Sunday 24 November 2019

#CBR11 Book 81: "The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan" by Sherry Thomas

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
CHINA, 484 A.D.

A Warrior in Disguise:
All her life, Mulan has trained for one purpose: to win the duel that every generation in her family must fight. If she prevails, she can reunite a pair of priceless heirloom swords separated decades earlier, and avenge her father, who was paralyzed in his own duel.

Then a messenger from the Emperor arrives, demanding that all families send one soldier to fight the Rouran invaders in the north. Mulan’s father cannot go. Her brother is just a child. So she ties up her hair, takes up her sword, and joins the army as a man.

A War for a Dynasty:
Thanks to her martial arts skills, Mulan is chosen for an elite team under the command of the princeling—the royal duke’s son, who is also the handsomest man she’s ever seen. But the princeling has secrets of his own, which explode into Mulan’s life and shake up everything she knows. As they cross the Great Wall to face the enemy beyond, Mulan and the princeling must find a way to unwind their past, unmask a traitor, and uncover the plans for the Rouran invasion…before it’s too late.

Inspired by wuxia martial-arts dramas as well as the centuries-old ballad of Mulan, The Magnolia Sword is a thrilling, romantic, and sharp-edged novel that lives up to its beloved heroine.

A young adult retelling of the Mulan story, written by one of my favourite historical romance authors? Who just happens to be Chinese, so someone you might hope would do a good job of researching and writing this? Of course I was going to want to read this as soon as I could get my hands on it.

I love Disney's Mulan, and this may be one of the cases where I'll actually go see the live action remake they're doing, as I'm also a huge fan of wuxia films. I don't know if this retelling that Thomas was commissioned to do has anything to do with Disney, or if her publisher is just cashing in on the fact that there will be a new movie soon, but if the new film is anything like the story presented here, I'll be very happy. This is of course not the first novel that Ms. Thomas has written about a capable, Chinese female warrior. In her Heart of the Blade duology, The Hidden Blade and My Beautiful Enemy, set in late 19th Century China and England, Ying Ying (or Catherine, as she uses in England) is also a very skilled swordswoman and martial artist. I forget whether Ms. Thomas at that point said anything about being influenced by the Mulan myth.

Here we have a dutiful young woman who has been posing publicly as a man for a long time. Her twin brother died, but her father let the authorities believe his girl child was the one who passed away. Hence, when conscription forces each household to yield one able-bodied man, Hua-Mulan is the only one who can go. She has been trained in martial arts and swordplay since she was very young, as her family owns one of two legendary swords, and at some unspecified future date, she will face the champion who has possession of the other sword. During the last duel, her father was paralysed, so she needs to avenge his honour, as well as secure both the heirloom swords for her family.

Shortly before Mulan is forced to go off to join the army, her father receives a message from the rival champion, announcing that because of the hostilities threatening the border, their duel will have to be postponed. Mulan is worried about how she's going to hide her gender in the army, but her advanced martial arts skills gets her a special assignment with a small group of men, so she more easily can hide her real identity. I'm sure no one's going to be terribly surprised to discover that her immediate supervisor, the Duke's son, is none other than the rival she's been training most of her life to duel. They have met for secret practise bouts a few times over the years, but both have been masked. Nevertheless, Mulan feels a sense of kinship with the nobleman the very first time they meet, and their relationship doesn't exactly become less complicated once their family connections are revealed.

What Mulan has never been told by her father, during all her years of training, is that he didn't exactly act honourably in the duel that crippled him and that the Princeling has even more reason to feel vengeful, should he so choose. He seems to treat her with the respect of an equal and no animosity (not quite the same from his extended family) and it's obvious that if their family rivalry didn't span generations, they could have been friends, or more.

I don't know much about the original ballad of Mulan, but this is set in 5th Century China, and the research and information about social structure all felt realistic. There is quite a lot of creeping about, spying and trying to gather intel, but it would be a pretty boring book if there weren't amazing feats of martial arts as well. There is obviously a romance subplot (possibly more than one, but the second one is WAY subtle), but this is a YA novel and it's all very chaste (especially since Mulan is posing as a young man for much of the novel).

