Friday, August 23, 2013

In Which I Return to Literature

We now interrupt your regularly scheduled TV reviews to bring you book reviews! 

Unlike some of my other book reviews, these pieces really have no thematic link outside of "I've read them recently" and frankly I need a bit of a palate cleanser from all my Under the Dome blogging as of late. I continue my quest of reading 50 books from December 2012-December 2013. 41 down. Nine to go.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Nazi's and spies. One of Hollywood's favorite tropes and time periods, Wein takes the typical spy novel and turns it upside down. For instance, her spies are not James Bond-esque men who wear tuxes, have nifty little gadgets, and can hold up under any kind of physical or psychological torture. Her spies are women and feel very real. Code Name Verity is broken into two parts; the first part centers on the English spy "Verity," known back in the real world has Lady Julia (Julie to her friends). Verity has been taken prisoner by Nazi interrogators in 1943 France (aka: not a great place to be).  We are spared some of the more maudlin details, but after several weeks in the care of her captors, Verity agrees to tell her story, to write it out in piecemeal. She has only a few weeks to divulge her secrets before she is to be shipped off to a lab where she will be a specimen for the Nazi scientists. The story she tells, which she claims all throughout, is the absolute truth, is of how she met her best friend, Maddie, and how they came to be in France. Their story is at times touching and a little heartbreaking. The two are almost totally polar opposites and yet they fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Julie is strong and take-charge with an uncanny ability to deceive and lie; her ability to speak both French and German made her an ideal spy and interrogator for the Brits, and she is damn good at it. Maddie is from the countryside and is a nervous gun shy pilot who only truly feels free and courageous when she is in the air. They work together, pilot and spy, in a war that changed the landscape of the world and of what it meant to be female. The second half of the book, in which "Kittyhawk" takes over, tells the other side of the story and then meets the first half in the middle so that the two weave together. The narration style of the first takes some getting used to, though once you do, Wein's ability to not only write properly but as a woman under that kind pressure really comes through. Verity's tale is punctuated by real life moments that exist outside of the Julie/Maddie story, whether it be the status of her fellow inmates or explaining her living conditions or detailing the facts about her captors. The first half of the novel is truly captivating but the second half fails to meet it. The beginning of the "Kittyhawk" section is a tad underwhelming after you've finished Verity and are on the edge your seat wondering what would happen to the spy. It's slow and rather plods along at an unacceptable pace. Instead of being plot driven, it's more internal. Kittyhawk must be hidden away and is thus given very little to actually do. Once the second half beings to pick up threads of the first half, however, it moves along at a much nicer pace. Here, events from the first half that were never really explained or stood out as odd are revealed and a plan and narration in full begins to form. The question of: what is truth and how much of the story can we really believe come into focus. The ending is truly heartbreaking, though it again drags after the climax. Wein obviously spent a lot of time researching this time period and women spies and it does her credit; the story of Verity and Kittyhawk felt as though it were more biography and fictional.
Overall Rating: B

