Monday, April 25, 2011

Unpolished Greenstone

Guardian of the Dead
by Karen Healey
Morris Debut finalist 2011

While attending boarding school (due to her parents' plans to travel around the world for a year), seventeen year-old Eleanor "Ellie" Spencer comes face to face with the myths of the Maori people. A black belt in tae kwon do, Ellie is asked by her best friend Kevin's friend, Iris, to teach some stage fighting to the cast of a student production of A Midsummer's Night Dream at a local university, which Iris is directing. When the girl playing Titania suddenly drops out of the production, Iris enlists the help of a bewitching specter of a woman, who takes more than a passing interest in Kevin.

Meanwhile, a series of grisly murders, collectively known as the Eyeslasher murders, have been perpetrated throughout the country, both on the north and south island. As Ellie begins to spend more time with mysterious day-student Mark Nolan, she realizes that the two seemingly disparate events may be related, and not only is her friend Kevin in danger, but the whole of New Zealand.

With so much of its plot steeped in Maori folklore, I was quite intrigued by the premise of Guardian of the Dead, as I was rather unfamiliar with Maori myth, but I was disappointed with the result. The first half of the book, which is about 180 pages, is well-written for a debut work. The tension between the characters builds as the chapters progress, and Reka, the mysterious woman, is rather unnerving. All of this, however, comes to little fruition as the second half unfolds, introducing a convoluted plot where the patupaiarehe (New Zealand's native fair-folk) attempt to gain immortality and reclaim their native land from the Western settlers.

My main complaint with the latter half is that the pace is so brisk that one has a difficult time keeping up with the myriad side characters that are introduced prior to the climactic battle for New Zealand. I would have preferred fewer characters that had been more developed. I also felt that a number of characters had a few enhancing details sprinkled on for flavour that neither added nor detracted from the story. Prof. Garibaldi, Ellie's classics teacher, is American (and, apparently, a magician), but it's never really explained why she's teaching in New Zealand. And Kevin's asexuality seems tacked on, a simple excuse for why he can't become Reka's consort.

Now, I will say that I liked Ellie. It's not every day that the protagonist is an overweight, comic-reading fan girl, so that was refreshing. She was the only character that was completely fleshed out, so I'm glad that she was likable.

All in all, Guardian of the Dead was an entertaining read, but there's not much else I can say about it. I'd be interested in seeing what else Ms. Healey produces, especially if she continues to polish her writing style, but I hope she waits until after finishing her dissertation, as her ideas deserve her full attention.

Grade: B-

Monday, April 18, 2011

Free to Be

by Julie Anne Peters
National Book Award finalist 2004, Stonewall Honor Book 2005, Lambda Award finalist 2005

Regan's brother Liam has always been a bit different. His best friends have always been girls and he's always had an interest in fashion. His father suspects that he might be gay, but only Regan knows the truth. Liam is transgendered. Every night she keeps Regan up at odd hours while she dons her dresses, wigs, and make-up, permitting her true self, Luna, to emerge.

This novel is essentially the story of Luna's transition, as seen through Regan's eyes. Unfortunately, with its contemporary setting in the western United States, that story is not a very pleasant one. In addition to a male chauvisnist father and a pill-popping mother who refuse to accept the reality of the situation, Luna has to deal with the taunting of her classmates and local townspeople. With the lack of support and understanding presented to her, Luna contemplates suicide numerous times, and without Regan, who, despite her selfish wish that Luna was not so different, provides the only moral support in this difficult period of Luna's life, she may well have done more than contemplate.

Ms. Peters does a good job of explaining a complex and somewhat controversial topic in terms that a younger audience can understand, though I feel that the book would have been more powerful if told through Luna's point-of-view, rather than Regan's. The decision to use Regan as narrator has ensured that the audience remain outsiders incapable of understanding the problems of a transgendered youth first-hand. While Regan is sympathetic of Luna's plight, she can never truly understand the thought processes that go through Luna's mind, and thus, neither can the readers. True, some readers may be alienated by a book told from the perspective of a transgendered individual, but if so, this book was not written for them in the first place.

I found Regan to be a rather selfish character, more concerned with how her classmates and potential boyfriend would view her as Luna's sister than with how Luna was coping with her situation. Also, I felt that the characterization could have been stronger. Some aspects of the characters, such as their interests and hobbies, seemed like they were just tossed in as an after-thought. For example, Luna apparently is a manga fan, as exemplified by a scene in which her friend Aly returns a copy of Love Hina. But this interest is never explored, which makes me think the author was merely trying to retain the contemporary feel without any knowledge of the pop culture she mentions in passing.

Also, I realize that I am probably ridiculously naive and idealistic, but I seriously had to keep reminding myself that such biased individuals as Jack, the father of Regan and Luna, actually exist. I know that discrimination is still a major issue, especially in the transgender commmunity, but I can't fathom why. People are people. It's very simple. And we should all be free to live our lives however we may choose, provided that no one else is harmed.

