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A Reader of Fictions: February 2011

A Reader of Fictions

Book Reviews for Just About Every Kind of Book

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Mystic's Dream - Loreena McKennitt

The Oracle of Stamboul

Author: Michael David Lukas
Pages: 304
ARC Acquired From: HarperCollins via NetGalley

Brief Summary:
Eleonora was born on the worst of all nights, during the sacking of her village. Her birth corresponded with an ancient prophecy, and, true to expectation, she is no ordinary girl. Animals are drawn to her; she has a flock of birds that follows her wherever she goes. In addition, she is incredibly intelligent, a savant. Ellie can recall everything she reads; not only that, but she can also analyze information with a skill far beyond her eight years. All Ellie cares about is spending time with her father, so, when he has a business trip to Stamboul, she stows away in the cargo. Her trip will give her a chance to expand her knowledge and experience, and embroil her in the highest levels of the Ottoman world.

Review:
This is another book that receives the label of 'disappointing' from me. The time period is an exceedingly interesting one: the Ottoman Empire is on the verge of collapse in the days before WWI, trying to navigate the stormy waters of international politics. Eleonora, too, is a really interesting character (to me at least), what with her incredible intelligence and love of literature. Somehow though, this does not equal a thrilling tale.

The story, such as it is, plods along incredibly slowly. There is little action (and when there is a more exciting thing, like a sinking ship, the narration skips from the beginning to the aftermath. Plot was definitely lacking. I never identified any real purpose to the story, aside from the really lame and said-straight-out comments in the brief epilogue.

Despite being historical fiction, the story didn't do anything with the history at all. It was such a waste. Ellie's hinted powers were wasted as well. What of her connection with animals? What else can she do? The ending seemed not so much the intended conclusion as an escape from the author not knowing how to conclude the story he had begun. The book is not particularly long, so there was definitely room for more narration, but it just ends, unsatisfactorily.

I mentioned before that I found Eleonora to be an interesting character. However, the narration follows a number of different people, most of whom I had absolutely no interest in. For example, Reverend Muehler irritated me from the beginning and got perpetually worse (and is plot line was never tied up).

For me, this book showed a lot of promise in subject matter and is well-written, but fails to achieve much of anything. Of course, looking at other reviews, I find that many people loved it. It's all a matter of personal taste.

"A clouded dream on an earthly night
Hangs upon the crescent moon

A voiceless song in an ageless light

Sings at the coming dawn

Birds in flight are calling there

Where the heart moves the stones

It's there that my heart is calling"

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Foolish Love - Rufus Wainwright

The Republic of Love

Author:
Carol Shields
Pages: 366
Publisher: Penguin

Brief Summary

The Republic of Love
is the story of two people: Tom and Fay. Tom is forty years old and thrice divorced. Every week he attends meetings for the newly single, although he is no longer fresh out of a relationship. His life is filled primarily by these meetings, a few awkward dates and his career as a night-time disc jockey. Fay has never married, although she has come close a couple of times; She has, however, been in a number of years-long relationships. For some reason, neither Tom nor Fay seems able to make their romantic relationships stick.

Review:
I own several of Carol Shields' novels, but this is the first one I have gotten around to reading. Incidentally, Carol Shields is an alumna of my alma mater, Hanover College. Pretty much our only famous one (unless you count good ol' Woody Harrelson, who may or may not have actually graduated - I think he got an honorary degree subsequently).

The writing is quite highbrow, full of five dollar words and complicated sentences. This does make a rather nice change from all of the teen fiction I have been reading. For the most part, I really loved her writing style. Every so often, a particular sentence would strike me as a bit over the top, as though big words had been used solely for the sake of using big words.

The narrative of the story moves along at a good pace, especially through the first half of the book. The format of the story, which follows the two main characters in alternating chapters, propels the reader forward, curious to discover how and when they will actually meet. I really loved the thought-provoking ideas about love, serendipity, marriage and being single that are woven throughout this novel. The theme of the interconnectedness of people's lives and the degrees of separation was particularly fascinating. It reminded me a lot of a slightly darker and more literary version of When Harry Met Sally, only not the plot with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. It called to mind the little insert stories about how people met.

