Recently Read Books!

This is a list of the books I read in 2012, with a few of my thoughts on each.

Go here for 2011's list! Go here for 2013's list!
Go here for the jump-off point of all the years I've been recording my reading list, separated by year!

11/12/12 Francesca Lia Block and Carmen Staton
A woman named Ruby with an abuse-filled past chases the love of her dreams, using her natural enchantedness and her oneness with nature to help her overcome her demons. I liked that there was a lot of authentic modern magic in this story--I recognized all of it--and I liked that the damage done to Ruby in her younger years became something that helped shape her and something she grew through and past, not something she magically dropped because a man finally loved her the right way. The only thing I didn't really care for was how I felt like Ruby's interest in Orion was sort of staged and disconnected--Ruby wasn't someone I could really relate to or connect to throughout the story. It was more like I was connecting to the idea of her but I had to add my own feelings to do it. This is a little weird considering the book was in first person. Another thing I appreciated about this book was that it was very coherent, which isn't always a given in a Francesca Lia Block book laced with magical realism. The anecdotes of Ruby's magical experiences and abusive encounters with her father were well-told and felt authentic (though still sort of unemotional and stoic), but I think I did get a little tired of how she effortlessly got the Snow White treatment from animals and seemed like her specialness was contrived. I still thought it was a worthwhile read.

10/22/12 L.A. Meyer
Bloody Jack
My friend Jeaux was always talking about this series while suggesting I wouldn't like it, and finally he gave up and lent me the first book so I could see for myself. I'm not sure why he thought I wouldn't like it, because I actually thought it was pretty entertaining! Little Jacky--actually a girl named Mary who's posing as male so she can get a position as a ship's boy--is a compelling and quirky character, and though there were a couple times when her femininity sounded a teeny bit contrived, overall I liked her. She carried the book just on her character alone, never mind the pirate adventures and the little snatches of romance.

Since Jacky had been homeless since young childhood and got her position on the Dolphin before she hit puberty, she didn't know anything about what special issues she would face as a girl, so keeping up "the deception" as she called it got harder and harder as she aged, with some of the men and boys finding it suspicious that she could no longer throw off her shirt like the "other" boys and had to keep up a ruse about how she used the bathroom and disguising her monthly time. But on top of the fun/worry surrounding hoping Jacky wouldn't get caught being a girl (women on ships are bad luck!), what I really loved about her was that she had a couple layers and wasn't always an admirable paragon of a protagonist. She did some stupid and not-so-nice things, and though her strength in survival was admirable, she was easily frightened and not so brave sometimes, which helped make her easy to relate to. I liked her little crushes, and her musical and sewing talents, and the way she carried the scars of bad things that happened to her along with her in her personality--the way real people do. And the way her imagination ran away with her was precious.

I tend to like stories that focus on the internal life of individual characters, so this was a good one for me, but some people expecting high adventures on the sea will probably want something with more fighting and whatnot. If you want to see why she gets the title "Bloody Jack," you'll have to read the book.

10/2/12 Francesca Lia Block
Pretty Dead
This book about a lonely vampire was a little different from most of Ms. Block's other work in that it had a very straightforward storyline and spent comparatively little time admiring the visuals or waxing philosophical. Charlotte being tempted into undead life by an attractive older man during a time of great sorrow was understandable. She'd just lost her twin brother and didn't want to feel, and here was this man willing to show her the world and fill her with something. I also could really feel the ache she must have had when she realized becoming a vampire forced her to observe disaster without being swept away in it, forced her to no longer have the artistic and emotional drives she once had, and forced her to be tied to a man she apparently didn't love, but felt bonded to because he wouldn't die like the rest. That said, there were a couple things I didn't really connect to in the book. Most of the time when a nigh-immortal character waffles on about not being able to die, I have little patience with it, and except for the fact that Charlotte's artistic connections were hampered by being undead (which must have been hellish), there seemed to be not many drawbacks to being a vampire in this world, which made it difficult for me to see why she let her jealousy of mortality consume her (especially after less than a hundred years). Another thing I didn't care for was that recounting decades Charlotte had lived through was focused so narrowly on what people were wearing as the defining factor of the era (along with some comments about music). That and the litany of disasters that she and her vampire maker William observed were the only real sense I got of time passing, and I get tired of how often Ms. Block obsesses over what people are wearing. And finally, it was kind of unclear to me how/whether a vampire who has made another vampire can unmake the same person. This wasn't explained. It just was. (Charlotte's connection to Emily and to Jared was more recited to the reader than felt, in my opinion, also.) I enjoyed reading the story, but Charlotte posed for her spot as the protagonist more than she acted it, which disconnected me from really loving it.

