Sunday, October 25, 2009

Melissa Marr’s WICKED LOVELY is Pumped Full of Heroines

In searching for my next high, I kept hearing great things about this book, Wicked Lovely. The title is hecka tight and the cover grabbed me, so I snatched it off the library shelves without even reading the flap copy. When I got home, I settled into my recliner and prepared to lose myself in the sweet stuff.

I cracked open the book and at about page 2, I stopped and thought, “Wait! Fairies? This book is about faeries?”

See, normally, I don’t do fairies.

The fey are similar to werewolves, vampires, and zombies in that they are well known mythical creatures. But the similarities end there, because unlike vampires who have a set of simple well known rules (except when a certain writer earns millions by making them sparkle, don’t even get me started), faeries are freakin’ complicated.

I didn’t read fairy stories as a little girl, so the difference between a brownie, a pixie, a sprite, and a nymph were not part of my prior knowledge. I didn’t grow up knowing that iron can kill faeries and that one should never, ever, ever, ever, ever eat or drink fairy food. If you haven’t noticed, I’m still having trouble spelling the word (I can’t decide if I’m British or not).

But luckily, I didn’t let this deter me from reading Wicked Lovely, because then I would have missed out on a fabulous book. Marr beautifully weaves fairy folklore with her modern, edgy story. I love that the teenagers in this story act like real teens, they’re into piercings and tattoos, they drink and smoke, they talk about sex, they have sex, and they are all imperfect.

Oh Junkies, don’t worry, this is all artfully alluded to, it’s not like Wicked Lovely is pages of debauchery, it’s just refreshingly realistic.

By my estimation there are 2.73 heroines in Marr’s first three books, Wicked Lovely, Ink Exchange, and Fragile Eternity.

In Wicked Lovely, we are introduced to Aislinn, a mortal teenage girl who has The Sight, she can see faeries. Growing up witnessing the horrible things they do to each other and to humans, Aislinn is terrified of the fey. She freaks out when Keenan, the fairy Summer King, and Donia, his Winter Girl, start following her.

Now this is where I started to love faeries. You see, they can’t lie, which makes every fairy essentially a lawyer. They’re thousands of years old and their world is split into these kingdoms with ever-changing alliances. The fey are constantly watching what they say and twisting each other’s words.

What’s great about Wicked Lovely is that Marr elaborately sets up a very tough situation for her heroine. Aislinn is left with two bad choices, and must choose the lesser evil. Lots of books do this, we spend a hundred pages watching the protagonist choose between a rock and a hard place.

Wicked Lovely breaks the mold when Aislinn chooses neither. She becomes a kick-ass heroine when she sets her own terms, and makes her own rules.

Now, Ink Exchange ranks lower on the bad-ass-heroine scale for me. Leslie, the protagonist, is a broken girl who spends the book learning her self-worth and gaining her strength to become a heroine. This book did, however, make me fall in love with Niall, the so-bad-he’s-good fairy. And I hope Leslie returns (stronger and ready to bust some heads) in Marr’s fourth or fifth book.

Fragile Eternity is a sequel to Wicked Lovely (but read Ink Exchange first. Pay attention, Junkies).

SPOILER ALERT: the ending of Wicked Lovely is implied by my comments about its sequel. Go read Wicked Lovely!

Aislinn loses some bad-ass points in Fragile Eternity. Yes, she is actually way more powerful than she was in the first book, but she doesn’t seem to realize this. She’s pushed around throughout the whole book. I get it, there will be 5 books in the series, and she’s just getting her footing in her new world, but it was disappointing to see her torn apart by the two men in her life.

Ok Melissa Marr (if by some miracle you’re reading this) I’m warning you. By book five, Aislinn better open-up-a-can-of-whoop-ass on the kingling and set all those boys straight as to who has the power, or else…I’ll be disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong, Junkies, Fragile Eternity has no shortage of heroines. Donia comes into her own and leaves behind her sulky self from the first book and asserts her dominance. She is a tough chick not to be messed with. The third book also gives us more of brooding Niall, very sexy. And we’re introduced to another fairy queen. I haven’t decided if she’s a heroine or a villain yet. (Note to self: someday write a blog about bad-ass female villains. These books have at least 2 great ones).

