Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Huntress by Malinda Lo

Huntress by Malinda Lo

Nature is out of balance in the human world. The sun hasn't shone in years, and crops are failing. Worse yet, strange and hostile creatures have begun to appear. The people's survival hangs in the balance.
To solve the crisis, the oracle stones are cast, and Kaede and Taisin, two seventeen-year-old girls, are picked to go on a dangerous and unheard-of journey to Tanlili, the city of the Fairy Queen. Taisin is a sage, thrumming with magic, and Kaede is of the earth, without a speck of the otherworldly. And yet the two girls' destinies are drawn together during the mission. As members of their party succumb to unearthly attacks and fairy tricks, the two come to rely on each other and even begin to fall in love. But the Kingdom needs only one huntress to save it, and what it takes could tear Kaede and Taisin apart forever.
The exciting adventure prequel to Malinda Lo's highly acclaimed novel Ash is overflowing with lush Chinese influences and details inspired by the I Ching, and is filled with action and romance. (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: PG-13, 4 1/2 stars
Trigger Warnings: battle/fight scenes, violence, animal attacks, violence directed at children and babies, death

I actually enjoyed Huntress much more than Ash. Lo worked with a larger cast of characters in Huntress than Ash, and consequently there were a lot more characters that I sympathised with. Maybe it was because of the omniscient narration, but I cared about more than just Kaede and Taisin. I enjoyed the moments that focused more on Prince Con and the other members of their traveling party.

Those who have read Ash may recognize the bare bones of the story as one of fairy tales from Ash’s time. Since this is a prequel, Huntress is set in the same world as Ash, just much earlier in history. I really enjoyed the connections, particularly the transformation of the events in Huntress to the folklore in Ash. However, the two novels are not directly connected in terms of characters and immediate setting; you can definitely read one without the other.

I was surprised at the extent of the romance in the story. It is definitely more of an adventure novel than Ash, but the romance was still a main focus. I’d say for at least 90% of the novel there was a good balance between the romance and the action. There were a few moments when I felt the focus shifted too much to one side, but they were very rare.

I thought the the world-building was done very well, and I particularly like Lo’s take on traditional faerie lore. I liked the fact that not all of her fey were explicitly antagonistic. I liked the combination of traditional Celtic Sidhe with the Chinese-influenced spelling “Xi.” And I have to say, I really appreciate it when authors work the whole iron thing into their faerie stories.

*SPOILER* My biggest complaint with Huntress was the unicorn sub-plot at the end. It makes sense in context with Ash, because that part did play a part in Ash. However, I felt like it’s placement in the story made the ending a little anti-climactic for the amount of time given to the unicorn scene. I knew that I was like ten pages from the end of the book, and all of a sudden Kaede is sent on another mission. That just bothered me a little. However, I will say that I appreciate what that scene did for Kaede’s character. *END SPOILER*

There was quite a bit of violence in the book, including a scene where the characters were attacked by wolves, and two scenes that featured violence against infant-like creatures. In addition, some characters do die. So generally speaking, if violence bothers you, you might want to hold off on Huntress, or at least take it slowly. The violence was in no way out of place, given the story, but it was very much there.

All in all, I really enjoyed Huntress. I look forward to reading more of Lo’s work, and I hope she returns to the setting of Ash and Huntress in the future.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Novice by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Novice by Thich Nhat Hanh

Bestselling author and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh transforms an ancient folktale into a timeless parable of a young woman who dares to risk her life for her faith.

Born to an aristocratic family in rural Vietnam, Kinh Tam’s uncommon beauty and intelligence were obvious to all she encountered. From an early age she was drawn to the teachings of Buddha and the rewards of a monastic life, but to please her family she agreed to walk the traditional path of marriage.

Throughout her marriage, Kinh Tam’s mind was devoted to her husband but her heart never waivered from her true calling. She wanted to be a monk. And yet Buddhism was still new to Vietnam and temples accepted only men for ordination. Making a decision that would forever change her life, Kinh Tam left town, disguised herself as a man, and joined a monastery as a novice.

Despite the many challenges of living as a man, Kinh Tam thrived and became a beloved member of the community. Years of profound joy and peace passed until a local woman accuses the novice of fathering her unborn child. Kinh Tam is torn between two impossible choices: keep her secret and endure brutal punishment or reveal the truth that would prove her innocence but put an end to her spiritual path.

