Tag Archives: 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.

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.

NekoShogun Reviews The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

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Let’s see… where to begin?

How to begin?

……

*The sound of a throat being somewhat nervously cleared*

Well then… let’s just start, I suppose…

I have strong feelings about The Blood of Flowers (by Anita Amirrezvani)far stronger and more abundant than I’d expected. Which is strange, I suppose, since I didn’t like the book quite as well as I’d hoped to, though neither did I dislike it enough that I should feel this much, this passionately. Well, perhaps passion is too strong a word. Perhaps…

To further complicate matters, I’m not even sure if the reasons why I didn’t like, but neither disliked, the book are objective failings on its part, or merely an incompatibility between myself and its chosen narrative style. A style which, while not to my taste (and potentially, though not certainly, an objective weakness), is actually befitting the era in which the novel is set. An era and place which is so richly detailed, so beautifully (though I can’t myself say how accurately) recreated throughout the novel that I could almost, but not quite, overlook my qualms with the story and the characters and the overt manner in which the exposition was exposed. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Blood of Flowers, set in seventeenth century Iran, tells the story of a young woman coming of age in the wake of her father’s untimely death. Forced to seek the support of family, the girl and her mother leave their small village and journey to the great city if Isfahan. Though life is not always easy, the girl falls in love with the city, as well as the art of carpet making (a craft practiced by her uncle, who agrees to teach her, though as a woman she could never join the ranks of the royal workshop such as he).

The story is of coming of age; of love and lust; of friendship and the ignorance of youth; of Iran and carpet making; of the joys and sorrows, beauty and great injustices of life. But while the story’s scope is broad, it feels limited by its rather predictable and unoriginal execution, and by the lack of depth expressed by the characters, who feel at times as if they’re merely playing their parts in order to move from one situation to the next.

The unremarkable characters and familiar, almost YA story (save, of course, the sensual, engrossing sex scenes which felt more graphic than they probably were) is a small matter, but what makes it truly hard for me to love The Blood of Flowers as much as I want to is the aforementioned narrative style, with its inelegant exposition and its exasperating need to explain and reiterate every thought, every action and conversation. The information could have been conveyed far more gracefully (and with fewer words) had it been shown rather than told (and even when things were shown, we were still told afterwords, as if everything need be explained else the reader miss something). At times I felt as if every paragraph ended with an reiteration and explanation of all that had transpired, up there, in those sentences I’d just read.

While reading the novel I attributed this to inexperience on the author’s part (says me, an unpublished kid with no formal education on writing. Sometimes I feel like such a jerk…), but in the interview at the back of my copy, the author indicates that the style was deliberately chosen to evoke old folktales and stories the like of The Arabian Nights. This begs the question: is an antiquated and, by modern standards, undesirable narrative style acceptable in a work of historical fiction? Am I perhaps mistaking personal preference for some infallible law of writing? Overstepping my bounds? I don’t know the answer, only that I believe (whether rightly or not) that the desired style could have been preserved while still adhering to the principle of Show Don’t Tell enough to not bludgeon the reader with unnecessary explanation.

If the story and characters feel dull, the world is a burst of color. It’s clear that many years of love and research went in to recreating seventeenth century Iran, and the result is a vibrant feast for the senses. Reading, I could practically smell the steaming coffee, taste the aromatic food, hear the call to prayer and the bustle of busy streets and crowded bazaars. The many carpets, so loved and admired by the protagonist, came to life in my imagination so beautifully I longed to see them for real, though a part of me doubts they could ever live up to my expectations.

I think that The Blood of Flowers is a good book, one that I liked (occasionally loved) and enjoyed reading. I also think that it could have been better, could have been truly enthralling. But then, I could be wrong…

~NekoShogun

A (short) Review of Shades of Milk and Honey

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Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal, offers up a simple promise: Jane Austen with magic. Just as it sounds, Shades is a charming and intimate fantasy in which the characters play center stage and the magic drapes around them to create a rich and captivating world.

Set during the regency in the English countryside, Shades of Milk and Honey concerns itself with the life of Jane Ellsworth, her family, and their genteel neighbors. At twenty-eight, Jane, whose skill with glamour (magic) and the arts are the envy of her sister, Melody, has all but resigned herself to the life of an old maid. Then, when a two new arrivals come to town, romance pulls Jane and her sister into its whirling dance.

