Friday, July 25, 2014

We Were Liars [Review]

Title: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart 
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
What They Say:
A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart. 

What I Say:
I finished reading this book at about 4 a.m. in an absolute puddle of tears, and almost got right online to start this review before I realized how exhausted I was. I picked up this book with no idea of its premise and was pleasantly surprised at first to see that it falls into one of my favorite YA subgenres - books about classy rich kids. But this book is so much more than just that; so much crisper and quicker, so much lovelier, and so much more devastating. This book had an old money family, amnesia, and a love that spans both years and universes. That said:

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Plot: wow
Cadence is a Sinclair. The Sinclairs are an old money family that dates back to the Mayflower. Sinclairs are beautiful, they're tall, they're white. None of them are flawed, none of them are failures, none are criminals. To the outside world, at least. Cadence's grandfather owns a small island off of Massachusetts, a gorgeous idyll where Cadence, her mother, and her aunts' families have spent every summer since she was little. It's a place where Cadence, Johnny, Mirren, and Gat - the Liars - have been free and have been silly and have grown together, these three cousins and Johnny's best friend, who Cadence falls more in love with day by day. Except, after her accident during her 15th summer, Gat doesn't contact her once. Cady spends two years plagued by crippling migraines from the head trauma of this accident - the details of which she can't even remember, along with that whole summer - without even a word from him. Her should-be perfect life has mostly unravelled by the time she finds herself on Beechwood Island for her seventeenth summer. She is determined to find out how her accident occurred and what happened during summer fifteen that no one is willing to tell her. But maybe it's best she doesn't know.

Reading stories about “Classy Rich Kids” adds another layer to the fantasy of YA escapism. Books like this aren’t the kind where you connect to the main character and go on a journey with her; in this sub genre, you accept that you’re reading about complete strangers, and you’re constantly peeking curiously in on them through a window. This story flows so smoothly and hazily between past and present, a mystery in which each puzzle piece will click into place if only you are patient. Despite disconnecting with the lifestyle of the characters, you really feel Cady's veiled frustration at her own lack of memory and mental strength in the wake of her migraines and being heavily medicated - and as the underside of the perfect Sinclair family is slowly revealed, you find that you actually do connect with each of the four Liars. And suddenly you find yourself feeling for these strangers who at first you thought shouldn't complain so much. More cynical readers will claim they knew what the big final secret was all along, but although I thought I did early on, I truly did not. And it will hit you like a ton of bricks, trust. 

Characters: wow
Cadence was a wonderful protagonist. While of course she embodies the "teen girl crushed by family's expectations" trope, I didn't mind a bit. Because of her accident, she's been caught in this state of arrested development, trapped reliving (or not reliving) a summer when she was fifteen until she can finally move past it. Maybe I was too absorbed in the mystery to notice any glaring issues with her narration, but I enjoyed it a great deal. It was light and flowery at times, like the lines in the fairy tales she so often rewrites throughout the book. She works through the issues of her life through these little interval legends, because her life is meant to resemble one.

This book needs a character like Gat - the tenchically-outsider who dares to whisper that, you know, not every family has a private summer island off Massachusetts, and that people out there have it much worse than they do, to which the three others lightheartedly reply: "Stop talking, now", "Stop talking, forever", "I'll give you more chocolate if you shut up"- a simple moment that perfectly illustrates that inability/unwillingness to process certain ideas and truths that are uncomfortable - a theme that rears its head again later in a much more devastating way. In a way, clever, poor Gat is the undoing of the Sinclair family's life of splendor and almost almost-Aryan purity, in an entirely necessary way.

Mirren and Johnny started off as stock-beautiful and carefree cousins. And to be fair, for the most part they are. They help to add, however, to the calm and beautiful atmosphere of the book (if a book can have an "atmosphere"). Reading about them was like reading about the surf rising on a cool beach, these two cousins who spend schoolyears being successful and friendly and who come back each year to the island to spend months lying in the sand and wading in cool water. Sometimes, I was suspicious of how neither character has much motivation - in that they didn't seem to "want" anything, the way every character in a story must - but in that they resemble the kids they are, in the summer at least. Whatever they want in life can always wait for another, less-sunny day.

