Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Review: Break, by Hannah Moskowitz

The first thing that struck me about Break was how nice it was to read a YA book that didn't revolve around or devote a huge chunk of itself to romance. Jonah already has a girlfriend, (well, kind of), and while he likes her a whole heap he doesn’t obsess over her or doubt her feelings or worry overmuch about the relationship or any of that standard YA jazz. Break is a book hugely concerned with relationships, just not the teenagers in love kind.

This a book about family. Jonah has a brother, Jesse, who is allergic to pretty much everything. Regular trips to the emergency room kind of allergic. Good chance of dying young kind of allergic. His parents weren’t coping so well with it before, and they’re coping even less now there’s a new baby in the house. It doesn’t help that milk is among the many, many, many things Jesse is allergic to, and with a new baby there’s a lot more of it around. It’s a family on the edge of breaking, (that point between broken and unbroken is a running theme through this aptly titled novel) and Jonah is doing everything he can to hold it together.

It’s a lot of stress for a 17 year old kid, which probably explains why Jonah has also gone a little bit nuts. So apparently when you break a bone it heals stronger. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but Jonah certainly believes it is, and that’s why he’s embarked on a mission to break every bone in his body. As crazy as this sounds Jonah actually has a well thought out system of logic behind his quest, and slowly figuring out where his mind was at with this was one of my favourite aspects of the book. (Hint: it's not as obvious as you might think).

But still, ouch much? I don’t if the author Hannah Moskowitz broke a bunch of bones when she was a kid or maybe in the name of art she went out and broke a bunch for research, but she has the descriptions of it down. The anticipation of pain, the sick feeling, the crunch… It’s not so hard, I think, for an author to make a reader feels empathetic pain, but to make them feel physical pain along with the character… Moskowitza pulls it off, and I don’t know whether to be impressed or annoyed at her. There’s one scene where Jonah dives into an empty pool that made my heart physically race it was so awful. I don’t want to give the impression that the book is full of gore or going for cheap shocks, because it’s not like that at all. But it is definitely full on!

Another thing I liked was the relationship between Noah and his brother. But then, I’m a real sucker for brothers. I liked the way Jesse was obviously so fed up with Jonah’s overbearing concern, but at the same time obviously cares about him and panics at the thought of being without him. Similarly I liked that Jonah cared for Jesse so much, but at the same time resented him just a little. Their relationship was complex and convincing.

Less convincing were the parents. I had trouble accepting that they could be so very bad at looking after Jesse and dealing with his allergies. Or that they could be so blind to the fact that their other son was regularly doing himself serious damage. It’s not that I doubt such parents exist, they just seemed to be a bit over the top with their failing in this book.

I also had some issues towards the end of the book. (No spoilers, I promise). Jonah starts to unravel, and really strange things start to happen. I initially thought it was an excellent example of an unreliable narrator, that Jonah was really, really losing it and his perception of reality was slipping. But by the end of the book this appears to have not been the case, which kind of ruined things for me a bit. I mean, some of these things were really bizarre or just straight up weren’t explained at all.The ending is really abrupt, so maybe that's where my issue lies. Things went nuts and then things just ended.

Moskowitz had a really tight hold on the plot for the first three quarters of the book, so it was a shame to see it unravel all over the place like it did at the end.

Despite this, I still found Break to be highly engaging and also very, very interesting. I recommend it, especially if you're looking for a YA read that isn’t all about the make outs.

I bought this book

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Review: Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch

It’s not that I didn’t like The Lies of Locke Lamora, it’s just that I was expecting so much more from it. I found it to be well written enough, but I felt the ‘then/now’ structure of the plot bogged the story down, and for some reason I found I was sympathizing a bit too much with the character’s Locke was trying to cheat, which made it hard to root for him.

If I had of picked it up having never heard of it before I think I probably would have really enjoyed it. But every reader knows how that goes. It’s the curse of the hype machine. We talk a lot about how a book that has been raved about all over the place often doesn’t live up to expectations. But of course, the flip side of this is also true, and while the hype machine worked against me with The Lies of Locke Lamora, it’s also one of the reasons why I enjoyed the sequel so much.

Red Seas Under Red Skies was not received nearly so well as The Lies of Locke Lamora. It wasn’t hated or anything, but general consensus seemed to be that it was not nearly as good as it’s predecessor. I think it’s an unfair assessment. Red Seas is not at all a poorer book than Lies. It’s written with the same skill and flair, that kind of writing that seems tricky and effortless at the same time (like a well executed card trick), and was the one thing I really liked about Lies and the reason I gave it’s sequel a try.

