Sunday, October 31, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Vampire Diaries: The Awakening and The Struggle'

The Book: The Vampire Diaries, Volume 1: The Awakening and The Struggle

The Author: L.J. Smith

How I Found It: I read a trilogy of L.J. Smith's when I was 14 and wasn't too huge a fan, but I heard nothing but positive reviews of the Vampire Diaries books. At that time, all of Smith's books are out of print, but now, due to the resurgence of YA paranormal fiction and the popularity of the TV series based on The Vampire Diaries (which I now have plans to watch), all of her books have been reprinted.

The Review: This book is comprised of two separate books, The Awakening and The Struggle. I will try to focus on the strengths and faults of each indiviudally, but the books are so cohesive--really, it's one big, continuous story--that I might just end up evaluating the book as a whole.

I have to start off this review by mentioning that these books have marked similarities to Twilight, although these were out in the 1990s and Twilight only came around in 2005. From what I've read, there was actually a lawsuit--not initiated by L.J. Smith, I think, who says she hasn't read them or seen the movies, but is aware of the similarities. Borders apparently refused to carry both the Twilight books and these books until the lawsuit was settled. I don't know how true this is since I read it on a message board and can't dig up more info, but there are plenty of lists with comparisons between the two out there. There are superficial plot similarities, but I found the characters different in some fundamental ways, and I personally found this story more engaging. (I will put it out there now that I am not a fan of Twilight, as I said in my second-ever blog post.)

The Awakening: Elena Gilbert has just returned to her hometown of Fell's Church, after the death of her parents in France. Living with her unmarried aunt and her baby sister, Elena is trying to readjust to life in her old community. She is the queen of the school and has a circle of friends willing to do whatever she wishes, and she can have any boy she wants--except the new one. His name is Stefan Salvatore, and he is impossibly gorgeous, mysteriously enchanting--and able to resist Elena. Elena makes a vow to have him, stopping at nothing until she gets what she wants.

The atmosphere in the town begins to change as a homeless man is attacked and partly drained of blood, and on the night of the Homecoming dance, one of Elena's classmates is attacked as well. This is the night that Stefan saves Elena from being raped by a drunken classmate, and this is the night when Stefan finally begins to let her in. They begin a relationship, though Stefan still attempts to hide his true nature and darker secrets from her.

I have to say that I liked this first part better than I was expecting. I have read extraordinarily mixed reviews about the series--on the one hand are the readers who read this series when it first came out and have fond memories of it; on the other are the readers of today, who seem to take issue with Elena's character and prefer the show. I will admit that although Elena is self-centered and unlikable until about halfway through the second volume, I found that this is one area where this series triumphed over Twilight, for me. Elena does not sit around and wait to be saved; when she wants something, she goes out and does it. Her friends, Meredith, Bonnie, and Matt, are actually there to support her and help her with these things; they are not simply window dressings in order to put more human characters in the story. Even if Elena sometimes needs help from the vampires in order to get what she needs, she almost always makes a valiant effort of her own first.

I also enjoyed this book a bit more than the second half because of one primary difference--Damon. If you've seen any summaries of the show at all, and even the summary on the back of this book, it plays up the love triangle aspect between Elena, Stefan, and Stefan's evil older brother, Damon. Damon actually is not a huge player in this first part; he comes in very late. Though every other reader and viewer seems to fawn over Damon, I found myself much more in love with Stefan and who he was trying to be for Elena. I guess I'm just not one for the bad boys! Stefan does lay on the tortured-hero a bit too thick at times, but he genuinely cares about Elena and has a reason for wanting to protect her from himself. I really enjoyed seeing their relationship (although Elena does fall in love rather too quickly for my tastes; I do so wish we could change this whole trend of "I see you and now I'm in love!" in YA).

This book sustains the action and mystery very well, as the events in Fell's Church become weirder and scarier. I'd advise that it's best to read the whole book all at once, as each book ends on a cliffhanger and it really is one continuous story. Which leads us into my as-spoiler-free-as-possible review of...

