Monday, March 31, 2014

Review: Ashes and Shadows by Ilsa J. Bick

I could have sworn I'd reviewed these!

But since I was on a reading drought of sorts for a long time in 2013, I guess these got waylaid. I didn't think much of it until I saw reviews of Monsters crop up, and realized that this trilogy was about to end.

Well, high time I do my duty. 

But first, let me get this out of the way: If you're a newcomer to this series, and if you're interested in reading it, don't faff around buying these books one at a time. Do a bulk purchase, order both books from your library, or do whatever you legally can to have Shadows is nearby when you finish Ashes...

...because Ashes ends in one of the cruelest cliffhangers I have ever had the displeasure of reading. 

Luckily for me, by the time I picked the trilogy up, the second book was already out, so it was a matter of one trip to the nearest bookstore before I read it. But oh, it was a really unpleasant night when I did finish this. It was even more unpleasant because it was dark and I kept seeing things creep around my bed. 

I have to admit, I'm not an expert in the horror / suspense genre. I am, however, fond of Apocalypse stories, all that stuff about society falling apart and rebuilding itself, and I'm even more fond of stories where the characters act like... you know, people. As opposed to cardboard cutouts. 

The story follows Alex, a cancer patient who sets out on a trek to scatter the ashes of her parents, (supposedly before she dies,) but halfway up the mountain something happens that causes the entire world to change. Suddenly, animals are not acting like animals, Alex is no longer sick, and, oh yeah, ZOMBIES! 

Okay, they're not technically zombies, but they do act like such. It's interesting to see Bick's spin on the genre, with the Changed being almost like any other human... except stronger and meaner and with a great appetite for guts. I also like how the human society rearranges itself around this change, how people treat the fact that suddenly their nearest and dearest turn on them. (One of the more interesting aspects of the zombie genre.) 

Along the way, Alex meets more people, makes friends, kinda falls in love, loses a lot of people, and then more shit goes down. I'd like to give more detailed summary of the plot, but the truth is, there isn't much more to it than that. There is some talk about finding out exactly what happened, and there are some theories thrown around, but that's not what's on the forefront of the action, and it's definitely not what the main characters are trying to accomplish. The focus has always been on how they, especially Alex, react to the fact that the zombie apocalypse happened.

Speaking of Alex, she's one of those characters that is likely to polarize readers. Not because she does anything particularly controversial or shocking - in terms of her actions, she's fairly practical. Actually, she's something like Carey from "If You Find Me" - tough, but realistically flawed and insecure... and for whatever reason, she does everything right and brings all the boys in the yard. Depending on your tolerance for those types of characters, you'll either love her or want to thump the book in frustration. 

Other than that, the books move at a quick pace, have a lot of intrigue and strong character voices. Mean cliffies aside, they're a pretty good read if you're in the mood for some apocalypse-type action. 

Note: Images via BookLikes. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Empowering through (all of the) stories

WARNING: Unpopular opinion ahead

Twilight seems to pop up on my dash a lot these days – not just in Ana Mardoll’s ongoing (and fantastic) deconstructions of the book, but also on videos of people with much larger platforms than my own. One is John Green’s now infamous Twitter lecture about what misogyny is and how Twilight is not nearly as misogynistic as our dislike for it. The other is by Team Nostalgia Chick, arguably one of my favourite things on the Internet, in their second season of 50 Shades of Green (soon to be renamed) where they talk about writing the sequel to Awoken.

For those of you who don’t know, last year (or was it the one before?) Team Nostalgia Chick started a project of sorts, where they attempted to write a YA novel, using just the worst tropes of the genre, publish it under a pseudonym, and then act out the super touchy author vs. mean reviewers thing. The first season was fairly interesting, had some really nice moments. But the announcement of the second instalment really rubbed me the wrong way, to the point where it sent me on a Twitter rant of my own.

But that’s not really what this post is about.

In fact, believe it or not, I’m about to agree more with John Green on something than with one of my favourite critics. (The end, it is nigh!)

via: http://das-sporking.livejournal.com/tag/suethor%3A%20john%20green

Here’s how it breaks down: I don’t think that my dislike for Twilight is more misogynistic than the book itself, because the book deploys some really, really deplorable tropes, reinforces horrible attitudes towards women, sexuality, and liberation. It romanticises some really unhealthy relationships and the treatment of its female characters, Rosalie Hale in particular, is absolutely deplorable.

But to be fair to Green, I don’t think that’s what he meant when he said what he said. See, the above tweet is what gets quoted the most, but the ones preceding it focus on Bella’s “arc” and her “journey” to get what she wants. And… if we boil Twilight down to Bella’s journey, if we strip away every cultural context, ignore the treatment of every other character, make excuses for Edward and Jacob’s appalling behaviours – if we do all of that, then Twilight is quite an empowering story, and hating on Bella would seem misogynistic.

Why am I on this?

