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Book Review: Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Julia Whelan)

July 14, 2015 3 comments

Book Review: Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Julia Whelan)Summary:
Pen’s life was destroyed when an Earthshaker took away her family (even their dog) and destroyed the Los Angeles she once knew.  She’s now on a quest to save them from the monstrous giants that rose up after (or with?) the Earthshaker.  Along the way she finds other teens who’ve miraculously survived, each with secrets and talents of their own.

Review:
This book left me completely torn.  I loved, oh how I loved, the representation of both bisexual (Pen) and trans (Hex, her boyfriend) teens. But the story to go with these teens failed to live up to both these wonderful characters and the beautiful title.

Let’s talk about the good first, because I don’t want it to be overshadowed by what didn’t work.  Pen is a bookish teenager who generally prefers to stay in reading the Encyclopedia or The Odyssey to going out to parties. But she still has two close friends. She’s not a loner.  She’s brave, open, loving, and sometimes makes rather short-sighted decisions.  And it is gradually revealed throughout the book that she is also bisexual.  The scenes exploring Pen’s bisexuality, and how it’s hard for her to be out about it, in spite of being completely comfortable with herself, are wonderfully done.  Pen acknowledges that even though her parents have always told her that it doesn’t matter a whit if she is straight, lesbian, bisexual, or trans, that the world at large doesn’t always think that, and that’s part of what makes being out hard for her.  The world is not always the welcoming place her family is.

The book early on establishes that Pen currently has a crush on a boy, so the reader may perhaps be surprised when she reminisces about an earlier crush on a girl, and how she first realized she liked girls too.

Thinking of how I once kissed Moira on the lips. We were drunk and dancing, and our lips just brushed for that electroshock nanosecond, and then she smiled at some boys who were watching us, laughed, and danced away from me like it was a joke.  But I’d had an epiphany, even though I hadn’t fully accepted it at the time. I wanted to kiss girls. And it was no joke. (loc 2:14:53)

Similarly, Pen struggles with self-editing her past when telling Hex about her life before the Earthshaker.  She is not sure if he’ll understand or accept the fact that she’s perfectly capable of having crushes on girls as well as boys like himself, so she edits herself when speaking to him.  She’s telling him a story about a party she didn’t go to, and the picture that her friends sent her of a boy with her friend, Moira:

I went to sleep staring at the last image wondering not what his mouth tasted like but hers. This part, this last, I don’t tell Hex, although I trust him enough to tell him anything. Don’t I? So I’m not sure why I don’t. Because I don’t want him to know I had a crush on a girl? Or because I have a crush on him. (loc 1:39:44)

It’s rare to see a book explore so eloquently what it is to be bisexual, and these feelings Pen has while not universal still explore the difficulty of coming out and being out as a bisexual person, and they were so wonderful to see in a book that I had to restrain myself from jumping up and shouting “Yes!” when they showed up on my audiobook on the bus.

Similarly, Hex, Pen’s love interest and eventual boyfriend (this is not a spoiler, when Hex shows up he may as well have a giant neon “future boyfriend” sign over his head), is a FTM transman.  Hex is just as nervous about being out to Pen and their other travel companions as Pen is about being out to him, probably more.  Being cis myself, I can’t say as definitively about the quality of FTM representation as I could about bisexuality, however, the author certainly tries to broach topics that I believe would be of interest to a trans YA reader reading this book: acceptance (or not) by family members and impact on romantic relationships with other teens.  Hex comes out to Pen as a transman only because she has fallen for him, and he wants her to know precisely who he is before anything more *ahem* romantic happens.  Pen immediately accepts him and tells him he is clearly a boy to her, and this changes nothing about how she feels about him.  They then have to navigate their sex life.  Hex, like many trans people, is uncomfortable with his body.  He would rather touch Pen than allow Pen to touch him.  Eventually, they reach an arrangement that both supports and asserts Hex’s maleness and allows Pen to give the pleasure back to him that she wants to.  I was glad to see a YA book “go there.”  I frankly haven’t seen much of that even in adult literature including a trans person.  It both addresses the “how do they….” question some YA readers would certainly have after learning about Hex and also serves a purpose in the story to demonstrate a mature, healthy, loving relationship between the two characters.

In addition to Hex and Pen, they also wind up with two male travel companions who become a couple.  The characters themselves point out at one point how odd it is that the minority before the Earthshakers is now the majority (none of them are straight AND cis).  I was glad the author acknowledged the quirk and had the characters process why that may be.  The answer they decide upon is a positive one, rather than the potentially negative one of punishment.

So now let’s talk about what didn’t work.  The plot and the setting.  The book is meant to be a magical realism style story told in a non-linear way.  This could have worked if in the end the overarching plot, when reassessed by the reader from beginning to end, made sense.  But it doesn’t.  For most of the book, Pen refers to everything in fantastical ways, such as saying “Earthshaker” for what appears to the reader to be an earthquake.  Why is she saying “Earthshaker”? Was there something different about it?  Does she just like prettying up her language? What is going on with that?  Later it is revealed that an earthquake seems to have happened when some genetically engineered giants escaped (showed up? were released?).  The whole world basically goes to shit overnight, though, and it just doesn’t seem logical that that would happen from just a few giants escaping.  Similarly, there are other fantastical creatures who are never explained.

