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Friday, October 30, 2009

The Hollow by Jessica Verday

Title: The Hollow (First in a trilogy)
Author: Jessica Verday
Reviewed Format: paperback
Release Date: October 1, 2009
Pages: 528

Sixteen-year old Abigail Browning’s best friend, Kristen, has just drowned in the river at Sleepy Hollow cemetery. Her death is understandably sudden and unexpected; Abbey is devastated. With her last years of high school looming large and lonely before her, she plunges into a solitary routine of cemetery visits and perfume-making that distracts her from the pitying stares and weak offerings of her classmates. In the back of her mind is Kristen, always Kristen, but Abbey meets a strange boy at her funeral with green eyes, light blonde hair, and a wickedly charming smile. Now he’s warring for Abbey’s attention and it’s all she can do not to think of him.

First off, the UK cover isn’t as flashy as the US cover (which has a girl--presumably Abbey--wearing the necklace featured solely on the former), but neither one makes direct sense. Of the two necklaces featured in the book, neither one is magenta (or any shade of purple). This particular necklace may have greater significance to the last 2 books in the trilogy, but if it does, why not feature it prominently on one of the other covers where it’s more likely to come up, if at all? It’s a pretty cover--both are--but misleading.

The setting was wonderful. Verday put a lot of obvious effort into researching Sleepy Hollow as a town and the rich history having a legend attached would develop. Each chapter has an excerpt of a line from Washington Irving’s story that, while not necessarily directly related the the proceeding events, kept the story in a dark Halloween mood. This isn’t necessarily a good thing since the plot spans October through January, but served as a reminder that for a town like Sleepy Hollow, some legends aren’t just for Halloween.

The Hollow promises to be more of a romance mystery than a contemporary re-telling of the Sleepy Hollow Legend. I’ll confess: I was disappointed. It wasn’t that I wanted a re-telling, but that I wanted something significantly more than what was given. As such a rich depository of haunting creepiness, the legend has the potential to do more than sit in the background until the last few chapters. As the novel stands now, I was confused how the legend was anything other than atmospheric--only influential in the vaguest, perfunctory way. Abbey lives in Sleepy Hollow. There is a legend about Sleepy Hollow. I get it. That’s it for a huge portion of the plot. The Headless Horseman and Ichabod Crane are as historical as they are legendary for as much as the town reveres the figures in shopfront, bridges, and other names. What made this even more confusing for me was my inability to find a solid plot.

There are several threads Verday teases out for us to follow: Jessica mourning the loss of Kristen, Jessica dealing with Caspian, Jessica making friends with a couple of former Sleepy Hollow Cemetery caretakers, Jessica navigating her home life and high school (the normal teenage stuff) while the former three things are happening. Not one of these takes the reigns and pulls the others in one direction. While I can tell that The Hollow was largely set up for the last two books and that Kristen’s death is probably important to the overall consequences that await Abbey in the near future, I wasn’t too sure if the threads couldn’t be tied a bit more tightly together. I can see how Caspian, the caretakers, and Kristen all probably have something to do with each other, but after finding her friend’s journals, Abbey is angry for a few chapters and then forgets about it until she makes her peace at the end. The suspense of a few vague journal entries and what they really mean is done away with as soon as Abbey loses interest in anger and later, in forgiveness. If Kristen’s death is related to the revelations at the end of the novel, shouldn’t Abbey be more interested? Or is that structural set-up for Abbey to be shocked when the journals prove critical in understanding her death?

Abbey bothered me a lot. She was rude and not in the way that someone who’s just experienced a huge loss is rude. At times absent-minded and distracted (understandable), Abbey was also particularly (intentionally) nasty to people she just didn’t want to get along with. She was also inconsiderate to her parents, her mother in particular, but found solace in the strangers she met at the cemetery. It could be her general bad attitude is excusable when I take into consideration the connection her home life has to Kristen; talking or putting up with the regular Sleepy Hollow inhabitants can be draining if everyone wants to offer some kind of token of sympathy to ease her loss; it’s easier to be polite to someone you’re physically and (inexplicably) emotionally attracted to.

If that’s the case, then I’m even more baffled by how quick Abbey is to swoon over Caspian’s polite comments. Her romantic interest came across as desperate and unbelievable. I couldn’t believe how easy she was to “fall in love” and inflate their “relationship” with more than it was worth. The way of the very young and inexperienced is, of course, something along the lines of what happens to Abbey. Everything is saturated with meaning, every moment is analyzed and considered from a thousand different angles, motives are questioned, and nothing is ever taken at face value. I think, though, if Abbey’s inner dialogue wasn’t as extremely conversational and dismissive as it was, then I might unclench and buy into the sweetness of her first crush (it seems like a first to me). Instead, she shoots herself to the moon over a boy wanting her to be safe (parents do this, too) when I would take this to be the consideration of a stranger doing another human being the common courtesy of expressing concern over inadvisable travel plans. Suffice to say, her romantic fantasies aren’t too imaginative, nor is she hard to please; Caspian’s suave dialogue reads rather scripted and contrived. Clearly, it has been proved that I am not the intended audience for this book.

