Legend by Marie Lu

legend

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.

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The Witching Hour by Anne Rice

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This is the first part of The Lives of the Mayfair Witches series which includes three books so far. Here’s what The Witching Hour is about:

Rowan Mayfair is a successful doctor in California, but unbeknownst to her she is the heiress of a legacy of an old New Orleans family. Despite rigorous attempts of a few family members to prevent her from coming to New Orleans, the death of her birth mother does exactly this. Together with Michael Curry, her lover and someone sharing a supernatural power since their first meeting, she discovers what this legacy entails: riches and jewels, yes, but also a ghost-like apparition whose aim and desire it is to become flesh and blood. And Rowan is supposed to fulfill that desire.

The book is over a thousand pages strong, so this short blurb only scratches the surface. There is a whole history contained in the book, but though it is supposed to be about the Mayfair witches, it’s more about their live-in spirit, Lasher.

I was actually looking forward to reading a book about witches, but already the beginning taught me that Anne Rice won’t just tell a plain story about a family of witches, about women (excuse me, if I think of women hearing the word ‘witches’, of course there are male witches, too). I’ve read some of her Vampire Chronicles books, and The Wolf Gift and they all struck me as very male-centric. I presumed that a story about witches (and Anne Rice seems to think mostly of female witches, too) would actually be about women. I was wrong, though.

While the story is interesting, enticing, gripping even, the story is not really about the Mayfair witches. It is more about the men watching these women. There’s a secret society in the book calling themselves the Talamasca, who have compiled the history of the Mayfair witches. Petyr van Abel tells a great part of that history. Then there’s Michael whose story starts in New Orleans where he is already pulled into the Mayfair history by seeing ‘The Man.’ Aaron Lightner is protagonist as well as compiler of the history. There’s Julien Mayfair, himself a powerful witch and pretty much the center of the tale about the Mayfairs, as well as his son Cortland.

The Witching Hour is another good example for the tale of women told through male eyes. Anne Rice is such a superb story teller, but I’m wondering if she is actually able to grab the female voice, to tell a story from the female perspective. This astonishes me, honestly. You may wonder why it is important, but if you read any of my other reviews you know I’m a feminist and kind of focus on stories about women, often by women.

It’s certainly not a great tragedy, or a fault that makes Rice’s writing unreadable. As I said, I enjoyed the tale. But even her one female protagonist – every other female’s story was told by a male – has a strong masculinity about her. And Rice makes it part of her personality, actually. She’s aware of it, she uses it, also in the character of Carlotta Mayfair, or Aunt Carl.

This is an intersting observation and maybe I will one day write a paper about it, but let’s come back to the book.

It’s a good story. The history is told from the Talamasca point of view and you never know if the narrators are trustworthy. You don’t get to know the witches’ story first hand, so that you can never see through their reasonings. You don’t get to know who Lasher is, where he comes from until the end of the book. But you know he’s a man (gendering a spirit and making him sexually potent and all-consuming, really?).

Rice ends the book on a kind of cliff-hanger, but I’m reluctant to pick up the follow-up Lasher. For all the reasons I already disclosed. As for wanting to read a story about witches and wanting to know what they do, how they do magic? Maybe pick up Harry Potter again, because The Witching Hour is more a history of a family where psychic powers are rather common. But if you’re a Rice fan, go pick it up, it’s a good 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.

Gay Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen & Kate Christie

It’s been a while since I last read Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It goes something like this (not, that I don’t think everybody knows this story, this is just for the purpose of reminiscence – and the 2 or 3 people in the world who actually haven’t read it):

Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy meet and dislike each other from the first. At some point, he notices her “fine eyes” and is smitten. Still, he helps his best friend Bingley to fall out of love with Eliza’s sister, Jane. When they meet again, Darcy asks Eliza to marry him but she refuses him – adding some choice words that crush him. Well, things happen and Darcy proves his value. Eliza rethinks her position and as Bingley comes back to the neighborhood and asks Jane to marry him, her anger is quite overcome and she relents to the inevitable: she marries Darcy.

The story isn’t quite as dry as I have presented it here, wit and hilarity abound, there are intrigues and odd characters. It is actually one of the best stories ever told and Lizzy and Darcy are two of the most amazing characters in literature – they are AWESOME, actually.

This is probably why there is a tendency of late to take the story, the actual words of Austen, and add a little something – something like zombies. And although, I haven’t read that particular story, I am now looking forward to it more than when I first encountered the book at a Barnes & Noble in 2009. Especially, after I have now read Kate Christie’s colloberation with Austen’s story, Gay Pride and Prejudice. The story is a little different:

Elizabeth Bennett and Caroline Bingley meet and dislike each other from the first. At some point, Caroline notices Eliza’s “fine eyes” and is smitten. Still, she helps her brother Charles to fall out of love with Eliza’s sister, Jane. When they meet again, Caroline professes her love for Eliza but she refuses her – adding some choice words that crush Caroline. Well, things happen and Caroline proves her value. Eliza rethinks her position and as Charles comes back to the neighborhood and asks Jane to marry him, her anger is quite overcome and she relents to the inevitable: she marries Darcy (no, really, she does). Caroline has meanwhile married Rèmy de Laurent, Darcy’s boyfriend, and the foursome lives happily ever after on Pemberley.

