Monday, September 30, 2013

The Water Babies, Charles Kingsley

The Water BabiesOnce upon a time there was a little chimney sweep, and his name was Tom. That is a short name, and you have heard it before, so you will not have much trouble remembering it. 

"A timeless Victorian tale of adversity, adventure, and triumph told in the original unabridged edition. Tom, a young chimney sweep, toils under the misery of his horrendous job and cruel boss, Grimes, until fairies turn him into a water-baby - an underwater sprite. Plunged into a fantastical world under the sea, Tom encounters many adventures and learns valuable lessons from all sorts of sea creatures including their rulers, Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid and her sister, Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. Under their tutelage, Tom embarks on a daring rescue and regains his human form once again. Instantly popular upon its initial publication in 1863, The Water-Babies is at once a skillfully woven moral allegory and a bewitching childhood fantasy."

The Water Babies is another of those interesting books that I picked up just by chance browsing. It's a not very well known nineteenth century children's tale, although apparently it was well received when it first came out. The Water Babies is pretty heavy on moral, but the writing is very readable, and the asides the author takes are generally not annoying but amusing, where he talks about the possible existence of water babies and other creatures, before dismissing it and saying, "Am I in earnest? Oh dear no. Don't you know that this is a fairy tale, and all fun and pretense; and that you are not to believe one word of it, even if it is true?" Which was very funny, and just as entertaining as the actual story sections. The writing was hardly dense at all, and I quickly read fifty or so pages once I got drawn into the story. 

I thought that the fact that The Water Babies talked about poverty and equality and kindness in the nineteenth century was really interesting and admirable. And then of course Kingsley has to spoil it by calling an Irish person a poor "Paddy" who knows no better and saying that they're all tricksters and no one is honest. Later, there's a foolish lobster who's from Ireland. He also insults the Welsh. Ah, 19th century hypocrisy, how I love thee. Tom himself is a chimney sweep before being transformed into a water baby, a job that as Jane Austen's England informed me, was awful. I don't know if fifty years alter the conditions were better, but I doubt it.The Water Babies did address some issues of equality and fair treatment, but then of course, it spreads more inequality.

There was also a lot of racism in the book. At one point, Tom the water baby is talking to some salmon, which are big, well-bred fish in this novel, and they're talking about how the trout are inferior to them, so "ugly and brown" and so degraded in their tastes that they will eat salmon children. Then, the lady salmon adds, "Why, I have actually known one of them propose to a lady salmon, the little impudent little creature." That part (and the Irish insulting part) was where I started to realize that I wouldn't love The Water Babies, because while it does have some good advice, a lot of it is downright bad. Also, between pages 90 and 97, the book took a decidedly trippy turn with its description of the professor and his troubles brought on by the fairies. It was so weird; thankfully, it didn't last long.

I feel like overall the quality of the book deteriorated as the book went on, with more and more needless anecdotes being added in, as if Kingsley was eager to make a certain word count or provide even more moralizing. There were some short side stories that were completely unnecessary, and those were annoying. At the beginning, the asides were fine. But they started getting progressively less interesting as the book went on.

The book started out very well, but by the end it was a bit too much. There were too many lessons trying to be taught, and the story itself started getting really, really silly with the Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid and Doasyouwouldbedoneby. It was kind of unnecessary. Look, kids get the morals without spelling it completely out. I still thought the book was okay, but I can also see why it's not read much these days. Children (and anyone, really) don't like to be told how to behave; it's human nature to want to do the very opposite, and while The Water Babies tries to illustrate good behavior through a drawn-out parable of sorts, it still feels a bit like Kingsley telling his readers how to act. Which is a strategy that doesn't work. Also, towards the end there were more Irish slurs and advocating of beating people (if they've done wrong).

Still, I liked the writing, and the book wasn't awful. It was just prejudiced, and it got harder to ignore as the novel went on. I think that while reading The Water Babies one should remember what Kingsley says twice in the book, which is not to believe a word of it, even if it is true (which it's not).

190 pages.

Rating: 2.5 stars.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Moon Palace, Paul Auster

Moon PalaceIt was the summer that men first walked on the moon. I was very young back then, but I did not believe there would ever be a future. I wanted to live dangerously, to push myself as far as I could go, and then see what happened to me when I got there. As it turned out, I nearly did not make it. 

"Marco Stanley Fogg is an orphan, a child of the sixties, a quester tirelessly seeking the key to his past, the answers to the ultimate riddle of his fate. As Marco journeys from the canyons of Manhattan to the deserts of Utah, he encounters a gallery of characters and a series of events as rich and surprising as any in modern fiction. Beginning during the summer that men first walked on the moon, and moving backward and forward in time to span three generations, Moon Palace is propelled by coincidence and memory, and illuminated by marvelous flights of lyricism and wit. Here is the most entertaining and moving novel yet from an author well known for his breathtaking imagination."

I picked up this novel, first published in 1989, while visiting my grandparents in New York in August, and although it took me a while to get to reading Moon Palace, I wasn't disappointed. It was a really great book, amusing and saddening by turns. For some reason, I had thought that the writing would be dense or something, but it really wasn't that difficult to get into the book. I quickly read twenty five pages and really liked them.

Moon Palace is a great story; in the first part of the book, I really liked how as Marco unpacks his uncle's books from their boxes and unearths the past, so does his furniture disappear, or what he had been using at furniture. His bed, tables and chairs, and desk all start disappearing as he takes out more books. As Marco puts it, "As I sold off my books, my apartment went through many changes. That was inevitable, for each time I opened another box, I simultaneously destroyed another piece of furniture. My bed was dismantled, my chairs shrank and disappeared, my desk atrophied into empty space. My life had become a gathering zero, and it was a thing I could actually see: a palpable, burgeoning emptiness. Each time I ventured into my uncle's past, it produced a physical result, an effect in the real world. The consequences were therefore always before my eyes, and there was no way to escape them." (pg. 24).

Moon Palace is such a great mix of humor and sadness; another hilarious part of the book is when the main character (who I can never quite call Marco in my head) goes to what used to be his friend's apartment and encounters a crowd of strangers, including Kitty Wu, who will eventually save him. He has barely eaten the whole summer, and proceeds to devour their whole spread, ending by jumping into a long, outrageous soliloquy on men on the moon as early as the fifteenth century. It was really, really funny, especially the parts that were kind of sad, such as his eating every crumb on their plates except for a pile of whitefish. That's how hungry he was. Scenes and images like these are what make Moon Palace a good novel. Because Marco's story itself isn't all that interesting. It's how it's described, the writing, that makes it interesting and wonderful. Moon Palace was much better than I thought it would be, and I loved the metaphor of the Moon Palace sign and all the moon related things woven throughout the book. I also really enjoyed the character of Kitty Wu. Everything about this book is such a mix of contradictions.

