Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick

What You Need To Know:  This is a solid entry in the post-apocalyptic/zombie genre that suffers from a last minute plot twist.

Summary:  Alex is dying.  The monster in her brain, an inoperable tumor, has stubbornly refused treatment.  Rather than continue, Alex has taken the ashes of her parents to the mountains where they used to camp.  She intends to say goodbye and face her own mortality.

However, something happens, and most die instantly.  Alex survives, as does Ellie, a bratty young girl camping with her grandpa.  Alone in the woods, Alex and Ellie soon discover that they aren't the only survivors.  Other teens live also, but they have transformed into animalistic cannibals.

It's up to Alex to protect Ellie, and she is aided in this by Tom, a young veteran who also survived.  Now, the three must decide what to do next...

What worked:  Bick does a tidy job of introducing her characters.   She establishes Alex's survivalist credentials early and without a lot of fanfare.  Tom appears in the nick of time but still believably.  Ellie feels a bit shoehorned into the story, but not overwhelmingly so.   She also gets things moving quickly, the carnage starts early, without a lot of preliminary set up.  The action sequences in this book are genuinely scary, gory without being gratuitous 

Bick also gets that the best post-apocalyptic fiction isn't really about the apocalypse, but the people who are caught in it.  Alex and Tom spend a good deal of time trying to figure out what happened, but they also are moving on, doing their best to survive.

I'm not a big wilderness survival fan, but Alex and her crew's plans and missteps were engaging and well described.

What didn't:   My biggest problem with this book is that it leaves too many questions unanswered.  Ashes takes a major left turn in its final fourth, completely abandons major characters and plot lines, leaving many questions unanswered.   A great book will leave you asking "what happens next?"  This book simply left me asking "what happened?"   This ploy might get readers to pick up the next volume, but it's incredibly frustrating.

Also, I know all sci-fi requires a suspension of disbelief, but I don't think that the science behind Bick's apocalypse stands up.   Although not an expert, I don't think that an EMP could cause the kind of carnage she describes.  I appreciated her building the latest research on the teen brain into her plot, but, again, it rang false to me.

And, as always, I resented the intrusion of a romance into the plot.  Alex has been preparing herself to die, the world as she knows it has ended, teenagers have turned into cannibals, but she's torn between two boys?  Please.

Who would I give this book to:  The post-apocalyptic trend shows no signs of slowing, and this would be a good choice for teens who enjoy those books.  The survivalist angle would appeal to many boys, and it's gory enough for the zombie fans.  

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Books I Didn't Finish: Record Collecting for Girls by Courtney E. Smith.

Total Finished: 97 out of 240 pages

So, Why Didn't You Finish It?  
But how much thought have you given to what your music choices say about you to other people?  Boys who love records (and let's face it, at some point we will al date a boy who is a little too into his records) are totally obsessing on what music you like when they meet you.  They're using it to figure out how crazy you are before they get involved (so hide your Tori Amos records).
 Record Collecting for Girls, page 97
It's not often I can pinpoint the line that makes me quit a book in disgust.

I know that it can be tough to be a girl who is into music, either as a musician or a fan. So, I was hoping that this book would be a great resource for the "music nerds" among my teen patrons.

Well, this book isn't about girls, it's about boys.  More specifically, it's about finding boys to date by pretending you 1) like the same music they like and 2) hiding that you may know more about music than they do.    This is insulting and sexist.  Other commenters have pointed out that Smith is incredibly hetero-normative and focused on white rock bands.  I also see this.

(And, just in case any girls are reading this -- any boy who won't date you because you listen to Tori Amos is not worth dating. This goes for guys too -- I married my husband dispite his love of Steely Dan.  )

To be fair, Smith knows a lot about music, and has some interesting things to say about the lack of "serious" female artists in the mainstream.  But she is incredibly dismissive of anybody who doesn't share her indie-rock tastes.  It's more than a little ironic that a woman who can claim to love the Twilight books spends half a chapter dissing "Teenage" music.

Smith's obsession with cool and making sure that you like the music that will get you laid is off-putting and boring.  I have better things to read about.

Dissenting Opinions? 
Miss A
Chicks Dig Books

Monday, September 19, 2011

Review: Blink and Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones

What You Need to Know: This intriguingly written tale of street kids and second chances takes a major left turn in its final third.

Summary:  Blink has been living on the streets for a few months now, but has figured out that well dressed kids don't get hassled.  Thus, he uses a stolen set of clothes to wander through hotels, looking for uneaten food on room service trays.  When he hears the sounds of violence from a room, but sees three unharmed men walk out, he can'
t resist a peak.  In the room he sees what looks like trouble, but the unattended wallet and smart phone presents too much temptation.  When the owner of the phone shows up on the news as a kidnapping victim, Blink knows it's not true, but doesn't know what to do.

 Caution, a young runaway, gets on the wrong side of her dealer/boyfriend.  She has to run, from the magic man,
 from her past, from knowledge she doesn't want.  But it all  keeps finding her.  She decides to run as far as she can, and sees Blink as an easy mark.   The two connect in an unexpected way, and decide to use the "kidnapping" to their advantage.

What Worked:
Wynne-Jones has a talent for language, his prose is rich, yet light.  The writing perfectly evokes a time and place, without drowning the reader in tons of exposition and description.

Wynne-Jones also successfully climbs inside the heads of his teen protagonists.  They are bundles of emotion, yes, but believably so.  Their choices feel organic and believable.   Blink and Caution both ran away from home for legitimate reasons.  They live on the streets (or with questionable adults) in a way that feels real.