The Struggle: Damon is in Fell's Church and wreaking havoc among its citizens. Stefan has disappeared and so has Elena's diary, in which she wrote all about Stefan and his secret. After she and her friends find Stefan, pages with excerpts from Elena's diary are slowly posted around the school, and Elena finds herself desperate to retrieve it, while trying to do so without Stefan knowing.

The one person who can help her is the one person she does not want to help--Damon. Determined to possess her after what he views as Stefan's betrayal centuries ago, he offers Elena a deal: a few drops of her blood in return for him retrieving her diary. When Elena refuses, Damon works harder than ever to enter her mind and heart, trying to draw her away from Stefan. Time is running out before the contents of Elena's diary will be publicized all around town, and Elena finds herself struggling between Damon's offer and her loyalty to Stefan.

I felt that this half did an admirable job of reforming Elena's character from the self-centered ice queen into the girl who, while still harboring some selfish impulses, wants to be someone more. She is forced to recognize how selfish she has been and that she wants to be someone worthy of Stefan's ideals about honor and love. We don't see all that much of her relationship here, as it is more focused on her efforts to fight Damon and get him to leave her and her friends alone.

I have to admit that I really don't understand what makes certain readers attracted to Damon. I actually have to give Smith a lot of credit for creating such a polarizing character--some think he's just a bad boy waiting to be saved; I happen to think he's a complete monster. Not only is he responsible for murders and attacks over centuries (Stefan drinks only from animals, whereas Damon goes for human blood), he goes so far as to threaten to harm Elena's four-year-old sister if she doesn't obey him! He has no remorse and won't stop until he gets his way, and even if he comes off as over-the-top, his presence still felt genuinely threatening to Elena, Stefan, and the town at large.

So it's my opinion that what's going on between Elena, Stefan, and Damon isn't really a love triangle, because Stefan and Elena are the only ones in love! We never get any indication that Damon wants her for any reason other than to have her, period, and use that to screw over Stefan. He basically attempts to seduce Elena through mind games and manipulation, whereas Elena actively pursued Stefan and there is interest on both sides. I do feel that the marketing for this is somewhat misleading, as there is no love on Damon's side, just a really, really big sense of foreboding and menace.

All in all, though I know the series itself garners mixed opinions, it is worth it to give this one to teens looking for bigger books (the two books combined clock in at 494 pages) that have in interest in vampire fiction, and who might be interested to see an early example of the craze. For anyone concerned about romantic content, there's just some kissing that leads to blood-drinking (glossed over in short paragraphs, not described in great detail), although there's some pretty scary things going on, so I'd recommend this one to maybe 15 and up, unless you feel a younger child could handle it. Happy Halloween, everyone, and happy reading!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Sign of Four'

The Book: The Sign of Four (Sherlock Holmes, Book 2)

The Author: Arthur Conan Doyle

How I Found It: I made a resolution two years back to read all of the Holmes books in order, but never got beyond A Study in Scarlet. PBS' broadcasting of the excellent modern-day-set series Sherlock has set me back on the path of my resolution.

The Review: Writing a review of classic fiction is always intimidating to me. What am I supposed to say that hasn't already been said? But with my lack of reviewing lately, I figured that I'd put out there now that there will probably be a lot of Sherlock Holmes on this blog in the coming months. I'm slightly in love with the new Sherlock series and I really do want to read through the whole canon. A gradual project it may be, but I do hope to complete it.

It's pretty much a guarantee that everyone knows about Sherlock Holmes, and if you don't, I would quite like to visit the rock you have been living under and see how it is you get the Internet access necessary to view my blog. This novel is the second chronologically, and is the second of four Holmes novels written by Doyle (the rest were short story collections). I think it's a general opinion that the short story collections are better, but I found this book perfectly enjoyable and it made me look forward to reading the rest of the Holmes canon.

