Friday, 24 February 2012

20. "The Fault in Our Stars" by John Green

Page count: 336 pages
Date begun: February 23rd, 2012
Date finished: February 24th, 2012

Hazel is 16. She has incurable cancer, so knows that it's only a matter of time before she dies, but thanks to some miracle drug, she's currently doing fairly ok, as long as she drags a tank of oxygen around with her at all times. Her mother spends all her time taking care of her, and worrying, and making sure she goes to Cancer Support Group to battle her quite-natural depression about having cancer and knowing she's going to die young. Hazel thinks Support Group is a big waste of time, until one day, she meets Augustus Waters there. Augustus is 17 and lost his leg to osteosarcoma. As Hazel says: "Osteosarcoma sometimes takes a limb to check you out. Then if it likes you, it takes the rest".

Augustus is handsome and charming and witty and instantly taken with Hazel, comparing her to a mid-2000s Natalie Portman (and even with this description, I adored her). He agrees that Support Group is dreadful, and they quickly spark up a friendship that starts turning into something more, even though Hazel wants to distance herself from everyone, afraid of becoming a "grenade", blowing the lives of those around her to pieces when she inevitably dies, yet Augustus tenaciously refuses to keep his distance. They discuss films, games, life, poetry, art, and especially bond over Hazel's favourite book, An Imperial Affliction by Peter van Houten. The book, also about a teenage girl with cancer, ends mid-sentence, and both Hazel and Augustus become obsessed with finding out what happened to the other characters in the book after it ended. They correspond with the author by e-mail, but he refuses to tell them unless they talk to him in person. He lives in Amsterdam.

Now, Hazel used her dying Wish (from the Make a Wish Foundation) on Disney World before the miracle drug made her somewhat better, but Augustus still has his. This is their chance to go to Amsterdam and talk to the author of their favourite book, getting some kind of closure before Hazel's life takes an inevitable downturn.

I'm convinced The Fault in Our Stars will be among the best books I read this year, even though it's only February, mainly because it's one of the best books I've read in years. I bookmarked a dozen pages or so just for the amazingly quotable lines. The book made me laugh out loud on public transport, getting me puzzled looks from fellow commuters. It made me sob uncontrollably on the couch, freaking out my cats. If you make it to the end of this book without both laughing and at least getting teary eyed, you are some sort of unfeeling machine. It's an amazing book, and while the protagonists are kids with cancer (or recovering from cancer), the horrible, deadly disease is not the focal point of the book at all.

This is one of those young adult books that I desperately wish had been around when I was actually a teenager, because I would have killed to get my hands on it. Hazel and Augustus are amazing kids to read about, and it breaks your heart that their love is so star-crossed. She's dying, he's recovering. You know it's all going to end in tears, but you keep turning the pages because you can't not. You have to find out what happens next. This is going to be one of those books I gift to people in years to come, just to make sure I can talk to them about it. Now I just have to track down John Green's back catalogue of books, to see if they're as amazing as this one.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

19. "A Perfect Blood" by Kim Harrison

Page count: 448 pages
Date begun: February 21st, 2012
Date finished: February 22nd, 2012

This is book 10 in Kim Harrison's The Hollows series. You don't want to start the series with this book, trust me. If you're interested, go pick up Dead Witch Walking. Don't read this review, it will contain spoilers for earlier books in the series, it's unavoidable.

You'd think Rachel Morgan's life would be easier once she got her shunning rescinded and the Coven for Moral and Ethical standards off her back? Unfortunately, no. Rachel is currently registered as legally dead, and has no social security number, no bank account, no driver's licence and is generally finding local bureaucracy less than helpful. On public record as a "good" demon, she wears a bracelet of charmed silver to cut herself off from her leyline powers, and thus also any ability to do demon magic. Yet someone out there is abducting witches, torturing and killing them, and making it look like a demon's work. Rachel will be blamed if she can't help the I.S and the FIB track down the real culprits.

