Thursday, March 27, 2014

#19 [2014/CBR5] "How the Marquess Was Won" by Julie Anne Long

I'm not sure if it was my mood or the unusually long gap between romance novels, but I really, really liked How the Marquess Was Won (2011) by Julie Anne Long. After almost giving up on Long entirely because of some extreme typo issues, she's become one of my favorite historical romance novelists. I already have a couple more of hers on my kindle, which I'm saving for my vacation. Now, there were some major typo issues in this book as well, but it wasn't nearly as bad as some of Long's books. Fortunately, Long had better editors for the beginning of the book, so I was good and into it before I started getting distracted by nonsense sentences.

Phoebe Vale was on orphan on the streets of London. She managed, with some luck, to pull herself up by her bootstraps and become a respected teacher at a girl's school outside of the city. While chaperoning for a past student at a house party, Phoebe gets to know Julian Spencer, the Marquess Dryden. The two immediately find a connection, but their drastically different social standings keep Phoebe from ever being a real romantic possibility in Dryden's mind. Instead, Dryden is at the party to woo and marry Phoebe's student.

This plot set up isn't something I would normally jump all over. Poor Phoebe seems to be at a huge disadvantage, and there doesn't sound like there's much action or adventure. Which is true, but I still really liked this book. First, I liked the dialogue and tension between the two characters. They really seemed to have a common understanding and connect on a deeper level than just physical attraction. I also liked that the attraction and physicality came slowly, as they got to know each other. The simple act of Dryden starting to take off his jacket and stopping in the courtyard almost killed me and was so much better than an unrealistic, smoldering kiss between strangers. I also really appreciated the comedy and the fact that Long was willing to make her hero look ridiculous. Dryden ends up crawling on his stomach through bushes and falling to his knees on the dance floor. The two funniest scenes that come to mind were when Dryden and Phoebe are almost found in the clearing and Dryden dealing with Phoebe's cat. The cat scene was especially funny and had the added bonus of being emotionally meaningful. I loved it.

There were a couple things that kept this book from being perfect for me. I've already whined about the typos, but I figured I'd reiterate it just in case Long's publishing team is looking to hire a new editor. Every once in a while Long would throw something in that didn't fit or didn't seem right. For instance, Long made it clear that Phoebe had run out of time and had not been able to fetch her shawl, but the next page, Phoebe wrapped her shawl around her shoulders. More major issues included statements such as, "If the Ton finds out, she'll be ruined." But Phoebe is a school teacher and was never going to be accepted by the Ton anyway. That's the reason Dryden can't be with her. Why would that suddenly be an issue? Finally, I wasn't sold on their first sex scene. The build up of their relationship was wonderful, but then I was left thinking, "huh," near the end. Anyway, the positives more than made up for these minor issues I had. This was a funny, romantic read that I enjoyed more than I was expecting.

#18 [2014/CBR5] "The Giver" by Lois Lowry

The Giver (1993) by Lois Lowry is by all accounts an excellent book. It won the Newbery Medal in 1994, and there are many reviews and comments on Cannonball dedicated to singing its praises. Now, I thought this was a good book, but something kept me from really feeling involved with the characters and the story. At first, I thought I'd been reading too many young-adult novels and was getting burned out (which was probably true), but I think there's more to it.

The Giver follows the story of Jonas as he turns twelve years old in a world that has abolished pain and misery in exchange for shallow emotions, lack of knowledge, and lack of brilliance. This new world also has stifling rules that force equality and serenity. Jonas is chosen to be the next keeper of society's memories. As Jonas works with the previous keeper and learns more about his world and what he's missing, his perception changes. In the end, Jonas must decide whether to conform to the life he grew up in or reject it for hopefully something more.

The ability to avoid pain and misery seems wonderful at first. But what would you be willing to give up to avoid pain and misery: love, self determination, family, choice? It's an interesting question and encourages the reader to to think about the world in a different way. The theme reminded me a bit of the line from Six Feet Under when Peter Krause said something along the lines of: people die so we can appreciate life. Unfortunately in real life, in order to feel the good stuff, you have to feel the bad stuff, too.

