Tempest & Slaughter by Tamora Pierce

TempestAndSlaughterTempest and Slaughter
by Tamora Pierce
2018

This is a very odd book.

Like many girls in my generation, I grew up reading Tamora Pierce books, and while I don’t read them quite as religiously anymore, there are only a handful I haven’t read. This particular book was making waves before it was even published because not only is it the first time she’s written with a primary male protagonist, it’s also giving the backstory to the powerful and mysterious Numair Salmalin, the love-interest from one of her other series, The Immortals. This book is the first in a series about his youth as young Arram Draper, attending a school for magic.

The problem with any prequel, of course, is that regardless of what happens in the plot, you have a pretty good notion of how everything ends up.

But Pierce seems to have gotten around that by just deciding not to include a plot?

So there’s a lot of world-building (although much of the magic seems more similar to her Emelan universe rather than her Tortall universe where this particular book is set) and a lot of fun character interactions (although no character development), and a whole lot of foreshadowing. But no actual plot.

Like, stuff happens. But nothing ever develops.

I still enjoyed it, because I do love world-building, and Pierce is a talented writer, but… it’s just really odd to read a book without a plot.

Also, Arram was fine enough as a point of view character but he’s a bit of a goody-two-shoes in a way that I found surprisingly off-putting. It wasn’t that his ethics were wrong, in fact, they were very much on-point; it was more that they were unearned. He is a child growing up in a society that keeps slaves, and yet he is alone in wanting to speak out against it? Where did those ethics come from? What made him decide to speak out against what his friends and family who are fine with? And why are there no others that share his opinion? For all that he’s a teenager through most of the book, his ethical perspectives felt a bit like seeing a toddler at a protest rally being cute but clearly not able to truly argue the perspective.

Anyway, to sum up: interesting, but odd, with a few pointed problems. But I’ll definitely read the next book in the series to figure out what (if anything) happens next.

One of Us is Lying

By Karen M. McManus

One_of_Us_is_LyingThis book is literally The Breakfast Club, but if someone killed Anthony Michael Hall (and if Anthony Michael Hall had a real mean streak). Simon, the victim, wrote a gossip blog, revealing secrets about his classmates. He’s killed before he can post a new piece, while in detention with the four classmates he wrote about. Of course, those four are an over-achiever, a delinquent, a queen bee, and a jock.

Which could have been a little too clichéd except that the chapters all rotate through the four teenage suspects in their own voices. It is just so clever because it is pretty much a locked-room mystery, but we get to read the thoughts of all the suspects and truly none of them seem to have done it. As the book goes on, in addition to being a real stumper of a mystery, the characters become more complex and sympathetic, and I don’t want any of them to have done it.

They all have their own different struggles, which are naturally not helped by being suspected of murder. But the investigation turns their lives around in such a way that each one has to discover how to be true to themselves, and that’s very satisfying to read, too.

A quote from one of the chapters really captured the feeling of the book for me: “I guess we’re almost friends now, or as friendly as you can get when you’re not one hundred percent sure the other person isn’t framing you for murder.”

Nice Try, Jane Sinner

By Lianne Oelke

NiceTryJaneSinnerThis book should be terrible. The premise is that a high-school dropout goes to community college and enters the college’s “Big Brother”-style reality show, which sounds agonizing, right? I hate both coming-of-age stories and reality shows, but I loved this book!

The saving grace is Jane Sinner, herself. Told in first person through a series of journal entries, including screenplay-like dialogue, Jane has a dry cynicism that gives hard-boiled detective characters a run for their money. The publisher description compares Jane Sinner to Daria, which is perfect and also explains why I loved her so much.

So, I was definitely invested in her, but I also got so caught up in the stupid reality show! It’s relatively low-stakes since it is created by another student at the college on a shoestring budget (he is putting his 5-year-old VW Golf up as the final prize). Jane mostly signs up for the free housing.

The author does a really good job of including the mundane (but very humorous) details that really bring the characters and story to life. At the same time that Jane Sinner is trying to get her life back on the rails, the other contestants have their own motives, the producer and film crew have their ambitions, and the various staff and students of the college interact with the show in their own ways.

Basically everyone involved is flawed but also just so human that I ended up caring for all of them, even while they were all quite literally competing with each other.