John Watson is still adjusting to living with his flatmate Sherlock Holmes. Holmes has many odd habits, among them the proclivity towards cocaine when he's bored (!) and his extraordinary powers of deductive reasoning. I really love the opening scene, in which he manages to tell Watson all about his deceased brother from the state of said brother's watch. (This scene was preserved in slightly altered form in the recent Downey Jr. film and the new Sherlock series, as well.) As Holmes and Watson settle in for another day, they receive a visit from Ms. Mary Morstan, a woman who has not seen her father in years and is now receiving strange packages with beautiful pearls inside. The person sending the pearls has requested a meeting with her, and Mary needs Holmes and Watson to accompany her. Perhaps her father is still alive. Perhaps there is a reason she is receiving these pearls in the mail. And perhaps the story is stranger than they could have imagined.

The story is filled with the usual fun elements of a detective story, and the elements I am sure pop up in numerous other Holmes stories--Watson, a notorious ladies' man, falls in love impossibly fast with Mary Morstan. The story behind the treasure trove and the culprit we eventually meet is convoluted and filled with exotic mayhem. Holmes uses various resources at his disposal, including his band of orphans, the Baker Street Irregulars, and an old dog named Toby. So in short, there's adventure, there's romance, and there's colorful characters (and treasure!).

I really enjoyed the story, and I was pleased to find it much easier to follow than I did when I first tried to read it two years back. I really enjoy reading the earlier Holmes stories, because it's funny to think of how great a friendship Holmes and Watson eventually have and then see it from the beginning, when Watson is constantly wondering about Holmes and how he functions. I liked to see their developing relationship here; you can already see the seeds of friendship. Watson cares about Holmes' cocaine usage; Holmes plays the violin in order to serenade him to sleep. The beginnings of such an iconic friendship are a real pleasure to read.

The mystery itself lost me a little bit, especially in the last chapter, in which a far more complicated explanation of the treasure's origin that I had been expecting popped up. Yep, we get that chapter-long confession scene where the villain spills out the entire story. (Although I can say that it wasn't nearly as bad this time as it was in A Study in Scarlet, in which that confession becomes a large chunk of the book.) The book itself was fairly short; I read it online (yay for the public domain!) and went through it quickly. The chapters move along at a fast pace and each one almost invariably ends on a cliffhanger.

So while the mystery itself ultimately wore out my brain, I really enjoyed reading the book for the strength of the character development and for the glimpse into Holmes and Watson's developing friendship. It was so much fun to read and I'm looking forward to moving forward with my little project. I'd recommend this one and the previous book, A Study in Scarlet, to anyone looking to see how Holmes began--I think it's best to read things in order, but that's just me! For anyone who doesn't know the start of the story and is curious, both books are definitely worth a shot. Also recommended for mystery lovers and people who haven't already read Holmes!

(The book itself can be found for free online here. PBS also posted the first episode of the modern-day Sherlock here.)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Soulless'

Many apologies for the lack of reviewing; I've had so much required reading lately that I haven't been able to do much reading for myself!

The Book: Soulless (Book One of The Parasol Protectorate)

The Author: Gail Carriger

How I Found It: General browsing around the Internet led to me finding several enthusiastic reviews.

The Review: Alexia Tarabotti lives in Victorian era England, but it is a Victorian era very different from our own. Supernaturals walk the streets--vampires and werewolves are acknowledged and accepted by humans. Because humans have been studying supernaturals through science, technology has made great advances, and there are all sorts of mechanical inventions around. Alexia, however, might be the most fascinating thing in her world: she is a preternatural, called a soul-sucker by most vampires. She has no soul herself, whereas supernaturals in her world have an excess of soul. A touch from Alexia neutralizes supernatural powers for as long as the contact lasts.

Alexia lives the life of a spinster, her preternatural abilities known only to the BUR, a sort of FBI for supernaturals. Her quiet life is interrupted when she is rudely attacked by a hungry vampire at a ball. Strangely, though all vampires should know about preternaturals, this one seems genuinely surprised by her abilities, and when things get out of hand, Alexia kills him. This lands her in hot water with a BUR agent--Lord Maccon, an Alpha werewolf with whom Alexia has never been on great terms--and the local vampires.