I liked Jonas, I liked the story, and I liked some of the questions it brought to mind. The main problem I had was that I kept getting distracted by the details. I felt the questions brought up were mainly philosophical in nature and not particularly realistic. What freaked me out so much when I read The Handmaid's Tale is that I could almost see it happening in real life. Lowry's world, on the other hand, was more difficult to understand and contained many more unanswered questions. How did this world come about? Why was Jonas able to see color before his training? Why would memories stick with one person and travel the way they do? Wouldn't families start caring about each other after such close proximity, or were emotions bred out of them? ***SPOILER*** Why would that world not want twins? Isn't killing a healthy baby worse than having two people that look alike? It turns out that important people in Jonas's life are actually killers (his parents, his red-headed girlfriend--once she gets her job), why do they accept this without major issue? Again, have their emotions been bred out of them or is it fear of retaliation? Was it only knowledge that made Jonas different or something else? His eye color? Without understanding this and with the more mystical elements of magical memories transferred by touch and death, I never felt too attached.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

#17 [2014/CBR5] "Orphan Train" by Christina Baker Kline

The orphan train movement "transported a reported two hundred thousand children from the East Coast to the Midwest between 1854 and 1929." (273)

Somewhere, at some point, I heard about Orphan Train (2013) by Christina Baker Kline and I apparently decided it should be on my reading list. For reasons I cannot remember, I thought that this book was about shipping children from London to the countryside during World War II. I'm not sure if I'm confusing it with another book, or if I just never really looked at the synopsis. Anyway, I started suspecting I was wrong as soon as I saw the locations listed in the chapters. And once I started reading, it finally dawned on me that I had no idea what I was reading.

The Orphan Train describes the intersecting lives of two young women living in Maine, one born in the early 20th Century and one coming of age in the present day. Molly is seventeen years old and has been bounced from foster home to foster home ever since her father was killed and her mother was incarcerated. Vivian is a 91-year-old widow living in a grand house. Vivien was a first generation Irish immigrant when she was orphaned and lost her family after a fire. Shortly thereafter, Vivian was sent West on a train to be adopted. Both characters have obvious parallels in their lives despite their great, current differences in age and situation.

I really enjoyed reading this book. About five pages in and I was desperately involved in the outcome of Molly's and Vivien's lives. Maybe I'm just a sucker for intelligent, vulnerable, and spunky children, but I always wished for the best for them. I never got bored and there was more than enough suspense built into their situations. The outrage at seeing how some people could treat children also kept me reading.

My only complaint would be that it felt like all the "bad" foster and adoptive homes involved a mean, catty woman, and a nicer but weak-willed husband who couldn't stand up to his wife. This ended up being a little repetitive. There must be a wide array of bad foster homes to choose from if you're really looking. And if you think too hard about the plot, it all seems to fit in together a little too nicely. But it's still definitely worth reading.

Friday, March 14, 2014

#16 [2014/CBR5] "Champion" by Marie Lu

I read a quick palette cleanser, The Governess Affair (2013) by Courtney Milan, before getting into the third and final installment of my latest young-adult dystopian trilogy: Champion (2013) by Marie Lu. The Governess Affair was a little short for its own review, but I will allow myself a short diversion for this little novella: I've heard only good things about Courtney Milan, but for whatever reason, her stories don't resonate with me. This one, especially, I didn't really enjoy. The whole premise revolved around an uncomfortable rape, one where the protagonist feels guilty because she didn't fight. Ugh, not really what I want to read in a romance novel, but the writing was good and I liked some parts.

Anyway, back to Champion. I was already getting a little tired of all this young adult drama, and the second book in this trilogy didn't help. I wanted to know what would happen, but I continued to lose interest throughout the third book. It wasn't bad, but like I said in my review of the second book, I didn't care enough about the material or the characters to keep me satisfied for three books.

One of my problems was that Lu stuffed so much into her last couple of books that I stopped caring about anything. The first book kept my interest with the introduction of a new world and the charismatic characters of June and Day. The story was tight and focused on the growing relationship between June and Day and their personal struggles. I still feel some moral ambiguity would add some dimension to the story, but I still enjoyed it.

