Perfect Ruin by Lauren DeStefano (Internment Chronicles Book 1)

perfectruinI posted on here a little while ago about the first two books of the Chemical Garden Trilogy by DeStefano which I really thought were missing something.  They weren’t by any stretch bad books, but there were some shortcomings when it came to plot. Not so when it comes to Perfect Ruin, the first book in the new Internment Chronicles Series (Young Adult).

From Amazon:

Morgan Stockhour knows getting too close to the edge of Internment, the floating city in the clouds where she lives, can lead to madness. Even though her older brother, Lex, was a Jumper, Morgan vows never to end up like him. If she ever wonders about the ground, and why it is forbidden, she takes solace in her best friend, Pen, and in Basil, the boy she’s engaged to marry.

Then a murder, the first in a generation, rocks the city. With whispers swirling and fear on the wind, Morgan can no longer stop herself from investigating, especially once she meets Judas…

There was something completely romantic about this whole story, and surprisingly, it wasn’t really a teen romance like so many are.  Morgan is already betrothed, and although she is beginning to have stronger feeling for Basil, the entire plot doesn’t revolve around their undying love or some crazy love triangle.  Instead, the romance comes from the whole idea of living on some floating city where the desire to jump can drive people mad.  There is mystery when it comes to what is happening on the surface below, and the entire society has a great “damsel in distress” feel to it.

Combine that with a controlling, almost totalitarian monarchy that seeks to prevent anyone from leaving and a secret underground rebellion that’s just gaining some momentum, and you have a great story.  The murder-mystery component starts the whole thing off, but it’s more of a plot device to get us to the rebellion and the secrets that underpin all of society. 

Morgan was a strong narrator, and I enjoyed learning about Internment from her perspective, but her friend Pen came across as fluffy and annoying.  I really hope her character is fleshed out in Book 2, but for now I could leave her behind. Thankfully, that’s really the only negative that bothered me while reading.  The other characters were great, if somewhat stereotypical, but I don’t mind it if I don’t notice it while reading (if that makes sense).  Going back and thinking about things after finishing the book is one thing, but if I’m not worrying about cliches while reading, then I count that as a win for the author.

Part of the success of this book is that it recognizes all of the typical YA themes that we’ve grown accustomed to: exploring relationships and sexuality, questioning the status quo, adventure, rash decision-making, subtle (or not-so-subtle) elements of the supernatural, etc.  But the great thing is that this book could have easily worked as an adult novel has the protagonist been older.  Although all of these elements are present, it didn’t read like just another dystopian YA novel.  There weren’t any preachy elements, and there weren’t a whole lot of terrible decisions made that ruined the plot progression.

Burning Kingdoms, Book 2 in the series has an expected publication date of 2014, and I am really looking forward to continuing the story.

The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor (The Looking Glass Wars Book 1)

the-looking-glass-warsI finished this book a while ago, but haven’t written the review yet because I don’t really know what to say.  I’m torn about the whole thing, and so nothing is going to come out in a coherent, well-planned statement.  So this one is going to be a bit of a ramble.

Let’s start by saying that I’m not a huge Alice in Wonderland fan.  Sure, the story is good.  It’s a classic, and I don’t have anything against it.  I just don’t love it the way some people do that makes it hard for them to get on board with a retelling.  I was able to come at this with an open mind and not worry too much about what’s the same, what’s different, and how much it offends me on a deeply personal level.

So there were parts that I liked. I thought the reworking of the story was clever.  It had all the people you would expect, but with a more complex history to Wonderland and the politics of what is going on there.  Alyss escapes Wonderland during her Aunt Redd’s invasion and lives among us regular humans for years, growing up as part of the Little family.  She tells people about Wonderland and everyone thinks her a little mad, so she stops talking about her past and eventually starts to forget.  As she gets older, she becomes engaged to Queen Victoria’s youngest son, but before the wedding can take place, she’s brought back to Wonderland and is set to fight for her throne.