Jane and her sister feel like real siblings, with all the love and tension and occasional resentment that that entails. Indeed, all of the characters offer an impressive degree of vibrancy and life, even if Mrs. Ellsworth is somewhat flat. Many of of the characters feel familiar as well, even to someone (such as myself) only passingly acquainted with Austen’s work. Mr. Vincent, for example, bears a striking similarity to Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) in both his mannerisms and personality, and Mrs. Ellsworth is a dead ringer for Mrs. Bennett (also pride and Prejudice). Indeed, the Ellsworths as a whole are strongly reminiscent of the Bennets.

At its heart, Shades is a fairly standard, but well crafted and enjoyable romance novel. As a whole, however, it feels like something more. The magic and the setting weave together believably, and the rich prose so perfectly matches the period that at times I could almost imagine it had been written by Austen herself. The book can at times feel aimless since Jane’s goals and ambitions are somewhat vague, and her pursuit of them almost nonexistent, but the story moves with sufficient swiftness that the reader is never bored.

~NekoShogun

Thoughts on The Alchemist

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So I just finished reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, and thought I’d share my thoughts. I’d never heard of the book, or indeed the writer, before receiving the book as a gift a few weeks ago (though I have since come to know that the author is quit prolific), so my opinions of the novel are based solely on the novel, having had no predispositions or biases before reading it. Anyway, lets get to it.

The Alchemist tells the story of a young Andalusian shepherd named Santiago, content in his rambling life until a recurring dream incites in him a longing for adventure. Santiago sells his sheep travels to north Africa in search of treasure and the fulfillment of his destiny.

I have mixed feelings about The Alchemist. As I said, going into the Alchemist I really didn’t know what to expect. The cover blurb sounded intriguing, and the many quotes from critics sampled on the first two pages spoke of a moving novel full of great wisdom and inspiration. Having now finished the book, I will agree that it does contain a good amount of wisdom, and it is inspirational (and on a few occasions actually quite witty), but I’m not sure how I feel about it as a novel.

The actual story of the book is good, and the ending (I won’t spoil it here) was rather more satisfying and surprising than I’d expected. However, the execution of said story, to my tastes at least, feels a bit simplistic and, with the exception of the aforementioned ending, predictable. Santiago’s journey is one of personal discovery, and the lessons he learns about life and happiness and finding your way in the world are all beautiful and uplifting, but they’re hardly new, and to someone such as myself who’s grown up hearing similar “you can do anything you set you mind to” and “follow your dreams/heart/talent/calling/destiny” type messages, Santiago’s ultimate success feels like a foregone conclusion. Indeed, the novel establishes such a feeling of positivity so early on that I could never really doubt in Santiago’s abilities, or find his struggles, while relatable, particularly engaging.

I also don’t quite know what to make of the characters. On the one hand most of them do feel quite vibrant and real, but at the same time they can be somewhat flat. For example, at one point in the novel Santiago meets and subsequently works for a crystal merchant (crystal as in glass, not the pretty shiny stuff what comes outta the ground) who has so many real, understandable human elements, but is used by the author to make a point about giving up on one’s dreams. What makes this particular character’s purpose so clear, I think, is that way it is conveyed. While the narrative or the protagonist could have made subtle or even blatant observations about the merchant to relay this message; instead we have the actual character himself telling us about his failure to realize his dreams, even going so far as to explain why he did so.

“You dream about your sheep and the Pyramids, but you’re different than me, because you want to realize your dreams. I just want to dream about Mecca. I’ve already imagined a thousand times crossing the desert, arriving at the Plaza of the Scred Stone, the seven times I walk around it before allowing myself to touch it.

“…But I’m afraid that it would all be a disappointment, so I prefer just to dream about it.”

–The crystal merchant speaking  to Santiago.

Such heavy handedness may be my biggest complaint about the novel. I was drawn into the story at first, enjoying the simple beauty of Santiago’s life, but before long a character appears to push Santiago to begin his journey whose very existence seems bound to that singular purpose. The way in which he and all of the other characters speak throughout most of the rest of the novel is so pointed and unrealistically introspective that at times, I felt more like I was reading a self help book than a novel. Perhaps if the story had been told with a degree more subtlety and nuance I would have found it more to my liking. But then, art is subjective, isn’t it? Even though the prose and dialogue wasn’t to my personal taste, I did still enjoy the novel.

