Book Review: Mastiff by Tamora Pierce

Mastiff by Tamora PierceThe Story: The Legend of Beka Cooper gives Tamora Pierce’s fans exactly what they want—a smart and savvy heroine making a name for herself on the mean streets of Tortall’s Lower City—while offering plenty of appeal for new readers as well.

Beka and her friends will face their greatest and most important challenge ever when the young heir to the kingdom vanishes. They will be sent out of Corus on a trail that appears and disappears, following a twisting road throughout Tortall. It will be her greatest Hunt—if she can survive the very powerful people who do not want her to succeed in her goal. [Goodreads]

My Response: Though I enjoyed reading Terrier and Bloodhound well enough, I realize now that neither book truly connected me to Beka. I liked her, and I enjoyed reading about her, but I didn’t care deeply about her, not to the extent that I always have Alanna and Daine and Kel and Aly.

Now I care.

Mastiff opens in medias res, three years after the events of Bloodhound, with the burial of Beka’s betrothed, a Dog named Holburn. Yes, you read that correctly, no, I wasn’t prepared, and yes, I was immediately hooked. Pierce’s first person narrative finally comes into its own and shines as she captures the disorientation that accompanies any major loss, all without depicting Beka as weak.

This opening sets the tone for the rest of the book, and that tone is dark and tense. Beka, Tunstall, Lady Sabine, and newcomer Farmer Cape, a Kennel mage, track the kidnapped heir at a relentless pace, never sure of who they can trust other than each other. The rich detail of the Hunt is engrossing to the point of distraction, so that even as I realized I was approaching the Big Reveal, I couldn’t pin down just what it would be.

Of course, there are more than enough side plots to go around: Beka’s gradual recovery from Holburn’s death; Farmer Cape’s humorous antics; Tunstall’s relationship with Lady Sabine; an explanation for how slavery came to be illegal in the realm of Tortall; a romance that I legitimately enjoyed.

And then there’s the cult of the Gentle Mother, which in Beka’s time is only just beginning to gain popularity. Beka is baffled that anyone would take seriously the group’s talk of the delicacy of women and the corresponding need to keep them safe from the coarseness of the world, but we as readers know that this is the group that will ultimately put an end to Lady Knights like Sabine. Heartbreaking.

Honestly, I have only two (small) bones to pick with Ms. Pierce about this book:

One, I never stopped waiting for some true exposition about Beka’s relationship with Holburn. I realize that in the context of both the story and the style, the lack of exposition makes sense. Nevertheless, I continue to be frustrated by how few details are given about a relationship that was so clearly formative for Beka.

Two, the epilogue. It isn’t so bad as to make me reject Pierce’s Epilogue Writing Privileges (See: J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins), and I admit that my not-so-inner Tamora Pierce fangirl flailed a little bit while reading George Cooper’s journal entries, but at the same time, my more objective self couldn’t help but cringe in reaction to the severely high cheese factor. Mostly, I’m disappointed that something so clunky was stuck to the end of an otherwise tremendous book.

My Recommendation: Mastiff is everything that a prequel ought to be, and in case you couldn’t tell, I loved it. LOVED IT. And I may have cried straight through the last twenty or so pages, but never you mind about that. For longtime Tamora Pierce fans, this is a no-brainer. Read this book.

For those newer to Tamora Pierce, things get a bit more complicated. Mastiff is rich enough to stand on its own, but the big reveal will be less meaningful for those who haven’t followed Beka from the beginning. For this reason, I must insist you read both Terrier and Bloodhound before you sink your teeth into Mastiff. They may not dazzle quite so much, but I promise they’ll be worth your time in the end—when you read this book.

My Rating: ✶  ✶  ✶  ✶
(out of a possible 4)

Mastiff (Beka Cooper #3) / Tamora Pierce. Random House Books for Young Readers, 2011. US $10.99 (Kindle).

Generally Bookish: On Book Trailers

Tomorrow, Marie Lu’s debut novel, Legend, will be released amid an impressive amount of hype for a young adult book. Between book blogs and Goodreads, I’ve been hearing about Legend for at least a month¹, and yesterday, a mostly positive review was printed in the Los Angeles Times. The basic plot—dystopian, of course—sounds right up my alley, and I’m pretty much sold on buying and reading it as soon as possible.