Similarly, although it is indicated early on that this is a modern retelling of The Odyssey, it doesn’t line up well with the original.  In the original, Odysseus is trying to come home after a war and keeps getting swept into side-quests.  In this book, Pen starts out at home and then quests away from home.  It would have made more sense for Pen to be somewhere away from home (maybe on a school trip or something), have the disaster occur, and then have her have to find her way home encountering fantastical things along the way.  Starting her at home just doesn’t work.

Several elements feel like they are just thrown in because they look pretty or work with the scene even though they don’t work with the book as a whole.  For instance, butterflies appearing around people who can be trusted pops up in the middle of the book, but isn’t particularly present at the beginning or the end.  Similarly, some characters are revealed to have magical powers toward the end of the book, with no foreshadowing about that, only to have them….not use them much beyond the scene where it’s revealed.

Also, I’m sorry, but the whole some evil scientist genetically engineered giants to be his children and now the giants are out to destroy us but also the whole world inexplicably now resembles a myth just really doesn’t work.  First, it makes no sense why a scientist would even want to engineer a giant.  To be his children? Really? Why would anyone want giant children?  Second, to give the mystical elements that started this whole thing a scientific explanation but then leave the rest fantastical doesn’t work.  Either they’re all explained by science or they’re all fantastical.  I really felt the book went way downhill for me when there was suddenly a “scientific” explanation for the giants. But just the giants and nothing else.

Finally, we need to talk about the name of the book.  It’s a beautiful title but it’s really wasted on this book.  First, global warming doesn’t come into play in the book at all, so why is it mentioned in the title?  Second, it’s clearly a send-up to Love in the Time of Cholera, but it has nothing in common with that book save both having elements of magical realism in them.  It feels as if the author came up with a title that sounded pretty and couldn’t bring herself to let go of it in spite of it not fitting the book she actually wrote.

Overall, this is a short read featuring four well-rounded and written teen characters on the LGBTQ spectrum.  YA readers looking for positive representations of bisexual and trans characters, in particular, and who don’t mind some inexplicable fantasy elements will enjoy this quick read.  Readers who will easily be bothered by the title not matching the content, a mixture of magical realism and scientific explanations for things, and/or nonlinear plots that when told linearly don’t make sense should probably look elsewhere, in spite of the positive representations of underrepresented letters in the LGBTQ spectrum.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Rewinder by Brett Battles (Audiobook narrated by Vikas Adam)

March 21, 2015 3 comments

Book Review: Rewinder by Brett Battles (Audiobook narrated by Vikas Adam)Summary:
It’s 2015, and Denny Younger of New Cardiff, California, is a caste of 8.  He loves reading and studying but he knows he will probably end up working in the shops just like his father.  But when he takes his placement test, he’s offered a position that he is promised is better, but he can’t know anything about it until he starts working, and he must leave his family behind.  Denny’s family life is in pieces, so he eagerly agrees.  Before he knows it, he is re-caste as a 5 and soon discovers that he will be traveling through time as an observer, recording family histories for the elite.  Even the smallest error in time-travel can have far-reaching consequences, and before he knows it, Denny finds himself racing against time (and other time-travelers) to fix everything.  But what does fixing everything actually mean?

Review:
I love a good time-travel book, so when Audible offered this one up to me for review, I eagerly agreed.  This is an action-packed book but with far less time-travel than it originally appears and much more parallel universes.

The basic premise of the book is that this is the year 2015 in a wold where the American Revolution never occurred.  Without the American Revolution, the British Empire ended up taking over most of the world (except East Asia).  Everyone is sorted into extremely strict castes, and family history is everything.  These people haven’t made it to the moon yet, but they have managed to discover time-travel.  And they use this discovery solely to send people called “rewinders” back in time to verify people’s ancestry to solidify their ranking in this world.  Now, this was my first major problem with the book, and it’s a plot point I just never was able to let go of.  This society acknowledges the risk of the butterfly effect and yet they brazenly send people willy-nilly through time risking everything for what? Geneaology.  And this has been going on for decades with no ill effects.  Perhaps other readers can get past the idea that a federally (er, royally) backed agency would do this, but I simply could not.

Naturally, when our brave hero goes back in time, he is the first to woops his way into a butterfly effect.  He knows he’s probably done it (he causes someone to leave a location 12 seconds late), but he still pops back up into the present to check on things.  Once there, it takes him days to figure out that he’s changed history.  Daaaaays.  It should really not take him this long to figure this thing out.  Denny causes a change.  Denny pops up to the present.  Denny has troubling connecting to his companion (a person in the present who grounds the person time-traveling), so he gets sick for a few days.  Denny then wanders through our universe’s New York City and can’t figure out what’s going on.  It takes traveling to California’s New Cardiff (in our world, Los Angeles) and seeing that his family home is gone to figure out what’s happened.  Really? A person who has been trained in time-travel takes this long to figure out this very basic time-travel problem?  It’s hard to believe, especially after we’ve been told repeatedly how smart Denny is, that he could be that stupid.

