Review: Black Dog

Black Dog Title: Black Dog
Author: Rachel Neumeier
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 443
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Review Copy: Borrowed from roommate
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Natividad is Pure, one of the rare girls born able to wield magic and protect humans against the supernatural evils they only half-acknowledge – the blood kin or the black dogs.

Before Natividad’s mother can finish teaching her magic their enemies find them and their entire village in the remote hills of Mexico is slaughtered. Natividad and her brothers must flee across a strange country to the only possible shelter: the infamous black dogs of Dimilioc, who have sworn to protect the Pure.

They must pass the tests of the Dimilioc Master. But, first, they must all survive the looming battle.

Review: This book left me with a lot of conflicting feelings.

Rachel Neumeier does an excellent job with the black dogs, though I’ll be the first to admit that my familiarity with werewolves in fiction is strictly on the broad pop culture level. Still, having the black dogs’ shadows be…almost demonic was fascinating for me. There is a lot of fire and smoke and “fell”-ness lurking around the black dogs, and the descriptions of how Alejandro loses his ability to understand either Spanish or English or humanity in general when his shadow rises up is delightfully disturbing. The black dogs are terrifying in their violence and their rage—this is a book filled with a lot of vicious battles and gore. When the black dogs fight, everyone else had better be far away, or they’ll be dead. (They still might end up dead.)

I also loved that Neumeier left a lot of the history of this world for us to fill in on our own. There are a few references to a previous supernatural war and how with the vampire magic gone, “normal” humans have started to figure stuff out about the black dogs, but by and large this world is one you have to piece together on your own. This is quite the feat, considering the primary action of the book takes place roughly within a single week in a very small geographical area (memories of Mexico and a quick side-trip to Chicago aside).

Neumeier makes good use of her dual narrators: Natividad, and Alejandro. By giving us POVs from both of them, the reader gets a better grasp on what it’s like to associate with or be a black dog, which is essential to understanding some of the subtler pieces of storytelling. They both spend a lot of time thinking about what their body language conveys on the not-a-threat to definitely-a-threat spectrum, and the small details of whom sits/stands next to whom are important for understanding what’s going on.

(I had one minor annoyance with the narration, and that was how often Natividad or Alejandro explained to the reader—not to another character—what a Spanish word meant. Every time that happened, it yanked me out of the narrative. It even happened sometimes with words I thought were easy cognates or things that could be inferred from context.)

So far as the characters go, there’s a pretty good ensemble cast. There are standouts and there are bit players, but most of the characters are unique enough to be remembered. The three siblings are great, though I wish we had gotten more of Miguel. Grayson and Keziah were also favorites of mine. My one significant complaint in this department was Vonhausel, who despite being the major antagonist, gets very little screen time. So little screen time, in fact, that the only thing I remember about him aside from an end-of-the-book spoiler is that he really likes having his black dogs and shifters kill people.

There were two major things about this book that gave me pause. The first item is 15-year-old Natividad’s status as breeding stock. This is acknowledged frankly in the book—the fact that she is Pure (and oh, how I cringe at that title, even though I know it has nothing to do with virginity) and likely to give birth to black dog sons and Pure daughters is one of the kids’ main bargaining chips to being allowed to enter Dimilioc. And while she’s allowed to pick whichever black dog she wants as a mate once she turns 16, 1) all of them are older than her and 2) one of them outright says that if she picks someone who is not him, he will kill that other person. That squicks me on so many levels that I could probably write an entire essay on that topic alone. The end of the book was probably intended to mollify me a little, but it didn’t do a good enough job at persuading me that this set up could truly be 100% consensual. (Which means it is not.)

The second item is one that I’m not sure was intentional, and that bothers me more. One of the main plotlines of the book is essentially “people of color seek out stronger white people for help (and/or are pressganged into joining them).” Granted, said white people are nowhere near as strong as they used to be, and by the end Dimilioc only survives because of those people of color, but there are some seriously unfortunately implications when it comes to race in this book. Especially considering Thaddeus, one of the black dogs, falls very neatly into the Scary Black Man trope, complete with being the only black dog to fight in half-man form, being huge and rather violent, and being forced into joining Dimilioc (with a bonus of being dragged there in what are essentially chains with his wife and son as hostages).