But here comes the “but”: last night I watched the book trailer for Legend, and the degree to which I cringed throughout was almost physically uncomfortable:

Let’s first acknowledge that nothing exists in a vacuum. Penguin, I’m sure, put a lot of thought and effort into marketing Legend, and this video is but one small piece of the puzzle. What’s more, the Penguin PR team has clearly done its job, as evidenced by my writing about this book well before I’ve actually read it.

However, why on earth would anyone think that this trailer is a good idea? The bad voice acting, the graphics that evoke computer games circa 1998…it’s as though there’s someone, somewhere, who wants to embarrass anyone who wants to read this book. I mean, I’m at the core of the target demographic², and I  found it off-putting.

Which brings us to my main question: if a book trailer doesn’t pique one’s interest, if it potentially repels, then what’s the point?

For the sake of comparison, I decided to look up the book trailers for some of my favorite reads of 2011. Here’s what was done in 2009 for Kristin Cashore’s Fire, a book so good, I’ve already read it twice³:

Again, let’s acknowledge something upfront: unlike movies, books don’t come with a bank of footage that can be cut into a truly excellent trailer. And any attempt to put a voice or face to a particular book or character is going to be met with resistance from some fans, no matter how carefully one treads.

And yet…really? A (faux?) British accent, Brigan awkwardly wielding what looks like a katana, and something about desire destroying the Dells? I would cry, were it not for the knowledge that this video is not the main, let alone only, means by which one is likely to discover this wonderful book.

Which again begs the question: what is the point of a book trailer? Why bother with one if it’s not able to stand alone in support of the book it features? And is there any way to create a successful trailer for a medium that is not inherently visual?

After further exploration, I’ve decided that book trailers improve the second they eschew voice overs of any kind. Little, Brown and Company got this right with their trailer for Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor, though I remain undecided about the video as a whole:

Having read (and loved) Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I question the packaging of the story, plus the video is fast cut, making the text difficult to read. Still, the graphics are pretty, and the overall feel is a step up from Legend and Fire.

To be honest, I’ve seen only one book trailer that actually increased my interest in reading its particular book, and this is for A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness:

Based on this trailer, I have some understanding of what this book is about, and more importantly, I trust that understanding and want to know more. Moreover, I have some idea as to how this book will make me feel—and I don’t think it’s coincidental that this trailer is for an already illustrated novel. There was no need to draw imagery from scratch, only to animate variations of what was already included, and this connection to the origianl lends the entire video authenticity.

I’m curious to know what others think about book trailers: whether or not they’re regularly sought out and watched, and how they might be made more effective as publishing houses continue to embrace the Internet as a way to cultivate interest in books. (And if you’ve seen any particularly wonderful trailers, please send them my way!)


¹Goodreads tells me I added Legend to my “to-read” shelf on November 1st.
²Likely +10 years, but hey—at least I have a disposable income!
³In the Katsa vs. Fire debate, I am 100% Team Fire.

2012 Debut Author Challenge

With 2012 looming on the horizon (seriously, how and when did that happen?), I’ve started poking around the Internet for reading challenges that sound both interesting and doable. It’s important to me that they be both, because I see them as an opportunity to discover new books, meet new people, and ultimately grow this blog in the way that feeds my long-term goal of being actively involved in the online literary community.

2012 Debut Author Challenge Button

Anyway. Committing to The Story Siren’s Debut Author Challenge was a no-brainer, especially when I consider how many of my favorite books from 2011 were debuts. (Answer: many.) Reading one per month next year should be manageable, and full challenge details are as follows.

CHALLENGE OBJECTIVE:

  • To read & review a minimum of twelve young adult or middle grade debut novels between the dates of January 1, 2012 – January 31, 2013.*

*The 2013 extension is so that December debuts can be read & counted toward the challenge.

RULES & GUIDELINES:

  • You must have a blog to post your reviews, or be a member of Goodreads.
  • Your blog must be written in English.
  • Deadline to join is May 31, 2012.

BOOK GUIDELINES:

  • Must be a young adult or middle grade title.
  • Must be the author’s YA or MG debut, released in 2012.
  • If an author has a previous novel published for adults or children, they can still qualify for the challenge.
  • If an author has a previously published YA or MG title, they do not qualify for the challenge.

…Are there any 2012 debuts that you’re particularly excited to read? So far, I’m most looking forward to Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, to be released January 3rd:

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl. . . . 

Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future. [Goodreads]

Happy Thanksgiving!

