Book Review: Shifters #1 – Stray

Title: Stray
Author: Rachel Vincent
Year of Publication: 2007
Series: Shifters
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.81
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 2

stray
I find this cover disturbing rather than alluring. If you have a strong female protagonist, the least you can do is show her face.

SPOILERS

Plot Description: Faythe Sanders is a female werecat and a rebel. Her happy go lucky days at college come to an end when it becomes known that there’s a rogue werecat out there kidnapping tabbies – female werecats. Faythe’s family bring her home to keep her safe, but she ends up running into the kidnappers anyway, leaving it up to her to save herself and her cousin.

Despite my Goodreads rating of 2/5, this will not be a Negative Review. There will, however, be a lot of ranting. Brace yourselves, please.

Stray had me extremely conflicted. I think it had something to do with the combination of an extremely repressive and patriarchal environment, a spirited, rebellious and irrepressible female protagonist, and the fact that I tend to react very violently even towards depictions of paternalism. This last is due to my personal experiences, which have acted as a trigger for me more than once in the course of reading and reviewing novels in the Young Adult fiction category.

So it should come as no surprise that I spent the first half of this novel swearing loudly at it.

At first I thought Stray was one of those novels that you reject out of hand and warn other readers away from. But then I couldn’t stop reading until I’d finished Alpha, book six in this series. Stray – and the Shifters series – is a mixed bag. It has its good points. And it has bad points as well. And not in a salvageable, let’s close our eyes and we can forget all about it kind of way. It’s actually so bad that the bad aspects of it tend to thoroughly negate any good the book might have done.

But let’s start at the beginning. Faythe Sanders is the coolest kind of rebel – she fought her family for her right to attend college, instead of staying home like a good little tabby and fulfilling her life’s objective – marry a competent Alpha-in-training and start makin’ babies.

This hard won right, sadly enough, is taken away right at the beginning of Stray, when Faythe is ordered to come home because there seems to be a kidnapper who’s targeting tabbies on the loose. Now, girl-nappers would be a problem in any scenario you could imagine, but the reason they’re such a problem is that there are only eight – EIGHT! – tabbies of baby making age in all of North America at the moment. This fact is drilled into our heads time and time again, until you’re just about ready to smash a screwdriver into the head of the next person to mention the 4:1 tom to tabby ratio. The low frequency of female werecats being born gives the werecat population the perfect reason to turn their society into an ultra patriarchal hellhole. The women are over-protected and severely sheltered because the Prides are matrilineal yet patriarchal. That is to say, control of a Pride can only pass through the Pride’s (sole) daughter, but that actual control goes to the guy who marries her to become the Alpha. Losing your daughter – or not having one – means losing control of your territory and seeing it pass to another Alpha or Alphas after your death (or deposition). This is turn means the women only marry Alphas, and that they keep having babies until they produce a female heir. The whole thing is so f#$%d up that I’d be shocked, except for the fact that I have seen similar (patriarchal and patrilineal) systems up close.

Here marks the start of the paternalism rant. Faythe’s dad is the Alpha of her Pride, and she’s the heir. Her father’s concern for her is doubly the function of his role as a dad, as well as his role as the Alpha of his Pride. Now, even if someone’s daughter was in actual danger, I wouldn’t be very comfortable with her parents using actual force to bring her home. And yet that’s exactly what happens right in the second chapter.

Faythe is attacked by one of the kidnappers before she even realizes there’s a kidnapping plot afoot. She breaks the guy’s nose and sends him on his way. It is just as she’s done with the rogue werecat that Marc appears on the scene. Marc Ramos is Faythe’s father’s second in command – and her ex. Seriously, she left him at the altar – and this was BEFORE she went to college. Now you know I haven’t been exaggerating the stay home, get married, have kids rigmarole.

Faythe’s college education was something she fought tooth and nail for, and it doesn’t come without strings attached. Her father has always ensured that there’s at least one of his enforcers – mostly one of her many brothers or their friends – skulking around her college campus, ensuring her safety. Which makes sense, I guess, in light of the kidnappings. But he’s always been careful to keep Marc out of the way, knowing how she feels about Marc.

How does she feel about Marc?

Faythe – and eventually the reader – has a love-hate relationship with Marc. He was her high school boyfriend and prom date. He was her fiance, once upon a time. Clearly, she must have had strong feelings for him. And she does. I cannot, however, for the world of me, fathom why.

Marc Ramos is hypermasculine and uber-aggressive. He has a jealous streak five miles wide, and is extremely possessive of her. Since their break up, Marc hasn’t dated anyone else. He hasn’t even tried to move on. He’s, in my opinion, WEIRD.

AND CREEPY.

Seriously, I get that your ex boyfriend being able to smell the fact that you had sex with your current boyfriend just from being around your bed is one of the occupational hazards of a story about werecats. But if your ex is going to get so angry that you’re borderline afraid of what would happen if he were to sniff your secrets out…

Run, girl. Run.

Because that’s not one of the occupational hazards of a story about werecats, although the author does try to present it that way. Faythe believes that Marc’s ugly possessiveness and jealousy stem from his feline nature. Cats are territorial, after all. Male cats would fight each other for control over the females. In fact, male cats in the wild have been known to starve females in their territory in an effort to get the females to mate with them. One documentary I once watched showed a starving female cat (I think it was a leopard) unwilling to mate with the aggressor males because she already had a litter – cubs who would be killed by those males in order to ensure their own progeny a fighting chance.

