Monday, February 25, 2013

Review of Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Tor Books
Little Brother
by Cory Doctorow
5+ Stars

The United States Government is in place to serve and protect its citizens, right? After all, we are the land of the free and the home of the brave, yes? After reading this novel, readers may not be so sure.
Teenage computer guru Marcus and his crew find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and end up being arrested by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). No big deal, right? They’re kids and they’ve done nothing wrong, or at least that’s what they think. But when they ask DHS for their parents, an attorney, their rights as U.S. citizens, anything, they are met with open accusations and hostility. Worse, it’s clear they aren’t going home anytime soon. Marcus doesn’t plan on living his whole life as a hostage to DHS—instead, he plans to sabotage the DHS system that targets American citizens and expose them for the terrorists they really are.

I’ll admit, I hardly came up for air while reading this novel, or maybe I felt breathless out of fear. It’s hard to believe that our government might intentionally violate the rights and privacy of innocent citizens, but I Googled “homeland security violated rights of citizens” and got 5,700,000 results in less than a second.  Scary. Of course not everything on the net is true, but if even 1% of those articles have some truth to them…ouch.  What DHS’s unconstitutional behavior (and make no mistake, they are the villains here) does for this novel is ratchet up the tension and paranoia and intensify the setting. I swear I felt like I was Marcus. I began to understand what it might feel like to be held hostage, to be innocent, and yet feel dirty.  I started looking over my shoulder. I totally understood his fear, his desire to cave, his rage, and in the next moment, his steadfastness in taking down DHS.  Marcus is a flawed character, and in those flaws he is totally real. Who wouldn’t get depressed or have doubts under such pressure? Perhaps what is best about Marcus is his commitment to the cause.  I’d like to think I would risk it all to end persecution, to stand up for what is right, but would I?  Another excellent component of the story is the author’s ability to explain highly technical aspects of the computer and online world in a way that non-techies like me can totally grasp. Yeah, the encrypting and encoding and whatnot are completely without question over my head, but I got it! Maybe that’s because all the characters have spot-on dialogue, or because Marcus just explains well. Through the eyes of Marcus, the author makes me feel smart, like I could hang with Marcus, and I feel involved in the action. In fact, I could hardly put the novel down!  Perhaps best of all is what I learned from the novel. I used to think that if someone had nothing to hide they should be an open book, but Marcus made me understand why this is not so. Check this rockin’ analogy.
Everyone uses the toilet right? There is nothing unnatural about it, nothing evil, nothing wrong with it, but I don’t particularly want to sit on a toilet in Times Square and display my business for the masses.  ‘Nuff said. BTW…the sequel to this novel, Homeland, came in my mail last night. Guess what I’m reading next?

Review of The Madman's Daughter by Megan Shepherd

Balzer & Bray
The Madman’s Daughter
by Megan Shepherd
3 Scribbles

She should have been a Victorian lady, making her debut in society and finding a charming, educated man to spend her life with. Instead, Juliet is a chamber maid at the local hospital, scrubbing blood out of grout after autopsies. Her father, Dr. Moreau, was a renowned surgeon making strides in medical science, until it was discovered he was performing vivisection—dissecting living organisms to see their insides work.  When Dr. Moreau was banned from England and Juliet’s mother died shortly thereafter, her fortune forever changed—that is until the day her old childhood friend and family servant, Montgomery, shows up in London, and Juliet wonders if her father is still alive. If so, is Dr. Moreau really the evil monster the medical community has made him out to be?