Facing the unbearable with the boundless heart of Buddha, her choice forever changes her life, her country, and her faith.

In spare, elegant prose, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that we, too, face our own injustices and suffering, and by connecting with love, we can, like Kinh Tam, discover a mind and heart that are peaceful, happy, and free. (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: PG, 4 stars
Trigger warnings: brief mentions of familial abuse (from in-laws)

I’ve read several of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books in my life. When I saw this novel in the bookstore at Plum Village Monastery, I was surprised, for I hadn’t known that he had written any fiction. As soon as I got back to the States, I reserved The Novice at my local library and eagerly waited for it to come in.

One of the many things I love about Thich Nhat Hanh is his writing style, something that I’ve recognized in every book of his that I’ve read, and The Novice is no different. At first, it was a little disconcerting, since this is a novel and not non-fiction like his other works. In fact, I almost stopped reading before I finished the first chapter. I’m really glad I kept reading, though, because the writing style and tone grew on me. The Novice was inspired by the life of a real Vietnamese Buddhist, and the book definitely stayed truth to the folk-legend roots, particularly in tone. I enjoyed the balance between conversational and detail-rich.

The story itself was interesting, but it was pretty much what the blurb describes; there weren’t a whole lot of twists and turns or subplots. This book is more in the telling, and in the Buddhist philosophies that Kinh Tam lived, which brings up another point: several times throughout the book, the narrative is interrupted to briefly explain certain Buddhist concepts. I’m somewhat familiar with these concepts, so I didn’t particularly like them, but others might appreciate their inclusion.

This is a book that really isn’t hiding much, and its simplicity is what makes it so wonderful. In some ways, it brings to mind the Christian parables that I’ve heard since I was little. The characters aren’t so simple that they’re flat, but I wouldn’t call them complex in the way that you normally well-written characters in novels. They’re more like fairy tale characters, almost allegories in themselves.

I thoroughly enjoyed this little book, despite my misgivings during the first chapter. If you don’t like Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing style, you probably won’t like this book, but it is an excellent read for those who already enjoy Thay’s writing.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M Danforth

When Cameron Post's parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they'll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.

But that relief doesn't last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.

Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship--one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to "fix" her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self--even if she's not exactly sure who that is.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules. (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: PG-13, 4 stars
Trigger Warnings: homophobia, ex-gay camp, familial death, drugs, transphobia, sexual content

This was another one of the books that I read while at Plum Village monastery, and like Wildthorn, it eerily paralleled my experiences...must be something about following a more rigid schedule (if you can call a mindful, monastic schedule rigid) while reading about someone following a rigid schedule.

Like Ash, I feel like the blurb to this book was slightly misleading. I expected the majority of the book to take place at the pray-the-gay-away camp and for the book to have a much darker tone overall. I was pleasantly surprised at the lighter tone of the novel and at the depth of the characters. I did not expect to see Cameron struggle so much with her identity or with the death of her parents, and I’m glad she did. It’s refreshing to see a novel with a gay protagonist who struggles not with coming out, but accepting her identity and coming to terms with how that will affect those around her in both positive and negative terms. It was also nice to see that the main focus of the novel was not a romance. There were some flings throughout the course of the novel, but they absolutely were not the main plot.

Given that this is essentially a book about a lesbian teenager in the 80s subverting her aunt’s conservative Christian culture, I wasn’t surprised at the swearing and drug content, but some might be bothered by it. Nothing stronger than marijuana is ever used in the book, but there is swearing left and right, as you might expect from the rural Montana setting. There are also some rather sexual dream scenes that culminate in a non-dream sexual scene.

All in all, this was a really pleasant read full of realism and well-developed characters. The Miseducation of Cameron Post does an excellent job of dealing with some heavy topics while still remaining a moderately light-hearted novel. I recommend it for fans of contemporary YA, (recent) historical YA, and gay protagonists/sexual identity novels.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Wednesdays in the Tower by Jessica Day George

Wednesdays in the Tower by Jessica Day George

A castle that is constantly rearranging itself, and a young royal family sworn to protect it... Celie, Rolf, and their beloved Castle Glower are back in this exciting sequel.

