Friday, December 30, 2011

Born Wicked

The Brotherhood, a patriarchal religious group, rule Victorian era America with an iron fist. In the previous rule, witches were in power and women were revered, educated, and powerful. The Brotherhood is the opposite in every way: women are forced to be uneducated and oppressed or they are sent to prison or mental institutions. Cate Cahill and her sisters are considered eccentric because they don't involve themselves in the society and don't bother to try to fit in. Cate's first priority is to hide the fact that she and her sisters are all witches from the Brotherhood and keep them from using their powers frivolously. Her plan has worked so far, but soon she must either declare her intention to marry someone, become part of the Sisterhood (the weaker, feminine counterpart to the Brotherhood), or allow the Brotherhood to choose a husband for her. She despises the Sisterhood and would loathe any old man that would be chosen for her to marry. The boy she has feelings for is below her station and inappropriate to marry. With any of her choices, the separation from her sisters is inevitable, which puts them in danger and goes against her deceased mother's wishes for her to protect them. Can she conform to her society's rules and protect her sisters? Can she find happiness despite the control the Brotherhood has over her life?

Born Wicked is a wonderful blend of science fiction and fantasy that weaves together themes of love, duty, religion, magic, and feminism. It took me a little while to get acclimated to the changes in history. I had a clear idea of the historical events and climate in the real world, so it blew my mind a little that the alternate history was so complete and hugely world changing. The Victorian era is even more oppressive and misogynistic than it was in real life, which is no small feat. Not only can women not pursue any sort of education beyond the home-making arts at any age, but if they do anything subversive or offend the wrong person, they can be imprisoned in a mental institution or sent to a prison labor camp indefinitely. It isn't uncommon to be condemned without so much as the smallest opportunity to prove one's innocence. Women are expected to act vapid and shallow and have no other ambition than to serve their husband, who in turn may treat them as an object. They can't hold jobs or positions of power and alternative lifestyles are also not tolerated. This is a frightening society that is based enough on real events that it's complete believable.

On top of the well written setting and dystopia, I really connected with the characters. Cate and her sisters had their own interests and their own viewpoints about life. Cate is a strong character that puts the safety of her sisters above her own wants and needs. The pressure on her to choose a path that will inevitably end in both her separation from her family and her own unhappiness is astronomical, but she continues to soldier on. It's also nice to see a YA heroine think of someone else for a change instead of putting their own selfish needs in front of everyone and everything else. Her sisters had a few surprises up their sleeves, but I didn't like them as much as Cate because they didn't really appreciate the sacrifices she made for them and mostly treat her badly.

I was very impressed with Jessica Spotswood's debut novel Born Wicked. Despite my own misgivings about its genre, the book greatly surprised me and proved to be attention grabbing and interesting. It bypassed all the typical YA tropes in favor of rich story telling and realistic characters. I am very sad I read this so early because I will have to wait even longer to find out what happens next.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

** Born Wicked is released on February 7, 2012. Check it out here. **

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!!!!

Wishing you all a merry Christmas!!!!! :D

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Machine Man

Charles Neumann works as a mechanical engineer for Better Future. He has no friends or social skills to speak of, but he loves technology and machines. He feels as if a piece of him is missing when he misplaces his cell phone. In an effort to get his cell phone back while testing a polymer in his industrial lab, he loses his leg. At first, depression clouds his whole life. After meeting his physical therapist and beginning the process of making his own prosthetic legs, he starts to see his situation as one of opportunity. Instead of moping about losing a limb, he works on making a limb that surpasses his frail human ones. Then he takes it a step further and severs his other leg on purpose in order to replace it with the superior mechanical one. Everyone thinks he's trying to kill himself until he explains his reasoning to a Better Future representative. Then, provided with two teams of interns to help, Charles develops medical enhancements for everyday people and works to perfect the rest of his weak human body. Then the teams take his projects further than he thought possible and they spin out of control. Can he stop Better Future and still use his own technological advances to replace the inferior squishy bits of his body?

