Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns

Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns

Jan 06

The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns, #1)The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars (I really liked it!)

It is rare that I find no fault in something I read. I don’t think it’s that I’m overly critical; I just think that writing is really really really hard, and rare is the novel that satisfies in such a way that it’s difficult to find something to take issue with. Yet here is The Girl of Fire and Thorns, a fantasy that does just about everything pretty well, and one particular thing outstandingly. I honestly can’t find something to be displeased with.

Elisa (an abbreviation of a much longer, much more royal-sounding name) is the second-born princess in a remote kingdom, the once-per-century bearer of the Godstone, a gem embedded in her navel that marks her as the Chosen, someone selected by God to perform some act of service. She is sixteen and overweight, smart but not wise, and in most external ways less princess-like than her older, graceful, sage, beautiful sister. She is educated, but she has been shielded by her caretakers not only in the way that all princesses are protected, but in a different way reserved for someone whose very identity as the Bearer is a threat to her safety.

In an arranged marriage that has serious political implications, she is given to the widowed king of a distant ally, but this marriage must be kept secret for a time, and before the king’s courtiers and subjects even know they have a new queen, Elisa is kidnapped and taken to yet another, more distant land, where she will not only not be treated like the queen she is, but she will have to exert herself physically in ways she could never have imagined.

Forced to rely on talents she never knew she had, Elisa can be a victim, or she can attempt to figure her way out of this situation, possibly earning the respect of her captors by merit where her title is of little use.

Author Rae Carson tells a good story here, and while it’s not too removed from the general plot of many fantasy novels before hers, as any fan of the genre knows, the beauty is in the details, the backstory, the explanations of magic, and the believability of the characters. Here, especially in that last aspect, she turns out a heck of a book. Her protagonist is instantly likeable, someone at first to feel sorry for but then to admire. If those around her are quick to judge her by appearances, the reader is convicted with them, something that only a skilled writer can really pull off. The plot is compelling, and the setting, while at first difficult to picture, is so well conceived that by midway through the second book in the trilogy, it stops feeling like a fantasy.

As a worshipping Christian, I’m sensitive to the way religion is portrayed in a lot of fiction, and while the religion practiced by Elisa and her people is not Christianity, it sounds and feels more believably Christian than almost every deliberately Christian portrayal I’ve seen in a fictional work. You know how you can tell when a writer has spent any time in your hometown based on what he or she chooses to say about it? It’s almost impossible to fake a thing like that, and to a practicing Christian, it’s likewise very difficult for a non-believer to be convincing. Yet Carson accomplishes it. I was genuinely surprised to discover that she is not a fellow believer. Every bit of believable religious speech, practice, and thought represented by our characters is permeated with authenticity, yet the author claims it is all research and writing. That’s an enviable skill.

You can put Elisa right up there with Katniss Everdeen and Triss Prior as a great, young protagonist facing ridiculous odds. It’s too early in the series to call it, but I’m thinking you can put Rae Carson ahead of those heroines’ creators as a writer with a clear voice and great story.

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Review: Fangirl

Review: Fangirl

Jan 04

FangirlFangirl by Rainbow Rowell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars (I liked it!)

Twin sisters Cath and Wren are off to college, and they couldn’t be further apart in their approaches. Wren, ever the adventurous one, decides without consulting Cath that she is going to room with someone new in her frosh semester. Cath, far more tentative, isn’t even sure she wants to go anymore, and things aren’t improved when her roommate turns out to be this sulky grouch named Reagan. Cath is so unsure of herself that she doesn’t want to ask anyone where the cafeteria is, and she spends her first several days eating the energy bars she packed far too many of, just in case food in college turned out to be awful. But what happens next is what happens to almost everyone: someone manages to connect with her, and soon Reagan and Cath find shared joy in making snide comments about others in the dorm cafeteria. Reagan’s ex-boyfriend Levi, who hangs out in their room all the time, is an ernest, eager, puppy-dog of a young man, craving attention and affection at almost any cost.