I’ve been trying to think of an appropriately bookish way to talk about Thanksgiving, but in the end, I decided that a picture is worth a thousand words:

A Buffy Thanksgiving

This year, in addition to this priceless set of facial expressions, I am thankful to be living in Chicago, perhaps the best city I’ve ever called home; to be working for a company that I believe in and that challenges me daily; to have amazing friends, one of whom was kind enough to invite me to her family’s Thanksgiving meal this afternoon; to have met so many good, smart, and interesting people through Tumblr and the rest of the Internet; to have been raised by parents who always encouraged me to read widely and endlessly; and to be warm in my bed with my cat curled up on my feet while I get back to reading Delirium.

Enjoy your celebrations, everyone! I’ll be back to talking about books tomorrow.

Wordless Wednesday

Inspired by Megan of write meg!, Wordless Wednesday is a weekly feature that I use to explore my adopted hometown of Chicago, IL, both because I love this city, and because where I read informs how I think about what I read.  All photos were taken by me.

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten TuesdayCreated and hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme for those who love lists and want to get to know their fellow bloggers. Each week features a new theme, and anyone may participate. This week’s theme is…

Top Ten Authors I’d Invite over for Thanksgiving

Philip PullmanPhilip Pullman. To be honest, meeting Philip Pullman in any capacity would be a dream come true. Of all the thousands of books that I’ve read, Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy has has the most formative effect on my life, and I’m convinced he’d be an amazing conversationalist on almost any subject.

James BaldwinJames Baldwin. Giovanni’s Room was assigned to me for a basic survey of American literature course, yet it wound up being one of the most important books I read in college. It’s not YA, but it deals heavily with what is possibly the most important YA theme—identity—and Baldwin’s writing is simply beautiful.

Tamora PierceTamora Pierce. Earlier this year, I realized that I’ve been reading books by Tamora Pierce for more than 15 years. I’ve since (re)read all 17 Tortall books, and I can now say that no other author has such longstanding effect on me as a reader, a woman, and a feminist.

Kristin CashoreKristin Cashore. Fire was the very first book I read in 2011, and it continues to rank as one of my favorites of the year. In lieu of more books about Fire and Brigan, I would gladly accept dinnertime conversation about women, feminism, and what inspired her to write about Monsters and the Dells.

Madeline L'EngleMadeline L’Engle. I always associate Madeline L’Engle with reading in the loft bed at my grandparents house, probably because all of L’Engle’s books are there, left on the shelves by my aunt after she grew up and moved away. L’Engle is a true queen of YA literature, and though it’s been a while since I read any of her books (tsk), she’ll always stand out as a favorite.

Brian JacquesBrian Jacques. I was struggling to come up with a tenth author, but then I read i swim for oceans’s Top Ten Tuesday post, and my choice became clear: of course Brian Jacques is invited! Martin the Warrior is one of the first books I remember crying over (Rose!), and, please, just look at that cheery smile!

Laura Ingalls-Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder. My parents gave me a copy of Little House in the Big Woods when I was 5? 6? And These Happy Golden Years was the first chapter book I ever read on my own—my dad had been reading it aloud to me, but one day, I got impatient and finished it on my own. I think Laura is responsible for my love for stories of westward expansion, and how amazing would it be to listen to her stories during dinner?

Patricia C. WredePatricia C. Wrede. One of the first book reviews I ever wrote was of Dealing with Dragons (as a home-schooler, this is what I did with my spare time), and this past summer, I read both of Frontier Magic books, which makes me think it’d be fascinating to listen to Wrede talk to Wilder*.

Sarah DessenSarah Dessen. Surely you didn’t think I’d leave off my favorite contemporary YA authors, and of those, Sarah Dessen is #1. This Lullaby is my all-time favorite of hers, but ultimately I love everything she writes, and I buy each new book immediately upon release. From what I’ve seen of public appearances, she is an absolute darling. I want to be her BFF.

Megan McCaffertyMegan McCafferty. Bumped may have been less than expected, but Jessica Darling and Marcus Flutie will be amazing forever. I love McCafferty’s taste in pop culture, so I know we’d have a lots to talk about, and I would use her presence at my Thanksgiving dinner to shamelessly lobby for Aubrey Plaza to be cast as movie adaptation Jessica.

What about you? Which authors would you invite to your Thanksgiving dinner?

*I am so frustrated that I couldn’t find a black and white picture of Patricia C. Wrede!

Book Review: Bloodhound by Tamora Pierce

In early June, my parents sent me a link to The Atlantic’s interview with Tamora Pierce, and, if I remember correctly, my joyous response to Pierce’s comments about family, birth control, and the need for female heroes in YA literature was something along the lines of, “Excuse me – I need to (re)read everything this woman has ever written. Immediately.”