Denny then starts living in Los Angeles to investigate this parallel universe.  He naturally meets a girl and falls for her.  He then has trouble deciding whether to put everything back or not.  And of course there are other rewinders out there he must contend with.

The basic plot idea is interesting.  What would have happened if there had been no American Revolution and how would a person from that society react if they discovered a different option for their lives? But how the author gets there isn’t fully thought-out or fleshed-out enough.  There are too many logical fallacies, such as the ones I’ve laid out above.  That said, it was a fun read with a different plot than what has been coming from a lot of YA recently.  I was glad to see a scifi that contains some history for YA readers.  I also appreciated how many women characters are present in the book, including Denny’s trainer and his nemesis.  Similarly, Denny’s world is extremely lacking in diversity due to the success of the British empire and its traditionalism.  When he travels to our world, he immediately encounters greater diversity, both of race and of sexuality, and he seems to appreciate that, which is a nice touch.

The narrator does a good job both keeping a good pace and setting the tone for the book.  While I understand why the narrator uses a British accent for the British characters from the 1700s, the history geek in me was frustrated, since the stereotypical modern “British accent” didn’t exist back then.  (I knew this from my History BA, but here’s an article that explains what I’m talking about).

Overall, this book has an interesting premise and fast-moving plot.  It has some romance, but is thankfully free of any love triangles.  Time-travel fans may be frustrated by how easily characters brush off the real presence of time-travel issues.  The science of time-travel is simply not explored enough, nor is history.  However, YA readers looking for a quick read and something different in the genre will most likely enjoy it.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Free download from Audible in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: Ticker by Lisa Mantchev

March 11, 2015 Leave a comment

Book Review: Ticker by Lisa MantchevSummary:
Penny Farthing, member of the wealthy elite, is full of tons of energy she mostly uses to ride her motorized high wheel bicycle and collect robotic butterflies.  Unfortunately, her clockwork heart doesn’t always entirely keep up with her. Plus she has to wind it.  Much more troubling to her, though, is the fact that the creator of her clockwork heart, Calvin Warwick, is now on trial for murdering dozens of people he abducted from the street to practice on before giving her her new heart.  When there is an explosion at her family’s factory and Warwick escapes prison immediately after being found guilty of murder (oh, and her parents disappear), Penny and her twin brother and two of their closest friends embark on a journey of intrigue to bring her parents home and Warwick to justice.

Review:
I rarely am actually interested in anything in the Kindle First email (a once-monthly email that informs Kindle owners as to four books they can access ahead of publication for free).  I am also not often into most steampunk books.  It’s an idea I love, but I often find isn’t executed as well as it should be.  When this one popped up, though, I was intrigued for its transhumanist explorations.  The book definitely explores the concept of transhumanism via the steampunk idea of augmentation, but it mostly is a story about a young girl’s first love and a bit of a mystery/thriller search for a murderer.

The basic premise that a teenager finds out that the medical device that saved her life was the result of the brutal torture and murder of dozens of people is awesome.  This is a more extreme version of the types of realizations that young adults often have.  (For instance, I will never forget the first time I realized that sometimes scientists must experiment on innocent animals in the pursuit of cures and the ethical quandary that resulted for me).  It works quite well because it is set in an alternate universe.  This allows the reader to have some distance to view the ethical issue through but the alternate universe is still similar enough to our own that it is relatable.  Penny is always firmly against any unwilling human experimentation (as she should be) but she is left wondering how much responsibility and guilt she should feel for the tortures and murders when she herself was indirectly responsible.  She is so grateful to be not only alive but able to function better than she could before.  But she is also traumatized at the thought of how she got there.  This is the book’s real strength, and I am glad it is out there for the YA audience to read.  That said, there are other elements of the book that just don’t quite work for me.

First, the level of steampunk is sometimes a bit ridiculous and isn’t explained well enough.  For instance, the world seems to have only robotic butterflies and horses.  Why is that?  For that matter, it’s deeply confusing to me why this culture would develop a robotic horse and carriage, particularly when they also have motorized bicycles (I won’t call them motorcycles, because they definitely are not nearly so eloquent nor sexy as motorcycles).  It’s not a far leap to car from there.  The reasons behind the steampunk features are simply never explored.  They just are.  This may be fine to some readers, but I found it dissatisfying.  I particularly really needed to know why the animals are robots.