Cath is well-known in the fan-fiction universe, the writer of popular fanfic based on the Simon Snow novels. She and Wren used to collaborate, but in recent years it’s just been Cath, slaving away on her masterwork in a rush to get it complete before the author of the Snow series finally releases the final novel. As Wren pulls further away, spending her weekend nights partying with her new friends, Cath immerses herself more deeply into her writing, which now finds some direction in a creative writing course whose professor takes a liking to her.

What starts out as a pretty interesting adjustment-to-college and finding-my-own-voice story quickly devolves in the second half of the book to little more than a teen romance story, one with extended passages of nearly unbearable miscommunication and lovelorn angst. The only thing that saves it is the continued hope by the reader that Cath and Wren will find some way to regain the closeness they once shared, which Cath’s heart yearns most deeply for, and that they can figure out what to do with a father given to extended periods of serious depression and withdrawal.

Rainbow Rowell has an amazing narrative voice, one that turns plot into an enjoyable ride with sharp wit and cute humor in unexpected places, not to mention well defined characters on every page. One can only assume that she meant for this novel to be exactly what it is, a well-told teen romance. Sadly, it takes more than that to get this reader enthused, and while there are sections of prose that had me insanely jealous about this writer’s confident, playful voice, the plot becomes less interesting the more romantic it becomes.

I hate to do it, but I’m mostly only going to recommend this to young readers who like a good romance, plus any young readers who are producers or consumers of fan fiction, a world which the author obviously researched thoroughly and has great sympathy for. I’ve always been into the concept, if turned off by most of the product, but Rowell brings up some interesting issues about who owns the characters of much-beloved novels, and whether or not fan fiction, however well written, is real writing. Cath’s fanfic world and her collegiate writing world meet head-on in a fascinating sequence that young writers may find extremely provocative.

This is my first Rowell novel, and I look forward to exploring the rest of her work.

Review: Al Capone Does My Shirts

Review: Al Capone Does My Shirts

Jan 03

Al Capone Does My Shirts (Al Capone at Alcatraz, #1)Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

My rating: 3 of 5 stars (I liked it!)

Moose Flanagan and his family move to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, where this is a community of families employed by the notorious prison. Set in the time when Al Capone is locked up there, Moose adjusts to life in this new place, missing his large group of friends in the city and continuing to take care of his older, autistic sister Natalie. He makes a few friends, including the very pretty Piper, whose father is the warden and who has the makings of a longer, less voluntary future resident of Alcatraz Island.

The novelty of life on the island is really enough, and author Gennifer Choldenko pulls off something I always admire: a historical novel that doesn’t feel like a history lesson. There’s some separate copy in the afterward, and some necessary exposition so young readers can get a sense of this place, but this is a novel about a boy living in an unusual place, and that’s interesting enough without the lesson. What I really enjoy is the way Moose, ever trying his best to do right, is conflicted by the pretty, bad girl who seems to take up more visual space than the imposing structures on the Rock. He is twelve years old, and she is a very pretty girl who pays him a considerable amount of attention, and darn it if there are any easy answers about dealing with her.

One thing the novel attempts where it falls kind of short is in establishing that missed sense of camaraderie Choldenko clearly wants the reader to feel. It’s tough to give a young boy that kind of sympathetic gravitas in the absence of the two old, standby plot elements: the lost, deceased, or endangered parent and the lost, deceased, or endangered pet. In this case, we’re dealing with friends at a former school and missing the baseball games Moose was such a valued part of. I don’t mean to belittle the importance of having a place to belong, especially at an age like this, but it doesn’t transmit very well in this case.

It’s a small quibble, though, when the setting is so well established and the conflicts so interesting. There has since been a sequel published, and I look forward to giving that a look.

Review: Hoot by Carl Hiaasen

Review: Hoot by Carl Hiaasen

Jan 02

HootHoot by Carl Hiaasen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars (I really liked it!)

Research for my Master’s thesis involved my reading every book ever awarded the Newbery Medal, a period of close attention and diligent note-taking that forbade me from reading anything else. Along the way, I encountered many books I wanted to read which fell outside that realm, so I faithfully put them aside for that glorious day when I could read whatever I wanted. Hoot is the first thing I read when I was done. Because really: I had been reading what I wanted to read, and while Hoot was not a Newbery winner, it was in that realm, a Newbery Honor recipient and clearly something in my wheelhouse.

