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.

The Tea Machine by Gill McKnight

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First, how do you like the cover? Because I simply love it. I think it’s my favorite from all of the Ylva Publishing books yet.

And I’m so glad that the inside meets the promise of the outside, because The Tea Machine is an incredible read.

Here’s what’s in it:

Millicent Aberly is upset with her brilliant brother because he’s used her favorite parasol for his newest invention: a time machine. In the attempt to get at least a piece of the parasol back, she engages the machine and is catapulted to a strange place in a strange timeline, where a strange warrior woman dies because of her.

Trying to save this woman’s life over and over again, Millicent, her brother Hubert, and his fianceé Sophia are trying to walk the stony path of histories with as much dignity as it allows, changing the world and their own fates – maybe forever.

Well, there’s also a giant squid, Amazons, and steampunk galore in this story, but where to put it in a short blurb? This story is a breathless adventure with so many delicious parts that you can’t put them all together by retelling.

I’ve never read a steampunk novel, though I am intrigued by this subculture. And if all novels that include this phenomenon are as wild and wonderful as this one, well, then I’m a fan. McKnight understands the intricacies that come with time travel and never loses track of her story. I’m truly fascinated and enthused about her imagination.

There is some romance, but the story is more important. McKnight creates entertaining and charming characters and not all of them are human. But all of them are overwhelmed by the magnitude of Hubert’s invention and at a loss how everything will turn out in the end. McKnight takes the time to explain what happens. Her time travel story is well thought through and it’s possible to follow it and not get swallowed by plot holes, because there are none.

This is an entertaining, fascinating read. The only regret I have is that it was over too quickly, but as I’m told that there will be a sequel, The Parabellum, I’m looking forward to it.

Even if you’re not a fan of science fiction stories, even if you think steampunk is ridiculous, give this story a try. It’s really funny and smart and entertaining. Go, read!

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.

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.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

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I feel like Octavia Butler is not appreciated or read enough. I love her work. I loved Fledgling, I loved Lilith’s Brood, I loved Kindred – and now I loved Parable of the Sower. And this is so surprising because I’m really not into religious fiction, or fiction about religion of any kind. Religion is just not something I can securely wrap my head around.

Usually. But then there’s Octavia Butler and she writes about Lauren Oya Olamina, a young woman living in a futuristic suburb of Los Angeles, surrounded by a wall to keep poor people, addicts, and drug dealers out. While her father is a baptist minister, her own faith is one she is writing down herself. She feels like this religion, or faith, is presenting itself to her, that she is a medium to write it down and bring others to this fate.

Lauren has to leave her neighborhood behind when it is brutally destroyed by drug addicts and scavengers. With two of her former neighbors she takes to the road north where a better life can supposedly be found. The journey gives her the possibility to spread word of her new faith and find followers, find a new family.

Butler combines a compelling story about faith with the hardship and terrors a small group of people faces in a dystopian future. It’s a story about family but has distinct markings of a good horror story. Butler knows how to weave all these together. She’s a master story-teller with an inexhaustive imagination. If you haven’t read anything by her yet, you should feel like you missed out because Butler is one of the best – in science-fiction, in story-telling, in writing about heroines of color.

Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

fledglingThis is the third time I’ve read Fledgling. The first time, I read it for a class, the second time for the paper for same class and now I’ve read it for a kind of research I’m doing about different vampire-myths. And Fledgling has a lot to offer on that account because Butler invites the reader to share in a new myth that is not necessarily based on mythology but science.

Shori Matthews loses her memory. As she re-learns and understands the world around her, it becomes painfully obvious that she is not human. She is what humans would call a vampire, what her own people call ‘Ina.’ But as her story unfolds, the distinction between these two species of humanoids mght not be as clear-cut as it seems and there are certain people who would do anything to ensure that humans and Ina don’t mix.

Fledgling was Butler’s last novel, and she ventures more into the realm of fantasy than she has before. But even this novel is based more on science than on fantasy as she demystifies the vampire and pulls them into her scientific field of expertise. Vampirism is not a demonic possession in her novel, it is a medical condition, a blood-mutation that may have originated in outer space. It is a gripping tale with a lot of exposition about this very different vampire lore, their beliefs, their symbiosis with human beings.

It is also a tale about racism, as Butler’s novels usually are. Butler weaves Shori’s story around her difference, which is a genetic alteration that makes her able to walk in sunlight and that gives her dark skin. This is also the part of her that is human and this is a genetic experimentation some of her fellow-Ina cannot accept. Racism is very much a double-edged sword among this culture that is dependent on human blood but sees the human race as inferior – and racism as a foolishness of this inferior race. Butler uncovers some of the hypocricy behind racism in our culture through a culture that sees itself above such nonsense, as long as it doesn’t effect them directly.

