Tuesday, 3 March 2015

#CBR7 Book 27: "An Abundance of Katherines" by John Green

Page count: 227 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Colin Singleton is a child prodigy, convinced that as he ages, he becomes less remarkable with each passing day. While able to converse in eleven different languages and capable of memorising the majority of everything he reads (for hours every day), he's not really able to adapt the reading into anything new - like a true genius would be able to. He desperately wants to make some sort of significant contribution to the world, even more so after he's crushed when dumped by his girlfriend on the day of their high school graduation.

Not that he should be unused to being dumped. While Colin is fairly actively unpopular in school, he has nonetheless dated (however briefly) and been dumped by eighteen different girls called Katherine. Katherine 19, his most recent girlfriend, is in fact also Katherine 1, who asked him to be her boyfriend when they were children, and then promptly broke up with him not long after. Since they'd been going out for nearly a year by the time she dumped him again as a teenager (by far his longest relationship), I don't think Colin should complain. He's devastated, causing his only friend, Hassan, to decide they need to go on a summer road trip to make Colin happy again. The fact that Hassan is willing to take time out of his busy life slacking off, watching Judge Judy, is clearly a great sacrifice on his part.

The boys end up in the little town of Gutshot, Tennessee, where apparently the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is buried (his body having been bought and brought over in the 1930s). They meet Lindsey Lee Wells (as well has her boyfriend, the Other Colin and his friends) and are hired by her mother, who owns and runs the local factory (where they make tampon strings!) to compile an oral history of Gutshot. She'll pay them 500 dollars a week as well as room and board. Colin is determined that his great contribution to the world will be The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, which will successfully predict the future and outcome of any romantic relationship, a mathematical formula worked out based on his history with Katherines 1 through 19. He's also convinced that if he can just get the theorem to work, he'll be able to persuade Katherine 19 to take him back. Colin may have an IQ of over 200, but he's really not very good at figuring out human nature.

Having decided that I needed to read ALL the John Green YA novels after completing Will Grayson, Will Grayson, I decided to start with the one that had the lowest Goodreads rating. I kept waiting for this book to stop exasperating me and entertain me in the way the other John Green books I'd read did. In the end, there was more I liked than disliked, but I'm glad this is a book I borrowed from the library rather than own myself.

What I liked:
- Hassan (except for that unfortunate brief while when he decided he wanted to refer to himself as Daddy constantly). Colin's best (and only) friend. A chubby Muslim who occasionally attempts to convert Colin to Islam, Hassan appears to have no major life goals, except slack off and watch Judge Judy all day. He has made it his mission to notify Colin every time he gets carried away with spouting trivia, so that his friend can at least attempt to fit in with his teenage peers. He's also quite unamused with Colin's hang-up on Katherines and wants to help his buddy move on, perhaps meet and like a girl NOT named Katherine.

- Lindsey Lee Wells. Lindsey was fun, and her bad taste in boyfriends withstanding (spoiler - the Other Colin, the most popular guy in school isn't all that nice). She, like the majority of the inhabitants in Gutshot, seems to have no real desire to ever leave the town, despite her mother's dreams for her to go off to college. She's incredibly well-liked by pretty much everyone in town, but has many of the self-esteem issues that seem to plague so many teenage girls.

One of the criticisms I've read of John Green is that he always writes Manic Pixie Dream Girls in his books. Based on the books I've read so far, that seems deeply unfair. Neither Jane in Will Grayson, Will Grayson, nor Lindsey in this seemed very MPDG. I think the only character I can think that applies, to a certain extent, is Augustus Waters in The Fault in Our Stars, who can be said to have quite a bit of the Manic Pixie Dream Boy about him. But I digress, back to my list:

- The footnotes. Yup, this book has a number of footnotes. Sometimes they are there to give a translation of the Arabic, French or German occasionally spoken by the characters, but most of the time, they seem to just be there to interject things cleverly into the story.