Roy Eberhardt is the new kid at a middle school in Florida. He seems to have some problems making good friends at first, but he’s a good kid from a good home, and we’re pretty sure it won’t be long before he’s reaching out and growing into some great friendships. Before that, though, he has to deal with a bully, with whom he fights on the school bus. His punishment is a banishment from the school bus for two weeks, and it us during this banishment that he meets Mullet Fingers, an apparently homeless boy with a cause. A national pancake restaurant chain is putting its new restaurant on a lot that’s the home of several burrowing owls, members of an endangered species. Mullet Fingers has been committing secret acts of vandalism in order to slow the development, and Roy joins the cause.

One of my favorite things about Hoot is that it gives good people a chance to be good, even when some of those good people don’t know just yet how good they are. Carl Hiaasen, in an effort not to condescend to young readers in this, his first novel for young readers, also creates several grown-up characters who refuse to condescend to the young people in their lives It’s kind of a refreshing look at the world, one which young readers will respond well to, and one which I think we all would have appreciated while we were growing up.

While not condescending, the story does seem a little preachy. In many ways, it reminds me of Maniac Magee, one of my favorite novels of all time, with slightly less narrative attitude and slightly more heavy-handed lesson-teaching. It’s not enough to turn me off, but it’s there, and its thereness is worth noting. Is it the tendency of a writer new to the genre, or is this going to be Hiaasen’s approach in subsequent work? I look forward to finding out.

Review: Three Times Lucky

Review: Three Times Lucky

Jan 01

Three Times LuckyThree Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

My rating: 3 of 5 stars (I like it!)

Sheila Turnage’s Three Times Lucky reads a bit like a young-adult’s cross between the novel To Kill a Mockingbird and the movie In the Heat of the Night. It’s a mystery, a family drama, and a coming-of-age tale, soaked in sweet iced tea and sprinkled with that road dust that always seems to rise up on the horizon before you see the police car bearing people who Aren’t From Around Here.

Set in Tupelo Landing, North Carolina, it stars Moses “Mo” LoBeau, a girl who, as a baby, was washed down the river and has been raised by The Colonel and Miss Lana, who run a small diner. Mo spends much of her time writing letters to the mother upstream who let her go, putting notes in bottles and asking grownups headed that way to toss them in the river, but she’s not the only one with a murky past. The Colonel doesn’t remember who he (literally) was before the night Mo arrived on the river, and both surrogate parents live strange lives of coming and going in unpredictable ways and at unpredictable times.

There is a murder. There is a crush. There is a friend with an abusive father. And there are seemingly new strands of plot with every turn of the page. Man, this novel is plotty as heck, and if not for the heavy, mysterious sadness that permeates Tupelo Landing like those shimmery waves of heat on the asphalt, I’m not sure I would have stuck with it. I couldn’t leave the characters steeping in that sadness, so I rode it out, hoping somehow that Mo would find a way to wash it away.

My feelings are therefore mixed. I like that it tries to work a kind of literary magic in a way that few novels outside To Kill a Mockingbird seem to approach, and can it be faulted if it doesn’t quite pull that off? Of course not, and yet because it seems to go that route, and because the ingredients are mostly quite appealing, when it all doesn’t quite resonate in its resolution the way you think it wants to, it feels like something of a let-down.

It’s still a good novel, and I can see some people just adoring it, and I do recommend giving it a spin. I just come up a little shy of loving it.

Review: Allegiant

Review: Allegiant

Dec 31

Allegiant by Veronica Roth (2013)

Don’t read this review if you haven’t read the first two books in this trilogy, Divergent and Insurgent.allegiant

This concluding novel in the Divergent trilogy is just okay. We still have our good characters, but the plot is all over the place, and while the forest view is interesting, the tree view Veronica Roth gives us is just a step or two above boring. Even the action sequences, so well paced in the first two novels, seem to have trouble finding their groove.