I highly recommend this to literary fiction fans. For those who like easy reads, not so much. This is an excellent novel (thank goodness, since I do own several more by Shields!).

"I don't want to hold you and feel so helpless
I don't want to smell you and lose my senses
And smile in slow motion
With eyes in love

I twist like a corkscrew
The sweetness rising
I drink from the bottle, weeping
Why won't you last?
Why can't you last"

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Lonely Princess - Henry Mancini

Aurelia
Aurelia, Book 1

Author: Anne Osterlund
Pages: 256
Publisher: Speak

Brief Summary:
Pretty much every little girl has imagined being a princess and how great that would be. Well, Aurelia is a princess, a crown princess, and her story shows that it's not everything our little kid selves hoped it was. Aurelia's mother left after her brother died in a horseback riding accident years ago. These losses caused her father the king to shut down; he hardly ever talks to her anymore. Her stepmother Elise and she do not have a great relationship, although she loves her stepsister Melody. Her last remaining real friend has just wedded and is moving away. Even worse than all of this, someone is trying to kill her. On the plus side, a cute guy from her youth is back to help protect her.

Review:
Aurelia
is a book I selected primarily for the pretty cover and because it came up just below some awesome fairy tale revision I had read on Shelfari (although I don't remember what book). The main genres to be found in Aurelia are mystery, romance and intrigue. They are all done quite well and convincingly. Another awesome element of the book: the horses. You can tell that Osterlund, like many other girls (like me), adored horses as a child. Many are lovingly described, such that you can get a really clear picture of them in your mind.

The story is satisfying, but is not what makes this a really great read; the characters were what really sold me on this book. Aurelia is not your typical princess. For one thing, she frequently dresses up as a boy and escapes the castle, so that she can familiarize herself with her city. On these journeys, her favorite place to go is the docks, where an old sailor will tell her stories. Aurelia is clever, sarcastic and stifled by court life. She is vibrant and full of life. Robert, too, is well-characterized. The other characters are a bit one-dimensional, but not enough so to detract from the story significantly.

If you're looking for a good princess story, you've found one.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Man in the Box - Alice in Chains

The Fallen Blade
Assassini Trilogy, Book 1

Author: Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Pages: 464
ARC Acquired From: Orbit via NetGalley

Brief Summary:
A boy is confined in a box with no doors or windows, and he is held by silver chains. He cannot remember much of anything, not even his name. When rescued by Venetians, he discovers he is far away in distance and time from his barely remembered homeland, which he learns was destroyed a hundred years ago. What is he and why is he still alive?

Review:
I went into this book with no knowledge of the author and little of the plot. All I knew was that it was the first book of a historical fiction vampire series. My expectations were pretty low. In this context, I liked the book far more than I anticipated.

This story caught my interest early and managed to hold it. There is quite a bit of action and the characters are so odd that I wanted to figure out what was going on. Though I would not have had the story develop the way it did, it was definitely decent.

I had two main quibbles with the book:
  1. There is only one non-attractive woman in the book, the one-armed old woman who raised Tycho, the boy in the box. All of the others are described by words like 'lush.' Unlikely.
  2. Few chapters (of which there are many) pass without someone voiding their bowels out of fear and/or pain. This strikes me as unnecessarily gruesome, graphic and gross. Sure this is a natural thing and does happen to people, but every time violence happens? Really?
Some people will quite enjoy this book, which I thought was pretty decent for what it was. If you have no problems with violence or constant discussion of scatalogical happenings, give this a try. It also has a bunch of action scenes, political machinations and paranormal fantasy. I don't think I will be returning for book two, but this was not a bad read.

