Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Book Review: Shadow Bound, by Erin Kellison

Hoo boy.

I saw this on my Nook store the first time I powered it up and messed around with it. It popped up as a free download, and after reading the little description it looked to me like an interesting urban fantasy. Not usually my cup of tea, but they’re sort of the new hotness, so why not give one a try?

I got about five pages in before one of the characters started making sweet, metaphor-laden love to the Grim Reaper and I realized my mistake. This is a paranormal romance, isn’t it? Sigh. I should have expected that, given how “urban fantasy” and “paranormal romance” are interchangeable terms, but in my defense, the cover didn't give it away, either. But hey, it’s free, right? Plus, I still hadn’t read anything like it in quite some time, so I gave it a shot anyway.

Talia O’Brien, a recent PhD in a vague, paranormal-type field of study, is searching for work and navigating the waters of post-academic life. Her plans, however, are violently interrupted by the appearance of soul-sucking creatures called wraiths. She is hunted for months by the beasts, and nearly killed one day before being rescued in the nick of time by one Adam Thorne, the independently wealthy head of the mysterious Segue Institute. Turns out, there are thousands of wraiths prowling the streets, and their numbers are growing. They have even organized under the name of The Collective, and the Segue Institute is dedicated to learning how to stop them from taking everything over. Adam has been searching for Talia ever since reading her dissertation on near-death experiences, convinced that she could help in the upcoming war. But she is more essential than even Adam realizes; born from a dalliance between Death and a mortal woman, her unique Faerie ancestry (and its associated power) may be the only thing that can stop the force behind the wraiths.

So, yeah. Pretty standard supernatural fare. I did like what Kellison did with the Faerie angle, and I particularly appreciated how the various supernatural parts come together (for example, the contrast between the lifeless ghosts and the deathless wraiths). All of that is kind of secondary to the contrived sexual tension between Talia and Adam, though. I don’t understand what’s so appealing about Adam. He’s a complete turd from beginning to end, exhibiting the most crass and overdone manly stereotypes and not evolving as a character in the slightest. He’s rich and handsome! Tall and smells “dark” and “spicy!” Brooding and angsty, with just enough of a dark side to be a bad boy without actually being bad in any real way! Overprotective of our heroine, and noble to the point of genuine stupidity! And let us not discount the virtues of his six-pack. And that’s what it’s written as, because apparently “abs,” “stomach muscles,” or “hot washboard of love” would be too clinical.

In short, everything likeable about this man is skin-deep at best, and yet Talia, an intellectual, independent, dangerous woman, falls in love with him after a week or so. Which passes for careful deliberation, here, since he declares her his soulmate after only a couple of days. I mean, I get it. I know how romances work, and this one works just fine. I’m just saying.

My biggest complaint is how abruptly the writing changes once we get into the steamy confines of this relationship. Despite the setting and story being somewhat run-of-the-mill, Kellison is a pretty good writer. The world-building she does is interesting, and Talia is a neat character, both in the mundane details and in the supernatural powers and legacy she possesses. But as soon as these two start hooking up, the storytelling goes all askew. Suddenly we aren’t dealing with two mysterious adults anymore, but with whiny teenagers in luuurve, both in style and substance. Things start to go downhill around the Ferrari vs. Lamborghini car chase, and bottom out about the time we get to the puzzlingly unnecessary “King and Queen of the Goths” party. And it’s not just the story that gets sidetracked, but the writing, as well. All of the neat stuff Kellison was doing in the beginning gives way to multiple passages on the direction of Adam’s blood flow any time Talia does anything.

If you see what she’s doing, there. Wink wink nudge nudge tee hee BONERS.

Sorry, I don’t know why I can’t take harlequin romance seriously, but it really does defy my attempts to read it with a straight face. Between my various experiences with erotica, pornography, and simple sex scenes in books and movies, I guess I’m just accustomed to a more serious, straightforward form of titillation, be it by what they are showing me or by what they are not showing me. So, when the florid, overblown romantic scenes in a book like this really start going, I find myself reacting in the manner which I imagine women do at male strippers: slight, incidental interest, tempered by a heaping serving of unintentional hilarity. Which is not a problem in itself, but once I got to the second half of the book, I couldn’t help but feel like everything, from story to characters, was really just a crude excuse for creating sexual tension between two ciphers and then having it consummated. And this is romance, so of course, that’s exactly what it was.

