Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks)

I don't remember how The Wasp Factory made it onto my radar, but it did a while ago. I purchased it, where it sat for a long time on my bookshelf, unread. Earlier in the year, when I heard about the author's terminal illness, I decided that I would read it this summer before he died; unfortunately, I didn't read the book before then, so I suppose my reading it is more a tribute to his memory than a celebration of his life.

Anyway. It had been so long since I bought the book that I couldn't even remember what it was about. But I decided it didn't matter, so I just dived in. Frank Cauldhame is a 16-year-old boy, the narrator of our tale, and a complete psychopath. Early in the book, he reveals that he's killed three of his young relatives, apparently entirely without remorse. And that's arguably the most normal thing about him.

There's the titular Wasp Factory, for example, which is an artifact in the bizarre religion that Frank has created. It's a faith that's heavily superstitious, involving elements of voodoo and witchcraft; there's also a lot of small-creature-killing in the name of the religion. And then there's Frank's living brother, Eric, who's been institutionalized for lighting dogs on fire; near the beginning of the novel, Frank and his father (with whom he lives) find out that Eric has escaped, and they believe him to be coming back home.

Banks' first novel is not much of a book for happenings--most of the book is either flashbacks to Frank's killings/other formative events in his younger years (formative in his psychosis, that is) or present-day musings about how best to fortify the totems that protect his home (all part of his strange, self-created cult)--but it doesn't matter because the book does more interesting things than create an engaging plot. It's one of the bleakest, most perfect psychological portraits I've ever read, and it all happens in such a short time (my copy is only 184 pages).

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of The Wasp Factory is how normal Frank can be. He has a friend named Jamie that he meets regularly at a local bar, and the conversations they have are absolutely normal--he seems to be able to dissociate himself from the insane Frank, making particularly astute observations about his brother's illness that sound exactly like the sorts of things unknowledgeable/unsympathetic people might say about someone with a mental sickness. It's an astounding feat of writing that I can forget Frank the killer has killed.

There is a lot of interesting psychological rumination in the novel, things I won't talk about in this review because they're secrets in the book. The twist at the end happens to be a little unexpected, and perhaps that's a flaw, but it doesn't seem implausible in the furthering of our understanding of Frank. I don't generally read books like this that center on the vicious violence, but out of all the ones I've read (I'm looking at you, A Clockwork Orange), this is the most interesting and well-assembled.

My rating: 4.5/5
The Wasp Factory on Goodreads
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Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Son of Neptune (Rick Riordan)

A few weeks ago, I read the first book in Rick Riordan's newest demigod series and was engaged but a little irked. The same is true of book two, The Son of Neptune. I mentioned in the previous review how startled I was by the transparency of the Riordan formula and the same is true of this volume.

It opens with a male hero who forgets his past but quickly finds his way to a demigod camp; this time, it's everyone's favorite guy, Percy Jackson. He finds his way to Camp Jupiter and is very confused--he has a hazy set of memories that contradict a lot of what he's seeing. It's not long before he befriends Hazel Levesque and Frank Zhang, two of the camp's misfits, and the three are sent on a quest to do an impossible thing in an impossibly short time.

Just like The Lost Hero, the book is narrated in turns by three characters: Percy, Hazel and Frank. In book one, there is a romance between Jason and Piper; here, the awkward, budding relationship is between Hazel and Frank. Frank and Hazel both have secrets about themselves that they eventually reveal (just like Piper and Leo), and while the secrets are more interesting, the manner in which the characters will think about but not explain their hidden information for much of the book is just as annoying as before.

In some ways, The Son of Neptune is more tiring than its predecessor because of how heavily it copies the "lost memory new camp" formula (not to mention the "sidekicks with secrets" thing). But in other ways, it's less tiring. First, we have Percy back. That's all I ever wanted, really. I love Percy Jackson, and even though the book isn't narrated in the first person, it's nice just to be around him. Hazel and Frank are a little more interesting and well-written than Leo and Piper, less single-minded/annoying. Halfway through the book, we meet Ella the harpy, who was a total delight. I hope she sticks around.

