Friday, June 25, 2010

Friday Favorites: His Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare

Clary Fray is not the ordinary girl from Brooklyn that she thought she was. After happening upon what she thinks is a crime scene, Clary is introduced to the world of the Shadowhunters - the world she was born into without realizing it. Shadowhunters are the feared enforcers of law and order who ruthlessly hunt and destroy demons, and keep Downworlders - the supernatural creatures on earth - from preying on humans. None are more skilled at this than Jace, the cocky 17 year old Shadowhunter who delights in smashing heads and breaking hearts. Along with a slew of delightful secondary characters, Clary struggles to solve the mysteries of her past, her forbidden attraction to Jace, her place within this new world of violence, and the growing threat that could destroy Downworlders and Shadowhunters alike - the ex-Shadowhunter, Valentine.

This is a trilogy made up of The City of Bones, The City of Ashes and The City of Glass. I know these have been out for a while, but I just discovered them last year. I had seen them around before and I was like, "Ew the cover art is weird and cheesy," so I never thought about picking one up to read. Also, Stephanie Meyer has this huge endorsement on them and I was thinking that it seemed pathetic to use her name to sell more, which had the opposite effect on me than what the publisher was probably going for. That's what you get for judging by the cover I guess. But who am I kidding - I do it all the time and won't ever stop. And really, the art does His Mortal Instruments NO justice at all. Plus, I was kind of over all these supernatural YA books that are all the rage. But then a friend of mine, whose taste in books I admire, read and loved them so I swallowed my pride and decided to give them a try.

I love these books. They just have so much going for them. It's hard for me to admit my love because I feel like they're such a guilty pleasure, but really I think my snobbery is unfounded because C.Clare is a great writer. She weaves a spectacular blend of elements; a creative and intriguing mythology, fast-paced storytelling, dangerous adventures and dark secrets, love triangles and witty banter. It's like an ice cream sundae with all the works. One of my greatest purchases, and I've gotten some great deals in my lifetime of shopping, was getting the hardcover set last fall from Amazon for only $30 brand new. For ALL THREE. HARDCOVER. Oh Amazon how I love thee. . .

Anyway. I shied away from these because it seemed like the people raving over them were the crazed Twilight fanatics, though I hope that anyone who likes adventure and wit and just an all-around fun story will read them. Not all will like them though, and probably for a couple reasons. First, it is teen angst to the max. Which I very openly love because I find it excessively diverting when done well. And I think it's done well because 1) there's so many other components driving the story besides love, or the lack thereof; 2) the banter between all angsty characters is unrivaled in its hilarity; and 3) Jace. Jace is a love-him-or-hate-him character, and I adore him because he is all snark and Bad-A behavior. I read City of Bones and I was like, Jace is what I aim to be in life! Sans the boy part.

"Not everything is about you," Clary said furiously.

"Possibly," Jace said, "but you do have to admit that the majority of things are."

And that's just a TASTE of what comes out of Jace's mouth. For your enjoyment, here is another exchange that had me laughing as I read it:

Isabelle drifted over, Jace a pace behind her. She was wearing a long black dress with boots and an even longer cutaway coat of soft green velvet, the color of moss.

"I can't believe you did it!" she exclaimed. "How did you get Magnus to let Jace leave?"

"Traded him for Alec," Clary said.

Isabelle looked mildly alarmed. "Not permanently?"

"No," said Jace. "Just for a few hours. Unless I don't come back," he added thoughtfully. "In which case, maybe he does get to keep Alec. Think of it as a lease with an option to buy."

Isabelle looked dubious. "Mom and Dad won't be pleased if they find out."

"That you freed a possible criminal by trading away your brother to a warlock who looks like a gay Sonic the Hedgehog and dresses like the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?" Simon inquired. "No, probably not."

See? Brilliant.

The other reason these don't sit well with some is the revelation at the end of the City of Bones that thwarts the relationship between Clary and Jace. At first I was rather bothered, but of course things get resolved in the very end like all non-tragic epics. I figure that twist was thrown in to keep the tension tight throughout the series, which Clare succeeds in doing. And these books DO have this epic feel about them; not in the way that Harry Potter does but in a similar vein I think.
I wanted to review these because I got all three on audiobook and I've been listening to them the past week at work. The reader for City of Bones is Ari Graynor I think, and Natalie Moore for City of Ashes and City of Glass, though the differences aren't noticeable. In fact, I would have never noticed except that Natalie Moore did the Dairy Queen audiobook too so her voice was familiar to me. Of course I imagine some of the things the characters say (or yell) to sound differently than how they're read out loud, but otherwise the audiobooks are fantastic.

