Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Year of the Beasts Review

The Year of the Beasts - Cecil Castellucci & Nate Powell



For those of you who have been sort of reluctant about getting into graphic novels, this may be a good segue. The main story is textual, however the end of each chapter is capped with a couple of comic pages. It's a fairly short book (175 pages) and because of this, the comic parts really help supplement the story and take it to a greater depth than it would have been on its own.

The main story is that of Tessa and her younger sister Lulu. As with most kids, they're eagerly awaiting summer, however what starts off as a trip to the carnival sours the entire summer for Tessa when her sister manages to snag the guy she's had her eye on. Tessa ends up pursuing a secrative relationship with the neighborhood "weird" kid, which is less fun because there's no bragging rights. Meanwhile, the comic pages follow an alternate story where Tessa (presumably) has turned into Medusa, along with a few other oddly-mythological students at the school.

At first I started off wondering exactly where these two threads were going, but they tie together nicely at the end and when the big climactic event occurs, everything falls into place and you see how the graphic novel represents the main story. Admittedly, the connections are fairly obvious once you get to the reveal, but this is a YA novel, and those tend to be lacking on the subtlety aspects.

As I said before, it is a short book, which worked well, however I don't feel like I had enough time to fully get into the characters and it's written in a sort of detached manner that gives the feeling you're viewing the events and characters from a distance, rather than being right in with them. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and as I mentioned, the comic aspect gives the book that extra level and helps to underscore the emotion. Although I didn't find myself fully inhabiting the story, as I tend to with longer books, the ending still hit me hard--be forewarned, it's a sad book.

3.5/5 Fancies.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Ender's Game Review

Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card



Yeah, so I jumped on this bandwagon pretttttty late.

So I'm flipping through Kirkus...or Library of those, and there's this advert for Ender's Game "A NEW MOTION PICTURE COMING NOVEMBER 2013" and I'm like "DAMMIT, I still haven't gotten around to reading it." So I promptly grabbed the library's copy because once the movie gets really hyped up (they've already re-released the books with movie-covers, ugh)  library copies are going to be scarcer and scarce.

Holy crap.

Why did I not read this sooner? Specifically, when I was in high school. Not that I didn't love it, because I absolutely did, but because this is JUST the sort of thing I would have DEVOURED as a teenager and if I could go back in time and give fifteen-year-old me one piece of advice it would be to go and read Ender's Game already.

So, for those who are like me and have somehow managed to bop through life ignorant of the 11-book saga that's been around longer than me, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin is a six-year-old genius who is whisked up to a Battle School in the sky where they train other child-geniuses, though none as genius as Ender, in the ways of strategy and tactics and less-than-friendly competition, via a series of increasingly difficult "games". All this is in an effort to train the next crop of brilliant commanders in hopes of finding one brilliant enough to defeat a dangerous alien race referred to only as "buggers", who nearly wiped out the human race and was only very narrowly defeated. Between this and Heinlein's Starship Troopers, you'd think giant bug aliens had a vendetta against us for some reason.

 I'm not sure if Ender's Game was considered a YA novel when it first came out...I know the YA genre wasn't quite the same as it was in the 80s as it is now, though I think that's when when the genre started to pick up...If anyone who has extensively studied the history of YA cares to comment, please do. Regardless, Card manages to achieve that balance of accessibility to young people with mature writing. Not that I'm bashing all teen novels that have come out recently, but you can definitely tell there's a stylistic gap between books written for teens and books written for adults. With Ender's Game, the tone and the language come off as more adult, while not necessarily being written at exclusively an adult level.

Plot-wise, the book is well-formed. And while it initially seems like your typical "us vs them", by the end, Card really elevated the story beyond the black and white, and introduced a vast gray area that adds greater depth to the idea of warfare. I suppose the only thing is that all the kids seem to talk like adults (or at least much older kids), but I suppose we can give a pass for that, seeing as they're supposed to be geniuses.

Admittedly, there are some things that didn't sit quite so well with me, such as this passing comment on women:
"A few girls. They don't often pass the tests to get in. Too many centuries of evolution are working against them." 
What the hell is that supposed mean? I'd say it's more like too many centuries of discrimination and social repression (Though it looks like they might be changing that in the film?).  But at least Petra and Valentine are pretty awesome characters.

Then there's Card's anti-gay thing, which doesn't reflect on the book so much as my opinion of Card  because as much as I want to respect him as a writer, it's really hard for me to respect bigots (and as a contemporary writer, you can't really use the "product of his times" defense). The important thing, I suppose, is that it doesn't really come out in the book (at least not to me, anyone think otherwise?).

 Overall, a really great read. I'll probably pick up the rest of the series at some point, but for now:
4.5/5 Fancies.

Read-a-Likes: Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

Monday, May 6, 2013

Summer of the Mariposas Review

Summer of the Mariposas - Guadalupe Garcia McCall



So I'm taking a Young Adult services class in the fall and figured I might as well start reading some YA books. I know I've previously mentioned my disdain for the genre in general, but I might possibly want to be a YA librarian, which means I'll have to read YA books, so now's the time to decide whether I can stomach it on a regular basis.

Well, mixed things about this book. Odilia is the eldest of the five Garza sisters who live near the Mexican border in Texas. When they discover a corpse in their swimming hole, they decide the logical thing to do is smuggle it into Mexico and return it to the family. Things take a fantastical turn as they encounter a good mix of Mexican folklore in witches, warlocks, el chupacabras, and demon-vampire owls, an Aztec goddess, and La Llorona.