So yes, cats are wild. But a werecat isn’t just feline – he’s also human. He has a brain, doesn’t he? Use it, Marc. USE YOUR F****G BRAIN! She’s not your f****g property.

Despite the frequency with which I shouted this message at Marc Ramos throughout the series, he refused to get it. And this is the big failure in the Shifters series. This guy – Marc Ramos.

The books are never completely able to explain Faythe’s love for Marc. I mean, sure, he’s a stand up guy as long as he’s secure in his relationship with Faythe. He doesn’t suffer from Christian Grey Syndrome (aside from the emotional abuse) – he doesn’t see her as weak or pathetic or responsible for the bad things that happen to her. He respects her abilities as a fighter and a leader. He respects her as alpha. Good. Good for him. But he’s an obnoxious ass, and nothing can change that.

It’s weird and f-d up, because Marc is crazy chivalrous. He’d never hit a woman. However, he has no issues whatsoever with breaking every bone in the body of any tomcat that dares touch her.  If something bad happens to her, he finds someone to blame, and punishes them in brutal fashion.

So here’s the deal with good boyfriends. If they’re sweet and loving and caring and affectionate AS LONG AS they’re getting what they want, but they’re COMPLETE assholes the minute they’re denied their ‘rightful possession’ – i.e. you – then they’re not the one, honey. THEY’RE SO NOT THE ONE.

So why does Faythe love him? Is it because her father and her brothers and her mother and MARC narrowed her horizons for her? Because they convinced her that the Pride was her whole life and Marc was her only plausible future?

Faythe herself isn’t perfect. A lot of GR reviewers have pointed out her penchant for ill timed ‘tantrums’. When people around you – and you yourself – are in danger, that is not the time to affirm your independence, they say. Survive first, then be independent. The same people also point out that despite her repeated demands for freedom, she’s had no problem living on her dad’s money for five years.
[There was also that one reviewer who was appalled that Faythe was rebelling against “Family and Responsibility” and called Faythe a ‘cheating whore’, but I’ll discount her.]

Here’s the thing about those reviewers: I don’t think any of them have ever experienced actual loss of freedom. I doubt they know what it means to be emotionally brainwashed from birth, to be financially hobbled, and actually, physically restrained from leaving your house. I don’t think they know how that feels.

It feels like dying. It feels like being smothered to death or buried alive. For those people calling Faythe ‘daddy’s spoilt little princess’, please allow me to remind you that her Daddy locked her in A CAGE. For wanting to go to college. For not wanting to be a teen bride.

A CAGE.

She’s not a brat, she’s a survivor of abuse. She’s not throwing a ‘tantrum’, she’s desperately and instinctively reacting to remembered – and potential – trauma. To someone like that, independence is paramount. Yes, even above her life.

Stray is definitely a conflicting read. I get the feeling that the wildcats are super patriarchal because maybe Rachel Vincent wanted to stage her own version of a feminist revolution. I get that tabbies are rare and thus all those idiotic toms tend to treat them like an endangered resource – locking them up. I get that Faythe has to fight the system and prove herself the best – which she actually (eventually) does. But having her date someone like Marc ruins all of that, which I deeply regret.

Next: Shifters #2 – Rogue

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Book Review: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Title: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda
Author: Becky Albertalli
Series: N/A
#: N/A
Year of Publication: 2015
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.3
Goodreads Rating (Mine):
5

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Plot Summary: A slice of life novel told in the first person narrative, centering around Simon Spier, a sixteen year old gay boy who’s dealing with coming out, with crushing on a boy he’s never met in real life, and the Defaults in our lives.

“It’s a weirdly subtle conversation. I almost don’t realize I’m being blackmailed.”

This is a great way to start a book. It has all the classic hallmarks of a very good opener, and it sucked me in instantly.

A successful first person narrative needs an engaging protagonist who’s likable on at least a few levels. Simon is that protagonist, and he’s likable on a whole bunch of levels.

As a closeted gay boy in a not particularly liberal high school, Simon keeps his crushes a secret – especially his ongoing non-relationship with an anonymous batchmate identified only as ‘Blue’. As a fan of unconventional narrative devices, I’m especially delighted every time an author successfully conveys at least part of a story in emails or via instant messaging. There’s so much to discover in these narratives – especially in emails: the screen names and email ids used, the constantly changing subject line, the use – or non use – of contemporary internet slang, and the things we choose to put into email form. These are all subtle hints about the characters, left around like Easter Eggs for the readers to hunt around and find.

Simon swears a lot, and it’s not weird or crude, but what I would designate ‘artful use of language’ to ‘create quite the effect’.

“What are you trying to say?” I ask.
“Nothing. Look, Spier, I don’t have a problem with it. It’s just not that big of a deal.”
Except it’s a little bit of a disaster, actually. Or possibly an epic fuckstorm of a disaster, depending on whether Martin can keep his mouth shut.

As the book proceeds, Simon keeps trying – unsuccessfully – to unearth Blue’s identity. This brings me to one of the book’s many beautiful truths – that we always imagine someone to be who we want them to be. Simon wrongly assumes Blue is a guy he’s already crushing on, something which Blue picks up on, and seems slightly miffed about. On the other hand, Blue points out that he was able to guess Simon’s identity correctly because he was already crushing on Simon.