All in all His Mortal Instruments is highly recommended to anyone who likes YA and urban fantasy, or anyone willing to get off their high horse and give them a shot despite those things. Both my thumbs way way up.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Monster Blood Tattoo (The Foundling #1) by D.M. Cornish

Rossamund is an orphan, or foundling, and was found with a girls name pinned to his basket. He dreams of adventures and conquests on the high seas but is never chosen to join the navy like so many other foundlings were. When the time comes for him to leave the orphanage, he sets out to begin his new employment as Lamplighter under the Emperor of the Half-Continent. From the onset his journey does not go according to plan; he is beset by the dreaded monsters of the land, he somehow ends up on a ship with smugglers, and unexpectedly resumes his journey with Europe - the most feared monster slayer in the land.

Monster Blood Tattoo is . . . well it's just so many things. I had heard that this was one of those Really Popular Everywhere But The U.S. kinds of books, which I guess is true. I have multiple conflicting thoughts about this book though. I even have mixed feelings ABOUT my conflicting thoughts, so you can imagine how confused I am right now.

First, the title. It's a mouth full. And it sounds kind of stupid; like a compilation of a few words that sound exciting and dangerous and manly to appeal to youth who want a great rush of a read. Then I discovered that monster slayers get tattoos made from the blood of monsters they kill, so now the title makes a bit more sense. Though the concept is pretty foul.

Moving on to the story. At first I was like, Oh great - another book about an orphan kid who will be shoved into some magical realm and have Coming Of Age Adventures and discover that he really is Special yada yada yada. Which is partially true, actually. My problem is that the story never really picked up, nor was I ever totally sucked in. The pace seems to trudge along until it just ENDS. And it ends right where I initially thought his adventure was supposed to begin. And THEN the last third of the book, no joke, is glossary. Definitions of terms and explanations of creatures/places/events barely mentioned in the book. Incidentally, I love appendices and things so this turned out to be a nice surprise after my WTH? moment with the end.

Rossamund is a nice little hero, which I mean quite literally, as he is both kind-hearted and young. He certainly is no warrior, and to his own amazement finds that instead of reveling over the death of monsters like he was taught, he feels compassion and sympathy for them. People also feel at ease around Rossamund and seem to open up to him. His blend of goodness, determination, kindness and curiosity make for a refreshing young male character that I definitely want to root for.

The secondary characters, while intriguing and curious, seem half-formed. I'm guessing that it's because there's supposed to be mystery looming around them and what they know of Rossamund's origins. Still, I felt I didn't know anyone but Rossamund by the end. Europe, who is cold, moody and totally disagreeable, seems like she has potential to be complex and rife with baggage from her mysterious past. Guess I'll have to read The Lamplighter to find out.

Lastly, the setting. Let it not be said that I didn't give Cornish his due praise for the world he created; Half-Continent is incredible. Imagine ancient Greece/Carthage/China marrying Industrial Age London and having a surprisingly attractive baby called Half-Continent. Sounds overwhelming but it's a mish-mash that totally works and works well. There are all sorts of strange creatures and monsters and humans that are unique to this world, but it never feels overtly fantasy. It's more strange and almost steam-punk than anything.

His ability to use language is also impressive. He has creative made-up words and names, but he also manipulates the English language with skill and precision - all the while making it look effortless. (It wasn't effortless apparently, since according to the back flap Cornish was working on this for thirteen years.)

Conclusion: Monster Blood Tattoo rivals Tolkien's Middle Earth world with its in-depth fictional history, languages and cultures. The pictures (also done by the author) give nice visual flavor to the setting and characters. The audience is Juvenile/YA, as Rossamund is around fourteen, though it could possibly strain the attention span of that age audience. I would recommend it to anyone who liked Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings and likes detailed imagined worlds. It's unlike anything I've ever read before.

