Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Latest Three: Belle Epoque, Wonder, Behemoth

The Latest Three is my reader's review blog series where I talk about the latest three books I've read and at least enjoyed to some degree. The policy is that if I feel the book wasn't totally pointless, which I usually do, then I discuss the things I liked most in hopes there will be something that intrigues you enough to pick it up yourself. But at the same time, I give honest commentary and discuss things I wasn't too fond of either so you can understand the best scope of the book in your endeavor to read lots of really great books! Obviously, these come in batches of three, but if you like my review style head over to Goodreads and follow me, Kateri Ransom. I post those as I read them.

Belle Epoque, Elizabeth Ross
As you can see, I absolutely loved this book. I was first turned onto it when I saw that In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters was a Morris book award finalist and this title was on the list with it. In fact, I think I liked this one even more than Blackbirds, and I adored that book to begin with! Belle Epoque is about an agency in Paris that caters to the wealthy in providing young women who act as a foil to their client's beauty. Deterring the attention from their own faces to their more affluent counterparts as repoussoires. Maude has run away to Paris and winds up working for this agency to make ends meat, but when her first assignment is to befriend a girl, Isabelle, who doesn't know her mother's hired her a repussoire, she is unsure what role to play. But then when a true friendship begins to emerge between them, she must truly decide where her loyalties lie. This book is all about the themes of beauty, what money can and can't buy, friendship, and feminism. I think this is a beautiful list and not one you find in YA books very often, especially where all of those things are addressed so well and so equally. It was one of those books where I didn't feel like I had much to take notes on, only because I was saying I loved this and this and this. It was also a very "my-kinda-book" book. Typically, if I'm not reading fantasy, urban fantasy, or historical fantasy (and in a way, this kind of fits the historical fantasy bill) then I prefer my books to have some heightened sense of reality (But of course, I read everything!). I dunno what "heightened sense of reality" alone might mean to you, but to me it means that in the story the world is completely like ours, but there's some twist that's come into play that is both very realistic and very extraordinary. Perhaps that doesn't make much sense, but I will say it means there's still no magical element occurring. Anyway, this captured that "genre" perfectly for me...and in Paris at the time of the construction of the Eiffel Tower! LOVE!
Here's what I thought about Belle Epoque!
1. The Characters: Maude: She is so honest and genuine. She is flawed yet strong-willed and determined. She is duped by her flaws and rises above them. She sees others' flaws and takes them for what they are -- a part of a messed-up, beautiful world -- and applies them to her own personal growth. She learns to apologize for her wrong doings. She hits rock-bottom and brings herself up again. I don't think I'm spoiling anything here, because it's the journey Ross takes you on that really matters. Isabelle: A beautiful secondary character. She is developed well throughout the book. Brainy, stubborn, ambitious, and a trustworthy friend. I felt so much for her relationship with Maude, something I wish would happen more in YA. Marie-Josee: Feisty, witty, loyal, and so, so kind. She grows on you like the sticky, warm glue from a hot glue gun. Paul: There's nothing to dislike in this charming, genuine slow-build of a relationship between Maude and Paul. Not my favorite couple by any means, but it just lends itself so well to the story the way Ross wrote it, and I applaud her for that.
2. Every Scene Counts: I think Ross is a great writer and the fact that this book has a slower moving plot, yet kept me hooked all throughout each scene is a testament to that. There are no crazy twists or turns in this book, but rather nudges, and Ross does each and every one in a way that is heartfelt and filled with intrigue. Not every scene is extraordinary, but every scene has something to give.
3. Background Scenery: The story begins right as Maude is being hired at the Durandeau agency as a repussoire. What I like was that Ross goes back in time here and there to give better explanation of the events that made Maude run away. She gave better character profiles to her parents, each whose story adds nicely to Maude. Many YA books would gloss over this part of the story, but I think it is very important and I quite enjoyed it. 
4. Discussion of Class: The theme of what money can and can't buy is explored through this novel not only in the Durandeau agency but in the discussion of class. The repussoires are constantly living a double life, one as an ugly society outcast and one as a temporary member of the class for which they must act as repellents to their wealthier counterparts. But still, it means prettier, finer dresses, decadent parties, and rubbing elbows with the rich elite. Diving in and out of these two worlds, especially in Maude's case due to her high profile employer, Countess Dubern, was so fascinating and created more empathy towards the inner-plight of the characters. 
5. The Eiffel Tower: This novel takes place during the building of the Eiffel Tower. In the author's note at the end, Ross talks about why she thinks it lends itself so well to the story. In fact, I sort of recommend reading that part first. 
6. The Ending: All I will say is that I loved the ending. It definitely delivered, if a little on the neater, pretty bow-tie side, but beautiful nonetheless. And it gives the title a slightly new meaning.

