Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Dare Me: A Novel 

There is something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.

There are three women at the center of Megan Abbott's daring novel, Dare Me: Addy, Beth, and Colette.  (Is it a coincidence their initials are A, B and C?)  Beth is captain of the cheerleading squad and Addy is her trusty second-in-command and best friend.  Beth, Addy and the rest of the squad are well aware of their place in the social hierarchy and their effect on other people.  People are awe in them, maybe even a little afraid.  Except Coach Colette.  She is neither awed by nor afraid of them.  She is not even all that impressed with them.

Colette’s effect on the cheerleading squad is immediate.  She turns a bunch of pretty girls who by their own admission are mostly good at shaking their pom poms and turns them into athletes.  They go from being skinny fat to strong and toned.  Pom pom shaking and gyrating dance moves are replaced with gymnastics and pyramids.  Cheering at football games is still fun but they learn to have bigger dreams, dreams of regional competitions and trophies.  Colette awakens something in these high school girls they hadn’t known existed. 

Colette quickly displaces Beth as the one the other cheerleaders look up to.  There were other coaches before Colette but Beth was always the leader that really mattered.  She was the captain.  With Colette's arrival Beth becomes just another cheerleader and that is intolerable for Beth.  She and the coach are both alphas on a squad of betas and as we well know, there can only be one alpha.  So what can they do but take to the battlefield.  Of course this is high high school and they are women so the battle is not fought with fists.  Instead they use rumors, lies, manipulation, and the occasional boy as weapons.  At first the battle between Beth and Colette is all snide comments and petty grievances.  It's all fun and games until someone dies.  Was it a suicide or a homicide?  If it was a suicide why did the victim do it?  If it was a homicide, who did it and why? 

As much as anything, Beth and Colette battle for the heart and mind of Addy.  Addy has been Beth’s loyal lieutenant for years.  She was always been content to play number two, never wanting to be captain.  But under Colette’s coaching Addy thrives.  As another cheerleader says, Beth would have never have let Addy get so good.  Plus, Colette is an adult, a cool adult who seems to have the perfect life and who invites the girls over for impromptu parties.  Caught in the middle between her best friend and her coach, Addy doesn't know who or what to believe. 

I have to be honest, I wasn't expecting much out of this book - just a quick read about mean girls, the horrors of high school, and some sort of redemption at the end.  Instead, I got a taut psychological thriller about female friendship and competition.  The battle of wills between Beth and Colette reminded me a bit of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, another great thriller.

Aside from being thriller, Dare Me is also a sports story.  I have read and seen sports stories about football and basketball playing boys where the underlying theme is about how much the team matters, how they’re brothers who will be there for each other and the team despite the rivalries and brotherly infighting.  I haven't read too many sports stories about girls and what being a part of a team means to them.  For the girls in Dare Me cheerleading is serious.  They are friends.  They are a family.  Addy, the main character, repeats again and again how strong she is becoming mentally and physically because of the sport.  The sport and being a member of the team empowers her in a way nothing else has.  Notwithstanding the backstabbing and the lies, it was refreshing to read a sports related story about girls on a team.

In addition to Gone Girl, Dare Me also reminded me of is the show Nashville and the character Juliette Barnes.  Juliette is a country music powerhouse.  Throughout season two she has to contend with up-and-coming singer Layla Grant who is eager to move up in the ranks of country music royalty.  Layla can be sugary sweet one minute and nasty and manipulative in the next.  I think the writers of the show want people to feel sorry for Juliette but whenever I see these two characters on screen I can’t help but think that Layla is just a younger version of Juliette, who herself can be quite nasty and manipulative.  I imagine Juliette pulled the same kind of stunts as Layla when she (Juliette) was starting out in the music business.  Similarly, Beth and Colette seem like younger and older versions of each other.  They are both manipulative tyrants who need to be the center of attention.