Book source: Local library.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Pish Posh by Ellen Potter

Clara has a gift. In mere seconds she can spot a Nobody in her family restaurant, Pish Posh, which is always full of Somebodies. She prides herself on this, though it doesn't endear her to others, but she doesn't need friends because most kids her age are stupid and will grow up to be Nobodies. Besides, she has glamorous parents, her own penthouse flat and 157 of the same little black dresses.

Things start to change though when she dismisses one particular Nobody from the restaurant, and sets off a chain of mysterious events which Clara, despite her excellent breeding and Should Know Betterness, can't stay away from. Strange encounters, family secrets, budding friendship and handy spy gear abound in this charming story of a Girl Who Has It All . . . Or Does She?

Pish Posh is light; lightly sweet, lightly adventurous, lightly humorous and lightly mysterious. I'm definitely going to have my 11 year old sister read it. Quirky characters, unexpected twists, and Life Lessons Sans Extremely Traumatic Events add up to a great Juvenile read. The writing, as expected, was simple and excellent. Ellen Potter how can I be you? I've taken the first step by requesting Spilling Ink from the library, but Patron X just REFUSES to return it so I continue to wait and wait . . .

Anyway. A delightful quick read, and now I'm on the hunt for the Olivia Kidney books.

Book source: Local library.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Word Nerd by Susin Nielsen

Ambrose is a 12 year old scrabble playing misfit with a deathly peanut allergy. He gets harassed at school by bullies and babied at home by his slightly overprotective mother. When his neighbors upstairs allow their newly-released-from-jail son, Cosmo, to move back in, an unlikely friendship begins.

You can't help but feel bad for Ambrose. Like, really bad. He wears purple cords, and Nike knock-offs called "Ikes". He tells his mom he got invited to a friend's birthday party at Laser Star, even though he didn't, just to make her happy and then subsequently spends the next three hours in the bathroom reading the book he brought as a present for his "friend."

Thankfully, my heart didn't bleed for long. He is quite resilient to his situation as a self-proclaimed friendless nerd. Also, he is pretty annoying. It's impressive that I can feel sympathy, endearment and annoyance in equal measure towards this character, which says good things about the writing.

And the writing is good. It's simple and concise with lovely anagrams underneath the title of each chapter (pat, chat, patch, tape, harp, heart, cap, eat). The relationship between Cosmo and Ambrose, as mentor and mentee, is funny and heartwarming. Their interaction beginning and revolving around Scrabble - genius.

Here's the thing - I wouldn't recommend it to any child or any mother of pre-teen children because I am prude and like my kid stories to be Teen Lit Trashy-Bits free. My problem lies with some of his young boy fascinations with female anatomy, which I know is real, but a bit crass nonetheless.

Word Nerd is cute and predictable with a nice sparkly feel-goodness at the end. Which I almost always enjoy.
Book Source: Local Library.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Iron King by Julia Kagawa

Meghan Chase has never fit in at her small-town high school, and now, on the eve of her 16th birthday, she discovers why. When her half brother is kidnapped, Meghan is drawn into a fantastical world she never imagined - the world of Faery, where anything you see may try to eat you, and Meghan is the daughter of the summer faery king. Now she will journey into the depths of Faery to face an unknown enemy . . . and beg the help of a winter prince who might as soon kill her as let her touch his icy heart. (Taken from the book description.)

First, let me start off by saying that I liked this book. Maybe it had something to do with the girl on the cover looking like Olivia from Fringe. I don't know. What I do know is that despite late nights reading this long after I should have gone to bed, I have a couple issues with it:

1. It's the first of a series. Ugh. Am I the only one who longs for the days of stand-alone novels? I think not.

2. The plot, storyline & characters are fairly unoriginal. Awkward But Pretty Teen Girl? Check. Discovery of a Secret World That Character ACTUALLY Belongs To? Check. Forbidden Romance That Will Somehow Work Out In The End? Check. The combination of all these "universal" elements is the fad right now though, so I guess I shouldn't whine too loudly since it's not like someone is twisting my arm to read such mind candy.

3. Some other reviewer pointed out that it's disappointing how many faerie books, of which there are many, have created their own mythology of the fey and how they behave. Count The Iron King as another one. It's jumped on the bandwagon of conniving, cold-hearted, anti-human faeries who are oversexed and only use the pretty humans for obscene play things. Then again, I'm no Expert On All Things Faerie so maybe that's how the mythology goes.

