Legend by Marie Lu

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This book… feels sexy. It does. It’s got a roughened cover and just feels nice. Yeah, I know book cover fetish, but seriously, if you find it somewhere (the Speak edition from 2013): feel it.

And it doesn’t just have a sexy outside, the inside has its own magic you might want to discover. Here’s what’ what:

The North American states (that’s the Republic and the Colonies) are at war. Before this background, June Iparis wants to avenge her brother’s death. Only suspect is Day, a much sought-after criminal, who’s never killed before. But before June even knows that she’s found him, she spent some time with him undercover and (of course) falls for him. Turns out, he did not kill her brother, but others did. And they have more than that one secret to protect.

There’s much more to this story, naturally. This is a different North America from what we know, but it’s not Suzanne Collins united version, either. The Republic is a sinister place where the lines between rich and poor are quite severe. Much like in The Hunger Games and Divergent, there is a Trial children have to go through – this one is to rid the gene pool of its bad apples.

Day is such an apple. Even though he had a perfect score in The Trial, he was told he failed and was given over to experimentations (while the public thinks, children who failed The Trial were send to labor camps). But he survived and he wants revenge on a corrupt system. June is a prodigy of the system. She also had a perfect score, but because she was born to rich parents, she started training for the military, following in her brother Metias’ footsteps. But her family has a secret of their own, and as she finds out about it, her loyalties are tested until they break away.

I already compared this to The Hunger Games and Divergent, and it’s not far fetched. And yet, Legend is also different. Lu decided to break the book into two distinct voices, June and Day’s. Both are equally important, both are the main characters, and also I-narrators. I think she solved the problem I had with Divergent (or rather its sequel Insurgent) cleverly – giving Day his own voice, keeps this book from being about Day in June’s voice, while June is free to explore her own story.

Yes, there’s quite a bit of romance between the two characters, and I must confess, those pages bored me a little. But the story is so well written, so well thought through, that they were the only moments I did not entirely enjoy. It also made apparently clear to me how much I yearn for a story like Legend, or The Hunger Games with a queer protagonist (or two queer protagonists).

Legend is a really good book and it’s part of a series, followed by Prodigy and Champion, which I will probably read soon and will probably tell you about. I honestly hope Legend will get made into movies, and I also hope that these movies will not white-wash Day who is half-Mongolian. In fact, Legend lends itself perfectly as a series that could bring more Characters of Color to a ‘whitened’ genre.

Carol by Patricia Highsmith

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The problem is this: in Germany, we don’t get to see movies in the English original, unless there happens to be a movie theater near that offers to do that. They didn’t offer Carol and I’m loath to watch the German dubbed version. What did I do? I bought the book.

The Price of Salt (the original title when it came out in 1952) has been on my reading list for some time, but as it always goes, I hadn’t come to it yet. The movie put the book in my local bookstore and there you go. I bought it, and I’m not sorry I did.

Here’s what Carol is about:

19-year-old Therese Belivet works in a department store over the holidays. Carol Aird is a customer looking for a doll for her daughter. Their eyes meet and from that moment on they yearn to be together. They try to be friends, but on a trip they take together they finally succumb to their desires. Waterloo is their downfall. But Carol’s soon-to-be ex-husband has sent a private detective after them and their affair doesn’t stay undetected. The price of salt being the custody of Carol’s daughter.

Lauded as the first lesbian novel with a happy ending, this lauding took away the surprise of the ending. Because one could not help being surprised at a happy ending for a novel that seems melancholy. The love between the two women seems doomed and thus I had the feeling at the end that the ending doesn’t quite fit.

This however does not take away from the beauty of the novel. Told from Therese’s point of view, but not in the first person, it is a story of youthful awkwardness and misunderstandings. But it is a story of growth in a human being, maybe even more so than a love story. Through her love for Carol Therese grows into an adult. While Carol is certainly a guiding person, she is far from perfect. Her mood swings sometimes dramatically, and the audience – together with Therese – can only wonder at her attraction to the young woman. But it’s there, it is just hidden because Carol knows better than to fall for a woman again.

