Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Poison Diaries by Maryrose Wood



Jessamine Luxton is the daughter of an apothecary in 18th century Northumberland. Her life is like a dark fairytale: her father is cold and aloof, but he cures and heals the sick. She helps him with his work, however there is one place she isn't allowed to go: the locked garden where he keeps his poisons.

One day, her father receives a visitor who comes from a mental asylum. The man brings a boy named Weed with him, who he claims is crazy. He also claims that Weed somehow cured all of his patients (while making the townspeople surrounding the institution crazy), probably with some kind of poison. Since no crazies is bad for business, he foists weed on Jessamine's father.

It becomes immediately clear that Weed has a knowledge of herblore that probably surpasses even her father's, but despite pressing, Weed refuses to talk about his mysterious connection with plants. Being both attractive (beautiful green eyes, yo) and mysterious, it seems a given that he'll end up being a love interest--and he does, in spades.

I have to give THE POISON DIARIES props for how it approaches plants and medicine. Most of the YA I read is so superficial: it was great to happen upon a book that goes into some pretty damn thoughtful commentary on the relationship between poisons and medicines, and life and death. The writing was also gorgeous: spare but sometimes incredibly evocative. And there is magic in here, too.

I couldn't help but notice that The Duchess of Northumberland (Jane Percy) is listed as a co-author for this title. I thought that was the author/publisher being "cute", but then I looked up her Goodreads profile (she's listed as a Goodreads author) and I'm starting to think it's legit. Apparently the current Duchess has created a "poison garden" at Alwick castle (the castle where some of the Harry Potter films were done), for the purpose of educating the public about both the usefulness and the dangers of poisonous plants. So maybe she was a consultant for the book? If so, AWESOME.

Fans of Julie Kagawa and Maria V. Snyder will like this I think, and so will fans of TWILIGHT. It's reminiscent of many YA novelists but still manages to stand on its own.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski



I actually wanted to read this book because of the author's sister, Anne Decatur Danielewski, who is better known as the singer, Poe. I have her album Haunted, and was really impressed by her beautiful voice, the dark sound, and the fact that she overlaid some of her music with recordings of her father's lectures. The overall effect was something that did sound haunted.

Haunted was put together as a soundtrack for HOUSE OF LEAVES, and of course, when I heard that, I had to read the book, because surely the book to such a great soundtrack couldn't possibly be anything but amazing.

Here's the thing. HOUSE OF LEAVES is the type of book pseudo-intellectuals read to make themselves feel smart. Whether or not they understand it is of little consequence, although this is an accusation they will readily fling at dissenters ("did you even read the book? are you smart enough to get it?"). HOUSE OF LEAVES falls into the perfect place on the bell curve of hipsters: popular enough so that enough people--the "right" people--will recognize the title, but obscure enough that most of these assholes will be able to (correctly) introduce it with, "you probably haven't heard of it."

The book has a good premise at heart: a house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and likes to move around like the stairs at Hogwarts. Except the stairs at Hogwarts kind of had a perverted sense of humor, whereas this house is...evil. The Navidson family, who lived in the house, produced a documentary of their time spent living in it because the father and husband of the family oh so conveniently happened to be a photojournalist. The book is actually a meta-documentary of Navidson's documentary, which was written by a blind intellectual named Zampano.

When he dies, a slacker named Johnny Truant happens upon his work and takes it upon himself to transcribe his many handwritten notes and compile them all into the massive tome that HOUSE OF LEAVES purports to be. It's meta to the fourth power, and so emo-artsy that it makes you want to vomit up Deadjournal entries dating all the way back to 2004. Words are "censored" out. The word house appears in blue (regardless of the language), although, curiously, never the word "home." Minotaur and striked out words always appear in red. It is not uncommon for the author to suddenly start writing backwards, or upside-down, or in ways so that the text makes shapes on the page. Want to read in a big circle? No? How about a square filled with backwards text? How about one word per page? How about in triangles, or with words stamped over each other, or just nothing at all?

I get that this is supposed to be an experimental masterwork, but I've never liked the idea of giving someone a free pass just because they managed to churn out some weird-ass shit. Yes, the construction of the book is brilliant, and I think it's a great example of what's possible for books to accomplish in terms of atypical storytelling...and it would have been wonderful...if the actual story did not suck serious hairy balls. I don't know how you fuck up a story about a creepy haunted house and the insane drug addict chronicling the meta-documentary about it, but this author did.

