Monday, July 30, 2007

mini Book Expo 2007 review #2 - "Star Dancer" by Beth Webb

Author: Beth Webb
Writing this review has been tough. I didn't love the book, but I was going to post a nice, supportive little review for a couple of reasons. One, I feel guilty about posting two negative miniBook Expo reviews in a row, and two, Star Dancer is nowhere near as bad as "Vanquished". However, my conscience would never let me rest if I wasn't honest, so here we go....
As I read, I worried I was being too hard on the book. I struggled to remind myself that the author wrote this for "young adults", as opposed to actual adults like myself. But then I thought of all the other young adult fiction that I truly enjoyed reading at any age, authors such as J.K. Rowling, Katherine Paterson, Judy Blume, Philip Pullman, Ray Bradbury, L.M. Montgomery...I could go on and on. What's the difference about Star Dancer? Why did I never really connect with the book?
Star Dancer is set in "prehistoric times", where Druids have recieved two phrophecies from "the Goddess". Prophecy one is of a terrible evil that is to come. Prophecy two is of a child being born, the star dancer, who will save them from said evil. The Druids presume this star dancer will be a boy (shocker), but it's actually a girl. The girl is unacknowledged by the Druids until almsost too late - then has to leave her family to begin her accelerated druidic training, hopefully in time to save the world from the coming evil.
For starters, the book needs a good editor. At 343 pages (wide margins and generous font included), it is way too bulky. The pacing feels off, and scenes of high drama are interspersed with tortured dialogue passages that were difficult to read. I suspect Webb was trying to re-create some sort of olde-English feel to the text, but it comes off clunky and inconsistent. The storytelling passages, or inner monologues of characters are quite readable, but the dialogue is not so good.
The tone of the book is very condescending - similar in feel to the Lemony Snickett books (which I also disliked - though I would recommend the series to kids who are new readers). The language and plot are overly simplistic for the 12 year olds it was written for. Halfway through the book, there are serious events happening, but nothing in the characters individual plotlines seem to have prepared them for these events, so their reactions are unbalanced, weak and unbelievable.
The main character, whose name I've already forgotten (wait - Tegen, her name is Tegen), is supposed to be one of those underdog, uber-humble kids who is actually very exceptional. But despite the fact that the entire book (and series, eventually) is centred around her, Tegen never really came to life for me. I was more interested in the supporting characters of Gilda the midwife, and Tegen's brother, Griff.
Griff is supposed to be a "half-head", or "moon-face". He was found abandoned by the riverside by Tegen's father the same night Tegen was born. Griff speaks with his own special syntax (lots of "I's", and "yus", and "dunna's"), and this combined with the physical description makes it fairly obvious to a contemporary reader that Webb is describing someone with Down's Syndrome. The Griff character is very inconsistent, fluctuating between wise old soul, and annoying special-needs brother with confusing speed. Toward the end of the book, Tegen and Griff are married (hand-fasted), as per the wish of their village's Druid (Griff's natural father, who is dying). Up until this point in the book, Griff and Tegen have been fairly close, with Tegen relying heavily on Griff for emotional support. After the hand-fasting, things are awkward. Tegen becomes obsessed with the fact that Griff might want to consummate their marriage. He certainly tries, saying things like "I luvs yer, Tegen, and I want to give yus a big cuddle like men dus to women."
Umm, ew? And do you see what I mean by unbalanced? It takes a very special author to deal with difficult issues like child abandonment, misogyny, menstruation, and arranged marriages to de-facto siblings in a way that is appropriate (and still entertaining) for young adults. Webb doesn't quite make it.
The book wasn't terrible, but I have zero interest in reading the sequels, I wouldn't give it to any book-loving young adult I know, and I won't recommend it to anyone else. There are better choices out there.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

mini Book Expo review - "Vanquished" by Hope Tarr

Author: Hope Tarr

Good lord. I'll try to keep the bleck's, blarf's, yuk's, and pitooee's to a minimum as I write this review, but it's seriously going to be a challenge.

