Monthly Archives: May 2014

Mini reviews, post-semester edition

I have had such grand plans for my few weeks off between spring and summer semesters–play Skyrim, knit, crochet, read, basically do everything I haven’t had much time for during the semester. As it turns out, while a little bit of crafting has happened and Skyrim hasn’t been touched (I ragequit a while back at a place I kept getting killed in, so…), I have been reading voraciously. Rather than write full-scale reviews, I figured I would just post mini-reviews, so here are my most recent three reads.

Locke and Key: Alpha and Omega, Joe Hill. I have been waiting eagerly for the conclusion of this creepy graphic novel series. Without including spoilers for the previous books for those who haven’t read them yet, I will say that I wasn’t sure how things were going to play out after the fifth book’s major cliffhanger ending. The answer is with Hill’s signature blend of humor, pathos, and darkness. As expected, terrible things do happen to characters, with some dark consequences that can only be fixed too late. One of the side characters, Rufus, gets more of a starring role in this volume, which is by turns humorous and heartbreaking in his perspective. Overall verdict: if you haven’t read Locke and Key yet, go start at the beginning with Welcome to Lovecraft. Then come back here and we can squee over its awesomeness together, ok?

Dark Triumph, Robin LaFevers. The sequel to Grave Mercy, this was, if possible, even better. Darker, mostly. While very definitely a sequel in terms of the larger background political plot, this installment focused on poor broken Sybella and her return to her familial viper’s nest at the behest of her convent. The purity of motives of the good sisters of St. Mortain is further undermined, while yet another character learns to navigate her powers and learn to trust herself–and of course, eventually fall in love. The pacing was particularly well-done, with a lot tenser pacing and less of the bloat of the previous installment–more killing, less politics. I can’t wait to see the conclusion to this trilogy.

Seduce Me at Sunrise, Lisa Kleypas. Hmm. One of these books is not quite like the others, is it?  While my other reads have been dark and broody and tragic, this is mostly fluffy fun. The second book of the Hathaways series, I had to see how this pairing would play out after meeting them in Mine Till Midnight. The long-standing history and smouldering-yet-forbidden attraction between sweet, frail Win and rugged, gruff Merripen was at times oddly paced, with odd jumping around between flashbacks and then a flash-forward at the end. That said, the cast of characters has again made it worthwhile. Win made for an entertaining heroine in her own right, with a wickedness and zest for life that was somewhat hidden when she wasn’t the main protagonist. A few of the plot developments made me roll my eyes at the ridiculousness then laugh aloud at the next twist, so it balanced out overall. And yes, I’m continuing the series because they’re just sheer fun.

Current reads-in-progress: A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin. True Grit, Charles Portis.

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Review: Warm Bodies

Most zombie stories have more to do with braaaaains than heart, but Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies is different—quirky, poetic by spells, and lovely.

R has been shambling around as a zombie for an indeterminate amount of time—not that it matters how long since little matters to the undead. One day, R devours the brains of a young man named Perry and gets full memories, more powerful than any he’s experienced before during the course of devouring brains—including memories of the lovely Julie. R makes the decision to save Julie from the ambush, protect her, and eventually love her, bringing flickers of life and color to his world. The process doesn’t just change R, though, and changes start rippling outward and affecting other zombies, starting something bigger than he could have anticipated.

This is easily the most optimistic zombie story I have encountered. Whereas The Walking Dead has the human characters realizing they are walking dead themselves, and Feed shows that the worst of humanity has persisted in the face of a zombie apocalypse, Warm Bodies shows a world gone to hell but capable of changing for the better. The redemptive power of love is a cliché in so many other settings, but here, it somehow works.

The writing in Warm Bodies is well done, with a quirky tone that alternates between profundity and droll humor. R is a zombie who thinks about things beyond his next meal, and while articulating those thoughts is difficult, readers get to see his rich inner landscape. Here is a zombie who makes his home in a 747 plane, prefers vinyl records to iPods (“More real. More…alive”), and gets genuinely hurt when Julie implies that zombies like him aren’t human (“She is Living and I’m Dead, but I’d like to believe we’re both human. Call me an idealist”).

Readers wary of the gore of a zombie novel should give Warm Bodies a try. While there is some munching of brains (it is a zombie novel, after all), those sections are not bogged down in gore and in fact taper off over the course of the novel. It is an original take on a popular genre, and it looks like Marion is working on a sequel this year for those intrigued by the world he’s created.

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Review: Midwinterblood

Midwinterblood, Marcus SedgwickIt is my great delight to review Marcus Sedgwick’s Midwinterblood, not only because it is the 2014 Printz Award winner for excellence in YA literature, but because it is the first book in a long while that I am reading solely for my own enjoyment, not for an assignment. Ahhhh, can you hear that luxurious sigh?

The book opens in 2073 with journalist Eric Seven flying to Blessed Island to write a feature about this mysterious place where people are said to live forever, the result of a particularly potent orchid. There, he meets Merle and falls in love with her at first sight, but the island keeps its secrets, and a sacrifice must be made; as he is pinned down on a sacrificial altar, Eric realizes he’s experienced this before. From then on, each section of Midwinterblood travels backwards through time, from WWII to the 10th century to the earliest days of the island, simply designated as “time unknown,” revealing the very first lifetime and death that began it all.