Clearly I enjoyed this and would recommend it.  It is a quick read and full of surprises.  I looked up Megan Abbott's other books and they all seem a bit twisted.  She is definitely an author I'll be reading more of.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Finding It by Cora Carmack

Finding It (Losing It Series #3)It's February so I had to read at least romance.  For that I chose Cora Carmack's Finding It.  This is the third in a series, the first two books being Losing It and Faking It.  With each book in the series the plot got a little more serious.  In Losing It Bliss panics during a one night stand in which she was hoping to give her v-card and is stunned when the guy she walked out on the night before shows up in her class the next day.  In Faking It Max convinces nice boy Cade to pretend to be her boyfriend in front of her judgmental parents.  In Finding It, with no plans for her future and a dark secret, Kelsey hopes to lose herself in a sea of alcohol and sex with strangers while backpacking across Europe.  She isn't happy but she's very good at faking it.  Enter mysterious ex-soldier, Jackson Hunt.  He seems perfect, handsome and funny.  He also seems immune to Kelsey's charms but Kelsey likes a challenge.

It isn't immediately clear what Jackson sees in Kelsey as she stumbles from bar to bar, stopping just long enough to throw up in the street or makeout with another new guy. What is clear is that he is also hiding something, and he hides it well, behind a wall of chivalry and charm.  He takes care of Kelsey as she stumbles into trouble again and again. 

This is a romance so there's no mystery as to how it ends.  What's important is the road there, and I very much enjoyed the journey.  Kelsey and Jackson each have heart wrenching pasts to deal with.  They are both good at masking their pain and neither is particularly good at communicating but they both desperately want to talk to the other.  Their path to each other is slow and frustrating but so worth the read and the wait.

Also recommended:

Losing It     Faking It

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Stolen by Kelley Armstrong

Stolen (Women of the Otherworld Series #2)  A little over a week ago I read Kelley Armstrong's Bitten, the first book in her Women of the Otherworld series.  Before I was half way through I bought Stolen, the the second book in the series.  By the time I finished Bitten it was clear that I would be reading the entire series and impulsively bought the rest of the books in the series.  So far that impulse has proven worth it.  I couldn't put Stolen down, finishing it in three days.  It is frightening in parts, sexy and romantic in others, and jam packed with action all the way through.

Bitten introduced a world where there are werewolves - men and one woman who live dual lives as humans and wolves.  In Stolen author Kelley Armstrong adds witches, vampires, sorcerers, and other supernaturals into the mix.  They aren't even the scariest or sickest creatures in the book.  That title belongs to Tyrone "Ty" Winsloe and his scientist sidekicks who are kidnapping supernaturals for their business and pleasure.  The scientist are all business, running experiments and tests on their subjects, while Ty is in it solely for his pleasure, his pleasure being hunting.  Some sort of Internet billionaire, Ty has created the ultimate reality based video game in which he hunts supernaturals on his homemade forest filled game board.

Elena, the lone female werewolf in existence, is captured by Winsloe.  Much of the story centers around her captivity and her attempts to escape.  Surprisingly, Elena and her werewolf brothers are somewhat shocked to learn that there are other supernaturals besides werewolves that exist so readers get to learn about these other creatures along with Elena.  Of course every supernatural creature thinks they are better than the rest.

The one weird thing in this series for which I am waiting further explanation is the idea of the lone female werewolf.  In the Otherworld series some are born as werewolves, others are made.  As to the natural born, the werewolf gene travels only through the male line, from father to son.  As to made werewolves, many don't survive the werewolf bite.  The metamorphosis is just too much for most and the weak need not apply.  For some unexplained reason, women in particular have a high mortality rate when bitten.  Enter Elena, who survives the bite to the surprise of just about everyone.  Why more women cannot survive the bit is not made clear.  I find the idea that women can't survive the bite to be extremely irritating.  Perhaps Armstrong rethought the idea of women not being able to handle the bite because in Stolen another woman is transformed into a werewolf. 

The lone female werewolf notwithstanding, I loved this.  It was such fun to read.  I know the next book in the series centers around a witch. The introduction of other supernaturals is likely to make for a richer universe in the Otherworld series, but I do love the werewolves Elena, Clay, and Jeremy.  I hope there will be many more stories about them. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg

The Ice Princess (Fjällbacka Series #1)  The Ice Princess is a mystery set in a small Swedish seaside village.  Erika, a writer who specializes in biographies of women, has recently returned to her childhood home to deal with her parent’s estate after their untimely, accidental death.  Erika's childhood friend, Alex, is also in town.  Unfortunately there is to be no happy reunion for the two old friends.  The caretaker who watches over Alex’s childhood home when she’s out of town find Alex nearly frozen in her bathtub.  Her wrists have been slashed but it becomes clear pretty quickly that this was no suicide.

