Archive | October, 2010

Boyproof

31 Oct

When Victoria watches the movie Terminal Earth for the very first time, she is blown away by the film’s badass heroine, Egg. So blown away in fact, that she goes back to watch the movie forty-seven times, dresses up in character every day, and insists she be referred to as ‘Egg’ instead of Victoria. In her new persona, she’s always in control and never cares what people think of her, especially not boys. She’s boyproof.

Boyproof, by Cecil Castellucci, follows Victoria’s – er Egg’s – adventures through the treacherous terrain of high school in Hollywood. Egg is so fiercely independent and unique that it makes her antagonistic: she answers to no one but herself and if you don’t like it, well that’s your own darn problem. But when a new boy moves to town and begins to push on Egg’s ideals and ideas she begins to wonder whether Egg is an ideal or a crutch, and what that means for her life in either case.

Egg is that girl from your high school class who wore weird clothes and probably walked around by herself – for the majority of the book she has a shaved head and wears a cloak. But she isn’t actually weird – in fact she one of the most relatable heroines I’ve come across. She feels uncomfortable in her body (she waits until everyone else has left the locker room before undressing for gym) and constantly shuffles between divorced and disconnected parents. The only thing she can control is her grades, but she’s failing trig. So she styles herself after a role model she sees as being everything she wishes she was: strong, beautiful, independent.

This book is about Egg’s – or rather Victoria’s – journey to define herself as a woman. Of course there’s a boy involved, and of course she must eventually leave Egg behind, but it is also about what happens when graduation arrives and it’s time to pick a place for yourself in the world. It’s about that awkward and often painful time when – to quote the immortal Britney Spears, you’re “not a girl, not yet a woman.” Sometimes it’s wonderful, but sometimes you have one of those days where you’re just mad at everybody. Sometimes you have arguments where you can’t make your point as clearly as you want. Sometimes you screw up royally and it’s hard to see your way out. We’ve all been there.

Boyproof earns an AJ from the PSA – Egg makes the same mistakes you did in high school, but she learns from them. She’s super funny and her first-person narrative is sharply honest. A quick, easy read, but Castellucci has a firm grasp of what high school can be like, for girls in particular.

PS. In other news, boys week next week!

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The White Spirit

27 Oct

When I saw that one of my favorite authors of all time, Mercedes Lackey, had written a book about Arthurian legend, I practically saw stars. The book is Gwenhwyfar, and the idea comes from references to three different Gwenhwyfar characters referenced in source texts for the legend (plus one Gwenhwyfach) all thought to have been married to King Arthur. Lackey’s story follows the third of the Gwens, who was born with magical power but chose to take up the sword instead. But when she is called to marry the aging and childless King Arthur, she must leave behind the fierce warrior reputation she has spent her life building to become his third queen.

As a child, Gwen clearly carries the magical power of her mother’s line, but is drawn to the way of iron and forgoes that power to become a warrior. She becomes a skilled fighter and eventually one of her father’s war chiefs. But it is difficult to be both woman and soldier, and Gwen carefully crafts a genderless reputation to maintain her position. But as her nurse notes, “there are very few men who could look on a warrior, see the woman within, and remember the warrior,” and Gwen runs afoul of this first with the intriguing Lancelin, and then when she finds herself married to Arthur in an attempt to prevent the evil Orkneys from contesting the throne. But though there can be no true happiness in self-denial, neither can there be peace when the balance is thrown. Gwen can have what her heart wants or what her head wants, not both.

I confess I expected this to be more of an Arthurian novel – it is advertised as one – but Gwen doesn’t even meet Arthur until only 100 pages from the end. He is, however, a big presence by hearsay and rumor: we hear occasionally of his doings and events at court. We get much more of Lancelin and Medraut who are characters just as important to the legend. Lackey also presents interesting ideas on what might actually have happened during the more unbelievable or contentious bits of the myth — such as Merlin’s fate, or Arthur’s.