There were a lot of really witty and sardonic sections in Moon Palace, too many to quote all of them. But here are a few that really had me chuckling or really resonated with me somehow. All of these are from the earlier sections of the novel. "It went on like that for the next several days. My moods charged recklessly from one extreme to another, shunting me between joy and despair so often that my mind became battered from the journey. Almost anything could set off the switch: a sudden confrontation with the past, a chance smile from a stranger, the way the light fell on the sidewalk at any given hour. I struggled to achieve some equilibrium within myself, but it was no use: everything was instability, turmoil, outrageous whim. At one moment I was engaged in a philosophical quest, supremely confident that I was about to join the ranks of the illuminati; at the next moment I was in tears, collapsing under the weight of my own anguish. My self-absorption was so intense that I could no longer see things for what they were: objects became thoughts, and every thought was part of the drama being played out inside me." (pg. 54). This was both kind of funny and deeply sad at the same time; it hurt to see the main character struggling so badly, although he's at fault for his own trials and tribulations.

Here's another one that's funny and also so true: "In the streets, everything is bodies and commotion, and like it or not, you cannot enter them without adhering to a rigid protocol of behavior. To walk among the crowd means never going faster than anyone else, never lagging behind your neighbor, never doing anything to disrupt the flow of human traffic. If you play by the rules of this game, people will tend to ignore you. There is a particular glaze that comes over the eyes of New Yorkers when they walk through the streets, a natural and perhaps necessary form of indifference to others. It doesn't matter how you look, for example. Outrageous costumes, bizarre hairdos, T-shirts with obscene slogans printed across them - no one pays attention to such things. On the other hand, the way you act inside your clothes is of the utmost importance. Odd gestures of any kind are automatically taken as a threat. Talking out loud to yourself, scratching your body, looking someone directly in the eye: these deviations can trigger off hostile and sometimes violent reactions from those around you. You must not stagger or swoon, you must not clutch the walls, you must not sing, for all forms of spontaneous or involuntary behavior are sure to elicit stares, caustic remarks, and even an occasional shove or kick in the shins. I was not so far gone that I received any treatment of that sort, but I saw it happen to others, and I knew that a day might eventually come when I wouldn't be able to control myself anymore. By contrast, life in Central Park allowed for a much broader range of variables..." Marco goes on to detail how drastically different Central Park is in terms of what's allowed.

There were a lot more, but I've gone on with that long enough. Suffice to say Moon Palace is an excellent and witty novel, filled with many unexpected coincidences. I'll probably be reading more of Paul Auster's work in the future, such as his New York trilogy.

307 pages.

Rating: *****

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Palace of Spies, Sarah Zettel

Palace of SpiesI must begin with a frank confession. I became Lady Francesca Wallingham only after I met the man calling himself Tinderflint. This was after my betrothal, but before my uncle threw me into the street and barred the door. 

"Murder. Espionage. Card games? Peggy Fitzroy has many talents, but until recently these three were not among them. No, Peggy was merely a lively and charming young lady of the regular sort, until the day she refused to marry the utter cad chosen for her. Cast out on the street, Peggy has to find a means of support. Though it sounds rather mysterious, she agrees to disguise herself as a lady in waiting in the court of King George I. The real lady in waiting died, supposedly of natural causes. Life at the palace is grand, until Peggy starts to suspect that something dreadful happened to the girl she is impersonating. Could it have been murder? Unless Peggy can discover what really happened, she might be doomed to the same terrible fate! But in a court filled with shadows and intrigue, anyone could be a spy - perhaps even Matthew, the handsome young artist with whom Peggy is falling in love..."

Palace of Spies was a somewhat amusing and very light young adult historical fiction and mystery novel. With romance, of course. Still, I enjoyed Peggy with her snarky observations. At least in the ARC, at the beginning of each chapter there is a little caption, like "In which our heroine is wickedly confined, cruelly provoked, and commits several acts of a rash nature" and other such funny phrases.

I didn't find Palace of Spies very interesting, though. Some of the witty conversations weren't all that witty, and the intrigue wasn't all that intriguing. The author tried to bring to life the early 18th century with extensive descriptions of clothing, but it didn't really work very well. I did learn what a mantua was, and it sounds awful. Still, the descriptions could have been better. I also think a light, frivolous book like this glosses over the horrors of that time period, the abject poverty and the rampant disease.

Still, there were a few funny parts of the book, such as some of the conversations Peggy has, and the way she narrates the book and describes each character. Most of the characters were kind of uninteresting though, and didn't seem to be realistic, like the royals. Despite Palace of Spies being a light, quick read, some of the sections felt bogged down. Not much happened of note except a couple of cryptic and uninteresting conversations or exchanges of notes. Peggy was okay, but not super compelling. There were some okay parts, but I didn't enjoy the book a whole lot. It's not suspenseful at all. After about 220 pages, not much had happened; Peggy is just learning the important stuff. In fact, I have no idea how the book managed to have 220 pages cover so little. It was very weak. After that, some intrigue and deception starts coming into play, and Palace of Spies picks up a bit, as Peggy wonders who she can trust and realizes that some of the people she thought were sincere aren't.

I didn't like the romance-love triangle thing much either, although Matthew was all right, I suppose. It just wasn't very interesting (and frankly, neither was the rest of the plot). I also found it so unrealistic that all these people who knew Francesca would fail to see that Peggy is not her: the Princess of Wales, Robert, Sophy, and a whole bunch of other people who were close acquaintances of Francesca. But I suppose as Mr. Tinderflint says, people see what they expect to see and nothing more.

I'll be the first to admit that some of the issues in terms of pacing and characterization might be only in the galley; the book itself doesn't come out until early November, and in between now and then, the author might make changes. In fact, in the ARC the title is listed as A Most Dangerous Deception, which I actually like better. If the title can change, why not other parts of the book? I might have a look online at the final copy when it comes out to see if it's any different. It's certainly possible, but I still can't recommend Palace of Spies. I came in hoping for a light but entertaining, amusing, and suspenseful read. Instead, I just got something light with barely any action. The premise was interesting, but the book fell flat for me. Sometimes light reads can be a good way to pass the afternoon, sometimes you feel like you kind of wasted a bunch of your time. I felt that way with Palace of Spies. There were a few good moments, but not enough. I guess...I just didn't feel very interested in the story, and I'll probably forget the book's events within a few months (or weeks, maybe).

I received an ARC from Harcourt. Palace of Spies will be released on November 5th. 

368 pages.

Rating: **

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Sleeping Dictionary, Sujata Massey

The Sleeping Dictionary (Daughters of Bengal, #1)You ask for my name, the real one, and I cannot tell. It is not for lack of effort.

"In 1930, a great ocean wave blots out a Bengali village, leaving only one survivor, a young girl. As a maidservant in a British boarding school, Pom is renamed Sarah and discovers her gift for languages. Her private dreams almost die when she arrives in Kharagpur and is recruited into a secretive, decadent world. Eventually, she lands in Calcutta, renames herself Kamala, and creates a new life rich in books and friends. But although success and even love seem within reach, she remains trapped by what she is . . . and is not. As India struggles to throw off imperial rule, Kamala uses her hard-won skills—for secrecy, languages, and reading the unspoken gestures of those around her—to fight for her country’s freedom and her own happiness."

