Didn't realize I didn't have this marked, but I got a copy in the mail a few weeks ago and it's Kelley Armstrong, so, yeah. Definitely in the to-read...moreDidn't realize I didn't have this marked, but I got a copy in the mail a few weeks ago and it's Kelley Armstrong, so, yeah. Definitely in the to-read pile. ^_^(less)
I hadn't heard of Sara B Larson's debut, Defy, until it showed up in my mailbox, which is shameful of me, because I'm normally pretty on top of anythi...moreI hadn't heard of Sara B Larson's debut, Defy, until it showed up in my mailbox, which is shameful of me, because I'm normally pretty on top of anything that even hints at the phrase "gender-bender." (I blame this almost completely on Tamora Pierce, and probably a little bit on movies like Rocky Horror, Ladybugs, To Wong Foo and Just One of the Guys. My formative years in a nutshell, friends.) So even though I had no plans to read this, and a whole stack of other things that needed to be read instead, I promptly sat down with this one almost immediately upon opening the package. And for all my high hopes and a fairly strong start, I was sadly disappointed.
Defy was an oddly confused piece of writing. It doesn't know if it wants to be the next big smexy romance novel or a straight-forward epic fantasy, so it tries to do both, and fails. 'Hot and bothered' just doesn't work as well when there are more pressing concerns like fighting for your life. Now, I've always been one to say that romance still has a place - maybe even more of a place - when the setting isn't all that conducive to a romance; people still fall in love in the middle of wars. Emotions are heightened, life seems short, and people carpe the hell out of their diems. But... if that's the case you wanna make, then that mentality, that forced, manic, precarious vitality has to be represented and believable. And those other concerns, like war and death and hurt, loss, pain, anxiety — they need to intrude, need to make up a bulk of the characters' thought-space, even. Otherwise, it makes your characters seem vapid and self-absorbed, and all of the potential tension in your story (beyond the sexual) goes right out the window. If they don't legitimately fear for their lives, we won't. If they only care about the ills of society in a cursory way, when forced to, we'll either stop caring about the world, or stop caring about the characters. (And by we, I mean me, but I'm guessing some of you, too.)
Defy felt like a lot of potential, wasted. And I don't just mean the more dire aspects of the society, and the seriousness of the situation. Even Alexa's disguise as Alex felt wasted. Larson does have talent that tries to rear its troublesome head, but beyond the lack of depth and the apparent obviousness of Alexa's disguise (who doesn't know? I think just adults, who presumably are too busy or too obtuse to pay attention to anything around them...Like the fact that one twin matures from boy to going-on man while the other remains sexless and ambiguous. Or the fact that one twin (the not-boy one) seems to spend most of his/her time openly leering at all of the sweaty dreamboats in his/her regiment...), I just felt like there needed to be more follow-through, follow-all-the-way-through, in Defy. There needed to be some psychology, some cause-effect, and all those fundamental hallmarks of good world & character building. Two apparently-straight boys are in love with someone pretending to be a boy - shouldn't there be...a grappling with confusing feelings? As a woman in a society where women are forced into brothels to be brood mares for the army, shouldn't their be some real hatred and bitterness? More distrust, more paranoia and caution in regards to the "disguise," or some acting-out, and even some self-loathing for being a member of the Army that helps prop up this institutionalized sex trafficking? Though there was a scene - a single scene - of disgust for the world Alexa lives in, I can't say that it was really more than set-up for a pivotal moment of the book -- a means to an end, and not a real analysis or condemnation of the world. It was well-done in the moment, and then relegated to the d-plotlines once again.
There were things that should have been explored and capitalized on, that should have had a greater share of the focus, over faux drama and twu wuv. So Alexa's the best fighter ever, and she's maybe magic ooh ahh. She's also smart and resourceful (one assumes), so let us see some more of that. She shows moments, but let's have more than moments; let's have that be the bulk of the narrative instead. Not confused longing and a lip-service condemnation of the serious ills of the world, before getting back to the Very Urgent Business of who's hotter, the prince or the pauper? I try not to get too moral when it comes to a book and how it presents its story -- I generally don't feel authors have some sort of "responsibility" to...well, anything, really, other than the story they set out to tell. But as amoral a reader as I am, I couldn't help but be bothered by the shock tactic of using the forced prostitution of children as an easily-discarded frame for a story about how Alexa's milkshake swordplay brings all the boys to the yard.
