Friday, October 31, 2014

Wolf in White Van (John Darnielle)

Like so many books, I came to this one under false pretenses. Blurbs are so, so devious. Fortunately for Wolf in White Van, I was actually amazed by what I found. My initial understanding, that this novel was the story told in reverse of a crazy maniac who creates and runs mail-order games, is only about half-accurate. If you thought that was this book, too, it's not. Fair warning.

It is about a man, Sean Phillips, who creates and runs mail-order role-playing games. Think D&D, but you're playing alone and mailing in your moves to Sean. He is pretty housebound because his face was badly damaged in an accident, circumstances which we initially are not sure of. These games allow him to interact with other people without having to deal with their constant horror, sympathy, and scrutiny of his injuries.

This is a great life for Sean, except when it suddenly goes wrong. A young couple engrossed in his most popular text game, Trace Italian, a post-apocalyptic survival story, starts to lose their grasp on reality. Thinking that the game is a reflection of real life, they venture out to the Midwest to find the hallowed fort that all players are struggling to reach. It goes wrong, there are serious consequences, and Sean is stuck feeling guilty and innocent at the same time.

So not at all about a maniac. And technically the story runs in reverse, in that toward the end we find out what happened to Sean, but it's more of a memory novel than a backwards narrative. I was initially disappointed to discover that my presuppositions were wrong, and then I was delighted. What you'll find if you read Darneille's debut is something way better.

Sean is a great character, one of the best I've read this whole year. He's sad, he's quiet, he's isolated, he's lonely, he's a loner. If you're looking for a thrilling, plot-based novel, then never you mind, because this is one that's all about character, and it's done deliciously. I can't express how gripping his psyche is, how enraptured the reader feels while he's lost in his thoughts. Typically, I'm not a fan of heady novels, but Wolf in White Van really did it for me.

It's a bit difficult to review, because so much of it is centered around Sean's inner dialogue. It's not even that there are spoilers (really, there aren't). It feels silly to explain how good the book is, how carefully it was written, when you could just read it yourself. It's a very short, but it's worth every page. I'm struggling more than I thought I would with a review for this book. My shortest summary then: this novel is a delight, a painful character study, and you should read it.

My rating: 5/5
Wolf in White Van on Goodreads
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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Blood of Olympus (Rick Riordan)

Conclusions are hard. I read a lot of series in my youth, so I'm very familiar with the intense pressure of ending a storyline that spans multiple books. I can think of several big-name publishing events with bad finales, some which I haven't even read: the Sookie Stackhouse books, the Delirium trilogy, arguably Mockingjay, Allegiant! There are tons. I assume you're here, then, reading this, because you want to know if Rick Riordan screwed up his series with book five, The Blood of Olympus.

Well, he didn't. At the beginning of the book, we're only days away from the awakening of Gaea. Reyna, Nico, and Coach Hedge are en route to Camp Half-Blood with the Athena Parthenos via Nico's shadow travel, which is draining him of his life: he becomes less corporeal and functional with each trip. The rest of the gang (with a gravely-injured Jason in tow) has to find the goddess of victory, Nike, at Olympia, whose warring personalities are making it hard for the demigods to win the war against Gaea and her minions.

Of course, there are obstacles in the way, the most notable of which is Orion, a hunter who once loved Artemis, was killed, and has come back to fight for Gaea. He pursues Reyna, Hedge, and Nico as they get closer and closer to New York, and it prompts a lot of interesting conflict between, for example, him and the Amazons and the Hunters of Artemis. In general, I found the Nico/Reyna/Hedge story far more interesting to follow, not in the least because Nico and Reyna are probably the two most intriguing characters in this series. Reyna's backstory is really well-developed in this novel, in a way that's touching and painful, and I am always up for more Nico, whose complexity is, in fact, unrivaled by any character in the Heroes of Olympus series. While Percy may be my favorite character (I mean, isn't he everyone's favorite?), Nico wins the prize for most-thoughtfully-constructed.

But they're only about half of the novel. What about the other half? It was okay. I again took issue with the characters who get chapters of narration. We hear from Nico and Reyna, of course, but our other two perspectives are Piper and Leo. I'm not the biggest fan of Piper, but she is better in book five. The less she talks dreamily about Jason, the better (obviously). Leo, on the other hand, remains the most frustrating character to listen to. I've been pretty vocal about my distaste before, and it's entirely because of his unfunny jokes, which are so awkward. Nonetheless, I was a little more invested in his character arc than normal, and have been ever since the Ogygia/Calypso incident.