I think part of the problem was Johnny Truant himself. He tells his own story through the copious use of footnotes (seriously--and I thought Terry Pratchett was bad), and these are written in a blocky typewriter font that was made even more painful to read by the fact that Truant's story is so tedious. All he does is do drugs and sleep with as many women as possible. Occasionally he'll have flashes of insane hallucinations, but then he'll shrug it off and go back to what he was doing before. All of his narratives sounded exactly the same and there are a lot of them.

As for the central story about the house itself...I feel like it lacked atmosphere. I was never more than a little creeped out at any given time, and that's because--again--the book is so focused on being weird! and novel! and quirky! that it often neglects to properly set the stage. Navidson and his family might as well have been a family of paper dolls for all the emotional investment I had in them. Part of what makes things scary is the fear that the characters you have come to sympathize with (because you see yourself in them) will come to a terrible end (it's your own death in effigy basically). I never got that sense with HOUSE OF LEAVES. It just wasn't scary, and nothing about it made sense.

1.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada



THE TOKYO ZODIAC MURDERS is one creepy story. It's about a murder by the same name that happened in pre-WWII Japan. The story opens with the last testament of a man named Umezawa, artist and psychopath, who wants to create the perfect woman...by chopping up the bodies of his daughters and nieces. Each of them possess different astrological signs which are, in turn, responsible for governing different parts of the body. This recombined whole, which he calls Azoth, will be the perfect woman.

However, things go wrong. Umezawa is killed, along with his wife, and all of the young women he planned on using for Azoth. Forty years later, and still nobody has been able to solve the mystery, which has elevated it to cult status in pop culture.

The story is narrated by Kazumi, a hapless but intelligent man who is forced to play Dr. Watson to his brilliant friend Kiyoshi's detective skills. After getting in trouble with the police for obtaining a piece of critical evidence under dubious means, they find themselves with a very scant timeline: just a week to solve the case. But Kiyoshi remains confident...

Whew.

This story was incredibly violent and fucked-up, especially that prologue. I have to say, though, that it hooks its claws into you and doesn't let go. The pacing of TTZM is also really well done. I loved the gradual unraveling of the mystery, and the reliance on clues to set the pace. Apparently, THE TOKYO ZODIAC MURDERS falls under the honkaku genre of mysteries in Japan, which means it focuses on...guess what...plotting and clues instead of deception and deus-ex-machinas.

Readers are encouraged to solve the mystery before the characters. In fact, Shimada includes two notes at climactic moments, urging you to solve the case because the clues are right there. It made me feel like Shimada was a Japanese Steve on an episode of Blue's Clues, urging me to FIND THE CLUE.

One of my friends warned me that the ending was a bit weird, and I'll definitely agree with that. It was. I didn't understand the motivation myself, but the plotting was genius. And who doesn't like a locked-room mystery? This was something straight out of the Crimson Room series...

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

How It's Done by Christine Kole MacLean



Grace grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home. Her dad quotes scripture at her daily, and even made her sign a celibacy contract. Growing up, she and her family went door to door trying to get converts. She is a sheltered girl with an oppressive father and doesn't know much about anything, let alone S-E-X.

One day, at a school assembly, she sees a guest lecturer from a nearby college named Michael. They lock eyes in the auditorium and it's attraction at first sight. It isn't long before their first kiss and then, their first time. Michael says he's in love with her. That he wants to marry her. It's everything that Grace ever wanted.

...Isn't it?

I'm trying to figure out where I stand with this book. It tried to combine so many tropes into one volume: the wild best friend, the rich girl fallen from grace, teen motherhood, abortions, religious nuts, student-teacher relationships, quirky pixie-dreamboys, mawwiage. I think I might have been able to tolerate some of them, but in an overwhelming melting pot like this? Maybe not.

