The Martian

Goodness. Where have I been? And how in the world am I finally finding time to write in the midst of the holiday season? I don’t know. I do know I’ve missed this outlet for myself. Is it too early to be talking about New Year’s Resolutions? Well here’s mine: to start writing more. And not just here- it’s time to really work on getting the stories in my head down on paper.

TheMartianCover

Anyways. I remember when The Martian first showed up in the library. I didn’t check it out immediately, despite how interesting it sounded, because we have a strong policy at work that staff are not ever, ever, EVER to be the first to check out new books. So I put it aside and watched despondently as the waiting list grew and grew and grew. And when the list finally started to go down, news about the movie came out. The list, naturally, then climbed up even higher than it had been. Being myself, I wanted to read the book before seeing the movie and I really wanted to see the movie. So I’m a bit ashamed to admit this, but I bought the book rather than wait for it to come to me at the library. It turned out alright though because I ended up loving it.

Mars has always had a special place in my heart. As a child, I had the most beautiful golden blonde hair and bright blue eyes (both of which, to my everlasting regret, darkened the older I got). Those aren’t unusual physical characteristics, to be sure, but when both parents and my only sister had brown hair and brown eyes, I felt out of place. And so, in my mind, I created a story where I was adopted from Mars. This solved the problem of my strange coloring for me. I loved Mars. I don’t know why; I have a feeling it’s because Mars was red (my favorite color) and that it was named after the god of war (I’ve always had a disturbingly martial side to my personality that is fortunately rarely acted on). Once I got older, that love grew with the discovery of Ray Bradbury and his sublimely beautiful stories of Martians with dark skin and golden eyes who lived in glass palaces and swam in clear blue canals.

I suppose it was a given that I would love this book then, since it combined my love of Mars with a fascinating survival tale. It was much funnier than I was expecting with science and math that mostly went far above my understanding, yet still incredibly heart-warming. And the movie was an admirable adaptation. I had some issues with changes to characters and events but it’s one thing to read about a man alone on Mars and it’s another thing to see a man, alone, on Mars. And getting to see the visual adaptation was a nice complement to the book. So yeah, you’ve probably seen or read The Martian already. But if you haven’t, I recommend it.

The Invasion of the Tearling

InvasionTearlingCoverWritten by Erika Johansen; Published 2015.

The second book in the Tearling trilogy by Johansen, I liked this one more and less than the first book, The Queen of the Tearling. It started out poorly, which I think turned me off it but I continued reading and was well rewarded.

****SPOILERS TO FOLLOW****

I had two main issues with this book. First, the book starts off with a closer look at the Church and the role of Tyler in it. Tyler is a good character- he’s a solid believer and a valuable ally and adviser for Queen Kelsea. But the Church as a whole, in which Tyler is a very small, insignificant part, is bloated, corrupt, and hypocritical. And as a Christian, I get tired of reading about how awful the Church is, especially from people (like Johansen) that I would bet have nothing to do with a church at all. The second thing that really bothered me was the change in Kelsea’s appearance. For an author who wrote an article titled “Why We Need ‘Ugly’ Heroines“, I was disappointed to read that Kelsea was slowly turning beautiful. And while it’s implied that this is the combined effect of Kelsea’s desire to be beautiful and the power of her sapphires, part of Kelsea’s appeal in the first book was that she was just a normal girl with normal looks. This is only the second book so hopefully she will return to her normal self by the end of the trilogy.

Other than those few things though, this book was really good. And strangely, for a book where not much happens, we get so much information about the story it’s hard to keep track of everything. The book starts with the Mort army at the borders of Tear territory. Some 400 pages later, they reach the Tear capital, which takes about a week (if I remember correctly). But we find out so much about the history of the Mort Queen and also about the history of the Tear people. And best of all, we finally find out about the mysterious “Crossing” through flashbacks. I really love that Johansen makes you work for information. There’s no simple paragraph or chapter telling us exactly what happened when; instead we find out about the Tear history as Kelsea does. The book is over 500 pages but it moves fast and it of course ends with a cliffhanger. Hopefully the third book will be coming soon because this trilogy has been very good so far and if the final book is as good as the first two, this series could easily become one of my favorites.