The book is an emotional roller coaster, and while one does not always understand Therese’s feelings or actions, they make sense for her. The same goes for her misunderstanding of Carol who remains a mystery for most of the tale.

Throughout the read, I kept underlining passages that are so beautifully written they took my breath away. While the book is of spartan discription, the inner musings are philosophical, sometimes poetic. The love falls in front of a cold backdrop, it being winter and even Therese wishing her feelings had fallen into spring. But love does not wait for the perfect backdrop, it just happens. And the book never doubts that it did happen for Therese, she’s not shy to even confess to them before she even knows that Carol feels for her too. These feelings overwhelm her, they’re too powerful to doubt them.

CarolThe Price of Salt – is a beautiful book, it’s an important book, it’s the book you should read in 2016 if you haven’t read it yet. I still can’t quite put my head around it, but it’s a great read, an emotional one too. It’s not a pleasant summer read, but it’s worth your time.

A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

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Since I started reading Stephen King when I was only ten, I never really read young adult novels when I was a young adult. I’m pretty sure there weren’t as many around as there are now, I’m also doubtful that they were as good as some of them are today.

To these good ones belongs A Spy in the House, the first part of Lee’s The Agency series.

Mary Lang is kidnapped from her way to The Gallows, where London rids itself of its criminals by hanging. When she awakes, she finds herself in a school where she receives a formal education in the years to come. Same school is also a cover for The Agency, a covert operation helping the police and other interested parties to gain information. Like their students, all their agents are women.

Mary’s (now using the last name Quinn) first assignment for The Agency places her as a female companion in the house of the Thorolds. Mr. Thorold is suspicious in several crimes under the cover of his trading company. Mary tries to gather information, but gets involved in far more than just Thorold’s shady businesses.

If the summary sounds a little muddled, that’s my fault, because nothing in Lee’s novel is muddled. She did her research, she wrote an excellent, exciting tale. I couldn’t get away from this book, because I wanted to know what happened next, and next, and next.

Y.S. Lee spins an intriguing tale around her protagonist. Mary Quinn is a modern heroine trapped in times which treated women as anything but heroines. Victorian England is not for the faint at heart, and Mary surely isn’t. She has moments of doubt, moments of emotional turmoil, but she fights to be someone better than her lot in life has dealt her.

Mary’s story and the whodunit tale of the novel are woven into each other. We get to know Mary better as she unravels the mystery surrounding the Thorold family. And she finds herself a male adversary in James Easton. While their war of wits is charming and engaging, Easton is never put before Mary. She is the heroine, it is her story.

This is a book you will like, no matter if you’re 17, 37 or 67. While the main protagonists are in their late teens, they’re mature and interesting, the story is exciting and mysterious, the setting believably narrated. This is a truly wonderful tale. I bet you’ll like it too.

The Diviners by Libba Bray

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Look who’s been a lazy book blogger! Yes, that would be me. I have been reading, but I’ve been too lazy to tell you about it. Shame on me. But today, I wanna tell you about this book, ’cause it’s really good.

I first came across The Diviners at my favorite multi-media store in the German version, but the cover had just the right mix of mystery and 1920s feel to it that I was instantly intrigued. I wrote the title down and totally forgot about it, then lost the note, but finally reremembered. At some point, it was the only book I wanted to read at that instant and that was last month. And finally, I read.

And let me tell you, there was no disappointment there. Libba Bray writes in a humorous style about young adults, but that doesn’t mean she writes just for young adults. Just like the J.K. Rowling, Bray understands that the tone of a story can lure in people of all ages. She tells a mature story, doesn’t shy away from gory details and delivers a tale that’s thrilliing and engaging.

And now I almost forgot to tell you what it’s about:

Evangeline O’Neill of Zenith, Ohio, gets herself in a little bit of a bad situation at home and is temporarily shipped off to her uncle in Manhattan. The perfect moment for Evie to shine, though she didn’t think it would be as a part of a murder investigation. Evie has the ability to divine secrets from the possessions of people and it gets her into more trouble when those possessions belong to murder victims.