Like others, I also didn't like Michael at all. He struck me as incredibly condescending and not very smart. Since he was a professor, I was hoping for more enlightening insights into the literature that he allegedly taught, but mostly he just quoted them and seemed to think that this made him brill. He was also very clueless. Telling Grace to "dress nice" for one of his parties and then getting mad that she didn't understand that this was code for "black-tie." Making condescending comments about how wine is an acquired taste (although what's this about chardonnay being strong-tasting? a chardonnay is no cabernet or a zinfandel). And then there's this incredibly bullshit about how it's okay to have sex without condoms because he can just pull out. Um...where did you get your doctorate again?

HOW IT'S DONE has some great points about unbalanced relationships, and I like how Grace struggled to find her footing with a man who was so clearly not her equal, and how Michael abused this inequality to his advantage. This was very realistic, and often isn't shown in books about student-teacher relationships, which often try to take the more romantic way out.

The problem was that there was just so much side drama. Especially Liv. I honestly did not see why Grace was friends with this girl. In the beginning she seemed cool, but then it all regressed into the "my best friend is a slut" stereotype that I hate so much. Liv was a terrible person by the end of the book, and all of her peripheral issues where just too...much. Plus, the way abortion is brought up in this book is incredibly vague. I'm guessing the author didn't want to offend anyone by taking a concrete stance, but the result just makes it awkward. Also: the dead baby exhibit. o.o

I probably would have rated this higher if I were in high school & still starry-eyed and naive. But now that I know how the world works (at least, a bit more than I did when I was eighteen), I can't give this a super high rating. It is well-written and has some interesting--even valuable--ideas, but as a whole, is incredibly flawed. I have no regrets about reading it, but I wouldn't read it again.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp



When I found out I'd gotten approved for THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS, I was excited. There have been a whole slew of books coming out this year dealing with serious, realistic issues for teens, and it's hard to get more serious than a school shooting. In addition to that, THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS (literally) boasts a lesbian relationship and people of color.

Here's the thing. Diversity is not a checklist. Incorporating people of different ethnicities and creeds does not grant you immunity from bad storytelling or bad characterization, and this book suffered from both.

Worse: it creates a very black and white viewing of school shootings. The shooter is an evil villain in every sense of the world. The victims are innocent, diverse, wonderful people.

Part of the reason school shootings are so terrifying is because we can't help but wonder, what could drive someone to kill their classmates? We want to make a line between them and us, because we don't want to look in the mirror and see a monster. I think school shootings are awful, but I also think that they are far more complex than this book made them seem.

For example, the school shooter in this book is a total asshole. He was never bullied--all of the negative attention he received was for terrible things that he did to other people. The "mean" actions of his so-called bullyers? Totally justified. In real life, it isn't so black and white. There are many subtle nuances to teen interaction, which is, by nature, shallow, cruel and superficial.

The school shooter in this book is a bigot. He's also possibly a rapist. The author does everything she possibly can to demonize him, without really providing a reason why he wants to murder everyone, apart from the fact that he's crazy, possessive, and a total dick.

Again, real life is more complicated than that. School shooters often suffer from mental illness. They feel isolated and alone. They often lack support groups. They feel as though they have nothing to lose. And yes, they are often bullied--or feel as though they have been bullied--either because of overt acts of cruelty or from being ignored/casually slighted. All that self-hate turns outwards, and their helplessness makes them furious, full of impotent rage that builds and builds...

Until, one day, they snap.

There are like ten different narrators in this book and they all have the same exact voice, regardless of ethnicity (the Latino dude occasionally sprinkles his narrative with easily recognizable Dora the Explorer vocabulary, like Abuela) or upbringing. Despite the seriousness of the topic, there was a striking lack of emotion. One of the narrators actually thinks about how he can use a "noble" act during the shooting to get a girl to go out with him. A blogger uses the incident to get more views for her blog. The lesbian couple keep going WE'RE LESBIANS! WE'RE IN LOVE! Over and OVER.

Whatever.

THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS was a huge disappointment. It took a serious topic and trivialized it, with a straw man villain and a cheap attempt at pandering to as many audiences as possible in an attempt to make up for weak storyline and poor writing. I know this is a debut, but man, it sucked.

1 out of 5 stars.

Recorder and Randsell Volume1 by Meme Higashiya



Atsumi is a high school girl who looks like she's ten. Atsushi is a ten-year-old who looks like he's in college. They're siblings, and they're total opposites. Get ready to laugh!

...or not.