Wonder, R. J. Palacio
For this Latest Three, I read a MG!
I have had my eye on this one for a good while, especially with all the hype around it. This book is about a boy named Auggie who is completely normal. Oh! Except for that one thing about having a deformed face. I will not reveal too much about plot except that it's about Auggie's struggles while attending school for the first time as a 5th grader. But that's not all folks, this book also centers around other side characters by switching pov's, something I want to mention because I'm listing it as a reason why you should read this book.
Without further ado, here's what I thought about Wonder.
1. Deformities: I loved how Auggie's deformities were revealed to us. It is clarified right off the bat that there's something not right with the way Auggie looks, but as you read, the picture starts to come together, and I loved that! Not just as a reader but as a writer. When you study writing in first person, you always have the conversation about how to best relate to your reader what your MC looks like, and this book was an exemplary example of that rule. But as a reader, it allowed me to delve deep into the core of Auggie's character and approach his deformities with just the right mindset. Well done, Palacio, well done. 
2. About Auggie: My favorite thing about Auggie was how down-to-earth he was. There was no pretentiousness in his character. I feel that's a common approach when it comes to books like these, but Auggie was such a normal, flawed, quirky, nerdy, kind little boy, endearing and so realistic. 
3. About Those POV's: I have to admit, I wasn't hooked on this one until a bit into the book where we started getting more pov's. I really like Auggie and his story to begin with, but what it was was that the book switched to Auggie's sister, Olivia's, perspective and I found myself relating to her so strongly it hurt. And I think that's what Palacio was trying to do overall, put something in this book for everyone. Of course, I like all the other's, and Auggie's story was the one to make me cry tears of joy in the end. I'll just go on a tangent and say it now, what a wonderful ending!!! 
4. Bullying: The theme of bullying is a heavy one in this book, and it relates to ALL of the characters' stories. Seeing it in such a diversified and complex light was critical to this book's theme, and a big reason why I loved it so much. 
5. Transcends the Ages: This is definitely a book that transcends the ages: Here's why. 1) Kids of this age group will have so many things they can directly relate to. 2) Teens and older teens will remember all of the emotions captured in this book with painful remembrance. Yet somehow, at the same time, it feels so good to know you are done with that time of your life and have survived it. Plus it makes you analyze all the past bull-shit you went through, which can be an empowering thing, truly. 3) Adults are portrayed well in this book and I think it would be interesting for adults/parents to see the characters Palacio has chosen and how he has portrayed them. Plus it's a good reminder of how complex and difficult young adult life is at all levels. 
6. Makes Me Think: I love it when books make me think and then subsequently catch me by surprise at my own thoughts. In this book I realized I saw Auggie's skin as being burned (likely because Auggie tells us that he has been commonly thought of as being deformed due to getting stuck in a fire). But the thing was, I knew that wasn't true from the start, so why did I see him that way? He is intensely deformed in every feature of his face, but that doesn't mean the physical nature of his skin is grotesque. I don't exactly know what this realization said of me, but I think it's something to do with seeing an unfamiliar thing or hearing an unfamiliar concept and automatically associating it with something undesirable or inferior or even gross or pitiable. When it's actually just different.
Hmm, what do you think?

Behemoth, Scott Westerfield (Leviathan series #2)
I will now be starting a thing with The Latest Three wherein the last of the Three books will consist of a stand-alone or a series I either want to start or finish, in alternating order. That's why I decided to pick up the second book in the Leviathan series, Behemoth. In general, this book really upped the ante from the first one. Between an exotic setting and rising tension with the romance, I loved this book even more than the last. The illustrations by Keith Thompson were just as beautiful and beneficial to the story as they were in the first installment. Before I get started with my review I want to mention that my series reviews will most likely be spoilery to those who haven't read the first or previous books and are aimed at getting those who haven't gotten around to picking up the next one, or just aren't sure if they want to continue with the series, more incentive to definitely go ahead and do so.
Without further ado, here's what I thought of Behemoth.
 1. The Romance: I mentioned there is a budding romance, but I want to clarify that it's not what you might expect. I don't think I'm being too spoilery when I say Alek does not find out much about Deryn's sex, but that doesn't mean there's not some tension there. Well, at least when you're reading Deryn's perspective, that is. But I gotta say, I'm really excited for the third one for that particular reason! 
2. About Deryn: For the most part, Deryn has been the comedic, more light-hearted character of the two, but in this book she does get a little darker. Her struggles are magnified, both with being in the air force during war (this book does get a little bloodier as well, which I liked) and with secretly being a girl. There is also more of her past which is revealed, specifically pertaining to her father, and it was kinda nice to get this deeper perspective on her character. 
3. It's Called Behemoth, but it Should Really be Called Constantinople: Unlike how the ship the Leviathan played a huge role in the book Leviathan, Behemoth is more of a whisper in the wind in this one. In the mean time, what really grabs your attention is the new setting of Constantinople, or Istanbul as the Lady Boffin would say it. I LOVED Westerfeld's re-imagining of the city. Exotic, spicy, dusty, crowded and teeming with mechaniks dreamed up of culture and symbolism. It swept me away, the setting. And when a book can really do that, it's not one I'll soon forget.
4. Lillit: I won't say much about her, but there is a new character introduced in this book. I absolutely adored her and would love to talk about your thoughts on that final scene with Deryn if you've read it or end up doing so. But through email or something else: no spoilers in the comments please.
5. The Alliance: I also won't say much on this because I don't want to spoil, but I loved how at one point there were characters from all sides of the war working together. Alliance and trust is really something this book is about and the way Westerfeld interwove the characters' stories lent itself beautifully to that aspect of the story.

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