I was interested, if I couldn’t get into the burgeoning romance of the book, to explore what some of the other characters had to offer. Ben, for one, is interesting enough that I looked forward to scenes with him. Kristen proved different. We are supposed to get an idea of who Kristen is through Abbey’s flashbacks as related memories rise to the surface throughout the book. I was let down again: Kristen turned out to be a generic best friend, someone who’s only really special to Abbey without me really understanding why. I never got a solid feel for who she was, but I’m not sure if that was the point. Kristen’s fate seems more important than Kristen since Abbey becomes entangled in some strange circumstances that perhaps Kristen has something to do with as well.

The big reveal at the end was wrapped up too quickly. With the focus on the legend being so loose and at most, tangential, to the rest of the plot, I had a hard time accepting its sudden importance. The inclusion of it, unfortunately, seemed tacked on to me and disingenuous as a result. I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I’ve made my peace with the fact that I am not sixteen anymore and am probably not whom this book was meant to woo. I won’t be picking up the sequels, but would recommend this to people whom I think would enjoy it. Thank you to Simon & Schuster UK for the review copy! I just wish I’d enjoyed this one more.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Basajaun by Rosemary Van Deuren

Title: Basajaun
Author: Rosemary Van Deuren
Reviewed Format: Proof Copy
Release Date: January 29, 2009
Pages: 261

Basajaun (pronounced “bah-sah-jahn”--last part rhymes with “shawn”) is a bunny, he’s also Cora’s best friend. Cora’s a young girl being raised in 1906 by her father after her mother died of consumption years before Cora can remember. Their small town is being overrun by rabbits and a town meeting is called to find a resolution. When Wayne--Cora’s father--prepares a speech for his non-lethal proposal, he doesn’t expect to be brushed aside so easily. Unknown to him, the town’s called in a Pastor from Australia with a desire to get rid of the rabbits that crosses into an obsession.

Proselytizing the moral dangers the rabbits represent, he drags a young pregnant teenager with him wherever he goes, as proof positive that sin has heavy consequences. Connecting her out-of-wedlock pregnancy to a rabbit infestation by a thin, religiously-fueled thread, the Pastor’s solution is to kill the rabbits--all of them. What follows is an adventure of mystery, magic, adolescence, and romance. Cora must figure out how to save Basajaun’s friends, reveal the Pastor’s true evil, and help Nellie escape his prison home.

It’s important to read Basajaun for the story. As a first novel, it reads a bit like one with some awkward transitions, characterizations, and confusing, unexplained events. The magic of Van Deuren’s writing is that it’s still pleasing and drives the story forward. It’s easy to become involved in the mystery and suspense of the plot. Van Deuren is an earnest writer and there are passages that rise above the rest, giving us a peek of the seasoned writer she’ll no doubt become. For example, the scene where Cora walks unexpectedly into a moment of privacy between Nellie and Henry is pulled off very tastefully. Hints and allusions serve the mood while reactions explain what could very easily have turned into a detailed, two-dimensional description. This scene was one of my favorites. It had a lot of emotion without being over the top and captured the awkward age of the trio beautifully. Henry also developed a bit more dimension as a character as we find out some of the difficulties he’s faced and his constant struggle to fit in.

Basajaun is at heart a story about freedom and the trials one has to undergo to get it. There’s also a focus on what it means to be happy and how romance fits into happiness. To really get into the spirit of the tale, you have to let yourself believe in the many charming ideas Van Deuren imagines, such as sentient bunnies and marmots, a necklace with transformative abilities, and, among others, the determination of children to save those in need, even if they don’t--or can’t--speak.

I developed a soft spot for Basajaun. When I read the synopsis, I was reminded of another story with sentient animals at the mercy of human hunters: “The Secret of NIMH.” It was one of my favorite movies (I never read the book) growing up. Already interested, I was surprised when the author was generous enough to send me a proof copy. There are some technical errors that were most likely fixed for the final edition, although some elements of the plot were probably left alone. I do wish Cora had an actual reaction when Basajaun started to talk, but can only imagine the explanation lies somewhere in the power of childhood imagination. Who are children to question when animals satisfy a secret desire by actually talking back? A child may accept it as fact without question, but for the sake of the reader, the moment would have felt less awkward and unimportant, if Cora shared our surprise. After all, Basajaun talking is anything but unimportant.