I really really liked this and hope that as well as writing more Lady Sherlock novels, Ms. Thomas possibly writes more Chinese-set adventure novels starring kick-ass young women.

Judging a book by its cover: I didn't realise that magnolia flowers could come in other colours than white until I saw this cover. I actually googled to look it up, as I was unsure of whether the publishers had just taken artistic licence and made the flowers purple, or whether you could actually find magnolias in this colour in reality. That's when I discovered that not are there several different kinds of magnolia flowers, but they come in many different shades. It's always fun to learn something new.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 20 November 2019

#CBR11 Book 80: "The Memory Book" by Lara Avery

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
"They tell me that my memory will never be the same, that I'll start forgetting things. At first just a little, and then a lot. So I'm writing to remember."

Sammie McCoy is a girl with a plan: graduate at the top of her class and get out of her small town as soon as possible. Nothing will stand in her way--not even the rare genetic disorder the doctors say will slowly steal her memories and then her health.

So the memory book is born: a journal written to Sammie's future self, so she can remember everything from where she stashed her study guides to just how great it feels to have a best friend again. It's where she'll record every perfect detail of her first date with longtime-crush Stuart, a gifted young writer home for the summer. And where she'll admit how much she's missed her childhood friend Cooper, and the ridiculous lengths he will go to make her laugh. The memory book will ensure Sammie never forgets the most important parts of her life--the people who have broken her heart, those who have mended it--and most of all, that if she's going to die, she's going to die living.

I enjoyed this book while I read it. I thought it was engaging and well written, and Samantha "Sammie" McCoy is a very well-rounded protagonist. She's clever and ambitious and also very stubborn. She's certainly not perfect, and her decision to keep the truth about her illness from her probably only female friend and debate partner backfires rather spectacularly. It's understandable that Sammie is reluctant to admit weakness and that she tries to hide her growing deterioration from those who don't have to know, but if someone I considered a friend kept something that big from me, I would be hurt too.

I'm pretty sure I'm not spoiling anything for anyone who's read a single book before when I say that of the two guys mentioned in the book blurb, Stuart, the accomplished and sophisticated writer she has a crush on and initially dates, is not the one she ends up with. Anyone looking for an emotional teen romance should probably look elsewhere, though, as it's Sammie's illness and her learning to come to terms with it which is the main focus throughout the book.

As far as I can tell, the disease that Sammie is diagnosed with is absolutely real, and it sounds utterly terrifying to have to go through, both for Sammie herself and her family and friends. To not only have to face up to the fact that you have a disease that will kill you while you're still young, but have to live through losing control of your rational thought and bodily functions before this happens - a complete nightmare. As I mentioned above, Sammie is smart and driven, on track to winning a prestigious debate championship after years of preparation, she's likely to be her school's valedictorian and she has a scholarship to NYU. Her doctors and her parents keep telling her that she will need to adjust and that her plans as they are will not be achievable, but she stubbornly refuses to listen, trying her hardest to experience as much as possible in the time she has left.

Obviously, this book does NOT have a happy ending. You get really attached to Sammie and those around her throughout the book and I full on ugly cried towards the end. So you may want to take that into consideration if you were going to read the last third or so of the book anywhere public. I haven't read anything else by Lara Avery, but based on this, I would absolutely be interested in checking out more of her books.

Judging a book by its cover: This book cover screams "generic YA" to me, and it seems like the publishers haven't really tried to do anything to make the book distinctive in any way. There is nothing to attract the reader or give any hints of the content, and the lack of colour makes the whole book look very forgettable.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday 12 November 2019

#CBR11 Book 79: "The School for Good and Evil" by Soman Chainani

Page count: 496 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Official book description:
The first kidnappings happened two hundred years before. Some years it was two boys taken, some years two girls, sometimes one of each. But if at first the choices seemed random, soon the pattern became clear. One was always beautiful and good, the child every parent wanted as their own. The other was homely and odd, an outcast from birth. An opposing pair, plucked from youth and spirited away.