For a love story that transcends the barriers of time and death, Midwinterblood is darker than might initially seem. Blood sacrifice, famine, infertility, and betrayal fill the pages. Yet the writing itself is lyrical and haunting and, in its way, lovely. Each section is written slightly differently, whether from a different point of view or even through chapter conventions, yet they all come together seamlessly, woven with recurring characters and motifs to provide continuity. That continuity is an amazing feat in a story that begins like science fiction, detours through WWII, and involves both Vikings and a vampire.

Midwinterblood has vivid, visceral imagery that will linger long after the book is closed, but the journey there is a fast one with very short chapters that keep the pages turning and characters that don’t feel as young as other young adult protagonists, making this a good crossover for adult readers. The closest blend of haunting, weird, and dark I’ve read has probably been Patrick Ness’s More Than This, another excellent YA novel.

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Review: Bridget Jones’s Diary

Sometimes, reading popular material yields surprisingly good reads (The Road, Gone Girl, Harry Potter), but other times, the popularity is a little more head-scratch-inducing. Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary belongs to the latter.

Hapless Bridget Jones begins her diary with New Year’s resolutions for stopping smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, and losing weight. Following that, nearly every entry begins with an account of weight, calories consumed, alcohol and cigarette intake, as well as various other totals like lottery tickets bought or number of times compulsively checking the phone for calls. The entries themselves chronicle her waffling between wanting a boyfriend, trying to make herself not feel bad for being single, and obsessing over a boyfriend when she has one, as well as detailing the drama of her parents’ disintegrating relationship, her irritation with Smug Marrieds, and the woes of a dead-end job.

Bridget Jones has often been hailed as a relatable, funny character that readers can identify with; I think a lot of women are selling themselves short if that’s the case. Bridget’s haplessness and lack of initiative are more irritating than endearing. For all the time she spends obsessing over her relationship status or lack thereof, she demonstrates little initiative in pursuing anything, instead relying on friends to coach her through how long to wait for a call or how to behave in front of an ex. This helplessness isn’t just in the domestic arena; here is a woman who spends three pages’ worth of entries struggling with programming a VCR (unsuccessfully). It strained believability at times how this character even made it to adulthood and managed to be a somewhat functional adult.

The other major irritant was the fixation on relationship status. Certainly, it is something many people struggle with, but it dominates the entire plot to that point that most interactions with friends center on dissecting relationships or lamenting bad exes or advising on how to passively capture the attention of a potential boyfriend (this from the token best gay friend, of course). If the movie is remotely faithful to the book, it must utterly fail the Bechdel test.

The book was not without its moments of humor, certainly. Some of the zingers and one-liners were entertaining, and Bridget’s midlife-crisis drama-queen mother was entertaining in her own way. And the character of Mark Darcy, the rich, successful bachelor Bridget’s family is continually trying to set her up with was delightful—if anything, the book would have been improved with more Darcy. Taken as a whole, though, this was not a book I enjoyed

Before I write off the chick lit genre as a whole, however, I would welcome recommendations in the comments below. Readers of chick lit, is there something with a better-developed protagonist out there that a non-chick-lit reader might enjoy?

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Review: Mine Till Midnight

“You’re in luck,” my boss said, handing me a book. “It’s the first in one of the series I was telling you about.” The series in question was Lisa Kleypas’s Hathaways series, beginning with Mine Till Midnight, which came to me highly recommended when I mentioned a craving for some fun, fluffy historical romance. And this fit the bill perfectly. Mine Till Midnight, Lisa Kleypas

Sensible Amelia Hathaway has her hands full taking care of her family, including a brother determined to drink himself to death and dependent younger sisters. Between those responsibilities and a previous heartbreak, Amelia has no interest in romance, denying the chemistry that sizzles between her and half-gypsy Cam Rohan upon first meeting. But fate, as Cam believes, has other plans for them, and in spite of obstacles like a house fire, bees, and a suicidal heir who may well leave the Hathaway girls penniless, Amelia and Cam are continually drawn into each other’s orbit.

Many of the tropes of romance are present and accounted for: two love interests between whom sparks fly at first meeting, a difference in socio-economic stations, an independent heroine, and of course, sizzling sexual chemistry. However, what made this a delightful read were the characters populating the pages. Like Austen’s timeless Bennetts, the Hathaways demonstrate that while family can be loud and embarrassing, they are above all family, and the bonds between siblings ring true. The supporting characters have distinct personalities; from dour Merripan, the gypsy taken in by the Hathaways as a child and raised like their brother, to youngest sister Beatrix, with her fondness for befriending small critters and bringing them with her to dinner, the tale is peppered with humor and heart. Details like Amelia trying to be rational about fate and attraction while Cam calmly accepts that this stubborn woman is his fate lend charm to the story as well, a cute reversal of emotional-woman-rational-man stereotypes.

As part of a series, Mine Till Midnight does offer resolution to the main pairing (as expected), while still leaving tantalizing threads dangling for future resolution (I already have Seduce Me at Sunrise checked out to see how the next pairing plays out, a level of investment I was not expecting from this light read). Fans of Kleypas’s Wallflowers series also have the extra treat of guest appearances by familiar friends. This was a fun foray into the world of historical romance, and it will not, I’m certain, be my last.

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