The Magician’s Land

magicianslandcoverWritten by Lev Grossman; published 2014.

The Magician’s Land is the final book in a trilogy written by Lev Grossman. I read and reviewed the first two books a few years ago (The Magicians and The Magician King) and loved them both. I was thrilled to finish up the trilogy and was even more thrilled by how well it finished.

The Magicians trilogy unashamedly rips off two of the big fantasy stories, Harry Potter and Narnia. We first meet Quentin Coldwater as a brilliant and cynical teenager who is invited to attend Brakebills, a college in upstate New York that teaches magic to the best of the best of American students. The second half of The Magicians takes place in Fillory (a Narnia-like fantasy land), as Quentin and his friends discover Fillory, save it and become its rulers. The Magician King takes place primarily in Fillory where Quentin and his old friend Julia are needed to save Fillory from the loss of magic. The end of the book finds Quentin banished from Fillory and sent back to Earth. It’s a bittersweet ending and a bit of a cliffhanger- Quentin has been obsessed with Fillory since he was a child. What is he to do now that he no longer has it?

So The Magician’s Land begins about 6 months after the end of The Magician King. Quentin is back on Earth and, after a short stint as a Brakebills professor, agrees to help steal a briefcase with ties to Fillory and the Chatwin children that first discovered the magical land. It’s a excellent book, and probably the best of the trilogy, that wraps up the story lines of all the major characters. I know that many readers found Quentin and his friends to be obnoxious, selfish, and self-absorbed, but that was actually one of my favorite things about this series. It gets a little boring when fantasy heroes tend to be either lone wolf types with a heart of gold or else they are nobodies that actually turn out to be super special and the only ones that can save the world. But here we’ve got characters that are just as messed up and fallible as, well, normal, real life people. This was the first book I’ve read in a long time that I wanted to keep reading until I finished it.

I would love to hear what other people thought of this book or the entire trilogy!

The Anti-Romantic List

Despite a longtime love for Disney princesses and Jane Austen, I’ve never been a fan of romantic stories. I know there are plenty of other people who share my indifference (or outright distaste) for overly sappy love stories so I’ve decided to compile a list of books where women are the main characters and the main plot line has nothing to do with a romantic relationship (and maybe a few movies/TV shows if I feel that they are outstanding examples). If you’ve read some or all of these examples you will know that some of these stories do have a romantic side plot- that’s fine for me, I’m really just looking for books where the main focus is elsewhere. Since I would like to continue adding to this list (for myself and for anyone else that is interested), I will also be creating a new page and updating it as I come across other examples. (Links to previous reviews if I’ve written them.)

Please send me suggestions for other books if you can think of any; there are certain areas/authors where my knowledge is woefully short!

THE LIST

1) The Queen of The Tearling by Erika Johansen. I have a feeling this will skew towards romance between two characters at some point in the trilogy, but in the first book at least there is very little.

2) The Old Kingdom books (Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen, Clariel) by Garth Nix. There’s a smidge of romance in Sabriel and Abhorsen but these books are all mainly about girls saving the world.

3) The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. One of my favorite books. Even better- a sequel, Stilletto, is coming out in just months!

4) Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis. Even though this is a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, the main story is about the love of Orual for her sister Psyche.

5) Chalice by Robin McKinley. This was the first book I read by Robin McKinley and I loved it enough to keep reading more of her work.

6) Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey. Another of my favorites. There is a love interest, but it’s a side story. It could easily stand without it.

7) The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. This changes drastically in the second and third books, but Lyra is one heck of a (non-romantic) heroine in this book.

8) A Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket. I’m fudging a bit on this one, but 2 of the three orphans are female so I’m including it.

9) The A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. Can we count this? It’s my list so I say yes. I love these books and I love the female characters in this series (mostly) but I would tremble to see what Martin would ever write as “romantic”.