The culprits in question seem to be part of a human hate group determined to rid the world of all supernatural races. They want to use demon magic to do this, and are trying to synthesise demon blood. If they were to get their hands on the newly power neutered Rachel, they'd be much closer to their goals. Despite the advice of her bodyguard (Rachel's parents don't really trust her to keep herself out of danger any longer), and her long time associates, Rachel puts herself right into the path of danger once again, and has to trust in her friends to get her out of trouble.

To say that Rachel has changed a lot since the first book of the series would be an understatement. She's not even the same species as she was. Rachel's naturally scared about the changes her life has taken, and her two closest friends, Ivy and Jenks, both seem to be moving on with their lives, leaving her feeling all the more lonely. She's terrified of Al and the other demons discovering that she is still alive if she takes the bracelet off, yet clearly can't function properly by cutting herself off from a major source of her own powers. After going on a road trip with, and sharing a very intimate moment with her former nemesis Trent, at the end of Pale Demon, she's also forced to reevaluate her relationship with him. When pretty much all the world were willing to condemn her, he stood by her side, and he keeps offering to help her, even at the risk of his own life. As Rachel's come to realise over the course of the books that there is very little black and white, and oh so many shades of grey, and that she herself is has to decide what is "good" and "evil" - Trent has had to make a lot of difficult decisions, and may not be a bad guy even though he's done some fairly ruthless things in the past.

While I think Harrison is a horrible tease, it's as of yet unclear if Trent is moving from becoming Rachel's enemy and some time reluctant ally, to being her new love interest. Rachel certainly spends a LOT of time thinking about how silky his hair is for someone she doesn't have any romantic feelings for. As a huge fan of Trent, I have no problem with more time being spent developing his character and friendship with Rachel, which is a large part of what happens in this book. The structure of the book is a bit meandering and the plot could probably be a lot tighter and more streamlined. But I read these books mainly to spend time with Rachel and all the other extremely colourful supernatural creatures of The Hollows, so I don't really mind if the narrative takes a few detours, especially when I get Trent and Rachel spending more time together, bantering and facing off against common enemies. Al and the other demons barely get an appearance in this book, though. I hope that changes in the next one.

18. "Visions in Death" by J.D. Robb

Page count: 320 pages
Date begun: February 20th, 2012
Date finished: February 20th, 2012

A woman is found naked in the park, brutally raped and murdered. The red ribbon she's been strangled with is tied around her neck, and her eyes have been cut out. Like all sexual assault cases, the case hits Lieutenant Eve Dallas hard. When it becomes clear that they have a serial killer on their hands, the stakes become higher, and Eve and Peabody have to work to stop him before another woman loses her life.

Eve is approached by a psychic, who claims she saw the murder taking place. While Dallas is deeply sceptical, the woman knows details that have not been released to the public, and the NYPSD can use all the help they can get. Yet the killer keeps staying one step ahead of them, and when the investigation starts closing in, he lashes out towards the investigators.

Having been abused and raped as a child, Eve is always affected all the stronger by sexual assault crimes. She's determined to bring the killer to justice, willing to use even the assistance of a psychic if that's what it takes. Yet the investigation takes its toll. In this book, Dallas finally tells her now partner Peabody about the events in her childhood, and the book also highlight just far Eve has come since Naked in Death, where she was bitter, driven and alone. Now she has a loving husband, a loyal partner, a whole slew of friends who invite her for dinner parties and refuse to let her wallow in misery by herself. That same contact network also steps in when the killer strikes one close to Eve, and helps her catch the culprit.

17. "Divided in Death" by J.D. Robb

Page count: 336 pages
Date begun: February 16th, 2012
Date finished: February 19th, 2012

This is book 18 in J.D. Robb's In Death series, so it goes without saying that there is all sorts of backstory you miss out on if this is the first one you pick up. It's impossible for me to write this review without spoiling some of the stuff from previous novels, so go read Naked in Death if you haven't already been acquainted with Roarke and Lieutenant Eve Dallas.

