Sunday, January 30, 2011

Book Review: The Bone Palace [2010]

Amanda Downum's sequel to The Drowning City and the second book in the Necromancer Chronicles, The Bone Palace fast-forwards in time and moves the setting to necromancer Isyllt Iskaldur's home city of Erisín. Isyllt is an agent of the crown who is called in to use her magic to investigate suspicious deaths, in this case of a prostitute who has some connection to the vampires that live beneath the city streets. The plot thickens as she discovers the dead girl possesses jewelry belonging to the late queen, whose death from fever caused the continuing rift between Isyllt and her mentor (and former lover), Kiril. In a parallel plot, the prince's mistress Savedra works to protect him and his wife Ashlin from assassination attempts. Savedra is "hijra," a transwoman who is a strong and deeply sympathetic character. While Isyllt begins to suspect the involvement of blood magic and becomes increasingly torn between her loyalty to Kiril and to the crown, Savedra's identity as "other" leads her to an emotional tangle with the prince and Ashlin as she researches a dark secret from the kingdom's past. When their paths intersect with a vengeful demon, no one is safe--not even the king himself.

Grade: B+

Tangled plot threads (I had trouble figuring out what and how much to say in my summary) and a slow start threaten to bog down this otherwise enjoyable novel, but in the end, it's worth reading because there just aren't that many books out there, fantasy or otherwise, featuring well-drawn transgendered main characters. Savedra is, in a lot of ways, more likable and intriguing than Isyllt herself, making me sad to leave Erisín behind with Isyllt's departure at the book's close. At least the next book will still have a trans character in Isyllt's new apprentice.

In Brit Mandelo's great review, she points out that Downum's book is not only home to complex queer characters, it's chock full of female characters in general. Unlike many contemporary (and most old school) fantasies, it definitely passes the Bechdel Test and so, despite its flaws, I will definitely be picking up the next book in the series.

Random Thoughts:

The vampires in The Bone Palace are decidedly not sexy, but Isyllt gets sexually involved with one anyway, which ends up biting her (heh) in the ass. Much of what she does seems to have that effect, leaving her physically and emotionally exhausted by the end of every book. Nevertheless, it was refreshing that the vampires were ugly and creepy, yet also interested in having rights like daylight people.

The idea of immigrants and their patterns of settlement through the city was also well thought-out, giving Erisín more realism as a setting. This is the second time that Downum has created a fascinating and distinct setting in a novel, only to move on at the end of the book to uncharted territory. Will Isyllt ever return to these places?

There was so much buildup about the Bone Palace itself as a place where the residue of a magical maelstrom still echoes, that I thought that the location would figure more significantly in the book's denouement.

I like that the main characters got to wear pretty dresses and go to a fancy court party. I had this same reaction to the dressing-up bits of Mistborn, as I recall, I think because it provides a fun contrast to the gritty reality of corpses and assassination attempts. Maybe it's the Regency romance novel reader in me.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: Yes

Book Review: Before I Fall [2010]

The "repeating day" theme has been done in various ways over the years. Groundhog Day is probably the most well-known time loop story, but I've also seen a Buffy episode ("Life Serial"), an X-Files episode ("Monday"), a Xena episode ("Been There, Done That"), and a TV movie called 12:01, which I recorded and re-watched with strange regularity in my teens. These are just a drop in the bucket of popular culture's fascination with the theme, so Lauren Oliver has a lot of expectations to live up to when she tackles the time loop phenomenon in Before I Fall.

Samantha Kingston is a Mean Girl--an ultrapopular high school senior who accepts her privileges without appreciating them ("It's just what happens") and looks down on everyone else. Sitting in the senior section of the cafeteria is "better than getting a straight view of the short-bus brigade dribbling their applesauce. No offense." Sam ignores her little sister, scorns her parents, shudders at the thought that she and loser Kent McFuller used to be friends, and has carefully excised remnants of her past life that might be disdained by her best friend, Lindsay. Along with Lindsay, Elody, and Ally, Sam coasts through a life of parties and BFF bonding: "When we get out of high school, we'll look back and know we did everything right, that we kissed the cutest boys and went to the best parties, got in just enough trouble, listened to our music too loud, smoked too many cigarettes, and drank too much and laughed too much and listened too little, or not at all."

Into this teen girl utopia is thrown a serious wrench in the form of a car accident that claims Sam's life after a day that culminates in a party at Kent's house and a dangerous winter storm. When she wakes up the next (same) day after a dream about falling, Sam slowly begins to realize that the fact that she died isn't just a dream, and that it's up to her to figure out the purpose of her repeating day and take some action. But will Sam find redemption for herself? Will she be able to help, rather than hurt, the girl she's taken pleasure in bullying?