Strange things are afoot in Castle Glower: new rooms, corridors, and even stables keep arriving, even when they aren't needed. Celie's brother Bran, the new Royal Wizard, has his hands full cataloguing an entire storeroom full of exotic and highly dangerous weapons, while Celie has her hands full . . . raising the creature that hatches from a giant egg she finds! Will they be able to find out what's making the Castle behave this way in time? (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: PG, 5 stars
Trigger Warnings: none

Approximately a year and a half ago I review Tuesdays in the Castle and loved it. I had no idea there was a sequel, but boy am I glad. The second volume of the Castle Glower series loses none of the magic of the first book.

Wednesdays in the Tower continues the story of the lives of Princess Celie and her family, who live in Castle Glower, a castle which grows, shrinks, and rearranges itself, seemingly at random. Celie’s big accomplishment in this volume is a completed atlas of the castle.

One of the things I love about the Castle Glower books is the charm of Celie. She is a princess in a magical castle (and now she has a pet griffin), but at the end of the day she faces the same problems as other girls her age, namely being taken seriously by her family even though she is the youngest.

In general, I think the reason Wednesday in the Tower is as successful as Tuesdays in the Castle is because there is a winning combination of both concept and characters. Concept alone probably could have carried Tuesdays in the Castle, but fully-developed characters are needed to continue the series. Fortunately, Wednesdays in the Tower has no shortage of those. The characters all just felt so real, and that gave me so much enjoyment. They were interesting in their own right, not just because they lived in a shape-shifting house.

My sole complaint with the novel is not that it ends on a cliffhanger, but that the book isn’t out yet and won’t be for some time. I’ll definitely pick it up whenever it comes out.

Wednesdays in the Tower will appeal to fans of the previous book in the series, as well as those who like bright, spunky middle grade fantasy. Celie’s personality reminds me a bit of the earlier parts of Ella Enchanted (one of my all-time favorite books), although the Castle Glower books don’t deal with the same level of emotional maturity or internalized conflict. Instead, Celie and her family face external problems and solve them together in family-oriented ways.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz

Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz

Be careful what you believe in.

Rudy’s life is flipped upside-down when his family moves to a remote island in a last attempt to save his sick younger brother. With nothing to do but worry, Rudy sinks deeper and deeper into loneliness and lies awake at night listening to the screams of the ocean beneath his family’s rickety house.

Then he meets Diana, who makes him wonder what he even knows about love, and Teeth, who makes him question what he knows about anything. Rudy can’t remember the last time he felt so connected to someone, but being friends with Teeth is more than a little bit complicated. He soon learns that Teeth has terrible secrets. Violent secrets. Secrets that will force Rudy to choose between his own happiness and his brother’s life. (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: R, 5 stars
Trigger warnings: bestiality, violence, sexual assault

This book got a lot of buzz on the YA blogs I follow because it featured both gay teens and mermaids (er, fishboys), and in particular the gay teen loved the fishboy. That buzz really interested me both because mermaid books are usually about the, uh, maids, and because the speculative novels I’ve read with LGBTQ teens more often have gay-identified girls. Contemporary YA has far more gay boys than girls, but speculative fiction seems to be the opposite. Basically, buzz=color me curious.

I have to say, I think a lot of the buzz about Teeth was really misleading in everything from Rudy’s sexuality to the extent of his relationship with Teeth, but I am totally ok with that. In fact, I like what the book was so much more than what the buzz had me thinking it would be. I applaud Moskowitz for writing a book about exploring sexuality that isn’t a coming out story. From the beginning of the book, we hear a lot about how Rudy was quite the ladies’ man before moving to the island. He’s comfortable with having sex without being a braggart (which in itself was refreshing). There are no mentions of romantic or sexual relationships with dudes. And yet, by the time Rudy realizes that he has romantic feelings for Teeth, he doesn’t freak out because Teeth is male. He doesn’t even freak out because Teeth is part fish. There’s no lonely walks filled with angsting about how attracted he is to Fish Boy. Rudy is, quite simply, focused on the more complicated aspects of their relationship, like the fact that his brother is only alive because he is eating the fish that Teeth loves. For that matter, Rudy’s feelings for Teeth were subtle enough that had I not known the buzz beforehand (and had I skimmed the book’s blurb), I might not have picked up on the romantic tension at all.