Second, the society Penny lives in is clearly meant to be a parallel to the British Empire in its heyday.  It is highly stratified, classist, regal, and feels oppressive (except for Penny and her family of course *eye-roll*).  I have no problem with a book containing this type of society but it is not only never questioned it seems to be held up as an excellent way of living.  It’s great that the military just jumps right on in and solves everyone’s problems (including abducting civilians up to their sky fort).  It’s oh so wonderful that Penny’s family has all this wealth.  It’s tragic for Penny’s family that they lose some product in the factory explosion but the workers and their injuries and lives are barely touched upon.  It ends up feeling like whenever any of the elite people in the book (and most of the main and secondary characters are elite, with the exception of one young girl who is saved from her poor destitute life by the military) discusses anything bad about being the lower class, they do so in a “See, I’m a good person because I care about them” tone but not out of any sincerity.  None of them have any desire to actually change or fix anything.  Indeed, one of the main characters excitedly jumps right in when they are asked to become an honorary member of the military.  The book has the tone that the only thing wrong with this alternate universe is the fact that Warwick is a very bad man who experiments on people he snatched from the street.  Everything else is fine!  When it clearly is not.

Finally, I just don’t particularly care for the main character, Penny Farthing.  First there’s her name, which is exactly the same as the name of the style of bicycle she rides (only motorized) (info on the penny farthing).  That’s just a bit too cutesy for me.  Second, she is a person who is oblivious to her privilege of wealth and access to medical care, even when it is smacking her in the face.  She never learns, changes, or grows (beyond falling in love).  She briefly realizes “hey, maybe things have been rough on my twin brother too,” but she glosses over that quite quickly.  She also eats incessantly in a way that reminds me very much of The Gilmore Girls (here is a great article that talks about why this trope is annoying as hell).  Basically, she eats whatever she wants, whenever she wants, primarily junk food, and everyone finds it “oh so adorable” that she is constantly hungry.  Oh that Penny Farthing!  And she does this all while staying the classic western media ideal of what is attractive!  Without working out! So basically she never does that annoying thing women can sometimes do which is to eat a salad and never eat a burger because she’s watching her figure (which men find annoying) but she also is definitely not fat (which men also find annoying).  She is the best of both worlds.  In Penny’s case, this mystery is explained as the fact that she needs to eat to keep her clockwork heart going.  The “science” of that drives me absolutely batty, by the way.  My best guess is that the author was possibly going for the idea of how some people, such as people with diabetes, need to eat at evenly spaced times to keep their blood sugar even.  However, no one would tell a person with diabetes to eat primarily sugary baked goods at those intervals, which is what Penny mostly eats.  Also, diabetes does not equal heart disease so…..the “science” of this makes very little sense.  It reads as an excuse to use the Gilmore Girls junk food trope.  Finally, it really bothers me that she collects the robotic butterflies.  Yes, I know people do this in the real world with real butterflies, but it has always struck me as cruel, and I think it says a lot about her character that she seems so cool with trapping what in her world are perceived of as essentially living creatures for her own amusement and collection.

All of that said, the plot and mystery of Warwick, his escape, and finding Penny’s parents is fast-paced and unpredictable without ever verging into the land of plots that make no sense.  It’s an interesting world with an engaging plot built around a cool premise.  Where it is weak is primarily in the elements that were either not sufficiently well thought-out, explored, or explained, such as the robotic animals, the functioning of Penny’s heart, etc…

Overall, this has an interesting premise and an engaging plot.  It unfortunately doesn’t explore the workings of the society or the steampunk it has created enough, and the main character can be a bit annoying and hard to root for at times.  However, those who love steampunk with a dash of mystery and romance will likely enjoy adding it to their repertoire, provided they are ok with the issues outlined above.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon Kindle First (Free copy of the book provided by Amazon to those with kindles who request it.  Requesters are under no obligation to provide a review).

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Book Review: The Shade of the Moon by Susan Beth Pfeffer (Series, #4)

December 16, 2014 Leave a comment

cover_shadeSummary:
Jon Evans has spent the last two years living in an enclave as a slip — someone who received a VIP pass to get into an enclave that was originally intended for someone else.  His stepmother and half brother live there as well, while his mother and older sister, Miranda, and her husband, Alex, live just outside of the enclave, working and serving it while living in filth.  Jon isn’t like the rest of them.  He can barely remember a time before the apocalypse of the moon being hit out of orbit.  The enclave and its ways seem increasingly normal, even if he is haunted by the memories of what happened in the years between the apocalypse and the arrival at the enclave.

Review:
I was a bit startled to see that this book featured yet another new perspective, particularly after the return to Miranda’s diary in the third book.  I was expecting a turn back to Alex, but instead we get Miranda’s little brother Jon’s perspective.  I can understand the reasoning for this shift.  Jon is the only young person from the original group living in the enclave.  He is a bit of an antihero throughout most of the book, providing a unique look at the privileged elite in this post-apocalyptic society but one that could be alienating to some readers.

