Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Book Review: Casebook, by Mona Simpson

Title: Casebook
Author: Mona Simpson
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: April 15, 2014
Read: April 2014
Where It Came From: Library
Genre: General fiction
Rating: 3.5 Relocated Pets

The Quick and Dirty:

Miles starts eavesdropping on his mother as his parents' marriage dissolves and his mother starts to plan a future with her new boyfriend. Despite putting it on my WANT IT NOW list in early April, and despite quickly reading it, it's not one I'm planning to add to my bookshelf. I found the narrative structure distancing, and the characters and plot unsettling.

The Wordy Version:

Casebook sold me with the basic outline of the plot: a child narrator snoops through his mother’s papers and emails, and through that he learns dark secrets of the adult world. I am often drawn to youthful narrators who are unreliable storytellers due to their pre-adult understanding of the world. (Out of the half dozen or so I’ve read, I can only think of one instance when I absolutely hated the child narrator I was reading.) Plus, spying! Questions about privacy! In short, you can see where my enthusiasm for reading started.

And for the most part, Casebook delivered. Miles begins his tale as a nine-year-old just beginning to hear unhappy undercurrents in his parents’ marriage, and in his early teen years gradually unravels the mystery of his mother’s new lover, Eli. By the final third of the book, he is recovering from learning too much information secretly. The suspense of whether Miles’s parents will catch him snooping and whether Miles will find something wrong with Eli makes the book difficult to put down.

Certainly it provoked questions about morality. Miles and his best friend, Hector, listen to hours of telephone calls that his mother makes, and rarely feel that they are crossing boundaries because they are convinced that Eli is hiding something important. To what extent they are justified in their snooping by their belief that someone else is even more wrong is an issue that the characters in the book never seem to fully realize. To his credit, Miles does stop to debate whether it is right to tell his mother any information he has gained through spying, and whether it will embarrass her too much. He later wonders about two lies he tells Eli, which is also rather moral, but by highlighting his worries about the lies Miles’s glossing over the issue of spying on his mother seems strange. This isn’t a real problem—moral questions are more for readers than for characters, and Casebook provides ample material for the subject.

I didn’t fully love the book, though. The narrative conceit is that this is an explanation of the influences for a famous graphic novel written by the friends. Hector has added a few footnotes to Miles’s manuscript, giving us foreshadowing for Hector’s life and calling some of the story elements into question, like the descriptions of the two friends. For me the framing device was a little distracting. Child narrators are so unreliable by nature that it seemed needlessly convoluted to me to add a second layer of unreliability, and to suggest that the book was written years after the conclusion of the Eli investigation. Fortunately there are only a few footnotes by Hector to keep the doubly distancing concept in my mind. But despite any amount of distance the narrative could make, I was too disturbed by the shady actions of the characters to feel many feelings other than relief to have reached the end and sadness for basically every character’s life.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Book Review: The Spectacular Now, by Tim Tharp

Title: The Spectacular Now
Author: Tim Tharp
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: November 2008
Read: May 2014
Where It Came From: Library
Genre: YA-contemporary
Rating: 4.5 Bright Planets

The Quick and Dirty:

Sutter Keely is a high school senior with a firm philosophy of living in the now. Thinking about the past of his parents’ divorce hurts, and even the future seems pointless and vague. Behind his confident claims that he’s happy in his ever-maintained buzz, we see that even Sutter’s present isn’t quite as spectacular as he says he is. The disconnect between Sutter’s perception of his life and everyone else’s view of it becomes even more poignant when Sutter, recently dumped, decides to help a quiet honors student, Aimee, develop self-confidence. I'm still nursing a book hangover, days after finishing it. Almost flawlessly executed novel in the tradition of The Catcher in the Rye.

The Wordy Version:

You guys, it’s two days since I finished The Spectacular Now and I’ve read an entire new book since then, but I’m still having major feels about The Spectacular Now. To me this means all of you should pick up a copy of the book for yourselves. And if any of the plot summary or response I give you makes the book sound like it’s not for you, just ignore that feeling and read it anyway. I was unsure I’d like it myself, and I was particularly suspicious of the Catcher in the Rye feeling I was getting off of the tone (I’ve never fully appreciated Holden Caulfield), but I am so glad I stuck through because this book is top quality.

