Booknotized

A place to think, reflect, and talk (mostly to myself) about books I love…and a few that I don't.

Book Review: Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien November 7, 2011

Publisher: Roaring Book Press
Release Date: March 30, 2010
Series: Birthmarked Trilogy
Age Group: solid YA (mild graphic violence/birth scenes)
Pages: 368
Rating: Idea 4.5★; Execution 4.5★
Genre: dystopia

★★★★1/2

Being a midwife is never an easy job—things happen, babies are stillborn, women bleed to death—but at least most of the time it goes well. Mother is reunited with the soft bundle she has loved and nurtured for 9 long months…and will for the rest of her life.

Unless, of course, you live outside the wall. There, conditions are harsh, and babies—like water—are rationed, a practice 16-year-old, brand-new midwife Gaia goes along with…because she must. That is, until her mother and father are suddenly taken prisoner, and Gaia finds she can no longer abide by the unjust laws of the Enclave. She must get them out, even if it costs her life.

Where they will go afterward, no one knows. The settlement has been carved from the arid, post-apocalyptic wasteland of (now) Unlake Superior—and it stretches almost beyond the reach of legend.

And then, of course, there’s the question of Leon and his dangerous interest in her. Yes, what on earth is to be done about Leon (and her smoldering interesting in him)…?
 
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For starters, I enjoyed this book immensely, and I cannot wait to get my hands on Prized, the sequel—out tomorrow, Nov. 8.

I was hooked on page one, which drops the reader wholly and without hesitation or apology into an intense, visual, and rather daring (if you asked me) birth scene. My first thought was, Whoah!… and then Well, any book that starts with a jarring, evocative line like “the mother clenched her body into one final, straining push, and the baby slithered out into Gaia’s ready hands,” is bound to be taking chances elsewhere. And I like books that take chances.

I wasn’t disappointed.

(I ♥ the PBK cover.)

The setting for this book is unique—something like the 1st-century Middle East. At least, that’s how I envisioned the small, twisting streets, bright flowing garments, water cisterns, and stretching desert. And, it is incredibly well evoked. The artistry of the book really is in the details that are woven throughout. Well-placed flashbacks and everyday events illuminate and develop protagonist Gaia into not only an empathetic character, but an almost living, breathing entity one feels drawn…even compelled to follow under the wall and down the perilous streets of the Enclave—though it very well may cost you your life!! (Hyperbole, I know, but I was into it!)

The love interest, Leon, is singular (*handful of confetti*) and irresistibly compelling (*bag of confetti*), on account of which the ending—a cliffhanger, and normally a turn-off for me in series books—is really shocking, painful, thrilling, and, well, just excellent. (*confetti storm*)

Of course, this means that one (read: I) must acquire a copy of book 2 ASAP, or one (read: I) really might burst…but enough about that.

There was only one element I thought could have used “more,” and that was Gaia’s parents. Because of the circumstances of the plot, they were kind of glossed over/incidental, and dealt with rather abruptly at the end. Considering the obvious care taken throughout the rest of the book, I can’t help but wonder if that was a result of the story’s unexpected evolution from 1 volume to 3 (an anecdote O’Brien revealed at the Brooklyn book festival this September). As much as I usually begrudge the after-effects of a publisher-pushed sequel, however, I am equally (oh, who am I kidding? more) glad to be able to revisit Gaia and her world.

And, I have a sneaking suspicion it will turn out alright: the mastery really is in the writing—the style, the vocabulary, the excellent metaphors. Those elements, and a tight plot with elemental (detailed) integrity, set Birthmarked apart from others in the genre.
 
For another perspective on this title, check out my good friend Shanella’s review.

 

Series Review: Incarceron / Sapphique by Catherin Fisher November 4, 2011

Publisher: Dial
Release Date: January 26, 2010; December 28, 2010
Age Group: YA (utterly gratuitous mature language; mild graphic violence)
Pages: 448; 480
Rating: Idea 5★; Execution 2★
Genre: dystopia, sci-fi, & (some) fantasy with overtones of steampunk
 

★★1/2

Claudia lives in The Realm—a place where an Era of Victorianesque habit and aesthetic is enforced by a malevolent monarchy. She dreams only of escape from the life that has been planned for her. Her only solace is her tutor, Jared, who has been more of a father to her than her own morose parent, John Arlexa the Warden of Incarceron. At least she is Outside.

Inside, Finn lives, and has lived for the three long years of his life that he is able to remember. He, too, longs to Escape from the miserable existence within the great sentient, malevolent Prison to which he—and all others deemed undesirable or superfluous by the aristocracy—have been sentenced.