9/19/12 Francesca Lia Block
Ms. Block's usual poetic style is present in this emotional novel about a struggling woman who sees the future in dreams. Having spent much of her life feeling like a victim and losing the people she loves, Katrina yearns for acceptance and consummate attention, and tries to pursue fulfillment through dance, understanding of the feminine divine, and promising relationships. On the one hand, I didn't like how convoluted the storytelling was; sometimes it seemed properly complex, while other times it just got confusing or so "poetic" that it separated itself from the story, but on the other hand I can't be too hard on a book that contained a lot of powerful images. She really did a good job nailing down that sort of passive-aggressive, manipulative technique some men use to control damaged women in her character of Jasper, and it was painful to see Katrina play into his hands (though also satisfying when she stood up for herself and asked him to stop insulting her and making her feel bad about her body). And some of the descriptions of loss and loneliness and unfulfilled desires really bled onto the page even if they didn't necessarily link into the whole puzzle every time. There was also a lot of New Age hodgepodge that it was hard to tell if it was actually any particular tradition being discussed, which made religions and folk practices read a little like fad diets. I liked that the characters' emotional landscape was usually the focus (instead of the Block tradition of repeatedly describing fashions or scenery in explicit detail). So overall I liked the raw emotion the characters experienced, but didn't really see a story. I'd probably be more invested in these people if I was reading their blog and listening to their feelings rather than trying to read a cohesive story about them.

4/10/12 Suzanne Collins
Well, that's one way to do happily ever after. NOT.

I respect Collins so much for not writing a story where everything is fine at the end, where everyone's wounds have healed, where everyone we cared about is safe. That is NEVER the story of war. I love that this story is about gray areas. About horror and healing and dealing. About uncertainty and dubious morals. About the scars that don't ever disappear.

This is one of the only books I've read in which I didn't feel like the author was pulling cheap shots with the characters' lives. Sometimes authors kill characters to make us cry. Sometimes authors kill characters to make a point, or so the good guys can have revenge, or so the bad guys can be confirmed bad. And sometimes characters die because they just did--wrong place at the wrong time. We learned in the first book that we couldn't get attached to anyone if twenty-four kids go into the arena and only one is supposed to come out. The people in danger now includes the whole cast. And sometimes when someone I cared about got killed in a disgusting or pointless way, I turned dozens of pages hoping to find out it was an illusion or a dream or a mistake, until it was clear once again that this author wasn't pulling punches and really did irrevocably kill someone who won't be coming back. And she doesn't shy away from showing us what that does to people. How it never stops hurting.

Sounds depressing, eh? Well, it also had its inspiring moments. Katniss Everdeen as the Mockingjay . . . wonderfully conflicted because she wasn't even sure what she stood for and who her allies were, tormented by her indecision and impotence, imperfect as a person, still charismatic. Peeta Mellark as the boy with the bread, still simpler and more idealistic than the girl he loves, still relatively selfless after all the times he's been burned for it. Gale Hawthorne as the guy who always has Katniss's back, sometimes sullen and ruthless, willing to see the hard truth. The horrible President Snow, whose blood-scented roses Katniss will never forget. The Capitol, District Thirteen, the ashes of District Twelve, all with so much personality that they're practically people. And the horrifying concept of what happens when the regime the heroes are fighting isn't necessarily less corrupt than what's to come when it falls.

4/8/12 Suzanne Collins
Catching Fire
The story picks up telling the life story of our Hunger Games victor, Katniss, some time after she's been getting used to her life as a celebrity (though this is not to say she . . . adjusted). She's unable to just enjoy the spoils of being a winner, because her relationship with her sort-of-boyfriend Gale has been affected by the fake romance she was forced to develop with co-winner Peeta, and her home District 12 is not all that much better off, and she's still reeling from her traumatic experiences in the arena. This is made much worse when she gets a visit from President Snow, who tells her she's in very serious trouble because her desperate attempts to save both herself and Peeta in the arena have inspired the seeds of rebellion.

I thought all of this was fairly well told . . . Katniss's emotional responses and floundering desperation were just as realistic as in the last book, though her identity has been shaken a bit since she's not the same kind of provider she used to be and she is after all aware that she is only one young girl against the might of a nation. Her despair as she realizes the world is watching and she will probably have to marry Peeta . . . her fear when those she loves are hurt by circumstances she can't control . . . and like in the last book, her ability to love and care on several levels without necessarily identifying her feelings as romantic . . . all of this was told with vital emotion and authentic gray areas.

So Katniss goes from trying to play the game--convinced it's her only option--to hoping she can fan the flames on a rebellion. But even though her heart is in the right place, she lacks both the knowledge to incite and the people skills to understand where her allies are. There were several places during the book where I caught planted messages that were aimed at Katniss . . . which she completely didn't catch. She came off as a little bit thick, which was okay, but not really as consistent with her character in the previous book. (Not that she was ever portrayed as a genius, but especially her inability to recognize her allies seemed a bit silly.) I loved her loyalty, though, and her feelings toward Rue and her family, and her occasional irrationality, even though in this book she definitely seemed less like a "girl on fire" and more like a reactionary, suspicious martyr type.

When the Quarter Quell is announced--a Hunger Games with a twist, done every 25 years--Katniss reacts to the idea of returning to the arena with other past victors in a very realistic way. Her panic and anger and ultimate resentment/resignment is one of the best told parts of the story. I again thought her stylist was an amazing and compassionate character, and the new Head Gamemaker was an interestingly complicated personality despite his small part in the book. Also loved the concept of a secret District 13, and the District 8 refugees trying to escape there. I thought Finnick from his fishing-oriented District 4 was an excellent personality to add, fighting and hunting with his trident, and the other recalled tributes had great back stories and more fleshed-out personalities than I expected. (Johanna was an especially interesting tribute--not very likable, but the personality clash between her and Katniss was really clever.) Now that Katniss has been turned into a symbol of the revolution--and lost most of the concept of home and her access to safety--I'm looking forward to seeing what this mockingjay does in the final volume of this trilogy.

