Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Lost Girl

The Lost Girl by Sangu Mandanna

Eva's life is not her own. She is a creation, an abomination--an echo. She was made by the Weavers as a copy of someone else, expected to replace a girl named Amarra, her "other," if she ever died. Eva spends every day studying that girl from far away, learning what Amarra does, what she eats, what it's like to kiss her boyfriend, Ray. So when Amarra is killed in a car crash, Eva should be ready.

But sixteen years of studying never prepared her for this.

Now she must abandon everything and everyone she's ever known--the guardians who raised her, the boy she's forbidden to love--to move to India and convince the world that Amarra is still alive.

What Eva finds is a grief-stricken family; parents unsure how to handle this echo they thought they wanted; and Ray, who knew every detail, every contour of Amarra. And when Eva is unexpectedly dealt a fatal blow that will change her existence forever, she is forced to choose: Stay and live out her years as a copy or leave and risk it all for the freedom to be an original. To be Eva.
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

I'm not going to write a nitpicky review because I LOVED this book. I loved the concept, which is very sci-fi and by that I mean, something I can certainly believe people would do if technology allowed. And, as in the best sci-fi, Mandanna asks a lot of hard-hitting questions about the implications, and consequences, of what this technology would mean. She writes elegantly about life, love, loss, the lengths people will go to to protect their own, and what it means to be human. After reading so many Hunger Games clones, I was honestly surprised and relieved to find something new (and no, this is not a dystopian novel, although readers who enjoy them will very likely love this as well).

At 432 pages, this not a short read, but I was so caught up in Eva's story that I read it in just a few sittings. The characters are complex and very, very human, and I don't think I've wanted a heroine to succeed so badly since Katniss. Eva is wonderful. I also loved all the ties to Frankenstein, which could have been heavy handed but instead feel like a natural progression, and prove that it's still a relevant book to this day.

There are a few tiny issues, like the ending feeling slightly rushed, but I don't care. I was fully invested in the story and at no point did Mandanna let me down. I'll be on the lookout for more of her books and I definitely recommend this one.

Ask the Passengers

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King

Astrid Jones desperately wants to confide in someone, but her mother's pushiness and her father's lack of interest tell her they're the last people she can trust. Instead, Astrid spends hours lying on the backyard picnic table watching airplanes fly overhead. She doesn't know the passengers inside, but they're the only people who won't judge her when she asks them her most personal questions . . . like what it means that she's falling in love with a girl.

As her secret relationship becomes more intense and her friends demand answers, Astrid has nowhere left to turn. She can't share the truth with anyone except the people at thirty thousand feet, and they don't even know she's there. But little does Astrid know just how much even the tiniest connection will affect these strangers' lives--and her own--for the better.
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

I was all set to love this book, and for the first few chapters I did. It is a mostly uplifting read, and it does have a lot going for it, but ultimately I think it is flawed, and just not what it could have been. Let's break it down by pros and cons. 

-It's compelling. I read it in one day, completely buying into Astrid's story and narrative voice.
-The tone is well-balanced, moving believably from tense, emotional drama to humor to pathos and back again
-King addressed bullying, specifically of GLBTQ teens, in very direct terms. Truly awful, hateful things are said to/about Astrid and her friends, and King does a good job of showing what happens when people turn a blind eye to such reprehensible behavior. Also, bonus points for showing that teachers can be at least as gossipy and negative as their students.
-Astrid's inner conflict, questions and development ring true, and she gets major props from me for standing up for herself in the face of pressure and prejudice
-There is an emphasis on the need people have for respect, privacy, and space. Bonus points for King emphasizing that gay relationships are no different from straight relationships, and that it is problematic for people to assume it's all about sex
-I liked the idea of Astrid "sending love" to plane passengers, and their vignettes served to give the story a sort of all ages appeal, and to remind readers that everyone has their own unique set of emotional challenges, no matter their age, gender, background or circumstances
-Astrid's family is complicated, flawed, and fascinating. There are dynamics here I've seen in real families, and watching the four of them interact with each other was one of the most interesting things about the book.

That all sounds great, yeah? And those parts are. Unfortunately, the book has some issues that detract from all that a bit.

