Review of “Sea of Shadows” by Kelley Armstrong

Ordinarily I don’t like fantasy, unless the author is Maggie Stiefvater, Melina Marchetta, or Kelley Armstrong. They know how to make stories so good, you forget you decided not to like fantasy.

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Moria and Ashyn are 16-year-old twins in the village of Edgewood, which abuts The Forest of the Dead, a place thick with spiritual energy from the dead criminals who have been exiled there. Moria and Ashyn have been born with the ability to communicate with spirits, and thus Moria has become a “Keeper” and Ashyn is a “Seeker,” one of four such pairs of specially endowed twins in the Empire. Ancestral Spirits guide and direct them.

The main role of the Keeper and Seeker is to contact the angry spirits of the exiles each year on the night where the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest, in order to help bring them rest and peace. Each of the girls is aided by a special beast. Moria has a Daigo, a wildcat, and Ashyn has Tova, a hound. It is thought that the spirits of former warriors reside in the beasts.

Moira and Ashyn were not allowed to perform their duties until they turned sixteen, but now it is time. Ashyn is nervous, but Moria assures her it will be fine:

Nothing ever goes wrong, Ash. If it did, we’d hear the stories. The only thing people love more than a good story is a bad one. Tales of tragedy and woe and bloody entrails, strung like ribbons, decorating the battlefields.”

But this time, something does go very wrong, and the consequences are catastrophic for the village. The girls must travel to the Capital to seek help.

Moria, unable to find Ashyn, heads out to appeal to the Emperor, accompanied by the warrior Gavril Kitsune. Ashyn also travels to the Capital, along with Ronan, an exiled criminal who miraculously has survived The Forest of the Dead. The dangers for the four of them are severe, and it is not clear who among them will survive their mission.

Discussion: Kelley Armstrong creates great characters. They are multi-dimensional and – I know this sounds trite, but the females are brave yet vulnerable, and the males strong yet tender. (You’d think this would presage a lot of ear tucks, but there was nary a one. There was, however, a great scene in which one of the boys braids the hair of one of the girls.)

The twins are devoted to each other and connected to one another in many ways, and yet they are quite distinct personalities. Each is appealing in her own way, and each has very distinctive insecurities and defenses.

The underlying conceit – that the scary stories told by Moria to entertain the kids of her village come true through sorcery, is cleverly done, and inspires some entertaining conversation among the characters on what is real, what is superstition, and what can never be known.

Kelley adopts some standard YA tropes, but she manages to make them fresh and entertaining. More importantly, she also invokes the eternally entertaining themes of great epic sagas – characters both heroic and tragic, a battle of huge proportions, and a difficult quest with life-threatening struggles requiring extraordinary feats of bravery and prowess.

Evaluation: I think I may be biased in favor of works by Kelley Armstrong because it seems we share the same notions about what characters should be like; what constitutes dialogue that is both entertaining and realistic; and what makes a story memorable. (Too bad only one of us can write, and it isn’t I.) I enjoyed this a great deal, but be aware, it is only the first of a series.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by HarperCollins, 2014

Let’s Hear It For the “Baby Girls”: Review of “Tease” by Sophie Jordan and “Torn” by K. A. Robinson

Both of these books fall into the “New Adult” category. Both feature gorgeous college-aged protagonists who dress slutty, drink too much, and dance provocatively with total strangers, while simultaneously maintaining they can take care of themselves and know how to control themselves. Both of course are nearly raped. And both are rescued by the Seemingly-Bad-But-Actually-Good hot guys who want them.

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But the thrust (so to speak) of these books is not to interrogate the appeal of “bad boys,” nor to expose the problems of the “she asked for it” premise. Rather, it is to make hay (so to speak) with these conceits, and appeal to/reinforce stereotypes of erotic desire:

1. A Byronic hero – mysterious and tortured past, magnetic, sexually irresistible, strong (yet gentle), attractive, cynical, with a smile that is “wicked” or “devilish” or “crooked” and looks that are “intense” or “smoldering.”
2. The hero is attractive to all women, but conquered by none of them – until, that is, he encounters our heroine.
3. The hero is physically bigger than the heroine, making her feel protected and “dominated” (it helps, as in these two books, when the guy refers to the girl as “baby.”)
4. Sexual turn-ons have evolved to feature orgasms for women, but what would they be without pleasure through pain?