Relationships: ooh
Gat and Cadence remind me a lot of how summer-camp infatuations go - they're together in the vacuum that is Beechwood Island for a summer, and then suddenly they're apart and Cady doesn't hear from him a single time for two years. And then, as soon as she's back on the island, there he is as if no time has passed at all. Gat's worldly mindset and high empathy for others slowly pulls the three cousins - but Cady in particular - out of their fantasy-world of privilege and splendor, and I appreciate him for that.

Special Features: ooh
This feature isn't exactly special, but I liked the interconnecting family structure of this story, which even starts out with an illustrated Sinclair family tree. There's Cadence and her mother Penny, then her mother's two sisters Bess and Carrie (Mirren's and Johnny's mothers, respectively), then of course Cady's grandfather Harris. Gat is Johnny's mother's boyfriend's nephew, who is part Indian, which makes him stand out easily against the all-white background of the Sinclairs. Then there are the "littles" who are Bess and Carrie's other children, who are mostly background noise save important moments of clarity throughout the story. I have a very small family myself, so I like to see the complex dynamics that arise between so many people stuck on such a small island for three months a year.

Parting Quote:
    "Someone once wrote that a novel should deliver a series of small astonishments. I get the same thing spending an hour with you. Also, here is a green toothbrush tied in a ribbon. It expresses my feelings inadequately." 
So many of Gat's lines made me do a little goofy smile

Thursday, July 17, 2014

City of Heavenly Fire [Review]

Title: City of Heavenly Fire by Cassandra Clare
Series: The Mortal Instruments #6
Genre: Urban Fantasy
What They Say:
Sebastian Morgenstern is on the move, systematically turning Shadowhunter against Shadowhunter. Bearing the Infernal Cup, he transforms Shadowhunters into creatures out of nightmare, tearing apart families and lovers as the ranks of his Endarkened army swell.

The embattled Shadowhunters withdraw to Idris - but not even the famed demon towers of Alicante can keep Sebastian at bay. And with the Nephilim trapped in Idris, who will guard the world against demons?

When one of the greatest betrayals the Nephilim have ever known is revealed, Clary, Jace, Isabelle, Simon, and Alec must flee - even if their journey takes them deep into the demon realms, where no Shadowhunter has set foot before, and from which no human being has ever returned...

What I Say:
After the first three Mortal Instruments books, which I fiercely adored when I first read them in high school, the fourth and fifth books both felt a bit forced; an artificial continuation of a series that should have ended. That said, I made the effort to read all the way to the end of this series, if only to find out who lives and who dies. CoHF would have gotten a much higher rating if there weren't five other books out there that were basically exactly like this one. This book had messed up brothers, a big final battle, and a strong feeling of lethargy throughout. That said:

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Plot: ooh
Sebastian Morgenstern has brought war to the world of Shadowhunters. Though it's not exactly a fair fight. Armed with an Infernal Cup that can convert Shadowhunters into soulless Endarkened warriors, no one is safe from this new fate worse than death - from which there is no cure. Jace Wayland Herondale Lightwood's veins are thrumming with heavenly fire - the only thing that can hurt the now invulnerable Sebastian - but he's having trouble getting close enough to attack, considering Sebastian is completely untraceable. Jace and Clary and co. are left with absolutely no leads as to his whereabouts until three of the Council representatives (and Clary's mother) are kidnapped. Now they have two days to save her mother, find and kill Sebastian, stop a war, and return home in one piece.