The Sleeping Dictionary definitely impressed me. It's Sujata Massey's first non-mystery novel, and she did very well. I haven't read any of her earlier work, but I might now. She really brings to life India right at the most major turn in its history, from colonialism to independence, seen through the eyes of one intelligent but impoverished young woman whose real name she cannot tell for various reasons.

I enjoyed so many different aspects of The Sleeping Dictionary, from its cover to the story, to the writing, to the rich historical detail. There's scarcely a misstep in the book, and the writing just drew me in and swept me away. Massey's descriptions felt so realistic, as if she had been in the places at the times she was writing about. I enjoyed the characters too; as one reviewer says, this is indeed historical fiction at its best, with all the ingredients necessary: compelling characters and an enthralling story, historical detail, and realism, as well as a gorgeous cover (although that's neither here nor there).  I very quickly read 100 pages of the book before I knew it. It went by very quickly, but The Sleeping Dictionary is a pretty long book so don't despair; you'll have plenty of time to savor its beauty, its loveliness, its tragedy.

The way the book is organized helps make it much faster to read too; it's divided into sections that aren't too short or too long, and every part of the main character's journey and life is very interesting (at least, it was to me). I'll call her Pom, since that's the first name she remembers. I really liked Pom as a character; she's determined to succeed and despite her low caste and lack of formal education, she's really good at English and words and just learning languages in general, something most people like her can't do. After leaving Lockwood, she hopes to get a teaching position. It's not as easy as it sounds, though.

There were a lot of great secondary characters too, from the upper class girl who befriends Pom at Lockwood, to the people she meets on her way to Calcutta. I did find the tyrannical Raechal at the school a bit unrealistic. She seems to enjoy being evil just for the sake of being evil, and I don't think there are actually a whole lot of people like that. Her background story (as I'm sure she had one) just could have been fleshed out more. She wasn't that convincing, but most of the other characters were, being mixtures of good and bad like actual people.

The Sleeping Dictionary wasn't that difficult a book in terms of length, but some sections of the book were fairly disturbing in terms of subject matter, especially when Pom is in Kharagpur and is forced to work as a prostitute before being cheated out of all her savings. Once again her dreams of teaching are thwarted, but she's still not ready to totally give up.

The term "sleeping dictionary" itself comes from a nickname for Indian women who became mistresses of British colonialists and also taught them a lot about Indian culture and language, because after all, the first Western people who came to India didn't know the language.

I did find Pom's fascination with Pinkaj, who was Bidushi's fiance, a bit annoying. After all, she had exchanged letters with him (writing as Bidushi) but she never really met him, and it seemed to me unlikely that she would see him again. (Although she eventually does, of course). Overall, though, Pom's narration was convincing and compelling. She's fairly innocent, but not enough to not realize what's going on at the house in Kharagpur she arrives in after leaving Lockwood. She wants to survive and be successful, but she also has her morals, and I liked this section of her journey, where she's debating what choice to make. Throughout the book, its main character must make many difficult choices.

The Sleeping Dictionary was a rich, beautiful, and disturbing novel, which I would highly recommend to fans of historical fiction and books about India. I received a review copy from Gallery Books.

481 pages.

Rating: *****

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Round House, Louise Erdrich

The Round HouseSmall trees had attacked my parents' house at the foundation. They were just seedlings with one or two rigid, healthy leaves. Nevertheless, the stalky shoots had managed to squeeze through knife cracks in the decorative brown shingles covering the cement blocks. 

Summary from Goodreads: "One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface as Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe's life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared. While his father, who is a tribal judge, endeavors to wrest justice from a situation that defies his efforts, Joe becomes frustrated with the official investigation and sets out with his trusted friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them first to the Round House, a sacred space and place of worship for the Ojibwe. And this is only the beginning."

I'd heard about The Round House a long time ago, but never got around to reading it or looking it up. I'm not sure what exactly brought it to my attention again, but I decided to pick it up, having never read any other of Louise Erdrich's novels. 

Joe's narrative voice is quite interesting, very matter-of-fact as he relates his life, though I'm not sure how realistic the descriptions of reservation life are. Some parts of the book felt a bit forced, but others really resonated, particularly towards the beginning when Joe's father prepares an awful stew, which oddly enough cheers all of them up. The story itself, despite its drama, flows along at a fairly slow, mellow pace. It reminded me a bit of Canada, a book which I didn't finish. The Round House starts off very slowly, but then it really picks up. I had difficulty getting into the book at first, and it was slow going. Still, right from the get-go, Erdrich managed to capture something hard to pin down, as well as father and son's obsession with catching the criminal, to the point that Joe's father brings the files back home, something he almost never does in a normal situation. But of course, this is not normal. I enjoyed the descriptions of the fairly petty cases that Joe's father takes on, and the interpretations of them, of the people who live in and around the reservation, white and Indian. This scene shows the tension between families in the area, without the reader actually meeting them or hearing them say anything. It was quite effective. 

In some ways, The Round House really doesn't seem like it's set in the 1980's; it could be at any time in the 20th century. Louise Erdrich writes very well, and I'm sure factually since her mother is half Ojibwe, the tribe that Joe belongs to in The Round House. I wasn't sure at first if The Round House was going to live up to all the acclaim it received, like the National Book Award and one of The New York Time's best books of 2012, but it eventually was pretty good. It just took a while. 

The Ojibwe is a little known tribe; I had certainly never heard of it before reading this book, or the sacred round house which gives this book its title and is where the crime took place. It's very ironic that such a terrible thing should occur in such a sacred place, and that is where Joe begins to investigate with his group of friends. But as the summary says, it is only the beginning, and the investigations, the official and the unofficial, will change everyone's lives. Meanwhile, Joe's mother is alive, but struggling to cope with the aftermath of what happened to her. 

Joe is a heartbreaking character, in between phases in all sorts of respects, and what happens is just a little bit more than he can handle. He thinks he can though, and he thinks he can find the attacker (as he calls him) without the help of the authorities, with only his very immature friends' help. To give you an example of that, they find a piece of "evidence" in the woods near the round house, some cans of beer, and promptly drink them. And Joe is only thirteen. It was very sad. He also hurts his parents a lot with his investigating. 

Still, The Round House was a good book, one which I would recommend. 

317 pages. 

Rating: ****

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Night Film, Marisha Pessl

Night FilmEveryone has a Cordova story, whether they like it or not. Maybe your next-door neighbor found one of his movies in an old box in her attic and never entered a dark room alone again. Or your boyfriend bragged he'd discovered a contraband copy of At Night All Birds Are Black on the Internet and after watching refused to speak of it, as if it were a horrific ordeal he'd barely survived.

"On a damp October night, beautiful young Ashley Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. Though her death is ruled a suicide, veteran investigative journalist Scott McGrath suspects otherwise. As he probes the strange circumstances surrounding Ashley’s life and death, McGrath comes face-to-face with the legacy of her father: the legendary, reclusive cult-horror-film director Stanislas Cordova—a man who hasn’t been seen in public for more than thirty years. For McGrath, another death connected to this seemingly cursed family dynasty seems more than just a coincidence. Though much has been written about Cordova’s dark and unsettling films, very little is known about the man himself. Driven by revenge, curiosity, and a need for the truth, McGrath, with the aid of two strangers, is drawn deeper and deeper into Cordova’s eerie, hypnotic world. The last time he got close to exposing the director, McGrath lost his marriage and his career. This time he might lose even more. Night Film, the gorgeously written, spellbinding new novel by the dazzlingly inventive Marisha Pessl, will hold you in suspense until you turn the final page."