Importantly, Camp Jupiter is new to us. Part of what was so frustrating about The Lost Hero was how heavy the explanation was about Camp Half-Blood, as if we hadn't already spent 5 previous books learning all about it. There were huge chunks of book one dedicated to the retreading the information we already knew; here, those same passages are explaining the Roman demigod camp, which is very different to what we have already seen. Thus, the information is interesting and I didn't mind reading about it--in fact, I found myself wanting to know more.

And, as every other Riordan book I've read, the quest is exciting and engaging. As I said previously, it's hard to get angry about the formulaic quality when that formula is repeatedly used to make fast-paced narratives that always succeed in drawing me in.  I always enjoy seeing how the author is going to find new ways to mix in the pantheon of gods with modern society, and rarely am I disappointed. Riordan's inventiveness and love for Greek mythology are on every page.

No doubt, I'll keep reading. You ought to, too.

My rating: 4/5
The Son of Neptune on Goodreads

Friday, July 26, 2013

Super-Review #5

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Edward Albee)
Martha and George are a middle-aged couple embroiled in the life of the local university, where George is a history professor and Martha's father is the president. After a faculty party one night, Martha invites Nick, the young new biology professor, and his wife, Honey, to their apartment in order to get to know them better. What ensues is three acts of vicious interplay between Martha and George, some of the most biting, needling dialogue I've ever read. This play is a horrifying portrait of middle-aged marriage in failure, but that doesn't make it unreadable. Just the opposite--I was in it for the long haul, waiting for the big fireworks finale that signaled their self-destruction. I know Gone Girl came out 60 years later, but I read Flynn's psychological thriller first and that's what it reminded of--despicable characters evoking sympathy and compassion unexpectedly from readers while we watch their lives burn. Seriously, George and Martha are a nightmare couple.
My rating: 5/5

Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life (Bryan Lee O'Malley)
I saw the movie before I read this book, which only covers maybe the first 25 minutes of the film. I'm pleasantly surprised by how closely the movie resembles the source material, and despite it not having the same level of freshness, it's nonetheless enjoyable to see Scott Pilgrim's journey to defeat Ramona's seven evil exes begin. The pictures are an enjoyable mixture of traditional cartoon and manga style and the video game homages are always a delight.
My rating: 4/5

The Children's Hour (Lillian Hellman)
Our setting is a school run by two women, friends since college. When they punish Mary, one of the students, for faking a heart attack, she runs to her grandma and tells her about how the two women are lesbians. It's an interesting, certainly sad story once everything plays out, but it never reaches the emotional height I was preparing myself for. Mary is perhaps the best character, incredibly devilish and controlling, but her disappearance from the second half weakens the whole structure--no one is quite as interesting as the awful little girl, and I missed her in the third act.
My rating: 4/5

Once Upon a Time Machine
The idea for this graphic novel hodgepodge is to retell fairy tales through the lens of speculative/science fiction. Of course, I love fairy tales, so I couldn't pass up such an opportunity. The collection is mixed--some of the retellings are very well done, but others are less so. The variety of art styles is refreshing, as are the inclusion of tales from Eastern traditions with which I was not familiar. But I think the collection could have endured some trimming to remove some of the less-well-crafted stories (especially where there are two or three different retellings of the same tale).
My rating: 4/5

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library (Chris Grabanstein)

I discovered this book by accident on Goodreads and everything about it appealed to the 10-year-old
inside of me: there is a library lock-in, puzzles and games. What about that doesn't sound like fun? Seriously.

Kyle Keeley is really into games, especially ones created by Luigi Lemoncello, a famously eccentric creator of board and video games. As it turns out, Lemoncello grew up in Kyle's hometown and he is responsible for the library remodel that has taken 12 years (the entirety of Kyle's life!)--Lemoncello has a passion for libraries, especially the one where he grew up planning ideas for all his games.