I also wanted a better ending for Henry, the character I found myself liking the most. Cora’s dismissal of him at the end seemed too cruel without including him in the epilogue to sate my curiosity. But this wasn’t Henry’s story. It belongs to Cora and Basajaun.

With time I’m sure Van Deuren will smooth out the rough edges of her talent and continue to write fantastical stories that become reminiscent of little legends. I enjoyed reading Basajaun and a grateful to Rosemary Van Deuren for the opportunity. :)

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey

Title: The Monstrumologist: The Terror Beneath (Book One is a series)
Author: Rick Yancey
Reviewed Format: UK paperback
Release Date: October 1, 2009
Pages: 434

Before I go any further, let me warn you: this book is peppered with gory descriptions not for the faint of heart; in some instances, brimming is the more appropriate word. In this case, the gore is seething and crawling with a life of its own, not the tasteless in-your-face type of blood explosions seen in pop horror movies; Yancey’s gore is every bit ambiance as it is instrumental in understanding the horrors hidden in The Monstrumologist.

William Henry is apprentice to Pellinore Warthrope, a self-declared doctor, educated in the finer art of monstrumology, the study and/or hunting of monsters. Warthrope’s is a profession as much feared as it is misunderstood. The 1888 New England town where he lives turns a blind eye to his work and in the same movement holds its breath in apprehension with the hopes that the Doctor’s services will never be needed. This quiet tension infuses the mystery surrounding the death of William’s parents, in particular his father, whom was Warthrope’s assistant before his son. Now the ward of a man with an obsessive passion for his work and a devotion to science (at the expense of food and sleep at times), William finds himself opening the door in the middle of the night to a strange, desperate man with a horse and cart hauling cargo unknown and dreaded all the same.

The Monstrumologist is categorized as YA. The only explanation I can gather for that is the fact that Henry is twelve. Although told from his perspective, this is a frame story; we are reading through the journals of a much older William looking back on his youth and apprenticeship with Warthrope. The language is sophisticated, elevated, and at times, poetic and dramatic. While Henry is relating a story from his youth, there’s an odd contrast between his twelve-year old naivete and his adult hindsight. The mix makes for a marvelous perspective in time and maturity, nuanced by the wonderful Victorian language Yancey uses.

Juxtaposed against the beauty of the writing is the gruesomely satisfying viscera of William’s reality where the act of washing blood and cranial matter from one’s hair and body can lead to philosophical ruminations rising far above the mundane task of cleansing. This multilayered approach to themes like family, monsters, places of the beyond and unknown, life and death, are what help The Monstrumologist to be so rich, so articulate, so charmingly dark. Pellinore’s name, for example, given to him by his father after the Arthurian legend who chases the uncatchable beast, is both nostalgic and alarming in foresight, “...the passing on of a hereditary malady, the familial curse” (p. 426).

Relationships are particularly important in this book, but most importantly are those between fathers and sons, not necessarily literal titles. Yancey’s efforts are most noted between the self-absorbed doctor and young Will. The story is driven by their relationship as much as it is driven by the gut-churning Anthropophagi, grotesque humanoid monsters with mouths for torsos and eyes for shoulders. I could feel Will’s frustration and feelings of abandonment and obligation, “[r]unning away would have been tacit acknowledgment that [his] father had died in vain” (p. 191), a tangled mess of emotions that war with the futility of his alternative: an orphanage. Though difficult to read (emotionally, not technically), I thought the dynamic between the two was beautifully executed, a tenderness hammered out through their nightmare ordeal.

I was very impressed with Yancey’s ability to write the most incongruous scenes--a beautiful, green and sunny Spring day, the backdrop for a grisly murder scene; the macrabre found its counterpart easily with Yancey’s skill. For as much visual contrast as there was in this book, it made other areas that much more arresting in our inability to draw clear distinctions, and that much more alluring in the challenge. To alleviate my attempt to continue describing how amazing Yancey’s writing is, I found a sample sentence (really, there are so many to choose from) in the hopes that, if you haven’t already felt the urge to read this book, this may prompt you to do so:

”I could hear him muttering variations of the argument couched in the coach, like a composer struggling with a difficult bridge seeking to impose melodic balance to the discordant chords of his recalcitrant remorse.”


The length of this novel can’t be explained by the amount of things that happen, but to the language that lends itself to go past a surface reading and explore such interesting--albeit not necessarily good--characters. Kearns, for instance, likes his job a little too much for my liking, but in his fanatical devotion to the “morality of the moment” teases out the Doctor’s contrary nature, which in turn reflects upon Will.

