2014 Debuts: Mini Reviews #1

I utterly failed at the 2014 YA Debut Author Challenge. I didn’t read any during 2014 and I didn’t review any. But then that made me incredibly sad, so I decided to remedy the matter in some small way. I’m attempting to read 12 2014 debuts (along with 12 2015 debuts) this year. They will all get at least a mini-review.

So without further ado, this is the first batch, reviewing: Alienated by Melissa Landers, Landry Park by Bethany Hagen, Half Bad by Sally Green, and Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy.

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Alienated by Melissa Landers
As far as a YA Alien Romance goes, this was a lot of what I wanted. The alien species was well-thought out, with lots of alien tech and alien world-building and alien hierarchy and alien science and alien politics and alien interpersonal relationships. I enjoyed the humor and culture clash, but the romance became progressively sappier and more annoying. The MC and her family were delightfully real, funny and flawed, but I was offended by how her friends were treated by the narrative. They abandon her and then never really make it up. Why weren’t there any awesome friends in this book? It was her and her alien boyfriend against the world and I didn’t love that. The first half of the book was much better when they were trying to understand each other and there was a lot of more hilarity. I would read a sequel.

Landry Park by Bethany Hagen
Mediocre characters and a staggeringly weak collection of sub-plots were held together by an insta-love romance. I was very interested in the social justice crusade except that there wasn’t a crusade; the MC was very upset about the slave-class dying horrible deaths but then never did anything except worry about what the love interest actually thought about her. She expended more effort finding out who graffitied her house than on helping anyone. The rationale for why the world runs on nuclear power only made absolutely no sense. I would not read a sequel.

Half Bad by Sally Green
Book blurbs often claim that the book will “keep you on the edge of your seat” or that it’s a “fast-paced thriller” but rarely have I needed to read the next page as fast as in Half Bad. Wow-wow. I was trying to analyze what about it made me care so much so fast but I kept getting distracted by social prejudice, mortal peril, chases, torture…etc. The MC is one of my absolute favorite survivor characters, and all of the characters are tricky about their motivations, which I also love. The magic system is really complex and I want to know more. I need a sequel like air.

Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy
This is sicklit, which is not a genre I usually read, but the premise of NO CONSEQUENCES, WENCH DON’T CARE led me on. Nothing about this book was fun. Both of the leads are constantly miserable, either because of the MC’s illness or their dysfunctional relationship or both. All of the different relationships were really complex and interesting, whether familial, friendship, or romantic, with some good characterization. The plot was mediocre. It was a fully-contained story so it doesn’t need a sequel and neither do I.

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REVIEW: Great Short Stories by American Women, ed. Candace Ward

36397“Life in the Iron-Mills” by Rebecca Harding-Davis:
On the one hand, I loathe this story because it is so bleak, but on the other hand, this story is not only one of the best examples of Realism and industrialism in American literature, but it also has a lot to say about the nature of art, the nature of artists, and where and how art comes from, and also manages to cover the Nature of Humanity 101.

“Transcendental Wild Oats” by Louisa May Alcott:
I feel like the audience’s reaction was probably “HAHA THIS IS HILARIOUS LOOK AT THESE DUMB HIPPIES” but Alcott was like “No seriously this is way too real and needs to stop.” Sister Hope for the Iron Throne?

“A White Heron” by Sarah Orne Jewett:
I want to eat Jewett’s words right up. This story is surprisingly magical but in a “Let’s hunt magic down and kill it” sort of way.

“A New England Nun” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman:
This is an odd one, about how promises can become cages and the things we think are cages are actually freedoms. I don’t know. I can never decide if I feel bad for Louisa or envious of her.

“The Yellow Wall-Paper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman:
I had to read this one for school several times but it was never a chore. This story is terrifying in a quiet, escalating way. I love the juxtaposition between the freedom the character feels at the end and the fact that she’s more trapped than ever before. Perfect.

“The Storm” by Kate Chopin:
Oh, Kate. I can always count on you for socially heretical sexy adventures in a rainstorm.

“The Angel at the Grave” by Edith Wharton:
Another story where I’m not sure if we’re supposed to feel hopeful or not at the ending. Lots of sacrifice on the protagonist’s part ends with ambiguous pay-off. Or was she really sacrificing anything? I CAN’T DECIDE.

“Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather:
Paul takes the line “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women in it merely players” a little TOO SERIOUSLY. I love how it both upholds and condemns the maxim “Money can’t buy happiness.”

“The Stones of the Village” by Alice Dunbar-Nelson:
A story about passing for what you are not and getting some of what you want but never WHAT YOU NEED.

“A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell:
One of my favorite short stories of all time. A man has died and while the male officials investigate, their wives discuss the matter. FLAWLESS. PERFECT. Please read it.