Eve Dallas is called to a murder scene, where at first glance, it looks as if Roarke's personal aide's daughter, brutally killed her husband, Blair Bissell, and close friend  Felicity Cade, in a fit of jealous rage. Both the suspect, Reva Ewing, and her mother, Roarke's trusted assistant, Caro, assure Eve that Reva is not the killer, and that she found the bodies when she rushed over to her friend's apartment to confront them - having received incriminating photographs and video of their affair. It doesn't take much investigation for Eve and her partner Peabody to see that the scene is indeed a setup, but the question is who would want Reva out of the picture, and why are all the computers connected to the victims completely wiped by a mysterious virus?

Within days, not just Reva's husband and socialite friend are dead, but also the artist husband's bimbo assistant. Her computer is also fried. Blair's brother is missing, and everything suggests that the double murder has something to do with a top secret government contract Reva and Roarke were working on to stop a cyber-terrorist group. Then Eve and Roarke discover that both Blair and Felicity were deep cover Homeland Security agents, and possibly also double agents. When hacking into Homeland Security, Roarke also uncovers further secrets from Eve's tragic past, and the two have trouble seeing eye to eye on how to deal with the revelations that come to light.

I love reading about Eve and Roarke and all the recurring casts of the In Death books. It delights me that Peabody has become a detective in her own right and is now Eve's partner, rather than aide. I love that Peabody and McNab live together, that Mavis is having a baby and that Eve is completely befuddled by this. The mysteries are entertaining, and Robb (Nora Roberts writing under a pseudonym) is fairly good at coming up with strange new scenarios, but it's the ongoing story I really read the books for. In this one, Eve and Roarke are at odds through much of the book, and just as I would hate it if close friends of mine argued and had marital discord because of something, I hate it when Eve and Roarke are unhappy. Of course they sort things out in the end - and while I see Eve's side in this, I'm glad that several of the supporting cast took Roarke's side, as well. Another satisfying installment, if you're a fan of the series. If you're not, pick up one of the earlier books, and join the rest of us.

16. "Entwined" by Heather Dixon

Page count: 480 pages
Date begun: February 15th, 2012
Date finished: February 15th, 2012

Azalea is the heir to the throne of Eathesbury, a kingdom once ruled by a wicked sorcerer rumoured to steal people's souls. Her long-time ancestor was part of the rebellion against him, and succeeded in defeating him. While she may be a princess, she has ten sisters, and her family eat oatmeal for breakfast most days. Still, Azalea has come of age, and is looking forward to balls and suitors and most important of all, dancing, which she and all her sisters adore. Then her mother dies in childbirth, after a long illness, and while Azalea has yet another little sister, she and the other princesses are overcome with grief.

Their grieving is not made easier when they are told they have to wear mourning black for a year, all the windows and mirrors must be covered, the clocks must be stopped and there will be no socialising, balls or dancing for the entire year. The king, their father, grows distant and dismissive, and rides off to war for the first few months after their mother's death. While he is away, the princesses find one of the magical hidden passages the castle is riddled with, and a beautiful pavilion surrounded by silver trees, where they can dance the many dances their mother taught them, to their hearts' content. In the pavilion, there is a mysterious, handsome black-clad man, who calls himself the Keeper. He claims to have been trapped there by the wicked sorcerer, but invites them to dance as long as they wish. While they dance, they both remember their beloved mother and forget their grief, and the princesses all swear an oath not to tell anyone of their nightly escapades, or of the Keeper.

As the year progresses, and the king returns, it becomes harder for them to keep their dancing in the mysterious Keeper's pavillion a secret. Yet the oath they all swore keeps them from telling their father the truth, even after his demeanour towards them becomes warmer and more affectionate again. Their tattered dancing slippers bears proof of their dancing every night, but their magical oath keeps them from revealing anything about the secret passage or the Keeper, who takes such an interest in their family, and Azalea in particular. Their oath binds them even when it becomes obvious that the Keeper is not entirely benevolent, and has been stealing away little trinkets from each of the princesses. He needs them to find a magical artifact left over from the rule of the wicked sorcerer and destroy it, so that he can finally be free of the pavilion, and he's not going to let the princesses stop dancing until they do.