What I didn't like:
- The constant flash backs to Colin's dating history, such as it was. First of all, I don't consider spending less than an hour with a girl who then decides that she doesn't care about you dating or being dumped, but Colin clearly does. He wallows far too much in the memories of the many Katherines, especially Katherine 19, who seems to have broken his heart. I get that he needs to find "the missing piece of himself", but the umpteenth time it's mentioned, I lose interest

- The constant reminders that Hassan is in fact overweight and that Colin has a Jew-fro. I don't think Colin's hair is EVER referred to as just hair - it's always his Jew-fro. I just ran a search for the term and was surprised when it only seems to occur eight times in the whole book. It feels like a LOT more!

Most of the book was perfectly inoffensive, but it also didn't grab my interest all that much. If I hadn't been determined that I was going to finish it by the end of February, it would have taken me a lot longer to read than two days, despite the fact that it's not all that long. It had some cute bits, but the supporting cast and some of the nerdy trivia I learned over the course of reading it was better than the general story.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 2 March 2015

#CBR7 Book 26: "Will Grayson, Will Grayson" by David Levithan and John Green

Page count: 308 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Disclaimer! I was given a copy of this through NetGalley in return for a fair and unbiased review. Honesty compels me to admit that I already owned the book when I requested it, I figured being given a copy would motivate me into reading it and reviewing it more quickly.

This book tells the story of two teenage boys, both named Will Grayson. They have alternating points-of-view chapters, one written by John Green, one by David Levithan. I shall call John Green's teenager Will 1.0 and David Levithan's teenager Will 2.0. Otherwise it'll just get real confusing.

Will 1.0 is your average, not very popular teenager. His best friend, the physically enormous, but ironically nicknamed "Tiny" Cooper, has nearly a thousand Facebook friends and is the centre of attention wherever he goes. He's also extremely gay, falls in love with someone new approximately twice a week and is so secure in his identity that he wants the school to fund a musical he's written about his own life. He also intends to choreograph, direct, stage-manage and in general do everything of importance connected to the musical, initially named "Tiny Dancer". Will 1.0 pretty much has two rules. 1) Try not to care to much about anything. 2) Keep your mouth shut. His apathetic attitude to the world is completely at odds with that of Tiny, who feels passionate about most things. Tiny is trying to set Will 1.0 up with Jane, the only other straight member of their schools gay-straight alliance. Will 1.0 likes Jane, but is also very taken with the idea of just having an unrequited crush on her, as that seems easier and a lot less likely to lead to heart ache.

Will 2.0 had a hard time winning me over, because his chapters were written entirely in lower case. as in he didn't use any capitals at all. everything is written like this, even the names of other characters, like his one and only friend maura, and it drove me UP THE WALL. See how useful capitals can be? Will 2.0 is a loner, who lives alone with his mother and appears to be quite heavily medicated for depression. It's never specified exactly what manner of mental instability, but as the book goes on, he's clearly not one of these, easily cured, just a bit down individuals. Will 2.0 has been chatting online with this guy, Isaac, for about a year, and hasn't admitted to anyone, least of all Maura, who seems extremely eager that he share all his deep inner pain with her, that he's gay. One day, Isaac suggests that the two meet up, and this is what leads to the two Will Graysons actually meeting in person.

Due to reasons I don't want to spoil, Isaac never turns up, but Will 2.0 meets Will 1.0 and they are both amazed and a bit baffled that they share a name. As Will 2.0 is quite upset after learning the truth about Isaac, Will 1.0 introduces him to Tiny, and soon Will 2.0 is not only openly gay at school, but has a larger than life boyfriend, who is very busy trying to get everything ready for the opening of his musical. Tiny's relationship with Will 2.0 makes him realise that his master work can't just be the Tiny Cooper story, it has to have a message. It needs to be mean something. He starts rewriting it, turning it into "Hold Me Closer" and in the process of being in love and making his musical happen, seems to forget all about his best friend, who's going through some emotional turmoil of his own.