It soon comes to light that loner vampires and werewolves are disappearing and being replaced with these new vampires who have no creator in sight and who have no concept of supernatural etiquette. Most troubling of all, Alexia is being hunted by a wax-faced man who seems impervious to harm... all while Alexia is developing an entirely unsuitable attraction to Lord Maccon, who seems to like her right back. What's a girl to do?

I have to say that it took me a bit to warm up to this book. I had heard rave reviews about its humor, romance, and innovative premise, but the humor felt a little too tongue-in-cheek for me at first, like the author was trying so hard to make every little thing funny. But it's impossible not to be amused by the opening scene: Alexia fending off her vampire attacker with a woodern hairpin and a brass parasol, eventually crashing into a table of treacle tart before killing him. I eventually came to enjoy the humor and laugh at it, and this was a very amusing, fluffy-but-still-science-fictiony book, and the most fun I've had reading a book of this genre in a while.

There were some great things about this book, things that I loved, but there were also some noticeable flaws that should have been edited or addressed further. I really liked the book overall, however, and will certainly be reading the rest of the series (two more books as of now, and two more in the future) as well as anything else Carriger sees fit to put out, as long as anything else she puts out is as fun as this one!

The Good: I love, love, loved the romance between Alexia and Lord Maccon. It defies all social convention and scandalizes quite a few people, but their scenes were so enjoyable and so incredibly sexy. The scene where they first kiss is going to stay with me for quite some time; it was funny and entertaining but also very passionate and hot. I also really enjoyed the supporting cast, particularly Professor Lyall, the Beta werewolf who keeps Lord Maccon in check, and especially Lord Akeldama, Alexia's gay vampire friend. Carriger is willing to poke some fun at the genre, and she acknowledges this when she introduces Akeldama (by pointing out his habit of emphasizing certain words over others, saying that he "seem[s] to speak primarily in italics"). Of all the witty dialogue in the novel, I especially enjoyed Lord Akeldama's; once this series comes to an end, I would be more than willing to see one focusing on him!

So while the characters, dialogue, and plot were all fun and engaging, I bring us to The Bad. These are things that could have been expanded upon or edited down, or things that just bugged me. None of them quite detracted from my enjoyment of the book, but they did leave me saying, "Well, I wish she'd done something with that..."

* It is mentioned early on that having no soul leads to Alexia not having both taste and morals. She learns about fashionable trends from what she sees around her and goes from there, yet, as one reviewer pointed out, she constantly critiques her friend Ivy's taste in hats and accessories. How does she know these things are ugly, if she has no concept of taste? I was especially intrigued by the idea that she has no morals and thus has to learn them from philosophy books. I thought that this could be an intriguing character; if she has no morals, one would think she'd be willing to take action and kill without compunction if someone were after her. Instead, however, she goes by the rules of proper decorum, and there's not too much action where she is the subject. Carriger's statement that Alexia had no taste or morals seemed to have been forgotten entirely after she said it, and I wanted to see that explored more--especially the part about her having no morals.

* There are fairly frequent POV shifts from one character to another from paragraph to paragraph, and Carriger vacillates between calling characters by their last names and first names. Both can be incredibly annoying. POV shifts in particular irritate me. Either this is a third-person limited narration where we see things only from Alexia's POV, or it is a third-person omniscient where we see everyone's thoughts. We should not be spending most of our time into Alexia's head and then BAM! in Lord Maccon's for a paragraph. No, it should not work that way. Also, the constant switching of what name a person is called by got to be tiring. That is something an editor should be taking care of and making more consistent.

* Some details definitely do get repetitive. By the time I was past the first third of the novel, I'd had enough of hearing that Alexia was an Italian spinster with dark skin, an unsightly nose, and a curvy body. I understand that Alexia has been told these things her whole life and made to believe them, but geez, I just wanted the narration to stop repeating them.