Way back in Cannonball II (the first one I participated in), I read Jessica Day George's Princess of the Midnight Ball, which was also based on the fairy tale of the twelve dancing princesses. While the books have some similarities, there are obviously 12 princesses, who sneak away to dance every night, they're all named after flowers (although in this one they're also named in alphabetical order, which is pretty impressive), and there's magic that keeps them from telling the truth and a quest set for suitors to try to figure out their mysterious nightly escapades - the stories are really quite different. The tone of Entwined is generally darker and more sinister. Both books do an excellent job of creating distinct and diverse personalities for the twelve girls - no easy feat, although it must be said, some of the princesses get less "screen time" than others.

Azalea is a great heroine, sensible and strong and caring, and sisters Bramble and Clover (the second and third oldest) are also fun and engaging supporting characters. All the girls are understandably deeply hurt by their father's cold dismissal of them after their mother's death, and when he returns from war, they are at first determined not even to share meals with him. The descriptions of the tiny kingdom, where the royal family are not really showered with riches, but only get fancy food on special occasions, through grants from parliament, create a lovely setting for the story. There are remnants of magic and magical objects, due to the distant past, but mostly, the princesses lives are rather mundane. The various courtly dances described are a nice touch, and the Entwine, which gives the book its title is especially evocative and given sinister significance when Azalea has to dance it with the Keeper.

Of the two fairly tale retellings of the same story, I think this is my favourite. Jessica Day George's book was very sweet, but Azalea and her sisters, and the very sinister villain of this one, win it for me. My biggest complaint is that Azalea and Clover's suitors never even get first names, which seems a bit silly, and makes parts of the book overly formal. But it's a minor quibble, and I shall be eagerly looking forward to more books from Heather Dixon - this was her debut novel.

15. "One Salt Sea" by Seanan McGuire

Page count: 368 pages
Date begun: February 13th, 2012
Date finished: February 14th, 2012

This is book 5 in a series, so don't start with this one. Also, this review contains minor spoilers for previous books in the series, so if you mind that sort of thing, you may want to skip to the final paragraph.

After the events of Late Eclipses, Toby is trying to get used to her new role as Countess of Goldengreen, where most of the subjects who lived in the Tea Gardens now reside. She's dating again, and trying to get to grips with her new appearance. Sylvester talks her into taking Quentin as her squire, and she agrees once she realizes the young faerie wouldn't agree to squire to anyone else anyway. Things are seeming quite promising, when The Luidaeg (the sea witch) arrives to tell Toby that the sons of the Duchess of Saltmist, one of the Sea kingdoms, have been kidnapped. Unless the boys are found within three days, the Sea fae will go to war with the land fae, and no one wants that.

Having spent 14 years trapped as a fish, Toby is none too fond of water, but she has to get over that aversion to go to Saltmist to investigate the abductions. It doesn't take Toby long to rule out Duchess Dianda's main suspect, the Queen of the Mists. However, once she realizes who the real kidnapper is, she has to give her liege lord, Duke Sylvester, some very bad news. As her search for the boys continues, the stakes get higher, and much more personal for Toby as well.

With Late Eclipses, Seanan McGuire's books had really started to get their hooks into me. After finishing One Salt Sea, she's moved into pre-order territory. So many narrative threads set up in the previous books play into this one. Another fascinating area of McGuire's faerie world, the underwater faerie kingdoms, are explored. Toby is constantly adapting and developing and learning, and has to make some very big sacrifices in this book. The love triangle set up between Connor, Toby and Tybalt may also have been resolved, and while I've seen many people on the internet upset about the ending of this book, I can't really bring myself to be. I think it sets up an interesting new beginning for Toby, and am very much anticipating the next book, which unfortunately isn't out for another six months.

14. "The Language of Flowers" by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Page count: 400 pages
Date begun: February 10th, 2012
Date finished: February 10th, 2012

Victoria was abandoned by her mother and has been in foster care her entire life. With the exception of a period of a little over a year when she was 10, Victoria has lived with a series of horrible people and in group homes, leaving her unable to trust or emotionally connect anyone. When she is emancipated at 18, she starts out living in a park, until she finds employment with a kindly florist who recognises Victoria's genius with flowers, and slowly Victoria's life takes a turn for the better.