There's a shockingly little amount of Percy, Jason, and Annabeth in this book; Frank and Hazel aren't incredibly present, either. One of my biggest problems with Riordan's writing is the moments where he tries to sound like the age group he is writing for. Slang terms, awkward sentences ("Jason nodded at Percy like 'Sup?" or something very like it appears in the book, for instance), and stilted dialogue between characters (having Jason and Percy refer to each other by their last names to demonstrate their rivalry reads like every bad '70s sports comedy) marred my reading experience. If it's bad enough to pull me out of the book, then it should have been fixed.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Cress (Marissa Meyer)

We're back! Don't read this review if you haven't already read Cinder or Scarlet, the first two books in this series. I will spoil those two books, because duh. It's book three. You've been warned.

Our focus now shifts to Cress, who is, in the world of the Lunar Chronicles, Rapunzel. A shell (if you're rusty on your terminology, that's a Lunar who can't manipulate people's bioelectricity to do the sort of illusions and persuasion we've already seen from Cinder and Queen Levana) deemed useless to society, Cress is taken by the Queen's head thaumaturge, Sybil, to a satellite to monitor just about everything on Earth. She's lived alone her whole life, become a skilled hacker and programmer--she even wrote a computer program modelled on a younger version of herself so she has company.

Mistress Sybil has asked Cress to find Cinder and give information about her whereabouts, which Cress does easily. However, she's hesitant to turn the gang over to her mistress, and not in the least because of the dreamy Carswell Thorne, whom we met in Scarlet. Instead, she signals to Cinder so that they might come to her rescue, but it backfires--Carswell and Cress end up trapped in the satellite, Scarlet is taken hostage by the thaumaturge, Wolf is grievously injured, and Cinder is saddled with a ton of guilt. And then the novel really gets going.

I will admit that I was disappointed with the second book in the series; I thought that Scarlet was an annoying character, hated how much page time she got, and felt the plot lagged too much. I was nervous to continue the series: what if The Lunar Chronicles squandered all the promise I felt in Cinder? Fortunately, that's not the case in Cress, not by a long shot. The first of my complaints--too much Scarlet, whom I didn't like--is handled by her kidnapping. She gets almost no time in this book, which for me was gratifying, and the scenes she does have are way more interesting than anything she was doing in the second book.

The plot is also far more interesting than in book two. I don't want to get into much detail for fear of spoiling more of the story, but suffice it to say that there is a huge desert sequence that has a lot of fun. It touches on ideas about marginalized communities and human trafficking in very meaningful ways that don't ever feel like smacks in the face (that is, these are serious issues and the book knows it, but chooses to subtly educate us instead of preaching about them). There's a "heist" sequence, too, and I'm always up for one of those. As is typical, we end on a really fantastic set of cliffhangers, which manage to ratchet up the excitement--I didn't realize how excited I am to see how Meyer ends everything until I got to the end of this novel.

For me, it's important that this series maintain a balance between external conflict--the fight sequences and the rapidly-approaching royal wedding--and internal conflict within the characters. I didn't feel that Scarlet achieved that balance, and I'm happy to say that I think we get that in this novel. Some of the issue relies on who is telling the story--I've already spoken about my distaste for Scarlet, but how does Cress fair?

She isn't the greatest narrator. There are things I really like about her--the early scenes of her in her satellite are touching and sad, for example. To think of that sort of extreme, total isolation is heartbreaking but fascinating, and the author does a terrific job of using the Rapunzel trope. On the other hand, Cress is a bit daffy, dreaming about love very naively and earnestly; she's perhaps at her worst when her thoughts turn to Carswell Thorne, who finally starts to breathe as a character where I felt he didn't in book two. I can't tell if these sort of loopy love scenes are reflections and commentary on the fairy tale genre or if it's maybe a systematic laziness.

Regardless, Cress is pretty well-balanced with Cinder, who far-and-away continues to be the best character in the series. Any time I get to spend with her is time well-spent, certainly. Her internal struggles remain the most interesting of any character in the book, because she's grappling with such huge decisions. It's strange to say that the more impossible her choices are, the more realistic a character she is--name one person you know in real life who finds out she's the secret queen of a world intent on destroying another. But it's exactly because of this ridiculousness that Cinder seems so well-realized.

I'm really looking forward to how this series concludes, first with an interquel (is this really the terminology? ugh) coming out in January about Levana (Fairest), and then the conclusion to the series, Winter, in November. Yay!

My rating: 4.5/5
Cress on Goodreads 
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