The Infernal Devices Trilogy by Cassandra Clare

Cassandra Clare is everywhere lately, isn't she? When she's not answering questions on Twitter or her Tumblr, she's at Comic Con promoting the release of the movie City of Bones (which I swear I will see and review if it kills me). The Infernal Devices trilogy is the second (of five) series concerning the Shadowhunters. Previously, I reviewed the Mortal Instruments series, the original series in the Shadowhunters saga. The Infernal Devices is a prequel and takes place in London around 1880. Despite being a prequel, I would recommend reading the M.I. series first as the final book of the I.D. series picks up some of those strands. Like the original series, the I.D series revolves around the Shadowhunters--part angel, part human fighters who defend the Earth against demons, rouge vampires and werewolves, and more often than not, restless Shadowhunters with big egos. I was taken back at first by how similar Clare had written her two main characters to her previous ones. Tessa Gray seemed a bit too much like Clary (barely knew her parents, ignorant of the Shadowhunter world, oddly powerful); Will Herondale was clearly a take on Jace but with dark hair instead of light (both sarcastic and little asshole-y, both too afraid to let people get close). However, what makes them different from their predecessors are their stories and like The M.I series, Clare knows how to craft a narration. The series opens with Theresa Gray (Tessa) coming to England from America to meet her brother, Nate. She is abducted by two very sinister sisters who force her to "Change." This ability, being able to shapeshift into another person by simply holding an object that belonged to them, was unknown to Tessa before her abduction. She is rescued, in due time, by Will and his best friend Jem Carstairs, seventeen year old Shadowhunters. Once rescued, Tessa's eyes are opened to the Shadowhunter world. What makes Tessa different is that no one can quite figure out what she is. Her abilities show her to be a demon, yet she has no demon mark. It's a full three book mystery, only revealed at the end. Along the way, a love triangle forms between Will, Tessa, and Jem and while it gets more attention than maybe it ought, it's a hallmark of Young Adult Fantasy Literature (side note: I have read that for the next part of this sage, Clare will be doing away with love triangles altogether). The main plot is stopping a man only known as the Magister who has constructed horrible clockwork creatures to destroy the Shadowhunters and the British Empire. I found these creatures a tad unbelievable; I had to really suspend disbelief that mechanical creatures, yes imbued with magic, could wreck the kind of havoc they did on London. However, the real villain, the Magister, is delightfully insane and evil. One of the things that I like most about Clare's work is that she enjoys giving you characters who it is perfectly ok to hate, if you are so inclined. Jessamine Lovelace, for example, had my ire directed at her more than once. But while she is making you hate one character, Clare also gives you a great deal of depth into others, perhaps making you like them against your will. I really did not want to like Will because he was a bit too much like Jace but in the end I, of course, did. A few of the characters from the M.I series make an appearance, specially Magnus Bane because a Shadowhunter book without Magnus makes no sense as he is, in fact, totally awesome. On the whole, anything Clare writes isn't exactly groundbreaking. She stays safely in the confines of the Young Adult Escapist/Fantasy genre; her heroes are a bit too handsome, her heroines a bit too pretty, even if they themselves cannot see it (I will say, though, that the way Tessa saves the day--as heroines do--is very unexpected and new and I enjoyed that part wholly). Everyone gets matched up with a romantic partner; good always wins. So while it's not revelatory, it is far superior to other series of the same vein. It is perfectly fun, relaxing, and enjoyable.
Overall Rating: B+

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rotfhfuss

If Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones had a love child, it would look something like this first book of the Kingkiller Chronicles. It is a mix of "boy wizard goes to school" and "epic/slightly historical fantasy" and it is wonderful. The book opens on a small inn in a village; in typical epic style, men have gathered around the hearth and are telling mythical tales of giants and magic and wizards. The innkeeper, Kote, is a pleasant fellow who keeps the mead flowing and occasionally knows more about the story being told at his table and the actual storyteller (spoiler: this is your first hint that there is more to Kote than meets the eye). The fun is interrupted by a man claiming to have seen a demon on the road and the customers reveal themselves to a be a superstitious lot. These events come together rather quickly when a scribe, calling himself Chronicler, comes to the inn having discovered that Kote is really Kvothe (pronounced Quothe), one of the most powerful wizards in memory. His deeds are legendary and the Chronicler wants an accurate retelling. After much haggling and threats, Kvothe gives in and they sit down at a table where he begins his tale. Book one takes us from his earliest childhood days with his performer parents to his midteens studying at the University.  Forewarning: this is a long book, though I find it reads very quickly. Young Kvothe is highly gifted; he is able to grasp tiny bits of magic being imparted on him by his first teacher very quickly. He is a talented musician, actor, and storyteller. He is not, however, perfect. He is a bit arrogant, a bit cocksure. And he is not without tragedy. After the devastating loss of his family, a significant middle of the book is devoted to his life on the streets as a beggar and homeless wanderer. He lives by his wits, which are considerable. Naturally, he does find a way out, but only after Rothfuss has shown that Kvothe isn't a perfect boy wonder. Even at the University where he excels academically, Kvothe remains poor and is troubled by his very own Malfoy.  Looking back, the parts I relished most were the stories within stories. Rothfuss knows how to write mythology; the tales told to Young Kvothe about the gods and saviors felt like any other myth I've read or studied. The story is occasionally interrupted to take the reader back to the present day of Kote sitting in his inn, sometimes explaining his actions of the story thus far. This works well for the whole narrative and gives deeper insight into the man Kvothe became. This book is not without fault however; the last 100 pages dragged for me. I grew a little weary of Kvothe's adventures and the episode with the dragon felt a little forced. The world of Kvothe felt so real that the appearance of the dragon (though it is never called a dragon and in fact Rothfuss goes to great lengths to have Kvothe explain why dragon is not a proper term) was a little too fantastical. The leading lady, Denna, is not fully fleshed out, though I suspect that this criticism will fall once I read the next two books. However, for the moment she is a little vapid and self-centered, thought I greatly appreciate that Kote acknowledges that she can be cruel and unfair. Rothfuss has stacked mysteries well; there is a lot of water to be had from this series and the reader is eager to return to the well for answers: will Kvothe and Denna end up together; will Kvothe ever graduate; will Kvothe ever defeat his school nemesis, Ambrose; will he ever find the begins who killed his parents; and what exactly lies behind the great stone door in the school's Archives and why do I feel as though finding out the answer to that will have lasting repercussions? If you're a fan of fantasy and epic, I highly recommend you pick this up.
Overall Rating: A-