4/7/12 Francesca Lia Block
The Waters and the Wild
This is a story about three friends who don't fit in at school. Bee, the protagonist, can't put her finger on what's different about her, except that she's never felt like she's part of the world, and she keeps seeing a girl who looks like her coming into her room to ask for her life back. Bee meets Haze, a boy who thinks he's from outer space, and Sarah, a girl who has dreams from a past life as a slave. The three misfits find the magic of friendship and it's really quite sweet. They find camaraderie together as they try to help Bee figure out who is stalking her and what it means. References to the faery practice of stealing children are sprinkled throughout the story, suggesting that Bee's visitor might be the real child of her mother and that Bee herself might be a changeling who belongs in another world. I thought the friendship as it was described was very sweet, though far from fleshed out, and I liked that Bee felt her purpose was fulfilled by meeting her friends and letting them meet each other through her. The ending was a little empty, but sort of happily-ever-after.

3/27/12 Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games
Decided to read this because a friend who was lukewarm on the book still wanted to see the movie, and I hate seeing movies I haven't read the book of. Plus it's nice to see what the hype is about and have my own opinion.

I didn't like the writing as much as I liked some of the concepts. What's with all the comma splices? It's just a little clumsy sometimes, but not often enough that you get used to it and adapt, so when something's weird or wrong it really sticks out. Katniss's narration talked to the faceless audience a lot, especially in the beginning, to explain stuff to us, and I was wondering who she was talking to. Sometimes it was okay because it bounced right off of what she was thinking or doing. Other times it was a history/culture lesson and that I didn't like, but I dealt with it. And there were a lot of flashbacks, which sometimes worked well and sometimes felt shoehorned in. Beyond that, the actual writing style was sometimes awkward, but the present tense narration was unusually invisible, and I thought Katniss's tone was established early and established well.

She was firm and independent and seriously a nice breath of fresh air after so many YA novels featuring drippy heroines who melt over guys and focus on getting a guy as the center of their lives. Nope, not this girl. Stepping away from the book itself for a moment, I should say that she's kind of important from a feminist standpoint when it comes to literature, and I don't mean that in a silly girl-power way. I mean that the big book-to-movie blockbusters in this era don't have good messages for women at all.

If the protagonist is a girl or a woman in these megahits, her purpose usually focuses primarily or exclusively on a boy or man. And "getting" him means she "wins," and gets "happily ever after." Katniss is important because she shows that a female lead can exist without being dependent on a boy to give her purpose. The only person she truly loves is her sister, so you believe it when she puts it all on the line to protect her, even though she clearly feels that caring makes her vulnerable. When Katniss volunteers for the Games, you can immediately see that she is already being practical about the future, because the wheels are already turning on how not to look weak by crying. And she's all business while saying goodbye to her family. She's prepared for this. She's sixteen, but she's a grown-up, and throughout the rest of the story she thinks about everything she's doing in terms of how it will affect her family, especially her sister Prim. And she doesn't carry the "I'm doing this FOR MY FAMILY" banner for show. It is part of her in the arena, and consistently works as a motivating factor in her thoughts. It isn't a ruse and it's written very well.

I wondered what happened to the other countries outside of Panem, since it's supposed to be only North America. Still, I liked the cultures that were touched on. I liked that the districts were allowed only tiny rebellions like refusing to clap for things they don't agree with. I liked that some of the districts had cultures that encouraged kids to think it was an honor to be chosen for the Games. The whole "blended animals and plants" thing kinda bugged me--how these half-and-half engineered things kept popping up, like "nightlock" (nightshade plus hemlock?) and "mockingjay" (mockingbird plus the invented "jabberjay," though that's intentional). And I didn't completely grok why the Hunger Games are the way they are--there were some halfhearted justifications for why reaping children reminds the districts of the Capitol's power, but I'm hoping this gets fleshed out in later books. As for the Games themselves, it seemed a bit contradictory that the spectators love and reward violence, but then also love and reward emotional attachment. I couldn't quite tell if both were being rewarded because different sponsors like different things, or whether it was just inconsistent for plot purposes.

I like that Katniss doesn't like "owing anyone" and feels like she owes Peeta a thank-you for helping her when she was a kid, and I unexpectedly chuckled when she was thinking about how it'd sound insincere if she thanked him while trying to slit his throat in the Games. She recognizes Peeta's kindness and sees it as a possible ploy right from the beginning, and throws it right back at him--which works to her advantage. This is choreographed to some degree--the organizers of the Games like shaking it up and making a love story happen in the arena--but Katniss plays it all as a game and that's probably one of the most interesting things about her. She actually had layers, and wasn't perfect all the time--the fact that she broke down and cried after losing her temper during her evaluation was particularly telling of the stress that's gotten under her skin--and she's not always self-aware about how she's coming across, like when she denied that she was perceived as "sullen and hostile" while figuring out how to present herself in the interviews. I love that she has so much fire and great points--that she resists giving the Capitol what they want in terms of answers at the interviews because she perceives that they're taking her future already, so what right do they have to suck on her past?