What we do get is Gwenhwfar’s story, start to finish. It begins when she is a young girl, follows her through warrior training when Arthur was just a far off king, through literal battles and those fought to gain a place among the men, the choice to let that dream go to marry Arthur for the good of the land, her capture by Medraut, rescue, inevitable tryst with Lancelin, and the final desperate battle of Armageddon. In true Lackey style, Gwen is strong, naturally talented, and smarter than the men around her. While her solo adventures are entertaining, her prowess begins to make you wonder if she can truly do no wrong.

Fortunately (perhaps) the Arthurian frame keeps the book away from Lackey’s tendency towards writing WW – tales of Camelot do not end happily for anyone. In the end, fate and mischance prove too strong even for Gwen to beat, and she is left an empty husk after the smoke clears. A simple look traded by Gwen and Lancelin after the battle conveys the true depth of the tragedy: “that love, if love it really had been, had burned bright and guttered out.” Even the love that promised to save her just as it damned her, is gone. The futility of it all is the killing blow, and though Gwen survives the battle, she remains diminished, somehow less for all that it ends on a hopeful note.

As Lancelin says in the end, “the world does not end for everyone. Just for a few.”

Overall, this book rates a WW on the PSA, but the ending redeems itself with an AJ rating.

Prisoners in the Palace

25 Oct

The sweet cover spread

Michaela MacColl’s new novel, Prisoners in the Palace takes place in London, 1836.  King William IV sickens rapidly and the heir presumptive, sixteen year-old Princess Victoria is only rarely seen by the public. Rumors run wild that she weak of mind, her temper is unpredictable, she lisps. Liza Hastings, the wealthy daughter of a minor knight, finds herself abruptly orphaned and in possession of nothing but a huge debt when her parents’ carriage overturns into the Serpentine river. Her last chance is to take a job as the Princess’s personal maid in the hopes of gaining royal favor to pay back her debts. But when are things ever that easy?

If you’re not familiar with what Victoria’s situation was before she assumed the throne at age 18, here’s the short version: Victoria’s mother (Duchess of Kent) and private secretary (Sir John Conroy) created what they called the Kensington System in order to maintain control over the Princess and to keep her separated from her subjects. Victoria wasn’t allowed to walk down stairs without someone holding her hand, wasn’t allowed often in public, and deprived of any friends – even among the servants. None of this is fiction.

When Liza arrives at the drafty and dilapidated Kensington Palace, she is immediately thrust into this bizarre situation as the only confidante of the lonely and powerless Princess. Everyone wants to use Liza as a spy or to exert her influence over the future Queen, and Liza’s only friends are a young thief called Inside Boy who lives in the walls of the Palace, and a young newspaperman called Will whose loyalties are tied to what will sell his papers. Liza struggles to balance survival at Kensington with her loyalty to the Princess.

Victoria herself is only occasionally Liza’s friend. As a result of the KS, the future monarch is hugely out of touch with reality, and alternates between being swollen with authority and swamped with powerlessness. As characters go, she isn’t very likeable, but she is realistic – consider what the Crown Princess would be like if she was kept in seclusion and manipulated her whole life. But she isn’t cruel, nor is she weak – just very out of touch. As much as this story is about Liza, it is also about the change in Victoria in the years leading up to her assumption of the Crown and the longest and most profitable reign in British history.

Furthermore, Liza is not always an angel either. Orphaned so suddenly and unexpectedly, she can scarcely think about her parents without tearing up, and she finds it very difficult to adjust from having servants to being one. And while these preoccupations can be frustrating for a reader, they’re also very true to life. Here’s a character who found herself in terrible straights and though she manages to protect herself, she isn’t necessarily finding it easy to cope. She expects everyone around her to share her own ethics, and it is shocked to discover the extent of her own naiveté. But she also forces those around her – Victoria in particular – to align their moral compasses with her own, to the benefit of the nation.

MacColl has done her research, no question. The story is peppered with real events and personages, and chapters are interspersed with newspaper clippings, excerpts from letters, and Victoria’s journal entries – all of which are the real thing (or very closely mimicking it). She also introduces a side plot concerned with the plight of working (class) girls of the time. So while the huge volume of historical detail occasionally overshadows character development, this book rates a AJ on the PSA.

For more on Victoria’s time pre-epic-reign, check out the lovely film The Young Victoria.