“Smoke” by Djuna Barnes:
I didn’t really get it but I expect that’s my own fault and not the story’s.

“Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston:
I really struggle with reading dialects, but this was a good suspenseful story with a twist and some really good images. Bad marriages and bad snakes. SNAKES, MAN.

“Sanctuary” by Nella Larsen:
This story gave me chills all over my body. Sometimes you think you’re safe and you realize you’ve picked the absolute worst place to hide ever. This was definitely one of my favorites.

The Ambassadors by Henry James

9780141441320It’s difficult to give a synopsis for this book because not a lot happens, in terms of action. An older gent named Lambert Strether is sent to Paris to retrieve a young man named Chad Newsome. Chad’s mother is a matriarch of sorts based in an industrial Massachusetts town, and Chad won’t come home from Paris so his family is convinced that he’s been entrapped by some dreadful French hussy. The “action” in the novel is the various social negotiations and interactions between the characters in Paris, all revolving around Chad’s situation and what he will do or should do. Character dynamics, in general, are probably more important than anything else to the story; there’s a subtle war of moral ideologies, and depending on which side of the subtle war of moral ideologies each character falls on determines how they deal with the other characters and determines the pacing of the narrative.

Some of my favorite things about James, that are included in this particular novel, are: incredibly accurate observations on social interactions; his dialogue, which is not necessarily realistic but always entertaining and loaded with subtext; his characters are fully-formed and complex, and even if they fall into a specific trope like Hag or Angel or Rake, they come across as distinct and realistic. This last especially applies to his female characters: I’m always surprised that his ladies are so great, considering the time James was writing in and the state that the novel was in when James was writing (that is, the 19th century was freaking sexist but James was pretty great most of the time, probably because he was friends with ladies like Edith Wharton).

If the title doesn’t sound accurate yet, here are some of the functioning ambassadorial missions in the novel:

Mr. Strether is sent by Mrs. Newsome to talk to Chad to get him to come home
Sarah Newsome is sent by Mrs. Newsome to talk to Chad/Strether to get them to come home
Miss Gostrey occasionally goes to Strether on Mrs. Vionnet’s behalf
Mrs. Vionnet goes to Strether on Chad’s behalf
Mr. Bilham goes to Strether on Chad’s behalf
Miss Barrace deals with Waymarsh on Chad’s behalf, mostly as a distraction
Strether goes to Bilham on Mamie’s behalf

For whatever reason, no one can manage to confront anyone directly about their problems or feelings. Miss Gostrey and Strether come the closest: they can talk to each other about pretty much everything, but still barely touch on their feelings for each other at any point, even though it’s lurking below the surface of their words almost constantly.

What surprised me most about this novel is that it feels like a bildungsroman, with Strether as the “artist,” except that he isn’t young, idealistic, or artistic. But it is about him growing, coming to terms with himself and the world, and deciding who he’s going to be – or maybe realizing who he is and then acting on it. Chad is the young passionate lover-artist, but the more we get to know him the more flawed and unreliable he becomes in heroic terms. Mrs. Vionnet is a very traditional damsel in the sense that she mostly relies on the men to solve her problems, and when she tries to help her own situation she relies on emotional pleas. Mamie and Jeanne are both relegated to pawns, trading pieces, or bribes, that need to be married off so that they’re not obstacles for Chad’s happiness, but what I like about Mamie is that the story leads you to expect her to be a beautiful airhead, and then she turns out to be a genuinely nice person who wants to do the right thing. Bilham is wonderful: smart, funny, working behind the scenes to help his friends; Miss Barrace is similar to Barrace but a lot more eccentric, and seems to use them all for entertainment, anyway. Waymarsh is really fascinating because he has the best intentions but still betrays Strether dramatically, which ties into a big theme: morality.

All of the characters want to do what’s “right” in their view and be seen as “good” people. Strether’s struggle is so hard for him because Chad seems to be doing “wrong” but all the results are “good,” but then once he can’t ignore Chad’s “sin” with Vionnet as it’s thrown into his face, Strether has to struggle with that and ultimately make a decision on what Chad needs to do to be “right.” I’m sorry for all of the quotation marks, but every character uses right or wrong for a certain value of right or wrong, and the universal Rightness is never really determined. Everyone talks at length about how Chad has to do the right thing, but no one spells it out, least of all to his face. Strether takes the entire novel to decide what the right thing to do is, and once he commits to that, he has to work himself up to imposing his definition of right on the other characters, specifically Sarah Pocock (Chad’s sister) and Chad himself. By doing so, Strether breaks through the cycle of ambiguities, half truths, and vague language that has plagued everyone, as well as the novel itself, since page 1.