Katniss's emotional roller coaster is well told . . . she's angry about being put in this terrible position and indignant about being expected to go along with the dog and pony show before the Games, but beyond that she has connections and feelings about everyone she comes into contact with--sizing them up, pulling them in, pushing them away. I especially liked how she dealt with the voiceless servant in her room. I was actually more intrigued during the lead-up to the Games than I was during the Games themselves, but I liked how Katniss used what she knew to survive, didn't do absolutely everything right, sometimes got hurt, sometimes had weaknesses, and sometimes had to be saved (but usually by luck or correctly deducing how to manipulate her rescuer, not in the usual "boy saves damsel in distress" way). Her feelings for Peeta were really well handled too; a lot of what she did was for show, because of the situation she was in, but she was not one-dimensional and some of her feelings were conflicting. Even if you're not romantically attracted to someone, it's good to have another person on your side in a scary and desperate situation, and nearly anyone would develop strong feelings of at least protectiveness and appreciation. I loved that the story explored types of caring, intimacy, and love that do not have to be romantic. I don't think she was completely surprised that Peeta's feelings were different from her own, though she did seem sort of a little confused and disappointed to know that he wasn't faking anything he did for the cameras.

I'd say it annoyed me how there were so many indirect deaths--because that happens a lot in violent books when the main character is to be kept pristine, so the enemies die by accident, by each other's hand, or by natural causes--but this thing overall annoyed me less because Katniss did kill one person completely fairly and another person straightforwardly when the opponent couldn't fight back, so she didn't come through the Games with no blood on her hands. But for a plot so vicious and bloody, there really were a lot of indirect deaths--Katniss was directly involved with someone dying from insect bites, dying from poison, etc. I won't go into detail (so I can avoid spoilers), but I thought the ending was a great mini-rebellion. I actually saw the twist coming (and hoped it wasn't going to happen, even though it seemed inevitable), but I liked how they twisted the twist, which sets the scene for . . . future books. (You can tell more were planned by certain little aspects of how particular characters acted.) And I really appreciated that they did NOT just cut off at the end with a victory; they actually showed some aftermath and some reacting and some of the reward that the tributes had fought so hard for--and some of the consequences.

3/26/12 Francesca Lia Block
The Frenzy
The narration on this girl-werewolf book was more . . . traditionally coherent than most Block books are. The descriptions were the usual--our protagonist, Liv, has waist-length fiery red hair and bright green eyes, and her mother was a beauty queen and always looks perfect, etc. But Block protagonists are usually sort of archetypal, so I'm more forgiving when the girl with the fiery temper is of course also a fiery redhead who happens to be fighting the wolf inside her. Another thing that Block did differently this time was give most of her characters fairly ordinary names. Okay, we have a dude named Pace, but Olivia's pretty normal for one of her protagonists, and we even have a Michael and a Joe. How'd that happen?

Some of the revelations and clues to elements of the ending were very obvious from the beginning, but that doesn't mean it was clear how it was going to end. The kind of awesome thing about how convoluted Francesca Lia Block books sometimes are is that they don't try to make everything tie up pretty and go somewhere too obvious, so while some of the personal elements that were set up as revelations were clear a mile away, the plot wasn't. I liked that Liv was living in a realistic world that nevertheless contained werewolves, and that their brutal side was not downplayed, and that the fashion and decorating descriptions were kept to a minimum to let Liv's personality up to the surface. I liked that she had a gay best friend and that they posed as each other's love interest because the truth would hurt their parents, though I hate how so many gay kids in YA fiction end up the way Pace did. Liv's boyfriend Corey was another pleasant surprise--I liked her description of intimacy with him and the way she was afraid of herself for his sake.

3/26/12 Francesca Lia Block
Blood Roses
This short story collection always makes me sing the Tori Amos song of the same name when I pick it up.

A collection of magical/fairy-tale-esque stories of transformation, this is the usual adjective bath by Ms. Block. It's odd because I usually prefer books with strong characterization and Block's books seem to be more about concept--especially in her short fiction. In the first story--the title story, "Blood Roses," I found myself randomly crying over a poignant paragraph: "She wondered if when you died it was like that. If you still believed your body was there and couldn't quite accept that it was gone. Or if someone you loved died, someone you were really close to, would they be like a phantom limb, still attached to you?"

Mythical references popped up regularly--as soon as I saw Lucy and Rosie being offered pomegranate juice in a strange man's house, I smelled Persephone--and the dark and sort of creepy side of magic is found under every rock here. I got a little tired of the random insertions of "Here's this character, she looks like this, she does this glamorous thing and wears this other glamorous thing and she has a cool name. Now here's this character. . . ." In a way, depending on my mood, it kind of strikes me like sifting through random people's snapshots, so it's interesting, but usually when I'm reading a book I don't want to get attached to a snapshot and then have her not become a person.

Block also has a bit of a habit of ending stories abruptly when it seemed like they were building toward something. I don't insist on resolution, but I do like when they go somewhere and many of these stories went somewhere but stopped before they got there. My favorite stories were "My Boyfriend is an Alien" (in which a girl with schizophrenia describes her boyfriend and why she thinks he is from space) and "Skin Art" (in which Elodie Sweet falls in love with an older man with tattoos, but when he won't even consider her love because she's a minor, tattoos start appearing all over her skin until she desperately goes to him and demands his attention . . . once she gets it, a really accurate statement about love is narrated poignantly, and I really appreciated how it did not downplay the depth of Elodie's feelings while also acknowledging that they were not love).