Recommendation: Borrow it someday or just skip it. If it weren’t for the last two items (and a few small disappointments in the resolution), this would be a book I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. The prose is great, the action gets your heart going, and Natividad and Alejandro are fun characters, but the unfortunate implications left me with an awful aftertaste.

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Book Review: He Said She Said

Title: He Said She Said
Author: Kwame Alexander
Genres: Romance, Contemporary
Pages: 330
Publisher: Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers
Review Copy: ebook from Amazon
Availability: On Shelves now

he saidSummary: He says: Omar T-Diddy Smalls has got it made: a full football ride to UMiami, hero-worship status at school, and pick of any girl at West Charleston High.

She says: Football, shmootball. Here’s what Claudia Clarke cares about: the hungry, the poor, the disenfranchised, Harvard, her GPA, Pat Conroy, the staggering teen pregnancy rate, investigative journalism…the list goes on. She does NOT have a minute to waste on Mr. T-Diddy Smalls and his harem of bimbos.

He Said, She Said is a fun and fresh novel from Kwame Alexander that throws these two high school seniors together when they unexpectedly end up leading the biggest social protest this side of the Mississippi—with a lot of help from Facebook and Twitter.

The stakes are high, the romance is hot, and when these worlds collide, behold the fireworks! — cover image and summary via Goodreads

Review: I have yet to read a “hip hop” novel because the genre doesn’t appeal to me, but I thought I’d check out “He Said, She Said” because I know of Kwame Alexander’s work with school kids and admire his Book-in-a-Day program. I know he is a talented poet and children’s author, so I was looking forward to reading his first young adult novel. Unfortunately, Alexander’s novel didn’t sway me into reading more “hip hop” novels.

When I teach creative writing with my students, I encourage them to “show, not tell” by adding dialogue to their short stories. Usually, in a creative work, the use of dialogue adds to the story, moves the plot forward, reveals character, etc. In Alexander’s novel, the overuse of a dialogue backfires and instead leads to more telling, rather than showing. Because Alexander relied heavily on dialogue to tell his story, I never got a sense of setting, of the physical world Omar and Claudia live in. For example, they protest that their school is run down, but there is not a single description of the school. In what way was the school run down? Were the walls filled with graffiti? Were all the toilets broken? Were there broken desks everywhere?  Dialogue in a story is helpful, but all the senses need to be engaged for a reader to really lose themselves in a story and Alexander does not make use of all the senses.

I’m big into writers creating well-rounded characters, flawed characters, characters that make us root for them. Again, unfortunately for Alexander, the male main character, Omar “T-Diddy” Smalls, is extremely unlikeable. The reader is supposed to not like him in the beginning so that we can see his growth, but the change truly comes a little to late. I think Alexander tried to have the reader like Omar earlier, but he would always ruin a moment of Omar’s growth by some gross sexist comment towards Claudia and “getting in her panties”. I understand teenage boys can be that foul, but even in his quiet moments, Omar’s thoughts were the same. It got really annoying after a while. I also felt that Claudia could have been written better instead of written as “the hard to get girl who eventually crumbles to the bad boy’s charm”.  It’s such a bad trope and not very true to life. At times it felt as if the feelings Claudia began to have for Omar came out from no where and not from a genuine place. In fact, both Omar and Claudia didn’t feel very genuine at all. They were one dimensional characters that were often there to occasionally shout platitudes towards fighting the man, and to create a very unconvincing love story.

He Said, She Said is a good premise – two unlikely people finding love while finding a purpose – but in execution, the story is lacking. I feel that Alexander could have relied less on the use of dialogue (literally pages at a time) and spent more time constructing the story. He Said She Said could have used a few more rounds of revision in order to make this a truly engrossing novel.

Recommendation: Skip It.

