Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Review: Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan

source: e-galley from HMH
publication: April 5, 2016, Clarion Books

I think there's something wrong with me.
I've been in the worst book slump of my life for the past couple of months—one or two standouts but mostly a ton of books I feel pretty "meh" about or DNF'd completely—so when I saw this one up on Edelweiss, I thought I heard a chorus of angels.
You see, I've been looking forward to this book for about two years now, since Sarah Rees Brennan first said she was writing a retelling and I guessed that it would be A Tale of Two Cities, just because she's Sarah Rees Brennan.
When I found out I was right, I gloated and jumped for joy and the promise of pain to come.
So you should know that I think I put too much pressure on this book to take me out of my reading slump. Another factor to blame might be that I read it on my e-reader, which makes things less memorable and also the formatting was weird and I might not have caught everything I was supposed to catch.

This book did not click with me the way I wanted it to.
The idea behind it is great: a retelling of A Tale of Two Cities wherein the reason "Sydney Carton" and "Charles Darnay" look so much alike is because one is a magic doppelgänger, and the reason he's so shady is because DARK MAGIC.
Somewhere along the way, the execution diverged from the brilliance of the concept.

My first problem was that Lucie, the main character, lacks a distinct personality and goes off on inner monologues that can sometimes last nearly an entire chapter. Once I really thought about it, I realized that maybe between six and ten actual events occur in this book (which is not enough for a 350-ish page novel), and the rest is just Lucie narrating about her past, or the Stryker family, or Ethan specifically, or attempting to explain the magic system. Now, I have read A Tale of Two Cities and I enjoyed it, but I know it's not exactly a high-speed car chase either. The difference is that in the original, I knew there were things going on in the background, and I had an idea of what those things were, because obviously they were things that actually happened in actual history and didn't need to be fully explained in fiction. In Tell the Wind and Fire, I knew there was some kind of rebellion, but I didn't know how violent it was, or what was being done to fight back against it, or anything like that. All I knew was that Lucie was being used as their symbol, which, frankly, is a trope that's so worn out in YA that it's like a pair of shoes whose sole has come detached from the heel and it just drags on the ground, calling attention to itself.
The rebellion itself was pretty standard fare and I wouldn't have minded it much if the magic had been explained better. I want to see these two different types of magic fighting each other! But really, the only people I got to see use their magic were Lucie and Carwyn. I'm still not sure how it worked for anyone else—I know that Dark magic can control emotions and that makes it dangerous, but I want to see it in action. What kind of emotional manipulation is most dangerous for Lucie? For the Strykers? For your average Light magician on the street? On top of that, what does Light magic actually do, besides light things up and put collars on doppelgängers?

There are a few moments in the book when Lucie shows her colors by actually standing up to people—something the original Lucie Manette obviously never did—but even those moments fell flat for me, because they felt like she was reciting lines fed to her by social justice activists. I agreed with everything she said, but the novel would have been more successful at illustrating the "Don't touch a girl without her permission" rule, for instance, if Lucie hadn't couched it in the argument that it makes people look "stupid" when they do. More important than how it makes the violator look: it makes the victim feel objectified, belittled, and like her body is not her own. That is what he should care about. HOWEVER, I loved that once she told Carwyn to stop, he did. I always appreciate a male character who learns respect by listening; probably more than I appreciate the ones who unrealistically pop out of the womb as fully-formed feminists, despite being a member of a family with no women in sight (coughEthancough).

Which brings me to: Ethan. Lucie spent so much of the book explaining why she loved Ethan (he helped her adapt to the Light city, he respects her, he's kind, etc. etc.) that I couldn't feel anything at all for him myself. And unlike with Sydney Carton, I couldn't really feel anything for Carwyn either, because Lucie decided he was evil and she hated him. We never got the inside glimpse of Carwyn that we did with Sydney—until the end, that is—because this novel is in first-person POV from the perspective of someone who assumes he's not worth her time.
When Carwyn's Sydney Carton moment did finally come along and he confessed his affection for her*, it frustrated me that Lucie had not noticed before, while simultaneously seeming out-of-character for him. I don't know.
I just don't know.

But anyway, the end was fantastic. Emotions happened.

I liked this book. I feel like I'm only listing the things that didn't work for me, but I really did like it. I will still buy the hardcover (because, I mean, look at it) and I'll try to sell it. Who knows, maybe I'll give it another shot someday when I have a real copy to read and am out of this reading slump. But for now, this is my review.

Characters: 3/5
World-building: 2/5
Plot: 3/5
Writing: 4/5
Retelling creativity: 5/5

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Review: Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

source: e-galley from Penguin
publication: March 15, 2016, Dutton

Let me start by saying, the cover artists did an amazing job finding the right image to represent this book. The cover evokes the exact same feeling you get from reading it. 

If you ask me, Exit, Pursued by a Bear should go up there with Speak as a classic YA book dealing with sexual assault, both because it's that good and because the juxtaposition would show just how broad a spectrum there is for those situations. The aftermath can vary wildly, and I think these and every book like these are important because they can hold a mirror to so many more teens through their differences. 

What E.K. Johnston has done is finally, finally give us a novel about a well-adjusted character with a constant support system full of people willing to give her what she needs. Hermione doesn't remember what happened to her, but she knows she's changed by it in some fundamental way and she's not hiding from that. She always did and still does care about everyone else's feelings—is she making them uncomfortable? Should she be thinking about herself less, and them more?—but she learns to demand respect, to make her assault about her and no one else.

Hermione's character development alone would be enough to make this novel satisfying, but we also get her friendships with her team, and especially Polly, who may run a little toward the typical tough-best-friend but who is integral in helping Hermione decide how she will let people treat her. We get her supportive family who aren't quite sure how to approach her now, and her quirky therapist (yes, she willingly sees a therapist and for once, she's a teenager who isn't bitter or rude about it). We get her cheerleading team, that deep-down familiar camaraderie and friendship that shaped her into an empathetic, levelheaded leader. I never did sports in school, so all of my knowledge of team dynamics was based on Friday Night Lights; I can't believe I'm saying this, but this book was more effective at making me wish I had been on a team.

Not only does Johnston give us positive relationships and a heroine who talks about her feelings, but she also addresses all the things you would want a book about rape to address: rape culture, victim-blaming, unwanted pregnancy, psychological damage, and the idea that a victim stops being her own person and becomes some kind of message for everyone else. I had never really thought about it before, but this book opened my eyes to how many people can and will use someone else's tragedy as a vehicle for their own betterment; I loved Hermione for noticing it, and I loved her more for not being filled with rage about it.

Overall there were so many things I loved about this book, but probably the biggest were the friendships—of all different kinds—the keenness and sensitivity with which it addresses the issues, and most of all, the main character. I'm really glad I got to know her.