-Several relationships are problematic to me. Astrid's girlfriend Dee pressures her to move more quickly than Astrid is comfortable with- and Astrid does speak up. All well and good. But Astrid goes from feeling uncomfortable with this and unsure if she really likes Dee to being madly in love. Umm... k... Something similar happens with Astrid's friends. In one chapter it seems as though they have had a major falling out, and in the last it seems as though things are perfectly normal. 
-Astrid makes everything about her. Sure she's the main character, but even allowing for that conceit it gets old fast. Nothing is ever her fault (in her eyes), all the other characters need to take things at her speed when she says so, and god help them if they move too fast or slow for her. She can be preachy, and while she does develop in some ways (comes to terms with her own sexuality), she doesn't in others (keep an open mind, act more generously, give back). Here's an example of what I mean by missed opportunities- towards the end of the book when Astrid is resolving her baggage, she is portraying Socrates for her humanities class, going around the school and militantly debating people. Ok, great, if pushy. However, she had previously remarked that it was only "other, possibly fictional schools" that had GLBTQ clubs. I couldn't help thinking that it would have been better for her to work on starting one of these, especially since her humanities teacher, one of the only Allies she mentions, would have been the perfect faculty advisor. Maybe that's a weird quibble to have, but it would have been nice to see Astrid stepping up to help others instead of making herself feel smart. 
-Speaking of the school, and the students.... Other than Astrid and her friends, everyone seems to be a small-minded hateneck in this town. Worse, they're all decades old stereotypes. The jocks are oversexed, meat-headed bullies. The cheerleaders are superficial, snipey gossips. Where's the complexity? The acknowledgement that high school is tough all around, and that while that obviously does not excuse bullying, it goes partway toward explaining it? I'd have been much happier with some shades of grey, some discussion of why kids lash out at each other, and what can be done to improve things. Instead we get Astrid deciding to tune out the unpleasantness, without any change or growth.

Overall this was an absorbing read with plenty of realistic teen angst and some moving relationships, but it's weighed down by stereotypes and missed opportunities. I think Emily M. Danforth did a far better and more nuanced job of portraying a girl in a conservative small town questioning her sexuality in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and for a better look at issues of high school cliques and bullying I'd recommend Before I Fall and The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The War at Ellsmere

The War at Ellsmere by Faith Erin Hicks

Zombies Calling creator Faith Erin Hicks brings her manga-fueled art style and pop-culture sensibilities to girl's boarding schools in her latest book The War at Ellsmere. Jun is the newest scholarship student at the prestigious Ellsmere girls' boarding school - but to a lot of the privileged rich girls, "scholarship student" is just a code for "charity case." Fortunately, Jun has an ally in the quirky Cassie, who swears the stories about the mysterious white deer that lives in the forest outside of the school are true. Between queen bees and mythical beasts, Jun has quite the school year ahead of her. -Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

I've raved about Faith Erin Hicks here before, and will very likely continue to do so as I track down more of her graphic novels. I love her characters- unique, intelligent, layered- and I love the plots she comes up with- characters dealing with real world issues against an (often) supernatural backdrop. Come to think of it, I love her work and Paranorman for kind of the same reasons. If non-genre media were always so skilled at portraying such human characters I think we'd all be better off. 

The best summary I could give comes from Jun herself: "It's like Upstairs/Downstairs meets Lord of the Flies. In plaid skirts. And sweater vests. It's so weird." But you'll love it.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

In the Shadow of Blackbirds

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

In 1918, the world seems on the verge of apocalypse. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, and the government ships young men to the front lines of a brutal war, creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to séances and spirit photographers for comfort, but she herself has never believed in ghosts. During her bleakest moment, however, she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love—a boy who died in battle—returns in spirit form. But what does he want from her?

Featuring haunting archival early-twentieth-century photographs, this is a tense, romantic story set in a past that is eerily like our own time.
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

There is a lot going on in this book (a flu outbreak, WWI, spiritualism, photography, true love), and it covers a lot of ground genre-wise (historical, mystery, romance, horror, a hint of Steampunk, meditations on war abroad and at home). Thankfully, Winters blends these elements into a pretty cohesive whole, and as in Libba Bray's excellent The Diviners, the historical setting and disparate but complementary elements come together to tell a compelling and atmospheric story.

I griped about the portrayal of a headstrong and scientifically minded heroine  in The Madman's Daughter (another period piece) because that character felt forced to me. Here we have Mary Shelley, who, despite having similar inclinations in a setting not too far in the future, seems believable. For one thing, her family clearly helped to foster her talents and interests (her mother was a physician and her father named her after the author of Frankenstein- obviously written by a talented woman with an interest in science). Sure some people look at her askance when she takes apart machines to figure out how they tick, but there is no tedious "a WOMAN doing science? Heaven forfend!" hand-wringing to drag the reader down. Oops, tangent. Anyway.....

I went into this book not quite knowing what to expect, other than being excited about the spirit photography elements, which I think was a good thing. I won't go into much more detail here, other than to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this read and would recommend it to fans of dark historical fiction and stories that will keep you guessing.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Archived

The Archived by Victoria Schwab

Imagine a place where the dead rest on shelves like books.

Each body has a story to tell, a life seen in pictures that only Librarians can read. The dead are called Histories, and the vast realm in which they rest is the Archive.

