Friday, December 15, 2017

THE CONSTANT PRINCESS


Review of THE CONSTANT PRINCESS by PHILIPPA GREGORY

This installment in Gregory’s loose series (set during the same historical time period with overlapping historical characters but can be read in any order) follows Katherine of Aragon, Henry the VIII’s first wife and the woman known primarily for being set aside for Anne Boleyn.

Gregory is the author who first drew me to historical fiction and her work remains the bar against which I measure whatever else I read in the genre. She clearly does significant research and every book feels bursting with historic detail and atmosphere. However, what I relish most about a Gregory novel is how she makes these historical figures her own. Her characters come to life on the page. Whether or not her interpretation of the inner thoughts of someone long dead remains open for dispute, but regardless she pens a huge cast of compelling, believable characters with plausible motivations for the real-life figure. This book was a re-read for me, but I found myself glued to the page and reading longer than I should just the same.

Katherine of Aragon usually plays a secondary character in our account of Anne Boleyn’s or Henry VIII’s story. What I adore so much about this book is that it is Katherine’s story. The book ends well before Anne disposes Katherine from the throne, instead focusing on Katherine’s early years, ambition, and much overlooked accomplishments.

Whether Gregory got Katherine’s real psyche entirely wrong or not, her Katherine’s strength of character blows my mind. We often define strength by the physical or by flashy displays of exerting power over another, even if the power is more intellectual. However, I have a soft spot for characters with incredible emotional strength, like Katherine, characters whose circumstances overwhelm my empathy even on a hypothetical level. Katherine accepts her life with a matter-of-fact resolve, but I find myself marveling at the kind of restraint and determination life demands of her every single day. Court intrigue novels always unnerve me, probably because I shudder at a life where every word, every move must be carefully calculated, and one slight misstep could destroy your social standing and, therefore, way of life. Katherine finds herself in such a viper’s nest, but she handles everything with an admirable grace and poise.

In contrast, Gregory’s interpretation of Henry VIII is anything but flattering, though entirely believable as well. In fact, he’s a frighteningly familiar figure across history: a narcissist more concerned with his own ego and immediate gratification than anything of real substance, including other people’s well being not to mention the well being of the country he rules. One could almost mock him for his immaturity, but the ripple effect his actions take on the lives of others zaps all the humor out of his childish selfishness.

Gregory’s work will always hold a special spot in my heart as what introduced me to historical fiction and re-reading this book proves to me that special fondness is well deserved.

Friday, December 8, 2017

SABRIEL


Review of SABRIEL by GARTH NIX
(first in the ABHORSEN series)

I first read this book back in junior high and it stuck in my mind ever since as an all-time favorite. Re-reading such books fills me with excitement to re-live the wonder the story aroused in me the first time as well as trepidation that it won’t live up to my memory. Over a decade later and SABRIEL impressed me as much as on my first read as a teenager.

This story follows Sabriel, daughter of the Abhorsen responsible for keeping dead things dead. A literal wall divides the magical from the non-magical. On one side, you have creatures rising from the dead in abundance while skilled necromancers keep them from ever reaching or passing the wall. On the other, you have a world more recognizable to us. Many guards on the wall believe the fantastical rumors, but the farther away from the wall you go the more haughty skepticism you’ll encounter about undead threats. Ironically, Sabriel grows up among these doubters while her father handles said threats. One day, through a mystical, telepathic-type connection, Sabriel realizes her father has died, making her the next Abhorsen, not to mention a daughter determined to find out what happened to a father she loved but barely knew.

There’s a quote on the back of my copy from Philip Pullman describing this book as “fantasy that reads like realism.” I entirely agree. As someone who spends a better part of her life pushing book recommendations on others, SABRIEL stands out as one with an unlikely, eclectic mix of fans. Generalizing, I don’t like undead stories, but Nix’s take on zombies doesn’t even feel like the same genre that I dislike. I also don’t like action scenes; I skim the chase or fight parts and skip to the resolution. Yet when Nix writes a battle or an escape I find myself glued to the page, savoring every word of the scene playing out in my mind. I have also recommended this book to people who don’t like fantasy and nevertheless they enjoy it.

I believe the core of making any book feel so real is the characters. While Sabriel herself doesn’t go down in my mind as a fascinatingly unique character, instead I see her almost as a kind of every person. True, her exceptional bravery in unlikely circumstances should be acknowledged, but there’s also a relatable sense of child groomed to follow in a parent’s footsteps. Maybe we see this situation in our modern world more with doctors and business owners than necromancers, but I view Sabriel as a down-to-earth, every day heroine fated with an absurdly heavy burden of responsibility.