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Mini-review: Stormdancer

yuckTitle:  Stormdancer (The Lotus War #1)
Author: Jay Kristoff
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 313
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Review copy: the library
Availability: September 18, 2012

Summary: The Shima Imperium verges on the brink of environmental collapse; an island nation once rich in tradition and myth, now decimated by clockwork industrialization and the machine-worshipers of the Lotus Guild. The hunters of Shima’s imperial court are charged by their Shōgun to capture a thunder tiger – a legendary creature, half-eagle, half-tiger. Yukiko is a child of the Fox clan, possessed of a talent that if discovered, would see her executed by the Lotus Guild. Accompanying her father on the Shōgun’s hunt, she finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in Shima’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled thunder tiger for company. But together, the pair will form an indomitable friendship, and rise to challenge the might of an empire. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: To be honest, I was skeptical of this book’s self-proclaimed status as “Japanese steampunk.”* Still, I decided to give it chance because I love griffins and the book blurb promised me griffins. Sadly, my skepticism and doubts were not unfounded — Stormdancer’s use of Japanese culture as a convenient exotic setting was off-putting, to say the least.

The book takes place in Shima Isles (“Island” isles? Hm.) where Yukiko befriends a griffin (“thunder tiger”) and goes up against the dark conspiracies afoot in the empire. I did end up loving Buruu the griffin, who is pretty much the best part of the entire book. The prose was extremely detailed and occasionally beautiful, but this was also the book’s failing. The prose was so jampacked with detail that it felt like a wikipedia article full of feudal Japan factoids had somehow fused with the book, which brings me to–

Unfortunately, the book’s casual treatment of Japan as an exotic fantasy backdrop prevented me from enjoying the story. This ranges from the generic Asian-y atmosphere of the book to the offensively cavalier use of Japanese culture. In addition, Japanese words are misused and mistranslated in both the text and the glossary. Throughout the book, there’s a strong sense of cultural appropriation and shallow, careless research.

As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. Well, I believe this saying also applies to books. When it came to creating a book that respects the culture it uses as its setting, this village fell down on the job.

Recommendation: Just skip it.

For more in-depth reviews: the Book Smugglers and Dear Author
Further reading: Ellen Oh on The Importance of Proper Research

*Steampunk set in shogunate Japan is sort of like setting steampunk in medieval England instead of Victorian England. Um, what?

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Review: Eleanor and Park

eleanor and parkTitle: Eleanor and Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 325
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: lovely local library
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I’ve heard so many good things about Eleanor and Park, so I just had to see for myself – plus, one out of two main characters is a cute half-Korean boy? Sounds like good times to me. (Also, all of Rainbow Rowell’s books have the sweetest covers! Is it sorcery?)

What I loved about the book is that it wasn’t what I expected. From all the hype and rave reviews I’d read of Eleanor and Park, I thought the book was a light and quirky love story — nope. Eleanor and Park have completely different families and lives, but their meeting on a bus (definitely not a stereotypical love-at-first-sight meeting) throws them into each other’s path.

Eleanor and Park’s alternating perspectives give the book a sense of balance. Park might be an outcast for being Korean, but that’s not the end of the story. While Park has a loving (though imperfect) family and a upper-middle class upbringing, Eleanor lives in poverty with her struggling family and abusive stepfather. The stark contrast between Eleanor’s life and Park’s is a strong reminder that oppression and privilege come in many different forms.

Sometimes, though, Eleanor’s view of Park and his cultural identity felt a bit irksome at times, and I had to remind myself that characters are allowed to grow. I read through the book, waiting for Eleanor to grow out of her problematic assumptions and point of view — and I’m not sure she ever did. The portrayal of Park’s family felt a bit off, as well. There were times when I began to question whether it was Eleanor herself who was ignorant and borderline racist, or the book itself that was problematic. (Edit: In retrospect, yeah, it was pretty problematic. No denyin’.)

To be honest, the sudden jump from tentative friendship to full-on romance was almost jarring. I felt that the emotional intensity of Eleanor and Park’s relationship inexplicable and a bit too much. (Then again, I find most romantic expressions trite, so I might just be a cranky cynic.) But, when I read the book in the context of Park’s comment about Romeo and Juliet, I found myself almost believing in Eleanor and Park’s grand and star-crossed love.

Recommendation: Just skip it.

Further Reading:
Rainbow Rowell’s post Why is Park Korean?
Clear Eyes Full Shelves: Review: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
A relevant take on racism: Angry Girl Review: Eleanor and Park
Ellen Oh: What’s your opinion on Eleanor & Park?