Night Film was an almost hypnotic read, and right from the first section, it drew me into the dark and strange story of the Cordovas. I haven't read Marisha Pessl's first book Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but I really enjoyed her second literary mystery novel. It's quite a good genre with a wide range of types. The Cuckoo's Calling, for example, was good in its own way, and Night Film was very different but amazing too. And pretty scary. 

I love how the book uses mixed media; most is written in a traditional first person narrative from McGrath's point of view, but in between those sections are emails, texts, articles, phone call records, and more, as seen on the main character's web browser.  I really liked that aspect, as it made the book seem more realistic and offered a break between the narrative. I especially enjoyed the fake newspaper articles about Ashley Cordova and her father; they were very illuminating, even though there was much more to them than what any mainstream article would say. It still added a great deal and made the book much more interesting. I was worried that this aspect of Night Film wouldn't work, but it did. 

I enjoyed the secondary characters, particularly Nora, who had a great name for a mystery novel, although it's not a very common one. All of the characters, I think, could have been more described, but it was the mysterious, disturbed Cordova I was most interested in. Some parts of his so-called philosophy and what the fake website were saying actually seemed appealing, but other parts were just disgusting. Cordova's main idea is that fear is the beginning of freedom. 

I can tell you that I certainly wouldn't want to watch any of Cordova's films, which the first paragraph mentions terrifying people so badly that they're scared of the dark forever after or refuse to speak of it. However, the film of his that his daughter was in sounded really interesting. Here's the description from page 165 in the ARC and page 143 in the final copy of Night Film: "The wealthy, corrupt Stevens family - a gorgeous clan of dissipated Caligulas living in an unnamed European country - is calculatingly butchered, one by one, confounding the police. Though the inspector assigned to the case eventually arrests a tramp who did landscaping work for the family, the movie's final hairpin twist reveals the killer is actually the family's youngest child, the mute, watchful eight-year-old Gaetana - played of course, by Ashley. By the time the inspector pieces this grisly truth together, it's too late. The little girl has vanished. The last scene shows her strolling along the side of the road, where she's picked up by a traveling family in a station wagon. In true Cordova style, it's left ambiguous if this family is destined to meet the same horrific fate as her own, or if she simply made herself an orphan so she could be raised by a happier family." Doesn't that just sound great, if horribly gruesome? It also provides Scott and his new assistant Nora with something to go on about who Ashley was, although of course that was when she was a little girl acting. There are so many threads they must investigate, but who knows which are fact and which are fiction? The Cordova family and their history is so enigmatic. 

Night Film is an engrossing and disturbing novel. Towards the latter half of it, things got a little bit bogged down, but I was always absorbed, and I was certainly glad that I got an ARC from Random House. Night Film came out August 20th. 

624 pages. 

Rating: ****

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Carpet People, Terry Pratchett

The Carpet PeopleThey called themselves the Munrungs. It meant The People, or The True Human Beings.

"In the beginning, there was nothing but endless flatness. Then came the Carpet . . . That’s the old story everyone knows and loves. But now the Carpet is home to many different tribes and peoples, and there’s a new story in the making. The story of Fray, sweeping a trail of destruction across the Carpet. The story of power-hungry mouls—and of two brothers who set out on an adventure to end all adventures when their village is flattened. It’s a story that will come to a terrible end—if someone doesn't do something about it. If everyone doesn’t do something about it . . . First published in 1971, this hilarious and wise novel marked the debut of the phenomenal Sir Terry Pratchett. Years later, Sir Terry revised the work, and this special collectable edition includes the updated text, his original color and black-and-white illustrations, and an exclusive story—a forerunner to The Carpet People created by the seventeen-year-old nascent writer who would become one of the world's most beloved storytellers."

The Carpet People was an incredibly weird little book, first published in 1971 when Terry Pratchett was a little known seventeen year old. Now, he revised it a bit, and it's coming out in November from Clarion Books, which sent me a review copy. I didn't love The Carpet People, that's for sure, and it was rather confusing at times, but there were a lot of interesting creations, and even then, Terry Pratchett knew how to write funny stories (although I haven't really read much of his work). I particularly liked the wights, who can see the past and the future (a conversation with them is rather disconcerting) and the temagant, whose gaze turns everyone to stone. But he only wants a friend. A lot of the other creatures Pratchett creates in this book are really great too, like the pones, large animals with a brain the size of a pea who are still surprisingly intelligent, with their own form of language. They also only stay around if they think you're interesting. 

The idea of the Carpet is really interesting and funny too, although it could have been fleshed out a bit more. Like, is the Carpet actually a huge realm? Is it located in a carpet in someone's home or what? If so, then how come people never get stepped on by feet? All that and more made the book very confusing as I read. So this definitely wasn't an amazing fantasy novel, although I'm sure the revisions that Pratchett put in made it better than it originally was. Still, what the reader does learn about the Carpet is pretty cool, about all the different colored-hairs and the strange creatures. I also liked the drawings that accompanied the text. They really brought the story to life. There were also a lot of very funny sequences, such as the one when the characters storm Jeopard to take it over from the mouls with only half a dozen people, when five thousand couldn't take down the city earlier. 

One thing I find lacking in many fantasy novels is the characters' lack of inclination to question what exists beyond their known world, far away and up above. In The Carpet People, they do do that, to a certain extent, wondering what's above the Carpet, and whether it ever ends. I loved that that so often left out element was included, acknowledging how humans (and other creatures) are always curious about unknown places. It's just unrealistic that in a fantasy realm where not a lot is known that a person wouldn't care at all about uncharted territories. 

Character development was a bit thin, but I ended up enjoying the book more than I thought initially. It starts out pretty slowly and confusingly, but gradually things become clearer and one is able to enjoy this rather silly story. Once I got into it, the book was a pretty quick read; at least in the ARC, the font is very big and the age range is listed as 8+ (although you should never trust those). I would recommend The Carpet People to fans of odd but good fantasy; I'm glad that a new edition was issued. I might try reading some more of Terry Pratchett's more famous works, which I've heard are very good and humorous. I have read The Wee Free Men, but I don't remember much about it except that it was weird, and not necessarily in a good way. The Carpet People was also weird...but in a good way.

289 pages. 

Rating: ****

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Shadow of the Wind (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books,  #1)I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time. It was the early summer of 1945, and we walked through the streets of a Barcelona trapped beneath ashen skies as dawn poured over Rambla de Santa Moninca in a wreath of liquid copper. 

"Barcelona, 1945: A city slowly heals in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and Daniel, an antiquarian book dealer’s son who mourns the loss of his mother, finds solace in a mysterious book entitled The Shadow of the Wind, by one Juli├ín Carax. But when he sets out to find the author’s other works, he makes a shocking discovery: someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book Carax has written. In fact, Daniel may have the last of Carax’s books in existence. Soon Daniel’s seemingly innocent quest opens a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets--an epic story of murder, madness, and doomed love."