All too quickly, as age-old plots and schemes come to fruition, Finn and Claudia’s fates are thrust together. The future of both worlds, it seems, depends on their ability to unlock the secrets that lie deep within.
 

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As I tweeted the other night, I have rarely been as frustrated or disillusioned by a book or series as I was when I closed the cover on this one.

The idea is magnificent—something like The Matrix, something like The Scarlet Pimpernel, and still something like Mad Max and Blade Runner.

However, the idea’s execution in writing was deplorable, cheap, and utterly unsatisfying. You know how it was with Lost? Where the opening was fairly explosive and mysterious, but as the seasons dragged on it slowly became apparent that the writers had no long-term plan for the plot? No real ingenious answer to the mystery?

And everyone remained hopeful, despite being dragged on for eons by endlessly convenient twists, turns, and dramatic fluff, because they thought there surely would be some masterfully big reveal to tie it all together in the end?

★★1/2

Well, that was exactly my experience with these books, except without the hunky actors and special effects to tide a girl over. Full of fluff; unartful writing; and bad, see-through dialogue; impromptu/incongruous twists when the plot looked sure to dead-end; flat characters who neither were fully explained nor grew a millimeter over the course of 928 pages, and were often self-contradictory…

And, then, like the Lost finale, no questions answered. If anything, more were introduced, as if to cover the tracks of an MIA direction—yet again.
 
I am almost angry at myself for reading it. I knew at the end of Incarceron (bk. 1) that the execution was shoddy (I even tweeted my feelings), but was so curious about how the idea would come together that I convinced myself to keep going. I remained hopeful to the very end—past elements that didn’t really work in the world (the “Incarceron” beast; the “chain gang,” children born—as opposed to healed or reconstructed—with metal parts), or with the characters (Keiro’s fickleness; the Queen’s pseudo-evilness; the Warden’s loss of the key vs. the trio’s ability to keep the glove; the Prison’s simultaneous omnipotence and impotence, whichever suited the moment; etc), but were instead just convenient to the goose-chase of a plot.

I even clung on through the last few pages when things got really weird, and it seemed impossible that it could ever be satisfactorily pulled together, all the while thinking, Surely; surely no one would have published an idea this ambitious without a real, clever, mind-blowing ending.

This book has gotten lots of buzz. Taylor Lautner is starring in the movie, for goodness sake. Surely they wouldn’t…

But they did.

 
I think—if someone figures out how to salvage the plot/ending—it will be a truly wicked movie. But, as a book?

There are so many good, strong, dystopian/steampunk novels out there—The Hunger Games (bk 1), Birthmarked, Fever Crumb, etc. I would normally never do this—I am a book champion—but I suggest spending your reading time on the above and waiting to see Incarceron on screen.

 

Books, Authors, and Crazy, Crazy Fans October 31, 2011

 

The last month has been a whirlwind of book-related activity. High time I sat down to post about it!

First things first…

 
In reality, it all started back in February or March, when my good friend Shanella said, “Hey, you want to go to Hogwarts?” And I said, “Are you KIDDING? Of COURSE I do.”
 

There was only one small problem: we hadn’t received our invitation letters…yet.

We made our reservations and patiently waited. And waited. And waited.

 

With only 3 days to go, I realized we were going to have to take matters into our own hands. So, I found Dumbledore’s email address and sure enough, he said there had been an owl strike – something to do with Weasley’s Wildfire Whiz-bangs – and he had them faxed over straight away.

 

Since toting a faxed invitation around with us would have been totally lame, we had them put on t-shirts instead.

 

 

We were the coolest kids in school.

(No, seriously, 18 – or was it 16? – different people stopped us in the middle of the park to ask where we’d gotten them.
Others simply took pictures without our permission. It felt good to be popular.)

 

Hogwarts itself, however, was WAY cooler.
(If you don’t see the slide show below, you can click to go to my Hogwarts photo album instead.)

 

Vodpod videos no longer available.

 


 

 

Just before we left for Hogwarts, we went to see Maureen Johnson at Books of Wonder, which was downright awesome. It was the release of her new book The Name of the Star, a Jack the Ripper ghost story set in modern England. There were even 2 Jacks present. Spooky!

 

Maureen’s very fun in person…which one would probably gather from her not-in-person outlets, such as her Twitter @maureenjohnson. Check her out. You’ll see what I mean. If you’re familiar with the #yasaves hashtag, then you already know who I’m talking about. *wink*

 

 

(Sorry the pic is so grainy. I left my camera at home that day…and well, let’s just say my iPhone is a “circa babyboomers” gen.)