Now. I've gone very negative, and some of that may be the wine talking (but probably not), so I do want to say that some of this I just saw as rookie mistakes. The story could have done with a lot of lengthening, which, beyond making more depth likely, would have allowed for more of an exploration of some of these difficult plotlines. The timeframe is very compressed, and if you're rushing to get your main characters alone in the woods together so they can get their angsty-flirt on, you're bound to neglect some of the more troublesome aspects of the story. They're just not as fun, amirite? The story as a whole would have benefitted from a slower pace, and I know I'm not the only one who thought that:
And while we're talking about rookie mistakes, even though it seems silly after the more serious stuff: the names! What was with the names? They were so jarring to me; every last one of them seemed like something the author thought sounded cool, and not at all like something that fit the world being built. Cultures have patterns, languages have forms and cadence and a feel to them, and these things all make part of a believable world. Names are a much bigger part of that than you'd think, because they represent the characters who are our 'in' to the world, and therefore represent the world itself; you can't have:
This one is Frenchish, and this one's English-like, this sounds kinda Spanishy, and ooh, this sounds "exotic" and maybe a little ethnic, so that's perfect - let's toss them all together into my insular, isolated world! Perfect! No one would ever believe they didn't develop organically as an extension of the culture and language of a people! *pats self on back*
Choosing something with no real rhyme or reason other than it sounds badass is something a budding writer does in middle school. You gotta murder your darlings, baby, and you gotta make sound decisions rather than "cool" ones. I just had to get that little rant out of the way, 'cause it bothered me...
BUT, all that said, it is very fast-paced, and managed to be engaging even when it was getting under my skin. I saw enough in it that I would read the follow-up, even if it won't be high-priority; there is talent there, it just wants developing, and I'm curious to see what Larson does in the future. And I think I'll get that chance, as I have a feeling Defy is going to find a very devoted audience. (In fact, judging from some of my GR friends' reactions, it already has.) No matter how much we all rail against it and its predictability, there's always a huge market for love triangles; everybody wants to be Team Somebody. Defy will have that in spades. It's just the rest of it - all of its other bookness - that failed to deliver. It's probably a good "epic fantasy" for people who don't actually like epic fantasy, but want to feel like they're reading one - it gives you the bare bones of such a thing, with some vaguely jungle-ish world-building, looming war and atrocities, and mad swordplay skillz, but in the end, it's really just a standard YA love triangle dressed up in epic fantasy's clothing, like a child wearing her mother's heels and playing house. (less)
School Spiritsis the first in a spin-off series from the Hex Hallbooks. And though I own the Hex Hall series,I was worried when this showed up in my...moreSchool Spirits is the first in a spin-off series from the Hex Hall books. And though I own the Hex Hall series, I was worried when this showed up in my mail that I wouldn't be able to read it, since I haven't actually read Hex Hall even a little bit. Being completely buried in books right now, and heading into what is inevitably my busiest month of the year, combined with the fact that I haven't read HH, I figured the best thing would be to set this on a shelf and let it languish for a bit while I responsibly go about the things I need to get done...which is why I opened up to the first page "just to see" and then proceeded to finish it. [Don't look at me like that, I know I'm not the only one who does this.]
Since I haven't read HH, I guess I can't talk about how School Spirits compares to that, but I can certainly say that it makes me more eager to read it. Though this may not go down in history as the most memorable or most original book I've read, it was pure fun throughout, and I think I may come to find Hawkins' style a perfect funk-breaker. There are those authors or works that I always recommend when someone tells me they're in a reading rut (or when I, myself, am) because they're breezy, effortless style doesn't make you work at enjoying reading. These types of books make a great break when you're stalled in something that you just can't seem to finish, because they remind you that reading can be fun; an author can be have a sense of humor; a book can be quick and light and exactly what you needed to jumpstart you when you're in a slump. I have a list of such books to use as go-to recommendations, which includes things like Kiersten White's Paranormalcy, Jana Oliver's The Demon Trapper's Daughter. I have a feeling School Spirits will be added to that list.
That's the type of book School Spirits was. It's begging to be on "beach reads" lists, or "curling up in a hammock with the sun on your face reads" lists or "OMG I'm done with finals, give me something fun!!1" lists. It was breezy and cute (not cutesy), with just the right amount of fluff to it to make it quick and compulsively engaging, but keep it from being a throwaway. The story is pretty standard paranormal fare, but Izzy - and a number of the other characters - are so engaging that they make the story shine. Hawkins has done a really good job of setting up the series, giving us all the basics to dive into the world, engaging characters to lead us through it, and enough mystery and openness to keep us coming back for those unanswered questions. And because two - at least - of those questions are pretty big ones, I have a feeling that the tension in this series is going to build quite nicely, and make each book stronger than the last. (At least, I can hope!)
So if you're in a rut and in need of a funk-breaker, or just love a good damn fun book, School Spirits might be just the one to pick up. And if you're like me, and still have Hex Hall sitting on your shelves, unread, then you may just want to have a summertime Rachel Hawkins binge...(less)
2.5ish territory, but this one has a pretty fluid rating, I think - apt to change depending on my mood.