There’s a great moment at the end of the book where Alyss/Alice has a moment of confusion and thinks that maybe Wonderland never existed at all, and I thought it would have been great if the reader was likewise confused about whether one of the realities was entirely an illusion. This would of course have resulted in an entirely different story.  Oh well, it wasn’t meant to be.

I’m not sure that I’m going to go on to Book 2…

His Majesty’s Hope by Susan Elia MacNeal (Maggie Hope Mysteries Book 3)

His Majesty's Hope book coverThis series just gets better and better.  I noted that Mr. Churchill’s Secretary had a lot of preamble and I felt like we didn’t really get that far with Maggie, and that Princess Elizabeth’s Spy made some significant improvements.  I was really excited by the setup for this third installment at the end of Book 2, and I’m happy to say that it didn’t disappoint.  Reader beware: If you like to read a series in order and want to avoid spoilers, stop here.

Maggie is finally getting a chance to enter enemy territory and do some real spying when she’s sent to Germany in His Majesty’s Hope.  What starts as a relatively simple mission quickly becomes more complex and more dangerous as Maggie tries to navigate the upper crust of Berlin society under Nazi Rule.  Her mother, back from the dead, is actually a high-ranking Nazi official, and was responsible for the attack on Princess Elizabeth’s life. Maggie’s mission is to bug her mother’s office, deliver some much-needed supplies to the underground resistance, but she doesn’t expect to come face-to-face with a half-sister and an old friend she was afraid had been killed.

This book was more complex in terms of plot and narrative structure than the previous two.  We jump between characters and settings much more frequently, and as a result get a much more complete view of the war.  As Germans are starting to understand more about what is actually happening in the Third Reich, resistance mounts, while staunch supports of Hitler’s regime dig their heels in.  Though the book is relatively short and light in places, it does take the time to point out dissenting opinions, and tries to present a realistic portrait of life at the time.

I was especially happy with the ending of this novel, considering that Maggie is left in a decidedly unhappy place.  It would be too easy to have each novel end on a positive note: Maggie Hope saves the day and Britain remains strong in the face of their enemies, and that sort of thing.  I like that Maggie is suffering, as bad as that might sound.  Too often, fictional characters are made to endure all sorts of trauma and then expected to just come out of it with a few battle scars, and a good laugh.  The events in the last quarter of this book really serve to give Maggie and the reader pause, and gives the story a weight that it didn’t necessarily have in the earlier books.

Of course, this leaves me eagerly anticipating the next installment.  GoodReads tells me that The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent should be published July 2014.

The Buckshaw Chronicles (Flavia de Luce Books 1-3) by Alan Bradley

flavia

Instead of posting a review for each of these novels, I’m doing 3-in-1.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag

A Red Herring Without Mustard

I don’t usually read a lot of mysteries, and I definitely don’t normally read “cozy” mysteries, but Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series is absolutely perfect for staying indoors on a winter afternoon and drinking far too much tea.  It’s light, clever, and distinctly British.  Definitely beats having to shovel snow!

Flavia de Luce is an eleven year old detective in the making.  She’s brilliant, inquisitive, and not afraid to get herself into all sorts of bad situations.  Growing up at Buckshaw, her family’s long-standing home, Flavia has been given free-reign of an old chemistry lab in an abandoned wing of the house.  Having lost her mother years earlier, Flavia has been left to her own devices, and they just happen to be murder, mystery, and a love of poisons.

In each novel, Flavia is somehow exposed to a murder, and like any curious young girl, she decides it would be a great help to the police if she aided their investigation.  Using her skills of deduction (it does feel a little bit Holmesian at times), her quick thinking, and an extraordinary understanding of chemical processes, Flavia makes some startling discoveries and eventually helps to catch a murderer.  Her genius is all laid bare at the end of the story where she outlines every step the killer must have took, and every deduction she made along to way to help her solve the mystery.  Unfortunately for Flavia, she’s still only a girl, and often fails to receive the attention she believes she’s due.