When we meet Sutter Keely, he is in his car, drinking some whisky while ditching algebra to meet up with his girlfriend. Sutter is very happy with his girlfriend, but he makes a few mistakes (like kind of going on a double date to get his best friend a girlfriend) that lead her to break up with him. Sutter at first believes reconciliation will happen easily, but his focus shifts after Aimee Finecky finds Sutter passed out on a lawn along her paper route. Sutter determines that shy Aimee needs his help to become more confident in asserting her wishes and in getting a boyfriend. Sutter soon finds himself dating Aimee, but his live-in-the-now philosophy is at odds with her developing future plans, and her willingness to follow his lead in drinks and parties also signal that their relationship is troubled at its basic core. As high school graduation approaches, Aimee forces Sutter to consider his past and future.

I’m still a little surprised that I responded so strongly to the character of Sutter, buried as it is within a strong colloquial narrative voice where people don’t say things as much as they’re like in dialogue, and “spanktacular” is the highest form of praise. Sutter is a complicated character, whose contradictions make it hard to reduce him to simple adjectives. He’s intensely judgmental about his family, but almost entirely accepting of his friends and acquaintances. He’s a cynic and a dreamer at separate turns; he sees himself as the center of the party but also as a permanent outlier to the social scene; and he’s an unrepentant drunk driver with a code of ethics that leads him to deliver a beautifully heartfelt apology for the comparatively minor rudeness of being delayed for a lunch date.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

BEA 2014 Anticipation!

It’s summertime, and that means fun! (And also constant sunscreen and AC, in my case. Fun, right? Come visit the glorious American Southwest!) Much like last year, early summer means some exciting doings in RTET-land—Susan will be attending Book Expo America in NYC again, while I will be covering the book and author track at Phoenix Comicon. Susan is planning her galley-grabs and author visits for BEA, and it looks like there will be the standard convention problem of so much to do, so little time! We’ve been following the info coming out of various publish-y sources to keep up-to-date on what will be available there. Looks like there will be a lot of highly anticipated books up for grabs! Here are some of the ones I’ve been eagerly awaiting or recently had brought to my attention and think sound cool:

“Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. Four percent suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And one percent find themselves “locked in”—fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus.

One per cent doesn't seem like a lot. But in the United States, that's 1.7 million people ‘locked in’...including the President's wife and daughter.

Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can restore the ability to control their own bodies to the locked in. But then two new technologies emerge. One is a virtual-reality environment, ‘The Agora,’ in which the locked-in can interact with other humans, both locked-in and not. The other is the discovery that a few rare individuals have brains that are receptive to being controlled by others, meaning that from time to time, those who are locked in can ‘ride’ these people and use their bodies as if they were their own.

This skill is quickly regulated, licensed, bonded, and controlled. Nothing can go wrong. Certainly nobody would be tempted to misuse it, for murder, for political power, or worse….”

I enjoy John Scalzi very much, so I’m looking forward to his newest. It sounds a little claustrophobic, but also like an interesting change up from his other stuff I’ve read (the Old Man’s War series and Redshirts). I’m looking forward to giving it a go!

“ ‘Miss Rook, I am not an occultist,’ Jackaby said. ‘I have a gift that allows me to see truth where others see the illusion--and there are many illusions. All the world’s a stage, as they say, and I seem to have the only seat in the house with a view behind the curtain.’

Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary--including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby’s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it’s an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it’s a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police--with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane--deny.

Doctor Who meets Sherlock in William Ritter’s debut novel, which features a detective of the paranormal as seen through the eyes of his adventurous and intelligent assistant in a tale brimming with cheeky humor and a dose of the macabre.”

While “Doctor Who meets Sherlock” sounds like an awesome hook that is probably doomed to set the expectations bar much too high, I am most definitely interested. Historical supernatural is my jam! (Or one of my jams, at least.)