There are so many things to enjoy about this novel: the writing, the story, the monsters. Again, I’ll stress that this is marketed as YA, but with words like stentorophoric, meritorious, calumny, and sapor, can (and should) be enjoyed by adults, too. I never like to underestimate the reading ability of children or teens; The Monstrumologist has a little bit of everything for readers of different levels or different literary inclinations. I’ll admit I’m not a fan of gore. I did not know there was so much of it before reading. In fact, reading parts of this book made me pretty queasy, but it was worth every nauseous second. There’s illustrations throughout the UK edition of all sorts of medical supplies, tools, and pieces of anatomy. Punctuated every now and then, in addition to sprawling across the beginning of each folio (there are three), the illustrations are unsettling as clinical diagrams, but make the book that much creepier and real, as if William’s journal were torn from the pages of a medical journal not entirely erased of academia. The Monstrumologist was the perfect book to read before Halloween (a coincidence I’m very glad for), but is a must read for fans of Gothic, horror, or fantastical suspense. What’s even better is it’s the first in a series. I’m already waiting for book two.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Title: Catching Fire, Book Two of The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Reviewed Format: hardcover
Releast Date: September 1, 2009
Pages: 400

Things in Panem have definitely caught fire. After Katniss and Peeta’s miraculous double victory, they are taken back to District 12. There’s only a little downtime before the Victory Tour begins and the two are carted away with their retinue of stylists, designers, and Haymitch to visit each of the districts in a prolonged celebration of their survival. If only Collins left it at that; if only the crowds weren’t straining behind happy façades or that Katniss hadn’t just played along in Book One and really loved Peeta in the way we all know he deserves; if only the districts weren’t so poor; if only they hadn’t had to rebel 75 years ago; if only President Snow wasn’t around.

I could not put this book down (That’s happening a lot lately: Boneshaker, Leviathan…). If anything, Catching Fire is darker than The Hunger Games, and ten times more addicting. There are unbelievably more complications and more convoluted, morally-troubling alliances. The consequences are heavier and the relationships are more difficult. In short, Catching Fire has everything The Hunger Games offered plus extra, just for spite. President Snow, in case you ever wanted to know, is one creepy, malicious fellow who really has no business running a country. Except, I kept wondering why it’s President Snow who’s in charge and, what happened 75 years ago exactly? Was he, like the victors of the Games he enforces, just the lucky one, the most ruthless one, who made it out on top? Catching Fire doesn’t answer those questions--it gives us more. A rebellion is growing with Katniss at its center, rumors circulate about District 13, and there’s an even darker pallor coloring this year’s Hunger Games.

Catching Fire is more a study of Panem and the day-to-day fears of District 12 that are, ironically, not at all alleviated by Katniss and Peeta’s victory. President Snow is infuriated with the duo’s subversive tactics that undermine everything he exists to enforce. On a personal visit, he makes barely civilized threats that would flatten anyone other than Katniss. Dozens of new Peacekeepers are brought in to fix the lax in law enforcement. Security is tightened, demonstrations made public, and it’s all Katniss can do not to just grab her loved ones and run away. She can’t leave, not yet anyway. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the districts’ defeat and the third Quarter Quell: a quarter century celebration that compounds the yearly Game into a warped celebration of itself, more ruthless and cutthroat than usual (as if the districts need reminding they are beneath the Capitol’s contempt). This year, the twist is terrifying and white-knuckle-inducing.

Just when I thought Catching Fire couldn’t be any more dramatic or horrific, Collins put in another, if condensed, version of the Games in the last third of the book. Before I could wonder if she was going to risk ruining such an amazing trilogy with the overuse of the same ploy (rendering it a useless plot device), she surprised me. I should have known. There’s a lot of suspicion and fear in this book, but for the most part, it’s political, however, frightening on the scale that survival was for The Hunger Games. The ominous threat of the Capitol and What It’s Going To Do To The Districts that was a constant source of paranoia in the first book, is made real in Catching Fire. We don’t just hear by way of past events or safe assumptions, we see people being punished, things set on fire, food taken away. The districts in their entirety suffer Katniss and Peeta’s victory, but they also internalize the couple’s single act of rebellion, spurned by shared disgust and frustration, united by the love story played out before the cameras.

The symbolism of the mockingjay is teased out to the max as is Cinna’s initial genius in the wardrobe department. His designs moved a nation to rethink the way the game has been played for so long; because Collins likes her metaphors, his costumes also contribute to Katniss becoming an idea, not just another winner. Collins has a way with suspense and reality. As a reader, you really feel the emotions her characters experience. As a result, I absolutely loved the scene where Katniss thinks she’s seeing a kiss instead of the obvious (not mentioned here to avoid spoilers). Even though I knew what it was she must really be seeing, I couldn’t help but be drawn in to what she thought she was seeing. In the end, I laughed out loud when she came to her senses.