Above all things, let me tell you: this book is long as hell. 725 pages, compared to the last Harry Potter book which had 759. I'm a pretty fast reader, but between my summer jobs and studying for the GMAT, I've only had free time to read here and there. By the time I finished this book, I honestly felt like I'd been reading it for years, though in all fairness it'd only been weeks. Now, I'm not critiquing the book simply for being long - because the last three Harry Potter books were extremely long - yet somehow with those I always felt engaged and didn't simply stop caring halfway through. That feeling of lethargy I mentioned before began with the fourth book (City of Fallen Angels) and has only grown since. Characters I used to love, like Jace and Simon, have grown so dull and overplayed that when they faced their greatest ever opponent near the end, I seriously didn't care if they made it. Forget about Clary, who simply bored me to tears consistently, without any hope of redemption. As far as story progression goes - this book is 725 pages long and not that much happens, beside the main story arc of build-up to a large battle. All personal storylines occur as afterthoughts on the really long journey to this final clash, which devolves into one very long scene in which no actual fighting occurs. And then at least a hundred more pages of falling action that should could have been heavily pared down. 

Characters: meh 
What first drew me (and scores of others, I'm sure) to Jace Wayland was his complete disregard for authority and his extreme levels of snark. The more hopeless and deranged his life with Clary became, the brighter he blazed and the harder he fought to protect the things he could be sure of (his family, his world, etc). After the last page of City of Glass, when he and Clary realize their love is no longer forbidden, it all goes away. Things go south in CoFA, but it's not the same. Instead of keeping his head straight and using snark as his strongest weapon, he just broods and angsts - strangely like Alec. Jace at the end of this series is a changed man from where we left him in CoG, and it's not really a good thing.

I admired Clary in the first three books - as I've mentioned in my review of City of Bones - because despite being the audience-insert character, she wasn't a blank slate. Her passion for art wasn't something every reader could relate to, but it fleshed her out and gave her character. In this book, her love of art is only mentioned in relation to her ability to create new runes, which has become an arbitrary power that almost feels like an easy way of allowing her to be a sub-par Shadowhunter with no ability to defend herself and yet not appear completely useless.

Relationships: ooh
Jace and Clary - I got my happy ending for these two at the end of City of Glass, so everything that has come afterwards has gone a bit over my head. All the drama and angst of Jace's possession and then his time spent in his brother's capitivity, it just didn't stir me the way it should have because their story had already ended. Restarting it in City of Fallen Angels just felt forced, so it was like reading about two completely different people's relationship. I feel these two have gotten a watered-down version of what could have been (slash already was) a pretty fantastic love story.

Simon and Isabelle - This relationship piqued my interest, mainly because it's the only plot device that is unique to this book. Painted as the eternal (heh) underdog, I was very glad to see Simon be able to come into his own and be confident in his relationship with Isabelle.

Alec and Magnus - I really appreciated this relationship at first, because it was absolutely typical and ordinary in all ways except for that Alec and Magnus are both boys. That's good to see in literature, because that's what it's like in real life. Over time, though, I feel the relationship itself just became a symbol of Alec's angst because he's looked down on by his father for being gay, which ventures into After School Special territory. The actual issues of their relationship - Magnus never aging and Alec wanting him to be mortal - only come to the forefront at the whim of the author as a plot device to keep them apart. To be fair, the same is done to a lesser extent to Clary and Jace's relationship in the case of the Heavenly Fire, whose function early on seems to be solely to keep them from making out.

Special Features: meh
Two new characters, Julian Blackthorn and Emma Carstairs, are introduced in this book, as Cassandra Clare's way of setting up her next book series, which will feature these two as protagonists and follow their adventures at the California Institute. That's nice and all, but considering how much exposure they get in this book, it's like their series has just started early, in the middle of the current one. Part of my frustration with the 725-page count came from the heavy inclusion of these two characters, who won't be terribly relevant until the next series (which I don't know if I'll read) and yet I'm forced to sit through whole chapters of backstory and information about their families. This felt a lot like a marketing technique to garner interest in even more Shadowhunter books, which just seems like a ploy to make more money off of a series that peaked three books ago. I've put this under Special Features simply because I've never seen this technique employed quite so blatantly in a novel before, and felt it deserved its own category.

Parting Quote:
“Your boyfriend's crazy,” he said to Clary.
“Yeah, but he’s hot,” said Clary. “So there’s that.”
That sound you hear in the distance is me groaning.