I started reading this a couple of years ago, but for whatever reason put it down. I have no idea why, because almost everyone who's read The Shadow of the Wind seems to have loved it, and I was no exception. The book has such a great feel of mystery, romance, and historical detail. It also really captures a love of books that is ingrained in so many people, including me. The writing is a bit odd, but easy to lose yourself in. The Shadow of the Wind isn't a fast read, but it is an intensely absorbing one, and the story itself is fascinating and ingenious. Daniel as a protagonist isn't totally developed, but one gets just enough to understand him a little bit; besides, he's mainly a vehicle. I loved the detail of the pen that Victor Hugo reportedly used to write Les Miserables, I loved the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and I loved this passage: "As I walked in the dark through the tunnels and tunnels of books, I could not help being overcome by a sense of sadness. I couldn't help thinking that if I, by pure chance, had found a whole universe in a single unknown book, buried in that endless necropolis, tens of thousands more would remain unexplored, forgotten forever. I felt myself surrounded by millions of abandoned pages, by worlds and souls without an owner sinking in an ocean of darkness, while the world that throbbed outside the library seemed to be losing its memory, day after day, unknowingly, feeling all the wise the more it forgot." (page 76). The language was masterful and the idea really striking too. 

There was also a lot of dark humor in The Shadow of the Wind, which I really appreciated. A lot of bad things happen in the story, but Daniel and the other characters still manage to joke, albeit in a very wry manner. Fermin, in particular, likes to make jokes, and rant. He was probably the most annoying character, but still kind of sympathetic. 

I will say that the writing in The Shadow of the Wind is kind of dense; I found myself skimming a little bit. But it's still good in a snide sort of way, and the story is just brilliant, full of all the best things: intrigue, murder, doomed love affairs, and an abiding love of literature that many of the characters share. My favorite characters are the ones we never meet (or don't know we're meeting): Julian Carax and Penelope, the two whose fates Daniel is trying to investigate. I also really liked Bea, Tomas's sister. 

The Shadow of the Wind is one of those books I really enjoyed, but for some reason don't have a whole lot to talk about. Basically, if it sounds interesting, you should pick it up. It's not very suspenseful despite the mystery element, but it is an excellent story, with stories within the story. It also takes place across a long span of time; the book starts when Daniel is ten and first visits the magical Cemetery of Forgotten Books, picking up the Julian Carax title that will forever alter his life. But much of the action takes place six years later, when after the stranger with the burned face shows up, Daniel once again starts to investigate the elusive Julian Carax in earnest. And why is this sinister stranger so bent on destroying all of Carax's books? Daniel is determined to find out, and what he does will lead him into terrible danger. I would definitely recommend The Shadow of the Wind.

487 pages. 

Rating:****

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Infinite Moment of Us, Lauren Myracle

The Infinite Moment of UsIt was all ending: high school. It was all beginning: everything that came next. This was true for every senior at Atlanta's Southview High School, not just Wren. And every senior would be setting off on his or her own path, and every senior's path would be different, so there were no earth-shattering surprises there, either. Still, Wren's situation was unusual, or at least she suspected it was.

Summary from Goodreads: "For as long as she can remember, Wren Gray’s goal has been to please her parents. But as high school graduation nears, so does an uncomfortable realization: Pleasing her parents once overlapped with pleasing herself, but now... not so much. Wren needs to honor her own desires, but how can she if she doesn’t even know what they are? Charlie Parker, on the other hand, is painfully aware of his heart’s desire. A gentle boy with a troubled past, Charlie has loved Wren since the day he first saw her. But a girl like Wren would never fall for a guy like Charlie—at least not the sort of guy Charlie believes himself to be. And yet certain things are written in the stars. And in the summer after high school, Wren and Charlie’s souls will collide. But souls are complicated, as are the bodies that house them...Sexy, romantic, and oh-so-true to life, this is an unforgettable look at first love from one of young adult fiction’s greatest writers."

Despite others' criticisms, I really enjoyed The Infinite Moment of Us. It was just what I needed to recover from the shocking, disturbing Crown of Midnight, which was not at all what I was expecting. Lauren Myracle's latest novel is light, but still pretty moving and insightful. It came out on August 27th, and I received a review copy from Amulet Books in exchange for an honest review.

The book isn't fluff though, just basically about a summer romance, unlike My Life Next Door, which had pretensions to being serious but wasn't, really. Nothing as earth-shattering as the event in My Life Next Door happens, but the characters are all grappling with serious problems and fears; Wren feels like she's never really lived her life, and Charlie feels that he's not good enough, that he'll never fit in. I think Lauren Myracle did a good job narrating Charlie's sections, but I still preferred Wren's, mainly because her issues were more interesting to me. The Infinite Moment of Us really, really resonated with me in terms of its themes, and it felt true, somehow, and certainly deeply moving. The portrayal of Starrla didn't bother me as much as it did other people; yeah, she was kind of a cliche and the way she was portrayed wasn't great, but what's more important are the two main characters and their fears. I would hope that other teen readers are smart enough to realize that a person like Starrla isn't realistic, and she's not a really bad person either. Besides, that one issue isn't enough for me to significantly drop my rating of The Infinite Moment of Us, and I loved the writing and the plot. 

The cover was gorgeous, but it also housed a great, fun, thought-provoking summer read. The first 100 pages or so, were, I think the best. I realized that the romance kind of  (just a little bit) felt like insta-love, and that was annoying. Not on Charlie's part, perhaps, but on Wren's. Still, as it developed it felt less and less like that and more like something very sweet. I also loved their conversations about whether humans have souls, what it means to be human, and whether who we are is defined solely by our DNA, by chemicals, by a "hard drive", if you will. Those were really great to read about, particularly as I think that's something I've been thinking about lately. And what Wren says about there being mysteries and not always being able to package them up into neat little boxes; that was great. The whole conversation from page 108 to 113 was great. 

I also loved how the book was so honest about desire and other related things that come with the rush of hormones. Be warned: The Infinite Moment of Us is pretty graphic, and I suppose it's marketed to 16+ or something like that. But we all know those age parameters are stupid. Us mature teens can handle it, right? I just thought I should mention it though. 

I enjoyed The Infinite Moment of Us, which I think really captured first love, and I enjoyed many other aspects of it too. I would definitely recommend Lauren Myracle's latest novel for a light, but not too light, summer read. 

316 pages (in the ARC). 

Rating: ****

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Crown of Midnight, Sarah Maas

Crown of Midnight (Throne of Glass, #2)The shutters swinging in the storm winds were the only sign of her entry. No one had noticed her scaling the garden wall of the darkened manor house, and with the thunder and the gusting wind off the nearby sea, no one heard her as she shimmied up the drainpipe, swung onto the windowsill, and slithered into the second-floor hallway.