4. The characters are just so . . . typical. Look, I know there are only so many archetypes we have to choose from. The Misunderstood Beauty, the Strong But Silent Hero, the Charming and Witty Best Friend, the Sarcastic Talking Pet. I get it. But I feel like I keep reading the same story over and over again in these urban fantasies, only with different environments and names.

Meghan isn't terribly obnoxious, but she trips a lot (PLEASE in the name of all that is holy can we stop with the clumsy girl flaw already?!) and her logic/intelligence seems to leave her at crucial times. She makes some rash decisions and says some things she probably ends up regretting. Or at least I hope she would because I know I would. Some of the things these teen characters do and say is just so humiliating that I would probably throw myself off a cliff if I behaved the same way just to spare the world my histrionics. Anyway. I think Meghan maybe grows up a smidge by the end, but I hope to see more character growth in the next one.

That being said, there were some bits and pieces thrown in that I thought were a creative twist to a genre that has been beaten to death. I loved the incorporation of characters from A Midsummer Nights Dream. And I like the idea of Iron Fey, though I didn't like the execution of it. It was too Mediocre Juvenile Fiction. The Evil Mastermind was pretty blah. The Iron army was like something out of an animated Disney movie. Ya, that's right. Almost . . . cutesy. It gave me sudden flashbacks of the horrible Maximum Ride series by James Gag Me Patterson, so that might have something to do with it. Iron fey could just be so interesting and creepifying on a whole new level. Alas.

Kagawa also blends in elements of Alice in Wonderland, The Labyrinth (sans David Bowie, sadly) and some Celtic legend. Sometimes a little too thickly. There is a line between tipping your hat to greatness and piggy-backing on it like a leech, after all. There were some editorial mistakes as well. Thinking back on it now I wonder if this book was just too rushed, both the writing and the publishing. Much of these hang-ups could've been polished with careful editorial inspection. Sigh.

To sum up - it's fun, but nothing too special.

3 out of 5 stars for the author's attention to detail and entertainment factor.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Gentelmen by Michael Northrop

Micheal is not cool. It's hard to be taken seriously when your own parents don't spell your name right on the birth certificate. His friends Mixer, Tommy and Bones are also losers who are either ignored at school or instill fear in their fellow classmates. Mr. Haberman, their remedial English teacher who is Boring and Weird, is the only one who pays any attention to them and always refers to them as "gentlemen."But when one of the group members mysteriously goes missing, suspicion turns to Mr. Haberman as the boys search for clues and meanings from his class lectures and strange behavior.

First, can we take a second to admire the creepy factor of the cover? That boy is in a body bag. I know - AWESOME.

Right from the get go this story pulled me in. Micheal is a great narrator; he's simple and self-deprecating, but honest and clever. His voice is distinct and somewhat gritty but in a way that feels very age appropriate. Through his eyes we see the unfolding of some bizarre behavior coming from people who surround Micheal, and the author is able to convey this strangeness very simply and convincingly. He weaves in the story of Crime and Punishment, a book Micheal & Gang are studying in English, in a creative way that I quite enjoyed without actually copying the storyline from C&P. The story kept me guessing, right along with Micheal, and until the very end I had no idea how it would turn out.

It was a quick and enjoyable read, partially because it's so unlike other books I've read, and partially because Micheal was such a fascinating character to get to know. Two thumbs up!

Book source: Local library.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Slob by Ellen Potter

Owen Birbaum, age 12, is the fattest kid in school. His younger sister Caitlin, now called "Jeremy" after joining GWAB (Girls Who Are Boys) is much braver than he is. His oreos continue to disappear from his lunch bag despite his genius traps to ensnare the hand of the culprit. And worst of all, his gym teacher has made it his personal agenda to make Owen's life as humiliating and horrible as possible.

Thankfully, Owen is also brilliant. One IQ point below genius as a matter of fact. And now he's on a mission to solve some ongoing perplexing miseries. Like the continuing disappearance of his oreos, with the creepy new kid who may or may not carry a switchblade in his sock being the #1 suspect. And finally getting his machine "Nemesis" to piece together what happened on The Horrible Day that changed everything for him and his sister.