"I'm the man in the box
Buried in my shit
Won't you come and save me?
Save me"

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Somebody Else's Song - Lifehouse

The Adoration of Jenna Fox
Jenna Fox Chronicles, Book 1

Author: Mary E. Pearson
Pages: 288
Publisher: Square Fish

Brief Summary:
Sometimes trying to improve the future backfires. Spectacularly. All of the medical advances, like vaccines, have led to a return of large-scale, unstoppable plagues, because the remaining diseases are incredibly strong. This is the world Jenna Fox lives in. She knows the facts, but she does not know herself. Who is Jenna Fox and what happened in the accident that caused her amnesia?

Review:
Although The Adoration of Jenna Fox is technically a dystopia, its main focus is more on Jenna's personal struggle with identity than on the society's problems. The futuristic society presented is a terrifyingly realistic one where medical advances have made terrible and amazing things possible. It questions what medicine may be able to do and how much we should do.

The plot advances in longer chapters of dialogue and paragraphs of description. These chapters are enjoyable and capture the reader's attention, despite Jenna's somewhat distant narration. The short chapters, generally of less than a page in duration, interspersed with the other, struck me as largely (ironic) pretentious, overdramatic and unnecessary. While the story overall does a good job of bringing ethical questions to the fore and making the reader think, these chapters hit the reader over the head with the issues. Pearson should have more faith in the reader's ability to figure some of the issues and questions out themselves.

Despite this weakness, I really did enjoy reading the book. It is quite short and likely exciting enough to hold the attention of reluctant readers. Dystopia readers will want to check this out, as will folks with an interest in ethical questions.

"Can you see me up here
Would you bring me back down
Cause I've been living to see my fears
As they fall to the ground
Cause I remind myself of somebody else
I'm Feeling like I'm chasing
Like I'm facing myself alone
I've got somebody else's thoughts in my head
I want some of my own"

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Colorful - The Verve Pipe

Shades of Grey
Shades of Grey, Book 1

Author: Jasper Fforde
Pages: 400
Publisher: Penguin

Brief Summary:
In this dystopian novel, people are losing their visual acuity. No one can see at night anymore and only some people retain any part of their color vision. Our hero, Eddie Russett, is blessed with the ability to see the color red quite well, a fact which will enable him to marry well and move up in society. This society is a rule-driven hierarchy based on color: your color determines your rank, profession and where you live. Eddie's life plan is thrown out of whack when he is sent to East Carmine, a town in the Outer Fringes, to perform a chair census, an assignment intended to teach him humility.

Review:
Fforde tackles a dystopia with the same flair for the absurd that colors (punned!) his previous works. In Shades of Grey, as with the Thursday Next books, the best parts are the little details, the references and the one liners. The frame of the novel is patently nonsensical. Just accept it and enjoy the delightful tidbits along the way.

Eddie is a likable enough main character, if a bit boring. Jane, the grey (thus colorless) who has caught his fancy, however, is fantastic: rude, mocking and sarcastic. In general, a hoot. In fact, she is a bit like me, only much more violent and determined to make a difference. Her ides of romance is one I can totally agree with: "'You may have noticed I have a temper, [Jane] said, 'but when I calmed down, I realized that this world, blighted and imperfect as it is, would be better with you in it.'" Now that's romance!

For any book lovers or librarians out there (and who else would be drawn to this book, really?), the chapter about the Unlibrary is a definite highlight. So too are the silly rules by which the society is governed, such as the fact that the production of spoons is forbidden. Each chapter begins with a new rule, so make sure to watch out for those. Many of them made me giggle.

Shades of Grey is definitely a bit clunky in places and feels a bit long at times, but was overall quite a fun read. The ending was a bit disheartening, but I suppose I cannot complain about that what with it being a dystopia and all. Still, that was easy to forget and I wanted a slightly happier conclusion. If you enjoy absurdist humor, Fforde is an author not to be missed.