Da first brought Mackenzie Bishop here four years ago, when she was twelve years old, frightened but determined to prove herself. Now Da is dead, and Mac has grown into what he once was, a ruthless Keeper, tasked with stopping often—violent Histories from waking up and getting out. Because of her job, she lies to the people she loves, and she knows fear for what it is: a useful tool for staying alive.

Being a Keeper isn’t just dangerous—it’s a constant reminder of those Mac has lost. Da’s death was hard enough, but now her little brother is gone too. Mac starts to wonder about the boundary between living and dying, sleeping and waking. In the Archive, the dead must never be disturbed. And yet, someone is deliberately altering Histories, erasing essential chapters. Unless Mac can piece together what remains, the Archive itself might crumble and fall.
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

A library of the dead? Mysterious and shadowy organization of Librarians with super powers? Um, now please! 

That's what I thought when I heard the premise of The Archived. Add in a crumbling old apartment building, a guyliner-rocking love interest spouting classic poetry, and a tough as nails protagonist devoted to her supernatural job and you've got a sure thing, right?

Well, as it turns out, not quite. The whole Keeper/Histories thing never quite gelled for me, and I think more could have been done with fewer nit-picky details. I wanted to like Mac, but she was a bit of a typical Strong Female Protagonist whose strength seems to lie in being aggressive and independent, without the layers of a Buffy or a Katniss. Even the love interest fell a bit flat for me.

The Archive itself had enormous potential, but it ended up being pretty bland. Sure it's flipping enormous, and the stacks might rearrange themselves to fool unwary visitors, but other than that it's the same library you've seen in every movie with an impressive library. Tall ceilings- check. Dark- check. Lamps, tables, shelves and shelves of books, blah blah blah. Give me the Hogwarts library, with its restricted section, chained up volumes, and whispering texts. Give me the library in the Dreaming, stuffed with books that never were, or the library planet from Doctor Who, drowning in shadows and swarming with Vashta Nerada. Give me the library of the Clayr, with it's descending nautilus shape, armed librarians, mysterious chambers and creeping threats. Don't give me Tiffany lamps and card catalogs! *Librarian rant complete*

So why am I reviewing this? Well, partially because I haven't been posting enough teen book reviews and want to stay in the game. Partly because other people might have been interested in this title, so I figured I'd put in my two cents. And partly to see if anyone had a better take on The Archived, maybe something I missed.

Friday, April 12, 2013


Ashfall by Mike Mullin

Many visitors to Yellowstone National Park don’t realize that the boiling hot springs and spraying geysers are caused by an underlying supervolcano, so large that the caldera can only be seen by plane or satellite. And by some scientific measurements, it could be overdue for an eruption.

For Alex, being left alone for the weekend means having the freedom to play computer games and hang out with his friends without hassle from his mother. Then the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts, plunging his hometown into a nightmare of darkness, ash, and violence. Alex begins a harrowing trek to seach for his family and finds help in Darla, a travel partner he meets along the way. Together they must find the strength and skills to survive and outlast an epic disaster. -
Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

I love survival stories. There's something really fascinating about a protagonist being dropped into a seemingly impossible situation (a dystopian future with televised death matches, a plane crashing into a lake, a frozen wilderness populated only by wolves, an island surrounded by murderous dolphins- what? the dolphins weren't the problem?). Maybe it's that as readers we automatically look around our house, try to put ourselves in their shoes, and think "oh god, I don't have good enough canned food! Where did I put those hiking boots? Would it be ridiculous to take my replica Aragorn dagger as my main weapon?" I mean think about it, how well would you do if a disaster struck and you had to flee your house RIGHT NOW, with only a few short minutes to pack everything you need to survive? What do you take? What do you leave behind? Bet you wish you hadn't sold off that backpacking gear you only used twice!

But back to the book. Despite the 466 page count, I tore through it in a day. Even when Alex isn't in immediate physical danger from fire, ashfall, or random acts of violence, the story is still extremely compelling. Even if his journeys (his inner development is at least as interesting as all the survival stuff) weren't so captivating, Mullin has done a fantastic job with the secondary characters, showing a dizzying, realistic, and often sickening variety of reactions to this disaster. Looting? Yup. Thieving? Oh yeah. Worse? Um... yeah. Things get pretty dire. The scariest thing is that this takes place right in our own backyards, on the suburban and rural streets, in normal neighborhoods and on major highways the supervolcano under Yellowstone IS real and, according to geologists, IS overdue for a massive explosion. If you're a reader in the midwest, good luck sleeping after this one. 