Sometimes you read a book, and you just know it's going to offend people. RECORDER AND RANDSELL is one of those books. Their appearances raise some very uncomfortable issues, and this book goes about them in the wrong way.

Example 1: Atsushi has a little girlfriend in his class. When he walks around with her, he is repeatedly arrested by the police because they think he's an adult man making off with a child. The first time this happened, I laughed a little on the inside. I felt guilty about it, but I was amused. But then this happens 20 more times. (Seriously.)

Example 2: Atsushi has a very uncomfortable relationship with adult women. They all want to bang him--even though he's a child. His teacher, especially, often finds herself very flustered in his presence because of how attractive he is (*shudder*) and there are some unpleasant scenes involving the two of them in some...um...awkward moments that have her getting all hot and bothered.

First off, EW.

Second off, WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH U.

Example 3: Atsumi is often sexualized in the panels, which veers into the uncomfortable territory of school girl porn. There's one "cover art" scene featuring her and her brother. Atsushi is dressed up as santa and Atsushi is in the gift he's unwrapping--naked, except for some strategically placed ribbon.

Example 4: Atsushi is also sexualized. He is constantly taking off his shirt (to reveal a very muscular chest, of course), much to the dismay of the women around him. He has an unemployed neighbor who lends him clothes and at one point, he's dressed in a very low-cut shirt that reveals most of his chest, tight pants, and an ID necklace. Atsumi tells him to take it off because he looks "too good."

The sexualization and fetishization in this manga made me very uncomfortable, and so did the way that it made light of child sexual abuse and sexual predators.

Just in case all that weren't enough, RECORDER AND RANDSELL forces you to read the panels in an odd order: left to right, down from the leftmost panel, then up to the top right panel and down again. It gave me such a headache on my e-reader, scrolling up and down constantly.

I would not recommend this.

1 out of 5 stars.

1 out of 5 stars.

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas



Who thinks the idea of Cinderella retold with an assassin is a good idea? Okay, now who thinks it would be interesting to read about this same character, except instead of killing people, this assassin spends all her time smirking, insulting people, and describing her ball gowns, her reflection, how much she loves candy (especially suspicious candy left in her chamber), and how hott the prince and his captain of the guard are?

Are you still interested in this concept?

Yeah, me neither.

This was the hyped-up book of 2012. All my friends were reading it and it was receiving five star reviews left and right. And then they started trying to get me to read it. You'll love this! They said. It's got a strong female protagonist! they said. The love interests are amazing! They said. READ THIS BOOK! They said.

They lied.

They lied.

Celeana is one of the worst, most cliche female characters I have come across in a work of fiction. I am honestly surprised that this book has the critical acclaim that it does, because save for some decent writing and a handful of good ideas, it is mostly terrible. In fact, this book could just as easily be titled HOW TO WRITE A MARY SUE.

Seriously, Celeana "Perfect McSpecialton Snowflake" Sordothien is the textbook example of Mary Sue. She has all these abilities and amazing talents that are mostly told to us, not shown. And as I read on, I began to suspect that all this telling was meant to overcompensate for the fact that these abilities were often undermined by the character's own actions. She was a dunce.

Celeana is the worst assassin in the world. People can sneak up on her easily, and they do. Despite setting booby traps, people continue to surprise her--usually while she's sleeping. Her idea of a deadly weapon is to stick some pins into a bar of soap. She eats strange candy she finds in her chamber (one and a half pounds of it in one sitting--Lord help her if it really is poisoned). Her assassin cred mostly comes in the form of telling people, "I could have killed you in X amount of ways, but I didn't want to!" Never mind that this string of logic wouldn't fool a five-year-old, people seem to buy it.

No, the only thing that matters about Celeana is that she's pretty. And being pretty is enough to make everyone do what she wants, even though she's supposed to be a slave fighting for her freedom in a series of vicious tests. Instead, we get numerous descriptions of Celana's appearance (blonde, blue eyes, very pretty), her elaborate gowns (with elaborate descriptions), how hott Chaol and Dorian are (SO HOT! BUT SHE'S ABOVE SUCH THINGS! OBVIOUSLY! HA HA! HAHAHA!!!! NOT!), and how awesome books are! Yes, this one interest is intended to flesh Celeana out, to give her some depth meant to set her apart from other women--women like Kaltain, who are just as inspid and pretty, but who love men more than they love books and therefore are sluts! Evil sluts! Boooo!!!