The first quarter to a third or so of the book, before the two Will Graysons meet, was a bit slow, and I was unsure what everyone online was so enthusiastic about. The convoluted circumstances leading to the two meeting, and the immediate aftermath is when the book sunk its hooks into me, and after that, I had trouble putting the book down. Initially, Will 1.0 seemed the most likable and approachable of the two, but as the book goes on, Will 2.0 won me over more and more. They are both teenage boys, of course, prone to being self-centred, making all manner of dumb choices, not really great at expressing themselves and altogether quite exasperating at times. Sometimes I wanted to shake them, and sometimes I wanted to hug them. I very much appreciate the honest way in which Will 2.0's mental problems was handled. There's a lot of darkness in his life, and it was good to see that to an extent, he just needed to "snap out of it" a bit, he wasn't going to be magically cured by the power of love.

Tiny Cooper is a force of nature and I kept seeing Damian from Mean Girls in my mind's eye in every scene he was in. Unlike Damien, Tiny isn't at all "almost too gay to function", he's just gay enough. Openly gay since primary school, Tiny and Will 1.0's friendship is a long and loyal one and while at first, Tiny seemed as if he could be quite exhausting, being best friends with someone as non-committal and apathetic as Will 1.0 must also not be the easiest. Tiny wants what is best for everyone, and his match-making efforts to get Jane and Will 1.0 together are adorable. I desperately want this to be made into a movie, just so I can see the glory that is "Hold Me Closer" actually staged and performed. It's clearly the best high school musical ever featured in a YA book.

Once the book sank its figurative hooks in me, I didn't really want to put it down. I read it during every free second of the day and cursed the pile of correction work I had to complete before I could finish it. It made me laugh, it made me genuinely feel for the characters and I wish that I had a friend like Tiny Cooper, gay or straight, in my life to make it a better place. This is my second encounter with John Green's writing (after he slayed me with The Fault in Our Stars). Reading Will Grayson, Will Grayson has made me decide that I need to read all his other YA books too. I've never read anything by David Levithan before, but as long as he actually doesn't make it a habit to never use capitalisation in his other books, I will absolutely be checking out more of his books now too.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 25: "Dragon Bound" by Thea Harrison

Page count: 323 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Dragos Cuelebre is probably the oldest Wyr-kind (shape-shifter) in existence. He's certainly the only dragon. Around since the dawn of time, he is now one of the richest and mot powerful individuals on the planet. He's also very bored, having just gone through the motions for decades. All that changes when someone has the audacity to steal something from his believed to be impossible to locate hoard, again supposed to be protected by impenetrable wards. He becomes obsessed with the idea of tracking down and catching the thief and discovering how the theft was possible in the first place.

Pia Giovanni, half wyr, half human, is blackmailed by her weaselly ex-boyfriend to steal an item from Dragos' hoard. The only reason her ex has anything to blackmail her with, is because while they were still together, Pia foolishly trusted him with some secrets about herself and her abilities that her mother had made her promise always to keep quiet about. She knows that stealing from Cuelebre is tantamount to suicide, but she also realises that if the people making her scum of an ex blackmail her don't get what they want, she's likely to end up dead even faster. She forces her ex to agree to a magical binding, so that he can never speak about her to anyone again, before handing over the item she stole. Then she tries to flee as far as possible, before the dragon gets her. Because her mother was extremely protective and very paranoid, she has stashes of fake identities and ready cash all over the city, however, when the creature that hunts you has both powerful magic and unlimited resources at his command, it's limited how far you can run.