10) The Amulet Series by Kazu Kibuishi. Beautiful art, cool female characters.

11) Wild Girls by Mary Stewart Atwell. I didn’t particularly like this book but it is a fantasy and the book deals mainly with the mystery behind the girls’ behavior.

12) The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland by Catherynne Valente. Another book I didn’t particularly like but, again, a girl character is kicking butt.

13) Sea Change by S. M. Wheeler. Heavily inspired by the Grimms’ fairy tales, Lily goes on a journey to save her best friend, a kraken, who has been captured. This book was unsettling and I ultimately decided not to review it here once I finished it. It was good, but not something I would ever want to read again.

And to finish, some movies that really need no description:

14) Brave.

15) Pacific Rim. (Technically, Mako Mori is a co-main character I guess, but I love this movie and she’s not just there as a prize to be won.)

16) Hanna.

17) Alien.

So I notice that a lot of these books have young girls as the protagonist but hopefully, now that I’ve started this list, I (or you!) will start noticing/reading more books where the main female does something besides fall in love. And again, suggestions are always welcome!

The Queen of The Tearling

I should have known better than to start a series that isn’t finished yet. Because, naturally, I loved this book. And, naturally, it’s only the first book of a planned trilogy. So who knows when I’ll get to finish it. (*sigh*)

QueenoftheTearling

Written by Erika Johansen, The Queen of the Tearling tells the story of 19 year old Kelsea who has lived her life in hiding as she is trained to be the new Queen. Her mother, the former queen, was beautiful, vain, and silly, and Kelsea’s guardians are adamant that Kelsea will be a completely different kind of ruler. Kelsea herself is actually quite plain (and not in the standard female protagonist way of “I’m tall and thin with striking features and there are 2 or more men desperately in love with me but I’m sooo ugly”). She’s a weird mixture of self conscious girl and selfless ruler and it makes her seem like a regular person. She’s always known that she would be queen but she’s lived a secluded life that’s made her a bit naive and fiercely idealistic (which causes trouble once she arrives at the capital).

The setting of this book is also a bit strange: we never got a cohesive explanation of the history but at some point in the past (in our future though), a group of people made a Crossing (to where or from where has not been satisfactorily answered yet) led by William Tear, a socialist that dreamed of creating a machine and technology free utopia. It failed and Queen of the Tearling takes place several centuries after the Crossing. So the world is a strange mixture of medieval like practices (horse riding, sword fighting, feudal society, etc.) and present day knowledge (genetics, mentions of Rowling and Tolkien, birth control, etc.).

Since this is the first book, there are a lot of unanswered questions and open plot lines when the book finishes, like who is Kelsea’s father, who is the mysterious Fetch, what is the story behind the villainous Red Queen, and where are these people?!? (I really hope the Crossing history gets explained in more detail.) But I still loved it. It is a slow moving book but I think (hope!) that the rest of the series will be just as good as this one.

Clariel

Oh, how quickly resolutions fail. I recently claimed that I was taking a break from YA fiction because I was tired of reading the same bad story over and over again. And yet, here I am reading more young adult novels. However, Clariel by Garth Nix justified my broken resolve.

Clariel

Every now and then we read books that touch a chord in our imaginations that continues to hum the rest of our lives. The books don’t always have to be good on the whole, but something about them, a phrase, an image, a character, remains in our minds long after putting the book down. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, Chalice by Robin McKinley are some of those books for me. Sabriel by Garth Nix also falls into that category.

Sabriel

I don’t remember what made me first read Sabriel but it was, and is, like nothing I’ve read before and I quickly devoured it and the sequel/companion novels Lirael and Abhorsen. I was delighted to see Clariel, a prequel of sorts, on the Young Adult new book shelf at my library recently.

I won’t try to tell much of the plot because it will be difficult to describe without going into too much back story. And while Clariel didn’t quite touch the same chord as Sabriel, it was still far and away better than the majority of what is cluttering the Young Adult genre right now.