Fledgling is a fascinating story, in part because we discover the Ina much like Shori does (and through her narrating voice), in part because the Ina are very different from the usual vampire myths but still related to them, but also because it’s simply a good story. It combines the mystical with the explainable and then adds a trial to the mix. It’s a fascinating read, certainly one of my favorite vampire novels.

11.22.63 by Stephen King

In the last couple of weeks while I was reading this book I came across at least three versions of “The Butterfly Effect.” One was in the book, one was on Warehouse 13 and then there was another and I don’t remember… I think it was at a party but I was boozed, so. All three were different from the first account I read about – this in a Xena Uber fanfiction – that if a butterfly beats its wing at one end of earth it can cause an earthquake at the other end. I cherish this version because, as I remember it, it was put into beatiful prose (not the ever-rattling shorthand that I use). The gist of the thing is that if you change the past a little it will have big consequences in the present/future. Trekkers remember it as the time-space-continuum and how Captain Janeway liked to bend that one.

So, this is what Jake Epping, the hero of King’s novel does. He changes the past when somebody shows him the way into it, saving President Kennedy, having Oswald killed, losing his fiancé in the process. But the new present (2011) he created is the worst case scenario because such things don’t sit well with… the butterfly effect or the time-space-continuum. Reality slowly rips apart.

There is another novel that pretty much builds on the same premise: time travel and changing a historic event.  Stephen Fry’s Making History is one of my favorite all-timers. But Fry is European and instead of preventing Kennedy’s assassination, he prevents Hitler from being born. Eliminating evil creates new evil in his version and it is brilliant.. a brilliant novel.

I wish I could say the same about King’s novel. Stephen King has been part of my life since I was 10 years old, trying to read It for the first time (I stopped after the second chapter because I was appalled but picked the book up a year later to read it for the first of many times). It is still my favorite of the novels I read (I haven’t read all of them but a fair share) by King, it is still one of my favorite novels and he was the first adult author I read. When I came to the moment in the plot when it became clear that Epping was going to Derry, I rejoiced… Revisiting Derry, wow! But looking back this may not have been the wisest decision. And comparing Dallas and Derry – even by someone as clueless about Derry as Epping – also felt off. The only scene I cherished was the one with Richie and Bev and I guess, it will stay with me and I will remmeber it whenever I will read It in the future. But everything else… it was rather disappointing. Maybe because the kids had already (almost) finished the monster off when Epping appears on the scene, I’m not even sure, it just wasn’t … right, somehow.

This is, of course, a highly subjective opinion, it’s my opinion after all. But maybe King was too eager to combine Derry and Dallas, to make the connection. What follows in the wake is a little boring, to be honest. The years that stretch out where we learn a lot of history, and a lot of Epping (calling himself George Amberson). True, I have little patience with stories about men, their heroism, their sexual exploits, etc. and maybe my bored state comes from this fact and not from King’s writing at all… But I was bored during a lot of the book and I am sad to say it and even sadder to have felt it. Because I am interested in history, and because I have always been interested in the Kennedy assassination (I guess that happens when you are born one day short to exactly 15 years after the assassination), and time-travel, yay! and Stephen King, even greater yey! And still I was disappointed and still I was bored.

The plot really only picks up speed after the attack on Sadie and from that point on you can happily skip through the book like any other King novel. By then he had almost lost me. Of course, the rest of the book makes up for it some, here is King at his best and presents us with the horrors of the past that doesn’t want to be changed, with Jake being beaten to an inch of his life, with a race to Dallas and the Book Depository from which Oswald (presumably) shot Kennedy. And the aftermath, and the changed present, and an explanation from the Green Card Man – and finally a lovely reunion. This is once again so well written, exciting and, yes, lovely that – as I said – it almost makes up for the almost 500 pages that were not that good. But this almost stems from the fact that I have been reading Stephen King for over 20 years, the fact that only one third of it – to me – was worth reading, the fact that it was the last third and hence the more memorable third, the one that people will remember and point to and say: this is a fantastic read.

There are other misgiving, I guess. Some stem from the fact that King does not create great female heroes, and although Sadie is a wonderful, lovable character, and quite the hero, she is not THE hero, the same way Bev Marsh was never THE hero of It. From someone of King’s story-telling prowess, I would like to read about more diverse characters than the typical Jake Epping – I am white, I am straight, I rule the world – the same way I wished that he gave the world Under the Dome a different set of rules than those of patriarchal society gone anarchist. Maybe 11.22.63 would have been better if the hero was someone African-American, someone hispanic, a woman, someone who would have felt the restrictions of 1963 more severely.

I am being hard on King because I know he could write something like that. But then, of course, he does not cater to one complaining, nerdy fan of his somewhere in Germany. And this is alright because I am a writer myself and the first person I write for is myself. Still I complain, still I wait for something extraordinary to come from one of my all-time favorite writers. I guess it is only fair to expect the best from those you admire most.