Dragos is intrigued by Pia, especially because even when she's terrified of him eating her, she stands her ground and argues with him. So used to blind loyalty and/or fear, he finds her amusing (also attractive, natch, this IS a paranormal romance). He's also very curious as to what her wyr-form might be, as her scent doesn't match up with any he can remember encountering in his extremely long life. He quickly realises that Pia was being used by his arch-enemy, King Urien of the Dark Fey, and resolves to keep her under his protection so Urien isn't able to use her again. Lots of action and drama takes place before the two figure out that they're each other's perfect mate.

This book was brought to my attention by fellow Cannonballer Katie's enthusiastic review. Long time readers of my reviews will know that I enjoy the occasional, bat-shit crazy-plotted paranormal romance, like the ones written by Kresley Cole. Unfortunately, in her recent books, Ms. Cole appears to have gone completely off the reservation, and the books aren't really fun anymore, just dumb. So I most definitely had an opening in my reading list for something similarly amusing, and based on the first book of Thea Harrison's Elder Races, these will fit the bill nicely.

As I think the unofficial rule book for paranormal romance writers specifies, all the dude in this book are large, muscular and very hot. Dragos is obviously the alphaest of all the alpha males, nearly seven feet tall, golden-eyed, gorgeous, wealthy and powerful. He's the boss of all the other wyr-kind dudes who are clearly going to be heroes of their own books down the line. All of the dudes who work for Dragos seem to like Pia more or less instantly, especially after she proves that even if she's tiny compared to them, she's not afraid to speak her mind and she can wipe the floor with them thanks in part to her unique wyr-abilities and a lifetime of martial arts training. I think what I love most about this book is that Thea Harrison is clearly aware of how ridiculous some of the stuff she's writing is, she's in on the joke, and that's what makes it all work. Dragos also has a harpy working for him, she seems to inexplicably hate Pia, possibly because his PR-rep, a tiny fairy who's the only surviving heir to Urien's throne decides she's going to be BFF with Pia the second after they first meet. Heavens forfend Pia make more than one female friend.

As well as a rollercoaster ride of a plot, there's a fair amount of rather epic sex. While not quite in the realm of the Thunder Sex (tm) that can be found in several of Ms. Cole's books, there is still quite a lot of bow chica-wow-wow going on here. Dragos and Pia seem to think that the best place to initiate their more intimate relationship is while fleeing from hostile goblins, which I can't see is the most arousing of settings, but what do I know? I am neither a millennia-old dragon or Pia's own unique brand of wyr-kind.

I really liked Pia as a character. She knows she's doing something monumentally stupid by stealing from Dragos, but doesn't really have a choice. She tries to protect herself as best she can afterwards, and refuses to be cowed or intimidated, even when facing down a literal dragon. If she's going to die, she may as well give him a piece of her mind first. The reason she ended up blackmailed is because she let her guard down in a brief moment of foolish vulnerability. Pia has clearly had a fairly lonely life, especially after her mother died. Always taught to hide her true identity, to never make lasting connections, never make friends or reveal anything about herself. She wants love and a place to belong and she also feels deeply inadequate about the wyr-side of her identity, having never been able to shift when she was younger. I honestly don't know if it was supposed to be difficult to figure out what animal Pia's wyr-self was - I think I may just have read too many paranormals and myths, because to me it was pretty blatantly obvious from early on.

There appears to be seven books out in the Elder Races series so far, as well as several novellas. Goodreads tells me book 8 is out in May. As I'm liking the world-building and the various supernatural creatures (shapeshifters, sorry, Wyrkind. Faeries both dark and light, witches, vampires and the like), I suspect I will have lots of fun catching up throughout the year.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

#CBR7 Book 24 : "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Arthur Leander, ageing movie-star, dies of a heart attack on stage at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. On stage is eight-year-old Kristen Raymonde, witnessing the death of a man who had been nothing but kind to her. Jeevan Chaudhary, former paparazzo photographer and entertainment journalist, now an EMT in training, jumps up on stage tries to save Arthur's life with CPR. Later that evening, travelling home in the snow, he receives a phone call from a friend, working in the ER. There is a flu spreading, terrifyingly quickly, most likely turning into an epidemic. Warned by his doctor friend, Jeevan buys up all the supplies he can, barricading himself with his wheelchair-bound brother to wait out the disease.