I pre-ordered this book because (1) I loved the cover and (2) the synopsis hooked me.  Obviously, the story is a reimagined version of the classic by H.G. Wells, The Isle of Doctor Moreau, a novel I really enjoyed, so perhaps holding the original as the gold standard by which to judge this retelling skewed my judgment. I did enjoy the intrigue in the story. Of course I knew where the strange creatures on the island came from, but I was still riveted and appalled when Juliet stumbles into her father’s laboratory and witnesses the source of the tortured cries in the compound. The laboratory and its horrors are so well-described and so chilling I read through that section twice!  I also appreciated the characterization of Dr. Moreau; he is exactly what I imagine a crazed killer with wild ambitions to be—at one moment charming and bedazzling with excellent taste and rare moments of affection—and in the next moment, cold, distant, rude and dismissive.  His doesn’t exist on the plane that others do, he lives only for his pursuits of the forbidden—like most madmen.  I found the drawing of his character insightful. I began to understand not only his insanity, but the way others were drawn to him. Juliet, however, felt more like a sketch to me. Granted, she exists as a lens to reveal the story, but I wanted more for her character. Indeed, the author tries to engage her in a love triangle, but I simply didn’t buy into the romance or heat. The fact that she loves Edward and Montgomery could totally work and add tension to the story, but it doesn’t here, for some reason her attachments seem false. Maybe it’s because there is plenty of tension in the setting itself, with the jungle darkness, strange creatures, and an unknown killer on the loose.  And oh the setting! It is the setting that is the greatest frustration for me. Characters do a lot of running back and forth on the island, Juliet after Edward then Edward after Juliet, Montgomery after Juliet and Montgomery after Moreau…etc. etc.; it feels as if someone is saddling up at every turn, and I found such running about and accomplishing nothing exhausting. However, I suppose that’s unavoidable given the limits of an island setting. The ending was also a frustrating cliffhanger, but I suppose that is so readers will be motivated to buy and read book two. I do want to know what happens to Juliet, but whether or not I read book two really depends on what other reading option might be sitting next to the second installment on the bookstore shelf.


Monday, February 18, 2013

Review of Hysteria by Megan Miranda

Walker Children's
by Megan Miranda

4 Scribbles

When Mallory kills her boyfriend Brian in self-defense, her childhood ends. Although she is found innocent, Mallory quickly becomes a social pariah. She is suspected of dishonesty by most in her community and deemed a brutal killer by others, but no one judges Mallory more harshly than she judges herself.  Hoping to escape the haunting memories of that night, Mallory transfers to her father’s alma mater, the elite prep school Monroe, where she can start afresh.  Yet, her past continues to haunt her. And when Mallory is blamed for another untimely death—she begins to wonder what is real and what is “hysteria.”
Although a main thread in the novel is Mallory’s tentative grasp on reality, a constant feeling that she is either being haunted or may be experiencing a sort of psychological hysteria, the tone of this story could not be more real. This sense of the real is the main strength of the novel. So many times when characters die in literature, their death is treated as a novelty, an aside, a fact from the past to be greeted with mild interest at best and with apathy in most cases. Through Mallory’s eyes, the reader begins to grasp the impact of the death. The reader feels what it would be like to take the life of someone else, even in self-defense. They smell the blood, hear the gasps of the dying, sense the spirit leaving the body, stand beside the cold corpse. The reader understands the doubt, the guilt, the second-guessing that victims must go through in the aftermath of such an event. They see the tendency of bystanders to blame the victim. Ironically, Brian becomes a living, breathing person through the haunting that Mallory experiences. Equally realistic is the development of Mallory’s character from a typical, ornery teenager who isn’t above a little manipulation, interested in boys and fun, to the brooding, guilt-written young woman that she becomes. And this transition is not limited to Mallory.  In the space of one evening, she and her best friend Colleen, who shares a bond with Mallory beyond sisterhood, must suddenly “[say] good-bye….To the future…Even if…the future was just tomorrow.” Unlike many of us who experience this transition into adulthood slowly, these characters are not so fortunate. The novel is a sophisticated read to be sure, with a tone and tension (and alas even a line) borrowed from Poe himself, and it is this tone that lends suspense to the work. While less ambitious readers may find the beginning of the novel slow, more advanced readers will appreciate Miranda’s skill. The subtle use of foreshadowing, well-placed flashbacks, superior character development, and the intricately woven mystery will be a treat for these readers who will undoubtedly find themselves engrossed (as I was) from beginning to end.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Review of The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson

Greenwillow Books
The Crown of Embers (Fire and Thorns #2)
By Rae Carson

4 Scribbles

Someone within her royal court is sabotaging Queen Elisa, which is not surprising since she only recently took power after the death of her husband. She is young after all, even if she did save the country from destruction.  The pressure is mounting by the day, and Elisa feels the weight of it.  Her royal advisors want her to remarry a neighboring nobleman to increase the security of the nation, and worse, Invierne sorcerers have appeared within the city walls. Clearly, it is the power of Elisa’s godstone that the enemy seeks, but from where does this power come?  In a quest to find the source of the godstone’s power and thus prevent it from falling into enemy hands, Elisa grows into a commanding woman and queen to be reckoned with. Perhaps most importantly, she learns whom she can trust.
What is so refreshing about Elisa is the sheer believability of her character. She starts to grow and change in this installment; she matures. She’s still not perfect, she’s not experienced, and she’s not physically strong.  Even her godstone, which sets her apart from the masses, isn’t something she controls; in fact, some would say the godstone is simply another outside force that controls her. What Elisa has, however, is street-smarts, wisdom, humility, and faith that her life has a special purpose.  What more could a reader want in a protagonist? The action in the story is as entrancing as in book one, even though the country isn’t technically at war. Carson engages us immediately with the intrigue of a possible in-house assassin. And, in a plot device similar to book one, there is the quest; Elisa and a selection of her companions (including Hector) must embark on a journey to find the source of the godstone. Actually, I was glad to see the quest. I was sort of worried at first that we’d be stuck on the castle grounds with Elisa during the whole novel, busily searching through ancient scriptures, looking over our shoulder for a killer and dodging arrows, but alas, no!  In fact, the quest introduces a whole new environment and rich scenery that adds to the world building that began in book one. And, for those readers who want to see action of a different kind, fear not. Elisa may have lost Humberto in book one, but her friendship with Hector is growing stronger—she could be falling in love with him—except for the fact that she is queen and he is a commoner, not exactly an ideal choice for king since he has no power or holdings. But she could at least love him and have a companion, no? Does he feel the same for her? A twist at the end is a bit easy to predict, but no worries, it only serves to tease the reader into anticipating what awesome new developments will take place with Queen Elisa in book three, The Bitter Kingdom, releasing in the Fall of this year, and already on my to-order list!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Review of Bloodlines by Richelle Mead

Bloodlines  (Book 1)
By Richelle Mead

5 Scribbles

Okay, so if you’ve followed my blog at all, you know I am a total Richelle Mead fan. I was religious about Vampire Academy, and I can see now that I will be religious about Bloodlines.
Remember Sydney Sage? Sydney was the Alchemist in Russia who did some “clean up” for Rose in an effort to protect humanity from the knowledge of vampires back in the Vampire Academy series. That’s what Alchemists do—they help to hide the supernatural world from the human one.  The Bloodlines series begins with Sydney, who is put in the awkward position (for an Alchemist) of being Jill Dragomir’s new guardian.  Although Sydney is no stranger to vampires, she doesn’t particularly like them—no Alchemist does (it’s part of the code apparently) so when she’s assigned to a boarding school to pose as Jill’s roommate, she isn’t thrilled. But, Jill’s life is of the utmost importance; in order to prevent humans from discovering vampire existence, the vampire political realm must remain calm. Since Jill is the only remaining relative to the new queen (Lissa Dragomir) she has to survive to keep the monarchy intact. Seems like a simple enough assignment for Sydney, playing babysitter, until she realizes that games are afoot at Amberwood Prep and someone knows that Jill isn’t who she seems to be.

Besides the well-crafted mystery of the secretive skill-bringing tattoos, I enjoyed the fact that characters from Vampire Academy appear in the new series.  Particularly, Adrian, whose bad-boy persona fades a bit into the background as the reader gets to know Adrian through Sydney’s eyes. Eddie and Jill are also welcome additions to the “cast” even though they get less stage time than one might think in the first book. I really enjoyed getting to know Sydney, who is lovingly OCD, has a genius IQ, and a true moral north. In short, she is the polar opposite of feisty Rose Hathaway from Vampire Academy. Yet, I adored Rose Hathaway, and I adore Sydney. They are like the two older sisters you wish you had—one for solid advice, and one to kick the posterior of your ex who cheated on you. Mead truly has a gift for character development.  Make no mistake however, it’s not all introspection here, there is plenty of action in book one. Jill’s life truly is in danger, and there is intrigue around every corner. Sweeter still is a light sprinkling of Sydney’s own sweet revenge, although unlike Rose, Sydney doesn’t savor that revenge so much as measure whether or not she obtained it in a righteous fashion.  In short, this is another thrilling blastoff to what promises to be another action-packed and entertaining series!