There’s so much tension in this book; I felt both exhausted and exhilarated by the last page. There isn’t a single character who lacks definition or who isn’t interesting in some way. Everything is just so good! I always feel bad when I write about a book I loved because I can never say exactly what I want to say. Trust me, though, if you’ve read The Hunger Games (and if not, why haven’t you?), Catching Fire is a must read. Don’t listen to anyone who dismisses the series out of some antiquated loyalty to Battle Royale or any other predecessor with similar plot elements or storyline. This series has earned the right to have its own place on your bookshelf.

Thank you to Book Love Affair for the contest prize!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Title: Leviathan, Book One in a series
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Illustrator: Keith Thompson
Reviewed Format: UK hardcover
Release Date: September 29, 2009
Pages: 448

How do you get a 15-year old boy to do exactly what you want him to do? Ask him if he’s too scared to do it. At least, that’s how two men under his father’s service manage to convince Aleksander Ferdinand--heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne--to leave the safety of his rooms, abandon his mock battle toys, and put his Cyklop Stormwalker lessons to practical use in the middle of the night to drive his fencing and driving instructors, and a handful of other men loyal to the throne as far away from home as possible. Leviathan is Steampunk, you see, and the nature of the genre is providing readers with an alternate history--in this case, it’s the summer of 1914 and Eastern Europe is rife with tension. What Alek doesn’t know is his parents have been assassinated in Serbia, poisoned in an attempt at provocation; someone certainly wants war.

This war, however, won’t be waged with mustard gas or in trenches; Aleksander’s Great War is one split down the middle of two factions: the Clankers and the Darwinists. The Clankers depend on mechanics and steam power, man-made machines with legs that mimic animals and firepower that rivals the creative weaponry and biotechnology of their rivals. The Darwinists are inspired by Charles Darwin and his Theory of Evolution. In Leviathan, the mystery of DNA --brought forward a few decades for the sake of plot--has been discovered and manipulated to create crossbreeds of animals and huge, living dirigibles as part of their military power.

The Leviathan is one of these airships--one of the biggest--in which a young girl, Deryn Sharp, manages to serve aboard after an accident during her practical entrance exams leaves her stranded among its crew. Stranded isn’t the word Deryn--or Dylan as she’s known to her new crew members--would use; blessed is more like it. She’s looked forward to this day for as long as she can remember, but being a girl hasn’t made it easy. Women aren’t allowed to joined the military, but Deryn’s brother--already an airshipman--has helped her study and perfect her disguise as Dylan, the boy. Their ruse has worked so far, but Deryn is in for more than she ever could have expected. Before the Leviathan can return Deryn, Alek’s parents are killed and war declarations start cropping up across Eastern Europe, summoning the huge airship to a highly secretive mission that involves a thylacine, a zookeeper, talking lizards, and a batch of eggs.

Leviathan is funny and creative--Scott Westerfeld has imagined a world out of the depths of evolutionary history. As he writes in the Afterword, “Leviathan is as much about possible futures as alternate pasts. It looks ahead to when machines will look like living creatures and living creatures can be fabricated like machines” (p.439). Not to run away with the possibilities of what seems to be a technologically evolved society, Westerfeld has tempered those advancements with the realities of social politics as they existed at the beginning of the 20th Century: women can’t vote or join the military; the divide between the aristocracy and the general public has never been more clear; distrust runs high for all technology based on ignorance and gross misunderstanding, religious and personal belief. To be fair, technophobia still exists, but in the case of the Darwinists versus the Clankers, personal preference and biased ideals over the dominant technological advancements are strong enough to start one of the most vicious wars in history.

In the middle of it all there is Deryn and Alek, 15-year old vulnerable sweethearts who only want to do what’s right. Both are very new to the ways of the worlds they’ve been thrust into: Deryn, the floating home of the airshipmen; Alek, the politics of being the heir to an empire. In their youthful exuberance, it’s encouraging to see their idealism isn’t jaded by attitudes of those in charge who, in their age and experience, have turned more pragmatic than hopeful. Unfortunately, the innocence of youth keeps getting them into trouble with their more experienced, cautious, and suspicious adult counterparts. The friendship they develop is really quite endearing against the politics surrounding them, determined to drive them apart. It’s touching and very understandable that two children, who represent so much of what each side stands for, are able to set aside their differences and begin to learn from each other. Deryn teases Alek about his irrational fears and disgusts over the conglomeration of living bodies that make up the Leviathan; Alek makes sure Deryn sees the advantage of machines. In between their banter is the truth of the situation: the survival of everything dear to them depends on teamwork; biotechnology is as necessary as gears, metalwork, and engines. Cooperation is the key to success.