“Children can have a cruel, absolute sense of justice. Children can kill a monster and feel quite proud of themselves. A girl can look at her brother and believe they’re destined to be a knight and a bard who battle evil. She can believe she’s found the thing she’s been made for.

Hazel lives with her brother, Ben, in the strange town of Fairfold where humans and fae exist side by side. The faeries’ seemingly harmless magic attracts tourists, but Hazel knows how dangerous they can be, and she knows how to stop them. Or she did, once.

At the center of it all, there is a glass coffin in the woods. It rests right on the ground and in it sleeps a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointed as knives. Hazel and Ben were both in love with him as children. The boy has slept there for generations, never waking.

Until one day, he does…

As the world turns upside down, Hazel tries to remember her years pretending to be a knight. But swept up in new love, shifting loyalties, and the fresh sting of betrayal, will it be enough?”

The blurb for this one is both intriguing and cryptic, and you know what? It doesn’t matter. The blurb could just say Bobloblaw’slawblog and I would be down. Holly Black is always, ALWAYS an instabuy.

“THE ACCIDENTAL HIGHWAYMAN is the first swashbuckling adventure for young adults by talented author and illustrator, Ben Tripp. This thrilling tale of dark magic and true love is the perfect story for fans of William Goldman’s THE PRINCESS BRIDE.

In eighteenth-century England, young Christopher ‘Kit’ Bristol is the unwitting servant of notorious highwayman Whistling Jack. One dark night, Kit finds his master bleeding from a mortal wound, dons the man’s riding cloak to seek help, and changes the course of his life forever. Mistaken for Whistling Jack and on the run from redcoats, Kit is catapulted into a world of magic and wonders he thought the stuff of fairy tales.

Bound by magical law, Kit takes up his master’s quest to rescue a rebellious fairy princess from an arranged marriage to King George III of England. But his task is not an easy one, for Kit must contend with the feisty Princess Morgana, goblin attacks, and a magical map that portends his destiny: as a hanged man upon the gallows….

Fans of classic fairy-tale fantasies such as STARDUST by Neil Gaiman and will find much to love in this irresistible YA debut by Ben Tripp, the son of one of America’s most beloved illustrators, Wallace Tripp (AMELIA BEDELIA). Following in his father’s footsteps, Ben has woven illustrations throughout the story.”

Okay, again with the setting-expectations-way-too-high thing with that reference to The Princess Bride, but color me charmed by the cover and the title. I’ve been burned by Tor Teen books in the past that sounded awesome and ended up tepid, but this one sounds too fun to pass up.

“Finn Easton sees the world through miles instead of minutes. It’s how he makes sense of the world, and how he tries to convince himself that he’s a real boy and not just a character in his father’s bestselling cult-classic book. Finn has two things going for him: his best friend, the possibly-insane-but-definitely-excellent Cade Hernandez, and Julia Bishop, the first girl he’s ever loved.

Then Julia moves away, and Finn is heartbroken. Feeling restless and trapped in the book, Finn embarks on a road trip with Cade to visit their college of choice in Oklahoma. When an unexpected accident happens and the boys become unlikely heroes, they take an eye-opening detour away from everything they thought they had planned—and learn how to write their own destiny.”

I’ve never read any of Andrew Smith’s books before, but I’ve heard great things about both Winger and Grasshopper Jungle. I haven’t read much contemporary YA lately, but this sounds like it could be a good introduction to the author.

“Clariel is the daughter of the one of the most notable families in the Old Kingdom, with blood relations to the Abhorsen and, most importantly, to the King. When her family moves to the city of Belisaere, there are rumors that her mother is next in line for the throne. However, Clariel wants no part of it—a natural hunter, all she ever thinks about is escaping the city’s confining walls and journeying back to the quiet, green world of the Great Forest.