Grade: A

I found Before I Fall to be refreshingly thought-provoking. It's not just the day that has consequences for the accident; it's Sam's entire life. Oliver does a good job of making Sam slowly aware of the details of other people's perception, taking the time (more than 400 pages) to make the payoff really worthwhile. Sometimes there are corrections Sam can make because of her new awareness, and sometimes it's just not possible. Her treatment of Juliet and Kent, her distance from her family, and her scorn for the "freaks" at her school are all more than a one-day phenomenon. In addition, the well fleshed-out secondary characters and physical setting lend the atmosphere a surprising weight. I enjoyed the fact that Sam's transformation from Mean Girl to sympathetic character wasn't complete; she's still a teenage girl with faults and weaknesses.

Random Thoughts:

The audiobook narrator really sold the teen girl voices for me, from the acerbic Lindsay to the more airheaded Elody. Sarah Drew, I salute you!

I don't think that I cared as much about the romantic angle--will Sam lose her virginity to her asshole jock boyfriend?--as I was supposed to. I'm not sure I bought her complete switch from Rob to Kent, even with the whole death thing making social suicide less meaningful.

I do love a good time loop story.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: No

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Meditation on Dead Mothers (in Books I've Been Reading)

I omitted one vital thing when I was recapping my 2010 Year in Reading: I forgot to talk about the dead mothers. At the beginning of 2010, in my Very LeFreak review, I noted that
It seems like I've been reading a ton of books lately that feature dead mothers (despite my great dislike of that trope), so I'm making that statistic an official part of my book reviews for 2010. At the end of the year, we'll see if I managed to read more books with living mothers than dead.

Reader, I did manage it! Only nineteen (40%) of the books I read featured a dead mother. You would think that it probably helped that I read some nonfiction and some romance novels, rather than all young adult or children's books, where it is expedient to get parents out of the way before the real action starts. However, if I consider only the YA and children's books that I read, the 40% statistic still holds true. And while nearly half of the books I read had dead mothers in them, there were only a few (I'm looking at you, Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) in which a mother's death was the pivotal point of the story. There were, however, three books in which at least two mothers died or were dead: The Scorpion, The Drowning City, and The Virgin Bride Said, "Wow!" Books in which it seemed likely that mothers would die, but surprised me by keeping them alive, included [Spoiler Alert for the remaining few] The Help and Catching Fire/Mockingjay.

As I read, I refined my definition of "dead mother"--as a statistic--to mean books in which the existence of a dead mother had some material bearing on the plot or a main character's growth. There were some books (The City & The City or Above Temptation, for example) where it simply was not mentioned whether the main character had parents at all, much less whether they were alive.

In conclusion, I feel that it is vitally important for me to keep recording this statistic as I read. I obviously need to expand my sample size as much as I can by reading as many books as possible in 2011 (that may possibly have been my goal anyway) that are chosen through my usual random selection process. I am a big fan of completely non-scientific and subjective studies that require me to read for fun. On a more serious note, as I have said before, it's a good thing for me to have to deal with the uncomfortable emotion that can be caused by the "dead mother" trope. I have a feeling that my own mother would have read silly posts like this one and smiled.

Meditation Index

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Book Review: Earth (the Book): A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race [2010]

I confess, I picked up the audio version of Earth (a production of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart) because I was curious about how well they could translate such an image-heavy, textbook-style package into an audio format. It turns out that a huge amount of the content got lost in translation, but the audio book is a bite-sized (only three CDs) bit of humor that goes down easily and leaves virtually no lasting impression.

Earth is addressed aliens visiting our planet at some point after we have finally killed ourselves off by (in decreasing order of likelihood): ecological catastrophe, nuclear holocaust, pandemic, robot rebellion, rapture, black hole, shark-bee mutation, or alien invasion. My favorite other possibilities included "rising nitrogen levels leading to simultaneous mass auto-erotic asphyxiation" and "chocolate." Topics covered include geography, life, society, commerce, religion, science, and culture. The printed version is stuffed full of a dizzying variety of infographics, pictures, captions, bulleted lists, call-outs, and diagrams. In fact, the print version might best be consumed in small doses; I can't imagine trying to read it all the way through as if it were a normal book.

The audio version, on the other hand, is narrated with enthusiasm by Jon Stewart and the rest of the Daily Show cast, and it delivers the excerpted material with the flair and wit (wry asides + low humor) characteristic of the show. Some of the narration seemed so spontaneous that it was difficult to imagine reading it as printed text. A few of my favorite moments:

"Saturn: God liked this planet. So he put a ring on it."

"North America was Earth's newest continent, formed c. 1492."

"Mountains were the features on topographical globes that made our fingers feel all tingly. But in person they are foreboding death-towers that offered us little but hardship and, three months of the year, excellent skiing."

Grade: B- (in other words, better than I'd Rather We Got Casinos)

Random Thoughts:

This is the first time I've read a book where the audio version and the print version were almost completely different animals, and I'm not entirely sure I approve. I would really like to know the thought process behind what was stuck in the audiobook and what was left out, because paging through it seemed puzzlingly random.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: No, the Earth is the only one left alive