Summary from Goodreads: "After a year of hard labor in the Salt Mines of Endovier, eighteen-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien has won the king's contest to become the new royal assassin. Yet Celaena is far from loyal to the crown – a secret she hides from even her most intimate confidantes. Keeping up the deadly charade—while pretending to do the king's bidding—will test her in frightening new ways, especially when she's given a task that could jeopardize everything she's come to care for. And there are far more dangerous forces gathering on the horizon -- forces that threaten to destroy her entire world, and will surely force Celaena to make a choice. Where do the assassin’s loyalties lie, and who is she most willing to fight for?"

Crown of Midnight was one of the summer/fall releases that I was most excited for. And I finally got a copy of the sequel to the excellent Throne of Glass, something of a guilty pleasure for me. Everyone is saying that Crown of Midnight is better than the first book, and that is certainly true. There's a lot more action in the sequel, and the (somewhat hideous) cover matches how fierce Celaena is in book 2, much more deadly, I would say. I would point to what she does in Chapter 28, which also had my heart racing. Crown of Midnight was so much more high stakes and enthralling. I couldn't put it down.

Maas's writing didn't draw me in quite as fast, for some reason. The book was still suspenseful, but not as much (at first). There's more action and less trying on of clothes, to be sure, but Celaena still spends a lot of time fretting and worrying. Which is understandable, considering what she has to deal with. Still, the action scenes are very action-packed and one scene in particular towards the beginning of the book had me almost breathless, racing through the pages. There's also a very strong mystery element to the book, with Celaena encountering a mysterious and terrifying hooded creature in the library. As it went on, I was more and more sucked in.                   

There's lots more intrigue, in a court swirling with secrets and memories. I actually really do like the romance in this series, which is very unusual, considering its love triangle elements. After reading Throne of Glass, I preferred Dorian, but then I read some arguments and thought about it a bit more, and realized that Chaol is actually better; Dorian is kind of an idiot at times, and in Crown of Midnight, he and Celaena aren't getting along so well. Celaena was also kind of a spoiled brat in Crown of Midnight. She toys with people's feelings, she goes on tremendous shopping sprees with her blood money rather than doing good with it, and her temper is even more foul than before. Several times in the book, she lets out a stream of curses for not very good reasons, for minor annoyances really. But main characters don't always have to be likable, and in this case, it wasn't that important (although in something like Fangirl, I do want to like the main character). Besides, Celaena's overall a good person, and she's just struggling to do what's right while also carefully guarding her scarred, wounded heart. 

Even the less active scenes, the court dinners and the conversations, felt suspenseful and were certainly very entertaining. There were seemingly light scenes with menace underneath, beautiful scenes, and deeply chilling and sad sections, for example on page 120 (no spoilers). That was one of the saddest parts of the book, I think. It was both sad and moving, especially to see such talent and beauty destroyed (I'm being purposely vague, of course). 

Crown of Midnight was excellent, despite its character flaws, and it was certainly better than Throne of Glass and much more intense as well. It was more suspenseful, with more action, once I got into the story. And the last part of the book, the ending...it left me stunned. Normally once I close a book, I can start doing other things. But after finishing Crown of Midnight I needed a while to just process it all, and be awed at the complexity of the mystery. It was almost too much, as if Maas tried to cram everything into Crown of Midight. After all, the series isn't a trilogy; it's going to have six books. SIX. I really hope that the books don't lose focus, because I can easily see that happening, books 4 and 5 getting bogged down, all of that. Sarah Maas is also publishing a new series, A Court of Thorns and Roses, starting in 2015, and I have to say that I'm somewhat uneasy about the fact that after then, she's going to be putting about 2 books a year. You can't write good, well thought-out books at that rate. Hopefully the quality won't suffer, but we'll see. At any rate, I'm definitely looking forward to Book 3 of Throne of Glass. How will I survive until Summer 2014, which is presumably when it's coming out? I do have The Assassin's Blade (May 2014) to tide me over, a print collection of all the e-novellas plus some extra stuff. I'm super excited for that too. 

Crown of Midnight was stunning, and it affected me physically and emotionally in a way that a book hasn't in a while. It was also wholly surprising; I expected it to be pretty light like Throne of Glass; instead it was dark and disturbing. But I still really loved it, and it more fit the description of the plot and the badass assassin image.

418 pages. 

Rating: *****

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John le Carre

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, SpyThe truth is, if old Major Dover hadn't dropped dead at Taunton Races Jim would never have come to Thursgood's at all.

"The man he knew as "Control" is dead, and the young Turks who forced him out now run the Circus. But George Smiley isn't quite ready for retirement—especially when a pretty, would-be defector surfaces with a shocking accusation: a Soviet mole has penetrated the highest level of British Intelligence. Relying only on his wits and a small, loyal cadre, Smiley recognizes the hand of Karla—his Moscow Centre nemesis—and sets a trap to catch the traitor."

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was such a complex, ingenious, and at times confusing mystery and espionage thriller, set during the Cold War in England. Our main character is George Smiley, a once retired spy who doesn't stay that way for long. But the first chapter opens not with him, but a somewhat (though not extremely) strange temporary teacher at a boarding school. The writing at the very beginning drew me in, but I was confused; I wasn't sure what Jim Prideaux had to with the high level British intelligence. However, that's what's so ingenious about the book; there are these details and subplots that don't seem to have any relevance whatsoever; then le Carre weaves them deftly into the high stakes story, even though you may have to wait a little bit to figure out their significance. As the first chapter progressed, one could tell that something is not right about Prideaux; he has all this knowledge of crime and at one point he snaps an owl's neck very quickly and easily, something that only a gamekeeper could do, according to one of the boys at the school. 

Other aspects of the book can be confusing and overwhelming too; there are so many different characters in the spy agency, and it's sometimes difficult to sort out who they are and what their roles are. And any of them could be the Russian mole. You can't rule out any one, making the book very electric and very suspenseful. There were almost too many characters, I would say. There's also a lot of technical spy terminology, which is mostly explained and in depth, but some of the lingo wasn't; the reader has to figure out what it means. As the book progressed, a lot more of what was happening went over my head; kind of like The Thin Man and noir fiction, except even more confusing. I still managed to enjoy the book. 

At times, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was a bit dense in terms of its explanations and intrigues, but it was nonetheless very gripping in its way, although not the kind of book that's hard to put down (at least for me). There's so much going on, yet the book proceeds at a leisurely pace; it's fairly long and doesn't feel rushed at all. In fact, some parts of the book almost felt like they moved too slow considering that fact that Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy is a thriller, albeit a smart one. 

There's not a whole lot of actually violence; after all, it wasn't called the Cold War for nothing. The book mainly centers on intrigue, power play within departments, espionage, and lots and lots of betrayal. The British are trying to find out what the Russians are up to in terms of weapons development, and vice versa. All without being caught. 

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy wasn't a great book, and half the time I had no idea what the heck was going on, but the skillful writing still drew me in. I was also kind of distracted while I was reading the book, because Crown of Midnight had just arrived in the mail.

381 pages. 

Rating: ****

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell

FangirlThere was a boy in her room. Cath looked at the number painted on the door, then down at the room assignment in her hand. Pound Hall, 913.

"In Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, Cath is a Simon Snow fan. Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan, but for Cath, being a fan is her life—and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving. Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fan fiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere. Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to. Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words . . . And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone. For Cath, the question is: Can she do this? Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?"