But many forces conspire against Clariel’s dream. A dangerous Free Magic creature is loose in the city, her parents want to marry her off to a killer, and there is a plot brewing against the old and withdrawn King Orrikan. When Clariel is drawn into the efforts to find and capture the creature, she discovers hidden sorcery within herself, yet it is magic that carries great dangers. Can she rise above the temptation of power, escape the unwanted marriage, and save the King?”

I’ve talked about this one before, and my excitement remains undiminished. If I had to choose only one book coming out of BEA to read, this might edge out Holly Black to take the prize. I am THAT psyched about it!

“From the #1 New York Times bestselling author Scott Westerfeld comes a smart, thought-provoking novel-within-a-novel that you won’t be able to put down.

Darcy Patel has put college on hold to publish her teen novel, Afterworlds. With a contract in hand, she arrives in New York City with no apartment, no friends, and all the wrong clothes. But lucky for Darcy, she’s taken under the wings of other seasoned and fledgling writers who help her navigate the city and the world of writing and publishing. Over the course of a year, Darcy finishes her book, faces critique, and falls in love. Woven into Darcy’s personal story is her novel, Afterworlds, a suspenseful thriller about a teen who slips into the ‘Afterworld’ to survive a terrorist attack. The Afterworld is a place between the living and the dead, and where many unsolved—and terrifying—stories need to be reconciled. Like Darcy, Lizzie too falls in love…until a new threat resurfaces, and her special gifts may not be enough to protect those she cares about most.”

Scott Westerfeld is another favorite author of mine, and this novel sounds really different and intriguing. Is it just me, or does anyone else get a whiff of foreboding from the blurb…? Eh, it’s late. I’m probably imagining it.

“Match wits with Lemony Snicket to solve thirteen mini-mysteries.

Paintings have been falling off of walls, a loud and loyal dog has gone missing, a specter has been seen walking the pier at midnight -- strange things are happening all over the town of Stain'd-By-The-Sea. Called upon to investigate thirteen suspicious incidents, young Lemony Snicket collects clues, questions witnesses, and cracks every case. Join the investigation and tackle the mysteries alongside Snicket, then turn to the back of the book to see the solution revealed.

A delicious read that welcomes readers into Lemony Snicket's world of deep mystery, mysterious depth, deductive reasoning, and reasonable deductions.”

This one technically already came out in April, but it’s being featured at BEA, too. It sounds like just the sort of thing my younger self would’ve loved, and I imagine my current self would have fun with it, too.

“Aaron Becker, creator of JOURNEY, a Caldecott Honor book, presents the next chapter in his stunning wordless fantasy.

A king emerges from a hidden door in a city park, startling two children sheltering from the rain. No sooner does he push a map and some strange objects into their hands than he is captured by hostile forces that whisk him back through the enchanted door. Just like that, the children are caught up in a quest to rescue the king and his kingdom from darkness, while illuminating the farthest reaches of their imagination. Colored markers in hand, they make their own way through the portal, under the sea, through a tropical paradise, over a perilous bridge, and high in the air with the help of a winged friend. Journey lovers will be thrilled to follow its characters on a new adventure threaded with familiar elements, while new fans will be swept into a visually captivating story that is even richer and more exhilarating than the first.”

Journey was a wonderful wordless picture book, and I think this next one will be just as lovely. I love Becker’s beautiful style of art, and how perfectly he can tell a story with fun, emotion, and humor with just pictures.

Hooray for BEA! Hopefully Susan will be able to snap up one or two of these while dashing around the Javits Center this coming week, and then we can read and chat about them. Any of these sound good to you? What are your most anticipated books at BEA?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Romancing the Rubric: Georgians vs. Vikings

Though it may turn out to be futile, I am dogged in my pursuit of a 2014 Reading Bingo blackout. The square I most recently had in my sights was “a book you could bring up at a bachelorette party,” which led me to some fantastic (read: not fantastic) romance novels found in the truly gargantuan collection of such at my local digital library. (It also occurs to me that my co-blogger and I are possibly the only weirdos in the world who think that book discussion at a bachelorette party is a thing that actually happens.) I found many that were enticing, but settled on these two for starters (and also because they had copies available for immediate download):

“Reynaud St. Aubyn has spent the last seven years in hellish captivity. Now half mad with fever he bursts into his ancestral home and demands his due. Can this wild-looking man truly be the last earl's heir, thought murdered by Indians years ago?

