YA Fantasy Review: Glimmerglass by Jenna Black

1/5 Stars

Glimmerglass is the kind of YA book that makes me wonder why I ever read YA books. I mean, I have my guns and usually I stick to them. But Glimmerglass… I was the victim of cover-lust in the worst way. I was so disillusioned by the experience that I just tried to forget about the book rather than writing the review I said I would write. I hid it on the back of my shamereads bookshelf and pretended that it hadn’t happened. I usually don’t like to add my two cents when a book just isn’t for me. I prefer to use Goodreads to tout the books I love. And when I don’t like a book, there are usually tons of people out there who do like it (as there are for Glimmerglass) and a healthy smattering of those who didn’t and aren’t afraid to let loose a real rant.

So, let me start by saying that there are things I liked about this book. I’ve already mentioned the cover. I like the title, too, and the idea that it represents (although we really only get an inkling of what Black intends to do with the Glimmerglass concept). But that’s about it. Jenna Black had a good idea, but she let me down. I just don’t understand why an apparently intelligent and educated woman would choose to write so simplistically and transparently. Kids aren’t dumb; you don’t have to spell every little detail out to them a hundred times for them to understand you. It’s not like training a puppy. As a kid, nothing infuriated me more than being talked down to by condescending adults. I never would have finished this book were I still in the intended age bracket. In my more visceral years I would have hucked the thing across the room and picked up an Anne Rice.

Young adults are exactly that, young adults. Black insults young readers everywhere with her vapid, boy-crazy idiot of a protagonist, Dana Hathaway. Dana ditches her alcoholic mom to meet her biological father—whom she has never met, but has been told her whole life is a dangerous, power hungry jerk—in the gateway city of Avalon, which resides in England and marks the border between the human and faerie worlds. (I would have thought that this gateway between our world and that of the Tuatha Dé Danann , if it existed, would be more likely to show up in Ireland than England. But that’s beside the point).

This move, as foolhardy as it is, is actually the only decision Dana makes for herself that moves the plot forward in any way. After this, it’s all Dana being dragged from one catastrophe to the next by her menacing Aunt Grace, the too-good-to-be-true-lover-boy (or is he?) Ethan, her insta-best-friend Kimber, her father, and basically anyone who bats his eyelashes at her. Dana is a textbook passive character (not good, especially for a protagonist).

None of the characters have well-rounded personalities or believable motivations. The closest we get is Kimber, who has a complicated relationship with her brother Ethan (who remains seemingly unaware of their issues), but we are not given to understand why she finds herself so attached to Dana. The only character I felt like I actually understood was Dana’s mom.

If I had to live with Dana for sixteen years, I’d be driven to drink too.

The ending is sadly predictable. Here’s a hint, Jenna Black, if your protagonist is suspicious of everyone it will never be surprising when the true bad guy is revealed. The only surprising aspect of Glimmerglass’s ending was the fact that Black was able to pick one antagonist and stick to it. I almost expected a giant conspiracy where everyone was working against Dana just like she thought all along, because that’s how transparent the rest of the plot was.

I likely won’t be reading the next installment in the series.

Unless it has an even prettier cover…

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Fantasy Book Review: White is for Witching

4/5 Stars

Do you know what I love?

I love picking up a book and thinking “What the hell is going on?” But in a good way. I love when a book is so out there and unexpected that it actually surprises me. And I read a lot of weird shit, so this is not easy to accomplish. Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching is one such book. It is eerie, and strange, and unexpected in so many ways that I wish I could give it 5 stars just for that.

This book is about family, and friendship, and race, and class, and education. And then it’s not about any of these things. It is just a piece of a life being torn apart by psychological illness. I think a lot of people read this book and found it pretentious. I think they came at it, expecting it to be difficult because it’s strange. But it’s not difficult. I think it’s actually quite straight-forward, and readers do themselves a disservice by trying to read more into it than Oyeyemi is giving us.

As if what she gives us isn’t enough! White is for Witching is the story of Miranda Silver, and her struggle with an eating disorder called pica, which prompts her to eat inedible materials. Miri is wasting away, knowing that she is sick but trying to get better, as she watches her illness begin to break apart what is left of her family—a fraternal twin brother and a father—after the death of her mother.

Women of the Silver family (the twins have their mother’s surname because they were born with blue eyes, an agreement that their parents made before their births) are plagued by madness, a kind of curse. And as Miri and her brother Eliot become adults they are pulled apart by more than the inevitable changes of adulthood; Miri’s downward spiral into mental illness is destroying their relationship.

