Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Lunar Chronicles (so far) - series book review

I am here today to talk to you about what I have affectionately termed "my cyborg Cinderella books".

Oh I love each and every one of you soooo much!

Some YA series are just absolute, pure enjoyment.  And Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles are just deliciously readable books.  They use familiar Fairy Tale characters (Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel) as the foundation for a dystopian future where the people of the Earth and the people of the Moon (Luna) march towards war while a devastating plague runs rampant through Earth's kingdoms.

As is often the case with YA reads, this premise might seem to be a bit silly.  But Meyer uses just enough of the traditional story without leaning too heavily on it.  And although the central plot (which I cannot spoil for you) is a very well-known traditional trope, the nuances in the characters and storytelling are fresh and make an old idea seem very exciting.  I've never liked Cinderella more than when she was a cyborg.  :)

Having just read these three books over the course of a few months, I am now suffering from what I'm sure will feel like an interminable wait for the fourth and final book of the series, Winter, which won't be released until early 2015.

Which means any and all YA fans who haven't read this have time to get on it!  If you're at all a dystopian or YA fan or just like a rollicking good adventure, you will love these ones.

Over and out for now. :)

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang (book review)

This month book club is reading graphic novels.  I've been waiting a while for this genre to come up, not only because I obviously love graphic novels, but because I don't know that we can really link them all together and call them a "genre".  There's so much diversity in subject matter, art, etc, that I think it will be a challenging discussion when we eventually sit down and try to figure out what ties our works together and what generalizations we can make about what is more an art form than a genre.

Anyway, this month I read the 2-volume Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang, who is also the super talented author of American Born Chinese, which I highly recommend if you haven't already read it.

I'm a big fan of the covers

Despite having taught high school history for a time, I have only a passing knowledge of the Boxer Rebellion, mostly to do in connection with imperialism in general.  My knowledge of the internal tensions and politics within China at the time is almost nil, so I was really glad to read this work not only from an entertainment perspective, but also from an educational one.

I would recommend reading these in the order suggested by the title of the combined work.  Some things are otherwise given away in Saints, or would be difficult to understand the importance of without first having read Boxers.  The two are essentially inseparable, and only happen to be bound separately.

Children Bao and Four-Girl are the protagonists of these two stories.  In Boxers, Bao is mistreated and neglected by his brothers until conflict with both "foreign devils" and "secondary devils" (Chinese converts to Christianity) leads Bao to train in martial arts, and eventually lead his brothers and the members of The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists in rebellion.  In Saints, Four-Girl's story runs parallel to Bao's.  Also a mistreated and unwanted child, Four-Girl yearns for basic recognition and a real name, and eventually finds the belonging she desires in Christianity.  Bao and Four-Girl cross paths innocently as children, but find themselves on opposite sides of a war by the time they are teens, with tragic results.

Gene Yuen Lang does a marvelous job of presenting both sides of this conflict, but I found Boxers to be a much stronger work than Saints.  I found Bao to be the more developed and complete character, with more time spent on the development of his character and exploration of his actions and motivations. The believability of the characters also extends to many of the secondary protagonists. Perhaps it is simply because Saints is a shorter volume, but I found it to be lacking in character development and storyline compared to Boxers.  I found Four-Girl to be much more static and her story less intriguing than Bao's.  Together they work well, but I really wish that as much development had occurred with Four-Girl as with Bao, it would have made for a better balance between the works.

The art of Boxers and Saints is very much in Yang's style, it is an extremely clean and almost minimalist at times, but highly expressive.  His use of colour to contrast the mundane from the supernatural is excellent, and minor characters are drawn with as much personality as the protagonists.  Architecture and landscapes are simple but appropriate and well-done as well.

Overall, I feel that Boxers and Saints is an excellent work, and I wish it had been available when I was teaching high school history.  Although this was a brief topic in the curriculum, I feel like these graphic novels give a good overview of the issues and parties involved, and would make for excellent, engaging reading for students studying this section of history.  I highly recommend this work for anyone who enjoys history, graphic novels, or just a very good story. 

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Kicking the Sky by Anthony De Sa (book review)

I've learned to mistrust books described as "coming of age story".

This is mostly because they are all, essentially without exception, absolutely depressing as hell.  And Kicking the Sky by Anthony De Sa is no different.

Now sometimes things are depressing, especially when you're a teenager.  And sometimes things are good.  And sometimes there are books like this one, and like Catcher in the Rye, where nothing good EVER happens to the protagonist.  As opposed to a more balanced and realistic story where good things occasionally happen (as they do in real life, even if your life is really shitty), like The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  And I know that's because the writer would like us to feel the depth of their angst, but really it just serves to make the book unrelatable and unpleasant to read.  The lack of any redeeming moments or characters is what makes Kicking the Sky into a long, drawn-out, masochistic bore.

So why did I pick up Kicking the Sky knowing what type of book it was?  The premise involving a murder as the catalyst of loss of innocence was very intriguing, especially a real-life murder.  But this event is hardly mentioned at all in the middle section of the book, almost as if the author forgot about it while he was busy writing about all the terrible things that happened to everyone.  Considering the main characters are 11- and 12-year-old boys, there's lots of sex (most of it non-consensual) and drug use, assaults, and dead people that nobody seems to mind too much about.  I get that they are supposed to be neglected latch-key kids, but somebody's getting raped or molested in some way in pretty much every chapter. It was totally unnecessary.  We got it the first umpteen times, their lives are shitty and they're exposed to a bunch of crap they shouldn't be.  Which makes me question whether they had any innocence to lose to begin with, and whether protagonist Antonio can actually be pining for a childhood that didn't really exist to begin with.  So the story also falls short on that account as well, as I can hardly assume that Antonio's family suddenly woke up one day as terrible people after a childhood supposedly full of happiness.

Usually I like to build a "compliments sandwich" for my book reviews, where I talk about what I liked, then talk about the parts I didn't, and then end with something positive.  But I'm just not sure I can with this one.  It's not a dramatic story about growing up, it's just a bunch of terrible things happening to people over and over and over, with no happy moments to break up the action and create realism.  Give this one a pass.