3/3/12 Francesca Lia Block
House of Dolls
This short fairy-tale-esque book introduces us to a family of mismatched dolls and illustrates how their lives are affected and reflected by the little girl who owns them. Living in a dollhouse that has been in the Blackberry family for three generations, the dolls have a close relationship even though they are very different from each other. The story isn't exactly clear on the "reality" of the dolls, but their owner, Madison, does various things to them mostly to express how she's feeling, and they appear to have various dismayed reactions. I've always been a bit creeped out by stories about inanimate objects not really being inanimate and being at the mercy of children, but in this case it was a good way of showing that this child didn't feel loved and wanted to strip love away from the dolls to assuage her jealousy and express her own emptiness. Madison's grandmother reads the signs and knits the family back together while also returning the dolls and their house to their former glory, but even though it's supposed to be a fairy tale, I thought it was a bit simplistic even for that. And true to form, Block threw in a ton of descriptions of outfits and accessories . . . for some reason when she does it it doesn't feel like adjective overload, because she's creating a feeling and painting a picture more than she's telling a story, I think.

2/28/12 Victoria Forester
The Girl Who Could Fly
The thing I liked most about this book was its protagonist: Piper, the girl who could fly. She was charming and relatable and good-hearted without being a goody-goody if you know what I mean. A couple other things I liked about it were that the storytelling was well crafted and the author didn't weave in some nifty explanation for why the children in this book had unusual abilities. But the book did push a few of my pet peeve buttons.

I know it's common in children's literature, but it drives me up the wall when authors decide to give their characters names that represent their personalities--or, in this case, their powers. I can't stop rolling my eyes when the girl who shrinks is named Violet and the flying girl's last name is McCloud. And just in case it actually might have surprised anyone that the creepily nice head honcho of the facility is NOT on the kids' side, the author went ahead and named her Dr. Hellion for ya. Subtle.

I also really detest when twins exist in stories as if they are basically one person. Superpowered twins in this book not only have the same superpower, but are repeatedly said to be indistinguishable from each other and no one--not even the twins themselves--objects to this. To add insult to injury, they speak in turn like one song shifting back and forth between two radio speakers. There is no explanation for this except "they're twins"--that's not their superpower. Grr.

Most of the children Piper meets at her new "school" are cardboard cutouts--except for Conrad--and so are the teachers and staff. The perspective is sometimes inconsistent; being in third person, the point of view does occasionally head-hop, but does so in a confusing way because it deliberately misconstrues people's personalities (other than Piper's), sort of like the author wanted to keep us guessing about whether someone was good or bad even when she was showing us their POV. The abilities of the children--and the unusual characteristics of the plants and animals that were also at the facility--were underdeveloped as concepts, sometimes abjectly silly, and poorly fleshed out. And I hate when an escape plan depends on various people with superpowers each having a specific power-related role they must play and for which they are essential. It feels written. Books are written, but they shouldn't feel like they are.

But by far the worst thing about this book was the premise. Superpowered children are taken away to a facility that poses as a school, but really Dr. Hellion is trying to make them normal for her own screwed up reasons. 1. That's silly, even though the reason she was doing it was a little more complex than it initially pretended to be. 2. Parents don't give away their kids, not hear from them for months or years, and do nothing. Maybe a few jerk parents (like Conrad's) would. But especially not if they receive back a broken child after no contact over a long period. 3. Why even pose as a school and have "teachers" and keep up a ruse if the point is to drive the "aberrations" out of them at all costs? It's not like parents or any inspectors are seeing the place and making sure that it is what it pretends to be. 4. The "students" at the "school" don't have any motivation for how they act at the beginning, considering what their situation turns out to be. 5. The key to a ridiculous facility like this actually working is Dr. Hellion actually being charismatic. We're only told that she's charismatic, but it's really phoned in. She's creepy and at first I thought she was going to turn out to have some extrasensory reason behind knowing the right things to say to manipulate people, but without any such thing it doesn't make a lot of sense that people believe what she says and want to please her. The book says so but I don't believe it. 6. Why is it only children with powers who are found and "rehabilitated" in the facility? Adults with unusual abilities are never found in adulthood? 'Cause I guess an adult would immediately think something was fishy in this fake school. Handy that they never find them.

The school concept and other characters were rarely compelling and there were too many story elements that were so silly they seemed contrived, not funny. Ultimately I found myself really liking the character Piper, and really wishing she was in a different story.

2/20/12 E.D. Baker
The Wide-Awake Princess
This is sort of an alternate-world fairy tale--it's a Sleeping Beauty retelling with the caveat that the sleeping princess has a magically immune little sister. Being that it's a fairy tale motif that mixes in a bunch of other fairy tales, I guess I shouldn't be annoyed that it's very questy and has one-dimensional characters, but it did bother me that the premise of the story was so heavily inundated with "it happened this way, because . . . it has to happen this way." I didn't like that the younger princess's gift/curse was so crappy--Princess Annie was immune to magic, but that not only meant that magic couldn't harm OR help her; it also somehow meant that magic didn't work in her general vicinity, so people with magical enhancements forced her to stay away from them (including her family, even though their magical gifts would start working again as soon as she wasn't nearby). I didn't like that the fairy who cast this magic did so in such a way and there was no discussion of why it had to be that way, and I didn't like that her family members were such jackasses about it, acting like they thought they were superior to her because of having beauty and grace and all kinds of gifts that were literally given to them magically rather than earned.