Beatrice Corning, the niece of the present earl, is a proper English miss. But she has a secret: No real man has ever excited her more than the handsome youth in the portrait in her uncle's home. Suddenly, that very man is here, in the flesh—and luring her into his bed.

Only Beatrice can see past Reynaud's savagery to the noble man inside. For his part, Reynaud is drawn to this lovely lady, even as he is suspicious of her loyalty to her uncle. But can Beatrice's love tame a man who will stop at nothing to regain his title—even if it means sacrificing her innocence?”

(Note: This book is the final volume in a quartet, but I was able to follow everything just fine without having read the previous three.)

So…let’s talk about this. Aside from some deplorable French in the early pages, it had a really promising start. Beatrice seemed like a heroine with a good head on her shoulders—level-headed, not afraid to stand up for herself, has a cool book-binding hobby, and affection for her family. Reynaud was also interesting—after years of captivity by Indians in the colonies, he has returned home ready to claim his place as Earl of Something-or-Other, while dealing with some understandable PTSD issues. He may be rough and quick to temper, but he is also loyal to his friends and takes up the mantle of responsibility for those he considers in his care.

The writing is smooth and engaging, pulling you along into the story, and I really enjoyed it for the first half of the book. Beatrice’s awkward position between her uncle the current earl and Reynaud the should-be earl created good tension—she feels Reynaud deserves the earldom, but is worried how her uncle will take having their current lifestyle revoked, and is torn between her loyalty to him and her attraction to Reynaud. Reynaud, for his part, is simultaneously trying to solve the mystery of who betrayed his military unit 7 years prior that resulted in his capture by Indians, and trying to prove he is sane enough to retake the earldom (he thinks marriage will help his cause, and that Beatrice would be a convenient match). The side characters and plots were also engaging, with Beatrice’s friend Lottie dealing with marital strife in what had originally been a love match, and her childhood friend Jeremy, crippled in war and in poor health.

Then things took a turn for the worse. Reynaud’s hardened, though still-mostly-respectful character morphed into a coerce-y, take-advantage-y blob, which I’m sure you can imagine did stellar things for the romance. Beatrice’s best friend from childhood has just died and she’s inconsolable with grief? I know JUST the thing to cheer her up—roughly divesting her of her virginity while she’s grief-stricken and in no state to be making important life decisions! That’s romantic, right? Or at least sexy? Jeez. I mean, I know most people don’t read bodice-rippers because they actually want to have their clothes literally torn off their bodies during their own intimate encounters, but there is a line between titillating and distasteful, and that scene was firmly in the latter category. Ugh.

It was mostly downhill after that. Everything that made Beatrice cool to begin with sort of faded away until she was mostly, “Oh! I love him, but he doesn’t love me!” without much of her original personality intact. Reynaud continued on his path of domineering selfishness and disrespect, largely dismissive of Beatrice’s concerns and opinions both in and out of the bedroom. I think there was only one sex scene that showed genuine, mutual tenderness.

The two get married well before the climax of the story, but don’t realize how the other person feels about them (in Beatrice’s case) or that what they’re feeling is indeed love (in Reynaud’s case) until the end of the book. I guess that was supposed to be the emotional payoff, but I didn’t really buy it. Everything else gets tied up, too—the earldom situation is handled to everyone’s benefit, the mystery of the betrayal in the colonies is solved, and the subplot involving Lottie and her husband is resolved without much actually happening. Even the writing, which was quite good to begin with, became less so as the book went on, with inconsistencies and convenient resolutions to many of the conflicts. All in all, I was disappointed that a story that had started off so strongly devolved into something less compelling with an often uncomfortable relationship at its heart.

Clearly, a romance rubric was in order.