And when Simon’s crush hints at liking him, Simon is torn. After all, Blue is proving reluctant to reveal his identity or meet in real life, and his crush is right there – tangible, real, and reciprocating. Ultimately however, there’s no running or hiding from the very real love into which Simon and Blue have fallen.

The romance is well crafted, drawing the reader in and getting them to fall in love with both Simon and Blue. The scene where they meet for the first time is especially lovely, and I think I’m not wrong in suggesting that even the most astute of guessers would feel their worlds tilt a little before righting itself. I did guess Blue’s identity right, but the thrill of the mystery unraveled had me in its grasp for a moment or two before I could indulge in exultant fist pumping.

Simon v. THSA is also a wonderful coming-of-age novel. Simon getting drunk for the first time, Simon coming home drunk and freaking his parents out, Simon drunk texting. It’s all portrayed extremely realistically, as I can attest to from my own not-so-long-ago teenage years. Drunk Simon, might I add, is a riot, especially thanks to his tendency to go all Social Justice Warrior.

Here’s Simon engaging in an intellectual discussion on race:

“Leah, did you know you have a really Irish face?”
She looks at me. “What?”
“You guys know what I mean. Like an Irish face. Are you Irish?”
“Um, not as far as I know.”
Abby laughs.
“My ancestors are Scottish,” someone says. I look up, and it’s Martin Addison wearing bunny ears.
“Yeah, exactly,” I say as Martin sits beside Abby, close but not too close. “Okay, and it’s so weird, right, because we have all these ancestors from all over the world, and here we are in Garrett’s living room, and Martin’s ancestors are from Scotland, and I’m sorry, but Leah’s are totally from Ireland.”
“If you say so.”
“And Nick’s are from Israel.”
“Israel?” says Nick, fingers still sliding all over the frets of the guitar. “They’re from Russia.”
So I guess you learn something new every day, because I really thought Jewish people came from Israel.
“Okay, well, I’m English and German, and Abby’s, you know . . .” Oh God, I don’t know anything about Africa, and I don’t know if that makes me racist.
“West African. I think.”
“Exactly. I mean, it’s just the randomness of it. How did we all end up here?”
“Slavery, in my case,” Abby says.
And fucking fuck. I need to shut up. I needed to shut up about five minutes ago.
The stereo kicks back in again.

The book, as evidenced by the above passage, is full of humour. And the humour isn’t in your face – it’s casual and laid back, and jumps out at you when you least expect it. Like here:

It’s chilly and unnaturally quiet—if Abby weren’t with me, I would have to drown out the silence with music. It feels like we’re the last survivors of a zombie apocalypse. Wonder Woman and a gay dementor. It doesn’t bode well for the survival of the species.

I couldn’t explain how funny this book is, unless I chose to quote unquote like, 85% of the book. It’s a MUST-READ. Just for the humour. Oh, Simon. He’s downright freaking HILARIOUS.

And here he is, discussing coming out with Blue:

Simon: As a side note, don’t you think everyone should have to come out? Why is straight the default? Everyone should have to declare one way or another, and it should be this big awkward thing whether you’re straight, gay, bi, or whatever. I’m just saying.

Blue: It is definitely annoying that straight (and white, for that matter) is the default, and that the only people who have to think about their identity are the ones who don’t fit that mold. Straight people really should have to come out, and the more awkward it is, the better. Awkwardness should be a requirement. I guess this is sort of our version of the Homosexual Agenda?

Simon: The Homosexual Agenda? I don’t know. I think it’s more like the Homo Sapiens Agenda. That’s really the point, right?

And there you are. Challenging the Defaults. The pure core of intersectionality. The heart of this book.

Simon v. THSA is that one of a kind YA Fiction novel that makes you want to run through the streets, raving about the genre and the good it does in the world. It’s that book you’ll keep going back to, over and over again, because it keeps you laughing from start to finish. It’s that romance that turns even the most hard hearted of cynics all gooey and giggly. It’s the book that makes you believe in love and in the spring of youthful innocence again.

Simon v. The Homo Sapiens Agenda: Proudly carrying on the torch first lit by Harry Potter and staunchly carried forward by Perks of Being A Wallflower before it – at least as far as my reading list is concerned.

Next: Shifters #1 – Stray

Book Review: Bibliophile Mystery #2 – If Books Could Kill

Book Title: If Books Could Kill
Author: Kate Carlisle
Year of Publication: 2010
Series: Bibliophile Mystery
#: 2
DNF? Yes
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.9
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 1

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Note: This is the first Negative Review I’m writing for this blog. ‘Negative Review’ is a label I will be reserving for DNF (Did Not Finish) books, and other books that receive a Goodreads rating of 1 or 2 from me. For such books, I also plan on maintaining a Sin Count, because just as some books deserve to be held up as examples and recommended to everybody, so are there books that the reading public deserves to be warned away from. 

Plot Description: Brooklyn Wainwright is a professional book restorer who tends to get mixed up in mysteries involving books. Derek Stone is the charming and handsome detective who tries to solve those mysteries. In If Books Could Kill, Brooklyn is given a very rare book that could potentially anger the British Royal Family and asked to authenticate it. Shortly after she receives the book, the guy who gave it to her – Kyle, an ex of hers – ends up dead. She wonders whether the book is responsible for Kyle’s death.