My favorite character had to be Dr. Barlow. She’s sharp and intelligent, British, and far removed (in belief) from the petty squabbles that would deny the advances of any science to any country for the sake of political advantage. She’s a true scientist, but also a humanist and becomes a confidant to Alek and Deryn, entrusting them with the secret of her mission. Westerfeld’s writing lends itself more to this type of commentary than anything else. He examines our world from a different perspective, but arrives at an interesting conclusion: does it really matter what advances are made, in any form, for any society, if those advances are greedily kept to a select few countries or people? What are the repercussions of keeping others ignorant on purpose? Does it really matter which group of people have the advantage or is it more a question of how it’s used?

He wrestles with duty against morals, juxtaposing the order of the military against the plight of mercy. As Deryn finds out, doing one’s duty can have its consequences; sometimes it’s up to us to make the hard calls when we start to believe that the rules were sometimes meant to be broken. I like the socio-political commentary that comes with Westerfeld’s book, the engines that drive his SF novels and project them as much into our past as into our near future. His themes reverberate widely and remind us to consider which is most to our advantage: helping just ourselves or helping both ourselves and others?

Thank you to Simon & Schuster UK for sending me a review copy of this book to review! :)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Title: Boneshaker
Author: Cherie Priest
Reviewed Format: paperback
Release Date: September 29, 2009
Pages: 416

There are several really cool things about Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker: the first is the eye-catching cover; the second, that it’s steampunk; the third--only noticeable when you peek inside--is the brown- (née, sepia) colored font. Reading Boneshaker is like looking into an old Victorian photograph--the exact effect I’d want if I was writing a book to fit a genre influenced primarily by that era. This isn’t the first book I’ve read with a font color other than black (an edition of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story that I own comes to mind), but it was surprising and fit well with the genre.

Cherie Priest did a little (okay, a lot) of alteration to history for this book. The Civil War is instead the Great Rebellion and has been ongoing for the past 18 years. I’m not too familiar with Seattle’s history, but she mentions in the Author’s Note at the end that she took many liberties with that as well. If you can stand suspending your belief in historical accuracies and want to read a book that’s all about “a grand and dangerous adventure” (p. 62) then Boneshaker shouldn’t bother you at all.

In fact, if you like zombies, you’ll love Boneshaker; let me tell you why. The book opens with an excerpt from a book in progress written by Hale Quarter laying out the historical foundation of which we’ll need to know in order to understand the repercussions of certain events. It’s the 1860s and the Russians want to break up Alaskan ice to find gold, but haven’t got the means to do it themselves. Lucky Leviticus Blue wins the contest that follows and in a short amount of time, creates Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-shaking Drill Engine. Inspired by greed and power, the Russians pressure Blue to finish earlier than the deadline, but a test run for demonstration purposes goes awry and Blue’s Drill Engine winds up tearing through the underground of several blocks including those of a district lined with banks. Money is stolen, people are injured and killed, but when it’s all over Blue and his machine are nowhere to be found. Shortly after, healthy people otherwise unaffected by the Drill’s menacing journey start to fall sick and die, but they don’t stay dead for very long.

When the novel opens onto the first chapter, we meet Briar Wilkes and her son Ezekiel--Zeke for short--living in what’s now become the Outskirts. The drill’s haphazard run opened up an underground vein that’s been releasing dangerous fumes into the air for the past 16 years; the blocks ruined by this blight has been partitioned off from the rest of the city. A huge wall now separates it from unaffected grounds and it’s in the Outskirts Briar has been raising her son. As we soon find out, there’s a man named Hale Quarter nosing around for information regarding Briar’s husband and father--Leviticus Blue and Maynard Wilkes, respectively. Everyone believes Blue responsible for the Great Blight; Briar and Zeke have had the past 16 years as punishment, reminders from an angry public that won’t let Blue’s legacy die. Convinced of his father’s innocence, Zeke develops a plan to enter the old city and find evidence to prove his case.

Boneshaker is all action and suspense, with zombies. In fact, I felt at one point the zombies almost became the driving force of the novel, leaving Zeke and Briar’s journey to the periphery. It seems as if the book started with one purpose in mind--finding the truth about Leviticus Blue--and the zombies became the rouse for Priest to change tactics halfway through the book. As it turns out, there’s more to the novel than Leviticus Blue.

The suspense that looms over the mysterious Minnericht was written well--so well I was a little scared when he actually appeared; he was creepy, frightening, and forceful in all the ways Priest had led us to believe. He’s only one character out of an entire cast that all stood out amazingly on their own. If Priest can do one thing really well, it’s write interesting and vivid characters. My particular favorites were Lucy, Cly, and Jeremiah (although why his dialogue was always italicized when he wore his mask, I’ll never understand). The women in particular are strong-willed and independent. They’re as fierce as the next person in an environment I’d expect nothing less from. I was only confused because a lot of times Zeke came off as too immature and trusting for a boy of his age (15 going on 16). For the sake of the book, there wouldn’t be too much of a plot without him making certain decisions, but I couldn’t help thinking he was more like 12 going on 13 for as youthful as he acted.