I should perhaps start with a disclaimer - I am an unashamed reader of trashy novels. Well, maybe not so unashamed that I'm willing to read them on the streetcar. But I do have a serious soft spot for a trashy romance, and if vouchers for Almack's and corsets and parents-who-just-don't-understand and secret engagements and a kiss between the hero and heroine in the final few paragraphs are included, so much the better. If you haven't read one before now, I'm happy to recommend a few - for the most part they're delightful, escapist fluff, readable in a couple of hours.

Key words there being "for the most part". I wouldn't have made it past the first chapter in this particular book, if I hadn't felt obliged to plow through in hopes of saving some of your eyeballs from a similar fate with this review.

According to the publisher's synopsis, this book is set in Victorian England, "sizzlingly sensual and rich in historical detail", about a leading suffragist by the name of Caledonia Rivers, and an up-and-coming photographer with a troubled past, Hadrian St.Clair. A high-ranking political enemy of the suffragist movement has hired Hadrian to take a naughty photo of Caledonia to discredit her in the press and thereby crush the votes-for-women movement, but Hadrian and Caledonia fall in love and the evil politician's plan is (somewhat) thwarted.

From the beginning, Tarr sets Hadrian up to be unsympathetic to the suffragists in general, and she never really changes that image of him. Certainly, he falls for Caledonia at some point, but he never really sems to change his opinion of her life's work. If anything, you're given the impression that Caledonia wises up to the fact that life as a feminist is cold and lonely, and that what she needs to really make her happy is an extraordinarily macho man - the end of the novel sees her unable to continue her career as a suffragist and moving on to "true happiness" in life as Mrs. Hadrian St.Clair. Whaa? I can't understand how Tarr can write a book that purports to praise and support feminist history, when anyone with half a brain can see that it does COMPLETELY the opposite.

I like to think I'm centrist in my views, try to see all sides of an argument as much as possible, and am usually fairly moderate as a result (I recognize that this moderation comes from the comfort of a place in history where generations before me struggled for the benefits I enjoy!) but holy crap this book brought out the raging feminist in me. Here are some of the more maddening quotes:

"He longed to lift the suffragist veil and find the woman beneath", "Unlike so many of her suffragette sisters whose reputations skirted the fringe of respectability, Caledonia was said to be very good and virtuous", "Her mentor...the women braving the cold...everyone was counting on her to see them through to victory. Yet it had been a long time since someone, a man, had told her she was pretty."

Or maybe the touching scene where Caledonia confesses to Hadrian (mere moments before becoming his lover) that she's such a fraud, she isn't pure and virtuous - she had SEX with a then-fiance when she was 19, weep, weep, she's such a hypocrite, etc. etc.

The most annoying scene, which had me throwing the book on the floor in disgust and taking a few days' reading break, was the one a few pages later, where Caledonia gives the first blowjob of her "fraudulous", "hypocritical" sex-life. While she is telling him "you taste nice, delicious even", he is thinking about how 'never before had he cared enough to hold back a woman's hair while she went down on him'.

Jesus H. Christ. Seriously, did some porn-addicted 18 year old frat boy write this? The more erotic passages were mostly ridiculous. I don't mind a good erotic passage here and there - but I sort of like them to fade out just before the actual intercourse bits. Whenever this sort of book degrades into sexual euphemisms, "throbbing members" etc ., I find it jars me out of the story, and I don't usually get back into it. Tarr has written a few extremely explicit scenes, including one surprising anal sex interlude. Does anyone else think it somewhat unlikely that a woman in Victorian England would be clamoring for anal sex in her second sexual encounter? Hmmm?

I have issues with the supposed historical accuracy beyond Victorian sexuality. Sure, Tarr mentions historically accurate names (Millicent Fawcett, Emmeline & Richard Pankhurst, William Ewert Gladstone), but none of her actual characters behave with anything like historical accuracy. Caledonia's guardian Aunt, for example - there's no way someone in that role, in that era, would have been so permissive and encouraging.

The novels of this sort that to my mind are successful have many of the same glaring plot/character/historical inaccuracies - but somehow they manage to hit that magic place where the reader really ends up liking the characters and is therefore able to suspend disbelief and float through the story no matter the unlikelihood of the plot. Tarr's book never gets to that place. Her characters were flat and unsympathetic. I think there was definitely potential for this idea to take off, but this reader's feet remained firmly planted on the ground.

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