Alex’s parents ask Erika to write something about their daughter, a sort of long form eulogy about what a wonderful person she was, so Erika begins interviewing Alex’s friends and family.  Having barely seen or spoken to her old friend in two decades, Erika realizes that she really doesn’t know Alex all that well anymore.  They were bosom buddies as children until one day something changed and Alex started freezing Erika out.  Soon thereafter Alex and her family moved away and the two friends lost touch.  As Erika begins looking in her old friend’s life, she can’t help but wonder if whatever caused Alex to abruptly change as a child is connected to her murder.

Erika isn’t the only one looking into Alex’s life.  Police detective Patrik is also on the case.  It is a small town and everyone knows each other or at least knows of each other, so it is no surprise that Erika and Patrik have history too.  They were childhood friends, at least that’s Erika’s story.  For Patrik, Erika was the girl he pined over all through their teen years.

The Ice Princess is a reasonably good mystery.  It starts with a dead body found nearly frozen in a bathtub.  As Erika and Patrik try to learn more about the victim and solve her murder they uncover all sorts of shocking secrets about the victim, her past, and her family.  Some secrets were obvious a mile away; others I didn’t see coming.  The ending is satisfying when it comes.  Along the way, old friends find new love and old lovers see their romances began to crumble.

Overall I liked The Ice Princess, but there were a few things that bugged me.  I'm not sure if it was the story itself or the translation, but there were many times when I felt the story could be set in any small or mid-size American city.  Part of the reason I read translated books or books set in or from other countries is because I want to know about those other countries.  I want to know how things work in other parts of the world, how people talk, what the landscape is like.  Here I didn’t get a sense much of a sense of Sweden.  At best the setting-atmosphere-language seemed generic; at worst it seemed American.  I haven’t read that many Swedish novels but the ones I have read, especially those by Henning Mankell, have a clear and distinct sense of place.

Another problem for me was that it it wasn't clear who the central character or main detective is.  The story starts with Erika and judging from the blurb on the back cover she is the (amateur) detective around which story centers.  Then Patrik the policeman appears.  They don't work together to find Alex's murderer but they don't exactly work apart.  Jumping between two detectives made it seem like the author couldn’t decide on a point of view.  Also, there were times when things were just a little too convenient, like the connection between Erika’s old best friend and her current best friend.  I mean, I know it’s a small town, but still.
I bought this book a couple of years ago when The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and all things Swedish were all the rage.  I'm glad I finally got around to reading it.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

Detroit: An American Autopsy 

I associate Detroit with three things: Motown, the automobile industry, and by extension, the decline in American manufacturing.  After reading Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit there is fourth item to add to that list - corruption.  I knew Detroit had problems – a succession of bad mayors, a major decline in jobs, a crazy high murder rate, but otherwise just thought of it as another American city that happened to be going through a hard time.  Now I wonder how the city can possibly continue to exist in its present state.  It almost seems impossible that it exist now.

Detroit is one of the most depressing books I’ve read in a long while.  The book is divided into three sections.  After finishing the first section I thought surely things would begin to improve soon.  It wasn't that I expected a happy ending, just that there would be some sort of ending that suggested things were beginning to change.  Given that the subtitle of the book is “An American Autopsy” I suppose it was foolish to hope for anything but more corruption, murder, unemployment, and a host of other problems plaguing the city.  Detroit, the book and the city, seems to have an endless supply of crime, corruption, and disappointment.  Not that there are people’s trying to make it better, there are.  There are firemen who keep going into burning buildings even though their equipment is faulty.  There are kids struggling to survive and graduate from high school.  But despite all its good people Detroit keeps getting knocked down.  It tries to stand up or at least get to its knees and then someone or something – corrupt politicians, criminals, general apathy – knocks it back down again.