What sets Flavia apart, aside from her age, is her voice as a narrator.  You might think it strange that a middle-aged author decided to write in the voice of an 11-year-old girl, but the result is surprisingly good.  Flavia comes across like any young self-absorbed genius would, but it doesn’t feel that way when you’re reading it.  She’s funny without knowing it, and though her intellect isn’t in dispute, it is often at odds with her maturity.  She doesn’t understand reproduction, and so has to try to fill in those gaps on her own.  When her older sister’s tease her about being adopted or switched at birth, Flavia gets extremely upset, but then plots her revenge using poisoned lipstick.  It would be too easy to forget how young our narrator is without Bradley adding these elements of immaturity.  They also serve as great comedic relief.

I mentioned earlier that I don’t usually read “cozy” mysteries, but what makes them cozy?  I always had a vague set of parameters, but thank-you Wikipedia for a more concrete definition.  The violence and/or sexual nature of the crime is downplayed in the story, often happening “off camera”.  The stories are usually set in a small, intimate community with strong social interactions and a small group of townsfolk who all know each other.  The detectives are almost always amateurs, they are often women, and they are almost always dismissed by the authorities.  The murderer is usually a member of the community who has committed a single crime to solve a single problem rather than a serial killer set loose on the town.  This makes them more rational and educated, and it’s likely that when they are caught, they will be taken into custody to serve their time without any real hassle.

Now we’ve all learned something.  And I can safely say that this isn’t what I would normally go for.  I like criminal psychology and behaviour.  I find serial killers oddly fascinating.  So this isn’t my sort of thing.  But Flavia is such a great character, and the books are short enough to read in an afternoon, that I am hooked on this series.

The Wolf of Wall Street by Jorden Belfort

Wolf of wall street book coverI mentioned in my GoodReads quick review that I didn’t finish this book entirely, and I guess the point is that you don’t need to.  Each chapter is filled with the same frivolous attitude and lack of regard for other people, so you really only need to read a few to get the point.  I’d recommend jumping around a little, or better yet, just watch the movie.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an autobiographical look at Jordan Belfort’s time as a criminally wealthy owner of Stratton Oakmont, an investment firm that made millions by manipulating the stock market.  He turned nobodies into millionaires by teaching them simple selling strategies that were laid out in a script and because of his success, his employees were fantastically loyal.  And you might think that this would be the central narrative in the story.  You would be wrong. Instead, Belfort spends most of his time discussing his extra-marital affairs, his drug habits, and his psychotic friends and their antics.  Prostitutes in the office, close-calls with foreign authorities, and an extraordinary amount of detail when it comes to how much everything in his bedroom cost all add up to a long-winded, unapologetic look back at his glory days.

When I read the introduction/preface, Belfort notes that he’s writing this down as he remembers it (and let’s not forget that he was high for most of it) and that conversations are reconstructed to the best of his ability.  He also says that he’s going to have a lot to explain to his children when they get older, and so I was prepared to hear the full story and understand that in some way, he was trying to atone for his sins.  But then as you read further, his writing style attempts to capture his moods and thoughts as they were then, which leads to sarcasm, rudeness, and completely ruins any attempt he might have made at redemption.  I have a feeling that this was partly the fault of the publisher, but if you’re going to write a tell-all about all your terrible decisions and the negative impacts they had on people in your life, you may want to consider a more hat-in-hand approach.

I did see the movie before reading the book (which is rare for me) and I really liked the movie.  This sort of story works well as a script because the audience is in the moment with Belfort. While we wouldn’t condone his actions, the results are often hilarious and we can sort of follow his line of thinking.  When it’s happening in real-time in front of us, it’s a lot easier to swallow than to hear some jerk reminisce about it years later.  There’s the added bonus that most of the movie comes word for word from the book, so save yourself some time and see the movie, enjoy the magic that is Leonardo DiCaprio, and skip the book altogether.

I felt like this book was an attempt to communicate an extravagant lifestyle and a lifetime of poor decisions to others, but instead Belfort fails to connect to, or impress, the 99%.  Usually I walk away from these sorts of books feeling like at least I understand someone better and can see where they were coming from when they made a bad decision, but in this case, I just felt like Belfort had completely missed the point.