This year, best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to discover where all the lost children go: the fabled School for Good and Evil, where ordinary boys and girls are trained to be fairy tale heroes and villains. As the most beautiful girl in Gavaldon, Sophie has dreamed of being kidnapped into an enchanted world her whole life. With her pink dresses, glass slippers, and devotion to good deeds, she knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and graduate a storybook princess. Meanwhile Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks, wicked pet cat, and dislike of nearly everyone, seems a natural fit for the School for Evil.

But when the two girls are swept into the Endless Woods, they find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School For Good, thrust amongst handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.. But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are…? 

There was a lot of potential here, and some very clever playing with traditional fairy tale tropes. Unfortunately, there was also quite a lot of things that didn't work for me - the chief one being Sophie, one of our two protagonists. I'm all for female characters getting to be as complex and potentially anti-heroic as male ones, but I don't think the author manages what he sets out to do with Sophie. She just comes across as a controlling, manipulative, prejudiced and narrow-minded b*tch for most of the book. She doesn't seem to care about anyone but herself and her own ambitions, completely unfazed by whom she hurts or takes advantage of to achieve her goals. She seemed like a very natural fit for the School of Evil.

On the flip side, Agatha, who is supposed to be the more palatable protagonist, is a little bit too timid and her lack of confidence grated on me after a while. Maya Angelou said "If someone shows you who they are, believe them" - well, Sophie time and time again shows herself to be an utterly awful "friend", a self-centred egomaniac with no real affection for Agatha. Our little emo Goth should have told Sophie to sod off, instead of spending most of the book risking herself to help her.

There's also a very contrived love triangle in this book, with Prince Whatshisface (I can't bother to look up his name - he's the son of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere - now that's a fun legacy) initially falling for Sophie based entirely on her looks, but unwillingly finding himself drawn towards Agatha again and again (he's a shallow jock, you can do way better, girl!).

Nevertheless, I liked the idea that famous fairy tale characters need to be trained for their jobs, be they the heroes and heroines or the villains and villainesses. That the ones that don't excel in their classes become henchpeople, helpers or even transformed into enchanted animals who help move the tales along. I liked a lot of the supporting characters, especially in the School of Evil (being able to summon chocolate at will is a cool magical power!), and the various classes and quests that the children had to participate in.

I wasn't really sure if these books were meant to be aimed at a YA or middle grade audience. Having now looked it up, these books appear to be marketed as middle grade, which I think is a bit strange considering some of the rather dark subject matter (Sophie straight up kills someone and apart from stabs of a guilty conscience, she never actually gets caught from this), Sophie's obsession with getting the attention of her prince and the way her outfits are described (let's just say that if these are meant to be characters under the age of 16-17, the suggestive nature of a lot of what Sophie fashions for herself is squicky AF). I really don't believe in controlling what teens read (please just read something, kids!), but I think some of the themes of this book are too mature for a middle grade audience.

There are also sections where the story rather drags and I kept putting the book down and forgetting about it. I know that there's a ton of books in this series, but at the moment, I'm not sure I'll keep reading. There are so many other shiny books out there competing for my attention.

Judging a book by its cover: The very cartoonish manga inspired covers for this series made me think they were meant for a much younger audience. As I mentioned above, it really wasn't made very clear what age the characters are supposed to be, and a lot of the themes read as if these were older teens, getting towards adulthood. I also thought that the dark-haired character on the cover was a boy, when it's supposed to be Agatha, one of our two protagonists.

Crossposted in Cannonball Read.

Friday 1 November 2019

#CBR11 Book 78: "Pumpkinheads" by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

Page count: 224 pages
Rating: 4 stars (Malin), 2.5 stars (Mark)

#CBR11 Bingo: Two heads are better than one

For two months of the year, all through high school, Deja and Josiah are best friends, while working at the local Pumpkin Patch extraordinaire. For four years, from the start of September until Halloween, they've been dutifully serving customers in the Succotash hut, and sharing pretty much everything with one another for those two months. Once they go back to school, they don't really interact.