Now, we could argue all day about the value of altering Austen’s story (whether to add zombies or homosexuals), but I don’t want to do that. I have never read any of the many sequels because I pretty much held the conservative stance that it is blasphemy. Still, they have always intrigued me. They are fanfiction and I never thought anything wrong with that concept (my first stories were Xena-fanfiction and I am still not done with that genre, either). I am convinced, that from now on I will read a lot of stories which are related to Austen’s writing, now, that I have finally begun. Fact is, I missed Jane Austen these last few years in which I haven’t read her and I will remedy that, sometimes with her own writing, sometimes with her characters gone astray into the writing of others.

As for Gay Pride and Prejudice, it is a blast. Of course, most of the story is unchanged, often it’s only the adding of Caroline Bingley’s name that discerns the original from Christie’s version. So, it is not difficult to like and I do. Eliza falling for Caroline instead of Darcy makes sense because Darcy and Caroline are not so very different. The Caroline Bingley Christie pulls from the pages is pretty much part of the original Darcy, ripped from him but never far from him (as it is, Darcy and Caroline are close friends and allies, especially, since Caroline discovered that Darcy hides the same kind of secret she does). And as Eliza is described as someone who prefers the attention of her own sex as well (she and Charlotte Lucas have been more than friends for over two years now), they have just to overcome the same problems of pride and prejudice as the originals do.

There is one thing within the pages I do not quite agree with. Having read a lot about romantic friendship, I am not sure it was actually as much under suspicion as Christie is trying to make us believe. In regard to Louisa Hurst who is, of course, informed about the preferences of her sister, the prejudices might be understandable but there are instances of suspicion that I do not quite agree with, especially, since the story takes place before the well-publicized trial of Oscar Wilde. It does also not correspond with the notion that Christie gives us in the end about Rèmy and Darcy living in one wing of Pemberley and Caroline and Eliza living in the other and the servants just accepting this without question or gossiping about it just because they love their master so much.

Yet this is the only criticism I have and it can be easily forgotten while reading – or re-reading – this wonderful story. It is really more Austen than it is Christie, yet it is also an important contribution for those of us who have always wondered about Eliza’s sexuality, who have always wanted her to be a little bit more like oneself. And I must say, I cherish the idea of a Caroline Bingley who is not as typically snobbish as Austen made her.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter returns for another year in Hogwarts. Things got heated during the summer since everybody now knows that Voldemort is back and as dangerous as ever. Cornelius Fudge got booted from his job as Minister for Magic, and his successor Rufus Scrimgeour seems a rather more stern fellow but not anymore able as it turns out. While the ministry shuffles around in the dark, Harry gets the suspicion that Malfoy is now a Death Eater and has evil on his mind – but nobody agrees. Dumbledore does shady business and leaves the school for days. And then there are a lot of feelings who get hurt when Ron starts snogging Lavender, Ginny Dean, and Remus not Tonks.

I chose “romance” as a tag for this Potter-book because there is a lot of falling in love going around. The most unexpected revelation is probably the one of Harry falling in love with Ginny, Ron’s sister. A lot of fans were never happy about this, and as a romance writer I can see why: Rowling does not give this romance enough room to grow. All of a sudden, Harry is in love with Ginny and fans look at this page and say: what? why? I am not saying that Rowling did not write some lovely scenes from during the summer where Harry and Ginny had some lovely times, yet they did not make the editing process and the reader is lost in a daze as to what happened when and why (this could be a hole for fanfiction writers to fill, and there may be some of that out there – then again, as I understand it, Harry and Ginny are not really a favorite with fanfiction writers).

It is no wonder that the relationship between Ron and Hermione is much better, it grows over several books, is never front and center but always palpable. And there is a lot of jealousy in this installation of the series when Ron freaks because he is the only kissing-virgin of the foursome and starts wildly snogging Lavender Brown who is a willing participant but never gets over the fact that Hermione knows her “Won-Won” a lot better than she does. The love theme gets a lot of attention in this book with Bill and Fleur engaged and Tonks heart-broken because Remus shuts himself off from her. As a natural phase of the coming-of-age-process, these scenes certainly make sense but they seem to crowd the plot which is already multi-layered.

And it is not coming along as smoothly as in the other books. There are a lot of references to things that have already happened – not surprising considering how long this story has been going on. But Rowling adds flashback into Voldemort/Tom Riddle’s life to the mix and it gets a little confusing and I think there may be some continuity mistakes somewhere in there though I could not put my finger on any particular spot.

The main weakness of the book, in my opinion, are the inconsistencies in some of the characters for plot’s sake. Especially pronounced in Dumbledore in this book. Sometimes he is overly stern, then kind and playful as ever. The demand he makes of Harry to retrieve the memory he himself was not able to retrieve seems out of character. Why would Harry have more power than the one wizard Voldemort fears and all the Ministers for Magic want to be best friends with? For someone who surrounds himself with the most powerful, Slughorn seems wholly unaware that Dumbledore himself is probably the most powerful person of his acquaintance. The more annoying plot-device, however, is everybody’s blind eye when it comes to Malfoy’s shenanigans. It makes sense that Dumbledore does not want to draw attention to Malfoy so as not to endanger him but Hermione and Ron were always willing to give Harry credit on any far-fetched suspicion he had but the idea that Malfoy was a Death Eater suddenly raises disbelief? As I said, for plot’s sake but still highly unlikely.