Notwithstanding the depressing nature of the book, I am glad I finally got around to reading it.  I liked LeDuff's writing style.  It added to my education.  That being said, my next book will definitely be something lighter.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni   A creepy man asks a disreputable rabbi to make him a wife.  Like God creating Eve (or Adam), the rabbi makes a woman out of clay.  The creepy man plans to take his bride, still a lifeless creature of clay, to America and once there, wake her up where they will then live happily ever after or something like that.  Impatient, the creepy man doesn’t wait till they arrive at Ellis Island and instead, with a few magic words wakes her up while they are still on the ship.  Then the creepy man dies, leaving the golem, who later takes the name Chava, alone and masterless.  This is problematic because a golem lives to serve and protect his or her master.  Without a master she is assaulted by the needs and silent prayers of all those around here.  Luckily for her, another rabbi, a much more reputable one, sees Chava in the street, recognizes what she is and takes her under his wing.  He has no wish to control or harm her.  Instead he helps her to fit in the human world.

Ahmad is the jinni (genie) of the title.  He is one of a supernatural race of people who are something like a spark of fire that can take multiple forms.  They only live in a bottle and grant wishes when they have been captured and imprisoned against their will.  Ahmad was captured and imprisoned.  He wakes up a thousand years later with little memory of how he came to be imprisoned, let alone of how he came to be on an island so far away from the desert he called home. 

Both Chava and Ahmad find themselves in a new world along with the millions of others who sailed across the ocean to make a better life for themselves in the new country called the United States.  It isn’t long before the golem and the jinni cross paths.  Each sensing the other’s otherness, the golem and jinni strike up a complicated friendship as they explore the streets of New York. 

I’m not sure what to think about this.  I suppose it is partly an immigrant story.  There are religious themes, with representatives from the Jewish, Catholic and Muslim faiths figuring into the story, as well as with a character with atheist leanings.  Evil and goodness are explored.  Obviously there is a hint of magic.  There are so many interesting elements in this story but for some it never quite piqued by interest, at least not until the very end when the golem and the jinni realize they have a common enemy.  I cannot point out any particular thing that was wrong with the novel, it just didn’t speak to me.  That being said, I would courage others to read it as they might find something there that I didn't.  Maybe I just read it at the wrong time.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Bitten by Kelley Armstrong

Bitten (Women of the Otherworld Series #1) Bitten is the first book in Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series.  At the center of this book (though not necessarily the entire series) is Elena.  Elena is a werewolf though you wouldn’t know it if you saw her walking down the street in Toronto.  In Toronto Elena is a journalist who lives with her sweet, considerate boyfriend, Philip.  Occasionally she likes to go for long, solitary walks at night.  Philip finds this habit worrisome but chalks it up to Elena’s need for independence and her difficulty in sharing due to a childhood spent being shuffled from one foster home to the next.  He doesn’t know the real reason – that his girlfriend is a werewolf who occasionally needs to run wild through the woods, the streets, or wherever she can find.  One day Elena gets a phone call summoning her to Stonehaven.  Forced to make up an excuse to tell Philip, Elena reluctantly returns to her pack. 

Elena is ambivalent about being a werewolf and even more so about being a part of pack.  Some werewolves are born and some are made.  Elena was made and it wasn’t her choice.  Unlike many of her brothers (and you’ll see why I said brothers in a moment), Elena still wants to have a life as a human.  Hence the job and boyfriend and Toronto.  But she is not entirely comfortable in the human world either where she has lie and suppress her more violent and aggressive tendencies.  (Although one might wonder why she couldn’t be aggressive as a human as well.)  A big part of her story is figuring out where she belongs, how she is going to live, and who she is going to live with.  There is one other interesting thing Elena, she is the only female werewolf in existence.

Bitten reminded me how much I liked the Southern Vampire (Sookie Stackhouse) series and urban fantasy in general.  This series ought to be a nice replacement now that Sookie’s adventures have ended.  I should point out this isn’t a new series.  It is just new to me.  I came to this book via the new show Bitten on the SyFy channel.  Whenever there’s a movie or a tv show that is based on the book I like to check out the source material, which contrary to popular opinion is not always better than the audiovisual version.  (Case in point:  The Notebook – I love, love the movie, not so much the book.)  In this case, so far I like both the book and the show.  I do hope that the show does not mirror the book exactly.  (True Blood totally veered in a different direction from the Southern Vampire series, and I believe that is one of its strengths.) 