Whereas the first two books focused on the actual apocalypse and the third on the immediate aftermath, this book looks at the new society emerging from that wasteland, and it’s not good.  It’s quite dystopian.  Not everyone who enjoys apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic worlds also enjoy dystopian ones, so this is a bit of a risky move for a series, although it makes logical sense for the plot to progress this way.  The dystopia that Pfeffer imagines is interesting.  The elite have built up enclaves and use those who are not elite to work supporting them, basically killing themselves slowly mining coal and growing food while the elite stay safe and educated in the enclaves.  It allows for a look at social class taken to the extreme while still seeming realistic within the world Pfeffer has created.

Jon also is a realistic character.  He’s a bit spoiled rotten, after all, his brother, sister, and mother all routinely gave him extra food while they starved when the apocalypse first occurred.  He’s the result of all the coddling they gave the youngest in an effort to keep him alive and healthiest.  That said, some readers will be turned off by Jon.  He’s unequivocally a jerk throughout at least half of the book before he eventually snaps out of it.  While I personally enjoy a good antihero every now and then, not all readers will like visiting one, particularly after the more heroic presence of Miranda and Alex in the first two books.

There is one aspect of Jon’s character that really bothers me, and it has nothing to do with his snobbishness and antihero nature early on in the book.

*spoilers* 
He lets on early on in the book that something bad happened to Alex’s sister Julie.  He at one point misleads a female character to believe that he raped Julie to drive her away from him.  This is done to protect her, and the reader is led to believe through this scene that Jon obviously didn’t rape Julie.  Yet when we find out what actually happened, it’s not quite so crystal clear.  Jon basically was making out with Julie and not stopping when she asked him to the first time.  She then runs out into the storm and is killed in the tornado.  Jon states that of course he would have stopped, he was just slow about it and reluctant because he didn’t think Julie’s protests were real.  He thought she wanted him but wasn’t letting herself want him because of her religion.  This is clearly many levels of fucked up. The reader is supposed to just believe Jon that he would have stopped because he says so?  The reader is supposed to believe that Julie 100% over-reacted because Jon claims she did?  It’s a squicky scene to read about, partially because it comes across as that the reader is supposed to absolve Jon from any guilt since he clearly didn’t rape Julie.  He’s also upsetting because no one in the book treats this like the serious issue it is.  Everyone just kind of shrugs and goes oh Julie over-reacted and goes on their merry way.  Even if Jon really was about to stop when Julie ran out, he clearly needs to be spoken to about listening to your partner immediately, about seeking out enthusiastic consent, and about not victim blaming.  Particularly given that this is a YA book and what an important issue this is, the way it’s glossed over left a really sour taste in my mouth.
*end spoilers*

I’m not against the presence of an antihero, including in a YA book, but I do think that Jon’s worse qualities could have been handled with a bit more deftness.  His presence instead dances around the edges of certain issues, rather than drawing them out for examination within the context of a fun dystopia.

The plot gets a bit nuts, and one character in particularly has an ending that is rather anticlimactic.  However, the plot does eventually move everyone into a new area of the dystopia that is quite fascinating and sets the series up well for another book that will hopefully be free of Jon’s perspective, if Pfeffer does decide to write one.

Overall, readers of the beginning of the series will enjoy seeing what ultimately happens to Miranda and Alex, although they may be frustrated to have to do it through Jon’s eyes.  Jon is an antihero who may irritate some readers, and his presence brings up some issues that are then glossed over, rather than dealt with.  Recommended to readers who really want to see more of Miranda and Alex who don’t mind spending some time with an antihero.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Previous Books in Series:
Life As We Knew It, review
The Dead and The Gone, review
This World We Live In, review

Book Review: The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer (Series, #2)

December 4, 2014 2 comments

Book Review: The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer (Series, #2)Summary:
Seventeen-year-old Alex Morales works hard with his eyes on a good college.  He even works in a local pizza joint to pay for his own private Catholic school uniforms to help his Mami and Papi.  Papi is in Puerto Rico for his mother’s funeral and Mami is working late when an asteroid strikes the moon and everything changes.  New York City is struck by flooding and loss of infrastructure.  Alex is left alone to care for his two younger sisters, Julie and Briana, and slowly he begins to think that maybe things will always be this bad. Maybe Mami and Papi will never come back, the moon will never look right again, and there will never be a world where he can go to college and not be left caring for his little sisters.

Review:
I inhaled the first book in this series, in spite of the scientific flaws (which I addressed in my review of the first book).  Miranda’s journal ends so abruptly that I was eager to get to the next book right away.  I was surprised, then, when the second book starts back before the moon is struck with an entirely different family in a different area of the country.  This book shows Pfeffer’s abilities as a writer by showing the same apocalyptic event seen in the first book from the perspective of an entirely different family.