"Look ahead as far as you can see it
We'll live in drama but we'll die in a comedy and
I know I can be colorful (we're living in color blind)
I know I can be gray (my colors fade away)
And I know this losers living fortunate
Cause I know, you will love me
Yes I know, you will love me
I know, you will love me
Either way"

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer Theme - Nerf Herder

Angelfire
Angelfire, Book 1

Author: Courtney Allison Moulton
Pages: 464
ARC Acquired From: HarperTeen via NetGalley

Brief Summary:
She is the only one who can kill the forces of evil. With the help of her guardian, she, a teenage girl with amazing strength, will protect humans from Hell's efforts on earth. Her name is Buffy. Oh wait, no, it's not. Ellie, her name is Ellie. The vampire slayer. Wait, wrong again. She is the Preliator and slays reapers. Whatever, same difference.

Review:
There is no way this book would exist without Buffy; even I (who does not gamble ever) would pretty much be willing to lay down money that Moulton was a fan of the show. The main difference between the two stories is that Ellie reincarnates, rather than the powers being reborn in different girls. Also, her guardian is young-looking and hot. And her friends do not help her in her battle or know anything about it.

On the other hand, Ellie, like Buffy, dates the 'good' version of the creatures she kills. Without any other really important character, the book feels like what Buffy would be with just Buffy, Angel and the "I love you, but we can't be together" thing. Oy. Ellie also seems to experience a ridiculous amount of trouble in her battles before winning no matter the difficulty of the enemy being fought (which always seemed to be the case on Buffy too). Gotta keep the battles interesting right? Only, it's not so cool when the supposedly bad ass heroine drops her sword in EVERY SINGLE FIGHT.

I also had trouble taking a heroine seriously when she chooses to dress like a skanky nurse for Halloween. She's really one of those girls? You want to dress slutty on Halloween, fine, but at least use some creativity! Don't just buy a package from a costume labeled sexy nurse, cop, devil, witch, etc. Ellie also will delay practice for battle to put makeup on. A girl like this just is not going to survive very long in this gig. Additionally in the not a smart fighter category is that she continually talks her guardian into not standing watch. Bad plan. In the real world, this would backfire so hard.

While somewhat entertaining, Angelfire does not stand out for me. Buffy fans will find it a weak copy and lament the loss of the excellent ensemble cast which made Buffy so fabulous. Nevertheless, expect this to be pretty popular with teens.

Note: This is the first in a series of four reviews of books I read while on vacation in Cancun last week. :-) That's why they came all in a row.

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Sunday, February 6, 2011

You Can't Always Get What You Want - Glee

Wishful Thinking
Wish, Book 2

Author: Alexandra Bullen
Pages: 242
Publisher: Point (a Scholastic imprint)

Brief Summary:
Hazel's life kinda sucks. She has grown up in the foster system, passed from one foster parent to another. She never really got the chance to make any real friends at school because she moved so often. On her eighteenth birthday, she is given an envelope that could change everything: it contains the name of her birth mother, Rosanna Scott. She discovers that her mom lives in San Francisco too and decides to attend a fancy event in her honor. For that she needs a dress and she has the perfect one, picked up cheap and needing only a small alteration. The seamstress she takes it to gives her back three dresses and with them: three wishes.

Review:
I was really surprised by Wishful Thinking. It had way more depth than I had expected. Admittedly, I knew very little about it before I began reading, but I did know that Bullen has another book called Wish, so I thought maybe she just wrote the same plot over and over. I still don't know about that, but I am impressed enough by this book that I am not super concerned.

Hazel is a likable heroine. She struggles with selfishness and self-doubt, but who doesn't? Despite all the things she has always wanted, she does not waste her wishes or use them swiftly. In fact, it takes almost half the book until she uses her second wish. Not many people would show such restraint.

Bullen also used the time travel plot (caused by her first wish) well. She acknowledged the awkwardness inherent in falling in love with someone in the past. She also covers issues associated with teen pregnancy without preaching for one side of the debate or another. The best part was the way she conveyed the message that view, both in photography and of one's life, is incredibly important. There may be wonderful things in your life that you're missing, because you cannot see the best in yourself and are not open to others.

This is a sweet, well done YA story. Recommended!

