SF/Fantasy Review: Bitten by Kelly Armstrong

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4/5 Stars

I can’t even remember why I bought this book in the first place. Werewolves are not really my thing. Well, they might be my thing if the YA paranormal romance genre hadn’t had them declawed and neutered since the literary apocalypse that is Twilight. I’ve never read Stephanie Meyer’s “work,” or seen any of the glittering tween-porn it spawned. But I think it’s safe to say that Twilight ruined everything, forever. I steadfastly refused to be swayed on this point. Suck it.

Reading the book jacket and any plot summaries I’ve found places Bitten firmly in the paranormal romance camp. Why did I buy it? Was I drunk? Probably. I have no idea. Maybe it was the “erotically charged thriller” tagline that got me, at least I knew it wasn’t going to be YA. But whatever my reasoning at the time, I did buy it. And then I forgot about it. And then I found it, thought WTF is this?!? and read it.

And holy shit.

I might be in love with Kelley Armstrong. Like in the kind of way that might compel me to move to Ontario, stalk her, and try to suck her brain juice out with a green swirly straw. Not really, though. If that ever happens, it wasn’t me.

Now, that’s not to say that Bitten is without flaws. I found it really slow to start, for one. I felt no real connection to the first few casualties of werewolf on werewolf violence—though I felt I was supposed to. I found the sex scenes boring and mostly unnecessary (Are sex scenes ever necessary? Maybe not. But they don’t have to be boring). There was a little too much focus on Changing just to play tag in the forest—I get it, wolves are fun and playful sometimes; time to move on. And Sometimes I wanted to smack our heroine upside the head.

I think the idea of The Pack knowing everything there is to know about all the mutts (lone werewolves) in the whole world is ridiculous. There are like six of them in the Pack. They’d be lucky to be able to control their territory in New York (face it, they did a shitty job of controlling mutts in their own town). And I don’t believe for one second that Elena would be the only female werewolf in existence. Surely if she were such a coveted prize, werewolves would be biting women left right and centre for a chance at their own furry fuckmate. Let’s get real.

But! There was so much good and refreshing about this book that I’m willing to overlook all that other stuff. And I don’t do this lightly, believe me. First of all, Kelley Armstrong is Canadian and she doesn’t pretend that she’s not. A good chunk of the novel happens in Toronto, she references Vancouver, the Robert Pickton murders, the Separatist movement. And she does it without tooting her little “Oh! Canada” horn. Second, Elena Michaels is the best female narrator I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long time. She’s all hard edges and no fluff. She doesn’t just play at being tough, she’s a cold mother-fucker. She likes sex and doesn’t apologize for it, and it’s never implied that she should apologize for it (why is this so fucking rare?!?) She screws up, but in believable ways that are consistent with what we know of her character. She fights those animal urges for violence and loses. Next to Clay, Elena is the most violent and impulsive member of the Pack. She’s refreshing. Not always likeable, but refreshing.

Violence in a werewolf story should be mandatory. No one wants to read about werewolves as domesticated pets. And by that I mean, I don’t want to. A good werewolf story needs a certain amount of blood and gore. Sex is optional. Blood and gore is not. I mean, what’s the fun in being a werewolf if you don’t get to disembowel the occasional person? Don’t lie. If you were a werewolf, it’s the first thing you’d try. Okay, after you ate the neighbours Chihuahuas. Maybe. Why gloss over the good stuff just to become another bodice ripper?

I know, I know. It’s called paranormal romance for a reason. But why is that the only place to find vampires and werewolves these days? Who turned these once terrifying monsters into Valentine’s day fodder? Everyone has sex (eventually, I hope). Reading about it is never as fun as actually doing it, so what’s the point? I refuse to believe that there are that many women out there sitting at home not getting any. If you are, stop it. There’s no reason for your suffering. Then maybe we can take back the monsters for the horror genre. We miss them here on the other side.

Now, we’ve all imagined getting to rip the throats out of our enemies and chew on their spleen. I’m sure we’ve all imagined it. Of course you have. I’m not just some kind of freak. This is the animal impulse that intrigues me, not sex. Our capacity for violence is what connects us to and separates us from other animals, and Armstrong does a fabulous job of exploring these ideas. Both thematically and in its plot, Bitten is a far more complex read that I ever would have guessed, even if we have to forgive a few flaws to see it. I personally felt that there was a little too much emphasis placed on the romantic sub plot, particularly because the main plot was more than strong enough on its own. However, the complexity of this main plot is enough to elevate the novel to true Speculative Fiction from the dregs of the appalling sub-genric slime that is paranormal romance. A rare feat, indeed. That’s some sticky shit.

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…

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?

YA Book Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

   Okay. So I’m probably the last person on the face of the planet to read The Hunger Games. And I’ve only read the first book, so keep that in mind for this review. I don’t really know why I put it off for so long. I did the same thing with Harry Potter, years ago. And I’ve still never read Twilight (and I won’t, so don’t even try). I guess a part of me kind of resents having to read YA Fantasy and SF when there are so many “real” books awaiting my ever-rapacious bookwormy appetites. Or maybe that’s my problem; I have trouble seeing YA as real books. I loved them when I was a kid, of course (though, usually a much younger kid than they were intended for). But I grew out of YA fiction well before I was out of my young adult years. And coming back to them as an adult always leaves me feeling a little cheated.