Miranda’s family is suburban-rural, agnostic/atheist humanist, blended (divorced parents with one remarried), and white.  Alex’s family is urban (NYC), Latino, and devotedly Catholic.  Both families are given room to have strengths and flaws, most of which have nothing to do with where they live, their ethnicities, or their religions (or lack of one).  I honestly was startled to see Alex and his and his sisters’ strong faith treated with such respect in this book after Miranda’s lack of faith was treated with equal respect in the first.  It’s easy, particularly in a book written as a journal, to mistake a character’s beliefs for an author’s, and Miranda, a teenage girl, has very strong beliefs.  This book reminded me that those beliefs were just Miranda’s, just as Alex’s beliefs are just his, and it shows how well Pfeffer is able to write characters.

Some readers may find it odd and frustrating to go back in time to relive the apocalypse over again with different characters.  I personally enjoyed it, because the world falling apart is one of the best parts of post-apocalyptic fiction for me.  I also liked having the opportunity to see differences in how the apocalypse plays out based both on the location (suburban/rural versus urban) and the characters’ personalities and reactions.  However, that said, I can see how this set-up of two vastly different sets of characters in books one and two could be off-putting to certain readers.  Some religious readers may be turned off by the first book and Miranda’s staunch atheism.  Those who read the first book and enjoy it for precisely that reason may similarly be turned off by the second book’s heavy Catholicism and faith.  The diversity is a good thing but it also makes it hard to pinpoint an audience for the series.  Those who are open to and accepting of other belief systems would ultimately be the best match but that’s a demographic that can sometimes be difficult to find or market to.  However, if a reader is particularly looking for a diverse set of viewpoints of the apocalypse that is more than just characters’ appearances, this series will be a great match for them.

It should also be mentioned that this book is not a journal.  It is told in third person, from Alex’s viewpoint, although the dates are still mentioned.  It makes sense to do it this way, since Alex definitely does not come across as a character with the time or the inclination to keep a journal.  It would have been interesting to view the apocalypse from the viewpoint of a boy who did keep a journal, however.

The plot makes sense and brings in enough danger without being overly ridiculous.  It would have been nice to have maybe started the book just a bit earlier in the week to see more of Alex’s day-to-day life before the disaster.  Instead, we learn about it through flashbacks, which makes it a bit harder to get to know him than it was to get to know Miranda.

Overall, this is a surprising and enjoyable second book in this post-apocalyptic series that lets readers relive the apocalypse from the first book over again with a different set of characters.  This approach lends diversity to the series, as well as bringing in a greater variety of scenarios for those who enjoy the apocalypse process.  Recommended to those looking for a diverse presentation of beliefs and how those impact how characters deal with an apocalypse.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Previous Books in Series:
Life As We Knew It, review

Book Review: Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer (Series, #1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

November 25, 2014 5 comments

cover_lifeSummary:
Miranda’s journal starts out like any other teenage girl’s diary.  Worries about school, her after-curricular activities, and wondering how her family will work out with her dad having a brand-new baby with his new wife.  But when a meteor strikes the moon things start to change.  Slowly at first but with ever-increasing speed.  Tsunamis wipe out the coasts. Volcanoes erupt. And soon Miranda finds herself, her mother, and her two brothers struggling to survive in a world that increasingly bares no resemblance to the one she once knew.

Review:
I’m a sucker for journal entry books, even though I know rationally that no diary ever has as much content and exposition as is contained in these fictional works.  In addition to the journal format, I liked the premise for the dystopian world Miranda finds herself in.  It’s very different from a lot of the other ones out there, since it’s 100% gradual natural disaster.  This book lives up to the expectations set by its summary, offering a fun journal entry take on a natural disaster that turns into a dystopia.

Miranda, who lives in semi-suburban Pennsylvania, starts out the journal as a very average teenage girl, adapting to her parents’ divorce and father’s subsequent re-marriage, her older brother being away for his first year of college, and hoping to convince her mother to let her take up ice skating again.  The book clearly yet subtly shows her development from this young, carefree teenager through angst and denial and selfishness in the face of the disaster to finally being a young woman willing to make sacrifices for her family.  Miranda is written quite three-dimensionally.  She neither handles the disaster perfectly nor acts too young for her age.  While she sometimes is mature and sees the bigger picture at other times she simply wants her own room and doesn’t understand why she can’t have that.  Pfeffer eloquently shows how the changes force Miranda to grow up quickly, and this is neither demonized nor elevated on a pedestal.  Miranda’s character development is the best part of the book, whether the reader likes her the best at the beginning, middle or end, it’s still fascinating to read and watch.

Miranda also doesn’t have the perfect family or the perfect parents, which is nice to see a piece of young adult literature.  Her parents try, but they make a lot of mistakes.  Miranda’s mother becomes so pessimistic about everything that she starts to hone in on the idea of only one of them surviving, being therefore tougher on Miranda and her older brother than on the youngest one.  Miranda’s father chooses to leave with his new wife to go find her parents, a decision that is perhaps understandable but still feels like total abandonment to Miranda.  Since Miranda is the middle child, she also has a lot of conflict between being not the youngest and so sheltered from as much as possible and also not the oldest so not treated as a semi-equal by her mother like her oldest brother is.  This imperfect family will be relatable to many readers.