I was not too fond of Eleanor and Park, but I'd heard good things about Fangirl, so I wanted to try Rainbow Rowell's writing again. Fangirl wasn't great, and there were a lot of elements I disliked about it, but I did really like the premise and ended up finding the book okay. I enjoyed the fact that in between chapters there's an excerpt from either a Simon Snow book or one of Cath's fanfictions. The fictional Simon Snow series is definitely modeled very much on Harry Potter, with eight books and a huge fandom, which includes Cath and Wren. 

What I didn't like about the book was the main character. There's antisocial, and then there's nuts. Cath really annoyed me; for the first month at the school she hides inside her room and doesn't go to the dining hall. Even if someone doesn't like talking to new people, even if they feel constricted, I find it really hard to believe that a person would subsist on protein bars for a month. It was crazy, absurd, and I couldn't understand how Cath could be so timid and not brave enough in a month to find the cafeteria. It was also really sad. That said, I could relate to her fears; she was just a bit too extreme to be believed, what with barely talking to her roommate for the first month, and not eating breakfast or dinner. Still, I did not like Cath at all at first, or even a whole lot as the book progressed. Of course, likable characters aren't the most important thing, but I like to have a protagonist who I can both relate to and like, somewhat. That's not to say they can't have problems; on the contrary. But Cath was so miserable and painfully shy the first month, and she didn't even try to do anything about it. It was also very odd that she was so scared of walking on the campus at night, scared enough that she would dial 911 and then run with her finger on the call button. Later, of course, all of this behavior is explained a bit, but I wish Rowell would have given us more clues early on. And what was revealed didn't make much sense.

Wren was worse. It's clear that Cath is struggling with the changes of college, yet she still insists on not having her as a roommate or even living in the same dorm building. That part didn't make sense to me. There was also another solution to their problem: that they would go to different schools. Later, Wren drifts farther and farther away from Cath, and getting drunk and into trouble, and talking with their mother who left when they were little. 

I've made the book sound terrible. It isn't. There was a certain charm to it, and as I said, the story itself was pretty good, and I loved the Simon Snow/Harry Potter element. And just like Eleanor and Park, it got better as it went on, as Cath comes out of her shell, meets new people, and expands her writing abilities with Nick, another student in her fiction writing class. Was it better than Eleanor and Park? I don't think so. Eleanor and Park was a rather sweet romance with a good ending, and Fangirl really didn't live up to my expectations despite other's rave reviews. Still, it wasn't bad, and was entertaining enough. I'm not sure if I'll be reading more of Rainbow Rowell's novels in the future though. It will definitely have to be based on plot. 

My favorite sections of Fangirl were certainly the ones where Cath was writing, thinking about her writing, and going to her writing class. Those seemed to come to life, even if some of the other parts of the book didn't, and I ended up kind of enjoying Fangirl, though not enough to really redeem it. It was insightful at times, and while I didn't like the twins, I did enjoy the other characters: Reagan, Levi, and Nick, in particular. And the book got better the more I read. It just wasn't wildly entertaining or beautiful or gripping or anything. Thanks to St. Martin's for sending me a review copy. 

435 pages. 

Rating: 2.5 stars.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Siege and Storm, Leigh Bardugo

Siege and Storm (The Grisha, #2)Two weeks we'd been in Cofton, and I was still getting lost. The town lay inland, west of the Novyi Zem coast, miles from the harbor where we'd landed. Soon we would go farther, deep into the wilds of the Zemeni frontier. Maybe then we'd begin to feel safe. 

"Hunted across the True Sea, haunted by the lives she took on the Fold, Alina must try to make a life with Mal in an unfamiliar land. She finds starting new is not easy while keeping her identity as the Sun Summoner a secret. She can’t outrun her past or her destiny for long. The Darkling has emerged from the Shadow Fold with a terrifying new power and a dangerous plan that will test the very boundaries of the natural world. With the help of a notorious privateer, Alina returns to the country she abandoned, determined to fight the forces gathering against Ravka. But as her power grows, Alina slips deeper into the Darkling’s game of forbidden magic, and farther away from Mal. Somehow, she will have to choose between her country, her power, and the love she always thought would guide her--or risk losing everything to the oncoming storm."

*Spoilers for Shadow and Bone*

Siege and Storm was an excellent sequel to Shadow and Bone, a book I didn't love the first time around, but which upon rereading, improved a lot. The book starts off when Alina and Mal are in exile, but the Darkling shows up very quickly, with a terrible new power. There's not all that much development; the action starts right away (within the first chapter, in fact). The book might even be better than Shadow and Bone; there are a lot of great new characters introduced, and the book is a lot more action-packed, gripping and suspenseful. The writing also drew me in immediately, which didn't happen with Shadow and Bone. it took a bit longer to get into, even though it started off pretty early with action.

Another reason, I think, why I enjoyed Siege and Storm much more is that the sequel didn't have a love triangle like the small one in the first book. At least, until it progressed. Of course, there had to be some sort of triangle (or quadrangle) however small, to preserve its YA. For some reason, though, it didn't bother me quite as much. At least here, Alina knows that the Darkling is evil and wants to expand the Shadow Fold, even though some of what he says does ring true to her, about never really fitting in, about her power, about being hunted. And most importantly, Alina's growing knowledge of her and Mal's differences. Even though Alina (rightly) hates the Darkling, it cannot be denied that they do have a lot in common; both of them know what it is like to be alienated and to have great power, marking them out from other people. The way they choose to use their powers of light and dark, however, differs vastly. The Darkling is bent on expanding the Fold and his power; Alina on leaving Ravka forever. However, it becomes increasingly clear that that course of action is impossible. 

I think there were great descriptions of how many of the Grisha, who aren't bad people, just go along with the Darkling's plans rather than standing up to him. Take Genya, for example, who was a really good friend to Alina while she was in the palace. She's not a bad person, but she lied to Alina (whose letters to Mal were never sent). She stays by the Darkling because he rescued her from the Queen, and in part because she's too scared to do anything else. 

I really liked the character of Stormhound, the roguish privateer who by turns helps and harms Alina and Mal. He was an interesting mix of contradictions; he'll sell anyone out for a large price, he likes making dangerous and powerful enemies, but he's also very much a patriot towards Ravka, his home country. And as it turns out, he's not who he seems to be. 

In Siege and Storm, more of Ravkan (Russian) culture is explained and expanded upon. There are three animals: the stag whose antlers Alina claimed in the first book, the white sea serpent, and the firebird. I'm really interested by the firebird, a mythical creature that plays heavily in the tales of both the fictional world of Ravka, and the real world of Russia (see Stravinsky's Firebird, an amazing piece). This part of the plot, however, wasn't too original: the main character is different from all the others of her kind, and can be more powerful than everyone, breaking the basic rules of the world. Etc, etc. Still, I have to say that it's a plot device that works really well.

There are lots of deep, dark, secrets revealed in Siege and Storm, and I have a feeling that there are more that have not yet come to light, such as where Alina really was from before she went to the orphanage. Still, a lot is revealed in this amazing second book, and sometimes those revealings create still more complications. 