The End Games by T. Michael Martin

I really wanted to like this book. I did. I'm not normally a Zombie girl, but having recently gotten into The Walking Dead, I've been eager for more Zombie Apocalypse pieces. This book was recommended by two YouTubers, NerdyandQuirky and John Green of the Vlogbrothers. My love of John Green is pretty well known and when he recommends books, I pay attention. I'm sorry to say that while this book had a great premise, it quickly dissolved into a typical zombie novella of little substance, not mention some really bizarre writing. The book opens with brothers Michael (17) and Patrick (5) camping out in the woods when the Bellows (Zombies) find them. The book does get you off to a fast start; the beginning is action packed, though given how Martin wrote it, it was really hard to visualize. Once safe from the Bellows (so called because they yell back at you when they hear you speak), the main plot opens up a bit more; the brothers are existing in a sort of game, where the Game Master has told Michael that if he can get to the end with his brother, there will be a victory party. Along the way they collect points and have missions, all laid out by the Game Master. It's very Assassins Creed meets WoW. Sounds really intriguing right? I thought so too. Too bad it's all completely turned over by the author by the end of chapter six. Once the illusion of the Game is totally destroyed, the book looses that which made it unique. It becomes just another Zombie book, though I must credit Martin with building the sibling relationship as believable. There are some interesting elements post chapter six; I rather liked the religious aspect brought in. The main characters are semi-likable; Michael is obviously a tortured soul but has such a a hero complex that it's hard not to get frustrated with him. Patrick, the little brother, would be fun to read if Martin could make up his mind about how to characterize him. At times he is a five year old making fart and poop jokes (too many for my taste) and then at other times it is as if he has aged 10 years and is making rather profound statements. Holly, the supposed unexpected romance promised in the book jacket (not unexpected, in fact totally obvious given that she is the only girl of Michael's age in the whole novel) is mostly the damsel in distress who yells a lot and has overly convenient information. Don't even get me started on the "Captain" who is never fully fleshed out and is just evil for the sake of evil.  The narration switches from third person to internal monologue which is in first person, which is altogether distracting, especially because the internal narration vacillates from sounding like someone on drugs to someone trying to write in the voice of a teenager by writing as if all teens talk and think in LOLs IRL. I fail to see why John Green recommended this book when his entire corpus is about showing that teenagers are just as capable and thoughtful and intelligent as their adult contemporaries. No one actually talks like this, apart from Tumblr but that's because the internet is very much its own world with its own language. It's like traveling to Mexico and being expected to speak Spanish. In real life, no one says "obvs" and Martin's deliberate misspellings for "internet" type lingo is just plain horrible. You do not need to spell it "rawk" when someone is said to "rock." It is not clever, it's distracting. Other problems with narration included the way the Bellow speak, which at first might have been frightening but then just turned uninteresting the more it continued. For the whole book they speak LIIIIIIIIIKE THIIIIIIIIIIS, and because it's too young boys they are echoing, it's often butt jokes. I feel as though the ending was setting up a sequel but I'll be skipping it.
Overall Rating: D+

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