regain What Was Lost

Then Came the Evening
by Brian Hart
Published by Bloomsbury USA
5 Out of 5 Stars

Despite not being the focal point of the narrative, all of the events in Brian Hart's Then Came the Evening can be traced back to one defining moment: Bandy Dorner enlisted for Vietnam. We never know what Bandy experienced during his tour of duty because the novel begins after his return home, but we know it had a profound effect. He returns a changed man and, after learning that his home has burnt down and believing his young wife, Iona, to have been inside, a drunk, grief-stricken Bandy turns to the familiarity of violence, shooting and killing the officer trying to subdue him. Little does Bandy know that his pain will only beget pain as his wife, Iona, has left him for another man but is pregnant with Bandy's child--a child who will later be marked and judged by his father's actions.

Now before you chastise me for spoilers, all of this happens in the first few pages of the novel. Then Came the Evening picks up nearly two decades later, as Bandy's son, Tracy, decides to reconnect with the father who never knew of his existence. Bandy's release from prison is imminent and, hoping to mend the shattered family, Tracy sets about reclaiming the abandoned family ranch, restoring the gutted house in anticipation of Bandy's return home. As his wayward parents are drawn back to the hometown and the past they left behind, Tracy, Iona, and Bandy tentatively attempt to recapture a sense of family despite old wounds and fresh betrayals, learning the futility of trying to recapture what never was. 

Then Came the Evening is about people who are broken beyond repair, who have been shaped by proximity to violence and live in a world with sharp teeth. The narrative moves at a slow, unhurried pace and may frustrate readers who crave more external action, but I enjoyed Hart's refusal to rush a story that should unfold for us as it unfolds for the characters. There shouldn't be a race to the finish line here as Hart is writing about life as it is lived, exploring how people are marked by choices made in mundane circumstances. I also enjoyed lingering over the novel's brutally poetic descriptions of the physical landscape that reflects and explores the internal landscape of the characters--especially in the case of Iona and Bandy as they struggle to reconnect with a time and a place and a version of themselves that was, but is no more. These are not characters who are keenly in touch with their emotions, for whom words come easily. Told in vignettes adrift in time and from varying perspectives, the novel allows the stories of each character to jostle against the other like pieces of a puzzle trying to find a way of fitting together.

While Hart does a fine job of depicting the depths to which Iona has sunk after Tracy initially leaves her to find Bandy, it's his portrayal of Bandy that is the real genius of the novel. A man who has been in prison for the last 20 years, Bandy's return home is painful and raw as Bandy's fear and disorientation are palpable. While his crime was admittedly a heinous one, there's also a realization that this Bandy Dorner is not the same one who pulled the trigger years ago. There's something heartbreaking about his cautious hope that maybe something can still be salvaged from the wreck he made of his family; he knows he doesn't deserve it, but it doesn't stop him from wanting it. However, the novel is not interested in making a case for justifying the circumstances of the crime (as Bandy's mother says, "Everybody blames the war for everything. I'm sick of it" [13]), but more interested in making a case for Bandy as a human being--one still capable of brutality, but one who has not forgotten how to feel. 

While the characters in Hart's novel aren't necessarily likable, I admire how they try--with varying levels of success--to make something better of themselves and of each other. While the reader knows the odds are against these shattered people being able to mend one another, there's an inherent nobility in the attempt.