 

 

Finally, just last week there was the amazing Fantastic Fiction event at the self-same Books of Wonder  (best bookstore in the city!), starring authors Scott Westerfeld, Maryrose Wood, Jeff Hirsch, Sarah Beth Durst, Jon Skovron, Gabrielle Zevin, and Alison Goodman.

 

I snagged copies of Westerfeld’s and Hirsch’s books, and then some photo ops with the gents while they were signing.

 

 

 

 

Lost in conversation with Scott (sorry, may I call you Scott?), I failed to noticed that Shanella was trying to get my attention and take a picture.
 
Thankfully, she was persistent.
 

 

Only bad thing about going to these AWESOME author events?
TBR list now has 3 new additions . . .

 

Up next: Halloween, YA Lit style. (Hint: think ultramarine)

 

Guest Review: No Such Thing as Dragons by Philip Reeve October 20, 2011

I always love getting recommendations for good books, especially when they are as ebullient as this one.

Shortly after finishing this title (part of my growing Philip Reeve collection – he’s pretty awesome, btw), that I had not even cracked yet, my husband Sorin, all but bubbling over with excitement, began to regale me with tempting snippets of the story line. As he recounted and gesticulated, I began to suspect that he was doing so as much to relive the story himself as to talk me into reading it. Since that’s exactly the art of book reviewing (at least for me!), I invited him to contribute a post of his own here on Booknotized.

A native of Romania, Sorin came to the US (where he met me) via Montreal, Quebec. Currently a computer science masters candidate, he recently completed his first novel, I, Pirate, which was a young adult division quarterfinalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards competition. Reading and writing are his passions, though I know I fit somewhere in there as well. I hope you enjoy this, his first (but hopefully not last!) review.

Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: September 1, 2010
Age Group: 9–12+ (some mature intimations; graphic violence)
Pages: 186

★★★★★

Before Johannes Von Brock arrived at the inn and asked for a child to follow him as squire, Ansel wasn’t worth much. So little, in fact, that his father didn’t even consider him a candidate. But the man liked the fact that the boy couldn’t speak, for he had secrets that he’d like kept that way…

For starters, “there are no such things as dragons.” Just spend a couple of days on the mountain, come back, tell the people you killed it, get paid, and go on to the next place. In a time where superstitions rule the mind of man, where mythical creatures roam the earth, in a time when legends are born, people need their savior. They expect it. And our brave knight is there for them.

But as they arrive in a tiny mountain village, plagued by a man-eating, sheep-stealing “worm,” neither master nor squire can imagine the turn that their lives are about to take.

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I must confess, when I started reading this book, I had fairly low expectations. Jaded by same-subject movies, disappointed by the books, I anticipated a story where either dragons are more implied than actual (as the title suggests), or if present, then display human-like traits (sentience, emotion, etc). But, boy was I in for a surprise! A couple of pages in and I found myself caught in the beautiful, poetic, yet straightforward, language. I couldn’t care less for dragons. Or the action. Just give me more of those beautiful descriptions. It made me realize that it had been a long time since I read a well-crafted book. So long, in fact, that I’d gotten used to the mediocre ones.

And when the real action started, I couldn’t put it down. But I had to. It was 3 AM. I dreamt of dragons and brave little boys. No, not in that way, you perv. Because, you see, you think you know who the dragon fighter is, but… That’s all I’ll say.

The characters are wonderfully forged. Even the dragon. (Whoops!) The boy, Ansel, is one of few heroes in the plethora of modern young adult books who doesn’t have any superpowers. Wait, you say, he doesn’t have any superpowers? Not even a magical pinky, or a fairy godmotherslashuncleslashmaybedog? He doesn’t drink blood? Or perhaps a bit of power-enhancing, magic-awakening juice?

No, no magic. He’s mute, and that’s all, which certainly doesn’t help when being chased by a crazy-eyed dragon. Or when you’re hungry. But, in my opinion, he has more going for him than 275 of the other heroes put together. To make the right decision, when facing a killer beast is hard even for a man, but for a malnourished child? A hero is not made or born. One becomes. Will Ansel become a hero? I won’t tell you. Just read the book!

Truly, Philip Reeve accomplishes in 186 pgs what many others haven’t in a full series of 400 pgs each: to write an inspiring yet entertaining book, one that reaches deep inside and tries to change you.

I think No Such Thing as Dragons will make an exhilarating experience for any book-loving, adventure-craving kid. I know it did for me.