The flu turns into a pandemic, killing indiscriminately, all over the world. Fifteen years later, Kristen Raymonde is the lead actress in the Travelling Symphony, a small acting and orchestra troupe travelling through the scattered settlements in the Great Lakes region of North America. The group performs Shakespeare plays and classical music for the survivors they come across. Written on the head Caravan, and tattooed on Kristen's arm are the words "Because survival is insufficient". Among Kristen's most precious possessions are two issues of a comic book, Station Eleven, which Arthur Leander gave her shortly before he died. She's also become somewhat obsessed with his life, collecting every article, gossip column and newspaper story in a scrap book, whenever she comes across a new one in old papers and magazines. Wherever they travel, she looks for more issues of the comic, and asks new people if they've ever heard of it.

When they come to the little settlement of St. Deborah on the Water, where they two years previous left Kristen's pregnant best friend and her husband, they discover that the place has changed drastically and that their friends, along with many others, are no longer there. The graveyard is full of grave markers for those who dared to leave, and the town is controlled by a Prophet, quoting the Bible and claiming he has the answers about why the flu struck in the first place.

After the first section, which focuses on the night when Arthur died and the flu broke out, the book alternates between "Year Fifteen", where we follow Kristen, her friends in the Travelling Symphony and their encounters with the Prophet, and the past, showing us episodes of Arthur Leander's life, how he met his first wife Miranda, whose artistic life's work was writing and illustrating Station Eleven, his second wife, Elizabeth, who bore him a son, his long friendship with his lawyer, Clark Thompson. Arthur Leander is the focal point, most of the prominent characters we meet in the story are in some way or other connected to him.

Station Eleven is a science fiction novel of sorts, as well as a dystopian novel set in a post-apocalyptic near future. In many ways, the small community of people travelling together, occasionally coming across scattered settlements, reminded me of The Walking Dead. My friend, when I talked to her about it, said that it sounded a bit like the story in the game The Last of Us and a bit like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. With regards to The Walking Dead, I've never read the comics, but I watched nearly three and a half seasons before it just got too bleak and depressing for me. Reading the blurb for The Road and watching the trailer for the film convinced me that there was no way in hell I was ever going to subject myself to reading and/or watching that. I didn't really think that I wanted to read Station Eleven either, worried about the post-apocalyptic thing, but with after several Cannonballers whose opinions I trust reading and loving it, I added it to my TBR list. Then it was announced as the first book in the CBR book club and I no longer had any choice but to read it. Once I decided to read it for myself, I stopped reading reviews, not wanting to be spoiled.

Even having read some very positive reviews, I didn't really know what to expect from the book. It's been a week since I finished it, and I am still having trouble putting into words how it affected me and what I liked so much about it. It took me about three days just to decide what rating to give the book, as there are things I wasn't super thrilled with, either. Yet it's been in my thoughts every day since I finished it, not just because I had this review hanging over me. At first, I was pretty sure that while it was a well-written and very intriguing book, I was unlikely to ever want to re-read it. Now I'm pretty sure that nothing could be further from the truth. I think I'm going to have to re-read it, having taken the full journey with the characters, just to discover new and wonderful things in the story.

There isn't really a protagonist in this book, but the sections I liked the most, were the ones that focused on either Kristen, or Arthur's first wife, Miranda. As is so often the case, with fictional works within fiction, I desperately wanted to read Station Eleven, not to mention see the artwork, that is so lovingly described several places in the book. I'm sure it comes as no surprise to anyone, considering it's also the title of the novel, that the comic book comes to act as a sort of metaphor for the world in which the surviving characters live. I also really liked reading how the people at the airport survived and formed their own little settlement. The bits I liked the least were all the ones concerning the Prophet. He creeped me out a lot (as I'm sure he was supposed to) and while it was eventually revealed who he was, I didn't really care.

