Monday, October 28, 2013

Another Little Piece

Another Little Piece by Kate Karyus Quinn

On a cool autumn night, Annaliese Rose Gordon stumbled out of the woods and into a high school party. She was screaming. Drenched in blood. Then she vanished.

A year later, Annaliese is found wandering down a road hundreds of miles away. She doesn't know who she is. She doesn't know how she got there. She only knows one thing: She is not the real Annaliese Rose Gordon.

Now Annaliese is haunted by strange visions and broken memories. Memories of a reckless, desperate wish . . . a bloody razor . . . and the faces of other girls who disappeared. Piece by piece, Annaliese's fractured memories come together to reveal a violent, endless cycle that she will never escape—unless she can unlock the twisted secrets of her past.
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

This one is not for the faint of heart. It's dark and scary, and slightly confusing in a way that ends up being more disorienting and creepy than seeming like a flaw. The horror is given weight by family trauma, and the guilt Annaliese feels. Secondary characters are well-developed and complex, and the plot will keep you guessing until the bloody end. Quinn doesn't back down from grotesque horror or realistic high school issues. If you're a fan of intense horror and psychological drama, check this one out. If you can't handle something like Hannibal you might want to give this a pass.

Highly recommended for some last minute Halloween scares.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Ghost Bride

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

"One evening, my father asked me if I would like to become a ghost bride..."

Though ruled by British overlords, the Chinese of colonial Malaya still cling to ancient customs. And in the sleepy port town of Malacca, ghosts and superstitions abound.

Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family's only son, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at a terrible price.

After an ominous visit to the opulent Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also by her desire for the Lim's handsome new heir, Tian Bai. Night after night, she is drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, with its ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, vengeful spirits and monstrous bureaucracy—including the mysterious Er Lang, a charming but unpredictable guardian spirit. Li Lan must uncover the Lim family's darkest secrets—and the truth about her own family—before she is trapped in this ghostly world forever.
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

Title? Sold. Cover? Double sold. Summary, setting, premise? I needed this book two days before I'd even heard of it. I was immediately hooked, and once I got my grabby little hands on it, I tore through it in two days. 

Almost everything about this book worked for me. Choo offers so many cultural and historical details that were entirely new to me, and most of them fit seamlessly into an engaging plot. I loved learning more about the historical dress, diet, and history of late 19th century Malaya (Malaysia), and that was before I got to the rich superstitions and folklore. This was all to the good because although the plot is engaging, it is not quick. You really have to want to wander the streets of this port city with Li Lan and her Amah, to visit with the fortune teller, explore the market place, get lost in the afterlife, and be haunted by a variety of spirits. Luckily that's pretty much all I wanted to do, so, no problems there. 

Besides, the pace does pick up in certain parts, especially as Li Lan unravels more of the mysteries facing her and uncovers more of her family's past, while racing to reclaim what is rightfully hers. Fans of Spirited Away or historical/magic realist novels should be excited about this one, and while most libraries will probably have it shelved with adult fiction, its young protagonist, supernatural elements, and romance will appeal to many readers of YA. 

(To get especially nerdy for a moment, I would trade a small, non-essential organ to have this adapted into a video game by Vanillaware, the company that brought us Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade. The combination of mythology, spirits, exploring underworlds, fighting otherworldly perils, helpful companions, and taking time out for noodles and other traditional foods makes me long for an RPG adaptation in the WORST way)

The Art of Wishing

The Art of Wishing by Lindsay Ribar

He can grant her wishes, but only she can save his life.

Margo McKenna has a plan for just about everything, from landing the lead in her high school play to getting into a good college. So when she finds herself in possession of a genie's ring and the chance to make three wishes, she doesn't know what to do. Why should she put her life into someone else's hands?

But Oliver is more than just a genie -- he's also a sophomore at Margo's high school, and he's on the run from a murderer. As he and Margo grow closer, she discovers that it will take more than three wishes to save him.

A whole lot more.
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

I was a little hesitant about this book. Maybe because so much of the action happens at the high school, and I don't usually go for realistic fiction. Maybe because I wasn't all that interested in genies, and it seemed like the genie/master relationship could very easily go off the squicky rails- actually, let's be honest, that's most of the reason why this book appealed to me in the first place. I wanted to look at paranormal romance from a different perspective, and to see if the author would deal with the iffy consent issues inherent in a relationship where one person is forced to grant the other's wishes. Also, that cover is pretty irresistible. 