Machine Man is a great novel that satirizes our need and dependence on technology. It's pervasive in our society and we may not even recognize it because we are so entrenched in it. I see it every day in the people that can't ignore their phones through a two hour film or class or even in myself, when I feel weird if I haven't been online in a day. This dependence seems ridiculous when it is separated from us in the novel. Charles was preoccupied all day, thinking about possible places his phone could be. I think a lot of us have been there because it is such an essential part of lives that we don't even recognize as such until it's missing. Then, he even loses a leg because of his mindless need for his phone. In his case, it's so extreme that it even comes before his own safety and wellbeing. After he develops his legs and his team develops mechanic organs and such, he starts to "upgrade" parts of himself as we would get a new and better phone, laptop, or mp3 player, except for the large amount of pain involved. This transforms the medical industry from one of necessity for sick or disabled people to one of trendsetters and technophiles trying to outdo each other.

Charles is both a compelling and frustrating character. He's obviously very technically smart and a brilliant scientist, but he can be very dense about other things, like relationships and interacting with people in general. Lacking any understanding of emotions, he regards the people around him as alien. His world is seen through a very clinical eye that only takes into account logic and reason. His development through the course of the book is what kept me reading as he tries to reconcile love and emotion with his world view.

Machine Man is a fun satire on our addiction to technology. The characters are all unique and quirky in their own ways, making the plot unpredictable and exciting. I have enjoyed all of Max Barry's books (especially Jennifer Government and Syrup) and I can't wait to read what he writes next.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Monday, December 12, 2011


Carmen Bianchi is a famous virtuosic violin player stressing over the life changing Guarneri competition. This includes obsessively practicing (as usual) and checking out the competition, which looks a lot like stalking. She is caught stalking by her main rival Jeremy King and they begin their love/hate relationship. They start sniping at each other through emails, but when they finally meet in person, they treat each other like people and actually get along. The competition is usually in the forefront of Carmen's mind, but her budding friendship/romance with Jeremy pushes it aside. Everyone in her life except her stepfather just care about her success and would do anything to get her there. They are even accepting and even encouraging about her dangerous addiction to anti-anxiety drugs. As Carmen wrestles with who she should trust, the competition draws closer. Although Jeremy seems to be the only person in her life who cares about her, is it only a facade for trying to get her to throw the competition?

I was first drawn to Virtuosity because the focus is on music performance. There haven't been a lot of recent teen books about the subject. Some authors include it as a minor detail to flesh out characters, but they never return to it again. (I'm looking at you Hush, Hush.) The author is very experienced in the field, being a teen star violinist herself, so her characters and their conflicts feel authentic to me. In the novel, she captures the reasons why I didn't choose to go into music performance when chose my music major focus in college: the cut-throat attitudes, the competition taking over the performer's life, and especially making music a joyless endeavor. I play the flute because I enjoy it and if that enjoyment was taken away, I wouldn't want to do it anymore. Carmen no longer enjoys making music because there is so much riding on each individual performance and there is pressure on her from all sides.

The most interesting aspects beyond music are the way she is treated by the people in her life. Her stepfather is the only person who really cares about her as a person and does things with her that are fun and outside her work. Her mother is incredibly intense and doesn't even acknowledge that she is still a teenage girl. At first, she seems really caring about Carmen and has her best interests at heart, but as the book goes on, it's clear that she just cares about her success and the money she brings. What shocked me the most was her lack of confidence in Carmen and her encouragement of Carmen's dependence on the anti-anxiety medication. Her teacher is horrible and doesn't care about her emotions or her wellbeing. Jeremy is her only real friend, but she is constantly struggling with her opinion of his motivations. I was a little disappointed that their relationship was the focus of the novel instead of Carmen's own personal journey. Most teen books focus on some sort of romance, but it would be nice to see more that don't.

Overall, I enjoyed Virtuosity. It provided a realistic look into the music performance industry. The descriptions of the performances were beautifully written. I would love to read whatever Jessica Martinez comes out with next.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

I'm Not Dead

Apologies for not posting since Thanksgiving. Finals week is next week and I'm drowning in last minute projects. I won't be posting anything until after next week, but I'm still alive! Then I can finally get back to reading and reviewing like usual. :)