Okay, Shadowlands...I feel like I would write a...more2.5ish territory, but this one has a pretty fluid rating, I think - apt to change depending on my mood.
Okay, Shadowlands...I feel like I would write a different review of this every day of the week. Frankly, I'm really torn, and have even held off giving it a rating on Goodreads. Here's the thing: There are going to be people that are so shocked and amazed by the way this ends that they'll love it. There are going to be people that are so shocked and dismayed by the way this ends that they'll hate it. There are going to be people that find this gimmicky and disjointed, something that relies too heavily on a twist (and today, at least, that's where my opinion is hovering.)
This is a difficult book to talk about without spoiling something, but essentially, Shadowlands is a contemporary thriller that reads like a movie trying to be a book. And that doesn't really work. Things that work in movies often don't work so well when they're written out because your brain processes them differently. Fog, for instance; fog rolling up right at the opportune (or inopportune) moment, there at the height of tension and then gone - seeing that on a screen works, even if later you think it's cheesy; we sort of process it in the background. But when in writing, it ceases to work because it's being pointed out; you are forced to focus on it, which gives you the time to reflect on it, realize how cheesy it is immediately, roll your eyes, and then begin to question everything. It jars you out of the flow a little, and each time this happens, you get further and further away from connecting with or believing in the story. Things like this, and the unrealistic way characters react and/or interact with each other, kept eating at me. But this is where it becomes tricky, because those same things can actually be kind of interesting by the end.
I spent the first half of this book being really frustrated with damn near everything, laughing and rolling my eyes when I should have been, I don't know, shivering in sympathetic terror, I guess. And then there came a point right about the middle when I thought, you know what would be kind of neat? If this had a twist ending where [big fat spoiler]. And then I started to think that the only thing that could redeem the book and make me look at all of my little annoyances in a different light would be that [big fat spoiler]. But the book kept going on and on, and though things got a little weirder, and then occasionally less-weird, I started to doubt the book would be redeemed. But wouldn't you know it? [Big Fat Spoiler] right there at the very last second. Well, I'll be. And so there is was, the BFS, and I'm sitting there thinking 2 things: 1. This gives the book interesting reread potential, which is funny because I didn't think I'd want to finish it, let alone reread it; and 2. This is going to piss people off. Or maybe amaze them. Or mostly piss them off, but amazingly so.
So it happened, the one thing I thought could maybe save this and make me like it, and for that, I have to kind of smile at Kate Brian and admit that there's a part of me that likes this. But I have to wag my finger at her, too, because she really drew it out to the very last minute, and is it too little, too late? Well...sorta, yeah; there needs to be a balance. In the end, the things I didn't like about it made sense and even seem almost necessary, but to get to a place where it works, readers have to make it all the way to the end. In an often-frustrating book, that may not always happen.If this weren't fairly engaging and quick, I probably would have given up on it, and I never would have known that things worked for the world. You have to give the reader a reason to go with it, and if you don't, it doesn't matter how snazzy or perfectly-suited your twist ending is. If you give me piece of pie and the first few bites taste like crap (or even just bland and pedestrian), you can't be surprised when I don't want to finish it, even if you insist that the last few bites will totally change my mind. I want the whole slice to be good, dammit. There are a lot of calories in pie. Each bite should be worth it.
I've gotten offtrack.* What I'm trying to say is, I'm TORN. A twist ending is 10% of a book, tops. I need to care about the other 90%, too. So, yes, part of me likes this in hindsight, and even thinks it will make for an interesting reread; but part of me thinks it's just silly and slapdash, and full of really unlikable characters and unlikely events, that is hastily (but interestingly) pulled together in the end. Personally, I could have done with a lot fewer cliches and a lot more slow-burning thriller. There could still have been unlikable or questionable bits that click into place in the end, but with something more worthy to pull me along. But this would make a good movie, I think, and I have to wonder if perhaps it was written to be? A lot of authors seem to be writing things with the goal of having it optioned and potentially making bank on a franchise, and though that's another pet peevish trend I do want to discuss someday, I'm not going to use Shadowlands as a platform to do so. In the end, this book is truly going to come down to each individual reader, and I find it nearly impossible to predict which side of the fence any one person will fall on. Maybe it comes down to whether you figure out twists waaaay too f*cking far in advance (like me =/) or whether they sneak up on you. I dunno. I will go so far as to say that I'm curious enough about the setup for the rest of the series - and more specifically, the main character's reaction to it - that I may even read book 2. So there's that. But there are a lot of pages in a book. Every page should be worth it.
See, it all comes back around...
OH! OH! OH! AND: This cover? Pretty much nothing to do with the book.