I am glad this novel exists so that it might provide some understanding to people who otherwise might fear or mock transgendered people. While there were some minor flaws, I would still gladly recommend this novel.

Grade: A-

Sunday, April 17, 2011

An Astounding Debut

by Kristin Cashore
Morris Debut finalist 2009

With her mismatched eyes, Katsa unnerves everyone in her uncle's court. The eyes are a symbol of her status as a Graceling, one who has an exceptional ability...and hers just happens to be killing and torture. Or at least that's what she believes, as she's employed as a glorified thug by her uncle, King Randa.

While participating in a rescue mission of a kidnapped Lienid noble, Katsa has a chance encounter with another Graceling, the Lienid Prince Po, so-called because of his gold and silver eyes. He later comes to Randa's court in the hope of gathering more information about the perpetrator of his grandfather's kidnapping, and while combat training with Katsa, the two become close friends.

Eventually, evidence leads the two to the kingdom of Monsea, where Po's aunt is queen to the mad King Leck, whose Grace enables him to cloud the thoughts of others and to make lies seem to be reality with only his words. Katsa is put to the test protecting the princess from her father and his soldiers while struggling to remember the truth of her quest.

When reading a debut novel, one can usually tell. The characters might not be as fleshed out as one might like, or there will be unfinished plot holes. This is not the case, however, with Ms. Cashore's fully realized debut. It is apparent from the first chapter that much time and thought has been put into both the pacing of the plot and character development. The characters, especially Katsa, are very believably written and, even more importantly, likable. Katsa, with her fear of losing her identity should she marry, reminded me of both Alanna from the Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce and Oscar from the 70s manga series Rose of Versailles, so fans of those series (and strong female characters, in general) should definitely check this book out.

I only have one qualm with this novel, and it's a rather minor, stylistic thing. There appear to me a number of phrases and fragments in some more action-oriented scenes, and I realize this is probably to heighten the dramatic effect, but it irritated me a bit. For example, "His boot was caught in a stirrup. The stirrup buckled to the saddle, and the horse sinking fast." The sentence still would have been dramatic had it followed standard conventions and been written thus: His boot was caught in a stirrup, which was buckled to the saddle, and the horse was sinking fast. This didn't really detract from my enjoyment of the book, but it was something I noticed rather frequently and could have done without.

When I reached the end of the book, I was sad to see it end. I had grown attached to the characters as I might those in a lengthy series, and I wanted very much to hear more of their stories. This, to me, is the mark of a true storyteller. I am certainly planning on reading the prequel, Fire, but I am most looking forward to the sequel Bitterblue, as well as anything else graced by Ms. Cashore's pen.

Grade: A

Friday, April 15, 2011

Brief Update

Sorry for not posting. I've been in Pittsburgh the last few days to secure housing for the upcoming move, and while I had Internet access, I've not had time to blog. Posts for Kristin Cashore's Graceling and Julie Anne Peters's Luna should be up by the end of the week. I'm also currently reading Karen Healey's Guardian of the Dead, so I imagine that will be up soon, as well.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Reconciling Religion and Science

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith
by Deborah Heiligman
National Book Award finalist 2009, Printz Honor 2010

I would like to preface this review with two statements. Firstly, I don't typically read non-fiction, so I may not be judging this work by the same criteria as one more familiar with non-fiction writing. In fact, I think the only other non-fiction work I've read in the past several years has been Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, which I absolutely loved.

Second, since this book has a good deal to do with religion, I want my audience to be aware of my own views, which I hope won't colour this review too much. I am first and foremost a humanist, and I would also consider myself an agnostic. I feel that people are free to believe and practice religion however they choose to do so, as long as they are respectful of other people's belief systems and are not harming anyone or anything. Any comment bashing my beliefs will be deleted.

Rather than focus the entire book on an explanation of Darwin's famous evolutionary theory and how he formulated it, Ms. Heiligman instead chooses to focus on the relationship between Darwin and his wife Emma, as well as their opposing religious views. Despite having studied theology at college, as Darwin devotes more time to understanding the theory he is concocting, he begins to doubt God's part in creation more and more. This greatly concerns his religious wife, as she fears that they will be parted after death, and she often entreats him to reconsider his religious views. What I personally found to be particularly interesting was Darwin's fear that his work would offend religous parties. As such, he would ask his wife's opinion before publishing his various scientific works and would alter certain passages if she so recommended. This was extremely refreshing to me, given how hostile the religious can be to the secular and vice versa in our current society.

As someone who doesn't particularly like reading non-fiction, the focus on character made the book more enjoyable for me than it otherwise might have been, as it reads more like a romance than a biography. I also felt that the work handled the religious question extremely well without catering too much to the secular or to the religious, presenting both Charles's and Emma's perspectives clearly. For the most part, the narrative moves at a good pace, though there was never a moment when I forgot that I was reading non-fiction. Ms. Heiligman presents a captivating new look at a brilliant scientist, and I encourage people of all philosophies to give it a look.

Grade: A-