[Edit]:
In which I try to express the importance of asking questions (and not being afraid to call books out on being problematic): Is Eleanor and Park racist? And Other Questions to Ask

 

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Review: Spirit’s Chosen

Note: Today’s review was written by K. Imani. Technical difficulties prevented her from uploading it today, so I took care of it for her.

SpiritsTitle: Spirit’s Chosen
Author: Esther Friesner
Genres: Historical/Fantasy
Pages: 475
Publisher: Random House
Review Copy: Purchased from Amazon
Availability: Hardcover on shelves now

Summary: Himiko’s world is falling apart. An attack by the Ookami clan has left many from her tribe dead or enslaved. And those who remain in the ransacked Matsu village are certain they’ve angered the gods. Amid the chaos and fear, Himiko hatches a plan to save her beloved tribe. Traveling through the treacherous wilderness with her best friend Kaya, their only goal is to free her clan folk from the Ookami. At every turn she encounters other tribes and unforeseen challenges. But just when it seems that she will outwit Ryu, the cruel Ookami leader, she is captured. Held against her will, Himiko starts to realize that not all of the Ookami are her enemies and every step of her unconventional journey has prepared her for something greater than life as a princess. Though she may not see her path as clearly as the spirits seem to, there’s more adventure (and even unexpected love) for this young shamaness and warrior. (Via Goodreads)

Review: After finishing the book a few nights ago, I’m still unsure as to what to think of it. There were parts of Friesner’s novel that I enjoyed and then there were parts where I just kept reading because I knew I had to write this review. One of the reasons why I think I’m blasé about the novel is because the novel I read before this one left a mark on my heart, had me mourning that the story was over. With Spirit’s Chosen, I put the book down and finished cooking dinner. No sadness, no missing of characters or Friesner’s world, just done with the book, ready for the next.

As I thought about my ambivalence, I asked myself what caused this feeling? Was it the characters? Was it the world? Was it the style of prose Friesner use? What it the story? What?

And then I realized, there were two main aspects of this novel that rubbed me the wrong way and the main one is the main character, Himiko. Now, I’m pleased that Friesner chose to write a character of color, specifically of Japanese descent, and set the novel in a historical time period. On the other hand, Himiko annoyed me a bit because she is a bit of a Mary-Sue. She is a like-able character and the reader wants to root for her to succeed, but she doesn’t have any faults. None what so ever. She always is able to maintain a positive attitude despite what is thrown at her and is always able to come up with the proper solution that succeeds every time. In fact, at one point when she experiences an obstacle and starts to finally have a breakdown, after she tells Daimu (her love interest) why she is upset, she ends up comforting him! I was completely taken out of the story at that point because it was so unrealistic. I realize that Friesner is trying to promote a strong female character, a warrior, but for a reader to connect, to really believe in the character, she must exhibit some faults or else the reader doesn’t truly trust the main character. I feel like Friesner got so caught up in her sweeping historical fiction with a strong female character that she forgot to give her character, and others, more depth.

Spirit’s Chosen is a sequel to Friesner’s Spirit’s Princess but the way she structures the novel allows one to read this novel without having read the first. Friesner gives tidbits here and there of relevant information, as needed, from the first novel and it doesn’t overwhelm Spirit’s Chosen. Friesner definitely did her history, and visited Japan which she writes about in her afterward, and this level of attention and detail comes across beautifully. The world that Friesner creates is very real and believable, and is what makes the novel somewhat interesting.

Recommendation: If you like epic historical fiction with balanced characters, I’d say skip this one, but if not and you just love historical fiction for the romance of another era, then this one is for you.

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Review: Shadows Cast by Stars

Shadows Cast by StarsTitle: Shadows Cast by Stars
Author: Catherine Knutsson
Genres: Dystopia/Post-Apocalyptic; Fantasy; Romance, Steamy
Pages: 456
Publisher: Atheneum
Review Copy: Checked out from library
Availability: June 5, 2012

Summary: Old ways are pitted against new horrors in this compellingly crafted dystopian tale about a girl who is both healer and seer. Two hundred years from now, blood has become the most valuable commodity on the planet—especially the blood of aboriginal peoples, for it contains antibodies that protect them from the Plague ravaging the rest of the world.