So I didn’t finish this book. Which might be perceived as strange, because it has a great opening paragraph:

If my life were a book, I would have masking tape holding my hinges together. My pages would be loose, my edges tattered and my boards exposed, the front flyleaf torn and the leather mottled and moth-eaten. I’d have to take myself apart and put myself back together, as any good book restoration expert would do.

I haven’t gotten very far in the book, which must be why I don’t know what happened to Brooklyn – can I call her BW? – to make her feel this way about herself. She’s a successful young woman, one of the topmost experts in her field, and she’s recently come into a lot of money. While it’s true that she’s grieving, has her mentor’s death affected her so badly that her ‘pages are loose, edges tattered and boards exposed &c. &c.’?

Ridiculous rhetorical questions aside, let’s move onto the story. Not having read the previous book in this series, I have to take other GR reviewers at their word on the fact that the cast of the previous book have simply been imported into this one. On purportedly lazy pretexts. Since I don’t have this on my own authority, I’m going to give this potential Sin a pass.

“Aye, you do, love. And for that, the [Indian Pale Ale’s] on the house.” 

She nodded judiciously. “Of course it’s jet lag if you say so.” Her eyes narrowed as she studied me. “But my woman’s intuition thinks ’tis a man you’re mulling over.”

Her eyes twinkled gaily. “Aye, I knew it.” She tapped the side of her head. “Can’t another woman tell when one of her ilk is suffering, then? And isn’t it always about a man. Damn their skins!”

“Haud yer wheesht!” she yelled over her shoulder, then smiled sweetly at me. “Enjoy your luncheon and take good care.” She turned and marched to the bar, where she bared her teeth at the burly bartender as she collected a tray of drinks.
I wasn’t an expert in the Scottish dialect, but I believed she’d just suggested to her boss that he shove a sock in his piehole.

Do the Scottish actually talk like that? I don’t know. Can’t comment.

The first character we meet is Helen Chin, one of BW’s friends.

Helen Chin grinned as she glided confidently through the bar, her glossy black hair cut in a short, sassy bob. She’d always been demure and soft-spoken, a brilliant, petite Asian woman with lustrous long hair and a shy smile. The haircut and the confidence were major changes since the last time I saw her.

Having to tell your readers that a character is doing something ‘confidently’ gives, in my opinion, the opposite impression. (Sins: 1)

I took a closer look at her, checking out the new hairstyle, her pretty red jacket, black pants and shiny black shoes. “You look amazing, and you’ve lost weight. Are you moonlighting as a supermodel?”

Commenting on someone’s weight gain or loss is not as much of a compliment as people would have you believe. (2)

[Yes, I know I’m being nitpicky, but these things didn’t actually bother me until I began to sense a pattern.]

Helen was right. I’d never liked Martin Warrington, and I wasn’t the only one. When she’d announced her engagement in Lyon, I hadn’t understood how such a smart woman could marry such an annoying man. Then I figured, with my own stellar record of bad choices and broken engagements, I was hardly one to criticize. 
At the time, I was more sorry for myself than for her, because I knew we wouldn’t be able to be friends once she married Martin. He didn’t like me any more than I liked him, probably because I’d tried to talk Helen out of marrying him and he’d caught wind of it.

Neither of these ladies are endearing themselves to me. Helen goes ahead and marries an ass, and BW feels bad for selfish reasons. Okay.

“Martin didn’t like me attending the book fairs.” She shook her head in irritation. “He said I flirted too much.”

Why would anyone put up with this? (3)

[Martin’s] smile disappeared as he confronted Helen. “I told you I’d meet you on the conference level.”
“And I told you I’d try to make it but probably wouldn’t be able to,” Helen said defiantly. (emphasis mine)
“We have to talk now.” He pushed up the sleeves of his linen jacket.
“I’m off to meet a client,” she said as she glanced at her wristwatch. “I can try to see you at two thirty.”

If you still need to be ‘defiant’ towards your soon-to-be-ex husband, that just implies that I was right with my comment earlier about the fake confidence. (4)
BW then has a run in with another figure from the industry – a Perry McDougal – who’s rude and pompous and has no issues with cutting ahead of a queue. He also doesn’t seem to have any problem with calling random women “silly wench” and “crazed bitch” when they call him out on his rudeness. Now, I know people like this exist out here in the real world. Yes, they can be terribly sexist, arrogant and entitled. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that a woman like BW, who is probably capable of recognizing said sexist entitlement, fails to call him out on it. (5) Indeed, I’m not even sure she does recognize the sexism, because she explains his behaviour as being a function of his narcissism and self importance. (6) And she’s constantly apologetic about her rather weak attempts at standing up for herself. (7)
Protagonist frightens herself with idea of turning into crazy-old-spinster trope. (8)
Protagonist tells herself standing up for herself isn’t such a bad thing. (8-0.5=7.5)

Without warning I was grabbed from behind, lifted off the ground and twirled around.
I screamed and swore loudly at my assailant. Then I realized who it was and swore even more.
“Despite that mouth of yours, you’re more beautiful than ever,” he said.
“Kyle McVee, you idiot!” I cried, and hugged him hard.
“Ah, you’ve missed me,” he crowed as he held me snugly in his arms.
“No, I didn’t miss you,” I said, burying my face in the crook of his delicious-smelling neck. “You’re a cad and a rat fink, remember? The Bad Boy Bookseller of Belgravia. I curse your name every morning.”
“I love you, too, my sweet,” he said with a laugh. “Besides, I’ve mellowed.”