I also didn't like that even though everyone knew a curse was supposed to come on the princess's birthday or before, they still allowed so many risks and loopholes for the curse to manifest. If you knew your daughter's curse would manifest if she got pricked by a spinning wheel, not only would you ban all the spinning wheels from the kingdom, but you wouldn't let her open any freaking birthday presents if you didn't know what they were.

Premise ridiculousness aside, Princess Annie's forced ordinariness was kinda refreshing, though it also made her seem like a contrived person too--of COURSE you would gather skills through practice instead of magic and throw yourself into that if you had nothing else and no one respected you. I liked that her immunity to magic made her uniquely qualified to do things like RESCUE PEOPLE (including, dare we say, herself, and A MAN!, more than once!), and I noticed that this book actually did something that fairy tales normally don't do--it acknowledged that people go to the bathroom! Wow!

But I think the thing that annoyed me the most was how contrived a prince's princess-finding contest was. Princess Annie's looking for a prince to kiss her sister Gwendolyn, but she enters the princess contest without telling him that she's doing so on her sister's behalf. Prince Andreas is portrayed as not being as much of an idiot as royalty usually is in these stories, caring more for finding a wife who can keep up with him on a horse, dance for fun, and eat what he likes to eat. So when Annie turns out to be his perfect match, there's an ISSUE because a) she was looking for someone for Gwen, and b) she's got a thing for her companion, Liam, and he for her. Good thing the story solved that problem and didn't bother to keep the interpersonal conflict going . . . Andreas turns into a slobbering fool at the mention of maybe marrying Gwendolyn and all his credibility as a halfway decent person is thrown out the window. It's exactly what the story needed to go forward and let Princess #1 get her kiss and Princess #2 get her guy, but it isn't interesting.

There seemed to be kind of a lot of plot holes too, as well as lots of plot elements that were super predictable. Princess Annie heard plotting scoundrels outside her castle immediately upon going on her prince-finding quest (who talked in a stereotypical thuggish way), and because of overhearing their intentions she knows her time is short. Regardless, her quest takes a really long time, and some of it is avoidable--the urgency to return to the castle doesn't seem to figure into the princess's thoughts very often. At first I was thinking "Okay, she's sending the princes back to her castle to try to kiss her sister, so she can keep questing." But then I remembered that they couldn't get inside without her, because magical roses kept them out and they would fall asleep because of the curse without her touching them. So that bothered me, and the princess's companion turning out to be a prince was obvious from the beginning as soon as she let it slip that she knew so little about his background (doing that is an obvious giveaway that the background is going to be significant), and I knew which fairy tale was going to get shoehorned in every time the scene was set. And Rapunzel's tower was deserted when Princess Annie got imprisoned there . . . why would the thugs put her in Rapunzel's tower, and where was Rapunzel? That was never explained.

There was a bit with Liam's brother receiving a handwritten note from his mother (enclosing a pin he supposedly needed), but there was no reason she needed to write him a note when she could have told him anything she needed to say in person. The reason, of course, why he had a note was so that he could accidentally drop it where Annie could find it and serendipitously match the handwriting and solve the big mystery of the book. And since one of the men who was recruited to kiss Princess Gwendolyn had to be both a prince and her "true love," of course it turned out to be the nicest one (even though Princess Gwen herself didn't seem very nice), and of course someone she's never met can somehow "be" her true love . . . because the story says so.

So much of it read like a series of plot bullet points with the fraying edges inexpertly stitched together like they'd been found during late stages of editing. It was frustrating, but I bet it would be kind of a fun story to read to very little kids (below age 8), because they probably wouldn't see everything coming a mile away. Maybe I was just reading it like too much of a grown-up? But I don't at all believe that books for kids should be dumbed down. The writing style itself was okay--nothing ever wowed me, but it was quite readable and not ornate or distracting--but the storytelling was very ham-fisted. I'm glad at least that the story explored both the advantages and the disadvantages of being unable to be affected by magic in a world that depends so heavily on it, and I'm glad that the author didn't decide to make Princess Annie get transformed into a more beautiful girl by magic at the end somehow.

2/20/12 Kathryn Erskine
There were certain things I liked a lot about this book, so I'll start with that. Aspie protagonist Caitlin had a distinct voice and was mostly believable within the story, though I had some trouble with her presentation. I liked that she didn't see herself as autistic and seemed kind of irritated by the idea that others did--it made her more flawed and likeable--and I liked that she had many of her own terms for experiences unique to her, like her "recess feeling" as a bad feeling because she didn't like recess. I liked that traditional dialogue was not used in this book because Caitlin probably doesn't process speech quite the same as other people do; it made the story feel a little more like it was all in her head, which was appropriate. I liked that Caitlin clearly had a connection with her brother that could be felt, even though her emotions don't express like other people's; it didn't feel grafted on that she loved him. I liked that Caitlin wasn't the only person who was suffering because of the death of a loved one--her father's grief, and that of a friend and even a sort-of enemy, was filtered through her viewpoint to show us how others were reacting even though she mostly couldn't empathize or understand why they felt what they did. And I liked the symbolism that sometimes happened when Caitlin would do things like draw a person and leave out the eyes.