*Have you guys ever noticed how many food metaphors I use? Lest you think I'm some binge-eating, calorie-counting, obsessive foodie**: 1. for a long time I thought I was going to be a chef; 2. everyone eats. Food is something we can all relate to, so it's a good go to. At least, that's what I'm going to tell myself the next time I compare a book to food. **Okay, I sort of am an obsessive foodie. But not of the binge-eating type, and certainly not of the calorie-counting type. shudder.(less)
Did a video review for this one, but basic thoughts are: *2.5 - Really mixed. *Very fast read. (Very fast. Like, maybe it should have been slower so th...moreDid a video review for this one, but basic thoughts are: *2.5 - Really mixed. *Very fast read. (Very fast. Like, maybe it should have been slower so that things could happen in ways that made sense.) *Sometimes funny, but often flat. *3 characters, 2 authors, and yet only one voice among them... *Rapey scientist says what? *The end.
3.5 It wouldn't be a lie to say that I wanted to read this because of the cover and its obvious Downton Abbey inspiration, but it also wouldn't be a l...more3.5 It wouldn't be a lie to say that I wanted to read this because of the cover and its obvious Downton Abbey inspiration, but it also wouldn't be a lie to say I probably would never have actively sought this out, because of those things, and because reasons. But when its pretty self showed up* in my mailbox before Christmas, luring me in the packets of Walkers shortbread and Twinings English Breakfast tea - well, frankly it was just too tempting a scene to pass up. So picture me, curled up on the couch, dunking my biscuits in a steaming cuppa, ready to sink into a (hopefully) nice little bit of turn of the century escapism. Maybe the tea and sugar (and butter. My god, the butter in those biscuits!) did their job and lulled me after a time, because after a jarring bit in the beginning when I felt sure this book and I were not going to get on, we somehow became reluctant friends. Confidants, even.
But lets get that first bit out of the way, shall we? It's the dreaded insta-love. And I meaninsta. Like, pretty sure it happened on about page 2, with two characters who'd never met, had no business being alone unchaperoned (at night. On a ship!), and both of whom acted out of character/station. It had me gasping behind my fan, I can tell you. With this, my guard was definitely up, and when you add in some of the anachronistic/unrealistic approach to the story, I was all prepared to heartily dislike this. BUT as much as I wanted to be bothered by this (and the complete lack offoundation in their sudden "relationship"), I eventually just gave in. I mean, the times, they were a-changin', and it is the lit equivalent of a soap opera, so whatever. I certainly would have preferred anticipation and build-up in the relationship - in a few relationships, actually, as they were all on the risque side; come to think of it, I would much have preferred this to be a sweeping saga that really wrenched every bit of drama out of the interactions... - but I had to face the facts that this was just never going to be that type of story, and I could dig my heels in or I could enjoy it. And when I came to (grudging) terms with that, I did thoroughly enjoy myself.
Yes, this was heavily inspired by Downton Abbey. Not just the time/setting, but even the plot points - kind of a "ripped from the headlines" approach in some ways, which is fine so long as you make it your own. And that was sort of the point of this book, after all, and the reason I wanted to read it, so I can't really hate... Like Downton, there are a lot of characters to keep track of. Actually, if I'm being honest, there were too many characters to keep track of, especially when they're not all that distinct. There were a few times I had to flip back and figure out who someone was, where they came in, and why they were significant. This is something dealt with much easier on screen, where people have distinct looks and there are all kinds of visual clues in how they dress/carry themselves to remind us where they fit into the story. Much harder on the page, when the story is flitting back and forth between plot-lines and the reader is left to keep track of who's who and how they know each other (compounded by the fact that just about everyone in the book is just now becoming acquainted with one another...). Because of that, I imagine this would be a frustrating book for some people. Eventually I got them all worked out, though, and even grew to sort of care about of few of them (surprise!). It's also very quick-moving, and some readers may feel rushed about. (I've already mentioned I would like a little more lingering... but at least the quick pace kept things lively.)
In the end, I have to say, I enjoyed it. It's anachronistic, but fun; not for diehard traditionalists, certainly - if you like your historical dramas to be sweeping and epic and (most of all) painstakingly researched and historically accurate, this is probably not the book for you. This isn't a book that will have you building ballrooms in your mind, or feeling as if it's so lovingly rendered that you practically lived it with the characters. No, this is not that. But for those looking for something fun to tide them over in between seasons of Downton, or for a nice bit of easy escapism, a good guilty pleasure read, it certainly ticks all the boxes. And though I don't know that the series will ever be one of my jumping-eager, gotta-have-it, breathlessly-awaiting-the-next series, I'm definitely curious to see what happens next at Somerton. I'll have a nice supply of tea and biscuits waiting...