Overkill much? (8.5) And whoa. Why would you be on friendly terms with someone with such little regard for personal space? (9.5)
Guy seems to think being foul mouthed should detract from a woman’s beauty. (10.5)

“Oh, stop it.” I stood back and looked at the man who’d broken my heart three-or was it four?-years ago. My breath almost caught as I stared.

This breath-catching business comes up a lot – usually every time BW looks at a good looking guy. It’s an annoying stereotype. Can I offer you an inhaler, Brooklyn darling? (11.5)

I straightened my shirt and jacket and tried to find some trace of decorum, but it was useless. My cheeks heated up at his blatant perusal. I tried to remind myself that if I’d been so darling, why had he felt so compelled to cheat on me more than once during the six months we dated while I lived in London? A simple question.
I knew the answer: He couldn’t help himself.

Female protagonist who feels extremely self conscious and gets flustered every time a good looking guy checks her out. I know this is supposed to convey the power in the guy’s stare, but honestly, she seems to respond to every attractive guy the same way (case in point: Derek Stone later in the novel). (12.5)
(Rich) boys will be (rich) boys stereotype. That’s just plain lazy, BW. (13.5)
Protagonist blames self for feeling hurt by the cheating ways of the cheater. (14.5)
Charming Cheater (CC) condescendingly encourages protagonist to consume more alcohol when she’s clearly not in the mood. (15.5) Protagonist consumes alcohol even though she’s not in the mood because it’s what she thinks she’s supposed to do. (16.5)
CC is condescendingly impressed when BW proves to be good at her job, even though he purportedly came to her because of her expertise. (17.5) CC reveals that BW wasn’t his first choice for the job, thus making his condescending approval from a moment ago self explanatory. (18.5)
Usage of crude terms that rob the female party of her agency to describe a consensual sexual relationship (“scottish bad boy diddling the english rose”). (19.5)
Giant plot hole if the reason people are getting killed is because either the British royal family or Robert Burns fans don’t want bad PR. (20.5)
Rampant fatphobia. (21.5)

Okay, I’m going to stop now. There’s no point, really.

Derek Stone seems to suffer from Christian Grey Syndrome, and BW is a veritable Anastasia Steele – except Ana wasn’t prone to fainting fits. I have an uncontrollable urge to slap Brooklyn Wainwright, and I’ve been swearing non stop at the book for a couple of hours now. The protagonist and her female friends are childish, immature and downright pathetic. They show an alarming proclivity for bitchiness, shrill screaming, and fainting. I’m glad I didn’t invent a drinking game based on every time one of these idiots faints. None of the ridiculously hot men in the book cry, or otherwise show emotion or vulnerability. Derek keeps assuming that every time Brooklyn gets hurt or is otherwise in danger, it’s somehow her fault. (And this happens a lot.) Now where have I heard that before?

Oh that’s right. Twilight.

A terrible book, and if this one’s anything to go by, the preceding book in the series is bound to be awful as well.

Sin Count: 21.5 (and counting)

Next: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Book Review: #Scandal by Sarah Ockler

Book Title: #scandal
Author: 
Sarah Ockler
Year of Publication: 2014
Series: N/A
#: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.56
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

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Plot Summary: Lucy Vacarro’s phone is stolen on prom night and a bunch of inappropriate pictures uploaded to her Facebook account through it. All the subjects in the pictures – along with the rest of the school – is pissed at her, and resort to an extremely dirty bullying campaign for revenge. The novel follows her as she tries to figure out who did that, tries to deal with the fall out, and tries to repair her relationship with her best friend Ellie, while simultaneously trying to deal with her feelings for Cole, Ellie’s ex boyfriend.

I picked #scandal rather randomly from a reading list without even bothering to look at the blurb. And I’m glad I did that, because blurbs often give you a mini summary that is supposed to give you pre-conceived notions about a book. And #scandal isn’t a book you can enjoy if you have pre-conceived notions about it. This is also possibly because the blurb gives off an obnoxious vibe.

Lucy Vacarro learned how to avoid the spotlight by observing celebrity Jayla Heart blah blah blah.

Stop a moment, blurb writer. Let Lucy tell me what she wants to avoid and how she does that.

#scandal is deliciously subtle in a lot of ways. One thing I’ve come to appreciate about YA fiction is the emerging diversity trend. I’m aware that there are people who mock this trend as a jumping-on-the-liberal-bandwagon kind of thing, but it’s necessary. Even if authors are doing it now because everyone else seems to be doing it, that’s a GOOD thing. Issues of race, sexuality and disability need to be visible, and not in a put ’em on a pedestal and stare at ’em kind of way. These issues need to be acknowledged as very real parts of the very real life we live.

Take Asher, the head of (E)VIL – a school society dedicated to fighting ‘vanity based technology and social networking’. Asher is a high school kid in a wheelchair, something that wasn’t immediately obvious to me because there were no neon stickers pointing to his character going “HEY THIS GUY IS DISABLED TAKE NOTE”. I happen to be the worst kind of speed reader – I skim through everything. (I really want to know what happens next, and it makes re-reads so much fun). So when something’s not pointed out to me in neon stickers and capslock, I slot those characters into the default – into all of our default, because let’s be honest, we all do it.

