Friday, June 14, 2013

What I’ve (been) Reading, June 14, 2013

I’ve been a bit busy, and despite the fact that I have been reading, I haven’t had the time to share what I’ve been reading each week. So, instead of a short list of my week’s reads, here are the books I’ve been reading since May 17th (that date of my last “What I’m Reading” Blog).

The Chaos of Stars by Kiersten White (Releases 9/10/13)
This teen paranormal/mythological novel revolves around the human daughter of Isis and Horace, Isadora, who in rebellion against her parent’s moves to San Diego, Ca to live with her older brother. The premise of this one was good, but the book got a little silly at points, just missing the mark with me. There was proper teen angst, amplified by the parents being gods, and some fun insight into Egyptian mythology, something I always enjoyed, but in the end this one just didn’t quite do it for me. Although, as a San Diegan it was fun to see the city I love so much on display, but for non-San Diegan’s the tour guide-like view of our famous Balboa Park, and other attractions would get a bit wearing, and a little to kitschy. The Chaos of Stars wasParanormalcy (the sequels of which were also a bit disappointing), which was so fresh and fun.

just an okay book, but a little disappointing after White’s

Night Film by Marisha Pessl (Releases 8/20/13)
Loved it, loved it, loved it. My hands down favorite of the summer, possibly the year. Watch for an in-depth review on August 15th.

Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst (Releases 9/3/13)
I’ll start by saying that I really loved Sarah Beth Durst’s book Ice. It’s a great story that blends fairytale and cultural mythology together, and I would recommend it for teen fans of that genre. Conjured, has a very creative premise; Eve is an amnesiac with fainting spells that cause short term memory loss, she is in the protective custody of a government agency (a form of witness protection), and she had magic powers. Eve doesn’t know who she is, but she knows there is a killer on the loose and she is the key to stopping him. Filled with intrigue, magic, and glimpses of horror, Conjured should have been a pleasant blending of the mystery, paranormal, and horror genres, unfortunately, despite having all the elements of success, Conjured loses its momentum mind-book, and instead of a tight and interesting story, falls apart. This is going to be a common statement in this particular blog, having read four YA books in the last few weeks, all but one, fell into the teen trap of great start, messy and rushed ending. There is this great build up, the introduction of remarkable characters with interesting problems, but when it comes to the meat and potatoes of the story, the author just doesn’t quite pull it together. Things get rushed; character development gets thrown out the door and so does the promise of the book. I stuck with this one, but the hasty conclusion detracted too much from the interesting premise.

Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg (out now)
Here’s another one of those books that started off on the right foot, but really lost it in the end. For years I’ve noticed how poorly some authors do with endings. It’s time to step it up ladies and gentleman, learn how to end a book smoothly and intelligently, don’t just throw it all on the page and wait for something to stick, and worse, don’t just end the book because you’ve reached your page count. Teens are more than capable of reading long books; look at the Harry Potter Series, Twilight, The Mortal Instruments series; all huge bestsellers and all quite lengthy. All readers enjoy good character development and actually resolution of conflict; and yet some many of these authors fail to grasp that concept; which is why they are not the go to authors for booksellers, and will never be bestsellers. I digress, apparently this is tangent week. So, the plot of Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality is one we’ve seen before; Lexi, a funny, average girl with beautiful talented sister who is doted upon by the mother, decides to beautify and take the world (or high school and family) by storm. Here’s where it’s different; the sister is only seven, and a beauty queen, the father is absent, the mother is obese and obsessive to the point of bankruptcy about the beauty pageant scene. The story actually has heart; the m other is truly atrocious (she steals from her oldest daughter and generally neglects her), and actually needs psychiatric help, the father is a limp noodle, and Lexi is really struggling to hold it together in a way that does in fact tug at the heartstrings. I liked this part of the book. The problem is that nothing is really resolved in the end. So all that righteous indignation that occurs during the reading of the first three-quarters of this book has nowhere to go, there is not catharsis, no purging of that reader anger, so the ending is deflating and frustrating instead of affirming. Elizabeth Eulberg had something, but she let it go in the creation of her hodgepodge ending, not to mention a few really clichéd characters who really don’t add to the heart of the story, which is Lexi’s dysfunctional family. Another let-down.

Elizabeth the First Wife by Lian Dolan (out now)
Light, chick-lit fair with a nice touch of Shakespeare, Elizabeth the First Wife is a fun, easy read for the summer. The plot follows Elizabeth, a Community College Professor who jumps to her superstar ex-husband’s rescue at a Shakespeare festival. Meddling siblings, controlling mothers, and a handsome intelligent newcomer all make for a fun time.

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls (out now)
The Silver Star follows sisters Bean and Liz as they deal with their unreliable mother, a cross country move, small town prejudices, and adults who manipulate children. Let me start off by saying that Jeannette Walls is a fantastic writer. In The Silver Star she creates a compelling and immensely loveable heroine in twelve year old Bean. In some ways, Bean’s spirit, and sense of justice evokes memories of young Scout Finch. She is strong, full of righteous indignation, but also sweet, loving, and aching to live a normal life. For her character alone, this book was worth reading. Unfortunately, a clichéd ending, that is not quite an ending, and an even more two-dimensional villain, make for a weaker fair. This is one of my big disappointments this year—namely because the book is so good, the characters of Liz and Bean (more so Bean) so life-like in their depictions, but Walls just can’t quite keep the story together in the end. Really, the book seems unfinished—it just ends—that’s it, nothing else. Yes, the villain is taken care of, but in a mundane and completely unoriginal way, but the girls, particularly Liz are left hanging in the wind. I would have easily sat through one hundred more pages to just get a little bit more about these two girls’ futures, to see if they make it, but alas Walls leaves readers unsatisfactorily drifting in the wind. I think this one is worth it for the first half of the book, particularly for book clubs, but after that it just leaves you wanting, and not in a good way.