***MAJOR SPOILERS***
But then, in the third book:
*There is a love triangle with June, Day and the autocratic leader of the Republic
*There is a love triangle with June, Day, and Tess (Day's street friend)
*Day has months to live because of a brain tumor like thing
*The plague has spread to the Colonies
*June becomes the second in command of the country
*Day leads some Patriots against the Colonies, four people crippling the entire offensive
*Day is contacted by the Colonies' leader to help sway the people of the Republic
*Tess comes down with the plague and is dying
*The Colonies get together with Africa and invades the Republic
*The Republic has to use Day's little brother for more testing to find a cure for the plague (it is not explained why this is so tortuous. You'd think all they'd have to do is get some blood from him, but it was made out to be much worse.)
*There is unnecessary drama between Day and June because Day can't forget that June found him, which led to the death of his family--even though her family was killed, she thought he'd killed her brother, and she had no idea what was going to happen
*the woman responsible for killing Day and June's families has escaped, is trying to overthrow the country as well as kill Day and June

I wish Lu had chosen to focus on one or two of the above plot points and really developed them. I was pretty sure that everything was going to turn out all right in the end, so it just meant wading through all the drama to find out how it happened.

Again, I may have been more forgiving if I haven't already been reading so many other young adult novels, but I watched Catching Fire for the first time while I was reading this book and it reminded me of how much more I liked The Hunger Games trilogy (except for the last book.)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

#15 [2014/CBR6] "Prodigy" by Marie Lu

There was no question that I would be quickly moving on to the second book of my latest young adult, dystopian trilogy--Prodigy (2013) by Marie Lu. I need to read all three before our book club meeting, and the first one was more interesting than I expected. I wasn't disappointed in this second book, either. Now, it's always somewhat challenging to review the second book in a trilogy. You can't say much of anything about the plot without revealing spoilers from the first book, and it's hard to have definitive ideas about the book until you know how it all ends. Therefore, beware of spoilers for the rest of this review.

The story begins again right where it left off, with June and Day, now both fugitives from the Republic running away together. June and Day find themselves, out of necessity, thrust into the world of the Patriots--the rebel group fighting against the Republic. The two begin to work for the patriots, and they are split up as they fulfill the tasks required of them by the Patriots. June lets herself be captured by the Republic in order to get close to and influence the new Elector while Day does what he does best and helps create havoc against the Republic. There are some twists and turns, and June and Day have some tough decisions, but in the end, they seem to make the right ones and the final book is set up nicely.

I don't really have any specific complaints with this book. The plot continues to be entertaining, and I like the characters. The world expanded as we learned more about the Patriots and the Colonies, but these new details did not feel forced or out of place.

I think the real problem is that I've been reading too many of these young-adult dystopian books and they're wearing a little thin. I can get into these teenage, dramatic love triangles, but after awhile they all morph into the same thing. Sometimes I'd rather just read a straight romance novel. I'm not sure if I'll get it any time soon, but I'm craving something a little deeper and a little more meaningful. These stories are interesting, but I don't know if they warrant a trilogy. They might be better whittled down into one, longer book.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

#14 [2014/CBR6] "Labor Day" by Joyce Maynard

Somewhere, someone linked to a list of books that were being made into movies this year. On that list was Labor Day (2009) by Joyce Maynard. I didn't know much about it, but I like Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet enough to want to watch it. And If I'm going to watch the movie, I always prefer to read the book first.

I was surprised when I started reading and discovered that the entire book is from the grown perspective of Henry, a thirteen-year-old boy. Henry lives with his mother, Adele, a woman who is divorced, depressed and barely leaves her house. Henry's father has left and created a new family. Henry and Adele's lives are predictable, odd, and boring--until Frank Chambers escapes from jail and talks himself into Henry and Adele's home on Labor Day weekend. We see Adele and Frank's relationship progress through Henry's protective and often turbulent feelings.

There's a lot I liked about this book, and I'm looking forward to seeing the movie. I was afraid that Frank would be using the family as hostages, so any kind of romance in that situation would have creeped me out. However, even though I was often concerned about Frank's motivation, he never used any kind of force, so I could understand Adele's attraction to him. In addition, seeing this romance grow but being limited to Henry's point of view was a unique way to tell this story.