But let’s get back to the “she asked for it problem.” On the one hand, you have our heroines maintaining, as does Emerson, in Tease:

…I never lost control. I just made it look like I did – hooking up with different guys every week – but I was always fully cognizant of my actions.”

At the same time, “The only thing that made me feel any better was slamming back a few shots and wrapping myself around a guy who knew what to do with his lips – and it wasn’t talk.”

[Okay, trite writing, perhaps, but it was a bit better than the writing in Torn, which, ironically, I enjoyed because it took me back to the very long ago days of sneaking issues of the incredibly poorly written magazine “True Confessions” and reading them behind my closed bedroom door.]

When both girls get into trouble, as mentioned above, they are rescued by their bad boys, but the authors don’t have the characters reflect on what happened to them and why. The point seems to have been to give the heroes the opportunity (a) to rescue the girls and (b) to show their secret gentlemanly natures. None of the characters had any interest in discussing what happens to women who want to express their sexuality; or whether these expressions were a function of their own identities or merely a reflection of the male definition of what women should be; and why being “sexually appealing” was the goal to which these girls aspired. Also, while both authors clearly made the would-be rapists out to be villains (but mainly to serve as foils to the good bad boys), the victims seemed to be blamed for their “provocative” behavior. This of course to a large extent exonerates the perpetrators, or at the very least, takes the focus off of them and their predatory behavior and relocates it onto the females and their behavior. The message is loud and clear: girls act “slutty”; guys are just “guys.” They can’t help it! So girls, if something bad happens, you know whose fault it is!

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[It should also be noted that Janice Radway, Professor of Gender Studies at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences who studied the appeal of romance writing, found that "the romance readers in her sample group considered the depiction of rape only slightly less objectionable than a sad ending."]

Then there is the girl-should-be-smaller-than-guy issue. Take this passage from Tease:

He came down over me on the bed. I felt small and delicate as he kissed his way down my body. He was so much bigger than me, hard and muscled, and I felt fragile. Cherished. Loved.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. That sentence above should have read: “He was so much bigger than I….” No, not what you’re thinking? Maybe you were thinking that associating “smallness” of females vis-a-vis males with eroticism might lead to eating disorders among women, or preying upon younger and younger girls by men, or that the whole concept of sexual dominance and submission might lead to the adoption or at least acceptance by women of lesser economic, social and political influence in order to facilitate and/or enhance sexual attractiveness. Or, of course, maybe you were just thinking about the grammar issues.

Just in case we somehow miss the idea of the female needing to be taken care of by the male, the girls are repeatedly referred to as “baby.” For example, in Tease, the bad boy Shaw makes Emerson beg for penetration, commanding, “Tell me, baby.” In Torn, Logan (one of Chloe’s two lovers (well, she’s “torn,” after all), keeps calling Chloe “Baby Girl.” Drake, her other lover, also calls her baby, as with his insistence that she “come for me baby.”

[Why is Chloe “torn”? Well, Logan is “so gentle and caring,” but we know what that means, right? DULL. Drake, on the other hand, is all “raw passion and danger.” We like that danger, don’t we, baby girls?]

From Victoria's Secret website

From Victoria’s Secret website

And finally, there’s that matter of pain. First of all, both girls drive their men to ecstasy by being “so f-ing tight.” Or, perhaps it’s just that the heroes are so f-ing HUGE. But it’s that roughness of sex with a guy who can’t hold back with the heroine that generates pain that becomes pleasure:

Without me asking, he felt my need growing and drove deeper, harder. I shattered underneath him as he continued to pound into me to the point where pleasure was mixed with pain. It was the most amazing pain I had ever felt.”