I don’t think this is a bad book. In fact, I kind of liked it. But I feel about it like I felt about Twilight: it’s a book that is surgically aimed at its target readers, among which I am most definitely not. This is a must-read for paranormal romance fans, as far as my limited experience with the genre can tell, because the world is interesting and the romance doesn’t lack for heat. If you’re just looking for a good supernatural fantasy, though? Meh. Find something with more meat to it than this one.
Verdict: 2 out of 5

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Book Review: Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick

I’m appalled and fascinated by North Korea. Given how closely they guard the details of their society, and how unsatisfying our general knowledge of their country is (with most of my impression of Kim Jong-il coming from the cartoonish propaganda posters in the history books, and of course, the Team America movie), I tend to snatch up any crumb of information about North Korea that looks remotely credible. I first heard about this book through a radio interview with the author, and have since noticed it in fairly high demand in my area. The book is fascinating if somewhat imperfect, and shines an illuminating, unforgiving light on the Hermit Kingdom.

Nothing to Envy chronicles the lives of six North Koreans, from the relative heyday of Kim Il-sung’s government through the famine of the 1990s, and describes in detail the hardships each had to endure until their eventual defections (a dangerous hardship in itself). The bombast of the infamously psychotic North Korean government serves both as antagonist and backdrop; the stories themselves focus on how these people, unfortunate enough to be born where and when they were, try to survive and find some semblance of normalcy. What we think of as mundane, everyday concerns- conversation topics, romance, travel, self-improvement- are all harrowing journeys with potentially deadly consequences. I was particularly struck by how the defectors have reacted to the “outside world,” as the realization of a life beyond the cocoon of Dear Leader’s whims seems to be both freeing and paralyzing to those who have never known that sort of self-determination. Moreover, the happy endings that one might expect from escaping are warped into surprising forms by the enormity of the culture shock involved.

Demick worked for years as a foreign correspondent in Seoul for the Los Angeles Times, and this book definitely has a journalistic flavor as a result, for good and for ill. The vignettes Demick presents for each of the six North Korean citizens offer intimate portraits of their struggles without being voyeuristic or sensationalist, and include only enough editorializing to draw out the sad facts within. That being said, I can see the seams between the news pieces that were stitched into a narrative, here. Demick follows the nonfiction convention of organizing her chapters thematically rather than sequentially, with each of the six stories blended into a constantly shifting perspective. On top of this, Demick has an unfortunate tendency towards redundancy, with the same factoids being repeated in separate chapters. I’m normally not too bothered by either issue, but together, they make for a book that can be somewhat hard to follow at times. Honestly, though, the content makes up for any stylistic quibbles I might have had, since I found the stories of daily life in North Korea so fascinating that I even consumed the chapter notes at the end of the book with fervor.

This is a fantastically interesting book, but it also instills a sense of disgust and sadness at what these people have to live through. Even if some of what is presented is exaggerated (which is a distinct possibility, since a lot of Demick’s information comes solely from the anecdotes of the disaffected), the existence of such a totalitarian regime on the basis of outright lies should be anathema to any person capable of independent thought. One particular passage from the book has stayed with me: one of the defectors discovered that 1984 was one of his favorite books, as he was amazed that George Orwell could understand so perfectly how the North Korean government could seize and maintain control over its people. I think there are people in our own country that should read this book and take note of the consequences of relentless animus, historical revisionism, and blind ideology. The horrifying social stagnation in North Korea says to me that 1984 is always the end result of such repression of contrary ideas, no matter which religious or economic creed drives the bus.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Book Review: Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

I’m constantly and embarrassingly behind the curve with most things pop culture-related. However, the one nice trade-off that comes with not being an early adopter of the latest book craze is that I can experience the conclusion with the wide-eyed enthusiasm from the beginning still fresh in my mind. Such is the case with the Hunger Games trilogy; I read Mockingjay right on the heels of my first readthrough of the previous books, which had been out for a bit already. This made the anticipation and reading of the third volume much sweeter, but possibly made my view of it suffer a little by comparison.