"You can't always get what you want
And if you try sometime you find
You get what you need"

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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Too Much Love Will Kill You - Queen

Delirium
Delirium, Book 1

Author: Lauren Oliver
Pages: 442
ARC Acquired From: my librarian friend Craig (I don't know where he acquired it from, sorry!)
Publisher: Harper Teen

Brief Summary:
Lena lives in a world where love, amor deliria nervosa, is a disease. She cannot wait for her eighteenth birthday when she will receive the cure that will make her safe from this fatal illness. She especially longs for the cure because once she has it everyone might stop treating her like she does not belong. Her mother underwent the cure three times, but it never stuck. Before they could try a fourth time, she committed suicide, leaving Lena with forbidden words: "I love you." Of course, when Lena meets someone, she starts to question whether the cure is to save the people or not...

Review:
I had very high hopes for Delirium, having read on a number of blogs that it was pretty much the most fantasmagorical book of the year. These kinds of expectations often wreak havoc on my reading experience, because the book just cannot live up to the hype. Delirium largely did.

The concept of this dystopia is endlessly fascinating, unlike any of the dystopias I have read before. Certainly, there are others where love is denied and not welcomed by the society (Brave New World, for example), but I have not read one where love was the main issue. The society's documents, which open every section (as is done in Unwind), were very interesting, especially the slightly altered Bible quotes. Very clever.

Dear reader, you may have already gathered that I really do not like Romeo and Juliet, but here it is again, weaved throughout the story. The initial reference was pretty hilarious though; in this world, they did actually allow the play to be read (unlike Shakespeare's love poems), because it was a perfect example of the dangers of love. Even the young saw it not as romantic, but as a horror story. Ha!

The beginning of this novel actually reminded me, oddly enough, of Footloose. The kids, who have not been treated for the love disease, are not allowed to have any fun. They have early curfews, boys and girls aren't allowed to mingle, and loud music and dancing are forbidden. As expected, many kids will find a way to do forbidden things, nor appreciating their parents stifling them. Of course, the comparison ends somewhere: Regulators armed with guns are not quite the same as John Lithgow armed with a Bible.

The only downside to Delirium was that much of the plot was pretty predictable. Still, I enjoyed the writing, the concept and the characters. I eagerly await book two! Highly recommended!

"Too much love will kill you
Every time
Too much love will kill you
It'll make your life a lie
Yes, too much love will kill you
And you won't understand why
You'd give your life, you'd sell your soul
But here it comes again
Too much love will kill you
In the end..."

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Friday, February 4, 2011

I Hate Everything About You - Three Days Grace

Sugarholic

Author: Gong GooGoo
Volumes: 5

Brief Summary:
This manhwa series follows a country girl, Jae-Gyu Sin, a 20 year old. After her mother and grandmother kick her out of the nest, she goes to the city to live with her older brother. She keeps bumping into and embarrassing a tall guy with curly hair, Whie-Hwan, who, through weird circumstances, she ends up working for as a pretend girlfriend. Meanwhile, her childhood friend, who has been in love with her for years and is now a pop star, is trying to win her affection, but she thinks he wants to revenge himself on her for her many childhood pranks.

Review:
Holy cow but this is one absurd story. I have read a lot of manga and manhwa (which is the Korean version of manga by the way and is read from front to back like American graphic novels) and have read many with crazier plots. Still, this one was not redeemed by being charming or anything. I really should have stopped after volume one...but it had some sort of dark power that kept me turning the pages, like I couldn't help but watch the car crash of badness.

Things that really bothered me about this series:
  1. The art: manhwa has, in general, a very distinct look, which differs from manga. I prefer the Japanese style art, although some manhwa are gorgeous. This is not one of those. The characters are supposed to be attractive, but really are not. They are odd and misshapen with incredibly absurd hair. The thing that bothered me most though were the clothes. They were always insanely wrinkled, probably in an attempt to look natural that failed epically.
  2. GooGoo? Really? There had to be a better way to convert that to English characters.
  3. The main character nearly getting raped twice.
  4. The obnoxious character who serves not purpose but to attempt rape on the main character, but who still shows up from time to time.
  5. Jae-Gyu is insanely blind to her feelings and those of others. Beyond the point that is particularly natural or funny.
  6. Jae-Gyu's best friend, who gets dropped from the plot and exists only so that guys can ask her how to contact Jae-Gyu.
  7. The ending, which skips the romantic reconciliation blahdiblah and goes straight to the our future will be so glorious. The End.
I definitely do not recommend this, but I had to review just to get a good rant off my chest. Does it happen to others? This occasional inability to stop reading truly awful books?