In any case, there were a couple of other disappointments. I wish Priest had done more with lemon sap because let’s face it: a drug that, with chronic and prolonged use, will eventually turn you into a zombie is a really, really cool idea. I also was never quite sure what actually caused the blight--the reasons were given as suggestions, offered to the characters and readers as something logical to consider, but never in such a way that I trusted it completely as something to believe. Other than that, I loved Boneshaker.

There’s all sorts of extras that make the book worth reading, the least of which is the setting; the Civil War never looked so different when labeled the Great Rebellion and prolonged for 18 years. I think most of all, the characters fleshed out the personality of the city with their rough, no-nonsense demeanors, soft hearts, and determination. If you want to read a book about survival and hope with a menacing bad guy and weapons with names like the Doozy Dazer, then read Boneshaker. The zombies and the mad scientist don’t hurt either.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Zorro by Isabel Allende

Title: Zorro
Author: Isabel Allende
Reviewed Format: trade paperback
Pages: 390
Release Date: January 1, 2005

Diego de la Vega leads two very different lives: the aristocratic son of Alejandro de la Vega with an affected air of delicacy who is a bit of a hypochondriac; and the silken, masked heroic crusader of justice, Zorro. Raised near the San Gabriel mission in the late 18th Century, Diego witnessed the scale of mistreatment natives experienced at the hands of Spanish settlers. Acutely aware of his father’s ignorantly complicit role in this, despite allowing an Indian boy (Bernardo) to be raised in his household side by side his son, Diego turns to his mother’s ways. Originally Toypurnia of a local Indian tribe, Alejandro fell in love with her after caring for her wounds and tried to cultivate the Spanish side of her heritage to better ingratiate their marriage into the greater Spanish society. The heavy Spanish dresses and severe hair-dos never suited Toypurnia. As her son grew, she raised him alongside Bernardo, in the ways of her tribe. In this way, both boys grew with an in-depth understanding of both Spanish society and the native ways of those who came before.

Forever marked with the cruelty and injustice exercised by the Spanish, Diego makes a promise to himself: never forget that he, too is part Indian and that injustice to anyone is wrong no matter who they are or where they come from.

Isabel Allende’s Zorro is lyrical and alluring romantic epic. Filled with humor and endearing relationships, Zorro is a spirited adventure of love, justice, and good fun. The narrator is mischievous and as adventurous as her protagonist, tempting the reader with foreshadowing and teasing with narrative interruptions and tangents unrelated to the immediate events of the novel. These interruptions either help to create an air of the circuitous nature of the story as the narrator slowly unspools the threads of Zorro’s life or they’re distractions that serve only to lengthen an already long novel. I prefer the former; Allende’s style of writing supports the nature of those digressions as do the narrator’s character portraits. If you can imagine watching a painting in progress, you can imagine the beauty of Zorro (the novel and character), the optimistic champion of the wronged, a mestizo Robin Hood with a Spanish accent (this, I am only imagining), ears that stick out a bit too much for his comfort, and a fashionable and shiny outfit.

Zorro is split into 5 parts plus an epilogue in which the identity of the narrator is finally revealed to “very inattentive readers” (p. 387) who may not have been able to piece together this mystery on their own. Zorro’s adventures start before he is even born; Allende reconstructs the meeting and eventual relationship of his parents, his childhood, and his journey to Spain and back to Alta California.

For Zorro fans, this isn’t a conglomeration of numerous swashbuckling adventures or hazardous encounters with evil men and women. This version serves more like a prequel to everything we know about Zorro. Think of it as an imagined shaping of the way in which Zorro came to be the caped hero we all know today. This may disappoint readers wanting a tale with a bit more adventure--Allende’s Zorro doesn’t even remotely fall into life-saving circumstances save a handful of times, the last of which, of course, is the most explosive.

There’s also a lot of history in the novel. If you weren’t already familiar with it, Zorro puts into context the ongoing development of California and Mexico under distant Spanish rule when the Mission system is already in place and struggling to stay alive. Spanish and Indian cultures clash dramatically albeit Padre Mendoza is more sympathetic to his acolytes than I would imagine European priests to have been, despite clinging to his religious convictions that the savages must be converted or be doomed to an afterlife in hell. There are native uprisings and rumored talk of independence as exampled by the United States far to the east and the rebellious French across the Atlantic. Also, for those unfamiliar with the terminology or for those who might be bothered with the label: for a very, very long time, Spaniards (and then later, Mexicans as juxtaposed against other people of color, typically Blacks) were considered “white.” Be aware this term is used generously in the context in which it then existed.