Pickychick Notes: Traveling

21 Oct

So I’m traveling this week and though I brought my computer and several books, the probability of updates is shrinking by day. I’m aiming to get one up Friday or Saturday morning, so do check back, but I promise a Monday update for sure!

Clary’s City of Bones

18 Oct

The first book in Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments trilogy, City of Bones, follows young Clary Fray after her mother is kidnapped and she is attacked by horrible monsters. She learns of a race of Shadowhunters who defend the normal human world from Downworlders – demons, vampires, werewolves, etc. Clary keeps attracting demonic attackers like the plague, which doesn’t make sense for a normal human. But then is Clary really a normal human?

While out clubbing, Clary witnesses three bizarre-looking teenagers murder a boy, but when his body disappears, she is catapulted into a world of creatures out of legend. Her mother is kidnapped and Clary herself attacked in short order, which introduces her to the gorgeous (if surly) Jace and his Shadowhunter friends – the bizarre-looking teenagers from the club. She joins their quest to guard the world against demon attack in return for their help locating her mother, who by now has been revealed as a former Shadowhunter and once involved with the Shadowhunters’ evil nemesis, the incongruously named Valentine. Cue much shenanigans.

Clary rates an JA on the PSA. She shows flashes of intuition and bravery, and she is fiercely determined to save her mother, even though they didn’t get along. Her discovery of her Shadowhunter blood gives her an edge as well. She has the habit of figuring things out a hair ahead of everyone else, though she has poor reactions to threat or violence and not much in the way of thinking before she acts. But really what dooms her is her inability to take charge in the manner of positive action. Her most daring and influential act in the book is preventing Jace from killing Valentine – stopping an act from happening. Sure, it’s great that Jace doesn’t kill Valentine, but Clary’s presence effects in its negativity – the prevention of action.

It is understandable that the untrained Clary might not be on the forefront of the fighting, but she still spends most of her time either frozen in horror or getting attacked. She is like Bella in that her existence and thus plot purpose seems entirely to be in danger so she can be rescued by one of the men, Jace in particular. It’s like some bizarre form of courtship ritual. And the courtship between Clary and Jace is truly bizarre, because as they find out at the end of City of Bones, they’re actually siblings! So the fact that they have lots of make-out sessions is super creepy, particulary when they spend the rest of the series don’t the will-they-or-won’t-they, are-they-related-or-aren’t-they, moping Twilight-type melodrama.

While my twelve year-old sister insists that Clary gets more awesome later in the series, the major plot piece still seems to by the concern over whether being in love with your brother is creepy or hot – which negates the slight increase in awesomeness. And yes, I know that the end of the series addresses the sibling question, but not until the very end, and the three books of creepiness outweigh the explanation. However, I also have it on good authority that Cassandra Clare’s prequel series, which opens with Clockwork Angel is actually much better, and the heroine, Tessa, is fully awesome. So I would recommend reading that over the Mortal Instruments.

Pickychick Notes: Changes, Changes

16 Oct

So I’ve been struggling lately to inject new ideas and points of interest into the blog, and not just say the same thing over and over again. In order to, shall we say, juice things up a bit, I’ve decided to also review books with female narrators who don’t measure up to the Pickychick Standard of Awesomeness.

Thus, behold the new Pickychick Scale of Awesomeness (PSA), by which all future books will be rated:

Angelina Jolie (AJ) = This is the ideal Pickychick book. These protagonists are independent, intelligent, engaging, brave, or unique girls who tell a great story and remind you of yourself. They are thrown into crazy situations beyond their control, and they cope as well as they can. Their stories are about endurance or the eventual hope of triumph in the future, as they are certainly falliable and probably have some human faults that cause a lot of drama. They generally try to do the right thing, but they aren’t perfect, they’re real. Examples include Jane Eyre, Anne Shirley, Wise Child, Lyra Silvertongue, Jo March, Katniss Everdeen, etc.

Wonder Woman (WW) = This is for independent, intelligent, engaging, kind, noble, brave, and unique women who run the plot. They are the standard to which we all aspire but might not actually be literally able to reach. Often they have magic, or magical weapons, or are otherwise aided beyond normal means. Rarely do they have damaging flaws. We’re talking Harry Crewe from The Blue Sword, Nancy Drew, Cimorene from The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Sabriel, etc.