But the problem is that it’s a very different beast to Lies. It’s a lot darker, for a start. Gone is the plucky, cocky, supremely confident Locke who charmed over so many readers in Lies. But come on! Of course he’s gone! What kind of man would Locke Lamora be if the events at the end of Lies didn’t have a marked effect on him? The Locke in Red Seas has had his confidence rocked. Although he doesn’t come right out and admit it to himself, he’s relying far less on his cleverness and far more on Jean’s muscle.

Which isn’t to say Locke’s been beaten down! I mean, a Locke Lamora running at half strength can still run circles around pretty much everyone, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of people underestimating him and not realizing their mistake until far too late. He’s just more subdued about it. Less brilliant for the sake of being brilliant, more aware of his own fallacies. He also learned the important lesson that bullshitting can only get you so far. I appreciated this Locke much more than I did the Locke in Lies.

The before/after structure is mostly done away with here as well, which was definitely for the best. There is a little of it, but instead of flashbacking to Locke’s childhood we only go back to the months following the end of the last book (Red Seas being set about 2 years after), and the flashbacks provide hints and clues about what’s happening now. The flashbacks in Seas feel much more integral to the plot, and less like annoying detours away from the main story.

I liked the sudden turns in the plot, and the way other characters were allowed to be clever too. I liked that the people Locke was trying to cheat this time around were a lot easier to root against, and I like that Locke and Jean’s friendship took a real battering.

I also really liked the ending. And by really liked, mean really, really, hated. But it’s the good kind of hate. The hate that makes you scream in frustration and immediately run to the internet to find out when you can get the next book and find out what’s going to happen. (Because seriously, what’s going to happen?! I need to know!) I’m definitely glad I held off on this book until now; a year or so wait still seems impossible, but it’s definitely better than the five years every one else has suffered through!

I bought this book

Friday, February 3, 2012

Review: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

Somewhere along the line John Green became one of those authors whose books I would automatically read, no questions asked. So when Book Depository kindly alerted me that his next book, The Fault in Our Stars, was available for pre-order I bought it without thinking twice, or without actually, you know, investigating what it was about.

I’ve said before, many times, that John Green has a habit of writing the same book over and over, with slight adjustments. Self centred boy loves manic pixie dream girl type, treats his best friendly badly, gets into some crazy situations, gets a stern talking to by best friend, releases what an ass his been and that girls aren’t everything. Sometimes he gets the girl, sometimes he doesn’t- that’s not really the point.

Of course, John Green writes his stories with such skill and wit that I was more than happy to keep reading the same book only different over and over again, and I guess when I cracked open The Fault in Our Stars that’s exactly what I was expecting to get.

And that is what I got. Kinda. Except not really.

The first departure from his standard formula is immediately apparent. The narrator of The Fault in Our Stars is a girl. Hazel. For the most part I think Green captured the female point of view really well, without ever coming close to stereotypical clothes/shopping/boys territory. Tip for male writers: It’s ok if your female protag doesn’t like shoes, we’ll still know she’s a girl! I think it’s tricky for some writers (female and male) to write convincing female voices without the “shortcuts” of liking jewelery and makeup and boys and ponies and whatever. Not that there aren’t plenty of teenage girls like that out there, but there are also many who aren’t. A few minor hiccups aside, he nails it. Hazel is a complete departure from the manic pixie dream girl model Green used with his previous female characters like Alaska and Margo, which was kinda ironic given that another character tells Hazel several times that she looks one of the original manic pixie dream girls, Natalie Portman. Maybe Mr. Green was poking fun?

Hazel has a pretty nasty case of the cancer, which miraculously didn’t kill her years ago but is going to get her eventually. At a lame cancer support group meeting she meets handsome cancer survivor Augustus Waters, and the story is off. And here we return to more familiar John Green territory. The book might be lacking a manic pixie dream girl, but in Augustus Waters we’ve got a fairly spot on example of a manic pixie dream boy.

Just like Margo and Alaska and the girl from an Abundance of Katherine’s not called Katherine, Augustus is quirky and free spirited and he has a slightly offbeat name. And like in all of those books he rescues Hazel from herself.

I wonder if John Green is capable of writing a book without a character of this type. In each of his books he bounces his straight main character off of this character's weirdness (even in Will Gayson, Will Grayson, with the role being filled by Tiny) and the plot is driven forward by them. Alaska’s accident is the focal point of Looking for Alaska, Margo’s breadcrumb trail is the backbone of Paper Towns and In The Fault in Our Stars Augustus uses his “wish” to get himself and Hazel to Amsterdam to meet the author of her favourite book.

