Melina Marchetta - Finnikin of the Rock - I found this to be very dark for a Young Adult novel. YA has become a very exciting place to be in recent years, and this book shows why - there is room for edgy material, deep characters with believable flaws and character traits, and a plot that doesn't necessarily resolve according to a formula. Why can't we have these in non-YA fiction? That is a question that I leave to the ages. The things I liked very much in this book: Marchetta writes good characters, and has a plot which considers the huge question of "what happened next?" - after the heroes are big damn heroes, what happens to them? Marchetta includes a good, lengthy, and entirely necessary, denouement. Things I did not like: the names - I mean, Finnikin? Seriously? Hero of a Beatrix Potter book, perhaps. Hard to take seriously as the hero of a fantasy/romance. Evanjalyn was a little too cute too. That's a minor thing, though. Bigger was a lack of basic research into terms - for instance, one does not "cock" a long bow, nor does one load it with "bolts" - those are things that you do with crossbows. And yet, the weapons being used were clearly long bows - filling the air with arrows is a long bow type thing. These are fairly basic terms of the fantasy genre. This is the author's first foray into fantasy (her other stuff is contemporary fiction - school girls and growing up type things - not my cup of tea), and some mistakes are forgivable - even these ones, as it turns out, because I would be happy to read another fantasy novel by Marchetta - but, really. This is pretty basic stuff.
John Sandford - Rough Country - Yes, another Sandford. Yes, it's still slush. But! Virgil Flowers a) does not kill the evil bad serial killer at the end - indeed, I think that as this particular series goes forward, the differences between Flowers and Lucas Davenport (Sandford's other detective) will be revealed more clearly; Flowers is not a serial killer in a cop's uniform, while Davenport kinda is - b) does not get laid! So, it's nice when an author stretches himself a little. There's not a lot of room in these novels to stretch - the hero has to solve the crime, and the bad guy has to be brought to some form of justice - but Sandford isn't a hack. There's a new Davenport out on the 18th, so watch for a review of that.
Dolen Perkins-Valdez - Wench - Very nicely written historical fiction about slaves in the US, circa 1852-55, with a lengthy interlude into the 1830s and 40s. The action focuses primarily around a resort hotel called Tarawa, which actually existed. It was a hotel in Ohio (a free state: slavery was illegal in Ohio) which was frequented by Southern gentlemen, often with their slave mistresses. Slavery is bad, but also complex. It is bad because of the complexities, really - human beings will behave like human beings, regardless of the unnatural constraints you place upon them. Even an institution designed to make mothers forget their children and lovers forget their sweethearts cannot succeed, not much more than part of the time. Perkins-Valdez keeps the complexity of human life in mind throughout this work, and does so fantastically.
One thing - from our perspective as readers, we know that slavery is about to meet its end in the Civil War. Perkins-Valdez must surely know this too - but she does not go out of her way to foreshadow that fact, which is very nice. She lets the book be a book about human beings doing human things; not a gloating book about the foolishness of the Southern gentry.
The book was fascinating, it was very well written, and I enjoyed it a great deal.