Mockingjay completes the impeccable symmetry Collins insists on in her trilogy: with Hunger Games focusing on the Games themselves and Catching Fire seesawing between the Games and the growing rebellion in the districts, the finale is all rebellion, all the time. With District 12 bombed into oblivion, Katniss and a handful of survivors from her old home and the Quarter Quell huddle in the catacombs of the draconic District 13. Traumatized and wounded, Katniss nevertheless finds herself pushed into the role of the Mockingjay, a face and mouthpiece for the rebellion, which is making a slow but inexorable march towards the Capital itself, district by district. Even here, though, Katniss’s fate is not her own, as she is groomed and shepherded into staged “propos” and watched closely by the mistrustful President Coin of District 13. Nor has President Snow forgotten about our heroine; Snow uses Peeta, left behind and captured after the Quater Quell breakout, as devastating leverage against the public head of the rebellion. Katniss, however, has her own agenda. Driven by sorrow and hatred, she does her best to navigate the bloody war and dangerous political machinations of its perpetrators in order to fulfill her true goal: to personally bring justice to President Snow for his crimes against those she cares about.

The pace is quick and relentless in the final book, and while this whole series is dark and violent, Mockingjay pulls no punches. Katniss operates in a haze of shell-shocked gloom for the entire book, and beloved characters are irrevocably affected by the war and routinely killed without ceremony, especially in the last third of the story. Even without the inclusion of the Hunger Games’ novelties, the book retains a definite dystopian sci-fi feel, especially as the fight moves into the streets of the Capital. So, naturally, this one got into my head a little deeper than the first two, because I love the realistic sort of story where the characters don’t necessarily get what they want, and have to struggle to make sense of what they have.

I’ll keep this as spoiler-free as possible: I’ve never been one to care about who gets to be whose boyfriend in books like these, but I have to say, Peeta and Gale were both very interesting here. Gale gets particularly interesting, as he must make a transition from a clever and ruthless hunter into a clever and ruthless soldier. Collins plays with all sorts of themes, here, including the definition of terrorism. I liked how the relationships Katniss has with these two get turned on their heads, for various reasons.

For some reason, though, I still found myself not quite as enamored of the final book as I was of the first two. For a while, I even questioned whether or not I liked it at all. Turns out, I do. Big sigh of relief. But I had trouble letting go of a few nagging problems.

When I say the pace is quick in Mockingjay, I’m not kidding. Katniss goes from Quarter Quell survivor to participant in the final battle in short order, and all of the action sequences in between zoom by in stark, brutal flashes. While I appreciate the aesthetic quality of this sort of storytelling (war is hell, boys), I would have liked a little more time to reflect on what was going on. This isn’t inconsistent with the other books, though. I just felt too rushed, in places, whether it was due to the jerky nature of the action or the time compression between important milestones in the rebellion. It made other things seem rushed, too. Such as Katniss’s transitions between incoherent trauma victim and cynical soldier-propagandist, which seem to go back and forth rather suddenly and excessively, despite the understandable triggers for it.

Speaking of Katniss... hmm. I began to get annoyed with her in the second book, and I remained so for most of Mockingjay. She grated on me the same way that Harry Potter did in the Order of the Phoenix. Look, I understand that teenagers are naturally sulky and irrational, and that it is truthful and observant of an author to portray them that way. I also concede that poor Katniss has every reason to be sulky and irrational, and I even appreciate the harsh impatience with which she approaches the triviality of her love triangle, in light of everything else she has to deal with. I’ll even go as far as to say that I support and enjoy works from young adult authors who give teenaged drama a serious treatment; for all that we “wise” adults like to mock the histrionics of the average teenager, we tend to forget how life-and-death everything seemed when we experienced it for the first time. All that being said, I can only take so much of Katniss pouting in closets and snapping at people who are trying to help her before I begin to roll my eyes. It’s an instinct I just can’t repress, okay?

There were a couple of other little things that bugged me, but were easier for me to let go. Collins shoehorned in a reference to the Hunger Games that seemed hokey and unnecessary, right before the climactic battle, but redeemed it with a much better reference (and an exciting, if predictable, twist) at the end. The book ended particularly abruptly and without any excess sentiment, but I realized after I finished that I kind of liked that. Sometimes, we don’t get closure, or even the satisfaction of knowing if we really got we wanted; Mockingjay’s bittersweet ending may not do much for those who like a bow wrapped around the end of their tales (read: Deathly Hallows’ triumphant epilogue, or Breaking Dawn’s mad fit of masturbatory wish-granting), but I think that the ending was written remarkably well and had a lot of emotional impact, even if it wasn’t quite what one would call satisfying.

So, not bad. Not bad at all. It wasn’t the gripping page-turner I expected it to be, and I think that it’s my least favorite of the trilogy, despite how excited I initially was to get out of the arena and into the uprisings. But Mockingjay rounds out the trilogy nicely, and is a fun and exciting read on its own.

Verdict: 4 out of 5