 

Book Review: Paranormalcy by Kiersten White October 18, 2011

Publisher: Harper Teen
Release date: August 31, 2010
335 pages
Age Group:
solid YA +
(some slightly sexual innuendo, references to language, though not actual)

★★★★

The Center is being attacked, and paranormals everywhere are dying inexplicably. She’s supposed to be protecting them, but Evie can only think of one thing to do: run.

Ever since she was a child, and the IPCA (International Paranormal Containment Agency) discovered that she could see through (thus identify) paranormals’ glamours, Evie has been living at the medicinally white-walled Center, working the whenever-they-need-her shift, capturing and tagging vampires, werewolves, hags, and more with ankle bracelets that prevent their wreaking any more havoc. It’s not much of a home, but it’s better than bouncing through foster care like the abandoned child she was. Besides, life is fairly normal…she finds out all she needs to know about “real” teenhood from her favorite high school TV drama, Easton Heights. And she shops. Oh, and that weapon she uses to subdue the paranorms? It’s called Tasey. And it’s pink, like her stiletto boots.

So, it’s no biggie that she is intrigued by the (seemingly) teenage guy—whose face is like water, and whose eyes are utterly unforgettable—that they’ve captured downstairs.

So what if she’s not supposed to see him? So what if he’s classified? So what if he’s the only person she’s able to save when everyone else is in danger? So what if her life is suddenly and completely turned upside down?

So what…now?

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Evie’s story is a captivating one, not necessarily because it’s terribly unique content-wise (young person with strong personality and an inexplicable power vs. paranormal creatures gone awry), but because of the endearing, fun, and spunky style in which it’s told. Evie is a unique personality, and her story glows with her spirit and humor. The action is consistant throughout the book, and the love interest, truly interesting. There’s no triangle (TG!), and the world—as limited as it is by Evie’s infrequent exoduses from the Center—is well-represented.

I really enjoyed the book, particularly its uniquely positive overtone. When I first heard “pink heels” and “perky,” I moaned internally, but take my word for it: it’s expertly infused with cheek and irony in a way that makes it fun instead of groanilicious. (My totally manly husband is actually the one who recommended it to me.) I’m very much looking forward to reading the sequel Supernaturally (which came out this July) and, based on this, all things Kiersten White.

 

Finding the Comic in Today’s Dystopia October 13, 2011

[Let me preface this by saying that this will not be a 5-paragraph essay with a very structured body or a
repetitive intro and conclusion. What I started out writing has turned into anything but!]

 
Today while I was watching The Avengers trailer below, courtesy of @YABookNerd‘s Trailer Thursday post, something dawned on me that I, at least, find really intriguing.

 
I usually don’t think of superhero comics as having particularly strong ties to the PLAYA movement (Paranormal Literature Addicts Young & Adult – yes, I just coined that, and yes it is totally awesome), though I know that the audience is similar if not the same: people of all ages who revel in thinking outside the box of the everyday, thrive on a good shot of adrenaline, and aren’t concerned with what anyone else might think of their literary/film preferences.

 
In other words, people who know what they like and they know that it ROCKS.

 
But, maybe because I was utterly lost in @CaraghMOBrien‘s uhhhmmm-azing book Birthmarked this morning on the train, or because I just read a rock-on article in this month’s @VOYAMagazine (go to pp. 48-49 to find Tough Girls Don’t Accept &$%!# From Anyone by Rebecca A. Hill)…or both, I started thinking, well, what are the differences? What separates dystopia from the comic-born superhero story?

 
My conclusion? Not much.

 
The primary differences I find between, say, Katniss’ tale and that of Batman or Captain America are that 1) the latter’s “powers” are magnified and embellished, and 2) that the superhero’s actions are usually preventative, while the dystopian protagonist’s tend toward the revolutionary.

 

Wonder Woman

Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games)

I think that second point is the more significant: Superman, Spider Man, Wonder Woman, and the like are fighting to stave off an impending-but-not-yet-fully-realized takeover by the dictatorially-minded villain. Gaia, Deuce, Meg, Tally, and Titus, on the other hand, awaken to injustice from within an already established regime, and have to fight their way out.

 
Some might also cite natural disasters as a difference, since they are usually the cause for the negative setting of a dystopian universe, but isn’t that what the Green Goblin (lab accident), Poison Ivy (attempted murder), and Magneto (mutation/racial discrimination and violent) are? Of course, there are exceptions, but in general, I think that all of those things can be summed up as a similarity: human-caused disasters.

 
And, the more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued by such similarities.