So Asher Holloway was white, straight, and walked on two legs, as far as I was concerned, until I figured it out halfway into the book. And I like that, because the book made me challenge my shameful assumptions, reminded me that I’m making an ASS out of UMPTION, whoever Umption might be. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that little joke, but you’re going to have to read the book to get it.) Like with Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, the reader is forced to confront intersectionality.

The major theme of this book is obviously not intersectionality, but cyber bullying. Now, I’m going to have to take the author’s word for it that American high schools work the way they’ve been portrayed in the book. That said, from all of my reading of troubling news reports on high school rapes and cyber bullying in the US of A, it does seem an at least slightly relevant portrayal. (Steubenville, anyone?)

I read a lot of reviews on GR that opined that the book hadn’t taken the issue of cyber bullying seriously. I don’t see how, to be honest. It portrayed an issue that becomes slightly meta, because everyone involved is simultaneously both victim and perpetrator. And not only does #scandal manage to get its anti-bullying message out loud and clear (mostly in the form of Asher Holloway and the rest of (E)VIL telling people it’s not okay), it also shows you how the average strong minded teenager might realistically react to nonsense being thrown at them. Lucy Vacarro is no one-dimensional heroine in the sense that she doesn’t stick to just (a) being stoic and ignoring the haters, (b) breaking down and crying all the time, or (c) getting angry and yelling at everyone. In fact, she does ALL THREE, because all three are legitimate responses that might occur to the average human being. No one is stoic through and through. No one is emo through and through either.

While maintaining that she didn’t post those pictures, Lucy also refrains from pointing fingers until she had hard proof – which turned out to be a good thing, because her guesses as to the culprit were all wrong. And despite her constantly putting herself down as a judgmental bitch, – and before you ask, yes, she is quite judgmental in a non malicious kind of way – it’s also ultimately clear that Lucy’s a very good person at heart.

The romantic aspect of the book was kind of a drag for me, but I don’t think that was the author’s fault. I just happened to be really into the whole mystery solving and fighting of social injustice aspects of the story. So I kinda got annoyed every time all the sleuthing was interrupted just so Lucy and Cole could mouth sweet nothings at each other or make out a little bit.

I noticed one GR reviewer state that Cole is definitely her New Literary Boyfriend. In my opinion, Cole’s not literary boyfriend material because we don’t really know anything about Cole except that he has a penchant for making witty remarks. You know who is literary boyfriend material though? Asher Holloway, that’s who. [Yes, that guy’s made a major impression on me. If you read the book, I’m ninety five percent sure you’ll like him too.]

In fact, with the exception of Cole, practically all the guys who’ve been introduced were awesome. Asher. Franklin, the editor of the largely unread school newspaper. John, the dude who’s going to be America’s second black president. 420 aka Lucas, school stoner and Dorito expert. I mean, Cole’s great, but he’s terribly boring and also he puts his foot in his mouth a lot.

The book touches on a number of social issues without pushing them in your face. Ellie has two awesome moms, actress and school alum Jayla Heart is forever being punished by the tabloids, Lucy (while still a minor) was hit on by an older dude at her sister’s party and then insulted for rejecting him… All issues that would merit 2000 word posts on social justice, but the book gets the message across all the same by not engaging directly with them. Instead, the reader is left with a niggling irritation that’s gotten under your skin, and which makes you examine yourself AND the story so you can figure out why you’re bothered by it.

#scandal is a great light read, especially for those who prefer YA fiction. It’s also a good take on important and relevant issues, it’s realistic, and none of its characters can be accused of being truly uni-dimensional. In short, it’s a great way to pass a few hours without having to numb your mind completely.

Next: Bibliophile Mystery #2 – If Books Could Kill by Kate Carlisle

Book Review: Vampire Academy #6 – Last Sacrifice

Title: Last Sacrifice
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2010
Series: Vampire Academy
#: 6
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.46
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

Last Sacrifice

Beware: The Inevitable… SPOILERS!

Last Sacrifice is the Fast and the Furious and Die Hard 2: Die Harder all rolled into one of the VA series. And I’m not just saying that because of the inordinate amounts of C4 explosive in this book.

In Last Sacrifice, the gang goes from under-the-radar hijinks to an IN-YOUR-FACE, GOVERNMENT level of hijinks. The Moroi government should really have known better than to put Abe Mazur’s daughter in jail and try her for a capital crime. Just saying.

Just as in Blood Promise, the books splits itself to follow two storylines, once again through that unique narrative device of having Rose see through Lissa’s eyes. It begins where Spirit Bound left off – with Rose in jail. Thankfully she has all the likely allies, as well as a few unlikely ones now. The least likely of these allies is the ghost of the very person she’s been accused of murdering – Queen Tatiana Ivashkov.

The first order of business is – what else? – a prison break. Again. Then again, if these guys could break into Tarasov (aka Most High Security Vampire Prison Ever) and get Victor Dashkov (aka Former Villain of Book No. 1) out, then breaking into the local jail and breaking Rose out should be no problem. And it isn’t.

The jail break and subsequent escape puts Rose back in Dimitri’s company, thus allowing for a slow healing of their relationship. They meet up with Sydney Sage again – she’s been popping in and out of the storyline ever since Blood Promise – and Abe intends for them to lie low while he, Lissa and the rest of the gang work their way through the whodunit back at court.