She’s not the only diviner in town. Through the happenings of the story, a number of people with mysterious abilities revolve around each other: Ziegfeld girl Theta, poet Memphis, piano player Henry, and trickster Sam are more than just coincidentally acquainted in one way or another. But Evie is the one whose life is in danger as she fights the spirit of a serial killer who’s about to put an end to all that’s golden about the 1920s.

Evie is a charming protagonist, but she’s also a bit of a self-involved mess. The tone in which she and her peers talk is the big-talking way of youth, but also the quick-witted repartee of their time. Bray describes the 1920s so well, the book rushes by in a blur. I found myself completely pulled into the plot. And it’s only the first part of The Diviners-series.

This is a story for people who like a good scare, some mystery, some thrill and little drinky at a speak-easy before bedtime. And who doesn’t like that?

Panic by Lauren Oliver

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A paperback has become a rare occasion with me, but it felt good to go back to the printed copy and actually feel paper, turn pages, smell the glue of the binding. I like all these things. I also liked Panic.

The novel is about the youth of small town Carp who participate in a game called Panic after graduating high school. The lure is money, the danger is dying. Heather Nill participates to guarantee that her sister Lily doesn’t have to live in a trailer park for the rest of her life. Dodge Mason wants to get back at the brother of the guy who is responsible that his sister Dayna is now in a wheel chair – a direct consequence of entering the joust finale of Panic.

From the beginning the idea reminded me of something Stephen King might have written. It would have been set in Maine instead of New York, of course, but the idea is really that good. And it’s well-written and gripping, too. Given, it is not Stephen King, and that’s okay, only, I wondered reading this book what he could have made of this idea.

Oliver is an able story-teller, she weaves a gripping tale. I liked the idea with the tigers even though the final appearance of one might have been a little predictable. That is also the part with which I had my most issues – the ending. The last chapter was a little too happy ending-like for me, especially since some of the issues – What about Heather’s mom, didn’t she try to cut into the Panic-cake? Has Dodge simply forgiven his friends? Why did Luke had to appear of all people? – weren’t solved. In the end, the money from the game made everything okay, but nobody tried to put a stop to Panic, like it’s supposed to happen. And if Panic is supposed to happen, then Carp hasn’t changed at all and is still the dreary, hopeless place it was in the beginning. Could this town produce a happy ending like Oliver wants us to believe it did?

While the ending leaves things to be discusssed, the story as a whole is very enjoyable. Panic is well-written, the characterization is very good. You suffer with Heather and Dodge. Sometimes I wish that young adult novels weren’t so hopelessly heteronormative, but that’s not exactly a new problem. It would be nice, though, to have at least one main gay character… just saying.

It’s a good read, you should check it out. I’m not sure, but there might be a sequel in the works.

Unbreakable by Blayne Cooper

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Blayne Cooper – another one of my favorites from Xena-fanfiction days, ’cause who could forget Madam President and it’s sequel First Lady. I sure haven’t and I enjoy a reread every once in a while. Still, I haven’t read a lot by Cooper and don’t know why. Her style is compelling, her story-telling prowess impressive. But what I like best is her sense of humor, her tendency toward siliness and downright slapstick. Here’s a writer who makes me laugh.

This goes for the aforementioned novels as much as it does for the one I’ve recently read – Unbreakable. It’s the story of five girls who became friends when they were nine. Ten years later they have a falling-out. When one of them turns forty, they meet again – as promised – and discover that their friendship might have been buried but is essentially unbreakable.

While it is not a typical lesbian romance, a lesbian love story is part of the novel. Jacie and Nina become fast best friends and just a little more, undetected by the other girls in their club. While Jacie accepts her feelings early, Nina pushes the realization of what she might be away until their desire breaks through the heteronormative world their friend Gwen has build for herself.

