Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Good and Not-So-Good of Series Books...

Since I'm on a massive vampire kick right now, it's only right for me to write about the latest in two series I've been following. First up, is the ever popular Blue Bloods series by Melissa de la Cruz which recently added the fourth book to its roster, The Van Alen Legacy. The book picks up right where its predecessor, Revelations, left off. Fallout continues from the unleashing of the demon Leviathan when the vampires were in Brazil, the same unleashing that killed Schuyler's grandfather. All readers develop a coping strategy to deal with Mimi, who, while hard-to-like, really is a fallen angel on the side of right and who is working as a venator (with the hot and arrogant Silver Blood turned good, Kingsley) tracking down demons and Bliss' missing sister Jordan, all the while wearing designer boots in South American jungles. Her bonding with Jack is still on, but Jack is desperately trying to help Schuyler who is in Europe on the run with her human familiar and best friend, Oliver. It seems the New York coven doesn't believe she was innocent in the death of her grandfather because they all have their heads in the sand. Bliss meanwhile has disappeared off the face of the earth as she has finally understood that the ultimate fallen angel, Lucifer himself, resides in her body and is attempting to reclaim his power by using her form to manifest himself. She slowly begins to fight back with varying degrees of success.

Whew! Doesn't it sound like I've just described a storyline of a soap opera season? Now, I love these books but this one really seemed much, much more complicated and hard to follow than the previous books which were already approaching the saturation point in terms of detail. I empathize that it's hard when each vampire (except Schuyler) has multiple previous incarnations and their original name that they had in heaven and they often call each other by these names or refer to past lives and the people in past lives by their names then, not now. Sheesh.

BUT. Now we have seven gates guarded by seven families and all the people who existed in Caligula's Rome (guess who was Caligula? Yep. Lucifer, big shocker.) There's a European coven (who knew?) who doesn't like the New York coven, except for Lawrence Van Alen, Schuyler's dead grandfather. Jack and Mimi are going to be bonded but they each really, really like other people and are tempted to chuck off responsibility after a few thousand years of being really, really obedient to the vampire rules. Schuyler's Mom Allegra suddenly decides to wake up and snack on an orderly because she's worried about the situation with Lawrence dying, but she only gives Schuyler a good 10 minutes of loving Mom action before she disappears to do her own work and she never gives Bliss the time of day despite the fact that we found out in the third book that Bliss is her daughter too. They aren't very maternal, are they?

I will admit to a low level irritation as the chapters jumped between Schuyler, Jack, Mimi, and Bliss and all this complicated Lucifer/Rome plot kept getting added. I don't like it when I think I need a flow chart of who was who whenever (there's a small chart in the back of the book, but hardly sufficient). I didn't feel that the characters were further developed, excepting Mimi who really is coming into her own, but Jack comes off as almost a cardboard cutout rather than a hero and lover to Schuyler. I'm really hoping the next book in the series, Misguided Angel, can pull some loose ends together (rather than add new loose ends) and develop the characters a little. I'm still pulling for you, Melissa!

Now for a better series. Richelle Mead doesn't shy away from detail in her carefully drawn vampire world as we follow Rose Hathaway, but that doesn't stop her from developing her characters further. After the epic battle against the Strigoi in Shadow Kissed, Rose is devastated. Dimitri is gone and she's decided to leave her best friend and bondmate, Lissa, behind at the Academy while she goes to hunt him down and fulfill her promise to him. Her journey is needless to say a complicated one, particularly when she takes breaks from her own situation by escaping into Lissa's mind to check on her and realizes something is very wrong back at Vampire Academy, with Lissa acting strange and surrounded by some very suspicious characters.

I don't want to give the plot away, but I was floored as usual by Richelle Mead's writing ability. Her character development is fantastic - Rose continues to grow and change and her time with Dimitri's family is so poignant that you feel your heart tearing a little along with hers. Add in some personal family developments, a great setting in Russia, and us finding out more about other people endowed, like Lissa, with the spirit element and it makes for super reading. That and the small, tiny kernel of hope given to us at the end of the book about a possible resolution to Rose's unhappiness and I'm dying for book #6. What would make my day is if I could get an ARC at ALA Midwinter in Boston this year. I plan on doing quite a bit of begging to see if I can get one.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Palette Cleansers - Dessen and Anderson


After the Dan Brown The Lost Symbol debacle (and the Splenda-like aftertaste of Evernight), I realized I needed to pick a new book that would never fail me - an author who could never let me down. Who does a girl turn to? In this case I was lucky enough to have two great books waiting in the wings by two of my favorite authors, Sarah Dessen and Laurie Halse Anderson.

Sarah Dessen (who I have met in person, thank you very much) had published Along for the Ride over the summer and with moving into my new house, I never got to read it. What a great opportunity after a freemason, tatooed villian free for all! Sarah always manages a triple, if not a home run. If I were honest with myself, I'd say that I liked Lock and Key better, but I still absolutely loved it. She is such a talented author with the ability to present really different girls with developed personalities, to describe girl friendship so well and so true, to wiggle inside the ugly yet loving reality of sibling and child/parent relationship. I heart her.

The protagonist, Auden (named after the poet), was like so many girls I've known - hyper focused on academics, mature before their time, overscheduled girls with driven parents who don't understand that each kid is different. When she heads off to spend time with her inherently selfish and oblivious father and seemingly fluffy stepmother to meet their new baby, she gets more than she bargained for. Her stepmother is falling apart at the seams due to lack of help, Auden hooks up with the wrong guy only to find he has an older brother with a lot of appeal, and her stepmother's business is populated by a clack of girls that might just be Auden's first real friends. I love it that Sarah Dessen can write something so hopeful while not making the resolution unrealistic. For anyone on the cusp of college, this book is a must summer read prior to orientation week. FYI, Sarah Dessen has the best blog and you should totally read it.