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“Dangerous warrior Ivar Gunnarson is a man of deeds, not words. With little time for the ideals of love, Ivar seizes what he wants--and Princess Thyre will not become the exception to his rule! Mysterious and enchanting, Thyre rouses Ivar's desire the moment he lays eyes on her. With Viking factions engaged in a bloody feud, Thyre is yet another captive this hardened warrior conquers--but to be king of Thyre's ‘heart’ will entail a battle he has never engaged in before…”

This book kind of ended up being the inverse of the previous one—largely bad writing, but the relationship at the heart of it was actually kind of sweet. The tender moments between Thyre and Ivar were really the only times I was able to get caught up in the reading—the rest of the time the writing was so flawed that I found it difficult to take the book seriously.

That plot blurb from GoodReads does a pretty crappy job of explaining the (admittedly somewhat convoluted) plot, so I’ll try to sum it up with a bit more detail. Thyre lives with her stepdad and half-sister in a viking kingdom called Ranriken. Her mother, Sainsfrida, is dead, but was actually a princess of Ranriken once upon a time. Back then, something happened and the king (Sainsfrida’s brother, I believe) sent her as a hostage to the ruler of a nearby viking kingdom called Viken. The princess eventually got knocked up while at the Viken court, and was rescued by her friend Ragnfast and taken back to Ranriken. The Viken ruler supposedly told her to kill the baby if it was a girl and send it back to him if it was a boy, and the princess’ brother/king was upset that she got knocked up by an enemy and exiled her to live in the boonies with Ragnfast and illegitimate baby Thyre, whom she did not kill. AND THAT’S JUST THE BACKGROUND INFORMATION.

So Thyre’s mom is dead, and she’s living with Ragnfast and her dopey half-sister. Thyre pretty much runs the steading, and then one day some Viken trader/warriors wash up on her shores after a storm. They’re supposed to show the sailors hospitality while they fix up their ship, and shenanigans ensue, with the result being that their leader, Ivar, claims Thyre as his concubine and takes her back to Viken with him. This part is not actually as creepy as it could be—after Ragnfast commands the sister to sleep with Ivar (which is apparently part of the whole hospitality thing), Thyre tricksily plots with her to switch places to a) protect her sis, who has sworn herself to another man, and b) have a say in who she herself sleeps with before she’s married off to the abusive neighbor. Ivar, for his part, realizes it’s not the sister, preferred Thyre anyway, and was set to just sleep. Like I said, convoluted, but it actually kinda made sense in the context of the story.

So Ivar and Thyre continue to alternately vex and beguile each other as they head back to Viken together with the rest of the crew. There’s a plot involving people from Ranriken trying to rob the Viken on the high seas, and another with Thyre deciding whether or not to reveal her true identity to both Ivar and her father, the ruler of Viken, and yet another with Thyre being antagonized by the Viken ruler’s current wife. Thyre and Ivar are forced to marry, though neither of them really minds, even if they haven’t confessed their true feelings to each other yet. Somehow the high seas attack has endangered Thyre’s family and the steading, and she sneaks on Ivar’s ship when he sails back to help them. All plots points swirl in convergence as Ivar and Thyre realize they love each other, save Ranriken from her uncle’s evil rule, and ease tensions between the two kingdoms!

Whew. This one clearly had a lot of other-plot going on in addition to the romance, which became problematic for me due to the shoddy writing. The writing issues were distracting to the point that I lost a lot of interest in even trying to follow the story and the conversations people were having (seriously, most of the time characters spoke to one another it felt like an exchange entirely of non-sequiturs). Dialogue that didn’t flow, research into the time period not smoothly incorporated, side characters who were flat or whose motivations were difficult to follow…there was a lot that made my inner editor’s fingers twitch toward the red pen.

And yet, I will give credit where it’s due—the majority of interactions and moments shared by Thyre and Ivar were sweet. Thyre is fiery and doesn’t take crap from anyone, and Ivar is alpha-male without being a dick about it. He is respectful of her and appreciates her for who she is, and Thyre feels/treats him in the same way. There were some moments when one or both of them would have a less-respectful thought about the other after some clash of their personalities or wills, but these seemed out-of-character from everything else we knew about them and I ignored them as writing wonk.