Miri remains a bit of a mystery. At the very outset of the novel, Miranda Silver has gone missing. She is never given a first person narrative voice as are her brother Eliot, her best-friend/lover Ore, and the house that she and her brother have grown up in. Yes, that’s right, the house narrates a portion of this novel. And it’s kind of a bastard. The suggestion is that the house has a large part to play in the madness of the Silver women, though just how large a part isn’t made clear until the end of the novel. And by then you’re wishing someone would just burn the thing down. Seriously creepy.
The only reason I haven’t given White is for Witching 5 stars is that I felt some things were left a little too open. I’m not big on having plot spelled out for me, I actually like to be able to bring a little of myself to story. But there were moments in this one that left me a little baffled. For example, why is the house racist?—it seems as if the house has taken on the prejudices of the original occupants in the Silver matri-lineage. But why did this one woman’s world-view stick and none of the other Silver women seem to be able to sway the house’s opinions?

Okay, if you haven’t read this book that sounds like a strange line of inquiry. If you have read it, maybe you can tell me… Did I miss something? And then there’s the sub-plot with Eliot’s girlfriend who seems to want to look like Miri, and uses her disguise to… get some immigrant boys stabbed to death? Riddle me that. I would have liked just a tad more than Oyeyemi’s given us here. I just couldn’t connect the dots in any kind of meaningful way.

In spite of these minor glitches I felt White is for Witching to be an exciting, original read. It’s a brief and poetically written. It’s a little dark, which I like, and has just a touch of magic realism without coming across as campy. Take an afternoon off and pick up this book! It’s a quick and rewarding read. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

YA Book Review: Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Okay.

I’m writing another YA book review. I don’t know why I read this one, except that another reviewer that I really respect gave it 4/5 stars. But it’s still YA, so I still expect it to suck. So sue me.

Worse, it’s YA Paranormal Romance. Ugh.

But I read it. And I finished it. Which means it didn’t suck as badly as I thought it would.

Actually Shiver didn’t suck at all. It was a decent, if simple, book. The plot wasn’t so derivative that I knew what Stiefvater was after from page one. Actually, the ending was a bit of a surprise. Pleasant, even. Weird, right?

For the most part, Stiefvater’s language was complicated enough to be interesting without being so purple that I couldn’t get through it. I know there are some reviews that focus on particularly bad lines. But I’m willing to overlook these in the greater scheme of things. “I am a leaking womb” is not the greatest imagery to pass through my ocular filter and make it into my brain. However, surprisingly, it is not the worst either. And that shit doesn’t happen often enough for me to write off the whole novel for the sake of it.

I’m a forgiving person.

Can I just say, now, that I’m not into werewolves. Or vampires, or any other kind of monster you can think of that might make a good love interest for a female teenage protagonist. But Shiver, although it does follow the paranormal romance formula, did not strike me as “just-another-teeneage-werewolf-romance” kind of book. Granted, I haven’t read enough of them to know the difference.

What I do know is that I didn’t hate Grace, the protagonist. And although he was a bit of an emo wimp, I didn’t hate Sam either. In fact, I felt that both of these characters transcended their stereoptypes and became “real.” That’s a big statement coming from a YA hater, such as myself. Both characters grow more than thier Hunger Games contemproraries, and although this world is more similar to ours, I felt like Shiver was saying more that HG was in the first novel of the trilogy.

To be fair, I am partly in love with the fact that the text is colour coordinated with the cover. I.e. it’s blue for Shiver. Green for Linger. Etc.

But I swear, the story was decent too…

…If you can get past the awkward teeneage romance aspect, that is.

Was it really this painful when we were going through it? I don’t remember teenage love being like this at all. Maybe I’m a freak. I’m willing to accept that. But seriously. Who is considering marriage at 17 years old?

These gripes aside, Shiver is actually an interesting novel about two young people attempt to find a place in the world. Stiefvater’s take on family and society is interesting and unforgiving, which I like. I like that she doesn’t pretent the world is a wonderful place and she makes room for weirdness even in the most “normal” of relationships. Grace is a likeable character, even if she’s a little emotionally removed. Stiefvater gives us enough background to explain why this is. Conversely, Sam is an interesting counter-type to Grace and his own backgrouned adds to this rather than complicating things unnecessarily. I liked them both.

I actually liked all fo the characters, and felt that they remained true to their types throughout the novel.

Okay, Sam’s lyrics kind of suck. But he’s an 18 year old guy. I’d be a little suspicious if they didn’t suck, really. And they do get better as the novel progresses. And you’ll like Sam. So you’ll be able to forgive him for being that shaggy haired douche in your English Lit class, I swear.

Just read it, okay?

Non-Fiction Book Review: The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins

ImageIf you haven’t heard of Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality yet, then you can send me a nice thank you note for this post. Maybe some wheat-free brownies, if you’ve never heard of Dawkins’ or The Magic of Reality. Because you owe me, now.

The Magic of Reality is a book that I wish had been written in 1995, so that it could have fed my science-hungry little brain when it still accepted real-life instead of retreating into itself in an ostrichy homage to make-believe. It might have changed my life, literally. Although, if it had been I might, right now, be a exobiologist (it’s a thing!) instead of a struggling sci-fi writer with an unhealthy penchant for books. I’ll let you decide how great a loss that would be.

Hint: It would be earth-shattering.