The Wonka-like figure creates a contest--twelve 12-year-olds will be admitted to the library two days early for an overnight lock-in; at first, Kyle is not interested: he doesn't even like books! Then he discovers that the library will be full of Lemoncello's games and that's enough to sell him on the idea. To his surprise, he is selected as one of the winners of the contest. So he and 11 of his peers get to have a sleepover in the fancy new building.

But when they wake up the next morning, they realize all the doors are locked. They're stuck. Until Mr. Lemoncello notifies them that this is part of the plan: whoever finds the secret exit to the library wins a fabulous (also Wonka-esque) prize: the official spokeschild for Lemoncello's game company (in other words, fame and fortune)! So the game is on.

Books like this are something that I loved when I was younger and I still love them today (secretly). And it was great fun, just like I hoped it would be--there are rebus puzzles and trivia games and unexpected bonus rounds and all sorts of wacky pleasure. The book moves along at a fast pace and the premise never feels old or stretched. The excitement is continuous.

The problem, then, is Grabanstein's writing--the dialogue is almost continually cringeworthy, markedly displaying his lack of understanding of children. The twelve kids are frustrating to read about because everything they say is annoying or, frankly, stupid. I'm fairly sure I would have been insulted were I an actual twelve-year-old because the author seems reluctant to give the kids interesting or likable personalities. Kyle is kind of strange as a main character because he acts like books are the worst and worships his brothers like gods.

But it's really hard to be mad at Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library: it's a book for kids (would they even notice the awful dialogue and poor characterization?) and the entire thing crackles with reverence for books and libraries and knowledge and it all feels very sincere. Luigi Lemoncello is a delightful character and just about every sentence he says comes embedded with a reference to a children's book. You can feel Grabanstein's passion for the written word in every page.

So read it. It's a fun time!

My rating: 4/5
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library on Goodreads
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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Lexicon (Max Barry)

Thanks to NetGalley for the eARC of this book and sorry once again for my inability to read a book before it has been published.

The most intriguing part of Max Barry's Lexicon is obviously the concept: there is a society of people called "poets" (they even take the names of famous poets) who have a hyperpersuasive way with words--they make a study of personality types that allows them to use special, secret words to coerce people (in the book's lexicon [did you catch my pun {OMG triple brackets}?], "compromise" them).

There are a few words, however, called "barewords", that are so powerful that they can affect all people, words that have, in the past, been so destructive that they appear in various mythologies (the most well-known being the Tower of Babel story). Emily Ruff, a street girl and former student of the Academy, unleashes a bareword on the town of Broken Hill, Australia and kills all 3,000 people with it. The book opens on the aftermath of this event, with a man named Eliot (yes, like T. S. Eliot) trying to kill Emily in order to stop her from further destroying the world with the help of Wil Parke, a man who is somehow immune to the persuasive arts.

Part of the difficulty in explaining this story is the way it's set up--there are two different timelines running at the same time, one preceding the other. The book opens with Wil and Eliot, post-destruction, but it alternates with the story of Emily's time in the Academy years before. The opening is actually quite confusing, dumping us into the story with little explanation. It sounds like a criticism, but it worked for me (I know that's not the case for some other readers)--I didn't mind working for an understanding of what was happening, but it certainly was work.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (Robin Sloan)

Last December, I attempted to squeeze in every interesting book I hadn't read published earlier in 2012. Of course, I didn't get to read every book I wanted; one of them was Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. The blurb made it sound incredible: there was a conspiracy, code-breaking and a bookstore at the center of it all. It sounded like a da Vinci Code but more literary, and I was hooked.

Clay Jannon gets hired to work at a bookstore owned by a mysterious Mr. Penumbra; the store (as you may have guessed by the title) is open 24 hours and Clay works the overnight shift. There are occasionally regular customers, but more frequent are a strange set of men and women who belong to a secret club; they get books from the back shelf, books that Clay has never heard of, that don't exist outside of the store.