"I hate everything about you
Why do I love you"

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

So Says I - The Shins

Brave New Worlds

Editor: John Joseph Adams
Pages: 481 (but they are oversized pages)
Publisher: Night Shade Books

While reading this book over the past week or so, I have been asked by several people whether this book is a sequel to the classic dystopia written by Aldous Huxley. Answer: no, it isn't. The title is of course a reference to that work, but the book is not explicitly about Huxley's (although one story, "Arties Aren't Stupid" did remind me of it). Brave New Worlds is an anthology of dystopian stories by both famous and mostly unknown authors.

Like any anthology, the quality varies. Some of the stories I couldn't put down, while others I had to force myself to finish. The good definitely outweighed the bad for me in this reading experience though and I found a bunch of new authors to watch for!

The dystopian societies are ranged around a number of themes:
  • Getting to live an easy life in exchange for suffering (either of one or many)
  • Babies not allowed
  • Not enough babies
  • Mining (yeah, I don't know either...These were not my favorite stories)
  • Removing all the homosexuals
  • Removing all the heterosexuals
  • Advertising
  • Growing old too slowly
  • Growing old too quickly
  • And more...
A quick word about a couple favorites and least favorites.

The Best: I absolutely adored the story "Just Do It" by Heather Lindsley. Unfortunately, Heather has not yet written a book, so I can't read any more of her stuff. In her dystopian world, advertising has gone crazy! Ad men actually create darts that are thrown at people on the street. If you get hit by a dart, you get a craving so strong for something (i.e. french fries or fish sandwiches) that you have to go get whatever it is immediately. Even worse, it might not stop there.

Also awesome was "Caught in the Organ Draft" by Robert Silverberg. Although his name didn't ring any bells with me, Silverberg has been writing sci fi since the fifties and has a ton of books. Written in 1972, this short story considers a world where war is waged by robots to spare lives...so that all the young people can be used as organ donors as part of a draft. They only take non-vital organs, like the 'spare' kidney or lung, so it's cool, right? And the important adults can now live for upwards of a hundred and fifty years! If you liked Neal Shusterman's Unwind, you definitely don't want to miss this story.

The Worst: I actually liked "Amaryllis" by Carrie Vaughn, but in the context of the anthology, it was awful. The problem: it's not a dystopia. At all. The main character is being treated poorly by an authority figure and the society certainly isn't ideal, but her problem is resolved when they go to a higher authority. The higher authority fixes everything and not in a brainwashing kind of way. The editor even mentions in the story's introduction that it's not a dystopia. So why is it here?

"Sacrament" by Matt Williamson has, in my mind, the problem of the former, as well as being a story I did not enjoy and which did not, to me, seem particularly well-crafted. The story is from the perspective of a torturer in a society where advertising is art. The torturer likes his job, not in a creepy way, so he says, but takes pride in it. His father was one of the great ad-men/artists. The story lacks a point that I could find, does not successfully entwine the father's story with the son's and the main character is not unhappy with the world around him.

So yeah, lots of great stories (way more than I mentioned above, like "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and "Minority Report" by Philip K. Dick). Plus, there is awesome cover art and a fabulous bibliography of dystopian literature at the back! This is a must for dystopia fans.

"We've got rules and maps and guns in our backs
but we still can't just behave ourselves
even if to save our own lives, so says I, we are a brutal kind.

Cause this is nothing like we'd ever dreamt
tell Sir Thomas More we've got another failed attempt
cause if it makes them money they might just give you life this time."

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