Yes, there’s a problem with grammar in that passage too (it should have read: “without my asking”). But the point is, baby girls, if he hurts you, that just means he is so wild for you he can’t help himself, and that’s a good thing! The thrill of possession and protection may entail pain, but it’s a pleasing pain, right? Get to love it!

Evaluation: Well, the writing in these books is less than inspirational, but it was pretty fun reading for an airplane, where fun can be in short supply. Both of these books are just the beginning of series… If I had to pick one series over the other, I’d go with Tease. While there were a bit too many references to the hero’s “eight pack abs,” hard arms, and huge hands (not to mention huge other parts), the writing is a bit better. A couple passages in Torn drove me over the edge (but not in the same sense that Drake drove Chloe over the edge) – the “best” [sic] being when Chloe, in her tiny shorts, was bending over the oven to take out the dinner she made for Drake, much to his admiration. Holy Confluence of Male Fantasies!

Rating: 2.5/5

Tease is published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014

Torn is published by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2013

Kid Lit Review of “Please, Louise” by Toni Morrison & Slade Morrison

One comes to this book with high expectations given the mother/son author team combined with the wonderful artistic talents of illustrator Shadra Strickland. It was only the illustrations, however, that didn’t disappoint me.

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Louise is a little girl who gets some advice from an unnamed adult, who assures her that “If you are sometimes lonely or sometimes sad, know that the world is big but not so bad.” Louise may be frightened, but “Scary thoughts are your creation when you have no information.”

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Louise is directed to a place she can count on to find out about the world – the public library: “Here is shelter from any storm. In this place you are never alone. These books are loyal friends, helping you explore, dream, discover, think, learn, and know much, much more.”

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Louise leaves the library with a wagon full of books and she is smiling:

Fear and sadness – where did they go?
Louise doesn’t care. Louise doesn’t know.”

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Evaluation: I found the quality of the verse to be very disappointing. In addition, the message conveyed won’t please all parents, who might like their children to exercise caution when they don’t know if, for example, a dog or a person on the street or an abandoned car or house – all of which Louise passes by on her journey – may in fact represent dangers that should not be explored. But the watercolor-and-gouache paintings by Shadra Strickland are adorable.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2014

Review of “How To Tell Toledo From the Night Sky” by Lydia Netzer

Irene Sparks and George Dermont were born on the very same day in the same hospital in Toledo. But life sent them in different directions, and when they meet, 29 years later, each recognizes a soulmate immediately; for both of them, it is as if the universe seems somehow re-aligned.

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Both Irene and George are scientists, and as the story begins, Irene has just transferred to the (fictional) Toledo Institute of Astronomy, where George is teaching. They find they have radically different orientations toward epistemology. Irene is a strict empiricist, but George sees the gods everywhere he looks. Literally, in fact. Irene doesn’t need gods and myth to overcome the cruelty of chaos – she has math.

The Institute of Astronomy is an interesting place in that it draws astrologers as much as it draws astronomers. Both of course are interested in understanding the stars, and the disciplines, historically intertwined, are drawing together again at the Institute, which is witnessing a rebirth of the art and science of astrology:

There is no evidence or proof of the legitimacy of any theories or principles of astrology. There is no reason to believe that stars and planets or their movement could have any influence whatsoever on the lives of human beings or the countries of the earth. Neither is there any empirical evidence to show that true love is anything but a construct created by humans to solidify a family unit based on monogamy and a strong, diverse lineage for the species. No evidence of any true god. And yet we watch the stars, we fall in love, we pray. … ”

Irene insists that there is no such thing as love. And yet, she, who has spent her life trying not to fall into the black hole of despair, starts to suspect that it is only love that keeps us from death. So what if it isn’t real? So what if there is no such thing as fate? As George says to Irene, love doesn’t have to be true to be real. There is nothing else to say about it when it happens; it’s done. But convincing Irene is another matter.

Discussion: This novel is very well written, with passages that call out “Iowa Writer’s Workshop” for their craftmanship. [To my knowledge, however, the author is not an alumna of that particular program.] It begins with a cinematic zoom-in and ends with a cinematic fade-out, very reminiscent of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” And like that story, it is a tale of love that was meant to be – and in fact, coincidentally, the male protagonist is even named George.