What Didn't: This languished in my "to read" pile for months.  Part of it was the summer slam, and part of it was it just didn't look like my kind of book.   I only picked it up because it was a Boston-Horn Book Award Winner and a nominee for the Maricopa County Mock Printz Discussions.  

I still don't think it's my kind of book.  I will be honest -- I'm a plot reader.  Beautiful settings and well-drawn characters are great, but in the end, I want you to tell me a story.  And without getting too spoilerific, I felt like the plot of this book went off the rails in a major way in the book's final third.   The entire focus and tone of the book shifted from a character study with mystery elements to a B-grade horror flick.

Is it Printz Worthy?  Maybe.  It has the edginess that Printz voters seem to like, with a strong literary flavor.   What I see as a major misstep in plot, others may see as a bold blending of genres.

Who Would I Recommend this Book to?  I'm not sure.  The literary-ness of it would turn off teens who read genre fiction, and the genre elements would annoy my few lit fic readers. 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Review: The Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Lani Taylor.

What You Need to Know:  This urban fantasy is is an amazing, trope- twisting read, and one of my Best Books of 2011.

Summary:  Karou, a blue haired art student living in Prague, lives a double life. Most of the time, she lives like any other college kid, hanging with friends, dating and learning.  What her friends don't know is that Karou's family is a race of half-human/half-animal chimera, lead by Brimstone, a powerful wizard.  Brimstone grants wishes to humans who visit him, and receives payment in teeth.    She illustrates her family  in her sketchbook, capturing her strangely beautiful family in near lifelike detail.  Karou mostly keeps her two worlds separate, except when she is called to do errands by Brimstone. However, when strange hand-shaped burn marks appear on the portals to Brimstone's world, and angelic creatures appear all over the globe, Karou's life changes forever.

What Worked:  This book is amazing.  Beautiful descriptions of Prague, descriptions of a reasonably normal teenage life, and fantastic creatures and happenings work together beautifully to create a seamless, engaging narrative.

What amazed me most about this book is that it managed to surprise me.  Using familiar ideas -- a human raised by monsters, angels, star crossed lovers, a mystical war -- Taylor spun an unexpected and engrossing tale.  It's not my first time at the rodeo, so a fantasy book that brings something new, that keeps me guessing, gets high marks.  Also, this is one book where the romance felt organic and necessary.

Karou is a wonderful character:  funny, tough, talented.   However, she is not inhumanly perfect -- she makes mistakes, takes stupid risks, acts selfishly.   She's a refreshing change from the doormats and Mary Sues that populate teen fantasy romances.

What Didn't:  Honestly, not much.  Some of the supporting characters may be a little thin, but this book is about Karou, and that's where the focus stays.

However -- that cover is terrible -- yes, it makes sense in context, but it's generic and bland.

Who Would I Give this Book To?  Everybody.  Seriously.  There's enough rich world building here to keep fantasy fans interested, enough romance to captivate a Twihard, and the writing quality is strong enough to win over the most dedicated literary fiction fan.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Chime by Franny Billingsley

What You Need to Know:  This beautifully written steampunkish fairy tale is an antidote to cookie cutter supernatural romances, and one of my best books of 2011. 

Summary:  Briony Larkin is 17 years old and a witch.  She knows that she is evil;  responsible for her sister Rose's mental difficulties.  However, she must care for Rose and that means keeping her ability to hear the Old Ones a secret.  The Old Ones call to Briony, and beg her to tell their stories. 

But the world is changing, and engineers plan to drain the swamp.  This angers the Old Ones, and in retaliation, the children of Swampsea are stricken with a deadly cough.  When Rose takes ill, Briony knows she must do whatever it takes to save her.  Adding to Briony's troubles is Larkin, the charming son of the an engineer, who is determined to puzzle out Briony's secrets.  

What Worked:  Billingsley is one of the most engaging and skillful writers I have ever read.  This book is all about journey -- there are no real surprises here.  However, Billingsley takes familiar tropes and skews them, twisting her story so that plot is secondary to the rich world building and vibrant characterizations.  Swampsea, like Lyra's Jordan, is a world just left of our own, where magic is real and modernity bumps up uncomfortably against the old ways.  The Old Ones of the Swamp, with few exceptions, are dangerous, but not sinister, and Briony's connection to them seems organic and real.  Briony herself is one of the most fully realized characters I've come across.  Unlike many heroines, she is not inhumanly perfect, not a blank Mary Sue, but a real girl, in extraordinary circumstances, trying to do the right thing.  The supporting cast is equally well drawn, from the perplexing Rose to the engaging boy-man Larkin.  Briony and Larkin's romance is sweet and believable, not fairy tale perfect.  

The first word that pops to mind when discussing Chime is beautiful.  Beautiful language, beautiful setting, beautiful story.  

What Didn't:  It's hard for me to find a flaw here.  I do think that the cover of the book fails to do it justice, as the blandly pretty goth-child pictured here comes nowhere close to embodying Briony's spirit and passion.

P.S. -- I read this book in ARC, and then listened to the audiobook with my daughter.   In someways, the audiobook is superior to the novel, as Susan Duerden does a masterful reading, and brings Billingsley's language to life. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

I'm Back!

Wow!  It has been more than 8 weeks since I last posted here.

I apologize, but Summer kicked my butt this year.  While I had a very successful summer at the Day Job, it was very stressful.  July brought Comic-Con and presentations and the end of summer reading... it was very hectic.

It took most of August for me to recuperate.

When school started, there was a lot of drama with the kidlet, but now that things have settled, I'm back with more opinions than ever!

Coming soon, reviews of my 2 favorite books of the year, my thoughts on the Maricopa County Mock Printz Awards, a review of the upcoming Tamora Pierce book and more!