So you can imagine that I was pretty happy putting Evernight behind me with Sarah Dessen, but to knock Dan Brown's latest drunken dial to his publisher out of the park, it was going to take something else really spectacular. Enter Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls. Most of the kids at Wyoming Seminary know Laurie Halse Anderson from their freshmen reading of her award-winning novel, Speak (I'm a gigantic Catalyst fan, myself, in addition to a huge fan of Fever 1793). If anyone liked Speak, they are going to be blown away by Wintergirls.

I was so stunned by this book - I kept thinking I'm going to have to read it a few times to really get some of the nuances that I was merely lightly grasping the first time around. This isn't a book, it's literature kept running through my head.

Getting into the head of Lia, the protagonist, is a terrifying prospect. Her anorexia is so pronounced that the reader is subject to her devastating self-talk (the font usage is amazing throughout the text) and the utter loathing she has for her body is so well-described, you can see the level of research Anderson did for this book. But it doesn't feel researched, it feels REAL, very real. What's more, despite hearing her revolting habits, hearing her hate toward her body, you are so empathetic that you care about Lia. This girl is so utterly shattered, has no adult in her life who she can really count on to care about her and love her unconditionally, that your heart goes out to how alone and adrift she is. When the story picks up, Lia is hearing from her stepmother that her best friend of years, recently estranged, Cassie (who suffered from bulimia) has been found dead in a motel room. Soon Cassie's ghost enters into Lia's tenuous hold on reality and as her weight drops (with her deceiving everyone around her), Cassie becomes more prominent and suffocating with her presence. Once again, her parents cannot be counted upon to see reality, just the problems before them, and neither they nor Cassie's parents ever understand that the unrealistic expectations and extreme pressure we see put on the girls from such a young age are largely responsible for their medical conditions. I think Wintergirls would be great to have in a required reading list, but it is SO specific in the details of her abuse of her body, both around food and cutting, that I could see teachers hesitant to use the book for fear of being blamed if any students would evince the behaviors described in the book. Go and read Wintergirls.

The Lost Symbol should have stayed lost

Like many people who enjoyed The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, I was eagerly awaiting The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown's latest thriller starring symbologist Robert Langdon, everyone's favorite turtleneck-clad genius professor with a nice sense of humor and the ability to work under pressure.

Was I disappointed! I crunched through it in a night, snorting in a very unladylike way (I'm glad my mother wasn't there to hear) during the more egregious parts. It felt like either Brown was rushed to press way to soon by an overeager publisher who needed to pay the mortgage on their second home, or he indulgently let the intern write a big part of it. I'm all for culturing new talent, but there wasn't any in here.

Was the book interesting? Kind of. The female characters were shallower than usual, the prose stilted (something I have admired with Brown is his preview ability to smoothly transition into giving the historical background about an object or idea) in the "let's stop the action to talk about the Capitol Building now - oh, action again!". Did the mean female CIA agent have to be Asian, with a mustache, with throat cancer surgery so she sounds like a man? Does that seem misogynist to anyone else, particularly when coupled with the other shallow female characters? The villain was bizarre, even after you find out the plot twist (I gasped and then realized there was no inner shock because I had seen it coming). For someone who likes Washington or is really, really, really into the Freemasons this could be a great stocking-stuffer, but right now it feels more like the Halloween scary gift (because you won't get back those hours of your life that you've wasted reading it).

Because not all vampire books are good...


With my success of reading the terrific Vampire Academy series (see previous post) I was feeling adventurous and ready to dabble in some other books about vampires. So I picked up Evernight by Claudia Gray which had just come in my latest Follett order (eleven delicious boxes of books in that one, purrrrrr). I didn't remember the plot from the reviews, just that it had something to do with vampires and it was at a boarding school (they always get me with the boarding school thing). Recipe for happiness, check.

And I started. It was okay, the prose was fine, not stellar. I got a little irritated that there were so many Twilight parallels initially (Bianca is a pretty girl who doesn't know she's pretty, the distant Lucas is so handsome she's shocked he seems interested in her). Her parents are nice faculty members, the school is creepy...okay, I get it. But then, literally half-way through the book when Bianca and Lucas are finally kissing at the gazebo, it happens! WE FIND OUT SHE'S A VAMPIRE. A vampire baby, actually, which means that her parents are vampires and she's kinda/sorta one but not fully (she won't be until she kills someone near death at a nursing home - I'm serious, that's what it says). I think it's supposed to be this huge "twist" (and of course, practically everyone else at the school is a vampire - a group of vampires that look like teenagers but come to the school every century or so to have new developments explained to them, like microwaves and iPods), but I was just really pissed off. How could you not mention your mother loves history because she's been living since the 1600s? Or that you "always" have blood in wine glasses from the butcher's at dinner? Isn't this a big thing to breeze over? Particularly if we're supposed to feel that the reason she's ostracized in the first place is because she's human, but then we find out it's just because she's kind of a "loser" vampire? I don't like surprises like this.

It get's worse from there. Lucas freaks, she sends him a Christmas email apologizing for not telling, big twist where he's a human vampire hunter (how young do they recruit them, exactly?), scene in church when they are trying to run away together, headmistress is vampire Cruella deVille, blah, blah. Yes, there are two more in the "series"; no, I won't be reading them, but I'll probably get them to complete the set and in case someone likes this one. The characters didn't feel real to me and I didn't feel that I understood their motivation a lot of the time. The only characters I was really interested in were the supporting characters of Patrice and Balthazar, the nicer vampires at the school who actually befriend Bianca. I just found out that Claudia Gray contributed a short story about Patrice to a collection put together by P.C. Cast called Immortal - that I think I'll buy and read.
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