But there are many more layers in this story. The author has a marvelous eye for the idiosyncratic nature of the human condition. Both George and Irene have what can most charitably be described as “quirky” parents. Both have been raised steeped in poetic allusion, and indeed, like the book Lighthouse Island by Paulette Jiles, there are quite a few references to poems in the text that will go unnoticed by those unfamiliar with Yeats or Blake or Eliot. (Interestingly, both Jiles and Netzer not only interpolate the same poets into their narratives, but also both adapt the famous romantic conceit from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, in this case, when Irene remarks upon “some force pulling her ribs to his, her internal organs to his.”) The literary excerpts and adaptations are juxtaposed with a myriad of scientific analogies, forming a lovely complement and interdisciplinary amalgamation, much as the Toledo Institute includes both astronomers and astrologers in its its star-studded halls.

Evaluation: This melding of science and magic thematic elements is full of intelligent, thought-provoking meditations on the nature of knowing and the nature of love, and some exceptionally good writing.

Rating: 4/5

Published by St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan, 2014

Review of “Deep Blue” by Jennifer Donnelly

This is the first in a series of four planned books about six mermaids who are trying to protect their hidden world from a monster which could destroy them all. There is a glossary in the back of this book, and believe me, you will need it.

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Serafina lives in the Adriatic Sea, and like other merpeople, is a descendant of the original mer who came from the ruins of Atlantis 4,000 years before. She has just turned sixteen, and as the daughter of the ruler of her people, is required to take a test to confirm her heritage, as well as to become betrothed to 18-year-old Mahdi, the crown prince of the mers from the Indian Ocean.

The night before the ceremony however, Sera has a dream that seems almost real, with river witches calling out to her and five others – each from a different kingdom of the seas – to help combat an ancient monster about to come to life. The next day, during her ceremony, the kingdom is attacked, with Sera and her best friend Neela among the only ones to escape alive. They begin to realize that the dream (which Neela also had) wasn’t make-believe, and that they must find the sea witches to understand how to save themselves and the world of the mer.

Discussion: The world-building in this book is extensive, but delivered in an awful, unrealistic info dump at the beginning of the book, or, as this writing style is often referred to, an “Introdump.” Characters swim up to Serafina and start expounding on backstory she would already know, such as the nature and history of the realm and the ceremony she is about to undergo. Sera responds to the other characters by adding to the info dump process in dialogue that would be absurd in real life between people who already know one another. Sera also receives a couple of lectures to fill in the rest (“As you know, Serafina….”)

Seraphina has "copper hair" just like Ariel from The Little Mermaid ... just sayin

Seraphina has “copper hair” just like Ariel from The Little Mermaid … just sayin

Meanwhile, the mer world is described in what clearly sounds like screenwriting tips for an animation crew (especially because much of it would be too ridiculous for an adult movie). The characters sleep in scallop shells, sip sargasso tea and eat hors d’oeuvres of sea urchin or keel worms or salted crab eggs, listen to books on conch shells, and kiss anemones to get pouty, tentacle-stung lips. Travelers use sea elephants to carry their trunks, ceremonies are heralded by guards beating on bass drums made from giant clamshells, and partiers go to “all-night waves.” In more serious moments, they worry about terragoggs (or humans) who are destroying the oceans by overfishing and dumping garbage in the sea.

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Donnelly, who has created such strong characters in her other books, here seems focused too much on creating her Disney-cartoon like world, and both the characterization and writing suffer greatly.

Evaluation: Jennifer Donnelly has penned such consistently excellent work that it was hard for me to believe this was really her writing. I’m hoping it’s just a fluke, so to speak… [Fluke: type of flounder, or part of a whale tail, or part of an anchor. Triple sea-related entendre!]