Jennifer Garner (JG) = This rating is for a really awesome chick, saddled with a mediocre story. On her own she’s the best, but because her plot/writing/etc is so weak, she’s likewise weakened. For the purposes of the blog, she’s an AJ, but the story she’s stuck in is so terrible I feel guilty recommending it.

Jennifer Aniston (JA) = We love Jen, but have to admit that she hasn’t put out a decent movie in a decade, nor has she been making wise choices in the man department. Thus, the books meriting her rating have their heart in the right place and are trying to give you a great heroine but fall just a bit short. These are books like The Mortal Instruments, The Luxe, If I Stay, and so on.

Bella Swan (BS) = As you might have guessed, characters who rate this one are generally weak, subservient, boy-crazy, girls who don’t take control over their own life. They might also be catty or gossipmongers who The main plots are usually driven solely by melodrama. These are, in my opinion, stories from the bottom of the barrel that provide poor examples for young readers and should only be treated as satire. The best example is the girl that this rating is named for, Miss Isabella Swan.

So keep your eye out for some thoughts on some other books you might have seen but not seen addressed here. Again, this is merely Pickychick opinion being put forward and not an official judgment, and just because a book may not rank highly on the PSA doesn’t mean it’s not a perfectly enjoyable read!

Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the new edition!

Kerowyn’s Tale

14 Oct

Now for a more in the fantasy-slash-action-adventure-type genre. Mercedes Lackey is one of my favorite authors and has been since junior high, and she has written a lot of books. Like, a lot. Her Valdemar world has series upon series, and I’ve been hard pressed to pick the best book to feature for the blog  as all of her female characters are pretty legit. We already featured one of her fairytale retellings (The Black Swan) earlier, but By The Sword is sufficiently different and sufficiently awesome that it made the cut.

By The Sword is the length and action-packed tale of Kerowyn, a young woman who can efficiently and effectively managed any problem thrown her way. After her mother dies, she manages the entire Keep and its lands without much help, when her brother’s wedding feast is attacked and his bride carried off she rides out and saves her. She spends several years training with her adoptive grandmother (a heroine from another series) and joins a mercenary company, which she eventually becomes captain of. Then in the very last ten pages, she is Chosen to become a Herald (very noble and essentially good people who are the topic of most of the Valdemar novels). Needless to say the book is just shy of 500 pages.

Fortunately, Kerowyn is a great character who excels at kicking butt, but spends a lot of time worrying about how much she enjoys it, and how much she doesn’t enjoy normal things like reading or sewing or fancy dresses. And later in the story she realizes how lonely it is to be a captain, where you can’t risk showing favoritism within your troops, nor can you be friends with anyone outside your company that you might end up crossing swords with. She’s even got a magical sword that protects women, but that becomes a problem when she runs up against female opponents and suddenly finds her sword arm frozen. Not that Kerowyn’s story is anything close to realistic, but just that she as a character offers less idealistic insight to what life as a female warrior might actually be like.

And while she is honorable and beautiful and kind to bunnies and all that, she makes no bones about what she’s really about: she’s a warrior, and a good one, so why shouldn’t she get paid? “It makes sense for people who are good at fighting to go out and do it—because if they’re good at it, that means the fewest number of other people die.” As a mercenary, and a good one, she isn’t always fighting on the “good” side, and some of the people she kills are innocent of everything except being one of the “enemy.”

But this isn’t a dour book by any means: I’ve read it at least five times by now, and when I get to my favorite quotes I have to read them aloud because they’re so clever. Kerowyn’s brand of humor is certainly on the wry side, but she finds plenty of amusement in her plethora of adventures. Though the book can be a little clunky at times, it is always engaging, and Lackey zips her protagonist along from one adventure to the next. This book reads like Tamora Pierce for big girls.

By The Sword is a stand-alone work, but for more of a grasp on what exactly is going on, I recommend also reading the Vows and Honor trilogy (featuring the adventures of Kerowyn’s grandmother and her oath-sister when they were mercenaries) and the very first Valdemar series that Lackey wrote, The Heralds of Valdemar trilogy (featuring the adventures of Talia and more explanation on Heralds).