Monday, March 3, 2014

Monthly Reading List: February

It's the first Monday of a new month... so that means another Monthly Reading List!

Rose Under Fire (Elizabeth Wein) 

Verdict: Elizabeth Wein does it again. This time, she focuses on an young American female pilot who gets caught and sent to Ravensbruck, the notorious Nazi concentration camp.
Once again, Wein's sense of voice and her descriptions of the world surrounding her characters can only be described as "VIVID." I can almost taste the sooty, dirty air of the camp, and my own legs ache when Rose meets the "Rabbits", girls who were the forced guinea pigs for German war doctors to experiment and practice on, infecting and carving their legs (at least) on purpose for "observation and education." I held my breath at each attempt at escape the girls staged. So much is stunning and poignant. This is one of the books that I ALWAYS RECOMMEND EMPHATICALLY IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Powerful and enthralling.

First Family (David Baldacci)

Verdict: This was rather an interesting read—especially after I started watching the TV series "King & Maxwell," which aired on TNT and was apparently cancelled as recently as last August on an unresolved cliffhanger after only one season.
Baldacci weaves an interesting mystery and intense drama that pulls characters from several different directions and manages to connect them all, give the readers some informative tidbits as a garnish, and reveal more about his leading characters besides. Finally, we get to learn about the part of Michelle Maxwell's past that I have been wondering about since reading "Simple Genius", and it brings a certain level of closure. "First Family" of course refers to the First Family that is the centerpiece of the novel—but the concept of family is also driven home for King and Maxwell, as the difficulties they face brings Michelle closer to her estranged family, while King observes. A great book, and I can't wait to move on to the next one!

Beautiful Redemption (Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl)

Verdict: A fitting end to a "Beautiful" series. Garcia and Stohl have woven a tapestry of vivid color that is the Southern life, with all it's traditions and superstitions, connected with nature and weather, it's habits and it's people.
I did skip the book immediately preceding this one, but I felt like most things I could still follow pretty well. Maybe eventually I'll go back and read that third one... Like when I don't have much else that I'm reading... Who am I kidding, when would that even happen?
Beautiful Redemption is the end of the Caster Chronicles, and the theme and beauty of redemption and sacrifice is carried in total clarity through the story, in spite of the dark and gothic context.

Diamond of Darkhold (Jeanne DuPrau)

Verdict: As disappointing as the previous installment, "Prophet of Yonwood" was, I had my reservations when I selected this book. True, "Yonwood" was more an attempt at retconning the events of "Ember" than any kind of character establishment or continuity, but I wondered if it was a portend of what DuPrau's writing had suddenly become.
Thank goodness Diamond of Darkhold was more along the lines of the first two books: a society that begins with electricity and machines and acquires knowledge of the sky and fire and nature. Sort of like history in reverse—and DuPrau presents her case compellingly. I love the characters of Doon and Lina, and the way they come up against the various complications of having to restart life in some cases, and revisit the old way of life in others.
I'm particularly on the lookout for ways in which writers, as Ray Bradbury so wonderfully stated, "touch life often." DuPrau does this with enchanting consistency in three of the four "Ember" novels (excluding "Yonwood") by treating our modern society as an ancient civilization (characters taking the names of cities, but dramatically mispronounce them: Chicago becomes "Skago", Washington becomes "Washton", etc.) and referencing circumstances and concepts in a way that makes complete sense to us yet crafts a whole different frame of reference for the characters.
This was a wonderful end to a series that should be regarded as a trilogy. An enjoyable read, for sure!

D is for Deadbeat (Sue Grafton)

Verdict: Boy, am I enjoying this series! Kinsey is a great character who finds herself in all sorts of colorful situations. Her tenacity often gets her almost killed, but somehow she manages to outwit her attackers and defy their murderous attempts.
Kinsey is used to having a straightforward case—but then she finds out that the man who "hired" her is a con artist and he becomes her target instead of her client. I think there might have been one or two "indelicate" scenes in this installment, but nothing to detract from the story as a whole!

E is for Evidence (Sue Grafton)

Verdict: Oh, Kinsey! First a mysterious deposit, then incriminating (and missing) evidence, a few well-timed rumors, and WHAMMO!! This series' main P.I. finds herself under suspicion for accessory to the crime she's supposed to be investigating! What gives? Not Kinsey! Slightly more graphic than the last one, but Grafton keeps it tactful and drives the intrigue so hard I was guessing the whole time.

Matched (Ally Condie)

Verdict: True, when a high-school girl is raving about a book whose whole catalyst is a teenage love triangle, one has every right to be skeptical. The kind of self-imposed "angst" that riddles teen novels today is most often described with terms like "smut", "fluff", and (most deplorable of all) "slash."

I don't read smut or slash if I can help it, and I need a DARN GOOD REASON to go anywhere near fluff. Don't get me wrong, I love a good, hearty romance—but that's another category from any of those three.

So why am I reading "Matched"? Why, if I claim these standards, would I subject myself to a book that states as it's premise the following: (paraphrased)

Cassia Reyes has grown up believing that The Society has calculated and regulated everything for the optimal life, from the kind of clothes you wear and the leisure activities you choose to the very hour of your death. So when the program created by the Society matches her with Xander, she believes without question—
Until the program glitches and she glimpses another, less familiar face, the near-Outcast Ky.
Was it fate? Will she go with the predictable Xander, or can Cassia allow herself to reject what others say and choose Ky on her own?

Just so we're clear, I would almost consider this "smut." I certainly expected it to be along the same lines as the HEINOUS CRIME AGAINST LITERATURE that is "The Selection" by Kiera Cass (which also features a love triangle along the same lines, but the characters are in no way anywhere near the maturity level of Cassia, Xander, and Ky!)—

Thank goodness I was wrong. Ally Condie defied my expectations and managed to craft a novel of very pertinent social observations at its core and not driven just by the romantic, flimsy "smut" of the triangle. I hope to be reading the sequel next month, and I look forward to giving another good report!

Raven's Gate (Anthony Horowitz)

Verdict: Okay, so after the end of the Alex Rider novels, the triumph of "House of Silk", and the dismal failure of the Diamond brothers, I finally got my hands on what I hoped would be something more like what I liked about this man's style.
The premise was certainly interesting enough: a boy in the foster system who gets sent to this creepy English town where supernatural forces are at work, and he discovers supernatural powers in himself that he never imagined, and oh by the way, he's also destined to save the world if the forces of evil don't manage to kill him. With a moniker like "The Gatekeeper Series," how bad could it be?

Answer: bad. GOSH DARN IT, ANTHONY! The book held water right up till chapter 2, when the main character arrives at the town and you immediately know that this strange woman he's living with is up to no good, and the whole town is bewitched and they're reciting the Lord's Prayer backwards and people are dying and getting sucked into time warps and drinking snakesblood and there's hellhounds and he doesn't let them bleed him but there's his blood on the knife and it's enough to open the demonic (and eponymous) Raven's Gate and release all manner of pestilence and darkness. I stuck with it in the hopes of SOME redeeming factor, but from one cover to the other there was pretty much nothing but disappointment, cringing, and heartbreak. Piffle.

Yay! Now that's done, I can finally crack open that stack that has been calling my name for a couple weeks now.... See you farther Upstream!
*(all images found on