The Dangerous Art of Blending In

By Angelo Surmelis

Blending_InI missed posting this in Pride Month, but this can just as easily be read for Gay Wrath Month instead! This is a semi-autobiographic coming-of-age story about a seventeen-year-old boy in the months after the summer he realized without a doubt he is gay. Coming from a very strict and orthodox Greek family, his domineering and abusive mother is very much not okay with it. Like, performing-an-exorcism not-okay.

Surmelis does a particularly good job of capturing how overwhelming large groups of people, particularly teenagers, can be, all talking over each other and shifting topics constantly, which is both an impressive literary feat and difficult to read. I was having minor anxiety while at the same time appreciating his skill.

Also, authentically, the protagonist describes himself as a geek and a loner, who doesn’t fit in, though he has several close friends, and an even wider circle of pleasant acquaintance from school. As someone who truly isolated herself in high school, this used to make me sort of resentful, but I think it actually just goes to show that most of us feel isolated and out of place in high school, regardless of our relative popularity.

The scenes of abuse are difficult to read, and thing that got to me in particular was how many adults saw and looked the other way. I remember that from My Friend Dahmer, too; that author wrote that there were so many adults that saw Dahmer’s decline and did nothing. Luckily, this book ends much more happily. I kept flipping to the author’s photo in the back to reassure myself that he looked so handsome, happy, and cared for.

Meet Cute

By various authors

Meet_CuteI’ve been having a bit of a reading crisis lately. I’ve started three different books and can’t seem to get past around the midway point. It’s not the books’ fault – I mean they aren’t stellar or anything, but there wasn’t any clear reason for my lack of interest. My best explanation is just that the news has been so inundating and depressing lately, and I can’t seem to stay off twitter, and I’m just all worn out.

So, I figured I’d recharge with a fluffy collection of short stories! Just a bunch of cute first romantic meetings sounds comforting, right? Well, I didn’t exactly get what I was looking for. They for-sure cover the meet part, but most of the authors seem to have forgotten the cute part. About half (okay, only a quarter of them, but it felt like half) the stories feature someone in mourning for a dead loved one, like only through grief are they vulnerable enough to accept love, and it is a real bummer.

On the plus side, they mixed it up with good diversity, in ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, so that’s something at least. Here’s some cold, hard data:

  • Short stories included in anthology: 14
  • Stories involving grief over the death of a loved one: 4
  • Stories featuring high-school bullying: 3
  • Stories with a main character older than 25: 0
  • Stories that my cranky old self actually thought were cute: 3.5*
    (none of the death or bullying ones)

*3 stories were straight-up super cute, and one had a very interesting premise, but the characters themselves weren’t super engaging.

The Hearts We Sold

By Emily Lloyd-Jones

Hearts_We_SoldThis was a tough read honestly. It is a moderately well-written YA fantasy novel with a great title and an interesting premise. Demons are real and will grant wishes for people in exchange for a body part. Small requests cost a finger or toe, and they go up to a hand or foot, to an arm or leg. The body parts appear to get taken in a supernaturally clean amputation, and there doesn’t seem to be much lasting physical pain to the process.

Our protagonist, Dee Moreno, is desperate for the money to pay the tuition for her boarding school, which is the only thing that keeps her out of her parents’ abusive home. It seems likely this would have cost her a foot, or an arm at most, but unfortunately for her, she meets a demon who transacts only in hearts. Which of course sounds appalling, and everyone is appalled, but here’s the thing: he takes the heart on a two-year contact, during which Dee must run errands for him. Admittedly, they are life-endangering, supernatural errands, but after two years she gets her heart back. Which sounds like a much better deal than losing even a toe for life.

She joins four other teenagers, who have also lent out their hearts to run this demon’s errands, and of course one of them is a quirky, sensitive artist boy. Dee spends a fair amount of time mulling over her heartless state, though it doesn’t seem to prevent her from falling for the obvious romantic lead, and I spend a fair amount of time mulling over how I’d probably lend out my heart for two years just for the favor of not having to feel anything for two years. Which made me feel old and sad, but is probably not ultimately the book’s fault.

(I do still fully blame the book for telling, but not showing, any real consequence to being ‘heartless.’ Every time the book emphasized the awfulness of it all, I kept thinking how angry I would have been to have given a limb without knowing that the heart was an option.)