The really compelling part of the story are the relationships between these girl, young women and adults. The chemistry is wonderful and comical and heartwarming. The characterization leads the story sure-footed toward a surprising plot twist that is sure to drive the friends apart once again, but is ultimately solved.

So mainly, I loved the story because I loved the characters. Still, as is often the case, there are some parts of the story, I don’t agree with. And I think there should be a trigger warning applied to it – rape. It’s a graphic scene, a violent and disturbing chapter. And it dampens the mood of the novel severely. I’m sure I will read this novel again some time, but I will at least jump this chapter. I don’t agree with rape scenes which are mere plot twists… or rather, I don’t agree with perpetuating rape culture at all.

There are a couple of minor style mechanisms which I didn’t agree with either. Pushing for the most dramatic effect in a couple of scenes is one of them.

But neither of these things makes this a bad novel, because it’s enjoyable. If a novel makes you laugh and cry, you can be sure you’ve found a favorite and that holds true for me with Unbreakable.

Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier

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[translated from German by Anthea Bell]

I came across this trilogy last month when I had nothing to do one day and went to the movies. I didn’t want to watch anything in particular and ended up watching a young adult film I knew nothing about – Sapphire Blue (or rather the German version Saphierblau). I didn’t even know it was the second part of three, but I learned pretty quickly and I liked it.

I think I’ve always been fascinated by time travel (movie-wise). The Back to the Future-Trilogy is part of my childhood and I remember that I was the only one in my family who really got the plot. I haven’t read much about time travel, if anything, I didn’t even finish The Time Machine when I started reading it earlier this year. Still, fascinated, so I thought I’d read the books of this trilogy.

So far, I’m not disappointed. I’m not sure how the German version is written but I find the translation really good and easy to read. The plot is certainly interesting and rather fast-paced. I guess, that’s one of the aspects of writing (or filming) time travel, things happen fast and some things are simply not explained. It makes sense since the paradox of time travel – are things changing constantly after one trip to the past after another, or have things been this way because they have been changed and everybody knew all along – is difficult to solve.

Sorry, I forgot – the plot:

Gwendolyn Shepherd has never expected to be the one in her family to carry the time travel gene but then, one day, she’s pulled into the past and her life changes from there. The secret society bound to help her with this predicament is no help at all as they all expect her to betray them, and even fellow time traveller (and love interest), Gideon de Villiers, thinks she’s only a stupid goose. Gwen is reeling from new information and trips to the past. And that’s before she even knows about her cousin Lucy’s treason and Count Saint-Germain’s ability of scaring the heck out of her.

I like that Gier has not invented a new world, a different reality but rather deals with an exceptional situation in our society. Then again, she has created a secret society and is rather scetchy on the details, but she ties this scetchy-ness to what Gwen knows, or rather doesn’t know about it and it all makes sense again. The historical parts of her novel are well-researched but the mix of modern people in old times gives them a modern and sometimes comical touch.

Ruby Red is a great first volume of an intriguing trilogy – hopefully. It’s also a quick read. What I’m not entirely happy with is the short span of time that elapses. The first volume happens on two days. While a lot happens in that short span of time, it’s not a very promising premise for the trilogy. At this speed, the whole trilogy is over in a week. But other than that – if you like young adult novels and time travel and a young woman coming of age… go read.

Alma Mater by Rita Mae Brown

almamaterI read this novel years ago and in German. I read a lot of Brown back then and I loved her stories, mainly because they’re very Southern stories about Southern women and their relationships to each other (and not just lesbian relationships, I’m talking sisters, mothers and daughters,  aunts and nieces). While I come from nowhere near the American South, I can certainly relate to the female relations-part since like most of her characters I have very strong, very determined female relatives. They have influenced my life.

Since reading it last, I have always remembered Alma Mater as a book I wanted to read again – here’s what it’s about:

Vic Savedge meets Chris Carter and is besotted. She falls hard for the other young woman and the feeling is mutual – too bad that Vic has a boyfriend and all her relatives in Surry County expect her to marry him soon. While Vic loves Charly Harrison very much, there is just something missing from their relationship. Vic finds that piece of herself in Chris: it is unbridled passion. Between new cars, old acquaintances and the drink of the day, Vic has to find out where she belongs and with whom – never mind that life has its own ideas of what is going to happen next.

