Tuesday, August 27, 2013

New Release Review: The Returned, by Jason Mott (recommended)

Goodreads Summary:

Jacob was time out of sync, time more perfect than it had been. He was life the way it was supposed to be all those years ago. That's what all the Returned were.

Harold and Lucille Hargrave's lives have been both joyful and sorrowful in the decades since their only son, Jacob, died tragically at his eighth birthday party in 1966. In their old age they've settled comfortably into life without him, their wounds tempered through the grace of time ... Until one day Jacob mysteriously appears on their doorstep—flesh and blood, their sweet, precocious child, still eight years old.

All over the world people's loved ones are returning from beyond. No one knows how or why this is happening, whether it's a miracle or a sign of the end. Not even Harold and Lucille can agree on whether the boy is real or a wondrous imitation, but one thing they know for sure: he's their son. As chaos erupts around the globe, the newly reunited Hargrave family finds itself at the center of a community on the brink of collapse, forced to navigate a mysterious new reality and a conflict that threatens to unravel the very meaning of what it is to be human.

With spare, elegant prose and searing emotional depth, award-winning poet Jason Mott explores timeless questions of faith and morality, love and responsibility. A spellbinding and stunning debut, The Returned is an unforgettable story that marks the arrival of an important new voice in contemporary fiction.

***

Two things I loved about The Returned:

1. THE MAGICAL REALISM. One difference between magic realism and fantasy is the sense of ambiguity that comes with the former. There are no explanations, nor rules, for supernatural phenomena. This book never explains why some people come back and why others don't. It never explains whether the Returned are truly people or merely shadows of people. It never explains why some of the Returned die natural deaths while others vanish. It never explains why people are returning now, when they never had in the past. The sense of uncertainty that surrounds these events is what creates such a fascinating story. The uncertainty is what allows the reader to truly connect to the characters.

2. THE CHARACTERS. They felt real. Believable. Complicated. They are all people trapped under circumstances that no one knows how to interpret. They react to the events around them even though they don't always know how to react. They are all, in some way, trying to do the right thing--or at the very least, something.

The Returned is a beautifully-written, moving story. It's the sort of book that will appeal to a range of audiences, and I would recommend it to just about anyone.

***

The Returned is out today.

(Oh yeah, and ABC is adapting it into a television series called "Resurrection." The show premieres in March, and judging by the trailer and the character names, it appears to have very little in common with the book.)

Monday, August 26, 2013

New Release Review: Crown of Midnight, by Sarah J. Maas


[sequel to Throne of Glass]

Goodreads Summary:

After a year of hard labor in the Salt Mines of Endovier, eighteen-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien has won the king's contest to become the new royal assassin. Yet Celaena is far from loyal to the crown – a secret she hides from even her most intimate confidantes.

Keeping up the deadly charade—while pretending to do the king's bidding—will test her in frightening new ways, especially when she's given a task that could jeopardize everything she's come to care for. And there are far more dangerous forces gathering on the horizon -- forces that threaten to destroy her entire world, and will surely force Celaena to make a choice. 

Where do the assassin’s loyalties lie, and who is she most willing to fight for?

***

My friend Laura has a good way of describing books like Crown of Midnight: Trashy, but enjoyable.

It's cliche, predictable, and Celaena secures herself a gold plaque in the Mary Sue Hall of Fame. But in many ways, this is the book Throne of Glass should have been. There are moral dilemmas. There are real consequences. There is a lot of action and a functional romantic plotline. Oh, and Celaena finally kills people.

So while I don't think this is a good book, it was still an entertaining read.

***

Crown of Midnight comes out tomorrow.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

New Release Review: The Twins, by Saskia Sarginson (recommended)


Goodreads summary:

They were inseparable until an innocent mistake tore them apart.

Growing up, Viola and Issy clung to each other in the wake of their mother's eccentricity, as she dragged them from a commune to a tiny Welsh village. They thought the three of them would be together forever.
But an innocent mistake one summer set them on drastically different paths. Now in their twenties, Issy is trying to hold together a life as a magazine art director, while Viola is slowly destroying herself, consumed with guilt over the events they unknowingly set into motion as children.

When it seems that Viola might never recover, Issy returns to the town they haven't seen in a decade, to face her own demons and see what answers, if any, she can find.

***

If I were to summarize The Twins, I would call it 'the story of twin girls coming to terms with their past.' However, that description alone sounds very cliche, so instead of elaborating on the plot, I'll talk about the execution.

The writing style is vibrant and picturesque, full of images and sensory details.

"Water dribbles through the ceiling in their bedroom. It seeps around the light fixing, spreading like a shadow, and drips into a bowl that Isolte put under it. It smells of moss and wet wood."

The story is narrated both in the past and in the present, from the point of view of both sisters. Viola's scenes are in first person, and Isolte's in third. This usually bothers me, but in this book, it was very appropriate. Viola is the self-contained, introverted sister, while Isolte is more focused on her relationship with the rest of the world. Their distinct characteristics might make them archetypical opposites, but that doesn't change the fact that they are fully realized, believable characters.

Another element I loved was how richly-developed the flashbacks were. 'Flashbacks' in stories usually imply Hollywood-esque tragedy scenes, but here, the scenes depicting the girls' childhood and upbringing are just as important as the scenes from their adult present. You see the girls running wild through the countryside, raised by a mother who tries and fails to live outside the bounds of society. The story is a gradual progression of events, which means it might not be for some, but those who enjoy this type of book will not be disappointed.