I didn't like the following things. I thought Caitlin was sometimes too literal in an exaggerated way; I found her interpretation of "quarter-cut oak" as wood pried from an oak tree with a quarter to be a bit unbelievable (especially since she actually tried it and damaged her hands). This was especially weird since the narration wasn't always overly literal, which probably contributed to my feeling that someone else was showing us Caitlin besides Caitlin. I would have liked to see a little bit less stereotypical Asperger's traits since not everyone on the spectrum is the same; she's pretty much got 'em all if you check off items on a list. Startled by loudness and brightness; super literal; hates eye contact; can't read emotions; hides herself under and inside things; flaps her hands; sucks her sleeve; has weird outbursts; even has a savant-like artistic ability. I didn't like that there were so many references to a movie I hadn't seen, and that they were used to frame the story. I didn't like that sometimes other children who talked to Caitlin were way too mature. I didn't like that certain aspects of Caitlin's Asperger's experience seemed a little phoned in, though that's hard to explain. Not because anything she did wasn't believable for someone of her orientation, but because it . . . sometimes sounded like someone else was talking ABOUT her rather than it being Caitlin talking about herself. Maybe more like the author was sometimes showing me Caitlin while pretending to be thinking as her, but knowing I'm going to "get" a joke that Caitlin doesn't get. And I think most of all I didn't like that certain story-related revelations were very deliberately presented in the right order for the reader so that even when the characters felt real the storytelling felt constructed and "written." (For instance, we begin the story knowing that Caitlin's brother has died in an accident, but we don't know the nature of the accident, and "as you know, Bob" type exposition sometimes filters into the narration.) It also kinda bothered me that there was a school shooting and the only reference to the perpetrator involved a clearly unrepentant ex-student grinning and giving a thumbs up to a camera covering the news story.

2/18/12 Shannon Hale
Forest Born
Shannon Hale regularly makes me feel like I'll never be a decent author because she's just so ridiculously good at telling stories. Despite having already read the previous three books in The Books of Bayern series, I was still amazed by how I could be intrigued by yet another story of a special protagonist discovering a secret strength. In a way, Rin was a dark character because of the enormity of what she was saddled with taming--a lot like Enna was in her book, but worse in some ways because of how a person with her personal struggle could perish by it.

But right from the beginning Rin never let the nature of her power over others get the best of her, and was always a person I could love and respect while watching the world filter through her eyes. I loved this character's careful quietness, and her inner sorrow, and her longing to be like others, and her attachment to children, friends, family, and nature. And I especially loved that even though she was noble and fairly sheltered, she wasn't a pure and blameless person at all times . . . she was able to fight dirty when she needed to, up to and including fist-fights (not to mention putting her life on the line for what she knew was right). It was wonderful to follow her to the end of the book and see how much work she still had to do on herself as well . . . too often books in this genre have a too-complete wrap-up at the end, reminiscent of "happily ever after," but especially for a sixteen-year-old girl, a static "ever after" isn't realistic. It was so good to see Rin's book end with a future of self-exploration and ambition and joy and sorrow ahead of her.

Hale has a special ability to make a rather large-scale story still read as entirely personal, and she has such a way with analogies that are uncomplicated and not clumsily decorated. An example would be when Rin "marveled again at what a tree could become outside a forest." As a Forest-born girl herself, she thought of this comparison while looking at an actual mighty tree, which had flourished on its own outside the constraints of the forest. Such a tight, simple analogy--no posturing, no author whispering in your ear trying to show a narrator's brilliance--just a moment of understanding by an unassuming character who sees parallels for herself in the structures of nature. More than I can say for some people.

You can always believe Hale's characters, and feel their layers. They are utterly their own and not "written." It's a beautiful thing. I love the relationship between Razo and Rin--an authentic, naturally written sibling relationship--and the whole family dynamic of the Forest kin. She doesn't stop missing her mother or her favorite brother when she's away from them--it's not tacked on like an afterthought. She's spent her whole life as part of a family unit, and she acts/feels like it. When Rin longed to be in her mother's arms, I really felt wistfulness and longing on her behalf, and cried when she finally got there again.

I love how Hale's characters say things they didn't mean to say, and have such distinct personalities that are clearly built on their natures and their pasts, and don't ever act like they started living on page one of the book. I actually feel a little bad identifying anything I didn't like, but only two small things bothered me. 1) There was a tendency for revelations to be really easy to see coming (though the character not being able to see them coming is handled well). In this book, what Rin's true strength was--and how she could be expected to balance it--were clear to me as soon as she had her first major crisis. 2) There was a tendency to use sometimes not-very-believable broken language for both foreign people and young children. She does normally write dialogue well, though; you can tell who's speaking without being told, and not because of any gimmicks in people's speech. Isi and Enna and Dasha and Razo all talk in distinct ways. It's so refreshing to read a book by an author who understands how to do this without making it seem contrived.