Curious, he decides to use his rudimentary codewriting skills first to create a computer model of the bookstore and then to map out the pattern the strange club members are following with their borrowed tomes. In doing all of this, he involves his nerdy/wealthy CEO best friend, his apartment mate, and a girl he meets from Google that he happens to have feelings for. In creating these models, Clay accidentally initiates himself further into the mysteries surrounding the cult/club known as the Unbroken Spine.

The opening chapters of the book--perhaps even the entire opening section (the first of three)--are great fun. Sloan did a great job in crafting Clay, who is an amusing first-person narrator. I enjoyed his observations about the bookstore, its customers and aspects of his own life. There were aspects of the book that reminded me of Where'd You Go, Bernadette--where Maria Semple was satirizing Seattle and Microsoft culture, Sloan lightly mocks San Francisco and Google in the same knowing way. I'm sure I would have enjoyed that humor more if I were an insider, but I'm not. It was still enjoyable.

But that leaves the other two parts of the book. I read online that the book was an expansion of a short story, and I have a feeling that the short story's contents belong to the first section. The other two feel less polished by comparison--the attempt to ramp up the intrigue and suspense as the gang gets closer to solving the mystery of the Unbroken Spine isn't as interesting. The intentionally anticlimactic end to part two leaves part three a lot of work to do, work that Sloan packs into a too-short space in an attempt to wrap things up. Things happen too quickly and the novel's ending is too maudlin. The epilogue feels too much like the ending of one of those based-on-a-true-story movies, listing outcome after outcome for the characters rather than presenting them naturally.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore feels cluttered, with subplots involving romance that seem pointless and backstory that feels overexplained. The actual methods by which the members of the Unbroken Spine go about their business is difficult to follow; I walked away from the book feeling like I still didn't understand how exactly they cracked the codes and solved the Founder's Puzzle. The origin as a short story makes it self apparent in the way the book doesn't flesh out all the way. There's a curious amount of "look how contemporary my book is" with mentions of technology that will surely make the book look terribly dated in three or four years.

It's a pleasant read, though. There are plenty of humorous moments, even if you're not a Google employee from San Francisco, and the characters are amusing, too. Don't get too wrapped up in the technicalities and you should be fine.

My rating: 3.5/5
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore on Goodreads
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Monday, July 15, 2013

The Bone Season (Samantha Shannon)

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read an advance copy of Samantha Shannon's The Bone Season! I, like a great many other people (I assume), heard and was excited about this book because the Daily Mail called her the next J. K. Rowling. This book, the first in a proposed series of seven, is set to debut in August. Most exciting of all is that this means I'm reading an ARC before it comes out! Weird.

The concept of this book: Paige Mahoney is a girl gifted with clairvoyance. She is a dreamwalker; she can sense the dreamscapes of other people (in other words, their consciousnesses). The problem? She lives in alternate-reality 2059, where the U.K. is controlled by a group called Scion who have outlawed all forms of clairvoyance. She works for a crime syndicate under a man named Jaxon Hall, who has organized a group of clairvoyants called the Seven Seals.

Until one day, when she gets on the train and is captured by Scion. She gets transferred to Sheol I, a prison camp located in Oxford, a city allegedly destroyed 200 years ago. She falls under the care of creatures called the Rephaim, otherworldly beings who train clairvoyants (shortened slangily to "voyants") to fight off frightening creatures called the Emim. Paige the other forty or so voyants taken from London are the harvest of Bone Season XX, the decennial harvesting of "sighted" (i.e., clairvoyant) humans.

Paige's keeper is named Arcturus Mesarthim, but she refers to him as Warden. He is the consort to the queen (or, in the book's lingo, blood-sovereign). He begins to train her to better harness her ability to dreamwalk so that they can leave her body and enter the dreamscapes of others, eventually possessing them. Despite the hype surrounding the book, I tried to keep my expectations low--I tried not to read reviews of the book before I got to it, tried to ignore plot summaries. I went into reading Shannon's first book as neutrally as possible. And I was still disappointed.