Because I love YA. Even when it’s really, really bad, I still find some nugget of enjoyment from reading the stories and reviewing them. I like picking things apart and exploring them within their cultural context. Most importantly, I love YA because I find ways to grow and develop through reading the stories. And even stories like Twilight, with all of their problematic tropes and implications, can be empowering. And I think that we focus on the negative so much, we forget to celebrate what’s good.

Bella’s journey in Twilight is essentially a wish-fulfilment fantasy about winning at patriarchy. Our MC decides what she wants and she damn well gets it, even when it’s outright dangerous for her. Yes, Bella’s proactivity in the story is fairly limited, and often comes in the form of manipulation and passive-aggression, but she’s essentially working within the boundaries given to her. (And she doesn’t test the boundaries because, well, that’s her character.)

Believe it or not, I was once a teenage girl, and I read and sincerely enjoyed Twilight. I thought it was inspiring, because I was raised to suppress my needs, creativity, and feelings, for the sake of other people. I was essentially told, by my parents and society, that those things don’t matter. Twilight told me that eventually, it would be worth it, and that I would be rewarded for my self-sacrifice.

And yes, writing that, I realize how fucked-up that is. And, having grown up a little since then, I realize that in real life, being passive and self-effacing for the sake of others eventually destroys you. Hence why Twilight is wish-fulfilment, not an aspiration.

Still, can you really blame us for enjoying the fantasy? Who wouldn’t love to have all their hopes and dreams served to them up on a platter, without breaking any rules or entering a bloody confrontation? (That is still if we ignore the other misogynistic aspects of the story. And the ableism. And the racism. And… everything other than Bella’s arc, really.)

This is why I agree with Green, up to a point. (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he realized how similar in that respect his own books are to Twilight. Despite the fact that TFIOS takes quite a few potshots at the books (as reminded by the whittler in this amazing series of deconstructions) John Green’s characters’ arcs are really just as much about wish-fulfillment as Bella’s is.) That’s also why it pains me that Lindsay and co. seem so condescending towards the genre.

Yes, it’s problematic, some of the books reinforce horrible attitudes, and it doesn’t help that publishers have their eye more often on the trends and the revenue than on the stories, but at the end of the day, people always, always, ALWAYS, find something empowering about them. And mocking people for finding fulfilment in A Problematic Thing is not going to make you any friends.


(Just trust me on that. I found that the hard way.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Review: More Than This by Patrick Ness

It's... honestly odd that it took me so long to review this.

After all, it's not like we're not talking about one of the biggest names in the YA blogosphere (usually followed by: MANCHEEEEEE!) (conversely, this reminds me of a Stephen King quote where people gave him grief about that one scene of animal cruelty in "The Dead Zone." But that's neither here, nor there.)

Thing is, "More Than This" has a lot to answer to. It's not Patrick Ness' second book, or even his third, but after a highly lauded series like "Chaos Walking," there are expectations in place. (Although, as someone who has yet to read "Chaos Walking", I'm not really one to talk.)

Anyway...

The book opens with our main character, Seth, killing himself. He walks into the sea, gets his head smashed against some rocks, and then wakes up - not in America, but in the tiny English town of his youth. There are no people, no animals, nothing. Or so he thinks.

Protagonist-waking-up-alone stories (as, in fact, most protagonist-all-by-themselves stories) are stylistically tricky to pull off. There needs to be a balance between world-building (or world-discovery) and tension, usually provided through flashbacks ("I am legend" is a prime example of that.) "More Than This" does just that, rotating between Seth exploring and him dreaming of his past, and the events that led to his suicide. We eventually meet more characters and we discover what, exactly, happened, which I won't get into because it's spoilerific as fuck. But...

But.

I've listened to Patrick Ness talk about this book, so I'm in the position of actually knowing what the author "meant" before reading the actual text. I'm not sure if it makes me biased or not - there must be some research done on the subject because there's research done on everything these days - but I was very aware of what the story was about. And... I'll just be honest with you here:

"More Than This" is just.... not a book I want to review.

Not because it's bad. Quite the opposite. But the story leads you to some really dark places, and it's different for every person. I'm not saying you should go into it blind. I'm saying that what this book meant for me will not necessarily mean the same thing for you.

Let me give you some context:

For the longest time last year, I was stressed out, to the point where I became mildly depressed. I still am, in a way. I wake up on some days, look at the world, and I wonder where we're heading out to, what happens next, how can we possibly live happy lives when so many terrible things are happening, and continue to happen despite everyone agreeing they shouldn't. 

Some days, I am so unbelievably angry, I want to destroy everything and everyone.

Some days, I want to run away, even though there is no place to run away to.

Most days, I just go through the motions, hoping that I'll eventually feel better. 

The scenario where I stop hoping is like the instruction manual at Chernobyl - the pages detailing the procedure in case of a nuclear meltdown are blackened out. It's inconceivable. The system will not permit it. I feel like it's that way for the most of us.