2/6/12 Bill Willingham
Fables: Volume 2
This one had a little less of the annoying factor compared to the first volume because it wasn't constantly smacking you over the head with exposition, but more information about the premise filtered in during this volume and it rubbed me the wrong way. It's insinuated that the Fables--people from alternate worlds who got chased from their fictional worlds to hide among the "mundanes" (ugh) in our world--have a definite understanding of themselves being story characters and that it matters to them how often the so-called mundanes tell their stories. (For instance, Rose Red is jealous of Snow White for being more well-known, and it's suggested that the better-known you are, the easier it is for you to survive, say, a gunshot wound to the head. Gee.) Yet, when the various Three Little Pigs die, it doesn't matter that they replaced them with three more little pigs for the normal people to believe in without knowing the originals got killed. I don't get it, especially since that whole switch-a-roo was played like the audience was gonna go "oooh, deep." (I felt the same about several "reveals" throughout the story.) The whole civil war plot and the way Snow White and Rose Red ended up at the Animal Farm seemed really contrived to me, too. Though I must say Goldilocks having a consummate relationship with one of the Three Bears made me chuckle.

2/1/12 Bill Willingham
Fables: Volume 1
A friend thought I'd like this because I guess it has some common threads with Sandman (which I adore), but so far it has yet to be anywhere near as dramatic, innovative, and authentic as Neil Gaiman's masterpiece. So a bunch of fictional characters from the various stories we know and love have been exiled from their fairytale homelands (by a mysterious adversary, motives unknown), and now they live secretly among regular people, with their own place for people like them called Fabletown. (They refer to themselves as "Fables.") A detective story featuring the murder of Rose Red is the motivating force in the action, and various reinvented characters play suspects, victims, and sleuths. This graphic novel pushed about a dozen of my pet peeve buttons immediately.

  1. Severe overuse of characters lighting a cigarette to show off how hard-boiled they are.
  2. Cameo nonsense. Some people might find the repeated references to fairy tales enjoyable, but I definitely felt beaten over the head. "Hi Jack. Climbed any beanstalks lately?" You know, so we'll know which Jack this is. "Never mention the dwarves" being a warning about what you just don't say to Snow White. Etc.
  3. Overuse of emphasis with bold lettering. I'm thinking this might be a comic thing that I'm just oversensitive to since I tend not to read a whole lot of American graphic novels, but anytime something was either stressed or significant, it was bolded. It got tiring.
  4. For some reason I get really annoyed when regular people, whatever "regular" people are in some fantastical reality, are called "mundanes." In this series, not only are normal people called mundanes, but they're called "mundys" for short. Just something I'm tired of.
  5. Critical levels of as-you-know-Bob. Characters' pasts are filled in with awkward dialogue. "You remember when you did such and such?" / "Shut up, you can't hold that against me, that was before the amnesty!" Or Snow White feels prompted to explain exactly how the balance of power works between the "actual" mayor of Fabletown (King Cole) and herself (second-in-command) because someone she's talking to points out that she's not the mayor. Occasionally this is lampshaded ("Your sister, Rose Red." "I'm not entirely an idiot. I actually know my own sister's name."--that sort of thing), but I had shoehorned-in exposition squirting out my ears before the first chapter was over.

Add in the fact that I'm not a fan of detective stories anyway--especially "and this is how I figured it all out" endings--and you get to conclude I didn't care for this. The art itself was fine, though sometimes the emotion seemed detached from the dialogue. I'm still going to read the second one because a) sometimes comics get better as they relax into their world, and b) my friend lent me both, so I'll read both.

1/17/12 Sharon M. Draper
Out of My Mind
There was so much that was good about this book. I appreciated that Melody, a girl with cerebral palsy who can't speak, had her own imperfections (beyond her disability) and wasn't written as a complete saint--that's a pitfall many authors can't seem to avoid when trying to write a book like this from the perspective of a disabled child. Melody is smart as a whip but needs help to communicate and has almost no control over her body, and yet many of the people responsible for her education weren't willing to accept her abilities for what they really are. I liked that there were so many varieties of reactions to her--that many of her classmates may have been outright rude and cruel to her, but many of them were in gray areas . . . meaning they said and did a lot of the right things but did so out of apparent feelings of obligation, not because they wanted to.

I liked how realistic the mainstreaming experience was for Melody, and I liked that her time in the disabled class was clearly just babysitting (because that totally happens in school all the time). And I liked that sometimes when bad things happened, the story didn't swoop in and pull out a miracle solution to make everything okay again. The author let disaster strike and then let the characters further show their colors by dealing with it.

There were a few things I didn't like, but most of it was just delivery. There were a couple places where I thought Melody made some insensitive comments about fat people (commenting mentally that someone's belly was "gross" or suggesting people's large size as automatically unflattering). The narration flipped from past tense to present tense pretty much arbitrarily, though it did it in chunks or between chapters so it wasn't particularly distracting. I thought the children sometimes spoke too maturely--for instance, a fifth grader is quoted as saying "It never occurred to me that Melody had thoughts in her head." I taught elementary school and even though obviously some of the children had advanced vocabulary, they didn't tend to talk like this; sometimes it just didn't sound natural. There was one bit that felt planted: when Melody's sister is pointed out to have a tendency to run out the door to try to get in the car, I knew it would be important and I knew however it would be important would be dangerous, so I just kept waiting for it to happen. But except for these small things, I found it an enjoyable read and I thought Melody was a fascinating character, and the storytelling style was innovative.

I cried a little when one of the first things Melody did when she got her talking machine was tell her parents she loved them.

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