Tag Archives: Book Review

Review: Ask the Passengers by A.S. King

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Never has a book connected with me as immediately and intensely as A.S. King’s Ask the Passengers. I read the book in two sittings, which could have been one if I hadn’t stopped around page 30 for lunch. The book’s prosaic sensibilities are almost perfectly in line with mine; most books I read, there will be many sentences that I would have preferred a different way. In Passengers, there was only one moment like that, and that alone endears this book to my heart. But of course there are more reasons than that.

Ask the Passengers is told from the perspective of Astrid Jones, a 17-year-old in a complicated point in her life. She’s unsure about her sexuality, which is complicated by her secret romance with a girl; her best (and seemingly only) friend, Kristina, is the homecoming queen, dating the football star Justin, and Astrid is the only one at school who knows the relationship is fake; her relationship with her mother and sister is strained, and she feels far away from her dad since he fell heavy into marijuana. Astrid feels held back by all the problems in her life, and so she lies on the picnic table in her backyard and looks up at the planes flying overhead, sending her love to the passengers within and asking them questions. Throughout the book the reader is shown short passages from the passengers receiving Astrid’s projections, each one touching and meaningful. It’s too brilliant to call a gimmick, and the final one, in conjunction with the ending, left me in tears.

It would be a spoiler to delve any more into the plot, as it largely exists to further Astrid’s journey of self-understanding. It’s a beautiful story, masterfully told, with a protagonist whom I could not only readily empathize with, but sometimes even relate to, which is rare for me. The book is in first person (and present tense, if that’s a deal breaker for you; me, I didn’t consciously notice until page 17), and A.S. King succeeds in what I think most first person writers fail at: the book wholeheartedly reads like it was written by its protagonist. Astrid’s quiet, restrained, and yet impulsive personality is effectively communicated by the prose which still manages to read like it was written by a professional. The dialogue, too, effectively reflects each speaker; it is abundantly clear that A.S. King is an experienced writer.

It’s harder to gush than to criticize, and so this review comes out fairly light, but I did have two issues with Ask the Passengers. First was Astrid’s self-deprecatingly calling herself an “asexual sea sponge” at one point in the book, which struck me as ignorantly harmful to the real asexual identification, both by erasing it (by equating asexuality in humans with inhumanity) and by stigmatizing it (for the same reasons). The book in general seems to ignore the possibility of identification outside of gay or straight, which I think is a failing. The second issue I had was with Donna and Chad, the secret partners of Kristina and Justin, respectively. They hardly existed as characters (I’m not sure Chad even had a line), and as Kristina and Justin’s world is an important aspect of Astrid’s life, failing to flesh out an important part of it was disappointing to me. Even a single scene that establishes clear personalities for Donna and Chad would have done a lot to bring them up to the same vibrancy as the rest of the book’s characters, and would reveal an amount about Kristina and Justin at the same time. Still, these are minor complaints in a largely perfect book.

Verdict

Ask the Passengers, in my opinion, is a minor masterpiece. It might not say something groundbreaking about the world, it may not have left me feeling like a particularly changed person, but it tells its story so incredibly beautifully and has such wonderful messages of love that I would be remiss not to recommend it to everybody. I’ve never sat down and made a list of my top five or ten books, but Passengers would undoubtedly be on it.

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Review: Ash by Malinda Lo

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Ash takes place in a kingdom steeped in fairy tales and is itself a retold Cinderella, to the point where the book reads like a fairy tale in novel form: characterization is light, the prose is more evocative than immersive, and in the end there’s not a lot of tension to be had. But that doesn’t stop Ash from being emotionally compelling, and for that reason it succeeds.

Aisling, or Ash as she goes by for the majority of the book, is twelve when her mother dies of sickness, and within a year her father remarries and dies himself of a fever. This standard backstory lasts the first quarter to third of the book, and is a drag in comparison to the rest of the book; Ash spends the time at a younger age, leaving her less interesting as a character, and with the exception of Malinda Lo’s reimagining of the fairy involvement (where the fairy godmother is turned into a mysterious, dangerous fairy man named Sidhean) there’s not much new going on. The section is carried by Lo’s exquisite prose, but I can’t help but think that it would have worked better if it were cut down and put in flashback, even if that would disrupt the fairy tale feel of the novel.

The roughly-medieval kingdom’s culture is a wholly believable land that once may have coexisted with fairies, as its culture and superstition is inseparable from fairies. Throughout the book, fairy tales created for the book are told, and resonate thematically and creatively. These invented fairy tales are a great authorial choice that enrich both the world and the story, and Ash’s book of fairy tales given to her by her father is one of the more important links between the early section of the book and the rest of it.