As a declared Hermione-fan, I am not happy with the representation of my favorite in this book. While I get her jealousy where Ron and Lavender are concerned, and even her suspicion toward the potion-book, her character is decided by these instances. Her character does not develop during this story.

Reading this over, one could get the idea that I did not like it at all. I did, though. There are a lot of good ideas, the plot how Malfoy is getting the Death Eaters into the school is very good, the small detail of how Ron failed his Apparition-test is glorious, and the idea of the potion book is excellent. On the whole, though, I must say that I enjoyed the first four books more than either book five or six. But I know that the whole story is more valuable and fantastic than its parts – Harry Potter is a phenomenon of a whole generation (maybe even of future generations), and I cherish it as such and as a good story.

New Moon by Stephenie Meyer

This is bad, this is very bad, the voice in my head repeated again and again.”

This is a quote from the book but it also describes my feelings toward it perfectly. Because it is indeed bad, very bad. It’s been awhile since I read the first book of the series, Twilight, and found it abominable. The whole franchise seems to me to be a money machine without reason of existence. I guess you can say that about a lot of things – especially things that come out of Hollywood. But this is actually a book series that was successful before it has been made into movies. And this is just something I do not understand. So, I read the first book mostly to find out what the hype was about. But I wasn’t any wiser after reading it. Nor did film one and three of the series enlighten me at all.

The biggest problem of the series, in my opinion at least, is the I-narrator, Bella Swan herself. She seems like a typical teenager, the voice in the book is annoying, it is self-centered. But I am not sure that this is the writer’s intention or merely the voice of the writer as well as the narrator. In other words, is Stephenie Meyer just skillfully producing a teenage voice or is she writing in this voice because her skill is that of a 17-year-old (18-year-old in New Moon). I think it is the latter. The fact that Bella is self-centered, though, is not the biggest problem she has. She is painfully insecure, and though I see many a female teenager having this problem, I do hope that in most of them it is not quite so severe. The way she worships her boyfriend is not healthy. She sees him at mainly a god to her own insignificance, cannot understand how someone like him can love someone like her. Another quote:

“The contrast between the two of us was painful. He looked like a god. I looked very average, even for a human, almost shamefully plain. I flipped the picture over with a feeling of disgust.”

Unhealthy. This girl needs a confidence boost and quick. In the novel she seems to get this when Edward leaves her. I know she is mainly complaining about that whole in her chest for the next 300 pages but her desire to hear his voice in her head leads her to some independent decisions that defy the strong patriarchal hold that Edward and Charlie have on her. The motivation might be an idiotic one but at least Bella is starting to live like a more normal teenager, rebelling against paternal supervision. Of course, she always has Jacob Black with her for protection, just so that it doesn’t get too wild. But though also has the tendency to treat her like a rag doll rather than a young woman, he at least does not have a god-complex. While many have complained about the boredom of the middle of the book, I actually liked that part better than the rest for the fact that Edward was not in it and that Jacob behaved more like a friend to Bella than Edward could ever be. In this part, I actually thought I got a glimpse of what makes the books successful. But it is actually all that stuff that I abhorr that other people love, the destructive relationship between Bella and Edward.

Sometimes I see Edward as a stalker, than as an emotionally abusive boyfriend. His hold over Bella is tight and he does not even understand how many issues Bella has with her own self and how she only lives to look at his beautiful face, hear his voice. He always repeats that he loves her (in the end) but never gives a reason. He does not assure her, it seems to be only her smell that binds him to her, not her personality (what personality?), not even her beauty. It’s more animalistic than Meyer wants us to realize. Altogether Meyer seems to want us believe that there is something nobel, something beyond pure animalism about the vampires but she can never quite convincingly discribe what that noble part is. The fact that they don’t eat humans? The fact that they have their temper under better control than their nemeses, the werewolves.

In comparison, the werewolf is a much more likable figure than the vampire. At least, Jacob understands that his werewolf-self makes him into something “other,” not better – as Edward seems to think of his vampire-self. And maybe it is me, I mean, I have realized while watching the Underworld-movies that I like the story about lycans better than the vampire-stuff but honestly: would you rather sleep next to a cold marble pillar or a warm puppy dog? Even I would chose the puppy and I am actually afraid of dogs.

To sum it up, this is a bad novel. If you’ve never encountered one of those you may think this is tolerable but it is not. The writing is poor, Meyer clobbers her readers over the head with foreshadowing, when she is not throwing weird analogies at us. Subtlety is obviously not in her repertoire, nor is character-development or interesting story-telling. It actually makes me very sad that this is the vampire-story that sets the standard for coming vampire-stories, simply because it was so successful. And I still don’t know why that is.

Meyer, Stephenie. New Moon. Little, Brown, and Company, London (2009).