The book switches between Victoria's present, starting with her 18th birthday, and her past, looking back to the only time in her life when she was in a caring and stable home, with Elizabeth, the woman who taught her about the Victorian language of flowers, a language Victoria kept using to communicate her true emotions to those around her ever since, even though they rarely understood her expressions of distrust, grief and loneliness. Elizabeth genuinely loved Victoria and wanted to adopt her, until a tragic event meant Victoria was placed in a group home, once again a ward of the state.

The language of flowers, where each flower expresses a feeling or emotion, helps Victoria in her job as a florist, and she also runs into a young man with a link to her happier past at a local flower market. But even with a job, an understanding employer, a growing contact network and a sympathetic admirer, Victoria doesn't find it easy to learn to trust and form lasting relationships. Things went horribly wrong when she was 10, and she's convinced that it's only a matter of time before things fall apart again.

The Language of Flowers is Diffenbaugh's first novel, and it's an excellent debut. According to her website, she's been a foster parent for a number of children, and foster care is clearly a subject close to her heart. Nevertheless, this is not a preachy or self-righteous novel. Victoria is a wounded and distrustful young woman, who once had a chance at a stable and happy home, who blames herself for ruining her own chances, and has convinced herself that she doesn't deserve affection, and therefore can't give or receive it. This book is about the complexity of inter-personal relationships, not just between mothers and daughters (or sons), but also sisters, friends and extended family. Perceptive readers will have figured parts of the reason Victoria couldn't stay with Elizabeth before it is revealed, but the complete story was still a surprise to me, and while there are sad parts of the novel, the ending is all the sweeter and more hopeful because of it.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

13. "Late Eclipses" by Seanan McGuire

Page count: 400 pages
Date begun: February 6th, 2012
Date finished: February 9th, 2012

This is book 4 in the series of October Daye novels, and as a lot of the plot points in the book will make little sense without reading the previous ones, I would recommend starting with book one, Rosemary and Rue.

It's no secret that the Queen of the Mists hates Sir October "Toby" Daye, so it's rather a surprise to Toby and most of her friends when the faerie queen summons Toby and bestows the title and property of the Countess of Goldengreen upon her. Pretty sure it's some sort of elaborate trap, Toby doesn't really have time to ponder it, as someone seems determined to kill some of her nearest and dearest. Lily, the Lady of the Tea Gardens is dying, and shortly after, Luna, the wife of Toby's liege lord is also struck down by a mysterious poison. Then Tybalt reveals that several of the cats in his kingdom are dying. Toby is convinced it is the work of Oleander de Merelands (an evil faerie who helped conspire to turn Toby into a fish and stole 14 years of her life), but no one else believes her.

Rayselline Torquill, the insane daughter of Luna and Sylvester accuses Toby of the attacks, and the Queen of the Mists is only too happy to have Toby arrested. Luckily, Toby has friends who are willing to do pretty much anything for her, including risking their lives to break her out of faerie jail. Toby needs to prove who is poisoning her friends, try to find a way to save them and clear her own name.

While I've enjoyed the previous three October Daye books, and especially admired the world building, this is the first one I actually had trouble putting down. I kept thinking about it when I wasn't reading, and wanting to find out what happened next. While Toby takes a while to grow on you as a heroine, by this book, you're firmly on her side, and cheering on Connor, Tybalt and Quentin as they loyally refuse to abandon her. The surprising reappearance of Amadine, Toby's mother, and the discoveries Toby made about her identity also intrigued me, and explains quite a bit about events in previous books. The world building continues to be excellent, and I love how McGuire manages to combine modern life with cars, computers and mobile phones with magic, glamours, and a wealth of faerie mythology. The series has really got its hooks into me now, and I can't wait to see what will happen next.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

12. "Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline

Page count: 384 pages
Date begun: February 2nd, 2012
Date finished: February 5th, 2012

In the year 2044, most of the world has pretty much gone to hell. Most of humanity spend the majority of their available time hooked into OASIS, the virtual reality environment that contains any world or environment you could possibly imagine. As his real life involves being an orphan being raised by a greedy aunt in a dilapidated trailer park, Wade Watts' only chance at escape from his dismal existence means completing the ultimate quest, set down by James Halliday, the creator of OASIS, upon his death. The first person to unravel the riddles posed in his video will, and solve the various puzzles, will inherit his entire staggering fortune.