This year is different. Deja and Josiah are seniors, and will be going to college next year. They're not returning to the Pumpkin Patch next year, so this is their last shift together. Josiah (Employee of the Month for each year he's worked there - with one vexing exception) believes it's going to be a normal shift, but Deja has a clever plan. Instead of letting Josiah mope over a big pot of succotash, they're going to have an adventure. It's finally time for Josiah to pluck up the courage to talk to the girl from the Fudge Shoppe who he's had a crush on for his entire time at the Pumpkin Patch, and along the way, Deja intends to eat as many of the various delicious snacks the various food stands the Patch has to offer.

The course of true love never did run smooth, and finding the elusive girl of Josiah's dreams turns out to be quite the quest. Deja and Josiah get to visit pretty much all of the sights around the Pumpkin Patch, and they also need to stay out of the way of the out of control runaway goat.

Having completed this book, the only Rainbow Rowell I have not yet read is her Runaways comics run. I will get there, have no fear. Any long time reader of my reviews, will know by now that Rainbow Rowell is one of my favourite authors currently writing books (sharing the coveted top spot with Ilona Andrews and Courtney Milan). Obviously this book was on my wish list as soon as I heard it was being created, and my lovely husband gave it to me for my birthday. It therefore seemed like a nice book for the two of us to review together, since I needed a co-writer to fill the last square of my Bingo Card. Let's just say that we had different opinions about the book. I'll pass the word along to my other half, shall I?

Mark: So, I like Rainbow Rowell, I like good young adult literature, I like comics, and I know Malin really enjoyed this, which is usually a good sign (our tastes are pretty divergent at times,  but it’s pretty rare for me to dislike something Malin rates highly). This should be a gimme, right?
Well…errr….actually, not so much. I didn’t actively *dis*like it, but it left me a lot more cold than I’d expected, and I’ve spent a few days since reading the book trying to figure out why.

Part of it is definitely the art. It’s not bad, by any means – the panel-to-panel storytelling is excellent, which is always a priority for me. But there’s a major problem with the character design, so far as I’m concerned. It was, as the afterword makes clear, a deliberate stylistic choice to make the two central characters look several years older than they’re supposed to be – there’s even an early sketch of what they originally looked like, and it was a lot closer to their ‘actual’ ages. But, in what I can only assume is a tribute to the late and sadly lamented Sideshow Luke Perry’s career-making, epoch-defining role in Beverly Hills 90210, Faith Erin Hicks consistently draws the lead male character, 17-year old Josiah, as though he’s being played by an actor in his mid-30s.

That’s not uncommon in comics, and there are good reasons to do it. But for this particular story, I think it becomes a problem, because Josiah is, to put it politely, a bit crap. Passive to the point of cowardice, self-absorbed to the point of narcissism, and entirely too willing to let his – far more capable and accomplished – female friend lead him, literally hand-in-hand, through life’s obstacles. It’s an all-too-common archetype, and while it’s a relatively common trap that socially awkward, shy, male teenagers can fall into – and, hopefully, work their way out of as they get older – it’s also, when it lingers into later life (as it all too frequently does), utterly toxic. And Josiah, in this book, looks too old for these character flaws to be as sympathetic or endearing as I suspect they’re intended to be. And then, at the end, he gets rewarded for it. I suspect it was intended to be a tale of growth – of him learning to be better, more self-confident, and all of that good stuff. But – and again, this is partly down to the art – I didn’t read it that way. It’s not a critique of the style, at all - cartoonish art like this can be incredibly expressive, and Hicks does a lovely job here with much of the characters’ body language, in particular. But the facial expressions given to Josiah aren’t, to my eyes, drawn with enough nuance or precision to really tell the story of that sort of internal change clearly enough. Sometimes, less is actually less.