One thing that would hit me every so often while reading was how much I would rather be reading the story of Thyre’s mom, Ragnfast, and what went down at the Viken court all those years ago. Did Sainsfrida and the Viken king love each other? What about her friendship with Ragnfast, which was strong enough to compel him to rescue her alone? And then the two friends ended up married (forced by the Ranriken king, but married nonetheless) and exiled, so did they come to love each other eventually? This sounds like a much more absorbing story. I need answers!

Overall, I can’t really say I recommend it, but I felt surprisingly less twitchy about the writing problems than usual, thanks to the central relationship that managed to develop with tenderness and respect, as well a bit of fire and personality conflict. This one’s romance rubric, for comparison purposes:

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(Apparently I was so irritated by rubricking these less-than-awesome books that I forgot how to spell “healthy.”)

So which book comes out on top in a battle between good writing/uncomfortable relationship and bad writing/better relationship? Per the incontrovertible rubric, it looks like in this case it’s too close to proclaim either a definitive winner. To Desire a Devil gets a nod for (mostly) smooth writing, while The Viking’s Captive Princess takes the cake (well, maybe just a bite of it) for a relationship that was (mostly) more pleasant to read about, but neither gets my full endorsement.

To Desire a Devil, by Elizabeth Hoyt
Published by Vision (2009)
Read in May 2014; from the library

The Viking’s Captive Princess, by Michelle Styles
Published by Harlequin Historical (2009)
Read in May 2014; from the library

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Genre-ally Speaking: Manifest Destiny, Vol. 1

Title: Manifest Destiny
Author: Matthew Roberts, Owen Gieni, & Chris Dingess
Publisher: Image Comics
Publication Date: May 27th, 2014
Read: May 2014
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Historical-supernatural-graphic-novel
Rating: 3.5 Sad Dead Herons

The Quick and Dirty:

Lewis and Clark lead an exploration of the United States’ new territory at the behest of President Jefferson, and encounter all sorts of supernatural monsters and other entities. Also, Sacagawea kicks some major ass.

The Wordy Version:

Lewis and Clark are on a mission from Jefferson to explore and document the Louisiana Purchase. At least, that’s the public face of the mission—Jefferson has actually tasked the two with leading the expedition to destroy the monsters inhabiting the interior of the continent and make way for westward expansion. L and C are naturally a little skeptical about this less-public aspect of the assignment, but carry on as their president has ordered. They've got a bunch of military men in the party, supplemented with freed criminals—expendable manpower for what horrors might be ahead. Their first stop is La Charette, the westernmost bastion of civilization.

It soon becomes clear that Prez Tommy J is not, in fact, losing his marbles, when they are attacked by a bison/minotaur/centaur creature while investigating a structure that looks mysteriously like the plant version of the St. Louis arch. Things go downhill from there—more murderous bison creatures, a naked lady with scary green eyes jumping off a cliff but leaving no body behind, an abandoned fort, moss zombies… They make it to La Charette and eventually find some of the village’s survivors. The original plan was to hook up with an Indian girl at the fort (wonder who that could be?), but they’re forced to make plans to leave without her. Said plans are derailed by various malevolent flora and fauna, and the awaited Indian girl swoops in to save their asses. More than once.

Lewis is a kind of happy-go-lucky-ish, scholarly type of individual, while Clark seems to be the harder, less forgiving military man. Their bromance could get pretty epic. Other prominent characters include a particularly slimy convict named Jensen, who suspects the real reason the criminals were brought along on the trip and has no qualms about the measures he may have to take to escape. Sacagawea is the strong, silent (and pregnant) type, and her husband/baby-daddy Toussaint Charbonneau seems a little creepy, especially when we find out he’s being paid by L and C for delivering her to them, with more money to come when the baby is born…