Which is why I am consistently baffled by book review sites and blogs that are dedicated almost entirely to the YA Fantasy genre. For some reason, there seems to be a kind of cult status around reading YA books amongst  20-35 year old adults (mostly women, apparently). And I have never been able to share in their enthusiasm. That being said, I was pleasantly surprised by the first three Harry Potter books. I was intrigued by Brom’s The Child Thief (a modern retelling of Peter Pan with some seriously disturbing imagery). And The Chronicles of Narnia are books one can come back to as an adult and truly appreciate on a new level. So it’s not as if I’ve written the genre off entirely. But for the most part, there seems to be something lacking in many of the most popular YA books out there. I’m torn between a genuine respect for anything that gets young people reading and the sad and disturbing question, “Why aren’t our kids reading smarter books?”

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I’m sure you’re all prepped for a scathing review of Collins’ blockbuster The Hunger Games. But I must say, I didn’t hate it. I just read it yesterday, start to finish. (I devour books on a regular basis so don’t get too excited) If I can finish a book in a single sitting, it probably means is was short and/or simple. Maybe too short and simple. And as for The Hunger Games, I think this was a borderline issue for me. It’s definitely and easy read. And by easy, I don’t just mean simple language. I mean there wasn’t much to think about as I read.

The Hunger Games is actually very entertaining, in its own way. The plot is pretty  much non-stop action, which is fun. And Collins’ writes action scenes brilliantly. She really does. There isn’t a moment in the entire book where you feel like the plot is stagnating, and she moves us from crisis to crisis quite seamlessly with just the right amount of recovery time in between. But it’s more like watching a movie than reading a book (and I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I can see how it could be a great screenplay).

One would assume, or at least I did, that for a post-apocalyptic novel set in North America–particularly for one with a dystopic political landscape–that Collins’ would give her readers something to think about. But it seemed to me that the setting is a little bit too spoon-fed to generate real questions. Panem is just the backdrop for Collins’ to revel in the Games themselves, with all characters who question the world they are living in (mainly Gale and Peeta) remaining very much in the peripheral of the story. Katniss plods along a little too willingly to make a very interesting character on a personal level, and it is only in the very end of the novel that we start to see some growth and development in her. And even this is cut short by the ending of the first book.

I understand that this is a part of a trilogy, and that we are only seeing the beginning of Katniss’ growth as a character. But there is something distinctly unsatisfying about a novel that ends before the main character achieves any kind of (substantial) awareness of herself and her world. We are left hanging at the edge of Katniss’ metamorphosis (I hope) with no real evidence that she is on the right track. Even in her own mind, Katniss is only at the beginning of the “questioning” stage of her development, without attempting to answer anything yet. It feels as if Collins had originally written more for this first book, but that it was chopped off prematurely by her editor in order to encourage readers to pick up the next in the series. (I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt here because I do get the sense that Collins is a good writer, maybe even a great writer, time will tell)

Ultimately, Katniss is a stagnant character in The Hunger Games. I found her almost likeable at times, but she never really steps up. Her most endearing moments are when she is unaware of herself: volunteering as tribute, shooting the apple at the Gamekeepers’ dinner, calling out Peeta’s name when the contest rules change, her fit of anger when Peeta doesn’t return their signal call, her panic when the Doctors take Peeta away at the end of the games. But she never owns up to the flashes of her true self. There is some suggestion that she is capable of growth, which is even more frustrating when we don’t get to see it.

Peeta also disappoints. He never wavers from his “good guy” stereotype. Peeta is just a love-sick idiot who’s willing to die for a girl who barely registers his existence. Katniss’ suspicion of Peeta is too contrived to be believable, so the entire time she’s questioning his motives she just appears clueless. Even during the games, Peeta doesn’t make a convincing bad guy. And it’s as frustrating to see his idolization of her as it is to see Katniss’ obliviousness to it.

Both characters are nearly the same people at the end of the book as they are at the beginning. Perhaps that will not be true for the series, but when looking at the first book on its own merit, that is how I feel. The most interesting, or potentially interesting, characters are kept on the sidelines; Gale, Cinna, and Haymitch are the only truly subversive characters in this book. Katniss stands to grow a lot through their mentorship, and I hope to see them (and her) come into their own in the next two novels.

Now, these sound like major drawbacks. And they are, or they would be if this was a stand-alone novel. But because it is the first in a trilogy, I’m not going to hold it against Collins just yet. Like I said, most of these peeves smack of editorial interference. I am expecting to see most of my issues addressed in the next two books. And Collins does seem to know what she’s doing. There are moments of real emotional honesty in this work, for all that our heroine is a bit emotionally retarded. Collins’ portrayal of Katniss’ relationship with Prim is quite heartfelt. I think The Hunger Games marks the first time that a novel has been able to choke me up in the first 20 pages. That says something huge about the author’s ability.

I’m afraid The Hunger Games hasn’t broken the chain of unfulfilling YA reads for me, but I’m willing to give Collins her fair shot. I look forward to reading the next two instalments and I’ll post my thoughts here. I’m sure there is a horde of rabid fans just waiting to call me out over this review, so please rant freely in the comments section. Perhaps there is more going on in the book than I picked up on, and I’m more than willing to consider the error of my ways if only someone will point out where I’ve gone astray. But until then, I’m afraid The Hunger Games will remain a 2 out of 5 for me.