Most disappointing, though, is a completely unexpected shift in narrative point of view. It won’t take the reader long to understand why the writer makes this choice, but since it is so inconsistent with the rest of the trilogy’s narrative, my first thought was that the writer cops out. I gave her the benefit of the doubt; after all, the series had been well written so far, so it seemed reasonable to think she could pull this off.

She doesn’t. Every reason to excuse the decision is right there in the final portions of the book, but it still seems unnecessary. Shifting points of view are fine in novels that establish this device early enough, but we are six hundred pages in when this happens, and the results don’t justify it.

Allegiant is a disappointment only because Divergent was so well done. It’s kind of a let-down, but you can’t leave Beatrice hanging, can you? Just read it.

2 of 5 stars (it’s okay!)

Review: Insurgent

Review: Insurgent

Dec 30

Insurgent by Veronica Roth (2012)

InsurgentEven a vague plot explanation of Insurgent by Veronica Roth will spoil the first book in the series for anyone who might not have read it, so I won’t summarize. Read a review of Divergent and decide if that sounds good; then read that and come check out what I have to say about this one.

The best thing Insurgent has going for it is the continued development of Beatrice Prior’s character as she grows and finds her place in the struggle between the factions. Sections of the novel can be tough to get through; the factions are in conflict, and there are casualties, but our heroine, despite a few missteps, remains admirable and it is easy to cheer her on.

The worst thing about it is a repetitively unsatisfying romance that Roth spends far too much time on. It’s not only that seemingly endless pages describe the tension between Beatrice and her romantic interest, but the tensions follow similar patterns I find tiresome. As a high-school teacher, I have seen a lot of this in my years in the classroom, so in a sense the redundancy is kind of realistic. This doesn’t mean, however, that I want to keep reading about it in what’s otherwise a pretty good dystopian novel.

Although it is not quite as good as the first book, it’s still a page-turner, and some of the developments are rather unexpected. If you enjoyed the first book, you may as well read this one too.

3 of 5 stars (I like it!)

Review: Divergent

Review: Divergent

Dec 29

Divergent by Veronica Roth (2011)

divergentIt can take some time to get into a post-apocalyptic novel. There’s just so much new stuff to take in, and a good writer will kind of spread that stuff out so that early chapters aren’t long and explainy. Veronica Roth’s Divergent mostly avoids this, focusing on her narrator, a sixteen-year-old girl named Beatrice Prior, who has been raised in the “faction” called Abnegation, comprised of those members of her society who value selflessness above everything else. The other factions are Amity, Dauntless, Erudite, and Candor, who value peace, bravery, intellect, and honesty (respectively).

Beatrice and the other sixteen-year-olds take an aptitude test that will tell her (and only her) which faction she is most cut out for, information which will guide–but not dictate–which faction she chooses to spend the rest of her life with, whether that means staying with her family in Abegnation or choosing one of the others.

There is an unexpected result in Beatrice’s test, and her life is immediately in danger, no matter which faction she chooses. The rest of this novel follows her as she goes through training, meets new friends, collects new enemies, and struggles with romantic feelings for one of her trainers. Add some suspicious activity by the leadership of one of the factions, and you have a classic storyline of personal conflict superimposed on a much bigger issue: the possibility of revolution. Beatrice struggles to figure out what the sides are, and which side she’s on as she (by necessity) grows quickly into herself.

I’ve heard that Roth’s dystopian setting and plot are typical of the genre, and that may be true, but she still puts together a good story, with lightning-like pacing that keeps the pages turning, not to mention an admirable main character with relatable problems even in this far-out setting. She goes way, way too far into the romance part of it for my tastes, but I suspect this will be part of the appeal for a good percentage of her readers. Themes of family, loyalty, bravery, fomance, authority, and rebellion are fleshed out, and perhaps I’m putting some of my own beliefs into the mix, but I sense a message here about Christian denominations, although Roth spares us any direct, obvious symbolism.

Thanks to the success of The Hunger Games, there is a recent tsunami of dystopian fiction aimed at young adults, and a reader’s reaction against this movement would be understandable, but the ubiquity of the form doesn’t mean there isn’t some good writing among the flood. To miss this one because one is tired of the trend would be sad. It’s quite a good read.