I also felt that Maynard did a very good job with young Henry. He had to deal with a lot and his emotions were always very real. He was a jumble of hormones, feelings, and wants that were understandable and age appropriate.

One problem I had while reading the book, and this might not be a fair criticism, is that I dreaded the ending. I couldn't imagine how a happy ending could possibly stem from the circumstances, so for much of the book, I was just thinking: Please, don't let that happen. Please, don't let that happen. I'm not going to go into what actually happened, but I did end up caring for the characters and their situation stressed me out.

Perhaps one of my more major complaints with this book is the character of Frank Chambers. POSSIBLE SPOILERS?*? His whole situation seemed implausible, and he seemed too perfect to be real. Besides going to Adele's house when he's desperate and subsequently falling in love with her, he does absolutely nothing wrong. He is the perfect boyfriend, and the perfect father figure to Henry. He can fix anything--at a house with a single woman who never goes shopping, yet happens to have all the tools and equipment he might need. He is perfectly selfless, patient, and understanding. Yet this is a man who was the victim of tragedy and overzealous prosecution. He's a desperate man who's spent the last eighteen years in prison. As much as I loved the idea that poor, sad Henry and Adele could find such a wonderful man who could turn them into a real family, it's hard for me to believe a man like Frank exists--or a man like Frank could ever exist after living in prison for eighteen years.

Although I wouldn't call this a perfect book, it held my attention, and I'm looking forward to watching the movie.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

#13 [2014/CBR6] "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card

I wasn't very excited about reading Ender's Game (1977) by Orson Scott Card. Nothing in the cover appealed to me. The only thing I knew about it is that it had something to do with turning boys into soldiers and that the author is apparently homophobic. But I'd also heard it was an award-winning classic. The recently released movie and the fact that even my little brother had read it was beginning to make me feel left out. So I decided to check it out as a necessary part of my cultural education. And it was really good. I was surprised by how this book affected me and how much it disturbed me.

Ender Wiggins is only six when he's brought to Battle School, but they've been watching him for most of his life and hoping that he's the one who can lead them to victory. Ender's entire life is calculated to make him into the most courageous, efficient, and creative leader. The fact that he's an unhappy child and they may be ruining his life are secondary concerns to the survival of the human species. Test after test and challenge after challenge, Ender is continually pushed beyond what some seem to think he can endure. Although there is a lot of physical stress in the Battle Room, most of the stress Ender deals with is emotional. He is isolated and lonely. He can never trust or depend on anyone. The tragedy of it is that Ender's such a sweet boy, and he's turned, unwillingly, into a killer.

I've read a lot of books that I've loved until the end, but the author falters and isn't able to tie it all together in a satisfying way. This was not the case with Ender's Game. Not only was I surprised by the twist, but Card managed to tell enough of Ender's story for some bittersweet closure and enough mystery to allow a number of possibilities for the future.

I couldn't help but compare Ender's Game to the other young adult, dystopian novel I just finished reading, Legend. I liked Legend and its characters and was thoroughly entertained, but it just wasn't as memorable or disturbing. Sure, there's plenty of violence in Legend, but it was never as hard hitting or emotional. Sometimes it felt more like a vehicle for the main characters' love story. In addition, there was very little moral ambiguity or questions of right or wrong. June had to decide if she was going to turn her back on the life she knew, but (SPOILER--for Legend) that decision was made a lot easier as soon as she found out that "the bad guys" were responsible for killing her entire family. And this is where Ender's Game excelled. Obviously, it's distressing to take a six-year-old boy and use him as a tool in a war. But do the ends justify the means? If all of humanity hangs in the balance, then maybe the suffering of one child is worth it. Yet there's also the question of whether the attack was even necessary.

All in all, this was a very good book. I am also planning on reading Ender's Shadow, since I enjoyed Ender's Game so much, and because it's on a list I found of great young-adult novels. As far as Card's homophobia, I wish he were more open-minded and accepting of others. I suspect his Mormon upbringing is at fault. You'd think someone sensitive enough to be able to empathize so well with the lonely and isolated Ender could be more accepting. Yet... "Ender turned to the door. A boy stood there, tall and slender, with beautiful black eyes and slender lips that hinted at refinement. I would follow such beauty said something inside Ender." (109) Interesting.