Sixteen-year-old Cassandra Mercredi might be immune to Plague, but that doesn’t mean she’s safe—government forces are searching for those of aboriginal heritage to harvest their blood. When a search threatens Cassandra and her family, they flee to the Island: a mysterious and idyllic territory protected by the Band, a group of guerilla warriors—and by an enigmatic energy barrier that keeps outsiders out and the spirit world in. And though the village healer has taken her under her wing, and the tribal leader’s son into his heart, the creatures of the spirit world are angry, and they have chosen Cassandra to be their voice and instrument….

Incorporating the traditions of the First Peoples as well as the more familiar stories of Greek mythology and Arthurian legend, Shadows Cast by Stars is a haunting, beautifully written story that breathes new life into ancient customs —(Summary and image via Goodreads)

Review: I wish I liked this book more.

As a moving-to-a-new-town book, Shadows Cast by Stars is serviceable. Cass’s struggles to fit in with the people on the Island—including wanted and unwanted attention from boys—make for some interesting character dynamics and conflict. I particularly enjoyed Cass’s scenes with Madda and her (sort-of) friendship with Helen. The women are the most memorable characters in the novel, though the boys don’t give them much competition in that regard (more on this in a bit).

Unfortunately, I wasn’t invested in Cass’s relationship with Bran. They fall for each other far too quickly for my taste, and their relationship crosses off most of the plot devices for romances (down to an ex-girlfriend stealing a kiss in such a way that the heroine thinks the boyfriend is cheating on her). It doesn’t help that Bran spends large chunks of the story away from Cass, so they end up hitting their relationship milestones really quickly compared to how many hours they actually spend together on-screen.

I have three major complaints with the book, and the first is a matter of expectations. Based on the summary, I was expecting there to be a lot more time invested in exploring this particular disease-ridden world. I wanted to see the cultural, social, and legal ramifications of a world where the government is totally okay with draining people of all their blood in order to stop the spread of Plague. The premise promised me all sorts of interesting possibilities, from a black market for blood to exploitation to national testing and IDs.

I got none of that. The most I got was a chip in all the Corridor citizens’ wrists which let them…connect to the internet? The details are supremely fuzzy and leave more questions than answers: Why doesn’t the government keep better tabs on the people who are the only cure for the Plague? How could our heroes possibly have had time to run when a new plague outbreak occurs? Why isn’t there some kind of set-up where everyone immune to the Plague donates plasma/blood/etc. every [X] days, gets paid handsomely for it, and then the government distributes those vaccines/cures to the people who can afford to get them? Do the antibodies in Others’ blood grant immunity like a vaccine or is it more of a medicine given once the illness has been contracted? Does this government really think it’s an awesome long-term solution to execute the only people immune to the Plague? What is the government going to do when they’ve “overhunted” to extinction?

My second complaint is that many of the characters in the book feel distressingly shallow. Paul spends the entirety of the book as an enigma, and once they get to the Island, Cass spends more time with Bran than him. Neither Cass nor Paul seem to care much about getting ripped out of their lives—the closest we get to them missing anything is when Cass asks her dad if the Island has a school system. (As far as I remember, this never gets answered.) Neither Cass nor Paul apparently had any friends or even extended family in their previous lives. There was one attempt to humanize Avalon, which fell flat for me, Cedar was creepy and probably triggery, and Grace was creepy with a side order of broken. Much of the time these characters (except for Madda and Ms. Adelaide) simply didn’t seem to live in the world they inhabited.

My third complaint is that the culture of the Island felt really off to me. I’ll be the first to admit that my experience with literature starring or written by native people is pretty limited, but even I was able to pick up on many of the problematic bits that Debbie Reese identified. The mixture of Greek mythology and Arthurian legend didn’t mesh well with the story and were distracting (minor) players in the narrative. Frankly, I would have much preferred that they weren’t included at all.

Recommendation: Just skip it, unfortunately. While there are a lot of interesting ideas in the story, they got all tangled up around each other.

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