Now, if you’re not already a massive Dawkins fan–well, I won’t tell you how to live your life. But we can’t be friends anymore. However, even if you don’t support his call for militant atheism you may still be able to appreciate The Magic of Reality. Because it’s not about atheism per-say. It’s about reality. Specifically, it is about how we know what’s really true–the book’s subtitle–and what is myth, legend, or just plain lies.

And what’s best about this book is that it’s for kids! The Magic of Reality is Dawkins’ attempt to make science and reality interesting for kids. Even kids who aren’t otherwise that into science, kids who like the ideas but not necessarily the equations, hypotheses, and lab-experiments that don’t involve things that go boom. Kids like me!

And, if you’re like me, you probably had a moment–possibly after you just fell asleep on your desk and drooled on your assignment sheet–where the question dawned upon you: When did Science get so boring? Like me, you probably have fond memories of your elementary school years where you learned about volcanoes and dinosaurs and outer-space. You know, back when science was fun!

Unfortunately, there comes a time in most school curricula when the fun seems to get siphoned out and replaced with pedantic memorization of terminology, formulas, and diagrams. For most of us, Science class becomes just another thing you have to force yourself through in order to pass onto the next grade.

Sure, there are a few who are intrigued by the more practical applications of these courses. Fortunately there are enough that we still have people who go on to become chemists, physicists, and biologists. But for most of us, school ruins science. Forever.

The Magic of Reality makes Science fun and interesting again. No, really. It does. Dawkins’ begins each chapter with a question about the world, or the universe, and how it works. He then discusses ways in which human beings have tried to explain these things–like rainbows, earthquakes, and miracles–without the aid of science. He tells colourful myths from all across the globe which, along with the rest of the text, are illustrated by the brilliant artist Dave McKean (you may recognize his work with Neil Gaiman on Coraline).

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After poking a little fun at ourselves for all of the silly things we have believed about the world in the past, Dawkins goes on to tell us the truth about the world. And he tells us how we know that it’s the truth through science. Although The Magic of Reality is a kids’ book it never comes off as dumbed down or patronizing. Dawkins gives his readers an admirable amount of credit which, for the 13 year old reader, will likely add a lot of credence to what he has to say. He’s also not shy about pointing out where his knowledge is limited and never tries to explain things vaguely when he doesn’t have the necessary know-how.

As an adult who, as I’m sure is true of many of you, hasn’t though much about the nitty gritty of Science–elements, atoms, sound waves, natural selection, etc.–The Magic of Reality is a wonderful refresher course. Even topics that I’m a littler more well versed in were worth a read, simply for the unique perspective that Dawkins takes. And to be honest, there’s a lot of “basic” stuff in here that I haven’t fully grasped until reading this book. Impressive, sir, impressive.

McKean’s illustrations are beautiful, often full-page, works of art. The entire text is wonderfully supported and enhanced by these images, and the effect is quite stunning. In case that isn’t enough, Dawkins includes website addresses for video demonstrations, and virtual experimentation tools to supplement the work itself. If The Magic of Reality doesn’t reach out to an internet savvy multi-tasking pre-teen brain, I’m not sure there is a print media capable of the task.

Oh. In case you’re not interested in print media version–check out the iPad app.

Really, the only beef I have with this book is Dawkins’ handling of the myths. I love that he included them, and I love that he included Judeo-Christian myths as well. I think this is important to give a little perspective on why we believe the things we believe (but I won’t go into that too much, here. I’ll either be preaching to the choir or causing a ruckus)

I think The Magic of Realitya great way to teach kids how to evaluate the information that they receive on a daily basis from all kinds of sources–church, school, parents, television, books–about what makes a fact a fact, and how to decide what is true.

What I don’t love about the inclusion of the myths is that they seem to be used merely as a tool to demonstrate our past ignorance and celebrate our intellectual development in the last couple of centuries. Since this is a book about truth and knowledge, it would have been nice if Dawkins gave a little props to his fellows in the Social Sciences and Arts who study myths and what they can teach us about the cultures from which they originate. Dawkins treats myths as silly stories, kind of fun to talk about, but ultimately discrediting them as “not true”. This is an unfortunate and potentially damaging position for Dawkins to take, and to encourage children to take, when so many cultures are losing their traditions and beliefs to modernization.

Folklore and Mythology, although not strictly “true”, still have much to teach us. We can derive cultural information from oral-histories and traditions that are not implicit in the mere study of artifacts and burial sites. Mythology helps to supplement what little information we have about many ancient religious practices, ritual objects, and cosmologies. Not to mention what it can tell us about social structures, gender roles, cultural taboos, etc. Myths should be treated as living history, and I feel Dawkins should have given them their due.

That being said, The Magic of Reality is definitely a book that I would recommend to any and everyone. Even those people who think science is boring. Because there is nothing boring about life, and that’s essentially what The Magic of Reality is all about. Dawkins does a fantastic job of showing just how spectacular the world around us is, even without magic and miracles.