Basically, it was incredibly refreshing to see a YA novel with a gay protagonist that was so much more than a YA novel about a gay protagonist. Rudy is a complicated character with a complicated romantic and sexual life, but at the end of the day that isn’t all he is. So much in Teeth was handled subtly, from sexuality to assault. The relationships between the characters were rich and complex, which made this book so much more than what I’d heard about it.

Trigger-wise, the bestiality is from a flashback, and it deals with Teeth’s conception, not Teeth. I only put that warning in because only one party in that scene had the capacity to consent. There are a lot of mentions of sexual assault, but Rudy never sees any of them up close. The descriptions of violence do get pretty intense at times, especially at the end, but not nearly as intense as in Dualed, the last violent novel I reviewed.

Teeth is an dark, complex novel that will appeal to sci-fi fantasy lovers, those seeking LGBTQ romance (although they *might* be slightly disappointed by amount of romantic details), as well as those who like gritty contemporary novels--Rudy seemed a lot like a contemporary character who accidentally wandered into a speculative setting. Teeth is an excellent book, and if you pass on it, you’re missing out.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Dualed by Elsie Chapman

Dualed by Elsie Chapman

You or your Alt? Only one will survive.

The city of Kersh is a safe haven, but the price of safety is high. Everyone has a genetic Alternate—a twin raised by another family—and citizens must prove their worth by eliminating their Alts before their twentieth birthday. Survival means advanced schooling, a good job, marriage—life.

Fifteen-year-old West Grayer has trained as a fighter, preparing for the day when her assignment arrives and she will have one month to hunt down and kill her Alt. But then a tragic misstep shakes West’s confidence. Stricken with grief and guilt, she’s no longer certain that she’s the best version of herself, the version worthy of a future. If she is to have any chance of winning, she must stop running not only from her Alt, but also from love . . . though both have the power to destroy her.

Elsie Chapman's suspenseful YA debut weaves unexpected romance into a novel full of fast-paced action and thought-provoking philosophy. When the story ends, discussions will begin about this future society where every adult is a murderer and every child knows there is another out there who just might be better. (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: R, 4 1/2 stars
Trigger warnings: graphic violence, death, familial death

I have a weird relationship with this book. I absolutely enjoyed it, but I had to take it really slow because parts were so intense. I’m not one for adrenaline--in fact, I hate most adrenaline-inducing activities. This book was quite adrenaline-inducing for me. At one point, I actually dreamed how I thought the book should end. It was rather bizarre that I physiologically reacted so strongly to this book, but don’t think that that’s a problem. Those reactions riveted me to the outcome of the novel.

It’s interesting, and I may get a lot of hate for this, but even though this book reminded me conceptually of The Hunger Games, I really did enjoy this book while I couldn’t finish The Hunger Games. I’m not sure why that is exactly, but I know that I appreciate West’s attitude from the beginning, while Katniss’ character is one of the reasons that I couldn’t finished The Hunger Games. I thought it was interesting to take such a violent concept and make it both individual and urban. I find that a lot of dystopian fiction is either violent on a grander scale or individual violence is moved out of an urban environment, even if that environment is merely a city park. For that matter, I enjoyed that Dualed rarely left it’s gritty urban setting. There was no green oasis that West retired to to take a break and wax philosophical about what her society meant. She was always on the move.
In the end, I think one of the reasons I liked this book so much was the pacing. The book is fast-paced from the beginning and it never slows down. For some books that doesn’t work, but I thought it worked really well in Dualed.

I’m intrigued by the fact that there is a sequel due for Dualed, and I’m really hoping it is as engaging as the first. I definitely recommend Dualed to any dystopian fans who don’t mind violence, because the book is really quite violent.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Wildthorn by Jane Eagland

Wildthorn by Jane Eagland

Seventeen-year-old Louisa Cosgrove longs to break free from her respectable life as a Victorian doctor's daughter. But her dreams become a nightmare when Louisa is sent to Wildthorn Hall: labeled a lunatic, deprived of her liberty and even her real name. As she unravels the betrayals that led to her incarceration, she realizes there are many kinds of prison. She must be honest with herself - and others - in order to be set free. And love may be the key... (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: PG-13, 4 stars
Trigger Warnings: institutional abuse, familial abuse, death

When I first heard about Wildthorn a few years ago, I got a vibe that it hit a subgenre that I rarely see covered: lesbian historical YA. YA novels featuring gay characters are becoming more and more prominent, but most of them seem to focus on gay males, and historical fiction with LGBTQ characters is still rare. So when I got this vibe, I was instantly intrigued and snagged the ebook when I had the chance.

