Monday, June 2, 2014

Monthly Reading List: May

(*Listed in the order pictured)
Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula K. LeGuin)

This book definitely exceeded my expectations. Ged is a character I would not mind following.
It begins uniquely enough: chronicling the background of a Wizard from before he became powerful. The predominant principle of magic, it seems, is knowing the "true name" of something, speaking to the very core of its essence to really be able to control and direct it. There is a very solid morality, signaling that the forces of evil and good are more than mere choices we make, or two sides of the same coin; they are separate entities that must remain in balance. You let evil take over too much and the consequences are grave indeed. (Of course now that I say that, I am wondering if the same cautions apply to letting good overrun one's logic; I suppose moralism never has to address that half, because really, no one is ever apt to being overwhelmed with the desire to do good acts repeatedly and vigorously)
"A Wizard of Earthsea" follows Ged, a young man with a youthful rashness and a thirst for ultimate power that led to one ill-timed spell that unleashed a terror on the world that should never have existed. He is forced to run from this shadow, and yet it follows him from place to place.
The setting of the novel is plenty unique: several island groups rather than one continuous inland country. The characters are distinct, the descriptions are very vivid, the language is sound, and I felt like all in all this book is a good introduction to something promising.

"H" is for Homicide (Sue Grafton)
Once again, it's a mystery of epic proportions that lands Kinsey in a string of troubles, one after the other. For this job, someone at the insurance firm where she works has been murdered, and he might be connected with a woman who had a habit of submitting false claims. Everything seems to be running smoothly—till Kinsey's efforts at winning the woman's trust land them in jail together—after which the woman invites Kinsey into the house of her ex-boyfriend, a Tourette's-afflicted crime boss who is running the insurance scam by staging car accidents. Kinsey has to live as "the other half" with no idea if or how she will ever return to the life she had always known...
A riveting, rousing adventure from start to finish, and full of the Kinsey Millhone panache! Whether she's making friends with her host's vicious guard dog, or critiquing him on the credibility of his fraudulent claim forms, Kinsey handles it all with very little backup and a whole lot of spunk.

Midnight Pearls (Debbie Viguiè)
A sweet, innocent story every bit as enchanting as the original. A childless couple, a coastal kingdom, a stormy night... And the catch of a lifetime: a young girl with extraordinarily pale hair and skin and extraordinarily long legs. She is raised fearing water, feeling like a foreigner in her own community, befriended by the only person outside her family who doesn't sneer at her for being different: he happens to be the crown prince. One day, her whole life turns around when she meets two strangers--one is blind, the other mute--who seem to know her by a different name, and who claim to be former mermaids who received their human shape from a sea witch who took the aforementioned senses as payment. Also involved is a rather nefarious plot by a double-dealing duke who is interested in usurping the royal crown, and has just the innocent pawns conveniently positioned to help his plan along...
The book thrilled me from start to finish. I wanted to read it over again... and I want to read others like it. I want to read every single one of these re-told fairy tales; I am so going to own them. As far as I can tell, the series is penned collectively by three different authors, yet each holds the same tender care and vivid beauty that made the original stories so beloved; now they are timeless, and we can fall in love with them all over again.

Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman)
Rather interesting, and a lot more focused on world-building and setting than just the "shock factor" in all of his other books, it seems.
It starts, as ever, with a perfectly average man with a perfectly average life... Who encounters a mysterious young girl running for her life from some unnaturally cruel men intent on killing her, and his life changes abruptly and forever. There is a magical land under that which we are familiar with, called London Below, where velvet-dressed girls suck the lives of willing (albeit naive) victims, where an angel resides, awaiting his chance to return to Heaven, where Old Bailey and the Black Friars are actual people--and where one can get very, very lost if one does not take care.
Whereas a lot of Gaiman's other books narrate graphically about the more base and vulgar aspects of humanity—at least, I felt like those parts stood out the most, to my extreme discomfort—I was pleased to find that "Neverwhere" deals more with the folklore aspect, which lends itself to an emphasis on story and character instead of (quite frankly) sex and nudity. Gaiman works with a colorful cast and crafts a truly enchanting (if somewhat bizarre) novel.

The Emperor of Nihon-Ja (Ranger's Apprentice #10) (John Flanagan)
Flanagan did a fantastic job developing exiting characters while integrating new characters introduced in what at first seemed to be an installment outside the progressive chronology of the series... But the characters work so well, and the references to previous events fit nicely enough that it quite makes up for the faux pas.
I will say, the country of "Nihon-Ja" makes it painfully obvious that the whole setting of the Ranger's Apprentice series is just a fantasy-oriented rip-off of the real world: "Nihon" is Japanese for "Japan." There were others: "Toscana" is very obviously Italy, and they reference "Macedon" as an ancient kingdom. Moreover, the languages spoken in these regions are in fact the real-world languages of the countries on which they are based. While normally I might consider an author who does this to be nothing more than a lazy writer, Flanagan proves himself as anything but lazy in his treatment of plot and character development. Whereas normally, fantasy writers fall into the trap of focusing on setting to the detriment of story and characters, Flanagan took the "easy route" when it came to setting, in order to give his characters life and guide them through a compelling plot. "The Emperor of Nihon-Ja" was an enjoyable read, and I would definitely recommend the entire series to any fans of the genre!