It’s been so long since I last read this book that I managed to forget several important details and twists and found myself delighted whenever the story took me by surprise. I entirely forgot about Mogget, a literal demon cat. There’s something so darkly whimsical about Mogget, and reminiscent of Salem from Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Once upon a time he was a horrifying creature from our worst nightmares, until someone imprisoned him in the form of a cat with a catlike personality to boot. However, for a morbidly humorous twist, Mogget has a way of escaping his cat form at the worst possible moments. Whenever Sabriel finds herself attacked by some terrible beast, you should bet on Mogget slipping his leash, too, so to speak, and adding himself to her list of problems.

I also love the concept of the wall marking literal division, both geographical and social. On one side you have horrors as well as those who protect us from said horrors and on the other a quiet, content lifestyle so safe one doesn’t even believe in said horrors. It’s a powerful metaphor and a thought-provoking dynamic.

SABRIEL more than lived up my memory on re-reading and I look forward to delving into the rest of the series.

Friday, December 1, 2017

COURT OF FIVES

Review of COURT OF FIVES by KATE ELLIOTT
(first in the COURT OF FIVES series)

Above all else Jessamy lives to compete in the Fives, a popular obstacle course competition in her society. However, a ruthless, rigid class system rules said society and Jessamy’s unrealistic dreams could undermine everything for which her family has worked so hard.

This book presents a heavy-handed (but nevertheless invaluable) look at prejudice. Social stratification remains the forefront theme throughout the story, soaking into every character, relationship, and plot thread.

Sadly other readers overhyped this book too much for me. It’s a great book and I come up short for a list of complaints, but it flailed against how many people described it to me as “the best book ever.” I wrote a whole blog post on overhype a while back and expectations will always play a role in our perception and final opinion. A book I go into expecting I won’t like can wow me for the surprise of being good at all while a wonderful book that has been inhumanly idolized can’t help but fall short of such lofty expectations.

The Fives game appealed to me very much conceptually. I’m a big fan of American Ninja Warrior and heard this author speak at a conference where she quoted that competition as one of her specific influences. That said, I struggled picturing the individual obstacles, which detracted from the impact of those actions scenes.

As is standard for me, I found myself most invested in the relationships, particularly those among Jessamy’s family. Elliott crafts such distinct, dynamic characters and I especially enjoy seeing them play off each other. Frequently, Jessamy learns that someone isn’t how she perceived them. She realizes that she made all the right observations but drew all the wrong conclusions. I’m impressed with how the author handles these moments, too, because as a reader I went along with the protagonist Jessamy’s conclusions more often than not only to discover later that the author provided me the same clues and I let myself misread them.

Jessamy’s relationship with her father strikes me as the most interesting. I adore nuanced characters and he comes across to me as a man trying oh-so-hard to be a good man in a society where the odds are stacked against him and where a seemingly easy turn from his values will reward him enormously. He’s a far cry from an ideal father, but he’s no oversimplified, pure evil villain either. 

Populated with a fascinating cast, COURT OF FIVES begins a new series about making our own place in a world that tries to tell us to stay in our place.

Friday, November 10, 2017

TRULY MADLY GUILTY


Review of TRULY MADLY GUILTY by LIANE MORIARTY

I adore this author and the way she creates such complex, believable, and fascinating characters. In this novel, we follow six viewpoints as the story interweaves between past and present. Something happened at a recent gathering between this crowd, something that changed everyone’s perspective.

However, the reader doesn’t learn what happened until over halfway through the book, page 293 to be exact. This frustrated me immensely. I do not like information being withheld from me - the reader - that the point of view character clearly knows, especially if this technique seems aimed at keeping me reading. Also I believe that the longer an author withholds a mysterious secret from the reader, the better and more interesting that secret better be once it’s finally revealed. I did honestly love this book, but would have much preferred the novel open upfront with what happened.

I nevertheless enjoyed the character studies from beginning to the end, and enjoyed entirely without complaint after turning the corner of the big revelation. The six main characters consist of three couples. Tiffany and Vid hosted the infamous barbeque that caused such fallout. Tiffany is a gorgeous, vibrant woman and her husband Vid has the charisma and charm to hold his own in her company. In contrast, they have a quiet daughter who keeps her nose stubbornly buried in her books. Sam and Clementine have two young girls and a seemingly perfect marriage. Clementine is a musician while Sam’s art may be his admirable optimism. The last couple Erica and Oliver don’t fit in as well. Erica has been best friends with Clementine since childhood, though perhaps due more to Clementine’s mother than Clementine herself. Both Erica and Oliver had hard childhoods that left them with numerous ticks, quirks, and compulsions. They’re well-meaning, lovable people, but they understandably grate on people’s nerves.

Despite my insistence that the big reveal should come much earlier, this book hasn’t in the least undermined my strong respect for this author. On the contrary, I’m even more convinced at her knack for creating characters I won’t soon forget.