I'll praise first. The idea that will drive this series, illegal clairvoyance in alternate-future-London, is fascinating and promising. The most interesting part of the whole world the author created was that Edward VII was actually Jack the Ripper and that he controlled spirits to do it. And that's not even an important part of the story, or at least it wasn't in this volume. The beginning of the book was certainly exciting and well-assembled; I was gripped by the descriptions of the workings of mime-crime (use of clairvoyance) London. Also praiseworthy is Warden, who is a compelling character for his complex mentality and motives and his simultaneous tenderness and violence. He reads like some of the great male characters of classic literature.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell)

The dang Quest! Perhaps more than any book I have thus discussed on this website, the way I reacted to this book has shocked me. For years I have seen clips of the movie, have heard people talk about how much the movie, and I felt infuriated--Scarlett O'Hara just seemed so stupid, so irritating and overdramatic. I, with much hesitation, decided to read Gone with the Wind because it seemed like a book designed for me to loathe with my entire being. So what a pleasant surprise that I, well, loved it. Yes, I loved Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer-Prize-winning Civil War epic debut/only book she ever wrote and I don't care who knows it. And I even teared up near the end! How about that.

It seems silly to offer a brief plot synopsis as I usually do because I feel like lots of people have, at the very least, seen the movie and therefore know the plot. But that's my formula, so: Scarlett O'Hara is a Southern belle living in Georgia at the huge cotton plantation known as Tara. The book opens up immediately before the Civil War as Scarlett's heart is breaking--though she has kept many beau close to her, teasing them to gain their affections, her "true love" is Ashley Wilkes, who announces his engagement to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton.  The day the announcement comes, Scarlett tells Ashley about her feelings, convinced that doing so will make him change his mind. He admits that he feels the same, but that they cannot be together because they won't be happy.

She, of course, is devastated, and doubly so when she realizes the devilish Rhett Butler has overheard their entire exchange. As a form of revenge, she decides to marry Charles Hamilton, Melanie's brother. Shortly after their wedding, the Civil War begins. Charles, a soldier in the Confederate Army, dies (of measles) and Scarlett, now widowed and a mother to Charlie's baby, moves to Atlanta with Melanie and her aunt Pittypat.

I feel like I have explained the plot for a long time, but I've only covered the first 150 pages (of 950, in my edition, at least). This is why I earlier used the word "epic", which is frequently used to label really long books but sometimes is misapplied. This is not the case with Gone with the Wind, which chronicles the Civil War in its entirety and beyond, a tale that chronicles the fall of the kingdom that was the South, a story about love and war and feminism and slavery and so many things. The scope of the novel is astonishing.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Lost Hero (Rick Riordan)

I was a big fan of the Percy Jackson series. I can remember discovering the first book (with this weird, not-so-good cover) in a Barnes and Noble in Arizona while we were on vacation years and years ago. I begged my parents to buy it for me and then promptly devoured it--the thing about vacationing in Arizona is that there's at least a two hour drive between one noteworthy thing to another, so I did a lot of reading on that vacation. I'm spiraling off topic. 12-year-old me loved that book, and looking back now, I can say I'm not embarrassed about it like I am for some of my other literary interests as a youth. Riordan's grafting of Greek mythology onto modern society is the best I have ever seen and the narrator, Percy Jackson, is an actually funny teenager. This is so important, because too often are characters "funny" and their humor is tired and grating. Percy is actually funny.

The series wrapped up a few years ago and I thought nothing of it, assuming that it was all done. Then I saw another book come out called The Lost Hero; I can remember excitedly picking it up to read the blurb, thinking how great it would be for more Percy Jackson. But the blurb mentioned nothing at all about Percy, just that it was set in the same world. Disappointedly, I set the book down and never gave the new series another thought. Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I was on Goodreads and I saw book four in the series is coming out in October. I clicked on it and read the synopsis; to my surprise, Percy Jackson was mentioned. I was thrilled; okay, I thought, maybe he's not in the first book. So I did a little more research and discovered I was right. I picked up The Lost Hero from my library and began reading.