Allende’s characters are wonderful. She made the villain into a villain with little to no redeeming qualities which might bother some people. The nasty people in this book really aren’t meant to be sympathized with; Zorro and his friends are clearly supposed to be the “good guys.” This bothered me a little bit, but it’s done in the spirit of the novel which I found excusable considering the other slightly exaggerated recollections of Zorro’s accomplishments.

I do recommend this book as something of a summer read or a long, romantic escape during the winter months. It’s an enjoyable journey, but remember: it’s a journey. Diego de la Vega’s life is epic and it wouldn’t do to begin with anything other than devotion.

Thank you to LiveJournal user phantomminuet for the opportunity to read this book!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The City & The City by China Miéville

Title: The City & The City
Author: China Miéville
Reviewed Format: hardcover
Pages: 336
Release Date: May 26, 2009

Beszel and Ul Qoma are two entirely different cities: one, grubby and loud; the other, rich and artistic. When Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad gets involved in a new murder case, he finds himself straddling both cities as increasingly bizarre clues reveal themselves to him. The only danger is Beszel and Ul Qoma exist simultaneously in the same location: twin cities joined by a sense of perspective and dimension. It’s absolutely critical that citizens, and Borlú in particular as a policzai, exercise complete control over “seeing” and “unseeing,” “smelling” and “unsmelling,” “hearing” and “unhearing”--the methods taught to citizens and visitors of both cities where one must see only what exists in one city at a time. To acknowledge the existence of the other in anything but an academic or conceptual context is to invoke the wrath of Breach.

The City & The City isn’t your typical Miéville novel. It is if you take into consideration the inclusion of economics, politics, and his unmistakably dense, cryptic dialogue and narrative. Otherwise, it remains a detective novel of the hard-boiled variety: Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler rolled up and re-made with Miéville’s characteristic SF bend. It’s not as looming or horrific as Perdido Street Station or The Scar (or even King Rat), but he always infuses his cities with as much character as the rest of the cast; Besz and Ul Qoma are no different. In fact, their very existence is vital to the reader’s understanding of the book.

Tyador is the narrator and comes to us through the first person, a choice that sometimes makes a book exclusive and harder to read. That’s not the case here. The suspense of the murder and the snaking trail that leads Borlú far from his home and the murder is heightened with the slow, teasing revelations the reader experiences as Borlú does. There is no panicked gripping of the pages as we, frustrated, hope against all hope Borlú escapes an omniscient evil--no, we are all subject to the consequences of the story as it unravels, no one knows any more than anyone else. We can’t fault Borlú for falling into unseen traps or revel in any dramatic irony.

The writing was harder for me to get into than other works by Miéville. I don’t know if that was due to time or if he did become a bit more elusive and stingy with his exposition. The good thing is Miéville always assumes an intelligent reader and reveals important details to us as they would normally come along. He does not stop to describe the unnecessary--everything adds to the flavor of the cities and the heavy ambiance of mystery. In particular, the description of the two cities is from Borlú’s perspective as a local. This made it a little difficult for me to catch on earlier as to what was going on with regards to his locale, and about 50 or so pages into the book, a vague, musing explanation is given. There is no scientific explanation for their existence and no explanation for the all of the odd terminology Miéville uses freely, but this I liked. Instead, words are given a context for our understanding and the novel progressed smoothly. Fans of Miéville’s writing will still enjoy the dense prose, albeit a little foreign in the new terrain of detective fiction.

The murder takes a backseat to everything else Borlú becomes entangled in. Instead of driving the narrative forward, the murder becomes an accessory to a greater element: the mysterious and mythical Orciny and the much feared Breach. At times it seemed like an odd combination: detective fiction and SF; the narrative reflected this dichotomy in the priority switching of the plot, but for the most part, I was kept in suspense and found myself not caring where the narrative took me, but that I was carried along the journey well entertained.

My only disappointment comes from the ending. I liked where Borlú’s path led him and the transcendent, if annoyingly explicit commentary of the novel, but felt a huge lack when it came to my hopes in the existence of a greater power. I guess I put too much stock in the fantasy of the novel, but I did enjoy it.

Personally, I would have enjoyed the metaphor of the book a lot more if it wasn’t spelled out for me in the end, by which point I’d already caught on, but overall think it was wonderfully executed. In a novel that questions “where it is that we live” (p 312), Miéville captured the frustration, and ultimately freedom, that comes from a close examination of our own philosophical existence with the larger world around us. I’d definitely recommend this to fans of China Miéville for the novelty of a break from his usual writing, but also to newcomers. The City & The City is well worth the read.

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