Ok this post is looong, so let’s sum up:

Read Wicked Lovely, Ink Exchange, and Fragile Eternity (in that order)

Melissa Marr, here are my requests:

1) Leslie should come back, bigger and badder
2) Aislinn needs to open-up-a-can-of-whoop-ass
3) I love Donia (don’t kill her off, please!)
4) Introduce me to Niall.

I can't wait for Radiant Shadows!

OK Junkies, what do you think? Should I do separate posts for books in a series? Or can you suffer through these mega-posts about 3 books at a time?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Conflicted Nya in The Shifter by Janice Hardy

OK Junkies, last week we looked at some oldies-but-goodies, but this week I'm going to rant about a new drug on the street. In my pathetic attempt to keep my finger on the pulse of the YA book market, I heard about this book a while ago and have been anticipating it for a couple months.

The Healing Wars: Book One, The Shifter by Janice Hardy came out few weeks ago. I gobbled it up and will now regurgitate for you, my beloved Junkies.

Nya is an orphan in a war-torn land. She steals and works odd jobs to feed herself, while her younger sister, Tali is an apprentice in The League, learning to be a healer. Now, I love YA urban-fantasy, but I'm usually wary of any book that begins with a map of a non-existent place and has fantastical names for races of fantastical creatures.

Hardy, however, introduces her imagined world with a finesse that never makes me turn back to look at the damn map. In the beginning, Nya is chased by a cute soldier for stealing eggs. The first chapter grabbed my attention and left me hankering for more. Without an info-dump, the reader figures out that Nya is Geveg in a land conquered and now ruled by Baseeri.

Nya's parents were wealthy and powerful, but were killed in the war that left Gevegs as second-class citizens and Nya all-but homeless. Nya's grandmother and mother were healers. They drew pain out of the sick and injured and transferred it into this magical metal known as pynvium. Tali, Nya's younger sister, also has the ability to heal and is learning the subtleties of her ability in an institution known as The League.

Nya also has strong powers. Nya can draw pain out of those suffering, but cannot transfer it into pynvium. Instead, she can do something no other healer can, she shifts the pain into others.

Before she died, Nya's mother made Nya promise to never use her ability, and Nya kept her promise, until now. Nya's frightened of her own power and terrified of hurting people, but when her sister's life is in danger, she must make terrible choices.

Now, my dear junkies, I do not intend, nor will I attempt, for this blog to serve as an analytic review of any book. It's more of a place to rant about the novels that make me bliss out. With that said, there are a few things about The Shifter that I have to get off my chest.

I think, but I'm not sure, that this book is marketed as middle-grade, instead of young adult. If not, I advise you think of it as such, anyway. To me, there's a fundamental problem with middle-grade novels written in first-person that have an adolescent protagonist.

(Well ok, let's back up a second. Actually, the problem is that I'm an intelligent adult reading a book meant for ten-year-olds, but just hear me out.)

The problem is this: If the book is written in a sophisticated way that makes my brain happy, then part of me is always kind of thinking "Wait! Thirteen-year-olds don't think like this. This narrator is too insightful, empathetic, and logical to be thirteen!"

Or, if the author does a great job of capturing the mindset of an adolescent, then I'm stuck inside the head of a damn thirteen-year-old for 200 pages!

Hardy suffers a little bit from the latter problem. Nya is a very realistic adolescent. But sometimes her thought process and the way she draws conclusions is pretty illogical and hard to follow (again, realistic).

The premise/theme of The Shifter is that Nya is essentially a weapon. She must choose who to hurt and who to save, and she battles herself to decide whether or not to hurt one innocent person in order to save a group. I get that, hard choices, heavy stuff. But I think Nya struggles with this a little too much, and there's a whole lot of justification going on from other characters. There was a little too much, yes she made this tough decision and she hurt someone who didn't deserve it, but she's still a really good person, let's take a minute and explain why.

I like my heroines to be imperfect. And come on Janice, didn't you get a three book deal? Let Nya be racked with guilt for the next two books. Everything got tied up into too neat of a package for me at the end.

But then again, I'm 20 years older than the target audience. Maybe fifth-graders need the explanation of why it's OK that their heroine hurts strangers.