Review: THE HERO’S GUIDE TO SAVING YOUR KINGDOM by Christopher Healy

12969560The basic premise of The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom answers the question: “What would happen if the Princes Charming from four different fairy tales (Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty) all had major issues and teamed up to win fame and glory?” The answer is “HILARITY AND EPICOSITY AND A LOT OF TRYING AND FAILING.” The princesses are all in the story too, but all the princes and princesses are VERY different from what we know. For example, Briar Rose is a spoiled, mean brat, while Cinderella’s prince is terrified of leaving his castle. The conflict involves the witch from Rapunzel’s fairy tale, but honestly I don’t want to give too much away, because this is a story that evolves organically and you learn everything in the order you’re supposed to know it. AND IT’S FABULOUS.

The characters, who they are, how they act, how they grow, and most especially how they interact with each other, was my absolute favorite bit about this novel. The four princes all have different flaws and strengths, and (of course) it takes them a while to work together. Ella (Cinderella) is fierce but kind of clueless because she’s been under house arrest for so long. The dwarves (they’re experts at everything), the trolls, the dragon, the giant, the witch, the bandits…EVERYONE IS SO GREAT. Also Lila, one of the prince’s younger sister who is probably the most clear-headed character. Prince Duncan was probably my favorite. He is possibly crazy, possibly brilliant, and a ton of fun.

I don’t know if I’ve made it clear yet, but this novel is hilarious. I couldn’t stop laughing out loud (granted, it’s pretty easy to make me laugh (BUT STILL)). The story has a lot of twists and turns, and feels a lot like a journey where you really don’t know what is going to happen next because there’s a sort of calculated randomness going on that is impossible to predict but seems inevitable once it happens. Good times.

This novel uses an omniscient narrator. In general, I dislike omniscient narrators, especially in a children’s book because they have a tendency to talk down to the reader. I only occasionally minded it here. It was always clear whose head we were in, and there were many different ways it was used for humor. Also, with so many characters, including five (or six) main characters, I felt like the narration was as decent a choice as any. I also loved the chapter titles, which were always “Prince Charming [Does Something].” They were often funny and gave a hint as to the action in the chapter, without really giving it away because there are four Princes Charming to choose from.

I gave The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom five out five stars for being an absolutely jolly read.

[this review originally posted at my old blogspot.]
The sequel, The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle, will be out on April 30th 2013. Can we talk about the cover? Both covers, in fact? Because they are FABULOUS. There are many illustrations inside by the same artist as the cover, and they’re hilarious and cute and fit the story perfectly.

I'm going to read this book so hard.
I’m going to read this book so hard.

Review: CAPTAIN MARVEL VOLUME 1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick

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ISBN: 0785165495

What You Get: The first six issues of Marvel Now’s new Captain Marvel series by Kelly Sue DeConnick with Dexter Roy and Emma Rios as artists. Ms. Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, is taking on the mantle of Mar-Vell, the previous Captain Marvel. There’s also a few pages of Carol Danvers’ biography in the back of the book, which is really handy for filling in all the gaps for new readers of this character (like me).

The Story: It successfully establishes Carol Danvers as the new Captain Marvel, and contains a fabulous time travel story that catches us up on her origin story, the people important to her, her powers, and what kind of a hero she is.

The first issue shows her reluctantly taking up Captain Marvel’s mantle, urged by Cap America (who is great). There’s a great fight scene where the two Captains team up, and it’s really fun seeing them work together so well (especially in “shielding” the civilians).

The rest of the volume explores Carol’s hesitancy in her new role by giving her the option of changing her life completely so that she isn’t a Captain Marvel or even a superhero anymore; but this personal journey is entrenched in a rollicking time-travel story with many kickass ladies as supporting characters. There’s a team of World War II pilots in issues 3-4 that I especially loved. Issues 5-6 focuses exclusively on the pasts of Helen Cobb, an important woman from Carol’s past, and Carol herself, and the two women find themselves alternately teaming up and fighting each other to work out all the flaws (or supposed flaws) in the timeline. Carol has to figure out whether or not she is who she is supposed to be, and whether what she wants matters. Helen and Carol have so much sass and swag that this is all endless fun.

Minor complaint: It’s clear that Burke and Carol have a strong, caring relationship, but there isn’t any explanation in the main issues of why that is. The biography answers questions but it still seemed odd that it isn’t shown or commented on in the main story.

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from #1 by Dexter Soy

The Art: The art matches the tone and style of the stories being told perfectly. It is perfect and I love it. Dexter Soy’s art in issues 1-4 is colorful and dark and vibrant and full of movement, and it is pretty much my favorite comic art I have ever experienced. Issues 5-6, by Emma Rios, have a pretty different style, but it evokes Soy’s in certain ways. Plus it’s a little retro, with lots of sharp edges and sassy ladies in awesome 60s clothing, and fits the story it is telling perfectly. LOTS OF PERFECTION, HERE, ARE YOU GETTING THAT.

from #5 by Emma Rios
from #5 by Emma Rios

My Rating: five out of five stars

Review: Avengers Vs. X-Men PHC

14885892ISBN: 0785163174

Warning: mild and/or vague spoilers!