 
First, if you think about it, many of the paranormal (outside of the everyday) elements in comics are close to those in the alternate realities of dystopian fiction. Really, what separates a Pretty or a Special from Captain America? Or an anti-gravity suit from a dress that catches on fire and flakes away without burning anybody? Then, in both genres, there are also genetic advancements/alterations occurring in people (Peter Parker; the Scriven) and/or animals (tracker jackers; Ninja Turtles). There are advanced forms of weaponry, transportation, and medicine/science in both genres as well. Etc.

 

Poison Ivy (Batman)

However, above and beyond such decorative items, there’s also the deeper plot lines and themes, which are almost identical:

A) these are all narrative stories
B) set in an adjacent though somehow different (whether ahead of, behind, or alternatively developed) version of our world,
C) in which said world is threatened (or overtaken) by seemingly insurmountable, evil forces of a paranormal (not of everyday experience) nature, which have some totalitarian motivation,
D) to which a (somewhat) ordinary citizen takes a disliking, decides to stand against,
E) and, by some unforeseen force of nature (be it simple or extraordinary, human or extraterrestrial, mutant or constant, mental or physical), manages to overcome,
F) thus securing the equitable, harmonious, and enjoyable future of their (and by implication, our) civilization.

 

Tally Youngblood (Specials)

Once I had collected these different points in my head, the next question for me was, What does this mean? Why are we creating these very similar stories right now, and why are they so popular? Huge questions, I know, but the items that seem to answer this for me are C and D, which in turn linked back to a problem I’ve had with the academic world. We PLAYAs and our beloved literature have been accused of and marginalized in “literary” society because of many things, but probably most notably on account of our supposed unwillingness to live within the confines of reality. Just for the record, this is something that I readily admit to (a different conversation altogether), but I would argue that it’s not a complete picture.

 
What I saw in the trailer for The Avengers today – the element that got me started thinking about how it is, in its way, a form of dystopia – was a deeply rooted love for our reality, a fervent desire to keep it the way it is by thinking of all the ways it could be destroyed. From oil-virus crises that lead to plastic-surgery-based communism, to homicidal environmentalist redheads, we are constantly thinking about the ways in which our (very earthly, very human) thoughts and actions could (will?) affect our (very earthly, very quantifiable) world. And, just as importantly, we’re thinking about the strengths we have within us to combat that negative potential.

 
It seems to me that, whether it does so via a poor, scrawny huntress, or a roid-raging, genetically-empowered green dude, or a mixture of the two (dare I suggest Harry Potter?), paranormal literature is at heart very similarly focused right now. (I purposefully avoided throwing sci-fi and fantasy into the mix, but you can probably pick out for yourselves that, underneath the very superficial differences, the same parallels are present.)
 
We’re not escaping to enter a “better” reality somewhere “out there.” We’re doing it to bring one back home.
 
Much of human art can actually be boiled down to the same motivation. If so, you might ask, what’s my point in all of this?
 
Just that, well, perhaps we’re not all so different after all.
 

Looks pretty sweet, btw – out May 4, 2012. Enjoy!

 

 

Book Review: Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick October 11, 2011

Release Date: September 13, 2011
Publisher: Scholastic
608 pgs

★★★★★

It’s 1977, and somewhere in the quiet woods of Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, lives Ben Wilson. His mother has just died, and though his aunt and uncle welcome him in, he just cannot seem to feel at home. Something is missing. When he finds a 12-year-old clue about his father, Ben decides that the search for that mysterious man is the answer to all of his empty longing.

Flash back to Hoboken, New Jersey, 1927, where the story of a young girl is depicted only in pictures – or is it? Rose lives her life shut away in her home, and she, too, is longing. Longing for something . . .

The collision of their worlds will leave you speechless.

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Summary is not something that suits this book, really, so apologies for my somewhat cryptic attempt above. That’s because the storytelling in Wonderstruck is utterly unique. I did not realize, when I sat down to read it, that I was embarking on a sensory journey that would leave me mystified and in awe. Needless to say, the book’s title was chosen well.

Subtle and unobtrusive, it nevertheless defies all of the rules about reading that I – unwittingly – have always taken for granted. Text is text, right? Pictures are pictures, right? Wrong.

Selznick has created a masterpiece wherein the line between letter and sketch gradually blurs into one unified experience.

Like its similar, but intrinsically different sibling, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (movie directed by Martin Scorsese out Nov 23!!), Wonderstruck is a revolutionary publication. (I can’t quite bring myself to call it a “text.”) It will alter the way you look at and define “books.”

So much more than a picture book, this story can’t simply be read: it has to be experienced. I highly recommend.

 

(P.S. Don’t be daunted by the page count – the balance of text and illustrations make it a fairly quick read.)

 

 
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