First off, in the Land of Teenage Angst and Heterosexual Love-Triangles, it's nice and refreshing to find a book about five sisters and their interdependence on each other.The focus is very much on female relationships, between the sisters, between them and their grandmother, and between them and their mother. They are also guided by La Llorona and the Aztec goddess Tonantzin, both of which are shown (at least in the book) as maternal figures. So points for that.

Unfortunately, I wasn't terribly impressed. The idea felt a little forced, in that it's hard to believe that 5 teen and preteen girls find a corpse and their immediate thought is "Let's not only touch it, but carry it all the way into Mexico!" I'm pretty sure most people, particularly young people, see a corpse in the pool they've been swimming in, and their first thought is "I need to go take a 5-hour shower." Admittedly, Odilia, the oldest at 15-is, who's point of view it's told from, has her reservations and only agrees to the quest after La Llorona appears to her and explains that this is one of those divine test type things and she'd damn well better go (perhaps not in those words exactly). So, it's billed as a modern Mexican re-telling of the Odyssey, which is a bit of false advertising because it really isn't. At all. There's two fairly blatant references to the Odyssey (a possessive witch named Cecilia, and an androgynous, blind prophet named Teresita), and that's about it. I mean sure, it's a quest, but it's hardly a re-telling.

There was also a  lack of subtlety. They meet this prophet and she's all "These things will happen. Here is what to do about it." And then those exact things happen. And when a whole bunch of other mystical hoo-ha happens, we're given the explicit meaning behind everything. And sisters have this tendency to continually forget that they were told EXACTLY what was going to happen, and then act all surprised when it happened. Odilia appears to have some modicum of logic as she sort of figures things out first, but then her sister completely disregard any warnings she has. And maybe if that happened once, okay, they're all under 14, we can give them a break. But it continually happens. I mean, yeah, they're kids, but I really think that maybe after they've been violently attacked twice by some mythological creature, they might start to err on the side of caution--particularly if they were told about it in the first place.

Plot issues side, McCall does have some excellent, poetic passages. However, it occurs sporadically here while the brunt of the novel is unremarkable description and awkward teenage dialogue like
"'Oh boy, it's getting deep out there!' Velia said. 'What makes you think Mama knows anything about Tonantzin coming to save us? Because, I'll be honest, I didn't know what the heck was going on when the goddess showed up.'
'Whatever,' Juanita retorted..."
It's sort of hard for me to judge YA books because I'm not great at trying to frame it through my teenage-self (actually, I stopped reading YA while I was still a teenager, so I guess, pre-teen self?). I'm sure there are some teens who'll be welcome to the books expository nature. Plus, it's a quick enough read and it's a great introduction to Mexican/Aztec folklore for those who familiar with it. There is a glossary in the back of the Spanish words used throughout. And as I mentioned before, it's certainly a better alternative than the majority of the cookie-cutter paranormal/dystopian romances out there. 

3/5 Fancies.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Laika Review

Laika - Nick Abadzis



You ever get that feeling sometimes, where you really just need to cry, but for some reason you can't quite squeeze those tears out? Like, it's just been a real crappy week and you just need something to trigger that cathartic release? WELL, have I got the book for YOU!

So, history lesson! In 1957 the Soviet Union shoots a dog into orbit, thus becoming the first country to launch a living creature into orbit, right after being the first country to launch a non-living thing (Sputnik I) into orbit. Which is just one of the examples of the massive posturing fest that was the Cold War. Anyway, the dog, Laika as she's known in the US, and Kudryavka (Little Curly), as she's known in Russia, died about six-hours in to the launch, though that information wasn't released until around 2002. Sorry if that's a spoiler, but c'mon guys, this is history. I mean, even if you didn't already know the story,  the fact that it's a book about a dog should sort of be a tip off. Because if the dog's name is in the title of a book, it most likely won't be around at the end of the book.

Anyway, Laika is part history, part speculation on the kind of life Laika may have had leading up to her final odyssey. She's caught between the kindness and the cruelty of humans, and despite the abuse and neglect she receives, she never seems to lose her faith and her trust in us, which makes for a truly heart-rending ending.The story is meant to question the ethical quandary of the mission. On the one hand, at that stage in experimentation they really couldn't use people because people tend to rank higher than animals in our collective sense of morality (though, that depends on who you ask). On the other hand, one of the scientists responsible for the project did say,
"We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog." 
Have I mentioned this is a graphic novel? Because makes it about 10x sadder. It is a good choice of medium, as Abadzis is able to put a human, and canine, face on the subject matter, and Laika's death scene is handled with artistic care and sensitivity. Also, according to the Author's Note, the moon phases on specific dates are accurate to the day. Which is some pretty detail-oriented work there.

According to Amazon, this book is intended for ages 10 and up. I would say based on language and subject matter, it's probably more suited towards the older end of the middle-grade group. It's definitely a denser graphic novel, with a lot of text. As I mentioned, it does get pretty depressing, but then again, little kids are all sociopaths anyway. I don't know how else I could've watched The Land Before Time over and over without batting an eye back when I was a wee-one. 

Basically, it's very well done, but also sad, sad, sad, and sad. So, if you're not one for weeping uncontrollably, or if you're a vehement dog lover, you might want to stay away, though I suggest you steel yourself and pick it up anyway, because it's definitely a good read.

4/5 Fancies