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Disney-Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group, 2014

Review of “Ribbons For Their Hair” by Estelle Chasen

This story goes back and forth in time between 1945 and 2006, and concerns two missing children, both with similar names (Adena in 1945 and Adina in 2006). It begins in 2006 in Israel, when the female police Inspector Yardena Halpert, 26, is given her first major case; she is put in charge (much to the chagrin of her male colleague) of finding out what happened to a missing three-year-old girl. Adina lives in a broken home with her mother, and there is a custody dispute, so the father is the most obvious suspect.

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The 1945 story takes place in Greece, in Salonika (a coastal city in the northern Greece today called Thessaloniki). Before the Holocaust, Salonika had a Jewish community of about 60,000. These were Sephardic (more or less Spanish) Jews who had immigrated to Greece following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. During World War II, the Nazis occupied Greece and exterminated most of the Jews. Survivors who came back after the war were not welcomed. Today, only some 1200 Jews live in the city, yet it is still the second largest Jewish community in Greece.

Much of this story is told as part of the 1945 plot line in which Marco Levi is searching for his daughter Adena, who was taken in by nuns and renamed Maria Sava.

The stories are of course connected, and the book ends with an Epilogue from 2007, in which all the plot strands are tied together.

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Discussion: The prose in this story is a bit awkward, but I do not know if that is because of differences in the way the various cultures express thoughts, or translation issues, or just a result of a writer not evincing as much skill with dialogue as other writers. There was also a case of InstaLove that didn’t seem too persuasive. Nevertheless, the story has a lot of good elements. It was so interesting to see how a female detective would be treated in a country in which the place of women is not as well accepted as it is the U.S., and how the detectives had to be aware of, and careful to cater to, the religious sensibilities of the suspects and witnesses. It was also very informative to read about the situation in Greece both before and after World War II.

Evaluation: This book is not without some faults in terms of quality of prose, but has so much to offer in terms of cultural and historical enlightenment that I feel it is worth reading.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Gefen Publishing House, 2010

Review of “The Last Days of California” by Mary Miller

I was not much taken with this coming of age story. It takes place during a short family road trip in which two teenaged girls try to figure out who they should be while transiting through a world full of lies and hypocrisy (expressed most clearly by their parents, and reified further by their family road trip encounters with chain stores, unhealthy fast food products, Cosmopolitan Magazine, and the Bible).

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Jessica (“Jess”) Metcalf is the 15-year-old narrator who is our Beatrice through this tour of Hell – or a “pilgrimage” according to her father – the goal of which is to get to California in time for the allegedly imminent Second Coming of Jesus. As they traverse the physically and spiritually desiccated landscape driving west from Alabama, they hand out religious pamphlets in order to help save more souls (but not too many, or they won’t be special).

The parents are so wrapped up in their own mesh of lies to themselves and others that they basically pay little attention to their daughters, unaware, for example, that Elise, the 17-year-old, is pregnant. Nor do they hardly ever notice when the girls pick up guys at their motel stops, experimenting with drinking and sex throughout the night. (The girls were made to attend a “purity” ceremony four years earlier, and the parents assumed the sex issue was therefore moot.)

This very dysfunctional family never quite makes it to California. The father, who has lost his job and has a gambling problem, stops at a casino/hotel in Phoenix instead. They miss the scheduled End of Days (which in any event, does not arrive), but at least the two daughters have bettered their relationship with one another.

Discussion: In terms of “coming of age,” nothing much happens for Jess except for being introduced to the world of sex with strangers. This actually – it seemed to me, only made matters worse for her, since she confesses she doesn’t know how to define herself if she isn’t “the good daughter” in contrast to Elise.

In spite of spending time in various rings of hell including encounters with boys intent on date rape, clerical sex abuse, and a fatal road accident they witness close up, in the end, no one has learned anything, and no one discusses anything. Issues such as the parents’ emotional problems, or what will happen to the life they have built around their supposed fundamentalist convictions- now shown to be riven with holes – are simply ignored. Jess’s ongoing obsession with her looks (“Boys liked it when you were starving”) goes unaddressed. These and other “weighty” issues are just thrown away like the detritus of the road trip, along with the empty M&M bags and Burger King wrappers.

Evaluation: While I wasn’t bowled over by this book, it has received some critical acclaim.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2014

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