I really appreciate the way everything unfolded in Wildthorn. I thought the concept of Louisa knowing everything and not telling the reader worked really well, even though it could have failed drastically. Fortunately, it didn’t, and I enjoyed not knowing things before the protagonist for once.

I had an interesting experience reading this book, because I read it while I was on a retreat at a Buddhist monastery. In many ways, my routine was similar to Louisa’s at the asylum, although my experience was entirely positive: I had set wake up times and meals; there were afternoon activities and chores; and all the laypeople had very different reasons for being there. So it was really different to read this book in circumstances that were so similar and yet almost the opposite of Louisa’s.

The setup of the book surprised me. The vibe I got was that the book would be entirely about Louisa’s sexuality, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that that wasn’t her only characteristic, and wasn’t what her family saw in her at all. I think there’s a risk in these sorts of YA novels for sexuality to be the protagonist’s only defining feature, and I was pleased that Louisa was a fully fleshed-out character.

In general, I thought all the characters were well-developed and realistic. I had some slight issues with how accepting Eliza’s family was, given the Victorian time period, but it didn’t seem out of their characters, just out of place for the time.

I think Wildthorn is a fascinating novel for readers today, particularly for female readers. *SPOILER* Considering that Louisa is locked up for reading, wanting to go to college, having priorities other than perfecting her appearance, among other things, female readers will likely really empathize with her based on these potential similarities. I know I did. *END SPOILER*

Wildthorn is a dark novel, and institutional abuse is prevalent, as is some familial abuse at the hands of Tom, Louisa’s brother. However, I’ve certainly read darker novels, and no part of Wildthorn was so intense that I actually had to put it down. It’s a good work of historical fiction, and it opens up some new perspectives for the reader.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Selection by Kiera Cass

The Selection by Keira Cass

For thirty-five girls, the Selection is the chance of a lifetime. The opportunity to escape the life laid out for them since birth. To be swept up in a world of glittering gowns and priceless jewels. To live in a palace and compete for the heart of gorgeous Prince Maxon.

But for America Singer, being Selected is a nightmare. It means turning her back on her secret love with Aspen, who is a caste below her. Leaving her home to enter a fierce competition for a crown she doesn't want. Living in a palace that is constantly threatened by violent rebel attacks.

Then America meets Prince Maxon. Gradually, she starts to question all the plans she's made for herself—and realizes that the life she's always dreamed of may not compare to a future she never imagined. (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: PG-13, 3 stars
Trigger Warnings: violence, mention of sexual assault

I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would. It’s lighthearted fluff, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be enjoyed...indeed, I found it to be a very pleasant read. Love triangles aren’t anything new at this point, but I liked the setup that Keira Cass chose here, because it allowed America’s relationship with Maxon to really develop unhindered.

I was also pleasantly surprised by non-romantic plot points. I enjoyed the commentary on classism. Basically, I like my dystopian fiction with a political leaning, and The Selection delivered on that front in ways that I honestly wasn’t expecting.

Given the commercial nature of dystopian fiction today, as well as the commercial nature of YA fiction with love-triangles, I wasn’t surprised by the plainness of the writing. The Selection isn’t a book you read for the poetic imagery or the skillful sentences. However, it is a book you read for an interesting plot and engaging characters.

The book started as a light-hearted Bachelorette meets Hunger Games, but you’d be mistaken to assume that there’s no action or that it’s all the girl-vs-girl competition variety. I loved America’s interest in the condition of her country, and how that developed into an understanding of the country’s problems, which was further exacerbated by events in the palace (ok, that’s a little vague, but I’m trying to avoid a spoiler warning here).

Towards the end of the novel, there is some violence, and a character is very obviously triggered. There are also veiled mentions of sexual assault.

I’m quite interested in seeing how Cass continues the series, particularly in the balance between the competition and the growing unrest in the country. Elite, the sequel, will make an excellent summer read, and I look forward to diving in.