Despite having such a toxic personality, she instantly befriends one of the visiting princesses, Nehemia. And for reasons that are never explained to my satisfaction, she can speak Nehemia's language fluently! (Mary Sues have talents and abilities that are super special, often with little to no reason except to make them super special. Case in point: Celeana also plays piano. Expertly. And does she play the piano broodingly where a love interest can happen upon her and gaze moonily? But of course! OF FUCKING COURSE. BECAUSE THIS IS WHAT MARY SUES DO).

She also ends up winning the hearts of not one, but two men! (Mary Sues are the center of pretty much all romantic drama and sexual tension.) What makes it especially icky is that these are men who think pretty lowly of women ordinarily. Dorian goes through women like socks, sleeping with them and flirting with them but never dating them seriously because I can't stomach the idea of marrying a woman inferior to me in mind and spirit. It would mean the death of my soul (202). What a dramatic douchebag he is. I bet he jerks off to John Mayer songs.

Don't try to sell him to me. He's pretty much just Adrian from the Vampire Academy series, except without the vulnerability. Except Dorian comes off as a bro who might put rohypnol in your tea.

Chaol is actually a character I could like, but he's also a stereotype. Classic tsundere, he's cold and aloof to Celeana because he must fight his attraction to her! Even though he isn't the type to do so, he is constantly giving her leave when he would probably kill other people for the same slights and insults. He gives her presents. And every single one of his POVs usually involves him mooning over how she seems so deep and feminine and pretty for such an evil, vicious assassin. Oh, and naturally he speculates over whether or not she's a virgin and if this is why Dorian is interested....

I think what upsets me most about this book is that, despite allegedly having a "strong female protagonist" Celeana has very little agency. Most of the things that she accomplishes in this story are accomplished for her by men or with the help of men. Because she's pretty. There is actually a very strong anti-woman theme in this book because there are only three female characters who get any airtime (I guess you could say four, technically, but I'm sticking with three): Nehemia, Celeana, and Kaltain. Nehmeia is interesting: a rebel leader, a woman of color, and a rather pragmatic woman, I would much rather read about her. But no, she's nothing more than an accessory to Celeana, something to dangle off her arm and make her seem more amazing by comparison.

And then there's Kaltain. Another interesting (but very flawed) female character who I also would have preferred to read about. Celeana slut-shames her ruthlessly, and gets Nehemia to do the same. In fact, there's a very anti-woman vibe in this book that is all the more uncomfortably for how easily it slides beneath one's awareness. Just check out this line:

"I hate women like that. They're so desperate for the attention of men that they'd willingly betray and harm members of their own sex. And we claim men cannot think with their brains! At least men are direct about it" (71).

And yet, Celeana does this, over and over again, and you could argue that in her case it's worse, because she's actually successful and this is shown in the book to be a meritorious thing.

And then there's this uncomfortable line:

She never had many friends, and the ones she had often disappointed her....She'd sworn never to trust girls again, especially girls with agendas and power of their own. Girls who would do ANYTHING do get what they wanted (92).

So now it's not just women who abuse other women for men are bad. No, now it's WOMEN WHO HAVE AGENDAS AND POWER are bad. What the actual fuck? Again, Celeana is a huge hypocrite because, again, that is exactly what she's doing. It's classic Mary Sue to have double-standards for your beloved characters and to have everyone take this as the status quo, but I'm not buying it.

THIS IS A SERIOUSLY PROBLEMATIC STATEMENT, AND I HATE IT.

This book had so much potential. But the actual championships are pretty much glossed over in favor of more Chaol/Celeana/Dorian airtime. The foreshadowing was weak, because there was so little writing devoted to it. And even though the romance is very tame, there are random incidences of violence casually thrown in with little context (for example, at one point, Celeana casually says that one of her fellow mines was raped and then killed. Lovely). THRONE OF GLASS is a bad book that needed editing, cutting, and rewrites. Then maybe, maybe, it could have been a good book. But hey, if you don't mind the idea of seeing an incompetent character navigate a bloated labyrinth of smirks, tepid romance, no action, and lots and lots of descriptions of food and dresses, be my guest.

Now where did I put my aspirin...

1 out of 5 stars.