I will say this, that Clariel has that rarest of things: a realistic heroine. She isn’t a blank slate for the reader to transpose themselves on to. She acts like the 18 year old that she is. She’s moody, immature and indecisive. She thinks she knows what she wants in life but hasn’t really thought through the ramifications on following through with that plan. And when she is forced into taking a different path than she wanted to, she does so with maturity learned from previous mistakes. It’s also nice to see a main female character whose story doesn’t revolve around finding a man or even developing a romance with the male protagonist. Clariel is, in fact, still as happily single at the end of the book as she was at the beginning. How refreshing!

I know Garth Nix has written other popular series and seems to be a prolific short story writer so I look forward to delving into those, but has any one else read one or all of the Sabriel series? I would love to hear your thoughts on them.

Ruin and Rising; Or Why I’m Taking a Break from YA Fiction

Oh goodness.

It took me over a month to finish this book. For me, that’s a long time. A reaaalllly long time. Like, I might have read War and Peace in that same amount of time. (Ok, not really, but you get my idea.)

RuinandRising

Ruin and Rising is the third book in a young adult trilogy written by Leigh Bardugo. I read the first two in the series, Shadow and Bone and Siege and Storm, last year and was on the fence about whether I liked or disliked the books. Now that I have read Ruin and Rising I can say, with certainty, that I do NOT like this series. At all.

Maybe that’s an over-generalization. There were certain aspects of this series that I liked, particularly the secondary characters. They were funny, smart, likable characters that you were actually interested in reading about. Another thing I liked was the general idea behind the story: certain people in a country/time very similar to Russia in the early 1900’s have the ability to use magic. It’s not magic like Harry Potter magic, but rather a heightened ability to use specific skills. Some of those skills are natural talents like healing, some are a bit more fantastic like controlling weather.

But overall? Gaaawwwwd. You can’t see it but I’m burying my face in my hands just thinking about it. By the middle of this book I hated the main character Alina. HATED her. She’s a paper thin character with no motivation behind her actions and no reasoning behind her decisions. Her mannerisms, thoughts and speech are completely modern but this is definitely not a modern setting. We’re told over and over again how much she’s changed but she doesn’t seem different to me at all. By the end of the book she’s still the whiny, indecisive, teenage girl that she was when the trilogy started. She’s totally unbelievable as a leader and her relationship with Mal ruins this book. They are a terrible couple. Yes, they grew up together and that somehow means that they are the only people capable of understanding each other or something but this was teenage love/angst at its worst. It’s a little pathetic when two characters that were written to be in love with each other have zero chemistry. What makes it even worse is that there was a love interest for Alina that could have redeemed her terribleness as a character. But that didn’t happen. 😦

You might be wondering why I titled this post the way I did. It’s because of Alina. Not Alina specifically but her character type in general. I have gotten so tired of this girl (and it always seem to be a girl). The “unattractive” girl who ends up being the super special one, but she has a such a hard time coming to terms with that fact because she’s always been the wallflower, the plain one, the one with no talents, or whatever. I understand this in general, the desire to see oneself in a character. Most of us (I speak for women here but I imagine it applies to men as well), see ourselves as plain and, frankly, not special. To an extent, this is true. We’re never going to have a grand destiny. We will live our lives in anonymity and die mourned only by our friends and family. There is nothing wrong with this. But it is why books and characters like Harry Potter are so popular. We want to find out that we ARE special, that we are the only ones who can save the world. By now though, it’s been done to death. And the character type has been watered down so much that we now have characters like Alina who thinks that she can’t possibly be the hope of a nation because she’s so plain and scrawny. What her physical appearance has to do with anything I don’t know. But she spends the next three books endlessly debating and second guessing every decision and relationship. A little of this is right and natural, but if you’re expecting me to believe in a character’s growth I’m going to need to see some confidence in their abilities, even if it’s just the teeniest, tiniest bit.

So I’m done with reading young adult fiction… at least until I find something that looks worthwhile. (Suggestions are always welcome!!)