The whole story is a great big mess – just like life. Because life doesn’t wait until you have made up your mind and it isn’t fair if you can’t. Life just happens. And there’s a lot of life happening in Rita Mae Brown’s Virginia. Her characters walk, glide, stumble and fall into the full of it, usually with a sense of humor if not decorum. The voices are distinct, the dialect telling, the settings sometimes beautiful, sometimes bizarre but always close to home.

I guess you can tell that I like Brown’s stories. With Alma Mater, after all those years of not reading Brown, I realized that her style is quite disorganized. I’m not sure it’s the same with her other books but I rather liked that her writing is as unpredictable as the things that are happening. After reading so much about how to properly structure and paragraph a novel, it’s amusing to read somethig that defies the rules. But this is Rita Mae Brown and she can afford it – us mere mortals who are amateurs shall not.

There’s one thing about the novel that left me dissatisfied, though. While most of the characters get their share of exploration, Chris Carter remains a little pale to me. I couldn’t quite grasp her and would have wished for more time between her and Vic. Given, this is not a traditional lesbian romance, it’s much more of a family portrait, a book about Southern women and relationships. Still, the romance between Vic and Chris is why a lot of things happen but it pales in comparison to other relationships, even the one between Vic and Charly. I would have liked to spend more time with Chris, get to know why she did the things she did, where her convictions came from.

Apart from that: a great read, a wild ride, entertaining and quick.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

divergent-divergentThis is the first part of the Divergent-series – parts two, Insurgent, and three, Allegiant, are already in my possession, waiting on the sidelines to be read in order.

I must admit there is already something intriguing about the titles of this series. Part of this is that I had to look them up to understand their meaning (as non-native English speaker). I’ve never come across these exact words just variations of them and I think they have been well chosen. The same is true for the covers of the books (and, yes, there goes my slight fetish with book covers again), vibrant colors, the hint at an urban setting and the promise of an adventure. And then there’s a tag-line: One Choice Can Transform You. I must pay kudos where kudos are due, and the marketing department for this project did a great job. But a great marketing strategy does not a book sell alone, there’s also always what’s inside.

Let’s have a quick look:

Beatrice Prior lives in post-war Chicago. Her society is build into factions, one for each virtue that might prevent another war, and at 16 Beatrice is about to chose her own faction. The results of the test that should help her decide are, however, inconclusive. Beatrice is divergent, and being divergent is considered a very dangerous thing in her world.

As she chooses a faction, the Dauntless, her world is transformed by the violence she experiences. But a part of her remains with her old faction, the Abnegation, and it is that faction that comes under the scrutiny of the rest of the society as propaganda is spread against them. Tris (which is the new name Beatrice chooses for herself on entering a different faction) has to find a way to fit in to survive or fight a system that does not accept her divergence – and the time to choose one or the other is running out fast.

At first glance, it is an intriguing concept for a dystopian novel (and I don’t think that we should categorize into Young Adult novel here, as J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins have clearly shown that there is no expiration date on recapturing our youths by reading those) but I would argue that it does not hold up to anything but a superfluous first glance. The novel has the same short-comings as the movie, as it does not dwell on much of a backstory. We never learn what has caused the war that destroyed American society, we’re not even to learn how far this distruction goes. Chicago is all we are to learn about this new world (at least in this part of the series and I doubt that the other parts will go beyond this [but please don’t put spoilers in the comments should I be wrong, I will get there in time]) and we are simply told to accept the society build in this city. This might not be such a big problem (as we’ve already accepted Panem in Collins’ The Hunger Games without ever getting told what happens outside of it) if the concept of this society wasn’t so obviously flawed.