All of these things were, as I said before, minor flaws that can be attributed to it being a first novel and just something that needed a little bit more editing. The book itself was wonderful and fun, and I've already recommended it to people. The American Library Association named this as an adult book that young adult audiences can truly enjoy, and I completely agree: anyone fifteen or up who's into fantasy and the Victorian era should most definitely give this one a shot (just be warned about some steamy kisses, anatomical references, and, eventually, a sex scene). I really enjoyed this book and I'm looking forward to reading more by Carriger. Highly recommended to young adult and adult fans of steampunk and science fiction/fantasy.

Monday, October 11, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Love the One You're With'

The Book: Love the One You're With

The Author: Emily Giffin

How I Found It: Same as Giffin's first three novels: the very emphatic recommendation of Shiri Appleby.

The Review: One hundred days after her wedding to her best friend's brother, Andy Graham, Ellen Dempsey runs into her ex in a New York City crosswalk. That ex is Leo, a moody journalist--Ellen's "one who got away." The relationship was a way for Ellen to fulfill her codependence, but impaired her artistic creativity, and to everyone but Ellen, he was not the one for her. She has tried her hardest to forget him, but that chance encounter brings it all back. She knows she shouldn't, but she meets up with him in a diner, and agrees to try and be friends again.

All around her, Ellen sees her family members doing the same thing. Andy, her husband, is friends with his ex-girlfriend; Margot, Andy's sister, has her ex-boyfriend doing yard work for her. If they can do it, why can't Ellen? She knows very well why she can't--Andy and Margot didn't feel nearly as much for those exes as Ellen did for Leo.

As much as Ellen wants to be faithful to her husband, she finds herself drawn in by Leo, who soon gets Ellen, who's a photographer, the assignment that could make her career. She can't refuse--but she can't tell her husband or Margot, neither of whom would understand, that she is back in contact with Leo. As she and Andy navigate married life and the decisions that come with it, Ellen makes a decision of her own--to rekindle her friendship with Leo, even if it could lead to dangerous territory.

I have to admit, I agree with what seems to be the general consensus--that this seemed to be the weakest of Giffin's books (at least, the ones I've read so far; I've yet to read her most recent, Heart of the Matter). I didn't, however, have the same misgivings everyone else seemed to. Most people found fault with Ellen as a character. I do have to admit that her continued attraction seemed somewhat implausible--Andy never does anything that would make the reader feel Ellen's behavior is justified, and we don't see enough of Ellen and Leo's initial relationship to really feel like Ellen's attraction to him is still warranted.

Besides all that, I never really felt that anything Ellen did with Leo was all that terrible. Giffin always tries to tackle the gray areas of certain subjects, where there are no easy answers, and that's sort of what happened here. What constitutes cheating? Does it have to be kissing or sex, or can it be something smaller, like keeping secrets or holding hands? Can you really be in love with someone when you can't stop thinking about the someone who got away? Even though I was supposed to believe Ellen was toeing the line and doing something bad, I just never felt that her relationship with Andy was being threatened. Maybe I can't see it since I'm not married or in a committed relationship, but that was my perspective.

Unlike most, I felt that Ellen, as a character, was realistic. She is formerly codependent and needy, but working to get past it. Still, she does have a tendency to let other people make decisions for her ever since her mother's death, which is the big shadow hanging over the novel. (I've read four of Giffin's five books so far and the protagonist has an issue with her mother in every one. It makes me wonder, is all I'm saying.) Ellen has never had that guidance, and finds herself constantly wondering about how things would have been if her mother had been around. Unlike in Giffin's previous novels, I never truly felt connected to any of the other characters besides Ellen. They all felt somewhat two-dimensional. The Southern belle, the mother-in-law, the perfect husband, the moody ex... everyone fit a little too neatly into those stereotypical categories.

Out of all Giffin's efforts that I've read so far, I think this one felt rushed and didn't delve deeply enough into the topic to suit me. I'd say it gets maybe 3 and 1/2 stars--I didn't like it as much as Something Borrowed and Something Blue, but I liked it less than Baby Proof (which I had mixed feelings about, but that was better written than this one, in my opinion). I'd definitely still recommend it for Giffin fans, but would advise newcomers to her work to start at the beginning and make a decision on whether or not they feel this one is worth their time based on their opinions of the others.