I loved that while this book is about a tiny percentage of humanity surviving a pandemic, the focus isn't on the chaotic years directly following the catastrophic event. After fifteen years, there are new settlements. The survivors make new connections, form new bonds and there is always room for art, beauty, human kindness and compassion. While there is still the occasional violent event, this isn't a bleak, depressing book. The book ends on a note of hope and optimism, for which I was very grateful. I suspect that this is going to end up being one of my favourite books of the year, unless I am tremendously lucky with the rest of my reading choices.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

#CBR7 Book 23 : "American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot" by Craig Ferguson

Page count: 290 pages
Audio book length: 7 hrs 24 mins
Rating: 5 stars

Before I bought and listened to this audio book, which came to my attention thanks to fellow Cannonballer Narfna's enthusiastic review, this is what I knew about Craig Ferguson:

1. Until very recently, he hosted the Late, Late Show, where he always seemed to be genuinely interested in the guests in the few clips that I've seen.
2. He really likes Doctor Who
3. He used to be in a band with Peter Capaldi, who is currently playing Doctor Who.
4. He's voiced a number of Scottish characters in animated movies that I've seen.

So I learned a lot about Mr. Ferguson while listening to this audio book, narrated by the man himself. He manages to recount stories that could be just tragic and depressing with wit and humour, without in any way hiding that for much of his life, he did not have an easy time of it. Growing up in a working class suburb to Glasgow in Scotland in the 60s and 70s seems pretty grim, although it's quite clear that Ferguson's parents had a much harder time of it. Apparently Ferguson's dad didn't own shoes until he was eleven. Still, as a teacher, listening to stories about how five-year-olds were belted for no obvious reason horrified me. I don't actually think I could be a teacher in an education system that allowed corporal punishment.

From early on in his life, Ferguson wanted to live in America, and he explains why in the book, while also talking about his very destructive alcoholism, his drug use, dropping out of school at sixteen to join the punk scene. While the stories he tells are funny, and alcoholism apparently saved his life (a friend distracted him with a pint of sherry on a Christmas morning when he had decided to commit suicide), Ferguson doesn't hesitate to be honest about what a destructive force it was, either. As the daughter of a recovering alcoholic, and an uncle who died before he was sixty partially because he didn't stop drinking, I have no illusions about alcholism being in any way glamorous or easy. I admire Ferguson for being so honest about his alcohol and substance abuse, as well as his process of becoming and remaining sober.

I hadn't realised that Ferguson wrote a novel, or that he wrote several screen plays, as well as being an actor and a stand-up comedian. He is very honest about the ups and downs of his career, and I wonder if he's made himself unpopular in certain industry circles by being quite so up front about his experiences especially in the film he wrote and directed, that the studio apparently ruined completely.

I finished this book in less than 24 hours, which I think may be a new record for an audio book. I had a lot of errands to run during the day, and this audio book kept me company. It also provided entertainment while I was working my way slowly and painstakingly through the complicated pattern part of the jumper I am knitting. Earlier in the week, I could easily knit while watching TV and even in the cinema, but now, that the pattern requires different colours of wool and careful attention, I can't watch or read anything while knitting. I'm so glad I had this book to keep me company. I've read a number of celebrity autobiographies now, but this is by far the most honest, open and as a result, interesting one I've come across. I'm so glad I got this audio book. Thanks again, Narfna!

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR7 Book 22: "Moon Over Soho" by Ben Aaronovitch

Page count: 396 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 1 min
Rating: 4 stars

This is the second book in the books about DC Peter Grant and as such, this review may contain certain spoilers for book one, Rivers of London. That's the book you want to start with.