Rose, on the other hand, takes this time to work on Ghost Tatiana’s clue, which relates to Moroi politics and their rather dumbass laws. According to Moroi law, the Council votes on everything, and the Council is made up of the representatives of each Royal House along with the Queen or King. And currently, only 12 out of 13 seats on the Council are being filled, because the Dragomirs have all but died out. Lissa’s friends and supporters (read: Christian’s aunt, Tasha Ozera) had already pointed out that Lissa deserves her seat on the Council now that she’s 18 (Side Note: How did Lissa herself not think of this?). But Moroi politics, it turns out, isn’t as simple as all that. There needs to be a quorum – that is to say, a council member has to have at least one other family member in order to be able to stand. Like I said, dumbass law.

And now, Tatiana, of all people, tells Rose that Lissa does indeed have another family member out there. She’s not the last Dragomir – that honour falls to her illegitimate half sibling. The identity of this sibling, when it is revealed, is one that we realize has been well seeded. VA is no amateur series of novels written blindly and without forethought. The reader had already met the last Dragomir – way back in Shadowkiss, and said sibling has been popping up consistently throughout the storyline since. Just like Sydney Sage, or Mia Rinaldi, or Tasha Ozera. Even when they’re not essential to the plot, Mead does right by her characters. They’re all well fleshed out and multi dimensional, and they’re never allowed to be forgotten.

To gain themselves time to solve the murder mystery, Rose comes up with a master plan: Nominate Lissa in the election for the new King or Queen. Because while she would need a quorum to be actually elected, she doesn’t need one to just run. And so while Lissa is running for queen and trying to exonerate Rose back at Court, Rose is running from the authorities and trying to find Lissa’s sibling and thereby legitimize her position with the Council. These girls, always looking out for each other.

One run in with the mysterious (and fairly uncivilized) Keepers, one Strigoi healing, one reconciliation with Dimitri, and a lot of following the paper trail later, Rose is headed right back to Court with all the answers and a very confused Jill Mastrano. Since Lissa outperformed most of the other Royal candidates on the trials, she’s just in time to back Lissa’s right to be elected.

And also just in time to save Lissa’s life, one last time.

Last Sacrifice takes its haunting title very seriously. The last act of the book echoes every part of Rose’s life, and how it always comes right back down to Lissa. She started out with a singleminded determination to save Lissa no matter what, and then she learned to question that determination. She learned to set a few, necessary boundaries, but the bottom line remained unchanged. Just as she put Lissa’s life over Dimitri’s in  Spirit Bound, so too did she put Lissa’s life over her own in Last Sacrifice. 

In fact, her life isn’t the only thing Rose sacrifices at the Lissa altar. Present all through the series is the link between Lissa’s spirit use and her depression. In fact, on numerous occasions after Lissa weans herself off the anti depressants, both girls have expressed relief that Spirit isn’t affecting her as much as it used to. That this is a patent lie is something neither of them seems to want to acknowledge, considering Rose has made sucking that darkness out of Lissa and into herself through the spirit bond something of a hobby.

Throughout Lissa’s royalty trials, Rose does this as she watches her friend through the bond. She pulls away the darkness over and over again, putting it away in a quiet corner of her mind. Repression is never the answer – everyone knows that, including these girls, but they don’t have the time for anything else at the moment. And so it goes, until Rose snaps and all that darkness comes tumbling out of her.

It’s an intensely written moment – chaotic and full of irrational fury. The engaged reader is carried along on the strength of sheer emotion, and despite the words we’re reading, we’re not actually clear on what’s going on until the deed is done and a man is dead.

Having sacrificed the last of her innocence halfway through the book, Rose now, at the end of the final act, gives Lissa the only thing she has left – her life.

The book ends on as neat a note as could be managed under the circumstances. There were, of course, loose ends that infuriated me until I realized a new followup series was in the works. But, contrary to what my sad ending review may lead you to believe, there are no great tragedies in Last Sacrifice. It’s the quintessential triumph-over-evil-in-the-end kind of book. The final chapter puts a cute little bow on almost everything, and for what’s left over, [*cough* Adrian *cough*] you get to read the Bloodlines series.

Next in this Series: Bloodlines #1 – Bloodlines by Richelle Mead
Next Review: #scandal 
by Sarah Ockler

Book Review: Vampire Academy #5 – Spirit Bound

Title: Spirit Bound
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2010
Series: Vampire Academy
#: 5
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.38
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

Spirit Bound

Considering how long the previous post ended up being, I should make this one short and sweet: Hijinks! (And some regrettable death).

Spoilers!

After the darkness that was Blood PromiseSpirit Bound is back to the basics. And if there’s some residual darkness tingeing the book, I’m sure we can forgive and forget, all things considered. And by ‘all things’ I mean there’s a raging strigoi on the loose.

Despite having graduated near the top of her class, Rose’s future is lacking in real job prospects due to her reputation as an unreliable vigilante with little respect for the rules. So she’s largely left to her own devices, and shenanigans are on her mind.

First stop, Vegas! (Well, no. First stop was storming an unbeatable high security prison and breaking out a high security prisoner.) They’re on a mission to learn all they can about the possibility of healing and curing Strigoi, and this time Lissa gets to be in on the difficult adventures. When our troublesome little Scooby gang comes back, they’re in deep trouble. And Rose gets blamed for everything, as usual.