Five months later, I’ve finished (re)reading all 17 titles set in the Tortall universe, and because Bloodhound is the first of these to be entirely new to me, it seems fitting that its review be the starting point for this blog.


Bloodhound by Tamora PierceThe Story: Beka Cooper is finally a Dog—a full-fledged member of the Provost’s Guard, dedicated to keeping peace in Corus’s streets. But there’s unrest in Tortall’s capital. Counterfeit coins are turning up in shops all over the city, and merchants are raising prices to cover their losses. The Dogs discover that gamblers are bringing the counterfeit money from Port Caynn. In Port Caynn, Beka delves deep into the gambling world, where she meets a charming banking clerk named Dale Rowan. Beka thinks she may be falling for Rowan, but she won’t let anything—or anyone—jeopardize her mission. As she heads north to an abandoned silver mine, it won’t be enough for Beka to be her usual “terrier” self. She’ll have to learn from Achoo to sniff out the criminals—to be a Bloodhound…. [Goodreads]

My Response: It’s not easy to find the excitement in counterfeiting, but Pierce puts forth an admirable effort that pays off in the long run. The gradual yet uncontrollable effect that the coles (counterfeit coins) have on the Tortallan economy, beginning in the poorest neighborhoods and spreading outward, is truly horrifying, and Pierce does a good job of making the stakes understandable. Her cast of supporting characters is lively, and her descriptions of the Port Caynn docks, gambling dens, and eating houses are alternately gritty and fun.

Oh, and the punishment for colemongering? Death by boiled oil? No, thank you!

That said, there’s less narrative tension here than in earlier Tortall books, mostly because the main antagonist is revealed early and obviously. Add to this the absence of Tunstall and Pounce, whose wit and snark are needed to balance Beka’s serious approach to nearly everything she does, and it’s not surprising how noticeable Bloodhound’s significant length (560pp.) is throughout. More than once, I checked my progress only to think, Whoa. I have that much left?

Beka’s partnership with the scent-hound Achoo is cute, as well as typical—most of Pierce’s heroines bond at least as easily with animals as they do with humans—and the dog clearly has her part to play in the resolution of the story. However, even for a dog, she’s underdeveloped, and I couldn’t help but think she’d been brought in to haplessly tug our heartstrings first, move the story along second.

Though it doesn’t rank among my all-time favorite Tamora Pierce books, Bloodhound is a definite improvement over Terrier, which left little to no impression on me when I first read it in 2006. The first-person narrative feels less contrived, and Beka’s voice more fully realized, which I assume is due to Pierce herself growing more comfortable with the style. As a result, Beka’s growth and maturation from Puppy to Dog is that much more believable.

From what I’ve read on Goodreads, there’s been some negative response to Beka’s sexual activity, to which I say, Get over it. Teenagers have sex, and not always as responsibly as 17-year-old Beka—to be honest, one of my favorite moments of the entire story is her shy visit to the Healer’s to purchase a pregnancy charm, because let’s be honest: we’ve all been there, in one way or another. I might not rush to give this book to, say, a 10-year-old with limited understanding of life and relationships, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to readers in their mid-teens who almost assuredly know what sex is.

As for Okha Soyan/Amber Orchid: transgendered people exist, and the more honestly we portray the world and its people in books for young adults, the better for us all, so again, Get over it. Frankly, I’m surprised and a little disappointed that it took Pierce as long as it did to explicitly write queer characters into the Tortall universe.

My Recommendation: Long-time fans of Tamora Pierce are unlikely to be significantly disappointed, especially with so many nods to names and places that have appeared in the past (future). I myself flailed with happiness upon learning the origin of The Dancing Dove’s name.

However, for readers new to Tortall, Beka’s story could be hit or miss. Those looking for a more typical fantasy heroine would be best served by starting with Alanna: The First Adventure (Song of the Lioness #1), or possibly First Test (Protector of the Small #1) (though I hate to recommend books out of order).

On the other hand, those who love detective stories (Veronica Mars, Law & Order, etc.) will likely enjoy reading a YA novel that features a quieter, more cerebral heroine, one who cares less for glory and more for simply getting the job done, one day and one clue at a time.

My Rating: ✶  ✶  ✶
(out of a possible 4)

Bloodhound (Beka Cooper #2) / Tamora Pierce. Random House Books for Young Readers, 2009. US $9.99 (Kindle).