Slob is a Juvenile fiction book that delivers on every level: clever storytelling, unique characters, humor, and Life Lessons Learned. Owen is sometimes a sad character but never pathetic. His humor and big heart make him an ideal hero for this genre.

However. It's one of those For Kids But Also For Adults Who Like Books For Kids sorts of books, which makes it hard to categorize. It has this twinge of sadness running through it, but I think kids could relate to the Gym Teacher from Hell. And it IS really funny. A lot of Juvenile/YA books are crossovers that appeal to a wide audience, but this often confuses me because I'm not sure who to recommend it to. I'm not sure if I would have loved it as a kid the way I do as an adult.

The point is, you can't really fail with this one. So if you're tired of hormonal vampires and obnoxious love triangles and Serious Topics, this will be a breath of fresh air.

Book Source: Local Library.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Friday Favorites!

Lament by Maggie Stiefvater

Dierdre "Dee" Monaghan is shy, pretty and a singing/harp playing prodigy. She is also on the top of the Fey's Most Wanted List, which isn't a place you want to be. Dee has a burgeoning talent for seeing the supernatural, a frightening occurrence that begins happening in high frequency around the same time as the beautiful and mysterious Luke Dillon comes waltzing into her life. Dee quickly finds herself with a lot on her plate: She's unwillingly caught in the web of some dark cunning faeries. Freaky. She tries to maintain balance in her relationships, both family and her bestie, James, an utterly charming and snarky piper. Tres Annoying. Then, against her better judgment, she finds herself becoming infatuated with Luke who may or may not be lying/honest/protecting her/trying to kill her/good/sinster/human/merman. Okay, he's not a merman. But still. STRESSFUL.

Let's start with what first jumps out at us, shall we?

The cover shown at the top is my favorite of the two editions you can find in libraries and bookstores. Which isn't saying tons, but the cover with the sword? Come on. I felt the same when Finnikin of the Rock came out; I knew I wanted to read it but I also knew I never wanted to read anything with a sword on the cover. Since this book is aimed towards girls I'm thinking that the sword is NOT helping to sell it. Call it a hunch. Nothing about these covers gives any kind of feel for what you might find inside, but rather gives the illusion of chinsy writing and storytelling, which is a shame.

But let's move on to its true merits.

I love Maggie Stiefvater. She has a gift with words, using them lyrically to fit this story but utterly real to where it doesn't feel as if you're reading at all. Rarely does her writing come across stilted, forced or trite. I covet such talent. But I digress.

This is one of the ultimate paranormal romances, because while in many ways it's formulaic, the story and the characters are just excellent. Dee, though quiet and vulnerable, is smart and has an admirable strength. Luke, a flute player, has a Secret and is obviously tormented by it. Their connection is immediate and strong, though I felt it came on too fast to be genuine. Actually, truth be told, I found him stalkerish through the beginning. By the end though I was buying it hook, line and sinker. Both struggle to do what they judge to be right and best, not just what they want, which is rare to come across in any love story. Then compound that to their inexorable ties to The Fey, and you have the formula for why Stiefvater excels in Lament and the follow-up, Ballad.

This world of faerie is dark and strange. I found myself on occasion wanting to yell to Dee to JUST GET OUT OF THERE because I could just feel the creepiness wafting out of the faeries with their cruel beauty and cunning minds. Luke also has this other-worldly and enigmatic aura going for him, and you're never sure what his intentions are. I liked that I slowly pieced together his story, figuring him out at the same time as Dee. It made for a sometimes confusing beginning, but an engrossing end that I felt emotionally invested in. Just because I liked this particular love story though doesn't mean that others will. There are plenty out there who don't, and their complaints are valid. So take it for what it's worth.

Much like the songs Dee sings whilst strumming her harp, Lament is hauntingly beautiful because it weaves classic themes in such a unique style and setting. Trust and deception, sacrifice and selfishness, love and loss and redemption. Without giving any real spoilers let me warn that the ending is abrupt and surprising, and don't expect answers to all your questions. If you are a human who NEEDS resolution to every story, know that you aren't likely to find it. Ballad, known as the sequel and often said to be better than its predecessor, is NOT a sequel in the sense that it solves all the problems that began in Lament. Though I myself find some angst in Not Knowing Everything, it's totally worth it.

I give this book an A for plot, writing style, pace, characters and that pull-me-in-and-wring-me-out factor.