Wade is a gunter (short for egg hunter), one of the many who have dedicated their lives to finding Halliday's golden egg. Halliday loved anything relating to the 1980s and nerd trivia, and Wade has played all the computer games, watched all the TV shows and movies, read all the comic books and exhaustively studied anything to do with Halliday and his life, in an attempt to figure out where the first key is hidden. Being young and poor, he's not really able to travel much within the OASIS, he can only really stay on the educational planet where he goes to school. But one day, nearly dozing off in Latin class, he realizes that the location of the first challenge may indeed be located nearby.

As Wade becomes the first gunter to appear on the giant virtual scoreboard in the OASIS, the entire world's attention is suddenly turned towards him. He's no longer an unknown nobody, he's a person to be reckoned with, and there are powerful forces in the world willing to kill to reach Halliday's prize first. Soon Wade finds himself homeless, hunted and in danger for his life, simply because his encyclopedic knowledge of Halliday trivia has brought him closer to competing the quest. Can he defeat the evil corporation, prove himself worthy to the girl he loves, and win the ultimate game once and for all?

Ready Player One is stuffed full of nerd and geek references, and while I grew up watching my brothers play many of the computer games referenced, and watching the movies and listening to the music mentioned, I didn't even get a fraction of the stuff Cline has crammed into his debut novel. To fully appreciate and really enjoy the book, I suspect you have to actually remember the 1980s, it just won't resonate with you otherwise. While I thought the book had a slow start, and it took me a few chapters to really warm to Wade and get interested in the world he lived in, once the plot really got going, I was completely hooked. Reading it is a bit like playing a computer game, with end of level bosses, and new and bigger challenges until the final climax. Part dystopian sci-fi, part adventure, part romance and part thriller, Ready Player One was a delight to read, and I join the ranks of devoted fans of the novel. I can't wait to see what Cline writes as his follow up book.

11. "Die for Me" by Amy Plum

Page count: 352 pages
Date begun: January 30th, 2012
Date finished: February 2nd, 2012

When Kate's parents die in a car accident, she and her sister Georgia move to Paris to live with their grandparents. Kate is numb with grief for a long time, and unlike her sister, who's extrovert and a social butterfly, Kate stays inside a lot, and buries herself in books. When she finally starts going outside, she quickly meets the striking and mysterious Vincent, who along with his friends is clearly more than a normal student. When she discovers the truth about Vincent and his kin, she is forced to make a difficult choice. Unable to risk losing anyone else, how can she let herself get close to, even fall in love with, someone who literally risks his life for others?

Die for Me has certain surface similarities with Twilight. It's a young adult paranormal fantasy with a striking cover (sadly the cover image has little to do with anything in the actual book, with the exception of the book being set in Paris). Kate is a young woman who loves to read, and the story is told from her point of view. There's a mysterious and handsome young man, who turns out to be immortal. He lives with his "family" who are also immortals, and the truth about them must never be revealed to outsiders. There's obviously a romance. But that's really where the similarities end. For one thing, Kate is a much stronger heroine than Bella Swan, not a bland and anonymous presence whose only characteristic seems to be that she's clumsy. Vincent and his kin are not vampires, but Revenants, a wholly new supernatural being that Plum has made up, and the mythology behind them, and their evil counterparts, the Numa, is fascinating. The Revenants are people who died to save someone else, and who stay young and immortal by continuing to die to save others.

The setting of Paris also adds to the story. Having visited Paris for a week last year, it's a great place to set a mysterious and romantic story. The author lives in France, and clearly knows the city well. As far as I can tell from her website, this is the first book in a planned trilogy, with the second book coming out later in the spring. I shall look forward to reading it.