Something is killing jazz musicians in Soho. A promising jazz saxophonist, Cyrus Wilkinson, drops dead of an apparent heart attack after playing a gig. Doctor Walid suspects that something supernatural may have caused it and DC Grant can hear "Body and Soul" playing when he examines the body. Some investigation shows that Cyrus is not the first musician this has happened to. Cases go back a long way, something mysterious seems to be feeding off them, possibly a type of "jazz vampire". While Peter doesn't exactly trust Simone, Cyrus' girlfriend, he does need her help and keeps being drawn to her, even though he knows it's not a good idea to get involved with someone connected to a case.

There is also a deadly female stalking the streets, leaving men bleeding to death with their genitals chomped off. Inspector Nightingale is unable to help out as much as he could wish, and Leslie May is recovering at her parents' house, reluctant to even see Peter, hiding her face every time he comes to visit. They communicate by text, and she helps him with research, but Peter is worried that their friendship is in danger of being as ruined as Leslie's face if they don't figure something out. As the various investigations progress, there are signs that they may be connected in some way. There is also someone sinister behind all of it. Is Inspector Thomas Nightingale really the only wizard left in England, or could there be someone else trained in magic, and using it for their own personal gain?

Peter's apprenticeship as a wizard continues, and he's getting more proficient in some of the basic forms. His inquisitive nature and his research abilities allow him to progress faster than Nightingale expects, but he still has a long way to go. Peter is on his own for much of the book, with both his inspector and Leslie May out of commission due to the events towards the end of the first book. Nightingale keeps trying to get involved, only to over-exert himself and get ordered back on bed rest by Doctor Walid. Leslie is staying with her parents while waiting for reconstructive surgery. Her injuries upset Peter, but he's also confident that he did whatever he could to save her, and while the damage to her face is bad, she's still alive and refuses to be pitied. She assists him as best she can from a distance, but prefers not to meet face to face unless it's absolutely necessary. I really liked the way her situation was handled in the book. While there is magic in this world, there is no easy fix-it button to restore Leslie's face to the way it was. The revelation at the end, revealing what she's been working on while recovering, makes me very curious to see where things go in the rest of the series.

These books also show how much of police work takes time, looking through old records, countless hours spent reading reports, interviewing suspects, doing tedious legwork. It was nice to see a bit more of Peter's parents, and I really liked the idea of "jazz vampires", supernatural creatures that feed on artistic and musical ability, rather than blood. There is clearly a lot of set up here for later books, and while the central mystery is solved by the end, there are a number of unanswered questions and much to deal with in the books to come. The narration continues to be excellent, and I've already got the third book downloaded on the Audible app on my phone.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

#CBR7 Book 21: "Shadow and Bone" by Leigh Bardugo

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 3 stars

In a fantasy world heavily inspired by Russian folklore elements (which is also reflected in the gorgeous cover design of the books), Alina and Mal are orphans raised on the estate of a benevolent Duke. Growing up, they are inseparable, when they grow up, they (like most others) join the First Army, Alina as a mapmaker, Mal as a tracker. Alina is skinny, pale and insignificant, watching Mal mostly from afar. He's grown up handsome, charming, popular and makes female conquests wherever he goes. Occasionally he'll remember his old friend and come visit her in the camp.

The population of Ravka can be divided into the Grisha, the magically adept, and normal people. The Grisha can possess different power, some creative and some destructive, carefully advertised to the world by the colour of the clothes they wear. None is more powerful than the mysterious and sinister Darkling, the King's right hand, and the only one allowed to wear black. The once prosperous nation has been divided in two by a large, barren area of constant darkness, known as the Fold, or Unsea, the result of a botched spell by one of the former Darklings. Nothing grows there, due to the lack of light. Unfortunately, you can't get from one side of Ravka to the other without crossing it, using sand skiffs powered by wind. Frequently travellers are attacked by the terrifying flying monsters that roam the Fold, entering the Fold is never without peril.  When the part of the army that Alina is with is crossing, there is suddenly an attack, and one of her mapmaker friends is carried off by the flying monsters. Mal is about to get attacked and Alina reacts instinctively. Before she knows what she is doing, she has covered the area in bright light, driving the monsters off and saving everyone. She passes out from the exertion.