Miranda’s mother is staunchly atheist/agnostic/humanist and liberal, and this seeps into Miranda’s journal.  For those looking for a non-religious take on disaster to give to a non-religious reader or a religious reader looking for another perspective on how to handle disasters, this is a wonderful addition to the YA dystopian set. However, if a reader has the potential to be offended by a disaster without any reliance on god or liberal leanings spelled out in the text, they may want to look elsewhere.

I know much more about medical science than Earth science or astronomy, but I will say that when I was reading this book, the science of it seemed a bit ridiculous.  An asteroid knocks the moon out of orbit (maybe) so the tides rise (that makes sense) and magma gets pulled out of the Earth causing volcanoes and volcanic ash leading to temperature drops Earth-wide (whaaaat).  So I looked it up, and according to astronomers, an asteroid is too small to hit the moon out of orbit.  If it was large enough to, it would destroy the moon in the process.  Even if for some reason scientists were wrong and the moon could be knocked out of orbit, even in that scenario, the only thing that would happen would be the tides would be higher.  (source 1, source 2)  I know dystopian lit is entirely what if scenarios, but I do generally prefer them to be based a bit more strongly in science.  I would recommend that reading this book thus be accompanied by some non-fiction reading on astronomy and volcanology.  At the very least, it’s good to know that you can safely tell young readers that this most likely would not happen precisely this way, and this book is a great opening dialogue on disasters and disaster preparedness.

Overall, this is a fun take on the dystopian YA genre, featuring the journal of the protagonist and dystopia caused primarily by nature rather than humans.  Potential readers should be aware that the science of this disaster is a bit shaky.  The story featuring an agnostic humanist post-divorce family makes it a welcome diversifying addition to this area of YA lit.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Series Review: The Monstrumologist Series by Rick Yancey

October 19, 2013 Leave a comment

Introduction:
I post series reviews after completing reading an entire series of books.  It gives me a chance to reflect on and analyze the series as a whole.  These series reviews are designed to also be useful for people who: A) have read the series too and would like to read other thoughts on it or discuss it with others OR B) have not read the series yet but would like a full idea of what the series is like, including possible spoilers, prior to reading it themselves or buying it for another.  Please be aware that series reviews necessarily contain some spoilers.

Bird on a cross against the moon.Summary:
A nursing home contacts a researcher.  An elderly man has passed away.  He identified himself to them as Will Henry, but they can’t find any record of him or living relatives.  He left behind four folios, telling what he claimed to be his life story.  The first folio begins when his parents die in a fire, and he is left in the care of his father’s employer, Dr. Warthrop.  In the 1800s.  Over 100 years ago.  And Dr. Warthrop is a Monstrumologist.  He specializes in the study of aberrant biology, or monsters.  And Will is now his apprentice.  The first thing Dr. Warthrop tells Will is that Will Henry contracted a parasite from his father.  Normally deadly, he is mysteriously a safe host.  The parasite will make him abnormally long-living, and any contact that is too close will make him pass it along to another.

What follows over the course of the folios is the tale of the monsters Will Henry faced alongside and because of Dr. Warthrop.  The anthropophagi–headless creatures with mouths in their stomachs.  The wendigo–similar to a werewolf.  The Typheus Magnificum–the Holy Grail of Monstrumology that may or may not exist.  And finally the Titanoboa Cerrejonensis–a giant snake.  There are these monsters, yes.  But there are also the questionable choices and personalities of the various Monstrumologists, and the slowly unwinding monster inside a boy who has seen too much and been loved too little.

The question left for the researcher is how can Will Henry continue along an increasingly dark path when all signs indicate he eventually happily married his childhood sweetheart?  And are these ramblings true or just the fairy tale of an elderly man?

Monsters and madness encircle Will Henry, Dr. Warthrop, the researcher, and the reader as the folios slowly reveal all.

Black silhouette of birds and trees against a moon and a red background with a face just discernible in it.Review:
There is a lot going for this series that makes it unique and highly recommendable, particularly among its competitors in YA.

It’s horror based in the realms of science and the grotesque.  Wanton blood and guts, serial killers, etc… won’t be found but it also doesn’t shy away from bits of the criminal underworld or real bodily danger.  Will Henry loses a finger at one point. The monsters are real and frequently either eat people or turn people themselves into monsters.  It combines to elicit horror in the reader in the tradition of Frankenstein.  It’s perfect for readers who shy away from slashers or crime novels but still want a dash of terror.