4 of 5 stars (I really liked it!)

Review: The Fault in Our Stars

Review: The Fault in Our Stars

Dec 28

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012)

faultThis is my second John Green book, which I read mostly because the film was about to hit theaters and I really wanted to see it, but also because despite some of my problems with Looking for Alaska, I do admire its writing and I did enjoy reading it. I hoped for more of the same with this novel about teenagers with cancer.

The stuff I liked about Looking for Alaska I like again here, and the stuff I didn’t care much for in that novel doesn’t get better in this one. However, while I thought the themes of that novel were somewhat well-traveled, I guess I haven’t read many books about teenagers with terminal cancer falling in love with each other. There is a morbid color on every joke narrator Hazel tells, and the grin humor she shares with her friends kind of helps us see why she would have difficulty maintaining relationships with her non-cancer-stricken friends. They try to find ways to talk about anything else, while the constant presence of illness in Hazel’s life leaves little room for that anything else. It’s deftly handled, and Green writes it well. There are multiple laugh-aloud moments, including a scene where Hazel’s boyfriend Augustus helps a recently dumped friend get back at his non-cancer-having ex-girlfriend. Teenagers break up with each other all the time for reasons good and stupid, but this breakup feels like a slight on the whole loosely connected support group, and the vengeance they take is both pathetic and inspired, and it’s the funniest scene in a funny book. Not an easy feat to pull in a book about dying kids.

That plot takes a weird turn involving Hazel’s going on a trip, and although there’s good stuff throughout even this part of the novel, it’s just a strange choice, one whose payoff is a bafflement. It is the novel’s glaring weakness, and it probably keeps The Fault in Our Stars from being a better book than Looking for Alaska. It is a well-written book, and definitely worth the read. It just feels like it could have been so much more.

3 of 5 stars (I liked it!)

Review: Looking for Alaska

Review: Looking for Alaska

Dec 27

Looking for Alaska by John Green (2005)

lookingThere are powerful reasons not to want to read a John Green book. First, there’s the unbelievable popularity with the fifteen-to-twenty-two Tumblr crowd, with its unrelenting sharing of quotes pandering to a certain teen angst in (often) show-offy prose. Then there is the oft-heard complaint that teens, even smart ones, don’t speak the way Green’s characters speak, kind of like the teens in Jason Reitman’s film Juno.

However, Green’s popularity among the reluctant reader set, while kind of annoying, is even stronger a factor in favor of reading it. Because whatever the reason, the chord he strikes is getting young people to hang on to snippets of prose in a way that English teachers (like me) have begged students our whole careers to embrace. They are seeing in these lines something meaningful, something to savor, to pass along, and to cherish. I’ll take that no matter who the writer is.

The characters do speak with unrealistic charm, wit, and literacy, but you know what? When I was their age, that’s what I thought my friends and I sounded like. I know now that this is impossible, but it’s not a bad thing. We should want young people to picture themselves being smart and eloquent, capable of saying stuff like:

“I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.”

and we should encourage them to aspire to it.

Mike Halter, our main character in Looking for Alaska, has lived a life of quiet, inconspicuous, unremarkable being, completely unmemorable except for his collection of people’s dying words, little bits of ironic, inspiring, funny, and resonant language that give him a framework on which to hang his sixteen-year-old, still-in-development worldview. Moved by the dying words of Francois Rabelais (“I go to seek a Great Perhaps”), he transfers to the boarding school his father graduated from, where he meets roommate Sarge (a nickname) and gorgeous crush Alaska (not a nickname), who introduce him to new worlds of mischief and late-night philosophy.

The setup and plot development will feel familiar to most well-read grownups, but Green handles it well, letting his characters move the story in a pretty engaging way. He can get ostentatious, seeming to find it necessary to remind us that there’s a WRITER behind these words, but his target audience is more likely to appreciate it than roll its eyes, and I’m okay writing him a small pass because he really can put words together.

I can easily recommend it to teens, ‘though I would be surprised if it is loved by anyone over thirty, which is how I feel about Catcher in the Rye, and that’s pretty good company.

3 of 5 stars (I liked it!)