With all that said, I'm still totally excited for the next installment of The Healing Wars. Justified, or not, Nya is a total bad-ass. By the end of The Shifter, Nya and the reader discover what she's capable of, and she's a force to be reckoned with.

OK Junkies, what do you think? Should I be less picky as an adult reading kids' books? Should I just grow up and read books for people my own age?

But I'm addicted! I need my heroines!

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Brave Brat: Lyra in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy

Ok, junkies, here's the deal, some people got their panties in a wad a few years back when a mediocre movie was made out of The Golden Compass and some churchy people were protesting/boycotting the film because of Pullman's anti-christian message.

I really don't want to spend a lot of time on this, and I know plenty of eighth graders who love the books and are oblivious to Pullman's critiques of organized religion, but I just want say two things.

1) I think that it's important to engage with, not boycott, media that presents a viewpoint different from our own. That's how we learn and grow. (Except for Fox News, there's no way I'm watching that crap.)

Also, I think it's pretty ridiculous when parents let their children watch R rated movies full of violent murders, but then don't let their kids read Harry Potter because it has witchcraft, or read The Golden Compass because it makes churches look bad.
2) John Milton wrote a great epic poem, Paradise Lost. Philip Pullman wrote His Dark Materials as a reaction/critique/inversion to that poem. It would be great if we could read and talk about these things as literature without the hoopla.
Kay, one more disclosure, then junkies, I'm hankerin' for my heroine, so we gotta get down to business.

FTC: (In case anyone besides my mom ever reads this) I get almost all the books that I discuss here for free. From my dad. Hope I don't get a fine.
Let's talk Lyra. His Dark Materials trilogy is comprised of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman.
Pullman cleverly never divulges Lyra's age, but in the beginning of The Golden Compass she is a child and by the end of The Amber Spyglass she is closer to a young woman.

Lyra lives in a world parallel to our own, where people's souls are kept in their animal companions, daemons. Daemons change their shape at will when their humans are children, but a sign of sexual maturity is a daemon settling into one animal form. Pullman uses Daemons as the ultimate characterization tool. The type of animal of each daemon reveals the personality of its associated human and daemons exhibit fierce emotions, which are hidden by the faces of their human counterparts.

Lyra is no girly girl. She fights with the neighborhood boys and skips along the roof of the college she lives in. Like any good YA protagonist, she has no parents. Lyra is raised by a handful academicians.
The thing is, I don't really like Lyra. She's bossy, pretentious, and just, I don't know, unfriendly. Now don't get me wrong. Just because I don't want her to be my BFF, and I'm not secretly wishing I was her while I'm reading, like with some heroines, that doesn't mean she doesn't kick ass. She's smart, and brave, and makes some very hard choices without being a ninny about it. And I'm rooting for her throughout the series.

SPOILER ALERT! Keep reading at your own peril.

But really, you can't blame the girl for being a bit of a brat. You see, actually, she does have parents. They've just abandoned her. They're each leading a side of a brewing war over parallel universes, souls and, you know, the future of existence and stuff. And when it comes down to it, both her mother and father worry more about winning the war than the well-being of their daughter.

So what if she's a brat? She saves the multiverse and all of existence. She's pretty damn heroic.

You see, in The Subtle Knife, Lyra teams up with Will, a guy from our world. Together, they travel through parallel worlds, saving people, and falling in love. All sorts of creatures are trying to kill Lyra for various reasons and Will and Lyra discover that she's the key to this whole war.

SPOILER ALERT! I'm serious! I'm not pulling any punches.

The church is trying to kill Lyra because essentially, she is Eve. They figure if they can kill her before she eats that apple, then they can prevent the second fall.

The choice Lyra is presented with is that she can stay with the boy she fell in love with, Will, and watch the multiverse disintegrate. Or she can go back to her world, and Will to his, and preserve all of existence. She makes the right choice.