Through it all, Alex is, for the most part, resourceful, collected, and mature beyond his years. Sometimes this veers close to unrealistic territory, especially when he uses words like "ersatz," but hey, some teens are more mature than others, and this situation grows people up quick. Luckily for the people Alex encounters, he is also empathetic and tries to do the best he can by others. Darla, who is The Best, is even more capable (this is a girl who fixes tractors, rigs up her own power generator, and knows how to tan rabbit hides. How can anyone not love her?), but she is also more wary of strangers and a bit ruthless. As a result, they make a perfect survival team. But will it be enough to save them?

I loved this book and heartily recommend it to fans of survival, adventure, and post-apocalyptic stories. If you need something to feel the gaping wound left by The Walking Dead, this might even keep you shuffling on for a while. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Older Reads

For any regular readers, I'm sorry if posts have been a bit scarce lately. I've been trying to branch out this year and read some adult fiction as well as children's and young adult. Sometimes I'll review those here, mostly when they're things I know I would have liked to read in high school, but other times I won't. If anyone is curious, here are some of the things I've read and loved over the past few months that would appeal to older readers (especially those who enjoy speculative fiction, which, if you've made it this far, you very likely do).

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman's best and most ambitious novel yet, a scary, strange, and hallucinogenic road-trip story wrapped around a deep examination of the American spirit. Gaiman tackles everything from the onslaught of the information age to the meaning of death, but he doesn't sacrifice the razor-sharp plotting and narrative style he's been delivering since his Sandman days. -Borrowed from Goodreads

This I actually did read and love in high school. I mostly wanted to reread it while listening to the exhaustive (and excellent) American Gods Mix Tape by Tor. You can find nearly complete playlists of these songs on YouTube for easy listening.

In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente

A Book of Wonders for Grown-Up Readers.

Every once in a great while a book comes along that reminds us of the magic spell that stories can cast over us to dazzle, entertain, and enlighten. Welcome to the Arabian Nights for our time a lush and fantastical epic guaranteed to spirit you away from the very first page.
-Borrowed from Goodreads

If you'd ever like to know what the inside of my head is like, check my Pinterest boards, listen to some Decemberists, and read something by Catherynne M. Valente. It's pretty much that. If I gush about her any more on this blog people will think I'm secretly funded by her, so I shan't.

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I normally loathe movie/TV tie-in covers with a violent passion. But this one features Mssrs. Cumberbatch and Freeman, so I'll allow it this once. Also, if you haven't watched the very nearly perfect Sherlock yet, what in the Queen's name are you waiting for, an official summons from Mycroft?!

If convenient, watch at once.

......... If inconvenient, watch anyway.

The Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

 "You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . ."

I bemoaned the occasionally lackluster nature of historical protagonists in a previous review, especially those with a connection to the sciences. Brennan's Lady Trent more than makes up for that complaint with a wry, subversive voice reminiscent of Dame Judi Dench.

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

Filled with fascinating glimpses through the fabled looking glass and a close-up look at hard living in the gritty gun-slinging West, readers will be enchanted by this story at once familiar and entirely new. -Borrowed from Goodreads

Valente. Vess illustrations. A fairytale reimagining set in the American West smack in the middle of my Deadwood phase. Can a girl ask for more? Not this one, no sir.

Have you read read anything fantastic (in any sense of the word) this year?

Mind Games

Mind Games by Kiersten White

Fia was born with flawless instincts. Her first impulse, her gut feeling, is always exactly right. Her sister, Annie, is blind to the world around her—except when her mind is gripped by strange visions of the future.

Trapped in a school that uses girls with extraordinary powers as tools for corporate espionage, Annie and Fia are forced to choose over and over between using their abilities in twisted, unthinkable ways…or risking each other’s lives by refusing to obey.

In a stunning departure from her New York Times bestselling Paranormalcy trilogy, Kiersten White delivers a slick, edgy, heartstoppingly intense psychological thriller about two sisters determined to protect each other—no matter the cost.
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

As in Paranormalcy, White weaves a story around a kick-ass heroine living within the bounds of a shadowy (and quite possibly shady) Organization. Fia's got a bit more on her mind than vamps, pink tasers, and teen dramas however (no disrespect to Evie, whom I love). Her story opens on her being fully prepared to assassinate a boy- the only thing that saves him is coincidence. She's no certainly no wimp, as several violent encounters prove, and the has seen some serious... stuff in her time. Why stay with the agency making her into a human weapon? Her love for her sister, Annie. 

Fia is just a fantastic character- smart, powerful, thick-skinned and obviously damaged. You'll probably spend equal amounts of time being impressed and scared by her, while feeling sympathetic to her plight and rooting for her success, even and especially when that seems impossible. Part X-Men, part Gunslinger Girls, with just a little bit of Firefly (Simon and River Tam, anyone?), Mind Games hits the ground running and doesn't let go, speeding by in a blur of intriguing world-building, multi-layered characters, and some fight scenes worthy of a movie. I'll definitely be on the lookout for the sequel, due to hit shelves in 2014.