For once, Rose couldn’t care less. Yes, she’s worried about being handcuffed to a desk job for the rest of her life, but she’s numb. Very, very numbed by the realization that curing a Strigoi isn’t going to happen – not because it’s impossible, but because a Spirit user is supposed to do the job. There’s no way she’s going to let Lissa or Adrian – the only two known Spirit users – get anywhere close to Strigoi to even try.

Lissa on the other hand is still feeling very guilty over having been a poor friend to Rose in the past, and is determined to do this one thing for her. And here’s the thing about Lissa. A pampered, bleeding-heart princess she maybe, but when she needs to do something, nothing in the world will stop her. Clearly, there’s a reason she’s best friends.

Alongside all of the shenanigans go the political machinations. The panic and paranoia spreading amongst the Moroi elite cause them to pass a controversial law stating that dhampirs can now be sent out as guardians at the age of sixteen. They use Rose’s testimony to support this move, which, as anyone knows, is a terrible way to implement legislation. You can’t pick the exception from the lot and use it to propagate a fake generalization. It’s a terrible thing to do, causes uproar, and results in Rose calling Queen Tatiana a sanctimonious bitch in open court.

In the meanwhile, Crazy Dimitri is still on the loose. Following an incident in Vegas that involved a daylight attack and a literal mountain of dead security guards, he launches a savage attack on Lissa’s group while she’s touring her prospective college, kidnapping her and Christian as bait to lure Rose in. He’s now given up on the whole ‘turn you and we be together for all of eternity’ plan – now he’s just trying to kill her. Rose sees the whole thing through Lissa’s eyes, as he’d known she would, and plans and spearheads an attack force against Dimitri’s strigoi nest.

The first time she faced an undead Dimitri, Rose choked, leading to her capture. The second time she tried to kill him, there was no hesitation, but he kinda fell over a bridge before she could ensure the kill. The third time, in Vegas, she impulsively ensured that Eddie would fail to kill him. This time, the fourth and last time, it’s different. In her mind, it doesn’t matter anymore that he could be saved at some point in the future.

“You can’t, Rose. Haven’t you figured that out by now? Haven’t you seen it? You can’t defeat me. You can’t kill me. Even if you could, you can’t bring yourself to do it. You’ll hesitate. Again.”
No, I wouldn’t. That’s what he didn’t realize. He’d made a mistake bringing Lissa here. She increased the stakes–no pun intended–on everything. She was here. She was real. Her life was on the line, and for that . . . for that, I wouldn’t hesitate.

Dimitri must have a zillion lives, I’ll say that for the guy. Only this time, it’s Lissa standing in the way of Rose and Dimitri’s death. And like that, the story moves seamlessly into a narrative of redemption.

A Dhampir Reborn and the Death of a Queen

If Rose thought, even for a moment, that her heartache would be over the minute Dimitri was cured, she was mistaken. Mead makes both Rose and the reader work for that reconciliation, possibly because she knows very well that both Rose and the reader are, at this point, more than happy to give Dimitri every ounce of forgiveness they possess. For free. And the manner of this comes from Dimitri himself – a soul so tortured and lost that he bans Rose from his presence.

I’ll be honest. This portion of the book was difficult for me to read, mostly because I was bursting with righteous indignation. How dare he? How DARE he? Dimitri looks at Lissa almost reverentially, because she’s his saviour. Never mind that all she did was thrust that final stake. Never mind that Rose just broke ALL THE LAWS in a mere matter of weeks just to get to him and save him. He doesn’t even look at her. He can’t even bear to look at her.

Because Dimitri’s not being an asshole. Rose and the reader maybe willing to forget the events of Blood Promise – the kidnapping and the sexual assault via vitiated consent; the brainwashing of someone using potent drugs; the sheer lack of respect for life and liberty. But Dimitri isn’t. He remembers everything he did when he wasn’t himself, and he knows he’s not worthy of Rose, not after what he did – especially to her.

To add to their problems, the Moroi-Dhampir community is infinitely distrustful of this apparent healing of a Strigoi, and it becomes important to prove to everyone that he is no longer Strigoi. And one mustn’t forget the royal assassination that soon followed, and the fact that Rose was almost immediately implicated in it.

One of the best scenes in the book is getting to watch Abe Mazur ‘defend’ Rose in a court of law.

“What have you gotten me into?” I hissed to him.
“Me? What have you gotten yourself into? Couldn’t I have just picked you up at the police station for underage drinking, like most fathers?”
I was beginning to understand why people got irritated when I made jokes in dangerous situations.

Spirit Bound talks about the journey one embarks on when one’s trying to save something or someone, and questions you about the lengths you’re willing to go to achieve your goal. It asks you how you will prioritize your life. When you’re dedicating all your life and everything in it to your mission, is there anything left over? Anything that is more important than your mission and your life and everything in between?

It also talks about how, even after someone has been saved – even though they’ve been rescued – they still have a ways to go. Saving someone isn’t the same as redeeming them. And there is no forgiveness – there can be no forgiveness – without redemption. All too often in our lives, we forget this fact in our hurry to have our loved ones back in our lives. It pertains particularly to people who’ve been in Rose’s position – i.e. people who’ve been in abusive relationships. Humans do have the capability to love those close them even when their loved ones are being abusive. But they shouldn’t – they musn’t – get close to you again until they’ve redeemed themselves, and until you’re sure – dead sure – that there’s no trace of Strigoi left in them.

Next: Vampire Academy #6 – Last Sacrifice