And guess what? I loved it. Ribar does handle those issues, albeit with a light touch. The best part was that Margo's relationship with Oliver doesn't dominate the plot, or her attention. She's at least as focused on doing well in the school play, writing music, and trying to repair her relationship with her mother. Bonus- Margo is a massive Neko Case fan, which endeared her (and Ribar) to me immediately. 

After slogging through other paranormal angst and fluff, The Art of Wishing is a welcome breath of fresh air, enlivened by excellent secondary characters, a few surprises, a winning romance, and plenty of Aladdin references.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

In Defense of Strong Female Characters- And Their Fans

“I want [female characters] to be allowed to be weak and strong and happy and sad – human, basically. The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.” Natalie Portman

I hate Strong Female Characters.
Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong. - Sophia McDougall

Don't let my title confuse you, I wholeheartedly agree with both statements. If you haven't read McDougall's article, check it out now from the hyperlink. Teen media especially is suffering from an overabundance of "Strong" but simple and dull female protagonists. Even authors I like have put out books where it seems like they are far too concerned with having a strong female lead, rather than a believable, sympathetic, or realistic one. I'm all for girls kicking ass and copping 'tude, but a gun and some snark do not add up to a personality. (For an instance where this does work because the author has added other layers, check out Paranormalcy's Evie, who rocks her job as a paranormal investigator while toting a sparkly pink taser and worrying about missing her favorite teen dramas). In the name of Joss, yes, bring on the complex women, strength be damned.

HOWEVER. I heard something really interesting at the Kill or Be Killed: Crafting a Powerful Female Protagonist panel at NYCC this weekend. A fan asked the authors how they go about crafting a strong female character. This resulted in a discussion about strength, and how it doesn't have to be physical, it can be moral, emotional, etc. The moderator, Thea James, referenced McDougall's article, and some time was spent discussing the variety of women we have on TV these days (one author professed her love for Breaking Bad's Lydia). Finally, Lauren Oliver, author of the Delirium series, spoke up to defend the idea of strong women. Put simply, it is still extremely empowering for girls and women to see characters like Ripley from Alien or Sarah Connor from Terminator 2 kicking ass and taking names. 

Ideally we'd live in a world where we didn't need to be conscious of specific female empowerment- everyone would already be equal. Until we get there though, we shouldn't be writing off these characters, just mindful that variety and complexity are also needed.

Happily there are works with great balances of gender roles, and with racial diversity as well (Sleepy Hollow and Lieutenant Abbie Mills for the win). I haven't watched Person of Interest, but after seeing their panel I will definitely be checking it out. They opened with a video sequence in which one of their police officer characters, who happens to be both female and black, took down a crooked cop to thunderous applause from the audience. I don't know about the entire cast, but just on the panel were two other prominent female actors, including Amy Acker who plays an offbeat computer scientist. Check out my video of Taraji P. Henson answering a fan question about the diverse roles for women on the show:

  Please pardon the low quality

While we're on the subject, I attended panels from both Marvel and DC comics, and at both panelists were asked about the roles of women in their franchises. At the Marvel panel, a fan asked (pleasantly, but seriously) where our female-led movie was already. The panelists smiled coyly, and asked if she planned to see The Winter Soldier. While that is a Captain America movie, it also stars Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. The fan quite rightly pointed out that this wasn't a lead role, and the panel advised her to wait and see. The whole tone seemed to point to a high likelihood of a female-led movie, maybe spun off of The Winter Soldier- or perhaps the end credits will tell us more? Either way they seemed comfortable with the question and had encouraging things to say about it.