I can see how, at a script level, this is a fairly cute story about teenage insecurity, friendship between very different personality types, and the bittersweet nature of that last, transitional stage of adolescence. But – almost entirely down to that one artistic choice – it reads, to me, like the story of a smart, capable, self-assured woman who takes on the responsibility of showing a hapless man how to be a less shit version of himself. And we’ve got too many of those stories already. Teenage boys, and especially teenage girls, deserve better. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, but it really did damage my ability to enjoy the book. It’s also, clearly by design, a very slight, inconsequential tale. That can be charming in its own right, but it means that there simply isn’t enough *there* that could have grabbed me hard enough to overcome the (subjective) obstacle presented by the art. Coupled with the fact that the setting – while extremely vivid and well-crafted, both visually and narratively – isn’t one that I particularly identify with, and you’ve got a book that, for reasons that have little to do with its actual quality, didn’t connect with me at all.

It’s well written, and (with the above-mentioned caveats) largely very well-illustrated. I’d like to read more work illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks – as I said, her panel-to-panel storytelling is crisp and clear, and she does a lovely job of evoking both the setting and the various characters (it’s a gratifyingly diverse cast, with a far wider variety of physical ‘types’ on display than is all-too-frequently the case in comics). But ultimately, it wasn’t for me. And…well, that’s OK. Not everything has to be aimed at me (and hey, I’m a middle-aged white man. Far too many things are aimed at me already). But, given how much I’ve enjoyed everything else Rainbow Rowell has written, I was still a little disappointed.

Malin: I will admit that I read through the book fairly quickly one afternoon and unlike my husband, who is a very analytical reader, I tend to read on much more of a surface level. While I see what Mark means about it being a rather slight story, I thought it was a sweet little adventure between friends and both the story and the art really evoked the best things about the autumn for me, the crisp air, colourful foliage, bundling up in cozy jumpers and coats (without having to wear quite the thickness of layers that you have to in winter), the comfort of certain foods or a nice cup of hot chocolate.

While I see why Mark was frustrated and a bit exasperated with Josiah, of all the characters in this comic, he's possibly the one I identify with. If I worked at a Pumpkin Patch, I would totally be the same, a bit too much of a goody two shoes, rule abiding, shy, kind of staying on the outskirts of things, because actually talking to people, especially someone I had a crush on, would be both exhausting and terrifying. I too need the brave, adventurous, extroverted friend to drag me along on adventures (this role has been filled by my BFF Lydia and/or my husband Mark for the last three decades, in Lydia's case, or two, in Mark's case) and make me take chances and really experience things. I am far too terrified of leaving my comfort zone, left to my own devices. So I see where my other half is coming from, but that is not the way this story read to me.

Is Deja way too awesome for Josiah? Yeah, she probably is. She's clearly the bee's knees (although being her friend might also be a bit exhausting at times) and I love her confidence, positivity, go-getting attitude. But I suspect a lot of people who don't know us very well wonder why my tall, handsome, charming, extroverted, eloquent and confident husband is married to someone who's as mousy, shy, introverted, and risk averse (and possibly quite dull seeming) as I am. So I'm all for pairings that seem mismatched on the surface.

Could there have been more depth and complexity to the story? Yes, probably. But I was never really expecting Watchmen-level subtlety or sophistication here. It's a cheerful autumnal adventure aimed at YA readers, celebrating friendship and romance and tasty fairground treats and fun. Reading this book made me happy - I liked the art and especially appreciated a lot of the background stuff going on throughout the story. I always love reading acknowledgements, and it's clear that this project was a great way for Rowell and Hicks to create something with a friend, and that they had a great time working together. I can see where my husband is coming from, but my take on this book is a much more positive one. I also really want to check out more of Faith Erin Hicks' work, I know she's done other graphic novels by herself and also written a YA novel now, if I'm not mistaken.

Judging a book by its cover: I think, overall, that Faith Erin Hicks' art throughout the book is very cute and mostly appropriate for the story. As my husband has pointed out, he thinks many of the characters are drawn to look older than the characters actually are, which is a bit of a shame, but it's still a very nice cover (although since it says Rainbow Rowell up there, I would have bought the book even if the entire thing was covered with actual spiders).

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.