Maybe it’s me, it is possible that it is me and my cultural believe that diversity is a crucial part of the human condition, but building a society that is strictly parted into factions that are entirely focused on one virtue seems ridiculous to me. Why be just intelligent when you can be intelligent and brave and kind and honest and selfless? For those are the virtues of the factions. I find this concept highly illogical which makes this dystopia rather unbelievable to me. And yet, it does not completely take away it’s relevance. Because Tris finds out that she’s different in a world that does not want her to be different, and that is, at least, something I can relate to.

And I guess here is where the life lessons of the Young Adult novel set in and young people are to learn that what makes them different is actually a good thing. But it does so under the premise of Christian values which are barely disguised in this novel as factions. More to the point, Tris is a symbol of Christian virtues as she possesses not all but more than the average person and teen in this story – as translated into our world. So the difference that is supported here is one of virtuous behavior – not of the more controversial aspects of teenage life in our society like sexuality, gender, mental health, body image, etc.. I’m not saying that the message is completely lost on our society, we should always be nicer to each other, but I think Roth could have expanded on her definition of diversity here and without much of an effort.

To be fair, she’s not the only writer of a successful Young Adult series who failed to acknowledge minorities – the problems of mnorities in acknowledging that they’re not exclusive to minorities. Whiteness, heterosexuality (in a heteronormative society), cisgendered, and able-bodied are the attributes attached to the heroes of these stories, infallibly so. This is where diversity ends and I think that’s rather sad – as representation of the Young Adult novel and popular literature in general.

With all this said, I don’t think Divergent is a bad novel (fooled you there). I wouldn’t attempt to read parts two and three if I did. But it’s lacking and it’s not remarkable as these stories go. Yes, on first glance we can draw lines from the factions to Hogwarts houses, we can compare Tris’ struggle to Katniss Everdeen’s against the injustices of her society but Divergent falls short to these other serieses. It’s entertaining and possibly educational to a certain degree but it is not the great achievement in story-telling that the Harry Potter-series is, or the very unique attempt at creating a female character of Katniss Everdeen’s caliber. It’s good, it’s readable but it won’t change your life to the extent that other Young Adult novels did or will.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

themiseducationofcameronpostReading is kind of slow these days and I hope you’re all more successful on the reading front than I am. But I muddled through one and I think it is worth a shot (every book that I finish when I’m not really in the mood for reading is certainly worth a shot).

It’s aboout (as the title suggests) Cameron Post, a young girl who loses her parents in a car accident. Now an orphan, she is living with her grandma and aunt Ruth in the middle of nowhere, Montana. Figuring out that she is gay isn’t as much of an issue as the attitude of the people around her toward homosexuality and it comes as no surprise that once Cameron is ‘found out,’ she ends up in a place to end all same-sex tendencies, a religious compound called ‘Promise.’ But the promise of ‘healing’ is hard to fullfill, especially when one is as unwilling to be healed as Cameron and her new friends are.

Emily Danforth did a great job conveying life in the middle of Montana where she herself grew up. The book is also a vivid picture of the possibilities of youth, the ways one finds to escape from the doctrines of the church and religious upbringing. Cameron is rebellious enough to make us believe that escape is possible because there is no doubt that it is necessary. It’s sometimes a little discouraging, though, to see a young person struggle against unbeatable odds – especially since it plays during the nineties and one would expect a more understanding environment all around.

This book is one of those rare occasions where one would have sat through a whole life-story without ever getting bored. Danforth’s prowess as story teller are impressive but are seemingly cut short by the ending. While I liked reading the story as such, the ending left me dissatisfied. I’m not saying that it doesn’t make any sense but it certainly felt abrupt compared to the way she builds the story. While Cameron finally gains some closure, I (as a reader) felt left with some story yet untold. It is possible that this is my own fault, that I did not prepare myself enough for an ending that came too soon for me. I like to dwell in a good story and sometimes it’s simply too hard to reenter reality after a good read.

On the whole, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a well-written coming-of-age and coming-out novel. It’s believable, vivid and will throw you back into a time in your own life when you broke some rules… a time when rules were meant to be broken.