DC..... was another matter. Many of the same fans attended this panel, and the questions were tougher. Where are the strong women in the movies? What happened with Batwoman? Where did Wonder Woman's pants go? (there was a Wonder Woman redesign a few years back that gave the Amazon a jacket and trousers, but this has been undone). Unlike Marvel, several panelists and especially the moderator looked uncomfortable or downright annoyed by these questions. An artist who works on the Wonder Woman comic said that from a purely artistic standpoint, that costume was harder to draw action for, and it was hard to differentiate Wonder Woman's black pants from her black boots. Excuse me? Then why aren't the men in short shorts and go-go boots?
To the panelists credit, they were being put on the spot, but tough. These are fair questions that need to be asked, and judging from the applause and cheers following each question, these fans were not alone in their opinions. The one woman on the panel did say that she has never had an issue as a woman in the comic book world, which was good to hear, but if absolutely nothing else plenty of people perceive there to be gender bias in that realm and discussions clearly need to happen. And ok, grumpy moderator, it is a fair point that female fans should buy titles that contain themes and characterization they're looking for, but perhaps your company needs to make more of an effort to be inclusive in the first place. One fan asked if DC has considered reviewing their hiring practices to include more women and minorities. The response? The artists aren't there. It's mostly men anyway, so, feh. I seriously, seriously doubt that. Just look at the world of fan art. Squillions of those artists are female, and before anyone rolls their eyes, the creative team behind Avatar: The Legend of Korra also attended NYCC, and stated that they have already hired three artists based on fan art. 

There was a great deal of talk at the con about the role of women in geekdom as a whole, most of it positive and enlightening. So it was doubly jarring to attend a panel where I felt that these important questions were met with annoyance and dismissal from a moderator. Still. Keep asking questions, fans, support the things you like, and make even more noise about the things you don't. Also, keep up the gender-swapped cosplay because I can't tell you how delighted I was by all the female Sherlocks, Castiels, and Malcolm Reynolds(es) I saw, in addition to some truly tremendous Kaylees, Korras, and Katnisses.

EDIT: One of my very favorite blogs has posted an article about the Marvel and DC panels here. Go check it out!

The Dream Thieves

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

Now that the ley lines around Cabeswater have been woken, nothing for Ronan, Gansey, Blue, and Adam will be the same. Ronan, for one, is falling more and more deeply into his dreams, and his dreams are intruding more and more into waking life. Meanwhile, some very sinister people are looking for some of the same pieces of the Cabeswater puzzle that Gansey is after... -Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

I knew I was right to like Ronan. As I've seen other reviewers put it, he's a "tough sell," with his rudeness, tough guy shtick, and general obnoxious behavior. But I knew a guy who could be so smitten with a baby raven couldn't be that bad. Much of this book is focused on Ronan, so we get to see through the chinks in his leather jacket (this is especially metaphorical as I'm not positive he did wear a leather jacket, I just know that he would). Most revealing are the descriptions of his childhood home, and the passages with his brothers- one younger, who worships him, and one older, the officious Mycroft to his Sherlock. We learn more about Ronan's dream abilities, and his relationships with the rest of the ensemble cast. Stiefvater pulls off some of the best character development and description I've yet read, and I loved putting the pieces of Ronan's story together.

Adam, to me, was a much harder sell. Adam's the only male character who grew up in Cabeswater, and as expected, the course of trailer park to preppy private school never did run smooth (I've been watching too much Shakespeare lately, gimme a break). He's believably drawn- of course someone in his position would fear losing it, struggle with the financial and cultural divides between himself and his peers, and be fiercely independent. That's all well and good, but there's only so many times I could read him lashing out at his well-meaning friends and shooting himself in the foot before I got seriously annoyed. Still, his circumstances pretty much speak for themselves, and I did finish the book liking him again. I do think a lot of the drama in future books will center more around him even than Gansey, and I'm dying to see how that plays out.

Blue took a bit of a back seat in this story, which was a shame, but it really is an ensemble cast and the story will play out over a few more books, so I'm not too bothered. We did get to see more of her witchy family, especially her mother, in scenes I really enjoyed, and that reminded me of the best bits of Practical Magic.

Also, can we talk about the Gray Man for a second? CHILLS. He reads like a Thomas Harris villain, and I can honestly say that this is the first time I've been this scared of a YA antagonist in years, and many of the best twists, turns and scares are courtesy of this enigma. Staggeringly good writing, Ms. Stiefvater.

If you liked The Raven Boys, you need to read this sequel. You may want to reread it, or at least read a summary before diving into this one. You will not be disappointed.

(And then send me a private message so we can dish about the romance without fear of spoilers ;-) )