Our premise is that Jason wakes up on a school bus with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He is allegedly best friends with a boy named Leo and is dating a girl named Piper, but he can't remember any of that. It's not long before some vicious storm spirits are attacking the trio and their teacher/chaperone of the trip turns out to be a satyr who gets kidnapped by the spirits. They end of at Camp Half-Blood, where they are shocked to discover that the Greek gods still exist and that they are, in fact, children of these gods. Of course, none of this is new information to readers of the original series, so it's frustrating to have all of this explained to us again. I've talked before about what a difficult job it is for an author to decide how much information to retell from book to book, and this one, clocking in at 550ish pages, clearly suffered from too-much-retelling.

A prophecy is supplied by Rachel Elizabeth Dare and our three heroes must venture out to rescue Hera, who has been trapped by some unknown entity. I will say that the action in The Lost Hero is as captivating and pleasurable to read as it was before; Riordan has certainly not lost his edge in crafting interesting plots that never stop chugging forward. And seeing that these are books written for the children/YA sector (and I must say, he does a good job straddling these age groups to widen the appeal), I suppose that's what should matter most of all. So that's my highest praise for the book--the action is riveting.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Joyland (Stephen King)

Really, I don't read mysteries or thrillers too frequently. It just so happens that  something about Joyland intrigued me--the fact that it was supposed to be about an amusement park killer, the plan for it to intentionally be like a pulpy mystery novel (as part of a line called Hard Case Crimes), the paperback-only release of the book. I wanted to read it.

Now, I'm not a Stephen King person; that is, I've only read The Gunslinger and the beginning of The Eyes of the Dragon. I've never even seen the movie adaptations of Carrie or The Shawshank Redemption, which is silly, I know. But I think Stephen King is a really cool guy--I love reading his interviews and I do plan to read the complete Dark Tower series and The Stand and The Shining (which of course means I won't get to it for at least another 5 years). My point is that I had few expectations for what this book would be like because I don't read Stephen King.

Joyland is about Devin Jones, a 21-year-old college student who gets a summer job working at an amusement park (the titular Joyland). He is coming to the realization that his first love, Wendy Keegan, wants nothing to do with him and has moved on; trying to live with his powerful heartbreak, he involves himself in the mystery of a girl murdered on one of the rides in the amusement park.

King's newest book is difficult to approach, because the question isn't "was it good?" (yes) but "how do I approach it?" The author is so precisely able to capture what it feels like to be a betrayed, lovesick 21-year-old; that is, Devin is such a perfect creation. Having him narrate from the present on his past memories is a delight to read, because it allows the entire narrative to have a very retro feel. The entire novel is overflowing with carny-speak (some of it researched and some of it made up) and the behind-the-scenes perspective on things like carnivals and Disney-esque places never ceases to thrill and fascinate me. There's no doubt that King is an incredible writer (though I don't think at this point in the game, it's even a question, merely fact).

However, the mystery is a bit problematic. Not because it's predictable (I was surprised by the identity of the killer, at least), but because it doesn't feature as heavily as it ought to. What gets the main focus in Joyland is Devin's growth as a person, including his relationships with friends he makes at the park and a young boy near death with muscular dystrophy.  These characters are equally as interesting as Devin and the relationships between them are poignant and satisfying (satisfying in that I cared about and was pleased by the outcomes).

But Devin's concerns about who killed Linda Gray take a back seat most of the time, only becoming central to the narrative a handful of times (most prominently about halfway through and again at the end). Certainly the moments in which Devin confronts the killer are thrilling, but it feels like King hastily revised his text to add in the mystery toward the end of the writing process. There's a bit of a deus ex machina involved at the end that deals with ghosts, but King manages to make even that into a heartfelt sleight of hand, a job he does so well that the deus-ex-iness of it all didn't even bother me.