When she wakes up, back in camp, Alina is told that she is in fact Grisha, and has a unique magical power. She is a Sun Summoner, and the Darkling has been waiting for her for a very long time. Thanks to her power, the ability to summon and control light, Ravka can possibly finally reclaim the Fold, win the wars with their surrounding countries and regain their prosperity.  Of course, Alina has no idea how to control her power, and can only ever summon the light when either hurt or touching someone who can amplify her power. Told that her unique power make her a target for enemy assassins, she is speedily taken to the capital to undergo training. On the way, she sees the fearsome powers that the Darkling can wield.

While awed by the opulence of her new lodgings in the Palace, Alina is fairly miserable. Most children get raised to Grisha early, taken away from their families to be trained and educated for their future positions serving Ravka. Alina has to learn huge amounts of history and magical theory, as well as undergo physical training. Then there are her magic lessons, where she's completely unable to summon a spark of light without someone with amplifying powers touching her. Having been declared the future saviour of the nation, she feels the pressure to succeed constantly. She makes one friend, Genya, who works for the Queen, able to cosmetically enhance anyone she touches. She shares gossip with Alina and steers her through the worst of the court's intrigue.

After a bit of an emotional breakdown, Alina finally manages to figure out what has been blocking her power and she can start training in earnest. The Darkling is delighted and intends to have a special and powerful amplifier fashioned for her. They just need to locate an elusive and possibly legendary herd of magical deer first, so the horns of the stag can be used. When she's actually able to improve her control in earnest, her trainer, the ancient Baghra strangely starts getting more agitated, not less. She warns Alina that she needs to get away, that the Darkling has dangerous plans and if he succeeds in getting the amplifier for Alina, she'll be under his control forever. So Alina flees the capital, determined to find the stag herself.

The Grisha series has been raved about online for years, and I was waiting for it to be concluded before I started reading. I must admit, the first book showed a promising world, but the characterisation is mainly very simplistic. Alina is nervous, skinny, insecure and spends most of the book pining for Mal. She's also rather naive and completely unprepared for the intrigue at court, never having learned to hide her emotions. Mal is handsome, charming, apparently an amazing tracker and completely oblivious the crush Alina is nursing on him. I'm sorry if you consider this a spoiler, but the character IS called the Darkling. If you are surprised by his sudden but inevitable betrayal, you have clearly not read a lot of books. He's pale and dark-haired, handsome and mysterious. He uses his seductive wiles to turn our heroine's head and blind her to his true motives. That's it, those are pretty much the sum total of their characters traits. There is quite a lot of tell, don't show here and it made me sad, because I wanted to like the book.

The world-building is interesting, with the great big Shadow Fold as a cursed blight in the middle of the kingdom. Again, for anyone who has even a basic grounding in Russian history, it'll come as no surprise that the King and Queen and the aristocracy live in oblivious luxury and opulence while forcing the people to fight their wars for them. The magic of the Grisha is presented as more as a way of manipulating the natural sciences, than varieties of super power, and I liked the ranks and classifications.

As I said, I've heard a lot of good about this trilogy online, enough to make me curious enough to keep reading. I've heard that the series takes a pretty dark turn, and that Alina develops into a more likable characters (she's really quite a helpless drip in this). I'm also hoping that further books will give me some kind of evidence at why I should care one jot about whether Mal lives or dies, he seemed like an insufferable dudebro to me. I'm not very fond of love triangles at the best of times, when the two rivals are an oblivious prettyboy and a sinister magician who embodies a lot of the Old School romance hero tropes, it makes me roll my eyes. Alina needs to woman up, stop mooning about the guys in her life and take control. So yeah, that's my hope for the sequels.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.