Uncommon Criminals by Ally Cater (out now)
The second book in Carter’s Heist Society series is great fun. Following a group of wily and elite teen thieves, Uncommon Criminals is both smart and funny. I’m a big fan of this series (who doesn’t love a “good thief”), and can’t recommend it enough. Perfect for younger teens, as the material is not too adult, it will also entertain the older ones with its witty heroine Kat Bishop and her sort of romance with urbane mega-rich boy Hale. Both this and its predecessor are in paperback, with the third book just out in hardcover, making it a great one to take to the beach or on vacation.

So in all, a lot of let downs these last couple of weeks--here's hoping for an author to really hit it out of the park on the next go round.

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Friday, June 7, 2013

The Never List

It’s eerie when you read a fictional book and then see the events pan out in real life, especially when the book you are reading is a thriller that involves the abduction, captivity and torture (physical and psychological) of young women, but that is exactly what happened not long after I finished Koethi Zan’s debut The Never List (out 7/16/13). By now everyone is well aware of the three women found in Cleveland, kidnapped as teens and held for ten years by a trio of brothers; a frightening and horrific thing no matter how you look at it*; which made the events that happen in The Never List, although fictional, that much more disturbing for the casual reader.

The basic plot of The Never List follows a young woman, who a decade ago escaped a man who held her and three other young women captive for several years. Sarah and Jennifer were college freshmen, hyper-aware of the dangers the world can offer—having survived a near fatal accident that took the life of Jennifer’s mother—and always prepared for any possible outcome; yet despite their manic preparedness the girls are kidnapped on a cab ride home from a college party. Held chained and naked in a basement, Sarah, along with two other girls, Tracy and Christine endure psychological and physical torture on par with the psychosis seen in Saw films, from a sadist of the highest ilk who also happens to be a professor of
Psychology at an Oregon University. All the while Jennifer is nowhere to be seen, stuffed in a coffin-like box, unable to communicate with the others. When Jennifer is presumed dead Sarah makes a daring escape, but ten years on, with the chance of their frighteningly brilliant captor facing the possibility of parole, Sarah and Tracy go on a quest to find answers and face their demons once and for all.

The narrative, while primarily in the now, does bounce around in time, with snippets of the girls’ abduction, captivity, and escape dribbled out through the text; giving just enough to whet the appetite and fill in the holes, but not enough to completely tell the reader all that happened during the girls imprisonment. The violence is surprisingly slim, but the hints and possibilities that are leaked through words and images are enough to have even the bravest of women white knuckled. In some ways The Never List is a form of psychological manipulation; exposing the horrors, highlighting the monsters, but not quite giving all the details, which leads to imagination, which leads readers to visualize horrors that no one wants dancing around their heads. In that way, the book and writing are brilliant, what better way to get the true impact of a psychological thriller than to leave the worst of it to the readers’ own bit of psychosis? Unfortunately, the plot itself suffers a bit from an overabundance of foreshadowing and clue leaving; which makes it a bit too easy to figure out. In writing suspense it’s good to leave a clue here and there, a reader should be able to reach the novel’s conclusion and then be able to look back and find the bits and pieces that were left like little breadcrumbs leading to the eventual outcome. The writer should not spell out the conclusion—it makes for a poor twist and a groan from the readers. Debut writer Zan does the latter, the twists and outcome are a little too predictable. Fortunately, the predictability of the plot and resolution does not detract from the well-developed tension of the heroine, and ultimate horror of the acts and lifestyle perpetrated by the villains of the novel. The sheer terror evoked by their deeds is enough to have readers gripping the edge of the book in a weird amalgamation of discomfort and curiosity, both repelled by the concepts and addicted to the possible outcomes. Because the author wisely leaves out the more ghastly details the reader is not subjected to an outright description of the atrocities, making the tension one of the mind, and not of the eyes—meaning it’s not like watching a film like Saw or Hostel that leaves nothing to the imagination, showing torture for the sake of showing gratuitous violence and nothing more—the book is not apt to make one squeamish, or deeply disturbed, if anything it makes readers subtly more aware of their surroundings and the people within them.

In all, The Never List is a worthy read for psychological suspense and thriller fans. It is well constructed, frightening, and at times close enough to reality to make a reader want to check the doors and avoid cab rides. Despite the plot loopholes and predictability, the book creates a wonderful sort of edge-of-the-seat tension that can consume a reader, and lurk about long after the last pages of text are a distant memory. For a first book Koethi Zan has proved herself adept at handling a very real and scary subject, she can only get better from here, and I for one am eager to see what she does next. A good book for fans of Gillian Flynn and Chevy Stevens.

*Please note that I am in no way trying to compare the real life atrocities faced by these kidnapped victims to fictional characters. I’m using this sad story as a point of reference, sadly truth is always much stranger and darker than fiction could ever be, and yet sometimes when they collide, on however small a scale, it reminds us what a frightening world our society can be.

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