April 25, 2014

Review: The Serpent of Venice

The Serpent of Venice Sequel to Fool
By Christopher Moore
Available now from William Morrow (HarperCollins)
Review copy

Christopher Moore's novels are a bit hit and miss for me, but the ones I love I love.  And FOOL, a retelling of KING LEAR, is absolutely one of my favorites.  I was quite excited to see that Moore was returning to the character of Pocket.  (Jeff and Drool are back as well.)

In THE SERPENT OF VENICE, Moore throws OTHELLO, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, and "The Cask of Amontillado" into a pot with a dragon and lets loose with the results.  Pocket goes to Venice on Cordelia's orders, to try to prevent another Crusade, but everything starts going awry when Cordelia is murdered.  (This, sadly, means that there is very little Cordelia in the book, though of course her ghost does get to make an appearance.)  After a rather odd misadventure, Pocket is sheltered by the Jewish community of Venice and makes his plans for revenge.

If you're familiar with the Shakespearean plays, it's quite interesting to see what Moore makes of them.  Some heroes become villains, for instance.  I didn't agree with all of his changes, but others made perfect sense.  And I quite enjoyed the note at the end where he explains what guided him to his interpretation of certain characters, like Portia.

I think THE SERPENT OF VENICE isn't quite as good as FOOL, but it does have a high bar to clear there.  However, it is just as hilarious, twisted, and perverse as I could've hoped.   I don't normally have a vulgar sense of humor, but something about Moore's writing brings it out in me.  THE SERPENT OF VENICE is more violent than some of his other books, but that suits the setting.

One of the things I think THE SERPENT OF VENICE does best is with Shylock, Jessica, and the other Jews.  There just as much a part of the humor as anyone else, but Moore doesn't back down from showing that they are treated is wrong.  The historical truths are there (often footnoted), and the modern sensibility is fairly scathing about it.  At the same time, Shylock and Jessica are still allowed to be flawed characters.

I do recommend reading FOOL before THE SERPENT OF VENICE.  THE SERPENT OF VENICE is capable of standing alone, but I think it is probably more fun if you know who Pocket and his companions are.  If you enjoyed FOOL, then you should definitely read THE SERPENT OF VENICE.  I'm very happy Moore decided to revisit these characters and their setting.

April 24, 2014

Review: Going Over

Going Over By Beth Kephart
Available now from Chronicle Books
Review copy
Read more in my Beth Kephart tag

"You have to wait. You have to be absolutely sure. Love is the biggest thing, of course. But there are other considerations." -p. 78

I have never been to Berlin.  I have certainly never been to 1983 Berlin, given that I was yet to be born.  But Beth Kephart took me there.  She brought to life a city divided.  She showed a city where sometimes people never come home, to be buried without a body.  She showed a city where a group of immigrants do not fit in, and not just because they don't speak the languages.  She showed two teenagers who are in love, who sometimes resent each other and who make art and who look at the stars and who plan.  Two teenagers who are stuck on opposite sides of that city divided.

Stefan lives in East Berlin with his grandmother.  He is the more timid of the two, but if he's going to be with Ada, he'll be the one who bears the risk of escaping over the wall.  Ada lives in West Berlin with her mother and grandmother and works at a daycare center where one of her young charges has gone missing.  She was the last person to see him, but she can't convince anyone else to look for him even though she knows he must be in danger.  It's another straw that's breaking her back, because Ada isn't sure how long she can keep waiting for Stefan.  She loves him, but she's young, and she only sees him twice a year.  He isn't there for her, and that's often what you need most from the people you love.

Beth Kephart was already an accomplished, polished author when she started writing YA fiction.  But with every new release it feels like she's growing more into herself as a writer.  When I read GOING OVER, there was something pure about the experience.  I felt like I was reading the book Kephart wanted to write.  She has a singular style, one that doesn't always work for me, but it sucked me in completely with GOING OVER.  I fell into the imagery and the rhythm of the prose, so often staccato and intense.

I, honestly, don't know much about Berlin during this time period.  It goes beyond never having been there myself.  Oh, I know the basics, which side is which, that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but I have no familiarity with the specifics.  (I'm definitely curious now about some of the suggested reading in the back.)  GOING OVER really did make me feel like I was peering in, through the characters of Stefan and Ada.  And I got different glimpses, because they not only live in very different areas, but have very different outlooks.

I will say that I enjoyed the Ada chapters more than the Stefan chapters.  Part of that is the nature of their characters.  She's more proactive and more reactive than Stefan.  Both of them think a lot, and Ada is the one more likely to go out and do something rather than think some more.  At the same time, Stefan isn't less developed than Ada.  He has just as much background, personality, and his own interests.  I'll also say that some of the ending is a bit convenient, but it fits the style of the story and there's still plenty of danger.

GOING OVER is a terrific bit of historical fiction.  I would recommend it for teens and up, because there's some death that younger readers might find upsetting.  There's another event that some readers might find upsetting, but it's written obliquely enough that younger readers shouldn't tune in to the details of the incident.  If the kid is a fan of WWII and post-WWII fiction it probably wouldn't bother them, however.

April 23, 2014

Review: In the Shadows

In the Shadows By Kiersten White
Art story by Jim Di Bartolo
Available April 29, 2014 from Scholastic Press
Review copy
Read my review of Mind Games

You might wonder what this book is about, since the title is super bland and the cover features pretty colors, but little other detail.   Then, by design, it's a little hard to figure out what it's about once you start reading.  There are plucky children and zombies and mysterious meetings, and it all ties together in the end in a cathartic, rewarding ending.