By the end of the first part of the book (which is split evenly by its two parts, The Fairy and The Huntress), the plot picks up into new, interesting territory, and Ash begins to shine. The book is easily at its best when it diverges from the source story: Sidhean isn’t a character called dangerous by the narrative but who has no teeth, but genuinely is worrisome every time he appears, and his contribution to the iconic ball is a bargain, not an act of kindness; and, even more interestingly, Malinda Lo makes the addition of the huntresses. These women lead hunts all over the land, and Ash comes to meet the King’s Huntress, Kaisa, who replaces the prince as the love interest of the story. The relationship between her and Ash is, like most of the character work in the book, light, but a pivotal moment still left me grinning, so it works well enough considering their relationship is primary, but not exclusive, to the themes of self-discovery and -confidence for Ash.

After all, there’s a reason the book is named after her. It’s almost impossible not to root for Ash with her requisite upbringing as a servant to her stepmother and stepsisters, the younger of which isn’t incorrigible but nevertheless not a great deal of support. Ash carries on at first because of nightly walks with Sidhean, who she wishes to escape with to perhaps, somehow, find her mother in the fairy realm, or at least live there rather than in her cruel existence. Then she meets Kaisa and finds happiness and independence in the real world, and her arc, while subtle in my first read, is what makes the book work on a deeper level.

Verdict

Ash drags in its beginning, and its fairy tale trappings sometimes prevent it from being as deep as it could be, but its reinvention of the Cinderella story is as enchanting as it is masterful, significantly shifting the plot while maintaining the majority of its traditional trappings. It’s with very few caveats that I heartily recommend the book.

Review: Proxy by Alex London

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Hey. Long time no see, huh? Well, I’ve got a few more book reviews that I plan to get out this December, I might write some more general posts in January, and in February I think I’ll continue sporking Maximum Ride. I was so close to finishing it and the time away has let me recharge my sporking batteries. Anyway, here’s this review.

Proxy presents an exaggerated, future, debt-based dystopia (say that five times fast), in which almost all of North America’s population has funneled into a single Mountain City. In the city, wealth is cleanly split between Patrons and Proxies; these names arise from the symbiotic relationship that makes the Mountain City turn. Proxies acquire debt from high costs for basic goods, and in return Patrons relieve the Proxies’ debts in exchange for Proxies taking on the Patrons’ legal punishments. So if patron commits a crime, they are functionally only fined, and their Proxy works in a labor camp or takes physical punishment, etc. It’s not a particularly believable or logical system, but then, Proxy never tries to take its world too seriously. Trying to do that–take the world seriously–left me a bit cold at the beginning of the novel, but once one embraces the conceits that Proxy makes, it’s an engrossing, fun read.

There are two primary viewpoint characters in Proxy: Knox, a teenage Patron who’s constantly in trouble, and Syd, Knox’s Patron (and also a teenager; Proxies are assigned at the same age as their Patron) who is only looking to skate by unnoticed and escape his debt as soon as possible. When Knox is involved in a fatal car crash, however, Syd is faced with sixteen years of hard labor and hatches a plan to escape the city. Naturally, the two boys end up working together; Alex London wisely doesn’t spend too much time on animosity between the two, allowing them to fall in together with relative ease. Knox is more concerned with displeasing his father than showing disdain for Syd, and Syd is welcome for the assistance.

There is an odd prosaic choice in their involvement, however, as when the two characters are in the same scene (which is most of the second two thirds of the book), the narrative uses both their viewpoints, switching between them on a whim, often paragraph to paragraph. This is sometimes confusing with the tight third person narration, which will make remarks about the world and other characters without it immediately being evident who made said remarks. It’s increasingly problematic further into the book, when a third character is introduced and the narration sometimes, but rarely, peeks into her head. It ends up feeling awkward and a bit lazy; London probably could have made a stronger book if he had strictly alternated between viewpoints by chapter or scene and made his characters’ interiority more relevant. It’s not a major complaint, though.

Both Knox and Syd are well drawn as characters: Knox spends most of the book in a largely unlikable state, as a willing participant in a corrupt system, but giving him a viewpoint allows him to be sympathetic and his arc (which I won’t spoil) works well. Syd is the obviously more likable character, but fits into the narrative somewhat trickily; for plot reasons, he is arguably the protagonist, but within the plot he’s a largely passive character, intent more on survival than conveying an agenda, but not to the point where he forsakes an agenda. So in the meta plot, past his escape from the Mountain City, he functions more as a body than an active player. Knox is similarly unconcerned with agendas (which I leave unspecific for the sake of spoilers), and so after the escape from the Mountain City the plot drags not just because the excitement has peaked, but because the characters are developing in ways mostly unrelated to the plot. The last quarter of the books is thus somewhat awkward, with the plot mostly there to serve character work that doesn’t stand on its own well enough to warrant being propped up by the plot.