I really liked the character of Elena.  She is a strong female character whose life doesn’t revolve around a man/love interest, though her romantic life is a key part of the story.  I would have liked there to have been a bit more about Elena’s non-werewolf life and how she manages to live in the human world with such a huge secret.  I also want to know more about Bear Valley, where Stonehaven is located, and hope the author fleshes out the background characters more.  Part of what made the Southern Vampire series so good was the background setting and characters.  Charlaine Harris made Bon Temps come alive.  Bear Valley isn’t quite at that level yet.  There are twelve more books in the series plus related anthologies so hopefully Bear Valley and its inhabitants will become more vivid in future books.  In the meantime, I thoroughly enjoyed Bitten and would give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.  It definitely got me hooked on the series.  I bought the next book in the series and a related anthology before I was halfway through this one. 

One other thought:  This is my kind of werewolf story.  Based on my reading and viewing experience, there seems to be two kinds of werewolves in the fantasy universe – the kind where the person turns into an actual (although larger than normal) wolf and the kind where the person turns into a wolf-like monster that walks on two legs and is nothing more than an unthinking killing machine.  I’ve always been partial to the person-to-animal strain of werewolf stories.  Those stories tend to be much more interesting as the person tries to balance their animalistic and rational brains.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Matched by Ally Condle (or Is There Such Thing as Utopia?)

Matched (Matched Trilogy Series #1)  In the author discussion following dystopian novel that I recently read the author talked how boring a utopian novel would mean.   Ally Condle's Matched, the first book in a trilogy, begins as a utopia.  The society is populated by seemingly perfect two-parent, two-children families.  No one is homeless or unemployed.  Everyone is well fed in perfect accordance with their individual nutritional needs.   Then the cracks in the seemingly perfect facade begin to show.  All of this made me wonder what a true utopia would look like, if it is even possible for humans, as flawed as we are, to really imagine a utopia beyond the vague of idea of heaven.  Anything we come up with is bound to be riddled with errors, many of which we may not be able to predict.

The world in which Cassia lives seems ideal.  One way the powers that be, here known as the Society, have made such a seemingly ideal world, is by eliminating most choices.  Somehow the Society has managed to make the elimination of choice not only seem like a good thing, but something that is perfect, even special.  Couples are matched with their ideal mate.  It is a special event, complete with flowing gowns and cake.  When you think about it, it isn't so different from an arranged marriage which has been the norm in human history far longer than love matches.  One might even say that the Society's matches are better than the traditional arranged marriage since instead of treating marriage as a business merger where powerful families are united, the Society aims to produce a perfect society with happy citizens.  Citizens are likely to be happier if they have happy marriages and happy families so the Society takes it jobs very seriously. 

For her part, Cassia is thrilled when she is matched with her long time friend, Xander.  She eagerly reviews the material on her microcard, a device containing details about her match's likes, dislikes, etcetera.  But then just for a moment, another face appears on her microcard.  Cassia is not rebel.  She doesn't ask many questions.  She is happy in her utopian world.  Still, the brief picture of this other boy, of this other possibility for her future, upends Cassia's life.  Slowly but surely, her perfect world starts to look more like a cage.

Matched was intriguing.  It was a bit slow going in the first half but picked up later on.  I think what intrigued me most was the picture of utopia it presented.  Every aspect of life was nearly perfectly calibrated and controlled.  For instance, music, painting, and poetry have been distilled down to the "100 best" of all time, and the rest destroyed.  The list of the 100 best are not revealed but you can bet there are no protest songs, suggestive paintings or subversive poems in the mix.  People don't know how to write - literally.  They only know how to type.  When Cassia writes a letter to her grandfather she does so by cutting and pasting text from other writing samples.  It is a clever and effective way to discourage people from thinking too hard about anything, let alone rebellion

I am not sure if I will read the next two books in the series.  While I enjoyed Matched I'm not sure if I care enough to continue, especially when my to-be-read pile is already overflowing.  Still, it made me think, and that's always a good sign of a good book.