Friday, November 3, 2017

UPROOTED


Review of UPROOTED by NOAMI NOVIK

Agnieszka lives in a small valley where every ten years a terrible mage known as the Dragon takes one young girl to serve him. In return he keeps the awful Wood’s dark magic from overrunning the village. This novel feels both fresh and modern as well as a familiar fairy tale classic.

Everyone anticipated that the Dragon would take Agnieszka’s friend, Kasia. She’s the Dragon’s type: gorgeous, intelligent, talented in so many ways. Of course, he doesn’t take Kasia; he takes Agnieszka.

I will confess that I liked a lot of what this story does conceptually with common tropes more than I found myself engrossed in the plot of the book. That disclaimer aside, I loved the friendship dynamic between Kasia and Agnieszka. In almost any other book, they would be frenemies. Or Kasia would have a painful fall from her place of reverence. In UPROOTED, however, Agnieszka does not give in to the temptations of jealousy, nor does Kasia take on an expected holier than thou air. The two girls are loyal, steadfast friends who respect one another and cherish each other’s gifts.

The relationship dynamic between the Dragon and Agnieszka also sidesteps typical roles in a story such as this, though their relationship isn’t explored and unpacked quite as much as I wanted.

I loved the suspenseful Wood plotline, but found myself confused and lost in some of the twists and turns and action scenes. I suspect more is revealed about the inner workings of this mysterious force than I followed.

With fairy tale elements and a feminist heroine, UPROOTED is definitely a modern classic. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

LEMONY SNICKET: THE UNAUTHORIZED AUTOBIOGRAPHY


Review of LEMONY SNICKET: THE UNAUTHORIZED AUTOBIOGRAPHY
(fourteenth in the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series)

Oh, did you think the series was done and finished after thirteen books? Well, it’s back with an additional bonus installment, a very tongue in cheek autobiography of the mysterious character behind chronicling the Baudelaires’ unfortunate events.

This is an even quicker read than the already short middle reader books in the original series, as it’s packed with photos and “documents,” meaning fewer actual words on the page.

At times I found the humor a bit young for me, sometimes tedious. Part of the style is Snicket’s propensity for ridiculous rambling tangents. That being said, I expect it’s spot on for the target age and has the fun reward of involving the reader as a co-conspirator in untangling this spy-like puzzle. And the humor still managed to take me by surprise with a good laugh. I particularly encourage reading the Index at the end. My favorite entry is “Poe, Edgar Allan,” which - after listing the relevant pages - says “see also overall feeling of doom.” Look up to the “O” section for “overall feeling of doom” and you find yourself redirected to “see doom, overall feeling of.” Flip back to “D” and the page numbers of relevance are listed as “ix-211.” Yup, that would be the whole book.

It should be no surprise to readers of the series if I add that there isn’t much logical flow to this “autobiography” and that you might find yourselves with more new questions than new answers by the end. Regardless, it’s a playful addition to a popular series that should give younger readers the chance to hunt for clues at coded double meanings.

Friday, October 6, 2017

BEWARE THAT GIRL


Review of BEWARE THAT GIRL by TERESA TOTEN
(based on a review copy)

This story switches in a quick back and forth between two teenage girls: Kate and Olivia. Kate is a hardened manipulator. After a nightmare childhood, she’s learned to take care of herself, a skill that involves no small amount of lying. Currently, she’s conning everyone at her prestigious prep school into believing she lives with her aunt, when in reality she rents out a dump of a room in Chinatown. When Olivia befriends and subsequently invites Kate to move in, it’s the break Kate needs.

Olivia is an idol at their school, due in part to wealth and part to juicy rumors. She disappeared for a whole school year and no one seems sure about why. From some medicine cabinet snooping, Kate knows it must be mental health related but not the details.

Then the young, charming Mark Redkin joins the school administration as a fundraiser. He’s gorgeous with a killer smile and always seems to know exactly what to say to win over whomever he’s addressing. So then why does he make Kate’s skin crawl?

Perhaps her past makes her too cynical, but Kate suspects Mark’s public mask is too good to be true. Her gut tells her he’s bad news, but she can see Olivia being sucked in by the charm. One of the keys to survival is not investing enough in the well being of others to jeopardize your own hard-won safety, but Kate’s finding it harder than she expected watching Olivia drift dangerously closer to Mark.

This is one of those books that exemplify why I dislike rating books with stars. I would give most of the book 5 out of 5 stars. I devoured it. I found the characters disturbingly believable and the suspense had a level of creepiness I usually only experience in speculative fiction. That said, I felt the whole story fell apart at the end. It feels like character development, believability, subtlety, all of that gets sacrificed at the alter of drama and fast pace for an overdone climax that doesn't fit well with the rest of the novel.

While disappointed that the book didn’t hold its own through the end, I still found it a fast, gripping read that I would particularly recommend to anyone interested in psychology. The main characters here are vastly different but each grapples with their own internal battle of survival and what that concept means to them.