Review of The Golden Lily by Richelle Mead

The Golden Lily (Bloodlines: Book 2)
by Richelle Mead

4 Scribbles

As Syndey’s work draws her closer to Jill, Eddie, and even Adrain, she begins to wonder if her beliefs about Moroi and dhampirs are all wrong. Are Moroi really evil as she was raised to believe?  Worse, as praise rains down upon Sydney from the Alchemist leadership, she wonders if she deserves it. If the leadership really knew how close Sydney was getting to the Moroi, would her supervisors continue to applaud her, or would they send her away to Reeducation Camp and “adjust” her changing values?

Book two has a new expertly-woven mystery to be solved at the Amberwood Prep (in typical Mead fashion), but with additional character development deftly inserted between the action. Romantically speaking, things begin to heat up between Sydney and a forbidden Moroi (who shall not be named here) causing Sydney to examine her previously held beliefs. Could she be falling for a Moroi? And, if she is, would falling for a Moroi be ethical? This book also reveals Sydney’s physical disadvantages. Unlike Eddie, Jill’s guardian, or Rose Hathaway, being human makes Sydney powerless to fight against the vicious Strigoi who are after Jill. Yet, it seems Sydney has another skill that may serve to protect her from the Strigoi, but is it ethical to use those skills? While the novel clearly serves as a bridge in the series, it does not feel like one. Needed backstory is natural, as are the moral dilemmas the characters face, and none of those elements detract from the action. I’ve already ordered book 3, The Indigo Spell, and am hoping to find it in my mailbox tonight (since it was released yesterday). Happy reading fellow Mead-followers!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Review of The Diviners by Libba Bray

Little Brown Books
For Young Readers
The Diviners
by Libba Bray
4 Scribbles

When Evie uses her skills as a diviner to reveal the deliciously scandalous secret of Zenith, Ohio’s “It” couple, she finds herself banished from town. Her parents, disgraced by Evie’s indiscretions and flapper lifestyle, expel her from Zenith to New York City, where she is to live with her Uncle Will, a professor and curator of New York’s Occult museum—the museum of “Creepy Crawlies.” Far from upset, however, Evie relishes her new-and-improved New York life and all of the rich culture it has to offer, until a twisted serial killer begins to prey on the youth of New York, and Evie finds herself in the middle of a gruesome and perplexing case.

The 1920s in the United States was an exciting period of change and development. The old America braced itself against the crashing waves of new trends. Bray incorporates these trends in her narrative, bringing to life New York’s magnificent architecture, the jazz music of speakeasies, evolving fashion, Prohibition, the arrival of the automobile, the public’s obsession with the Occult, and even a nod to the Harlem Renaissance.  Each of these developments would be fascinating to study individually, but incorporated into the story of a religion-crazed serial killer committing ritualistic murders throughout the city, they bring the past to life. The reader will find themselves riveted to an epic story—and in this case a potentially epic series. Horror films like The Haunting in Connecticut and Poltergeist should step aside—Hollywood’s got nothing on the gruesome, otherworldly carnage that takes place in these chapters. Evie’s character is wonderfully drawn, her reckless, sassy character is far from perfect, and that is what makes her beloved; she may be aware that her choices aren‘t always wise, but something about her that lacks restraint, indeed, craves destructive behavior, and in this way Evie resonates with a hidden part of me. While I may not rush into a haunted building, I can identify with her courageous and curious nature. Evie’s best friend Mabel, while sort of a limp noodle, acts as a needed foil to Evie and grounds Evie’s character in an important way. Other characters have their own stories to tell, like Theta, the sexy dancer, and Henry, her musician roommate, distant and formal Jericho, or Memphis whose mother died and father left him and his brother Isaiah live with an aunt, or sinister, Blind Bill, who “just wants a taste” of the power Isaiah wields.  While these individuals may seem disconnected with Evie’s fate, developments in the story indicate that more supernatural disasters are coming, and these events are likely to bring the entire lot together on account of the mysterious (government?) “Project Buffalo.”  The only failing in the novel was in one aspect of the resolution of the conflict, specifically when an accused character is released with a not-so-subtle statement explaining the convenient release, that “people will believe anything if it means they can go on with their lives and not have to think too hard about it.” While true, I’d have preferred not to see it used here as a way to save a character. Part of the fun of a novel is seeing how characters escape impossible situations, and I felt a bit cheated by that scene. Yet, with action that plows vengefully forward through exciting pages, creeptastic murders, characters that engage and intrigue, and more clues to another Diviners mystery to come, how could I not recommend this novel?  Bray scores again with another historical mystery and adds a generous helping of the macabre to drive it home.