“Don’t forget that everything you deal with is only one thing and nothing else. And don’t forget the language of omens. And, above all, don’t forget to follow your Personal Legend through to its conclusion.”

–The King of Salem speaking to Santiago about his Personal Legend.

It feels weird to me, as an aspiring writer, to be criticizing a novel so wholly concerned with the idea of realizing one’s dreams. I suppose some of what puts me off about the story might be the level of spirituality, but even then I’m not so sure. It’s true, the novel makes frequent references to God and religion, and as an atheist this does little for me, but I actually consider myself a mildly spiritual person and have no qualms about finding the wisdom in Coelho’s words, though I may disagree with some of the details.

“In order to find the treasure, you will have to follow the omens. God has prepared a path for everyone to follow. You just have to read the omens that he left for you.”

–The King telling Santiago how to find the treasure revealed to him in his dreams.

There is one final aspect of the novel I’d like to discuss, and that is its attitudes towards women. Now, I want to be clear I don’t think that The Alchemist is deliberately or aggressively sexist, but the nature of what few female characters exist in the novel is somewhat problematic. There are, by my count, three “named” female characters. I say “named” because Coelho tends to refer to characters, even the protagonist, by their occupations or by what they are (e.g. Santiago is often called simply “the boy.”), and some main character’s real names are never actually revealed.

Anyway, there are three named female characters in the novel, compared with a considerably larger number of men. Of these three, one, a Gypsy fortune teller, appears, at least to my admittedly untrained eye, to be a somewhat racially insensitive stereotype. The second character, the young daughter of a shopkeeper, is an underdeveloped and casually forgotten love interest of Santiago. And the third character? Another love interest and the only female character to get an actual name, Fatima. Fatima is more developed than the shopkeeper’s daughter, though in a problematic fashion. You see, it is revealed that all Fatima has ever wanted in life was for the desert to bring her a man (sound sexist yet?).

People said that Gypsies spent their lives tricking others. It was also said that they had a pact with the devil, and that they kidnapped children and, taking them away to their mysterious camps, made them their slaves.

–Santiago’s problematic thoughts about Gypsies are never properly corrected in the course of the story. He does later, after much personal growth, reflect that the Gypsies are quite smart, but as I said the passage doesn’t properly correct the stereotypes.

When she and Santiago first meet, they fall instantly in love and Santiago decides he want to marry her. After a few days they more or less agree they want to spend the rest of their lives together, but Santiago’s journey is still incomplete. Fatima encourages him to pursue his destiny, promising to wait for him. This element of Fatima’s character is used to make a valid point about not holding the ones you love back from fulfilling their dreams, but the fact that it’s the woman doing the waiting and the man doing the soul searching is problematic. Where as Santiago ultimately waits to be with Fatima so that he can fulfill his destiny, Fatima has no goals or ambitions beyond Santiago.

I have been waiting for you here at this oasis for a long time. I have forgotten about my past, about my traditions, and the way in which men of the desert expect women to behave. Ever since I was a child, I have have dreamed that the desert would bring me a wonderful present. Now, my present has arrived, and it’s you.”

–Fatima talking to Santiago. Problematic on many levels.

Interestingly, Fatima’s character might not have been as problematic if there had been at least a few more female characters elsewhere in the novel. You see, all throughout Santiago’s travels he meets other characters at various stages of what the book refers to as their “Personal Legends” (essentially their destinies). These different people are all quite different and lead drastically dissimilar lives, but they all have one thing in common: they’re men. Not once in the novel do we meet a female character in search of treasure, or knowledge, or the realization of their personal destiny. In fact, the closest the book comes to this is a line in which one character, while trying to convince Santiago to continue his quest, tells him that Fatima has already found her treasure–Santiago.

I really do feel a bit bad criticizing the book, especially considering I actually did enjoy reading it. In the end, though, there were aspects of it that just didn’t click with me. I’ll be the first to admit that some of my complaints are subjective, but I feel confident in saying that The Alchemist is a flawed novel. But then, most are.

~NekoShogun

[If anyone reading this thinks I’m crazy, or would like to share their own thoughts on The Alchemist, please leave a comment–I’d love to hear some different opinions. Thanks!]