Joyland is short, but it manages to be heavily drenched in emotional power. Perhaps it doesn't work so well as a thriller/horror/mystery novel, but having read none of King's masterworks in those genres, I can't say I'm disappointed. I headed into the book with certain ideas about what it would be like, but I had to throw those ideas out almost immediately in order to fully embrace what I found. Ultimately, that's why I also tagged this review as "literary"; the way the author has crafted and explored his characters is beautiful, devastating and delightful all at once.

My rating: 4.5/5
Joyland on Goodreads
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Monday, July 1, 2013

Scarlet (Marissa Meyer)

About three months ago, I read Marissa Meyer's Cinder, the first book in her Lunar Chronicles quartet. I was expecting to enjoy it because I so enjoy fairy-tale related things, but I was surprised by how much I loved it. The cyborg-Cinderella premise was engaging and felt fresh and Cinder was a delightful main character. So of course I was excited for the sequel, Scarlet. Maybe I was too excited. That seems to happen to me a lot: I'm too optimistic and excited about the possibilities that a book offers and I walk away feeling disappointed (see The Shining Girls, Starcrossed and Warm Bodies). The disappointment here wasn't as total as it has been for other books, but it was still there.

A brief plot summary: in the original book, Meyer gives us the tale of Cinderella with a futuristic twist--she is a cyborg-human hybrid, not technically a person under law, and she lives in the Eastern Commonwealth, a nation which appears to be a conglomerate of many of the modern-day East Asian countries. There is a colony of people on the moon, called (unshockingly) Lunars, who are able to manipulate bioelectricity in order to confuse and control others. Their evil queen, Levana, wants to take over Earth, and is intent on trying to marry the Emperor of the Eastern Commonwealth, Kai (who, in this tale, is the Prince Charming). At the end of the first book, Cinder finds out--minor spoiler, but then why are you reading the review for book 2 anyway?--that she is actually the heir to the Lunar throne, that she is the girl Levana wanted dead years ago. So she's supposed to set out for Africa to meet up with the doctor who reveals her identity to her so they can plan to bring down the current regime.

Meanwhile, Scarlet lives and works at her grandmother's fruit farm in France. Her grandmother has been missing for two weeks. Scarlet eventually teams up with a grisly street fighter named Wolf, a man who once belonged to a (self-proclaimed) vigilante gang, a group they believe to have her grandmother captive. Yes, it's Little Red Riding Hood. And here is, for me, where all of the disappointment comes in. Perhaps my favorite part of Cinder, more so than even the inventive recasting of the tale, was Cinder herself. She was such a pleasure to follow because she reaches that very high level of "spunky female"--think Katniss. Therefore, the fact that the whole book didn't center around Cinder this time made Scarlet less good. In fact, the sections about Scarlet were my least favorite.

It has something to do with how single-minded Scarlet is--her only goal is to rescue her grandmother, and she's very annoying. When a character is driven to only one thing, it makes that character really irritating; I can't say "unrealistic" because I know plenty of people who are exactly the way Scarlet is, but I don't like being around them any more than I do being around this fictional creation. The forbidden romance with Wolf didn't help matters either; her refusal to admit her own feelings is, of course, related to her inability to acknowledge anything outside the realm of saving grandma. When she finally realizes she might be interested in Wolf, it's not exciting or happy; it feels more like finally scratching an annoying itch that's been bothering you all day--I'm just glad it's over with.

In the interest of not spoiling any more of the plot, I won't say why the outcome of Scarlet and Wolf's relationship is annoying, but it's enough to say that it is--the twist this time is a little more unexpected (which was my only issue with Cinder), but after it happens it just frustrates, and that seems to be the opposite of what a good twist should do.

I am by no means abandoning ship here--I plan to see The Lunar Chronicles all the way through, certainly. There were some exciting developments in Cinder's story that kept me interested and I'm pleased with how Meyer is developing the overall story arc. This particular volume in the series, however, was not as good as the first. Hopefully books three and four can live up to the promise of the first.

My rating: 3.5/5
Scarlet on Goodreads
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