In lieu of a romance, the relationship at the center of the series is between Will and his guardian, Dr. Warthrop.  Yes, the series repeats the common YA trope of an orphan, thereby getting rid of the parents, but just because there are no parents doesn’t mean that there’s no guardian/young person conflict.  In fact, I think that having the conflict be between Will and a, to him, incomprehensible older guardian allows for a more free exploration of the difficulties that can arise in this relationship.  The fact that Dr. Warthrop is not his father means that Yancey is freer to quickly move into the mixed emotions and misunderstandings that can so easily happen in this type of relationship.  Dr. Warthrop has many flaws as a guardian, but he does truly love and care for Will.  Will at first feels lost and no connection with Dr. Warthrop, then he grows to love him in spite of his flaws, then he slowly starts to loathe him.  Whether or not this loathing is warranted is left up to the reader to decide, and I do think that Yancey succeeds at making it a gray area that each reader will reach a different conclusion on.  This relationship gets just as much, if not more, time as the monsters, and it’s one of the things that makes the series worth reading.

Tree and birds silhouetted against a moon and a green background.Yancey isn’t afraid to not just use, but embrace poetic language and literary allusions.  I was truly stunned at the beauty of the language when reading the first book, and that beauty continues throughout the series.  It’s like reading an old, Gothic novel, setting the perfect tone for the world building.  A YA reader who perhaps hadn’t previously experienced narration like this might after reading it be inclined to seek out similar writing, thus finding some classics.  And even if they don’t, it’s a wonderful change of pace for YA.

Setting the story of Will and Dr. Warthrop in the context of the mystery of the modern elderly man, his folios, and the researcher looking into them lends an extra layer to the story that increases its complexity.  The researcher is just as curious as the reader to find out more.  He also provides some necessary historical facts and questions the veracity of some of Will Henry’s statements.  Throughout the series, the researcher is wondering if this actually happened or if it’s all just the imaginings of an elderly man.  The ultimate reveal still leaves this a bit of a mystery, letting the reader decide for themselves what they would prefer to be the answer.

The strength of the monsters varies throughout the series.  Some are perfectly crafted, such as the anthropophagi.  Others can be a bit less frightening or too predictable to be as engaging.  This definitely lends to an uneven pace of suspense in the series and could be disappointing to a reader who is more invested in monsters than in the character development.

Cover of The Final Descent. An orange sky with a moon is covered by a black silhouette of birds on tree branches and a bridge.The ending.  The ending must be discussed.  *spoiler warning* Will Henry in the last book has turned into a dark, lawless, desperate character.  He has been changed by what he has seen.  His childhood sweetheart, Lily Bates, finds him frightening and lacking in morals.  He blames Dr. Warthrop for all of his issues.  While Dr. Warthrop definitely is at fault for not treating Will Henry like an adult and keeping him in the loop for his schemes, Dr. Warthrop also never taught Will to be so cold, desperate, or that it’s ok to wantonly kill.  Will ultimately goes on an opiate and sex binge in a prostitution house.  Dr. Warthrop finds him and pulls him out, in an attempt to save him.  It is then that Willl finds out that the parasites he is infected with will spread with sexual intercourse and kill his partner in a truly grotesque manner, eating them from the inside out.  Will gives up on Dr. Warthrop and all relationships and proceeds to travel the world aimlessly.  The researcher ultimately discovers that Will later runs into Lily with her new husband.  It is then that he reveals that Lily’s husband’s name was Will Henry, and he stole it as a pseudonym for these stories.  So he never married Lily.  Was never happy.  He is now nameless.  It’s an incredibly dark ending that leaves the researcher, and the reader, reeling.  It was honestly a bit too hopeless for me.  It felt as if Yancey was saying Will got sucked down into the monsters in his soul and could find no escape.  I prefer to have a bit more hope in the world than that, particularly after spending four books with a character and growing to care for them.  *end spoilers*

While I can still appreciate what Yancey was doing and what he was going for–a truly dark book–I feel that any potential readers or gift givers should be aware that it starts dark, gets darker, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

There is also a bit of a dearth of female characters in the series.  In the two middle books, we get brief exposures to Dr. Warthrop’s old sweetheart and Lily Bates.  That’s pretty much it.  I’m ok with that, since much of the time is devoted to Will Henry and Dr. Warthrop.  I also understand that the time period in which it is set definitely would not have had a female monstrumologist.  I think Yancey tries to make up for this by having Lily be determined to be the first female monstrumologist, but I also think he steps back from this plotline in the final book, which disappointed me a bit.  Essentially, be aware that if you’re looking for a strong female presence in the plot of your series, look elsewhere.

Overall, this is a unique series that deserves to be in any YA collection.  It address young adult/guardian relationships in the rich wrapping of Gothic style horror narrated with a beautiful poetic language.  Its historical setting and focus on the boy and his guardian doesn’t lend itself to a strong female presence in the series, although the female characters that do exist are good ones.  Its darkness increases throughout the series, so don’t come into this expecting a happy ending.  I’m pleased I took the time to read the entire series, and could see reading it again.  Recommended to both YA fans looking for something different and Gothic horror fans who don’t normally do YA.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift, Audible, and Amazon

Books in Series:
The Monstrumologist, review, 5 stars
The Curse of the Wendigo, review, 5 stars
The Isle of Blood, review, 4 stars
The Final Descent, review, 4 stars

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