As always, I haven't come close to doing these books justice. So read them! There are some awesome battle scenes with polar bears, zeppelins, and witches. Mrs. Coulter is a female antagonist that will chill you to the bone. The Amber Spyglass also has some wickedly good stuff with Angels and the World of the Dead. Pullman also does a great job with non-humanoid creatures from parallel worlds. Again, beating my head against the wall because I'll never be creative enough to think up something like the Mulefa. And, I gotta say, Pullman's concept of Dust is pretty cool. So get reading!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Liesel Hubermann, the good saumensch in Markus Zusak's The Book Thief

Even though my days of being carded for a cocktail seem to be long over, and my crow's feet sprout a new toe each day, I love reading young adult novels. In addition to following teenagers around in the public library and at bookstores in search of my next fix, I've also developed the habit of interrogating my students on any non-assigned text they carry. (typical junkie behavior)

My students become accustomed to me picking up a book off their desk, reading the back and asking, "Any good?"

I usually get one of three responses:

1) A shrug and a flash of the cover to expose Anime illustrations and Japanese text, in which case I, in turn, shrug and walk away.

2) "OMG! Yes.." high pitched unintelligible squeals, "vampires...werewolf" more squeals, "he's so hot!" I then back away slowly.

3) "Yes! It's intense. You see it's about this girl and she's on drugs, and her dad rapes her, and she cuts herself, and she's gonna kill herself, but there's this boy, and he's on drugs..." I nod my head and bite my lip looking really serious, then make a mental note to NOT read that book. (I'm looking to get high on a heroine, not depressed about heroin)

Well, last spring I went through this same routine with a particularly clever and literate student, and her response made me check out the book from the library that day.

I read the flap copy, but was still unsure of what it was about.

"Any good?" I asked.

"Yes! Soooo good. You have to read it, I--just read it, oh my god."

"What's it about?"

"Just--just read it."

So, I did and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak now ranks as one of my favorite books of all time.

SPOILER ALERT: Now, I have no intention of spoiling the ending of this book. That would be cruel and unusual punishment. But, I had no idea what this book was about when I started reading it, and I think that added to my enjoyment. I wish the same enjoyment for you. So, just read it.

I'm also afraid my brief synopsis might make this book sound depressing, and if you're anything like me, that means you won't read it. (The movie, Hotel Rwanda sat on top of my DVD player for months, I'd heard it was good, but I knew what it was about, and I just never really wanted to watch it.)

Zusak's brilliance, however, is that despite its subject matter, and despite the tragedies within The Book Thief, I would never describe it as depressing.

It's about Liesel Meminger, a little girl who is sent to live with foster parents in Nazi Germany. The Book Thief is narrated by Death.

Zusak is a genius for how he breaks convention with his narrator. The structure of the text is sometimes choppy, with Death giving an aside and taking us out of the main plot, and describing some seemingly unrelated event or soul collection. Death also tells us the outcome of the characters straight off the bat, in his cryptic, non-human way, of course. It's amazing how there's no obvious attempt at building suspense. I knew a character would die, yet I found myself unable to put it down, and turning the pages just so I could find out how the foretold events would transpire.

Death describes the color of the sky each time he takes a soul and his detachment at the human tragedy of the Holocaust makes the book chilling, but bearable.

Of the millions of souls he reaps, of all the horrific things he witnesses, Death chooses to tell us about Liesel. Her brother dies on a train in the snow, on the way to Hans and Rosa Hubermann, her new foster parents.

Rosa calls Liesel saumensch (swine-girl) and hits her with a wooden spoon for misbehaving. Hans plays the accordion and comforts Liesel when she screams from her nightmares every single night.

Liesel befriends Rudy Steiner and when their hatred of Hitler, and frustration of starving under Nazi control, becomes unbearable, they steal. They're thieves and that makes them feel better.

Liesel struggles with being a good girl. Her dead brother appears to admonish her when she loses her temper, and doing what's right is constantly at odds with doing what's necessary for survival in Nazi Germany. But despite her thieving, actually because of her thieving, Liesel is good.

Liesel is courageous. She survives the deaths of loved ones, does whatever she can to keep her family safe, and gives hope to a room full of terrified neighbors. Liesel doesn't have any super powers and she doesn't defeat any bad guys, but she's one of the most heroic characters I've had the privilege of reading about.

And believe me, reading The Book Thief is a privilege. As a writer, Zusak's work is the beat-my-head-against-the-wall-because-I'll-never-be-able-to-write-like-this kind of inspiring.

Ok, so I've already said too much. Go read The Book Thief.

I'm off to troll my bookshelves in search of the next heroine to get hooked on.