Jim Di Bartolo is an artist probably known by most for his work in his wife Laini Taylor's novel LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES.  He conceived of IN THE SHADOWS and created somewhere around half of the finished work.  His half of the book is a wordless graphic novel following a young man with a distinctive scar through the years.  Since there are no words, the reader must piece together who the man, his enemies, and his goals are for themselves.  The art is beautiful and full of little details that are quite rewarding upon a reread.  (After I finished IN THE SHADOWS, I went back though the graphic novel sections only.)

Kiersten White's half of the book is a prose novel following a pair of sisters, a pair of brothers, and a mysterious orphan boy.  They come together partially because they're the only young people in the boarding house, but they stick together after they witness a suicide-that-didn't-happen and seek to figure out what in the world happened.  I loved the feel of White's prose, which had a nostalgia to it.  As events got creepier, it still felt like the characters' world was constantly bathed in golden sunlight.  It made an interesting contrast to the increasingly modern graphic novel interludes, and made me question by perception of when the prose events where happening in relation to the graphic novel events.

I loved how much IN THE SHADOWS prompted me to use my mind.  It is an easy read in many ways.  Di Bartolo's sections have no words, White's could come from a middle grade novel.  But the connections between events and characters are obscured.  One half of my mind was unraveling the mystery with Minnie, Cora, Thomas, Charles, and Arthur, and the other half was unraveling the mystery of the boy with the scar, and both halves exclaimed every time they recognized a green necklace or a man with a beard.

IN THE SHADOWS is a bold, inventive work that will delights fantasy fans.  It's dark, clever, and a brilliant mix of conventional and unconventional storytelling, right down to the two endings.  Life and death are perennial themes of literature, and White and Di Bartolo speak of them beautifully.

April 22, 2014

Review: The Taking

The Taking First in a series
By Kimberly Derting
Available now from HarperTeen (HarperCollins)
Review copy
Read my interview with Kimberly and my review of The Body Finder

THE TAKING presents a classic sort of sci-fi mystery, the type that might show up in The Twilight Zone or The X-Files. Kyra Agnew argues with her father on the way home from a softball game, gets out of the car, sees a light, and disappears for five years.  When she gets back, she remembers nothing and appears to be the exact same age as when she left.  At first, THE TAKING seems to be about Kyra's difficulties rebuilding a life that has moved on without her.  But Kyra might not be the exact same as when she left, and a suspicious government agent is snooping around.

THE TAKING scratched the same itch for me as Malinda Lo's recent duology ADAPTATION and INHERITANCE.  There's government conspiracies, missing memories, strange new abilities, and possible aliens.  I love this sort of science fiction, where something unexplained has happened and the characters have to figure out the new rules of their universe before they can act effectively.

However, THE TAKING also has the weakness of ADAPTATION: there is a lot of setup.  The payoff is learning what happened to Kyra.  But that knowledge is left for later books in the series.  The events of THE TAKING are interesting, but the book ends without providing answers for the many questions that arise during the story.

Normally, I like at least a little resolution in the first book in a series.  And, to be fair, there is some.  For a moment I thought several characters' fates would be left in the balance, but that is not the case.  However, THE TAKING still worked for me because the atmosphere drew me in so tightly and I am so curious about Kyra's fate. 

I am not thrilled that she's super special even among the people who have disappeared.  I am thrilled that she's an angry teenager who doesn't immediately warm up to her new brother or to her best friend and boyfriend who got together in their shared trauma over Kyra's disappearance.  Kyra's better side comes out around Tyler, her former boyfriend's brother who is now the right age for her.  It veered close to insta-love, but Tyler had an old childhood crush on her and provides Kyra the unquestioning support she needs but isn't getting from anyone else.

I was sucked in by THE TAKING and couldn't put it down once I started.  At the same time, I feel like I can't truly review THE TAKING until I read more and see how all this setup play out.  I have a good feeling though, because THE TAKING is a promising beginning.

April 21, 2014

Review: The Here and Now

The Here and Now By Ann Brashares
Available now from Delacorte Press (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

Ann Brashares returns to YA with a novel that blends time travel, romance, and social issues together.  It's well timed - her Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants novels are still well known, but old enough that no one is likely disappointed by Brashares exploring a different genre.  Her contemporary fans shouldn't worry though, because Brashares does very little with the time travel conceit.

Prenna and her mother live with a group of time travelers who all escaped a world devastated by a mosquito-borne plague.  They live under strict rules to keep from being discovered or from changing the future.  I never quite got why the community goes along with this.  Who would suddenly jump to the conclusion that they're from the future?  Why wouldn't they change the future?  Surely anything is better than 90% or so of the human race dying.  And, well, it's revealed in the first chapter or so that the community leaders killed a fourteen-year-old kid because he wasn't good enough at following the rules.  Anyone who thinks killing a fourteen-year old whose only crime is being to talkative is the answer is not a leader that should be followed.  Oddly, Prenna seems to be the only one who is really discontented.  Her best friend kind of goes along with her, but has no personal motivation.

When Prenna starts to truly become friends with Ethan, who isn't a time traveler, she suddenly becomes a figure of suspicion.  But Ethan helps Prenna dig deeper into her now, to ask questions about the rules she follows and what else she could do with her life.  The first two-thirds of the book remind me more of GATED or other books about characters escaping cults than other time travel novels.

I enjoyed THE HERE AND NOW for what it was.  It's a teen romance that encourages questioning your beliefs and being proactive about your future.  There's a nice environmental message.  It's an easy read and entirely unobjectional.  But if you're looking for time travel hijinks, you'll be disappointed.  For instance, no one actually time travels during the course of the novel.  THE HERE AND NOW is a fine beach read, nothing mind blowing.

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