Chernobyl is another example of human history where we all agreed, in retrospect, that it was terrible and should not be repeated, and then we went ahead and let it happen again. And probably will continue to let it happen again.

"More Than This" removes the censor bars from the darkest parts of our minds and invites us to read what's on the page. And that's the best review of it I can give.

Note: Image via BookLikes.

Review: Girl of Nightmares by Kendare Blake

Yet another one of those books that I wouldn't have read without the extra shove of a sequels challenge. Don't get me wrong, I loved Anna Dressed in Blood, and was excited for the sequel, but then I kept putting it off, and off, and off, until it was pushed to the back of my mind.

So it goes.

But anyway, I finally picked it up from my local library and... yeah, you can probably tell I'm stalling. So let me stall some more!

Six months after the events of the last book, Cas, Thomas, and Carmel are a ghost-hunting trio of sorts. But Cas can't stop thinking about Anna, worrying if she ever crossed over properly, and it turns out, she didn't. Cas realizes she's stuck somewhere in between, and makes it his mission to free her. And then things get worse.

I'm not necessarily being deliberately vague here. I remember quite a lot of the events of the book, but for some reason, they don't quite stick with me as they would, usually. There's sequences and revelations, but for all I cared, they could be anecdotes tied together by common characters and not a whole book. New characters and conflicts are introduced halfway through, and Anna doesn't even show up as a character in her own right until the last 20 pages. Damn!

What I mean is... this is a middle book. It's not supposed to be (or at least I don't think so,) but it feels like a middle book, or maybe a second and third book mashed together. There's some attempts to introduce character conflict, with Carmel becoming reluctant about the whole paranormal thing, which is an interesting and fairly reasonable development, but then we move on and a few chapters later, she's over it, or at least she's over the worst of it.

I mean... it's fine. It's not as frustrating as, say, that one part in "Angel Fire" where a character's potentially powerful motivation is waved off in the next three pages, but... it's still annoying, and it happens all the time. We get introduced to a new character, we get whiffs of conflict, but in the end, I didn't particularly feel tension because... well...

Everyone just gets along so nicely! There are barely any points where I felt like there'd be a betrayal and stuff because the characters don't come off as such. I really couldn't get into it.

That said, it was an entertaining read. Action is never running low, and there's enough creepy imagery there to tide me over the next few months. But as far as characters go... it could've been better. It really could.

Note: Image via BookLikes.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Do real relationships exist in fiction?

The other day I caught up on Reading With a Vengeance (I know. I'm kinda buried under school work, if this blog has been any indication.) and a quote from Whitley's current chapter snark books stood out to me.

"Like you would have sex with someone like him. You and your OCD!"

- Real, Katy Evans, p.5, Paperback

If I wasn't sure the character had just casually thrown that word out, I'd be all over this book like honey on toast. An OCD heroine? Yes, please!

Actually, my reasons for being so stoked aren't so much to do with having more diversity in NA and YA (although there is  that too,) but mostly with Whitley's commentary:

Because…she’s a neat freak who doesn’t like stranger-germs?  Because her guys have to meet an exacting checklist?  Because she’s so particular about the steps leading up to sex that guys get frustrated and/or turned off?  Because she can’t stand to be spontaneous and sex has to worked into her schedule?

(And on that note: Why aren't you reading Whitley's blog yet?)

Other than opening up a thousand interesting possibilities about a story where a couple likes and accommodates each other, it really made me thing: What does YA/NA tell us about relationships, really? 

The truth is, most books I read are about the anticipation, the cat-and-mouse, the will-they-won't-they (spoiler alert: they usually will), the triumph of the first kiss. Another popular one is the couple getting together around the second act, and the rest of the book being spent in jealousy shenanigans and misunderstandings. But, off the top of my head, I can't really think of a book where a couple gets together and... is a couple.

What happens when partners are trying to decide what to listen to in the car? 

What happens when they need to split the bills or the householding chores?

What if one has a hobby/job which the other totally doesn't understand, and is actually prejudiced against? 

Despite what movies and novels will have us think, even people who are deeply in love disagree. Being your "other half" doesn't mean you will spend the rest of your lives in perfect harmony. 

And I kind of wish fiction reflected that more often, because come on, we set enough impossible standards on each other already, can't we fucking relax in a relationship? It's hard enough trying to be this close with someone without the constant pressure of being that person's perfect match hanging over your head. Anyone who reads chick lit knows, that never ends well. (Proof, once again, that Jennifer Weiner and Marian Keyes need to be taught in schools.)

Seriously, why do we think that negotiation and boundaries and deal breakers are only worth mentioning when we're discussing bad BDSM (hello, 50 Shades,) or when one or both partners have some sort of disability (if even.) Does everyone just throw away every last bit of baggage and personality they have once they get with someone and then adjust to whatever that person wants them to be? (Or is it just the women?) 

No, really. I want to know. The last book that gave me a modicum of answers was "The Art of Love," and that was nearly one year ago.