This all must seem very critical, and if John Green was less of an author is would be. But John Green is not less of an author. He’s amazing. His books are funny and some of the most intelligent and thought provoking I have ever read. The way he weaves deep philosophical questions into his narratives never fails to delight me, and leave me staring off into the distance, deep in thought. And I can’t think of any other author who incorporates poetry into their work as well as he does.

I think The Fault in Our Stars might be his best yet. It a book about death and life and young love and books. Especially books. The importance of books in our lives, the disconnect between book and author, the question of who “owns” a book once it’s out there, the author or the reader, and the ways fiction can and can’t immortalize someone. I remember doing a class at uni on “the death of the author” and if this book had of been published then I would have been bringing it up every two seconds. It’s fantastic stuff, and I love the fact that John Green is exposing teenagers to these ideas.

I’m aware that this review is starting to get ridiculously long. I just want to say that I don’t have much experience with cancer, or of young people with cancer, but Green’s portrayal of it felt really authentic to me. Not too maudlin but not too light. It was a book in which the main character has cancer, but never feels like a book about cancer.

Ultimately this is a really good book. Really really good. Even if I did read the last few chapters sobbing like a baby. Green departed from his formula a little, if not entirely, and it’s left me excited to see what he does next.

I bought this book

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Review: Flesh and Fire, by Laura Anne Gilman

I firmly believe that nothing, nothing is more important in a book than the protagonist. A well written hero can carry the weakest of plots, elevate the plainest of supporting cast and make an otherwise average book into something special. Laura Anne Gilman’s ‘Flesh and Fire’ proves all to well that the reverse is definitely not true.

The concept of Flesh and Fire is really cool, and handled originally. A few select men, called Vinearts, can coax magic from grapes and craft potent spell wines. Once they used their exclusive magic to gain power, but now there are strict laws that stop Vinearts from being able to hold positions of power or influence.

Jerzy, a young slave, is found to have the abilities of vineart, and so is risen from his position to become an apprentice to the Vineart Master Malach.

There’s a lot to potentially like about this book. I’m not a fan of non-fiction, but having said that I really like it when a book teaches me things. When an author has clearly researched the topic of the book extensively and the knowledge just shines through. So it is with Flesh and Fire and wine making. I’m not saying that upon finishing the book you could go out and craft your own vintage, but I found the various minutiae of wine making that the book explores to be really interesting.

If only the protagonist, Jerzy, had been at least half as interesting. But sadly, he is not. There’s nothing to him. I mean, this kid has been a slave all of his life, until one day he gets yanked from the fields and becomes an apprentice to the man who owns him. A situation fraught with potential angst and conflict one would think. Jerzy never feels any kind of resentment towards Master Malach. His time as a slave was brutal and hard, and yet he never attempts to help his fellow slaves or even really thinks about them as being more as slaves. The explanation given for this is that the harshness of slavery is needed to make the abilities of a Vineart develop. Which I get, and should have made for some really fascinating dynamics between the once slave Vineart masters and the one slave apprentices. But it barely gets touched upon, and a large source of potential tension just goes to waste.

(And why are all the Vinearts men? The idea of a female Vineart is never broached, not even an offhand comment to explain why there are none. The silence on the matter bugged me more than a half ass excuse explaining it would have.)

I guess in a lot of ways Jerzy never stops being a placid slave. He does what he’s told and and he rarely moves the plot himself. The other characters act and react, think and plot and make decisions, Jerzy just lets the currents they create move him about. There’s only one scene I can think of where Jerzy uses his initiative and impacts the plot. That’s pretty unacceptable for a main character, in my opinion.

The secondary characters are much better done than Jerzy. The young trader Ao was a breath of fresh air, and I found his trader outlook to be really interesting. I also liked Mauhalt, a nobleman’s daughter who looks like she’s going to get a kick ass character arc normally reserved more male characters. (Which just bring me back to the question of female Vinearts, and the lack thereof).

Jerzy’s passivity might have been easier to take if not for the fact that this book feels like it’s all setup. Things don’t really get rolling until literally the last fifty pages or so, whereupon the book ends on a cliffhanger. I suspect the second book will be much better than the first. If nothing else the plot appears to have actually started, and in the final pages of the book I developed some slight hope that Jerzy was about to actually take charge.

Normally I wouldn’t even give the next book a try based on the serious flaws in this one, but Laura Anne Gilman is clearly a very capable writer and the series does have potential. If she turns Jerzy’s character around then his actions in the first boom will become the first part of an impressive character arc, and the ridiculously slow build of the plot would be forgivable. It still kinda sucks that you have to slog through a vaguely boring first volume to get to the good stuff.

I bought this book