I loved Siege and Storm, and am definitely looking forward to the third book and final book whenever it comes out (probably summer 2014). The question is, how will I wait that long?

432 pages. 

Rating: *****

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Scarlet, A.C. Gaughen

11983940No one really knows 'bout me. I'm Rob's secret, I'm his informant, I'm his shadow in dark places. No one ever takes me for more than a knockabout lad, a whip of a boy. They never really see. 

"Will Scarlet is good at two things: stealing from the rich and keeping secrets - skills that are in high demand in Robin Hood's band of thieves, who protect the people of Nottingham from the evil sheriff. Scarlet's biggest secret of all is one only Robin and his men know...that she is posing as a thief; that the slip of a boy who is fast with sharp knives is really a girl. The terrible events in her past that led Scarlet to hide her real identity are in danger of being exposed when the thief taker Lord Gisbourne arrives in town to rid Nottingham of the Hood and his men once and for all. As Gisbourne closes in and puts innocent lives at risk, Scarlet must decide how much the people of Nottingham mean to her, especially John Little, a flirtatious fellow outlaw, and Robin, whose quick smiles have the rare power to unsettle her. There is real honor among these thieves and so much more - making this a fight worth dying for." (Lovely rhyme there, by the way).

I enjoyed Scarlet, a work of YA historical fiction and romance. The plot conceit of a girl dressed as a boy is a very good one, and it was done pretty well in Scarlet. I didn't always love the ungrammatical writing style; it felt inconsistent and kind of unrealistic. Still, there were great details and language. As Scarlet would say, it were a pretty good book, although probably historically very inaccurate. I enjoyed both the characters of Robin and Scarlet; they felt like real people (with chemistry) as opposed to glorified idols. I find the story of Robin Hood really fascinating. Scarlet was a bit annoying at the beginning though, with her stubborn insistence on not eating or taking orders or accepting help from anyone. She's angry when Robin wants her to take someone else with her when going to a prison to help someone escape. I suppose it would be infuriating to be offered help just because you're a girl, but that's not why Robin does it; it's because he wants to make sure she's all right. And also, because sneaking into a prison is, you know, hard. 

The writing was totally unremarkable, but as the book went on, it started to pick up. The story itself is very good, as is the adventure. The quiet moments were interesting too. Scarlet gives more detail into how the band actually lives: where they sleep, eat, etc. Obviously, the story differs vastly from the traditional tale, as there's no obvious Maid Marian (although that's part of the easily-guessed secret). But I still liked the way it was told, and as the book went on, I got used to the somewhat odd writing style. The book wasn't a really fast read, but it didn't take that long to read either, with lots of action (though not quite as much as I would have liked), dialogue, and not a whole lot of description.

The romance with John Little served no other purpose than to make Robin jealous, as far as I could see. That part was definitely annoying, and I wish Scarlet would have been a bit firmer in her feelings. At first, it wasn't too bad, but as the book went on, this part of the novel annoyed me more and more; a lot of the parts with John could have probably been cut out, and the book would have been better for it. Of course, they all have much more important things to worry about, her particularly, what with Gisbourne in town and determined to catch them.

Scarlet's dark, secret past was pretty easy to figure outt, especially given the original Robin Hood tale; before she joined Robin's band, she was in London with someone named "Joanna", and throughout the book, bad things relating to Gisbourne that happened to them are hinted at. It's not revealed for quite a while, though, and there were a lot of details that I really wanted to know earlier. Still, the mystery aspect was part of the novel, and woven in pretty nicely. 

Scarlet was a good but not great YA historical fiction retelling of the classic myth. Its half love triangle thing (I'm not sure what to call it) was not good, and the writing wasn't amazing, but other than that it was well-paced and plotted, and I liked it. 

287 pages. 

Rating: 3.5 stars. (between good and really good).

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Angel Makers, Jessica Gregson

The Angel MakersSari is fourteen years old when they carry her father out, carry him through the village lanes, his face bare and blank to the wide sky, carry him through the summer wildflowers that bloom alongside the river, carry him to the cemetery. 

"When the men of a remote Hungarian village go off to war in 1916, the women left behind realize their lives are much better without them. Suddenly, they are not being beaten; they have time for friendships; they even find romance with the injured Italian soldiers staying just outside of town.  For Sari, an intelligent girl who's always been an outcast (her fellow villagers suspect her of being a witch because of her medical knowledge), it's the first time in her life she's had friends. When the men return at war's end, the freedom Sari and the others have enjoyed is suddenly snatched from them, and they realize they need to do whatever it takes to hold onto it. Sari puts her medical knowledge to use to off her husband. Then she helps one of her friends. And another. When the word spreads, she realizes her problems are only beginning. This creeping and hugely readable first novel is based on a true story."

The Angel Makers is a fairly well-narrated work of historical fiction, although it is a mixture of fiction and nonfiction, being based on a true story but with lots of changes made by the author. I'd be curious to read a summary of what actually happened, although not a full-length nonfiction book; this story isn't that interesting. I checked The Angel Makers out of the library, and was glad that I did so; it's not a book I would reread or anything. However, it is pretty entertaining and somewhat thought-provoking. It makes one think about the repression of women in rural areas in Europe even in the twentieth century. And such things were still going on in more populous and educated regions. 

There were some parts of this book that felt a bit off; the cursing, for example. The women in this small village use a lot of curse words that don't seem realistic. I don't know. I'm just not sure I liked that choice of the author. It's just a little hard to take the historical setting seriously when the women are using the f-word. But it might be historically accurate in terms of the language; I really have no idea. That was a minor criticism: my more major one was that the story took a long time getting off the ground. Sixty pages in, a fair amount has happened, but it doesn't feel like anything has happened really, even though Sari's father has died, the men have gone off to war, and the Italian prisoners have arrived. (Incidentally, Sari isn't really a very Germanic name, is it?) I suppose that's a lot that has happened, but it still felt very much like the earliest development of the novel. 

Despite the slowness of the novel, I enjoyed The Angel Makers, which was a fairly intriguing story. As I read more though, the cursing got more and more distracting and annoying. There was just something off about The Angel Makers: historically and the way it was written. It was certainly very different than what I was expecting. I didn't dislike it, but I certainly didn't love it. 

I did think Sari was an interesting character, even if most of the secondary characters were thinly developed. Sari, however, is a very intelligent and interesting young woman; feared by the community before the war, once it begins they all being to develop a grudging respect for her, and at least tolerance. Really, Sari was the only character who felt well developed to me, although I did enjoy reading about some of the other people in the story. 

There's a description of Italian in the book that I really liked: "a language that sounds like bubbles blown underwater." (pg. 66). It was a nice simile. At another point Italian is compared to "smooth, round pebbles dropping into still water." (pg. 103). Both of these have to do with water, and indeed Italian has a very liquid, flowing sound to it. It's a beautiful language, and it's no wonder that traditional operas were all sung in Italian. 

The Angel Makers wasn't bad, but I would recommend checking it out of the library, as it's not a great book. 

340 pages.

Rating: ***