The Finisher (David Baldacci)
Wow. Baldacci still has yet to disappoint!
I'll admit, I did not know what to think when I saw the name Baldacci in the Children's section. At best, I might think he might attempt YA to break out of the adult market, but Juvenile fiction? The reviews left me dubious, so I decided to let the book speak for itself.
And speak it did! Baldacci immerses the reader in an otherworldly vernacular, substituting "light" for "day", "sliver" for "minute", "slep" for "horse", and many others. It was a bit confusing at first, but the story was so compelling that I quickly got the hang of it.
As with all the books I have read so far from this author, his sense of plot and character are positively riveting and so vivid, I had them pictured in my mind without any need for celebrity portrayals.
The story centers around a young girl in a very closed community whose friend (and mentor in the occupation of "Finisher": the last person in an assembly line, who puts the finishing touches on all products... Hence the title) is summarily chased by strange beasts beyond the edge of the community that was her whole world... And in that moment, Vega Jane realizes that the world is far bigger than she had always believed. She and her lumbering, stuttering, but devastatingly loyal friend Delph are thrown headlong into an adventure fraught with danger, malevolent authorities, fierce creatures, a battle to the death, and plenty of entertainment to be had along the way!

Reached (Matched #3) (Ally Condie)
All in all, a rather bland book. I found it neither gripping nor repulsive.
Cassia is profoundly discontented for someone who has had her decisions made for her all her life. Now she's taken her freedom to choose... And whichever guy she's with, she wants very much to be with the other one! She makes it to Xander, but can't stop thinking about Ky... Meanwhile her signals are apparently not strong enough because Xander is convinced she'd still choose him.
Since it's the last book, too, we finally get some answers: what is the actual plan of the Resistance (Hint: it's not actually what you have been led to believe the whole time), how messed up the Society really is (Hint: it has something to do with the fact that the whole "Resistance" is fabricated so that those in power stay in control) and when a Plague strikes the Society, how much of a cliche plot device such crises really are... Especially when the effects and symptoms and immunity of the disease changes based on which characters have it (you basically figure out which ones are the author's favorite and which are expendable by what kind of symptoms they have). Altogether unfair, and the whole series just functioned like a child's toy: it started out really fast and promised loads of fun times, but after that initial burst it settled into a mundane rhythm and basically stopped at "the end." Meh.


F is for Fugitive (Sue Grafton)
Oh boy, I'd missed these books. What an awesome read. I love Henry as a character more (now that he's not being stalked or swindled by a deranged gold-digger!), and for once Kinsey was not conflicted by a handsome male character foisted upon her for the sake of "spice" or "steam." It pleases me to report that she can hold her own without any of that, thank you very much!

It was interesting reading "G" before this one, because it just felt like a step back in time. Kinsey was not burdened by the sudden departure of a good friend or a one-night stand, she just wants to help.
She gets a call down to a little town in Florida where a man seventeen years ago got convicted for the murder of his erstwhile girlfriend, and now his dying father contacts Kinsey and asks her to find the real killer and exonerate his son. She arrives, only to find that everyone in town has at least twenty years of buried secrets behind them. Grafton does it all with espionage, an escaped convict, buried evidence, false testimonies, midnight trysts, and just how far someone will go to hide the truth from their family.

Uglies (Scott Westerfield)
First Reaction: Convincing, that's certain—but I'm not sure I follow Tally's logic.
She is an "Ugly", which is to say she has not had the cosmetic enhancements that everyone gets at 16 to transform them into the symmetrical standard of beauty, called "Pretties." It is Tally's life goal to become a Pretty and have nothing to do but party all day long.
Then, less than a month before her operation, Tally meets Shay, a fellow Ugly who—horror of horrors—does not want to be Pretty! Shay convinces Tally to run away with her, and they find a rebel group that reveals to Tally that everything she knew about life had been sheer indoctrination by a faceless government entity who is using humanity's lust for perfection to enact some sort of mind control. The rebels have an antidote... But in order to make sure the untested "cure" works, Tally has to be Pretty after all. Oh gosh, I don't think I can take a book about Pretty life... And, like I said, I don't care enough about Tally—who has inevitably landed herself in the cliche dystopian love triangle of total drama—or anyone else to want to put myself through that. The tech ideas were cool, but I can get my fix in that category AND an awesome story elsewhere. Besides... I think I've learned my lesson about bland dystopian literature. (See review for Reached)