Proxy is never boring, however. Alex London’s clean, evocative prose keeps things moving at the right pace, deftly juggling prosaic action with character thought and keeping action scenes exciting. His dialogue, too, is good, clearly reflecting each character in their word choice and sentence structure.

On the subject of diversity, Proxy is a mixed bag. Syd is a person of color (“brown” by his own description; the book’s world seems to have moved past region-based descriptors of race) and gay, and an important character is ethnically Jewish (if not religiously, as our current religions have been mostly lost), but out of six major characters, only one is a woman. It’s a pretty stark disparity that left me disappointed.

Verdict

When reading Proxy, I had many little annoyances that left me feeling it was only okay once I had finished it. Now, however, a few days later, I can’t even remember the annoyances; all I remember is that the book engrossed me enough that I read it in a single day. That seems like high praise enough: Proxy is engaging and fun, and that’s the part I think is most important. If you’re willing to look past the lack of female characters, I’d definitely recommend it.

Review: May Bird and the Ever After

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May Bird is, surprise surprise, different from the other kids. More comfortable exploring the woods around her house in Briery Swamp with her cat, Somber Kitty, than she is with socialization, May  doesn’t really have friends. So when she finds an old letter somehow addressed to her , asking for her help and providing a map to a mysterious lake, May’s curiosity gets the best of her.

Then she slumped. She felt as heavy as a sack of beans. But then, a sack of beans never got embarrassed or did stupid balloon tricks in front of other sacks of beans or forgot to l0ck the bathroom door. Come to think of it, life was probably easy for all the beans of the world. Being a sack of them wouldn’t be so bad. (pg 17)

Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately), this lake is a portal to the Ever After; the land of the dead. After barely escaping once, May eventually finds herself dragged to the bottom of the lake only to be saved by the houseghost for White Moss Manor (her home), Pumpkin. Now in the Ever After, she has a choice: go north, to the Lady who wrote the letter, or find the Book of the Dead and learn how to get home. But while she’s in the land of the dead, May Bird is not dead and if she is caught, the Bogeyman will surely suck her into nothingness.

So on the surface, May Bird, the first book of a trilogy, is rather generic. Outcast kid finds his or herself in an alternate world? Not exactly screaming originality. What makes the book so amazing, then, is the writing: rather than just lay down some cliches and call it a day, the book’s author, Jodi Lynn Anderson, takes the time to make the characters human and put some thought into what goes on, ultimately creating a unique story.

“Didn’t you know bees are psychic? Oh, of course not. Live Ones don’t know much of anything, of course. Now, let’s see . . .” (pg 87)

That writing, right? It’s pretty fantastic; the prose mostly reads effortlessly, mixed with appropriate amounts of charm and whimsy as well as suspense and drama. What the prose often fails to do, however, is to capture the emotion of a moment: certain sections read a bit jarringly, as if they’re only going through the motions rather than truly describing the action. It’s irritating, but ultimately doesn’t sully the book too much.

Then there’s the characterization, which is often uneven. May Bird and Pumpkin are amazingly human characters, and their eventual friendship feels completely natural–May always seems to have the right reactions to the book’s events, keeping her grounded in reality as the book itself leaves our world, and while the book is fully from May’s perspective Pumpkin’s character is still equally well developed, usually cowardly but capable of real boldness once his self-esteem has been raised.

“It can’t be anything good,” Pumpkin said, pulling his knees up in front of his face so that only his eyes showed, and his voice came out muffled. “They aren’t supposed to be up here. Oh no, not good at all.” (pg 149)

There are two characters introduced near the end of the book, Beatrice and Fabbio, that aren’t as good: Beatrice is the better of the pair, with more promise of future character development, but Fabbio is pretty much just a stereotype. His English is half broken, his ego is huge, and he seems to be intended as some sort of comedic relief character without any comedy.

Finally, there’s the two villains: the Bogeyman, and Bo Cleevil. Bo Cleevil is unseen for the novel, left to just be an imposing figure in the distance; despite this, he still manages to come off as a cartoonish villain along with the Bogeyman, who seems to lack any real motivation other than… nothing.

A minor nitpick with the book in general, too: Anderson doesn’t seem to have decided how spirits work. In the book, there are two types of spirits: specters, who were once living, and ghosts, who never were. The issue isn’t really with that, though, but how they move: it’s implied that all spirits float, though a remark is made that it often takes a bit to learn how. The problem is that characters seem to go back and forth at random; sometimes they are floating forward, sometimes they’re running or tiptoeing. It is, like I said, pretty minor, but nevertheless kind of annoying.

But that’s enough of that: I need to give the book a score!

Four out of five stars!

May Bird and the Ever After is really a great book. Its characters are, if not always great, full of color, and the plot and setting are vibrant and wholly engrossing. A few flaws prevent it from being worthy of five stars, but I still heavily recommend it.