Overall, this is a beautifully-written story about sisterhood and guilt, and I highly recommend it.

***

The Twins comes out on Tuesday.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

New Adult Project: The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon


Goodreads summary:

It is the year 2059. Several major world cities are under the control of a security force called Scion. Paige Mahoney works in the criminal underworld of Scion London, part of a secret cell known as the Seven Seals. The work she does is unusual: scouting for information by breaking into others’ minds. Paige is a dreamwalker, a rare kind of clairvoyant, and in this world, the voyants commit treason simply by breathing.

But when Paige is captured and arrested, she encounters a power more sinister even than Scion. The voyant prison is a separate city—Oxford, erased from the map two centuries ago and now controlled by a powerful, otherworldly race. These creatures, the Rephaim, value the voyants highly—as soldiers in their army.

Paige is assigned to a Rephaite keeper, Warden, who will be in charge of her care and training. He is her master. Her natural enemy. But if she wants to regain her freedom, Paige will have to learn something of his mind and his own mysterious motives.

The Bone Season introduces a compelling heroine—a young woman learning to harness her powers in a world where everything has been taken from her. It also introduces an extraordinary young writer, with huge ambition and a teeming imagination. Samantha Shannon has created a bold new reality in this riveting debut.

***

The Bone Season debuted with an onslaught of hype: Four book deal (out of a planned seven-book series), mid-six figure advance (from a British publisher, meaning close to a million in US dollars), movie rights optioned, a 21-year-old author who is supposed to be "the next J.K. Rowling." With all this hype, I couldn't not be curious. Even with my usual skepticism, I at least expected to get a few hours of entertainment out of the book.

That was too much to hope for.

I'll start by saying that I couldn't finish this book. I tried. I really did. I managed to slog through 150 pages before realizing that my life was just too short to justify any more of it.

I was bored. And more than that, I was insulted.

Let's start from the beginning: we have a totalitarian world, set in futuristic England, where the leaders intend to kill off all clairvoyants (aka people with powers). The magic system works through some combination of psychic powers and spirits, and it's confusing as hell. When it comes to the worldbuilding, the author does this weird combination of immersion and exposition, where the character explicitly narrates everything related to Scion (the government organization that hunts down voyants and somehow also rules the entire planet), but then when it comes to clairvoyants, you're basically on your own. As a result, I have no fucking clue what's the difference between, say, a soothsayer and an oracle. And now you're probably thinking that I'm a lazy reader or that I'm too dumb to figure stuff out on my own, but I'm actually pretty good with immersive narration--I made it through The Windup Girl, for Christ's sakes! (And if I found the narration confusing, imagine how much trouble an average reader will have with it. If you really want to publish 'the next Harry Potter,' try to find something a little more accessible to mainstream audiences.)

Anyway, the totalitarian government was shallowly-developed and kind of cliche, but the underground mafia of voyants was potentially interesting and the plot was starting to get good...

...and then, about fifty pages in, the book took a dive into the ridiculous. Because now our protagonist, Paige, finds herself among a superior race of beings (Rephaim) who want to use her and the other voyants to fight off evil alien monsters. (Not making this up.) Except the leader of the Rephaim is mua-ha-ha evil and treats humans like slaves. (Remember when I wrote this post?) And the author really beats the "evil" and "slavery" parts into your head. For one thing, all of the humans are assigned numbers instead of names, because nothing screams "oppression" like turning people into numbers. Look, I'm not saying that oppression itself is a bad element in stories, because it's not. Oppression is a terrifying, gut-wrenching phenomenon--and a writer who puts in the right amount of research and nuance can depict that. But the treatment of cruelty and slavery was so shallowly presented that I was insulted on behalf of anyone who had actually experienced that kind of trauma. 

I was also offended on an intellectual level, because it's very clear that the author knows absolutely nothing about, say, brainwashing. For instance, I'm pretty sure locking a boy in an isolated cell for nine years wouldn't make him the perfect minion--it would make him batshit insane, to the point where he'd be too unpredictable to do anything. There's also one human boy--the archetypical 'triator'-- who not only sucks up to the Rephaim, but proudly introduces himself by his numerical identity (after, like, a week or two). Last time I checked, brainwashing is supposed to turn you into a minion, not a caricature.

Now let's talk about the protagonist and the love interest (one of them anyway, because I smell a triangle). Of course, Paige's powers are super rare and powerful, so as a result, she's selected for training by a super hot Rephaite who never chooses humans. From there, their relationship is, well, inconsistent. In one chapter, she detests him (and for very good reason). A few chapters later, she's telling him intimate secrets about her dreamscape. Um...what? 

It's like the author couldn't even take ten minutes to think things out before she wrote them. Not to mention the sheer arbitrariness of certain plot elements. For instance, the Rephaim only collect voyants every ten years, and each collection is called a "Bone Season." Why every ten years? And why "bone"? I have no fucking clue. (Maybe if I finished the book...oh wait, not gonna do that.)

(And that's not even the entirety of everything that bothered me.)

So in short, The Bone Season left me bored, angry, and insulted...and I will be very shocked if that giant advance ever earns out.

***

The Bone Season is out now. I received my ARC from BEA.
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