I didn’t have especially strong feelings about the art in general, but there were some really cool full-page panels. It’s actually a pretty gruesome graphic novel at times (bison creature dissection, anyone?), and the slime ball Jensen says some pretty offensive things (cannot WAIT until some creature gets him. Or Sacagawea!), but it didn’t make me squeamish enough to stop reading. Overall, I was feeling kind of in the middle about it—it was interesting enough, but maybe not so much that I would seek out the next installment. But some set up at the very end involving plant prophecies and demons from Clark’s past, as well as some loose ends, such as Sacagawea’s undisclosed role (both from L and C’s perspective and from her own) and the green-eyed cliff-jumper, convinced me the next volume is worth a place on my TBR. I’m looking forward to further development of some characters we only got a glimpse of, like Mrs. Boniface from La Charette, and York, Clark’s African-American companion (slave, freedman, servant—we don’t know yet).

Have you been reading this one in its comic book form, or do you plan to check out this graphic novel collection of issues #1-6? What other graphic novels have caught your eye lately?

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Book Review: Curses and Smoke

Title: Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii
Author: Vicky Alvear Shecter
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Publication Date: May 27th, 2014
Read: April 2014
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: YA-historical
Rating: 3 Foreshadowing Earthquakes

The Quick and Dirty:

Lucia is the daughter of a gladiator training school owner in Pompeii, and not looking forward to her impending arranged marriage. When her childhood friend, a slave boy named Tag, returns from Rome after training to be a healer, the two reconnect and begin dreaming of a life beyond their current confines. But then there’s all the strange things occurring around Pompeii recently—earthquakes, dead fish in the bay, poisoned springs… Lucia ponders what it could all mean while imagining a life with Tag out from under her father’s thumb, but will they be able to escape life in the shadow of Vesuvius? I didn’t find the characters particularly compelling and the writing was in the middle—not awful, but not super good. Still, it kept me turning pages and as the inevitable drew near there were some unexpected twists that (at last!) got an emotional response out of me.

The Wordy Version:

Guys. This book…I don’t even know what to say. For a book that I was feeling so solidly meh about throughout the entire reading to have that sort of effect on me at the very end… I wasn’t expecting tragedy! Which might sound dumb for a book about Pompeii, but…well, we’ll come back to that later.

Lucia is the only child of a middle-class gladiator training school owner, and she wants more from life than marriage to an old, lecherous man in Rome for her father’s gain. She’s interested in science and nature, and has been noticing strange things happening around the city of late (naturally, no one pays any attention to her when she brings them up). She’s pretty in the middle as far as characters go—she’s not objectionable, but she’s not terribly interesting either. Our other protagonist, Tag, was sent away to Rome to train as a healer for a few years to eventually follow in his father’s footsteps at the training school, but upon his return to Pompeii he dreams instead of becoming a gladiator and winning his freedom. Again, not objectionable, but not a character I felt overly attached to. I did really like his Etruscan heritage, though—the fact that he was descended from a formerly powerful family from the time the Etruscans ruled the area added a new slant and extra fire to his rage at being a slave.

So of course the two fall in love, FORBIDDEN love, and have to keep it secret from everyone around them. The daughter of a training school owner cannot love a slave, especially when she is already promised to a creepy old man! For some reason, Tag and Lucia both came across as younger than their 16 years for much of the book (at least until they start making out in the woods and Lucia debates love vs. lust with her married friend). Other characters are added to the mix—Lucia’s father, mostly portrayed as monstrous; Castor, a young slave boy who takes a shine to Tag; Quintus, a louche patrician dilettante who plays at gladiator training and develops an interest in Lucia; Lucia’s friend Cornelia, sassy and pregnant; and Cornelia’s husband, who sounds like a pretty awesome guy until we actually meet him. Cornelia is one of the more interesting characters, as she has some life and verve to her (although the fact that the word “waddle” is used to describe her every movement got a little irritating. Yes, alright, she’s hugely pregnant! We get it already!). My FAVORITE character, though, was Lucia’s dog Minos. So cute. I even wrote in my notes as I was reading that the most emotional reaction the book got out of me was when someone hit the dog. But…that was before I got to the end.

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