What You Get: 568 pages. Comic book collections generally contain 4-10 issues, but this one has 22.5. BAM. There are thirteen for the main AvX storyline, along with six “VS” match issues (pitting various X-Men against various Avengers) and three “Infinite Comics” issues, which were created for digital. So that’s cool.

The Story: Let’s face facts, the whole reason behind this storyline is so that the writers/artists could depict what happens when, say, Magneto and Iron Man fight each other, and the fans can watch. I had a hard time believing that various characters would actually react in a certain way (or so strongly), especially in the first few issues. But the writers did the best they could in showing how stressed out everyone is from the years of Intense Story Arcs and past trauma from the Phoenix. I also appreciated how certain characters went bad; if they’re going to go bad, even for just one decision or for the entire series, I thought it was in-character how they went bad. That is, the characters’ pre-existing flaws were what was emphasized when they behaved in dastardly ways, here.

 The Art: The art was really great. I’m not an art critic in any sense of the word, so I’m not sure what I should be allowed to say besides “IT WAS REALLY PRETTY AND I JUST WANTED TO MAKE OUT WITH SOME OF THOSE TWO-PAGE SPREADS.” I don’t think all Marvel should have the same art, but sometimes it makes me cry how some titles get such ross-awful art, while others get really special unique art (like Hawkeye or Captain Marvel) or simply high-quality art, like Avengers vs X-Men. Some of the “VS” and “Infinite” issues stood out awkwardly as less awesome. Olivier Coipel was my favorite line artist, overall, in this volume.

The Cool: I really liked how Nova was used (although I’ve never seen Nova before (I’m only a year old in comic years!)). I couldn’t help thinking that if this was a DC series, an even dozen of Green Lanterns would have to be maimed or killed for this story function. I’ve also been waiting for Captain America to hit Namor in the head with his shield since I started reading comics. There’s a one-page gag comic in which Captain America and Cyclops trade verbal abuse, and it was one of my favorite pages in the entire volume. This is also a good story for Hope fans (of which I am one most of the time). She’s one of a handful of characters who have fully-fleshed out, believable storylines, and hers is just awesome. So.

The Not-So-Cool: Some big couples may or may not break up in this storyline, and it may or may not seem ludicrously contrived. Some of the “Vs” issues didn’t really make sense in how the action panned out.

My Rating: three out of five stars

Review: HUNGER by Jackie Morse Kessler

7247856I’ve had this book on my TBR for a long time, but some part of my brain pigeon-holed it as “another anorexia book,” so it took me a while to get down to reading it. Fortunately, it was well-written, focused and interesting, with a mythological twist that kept me reading. It’s definitely worth the read!

I like that this book is so short. There are many, many 400-page YA books that I just want to slice down to half the page-count because the protagonists spend so much time wandering around, wondering what to do and wondering who they are. Hunger gets right down to the story, who the characters are, and what they want and need.

Lisa, an anorexic who is about to commit suicide, is chosen as the new Famine, who is one the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Death is the one who gives her the job, and he seems to be the leader of the four. War and Pestilence come into the story, too, in their own ways. I really enjoyed how the Four Horsemen were modernized, so to speak, and it was really interesting how Lisa’s struggle with anorexia feeds into her role as Famine, and how her role of Famine influences the rest of her life choices. Death, War, and Pestilence were all really interesting characters in their own right, although we don’t get to completely know any of them; this is one of the drawbacks of the shortness of the book. However, there are three sequels for the three Horsemen aside from Famine. Death was the most intriguing and fleshed out (so to speak).

Lisa’s adventures as Famine, both in faraway countries and close to home were very interesting, but every time she got on her horse (Midnight, who is much nicer than you might expect from a Horseman’s steed), the tone of the book became almost surreal and very dream-like. I liked that. It made you question a little just how much of it was really happening, but it doesn’t really matter because it all reflects what is happening in her real life so well.

There is also a small cast of human characters in Lisa’s “real” life. Her boyfriend James and her ex-BFF Suzanne have realized Lisa has a problem and are trying to help her. Her new best friend, Tammy, is bulimic, and Lisa looks up to her but comes to realize that Tammy isn’t as confident or self-controlled as Lisa had though. Lisa’s parents are polar opposites but were a really great part of the cast. Her mom and dad are both flawed, realistic characters but still her parents.

There are a lot of detailed descriptions of anorexic or bulimic habits, which were really unpleasant to read but really helped me to understand the lengths people with those illnesses will go to feel some sort of control over themselves. Obviously, it’s really sad, and Hunger, through Lisa and Tammy, helps you understand and sympathize with those characters.

I gave Hunger four out of five stars.