Archive for the ‘YA’ Category

Book Review: UnWholly by Neal Shusterman (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Luke Daniels)

October 21, 2015 Leave a comment

Book Review: UnWholly by Neal Shusterman (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Luke Daniels)Summary:
Picking up where Unwind left off, UnWholly finds Risa and Connor managing the Graveyard full of unwinds themselves with no adults in site, and Lev struggling to find a purpose now that he’s both free of clapper chemicals and under the watchful eye of the government.  Into the mix comes Cam, the first ever “rewind.”  He’s been assembled completely from the parts of unwinds of every race and religion.  And his creator intends to meddle with the runaway unwinds too.

I picked this up right after finishing the first on audiobook, because finding a fast-paced story with a good narrator can be harder than it sounds.  So once I found that with the first book in the series and I saw the rest of it had the same narrator, I figured I may as well continue along with it.  While I found the first book engaging and thought-provoking, I found myself periodically bored with the plot in this one, and also found it more difficult to suspend my disbelief than before.

The basic premise is that Connor is all torn up over having the arm of his once-rival (who also just so happened to threaten to rape his girlfriend, Risa).  He thus holds Risa at arm’s-length (pun intended) because he’s afraid of what his own arm will do.  While I appreciate the fact that it must be truly atrocious for your boyfriend to now have your attempted rapist’s arm, I think the fact that Connor lends the arm so much agency is a symptom of one particular idea in this world-building that just doesn’t work for me.  The idea that body parts have their own spark of soul or agency or thought.  It’s rife in this entry in the series, and it’s just plain weird to me.  I can understand a character not bonding with a transplant that was forced upon him. I can understand it being weird for loved ones.  I don’t, however, find myself able to suspend my disbelief enough to believe that someone’s arm has their personality in it so much that the person who it was transplanted onto would be afraid of it.  It’s an arm, not a piece of brain or even a heart. The author does provide links to sources about transplant recipients feeling connected to the person whose body part they received or having memories or what have you.  I appreciate that.  But for me personally this plot point just does not work.  Other readers may be able to suspend their disbelief better than I was able to.  I for once can’t imagine not going near my own girlfriend because I was afraid of my arm.  I also just disliked how much agency Connor removes from himself for his own temper.  If he hits the wall when he’s angry it’s not him hitting the wall, it’s the arm hitting the wall.  The arm got mad. The arm got out of control.  There’s just a ridiculous lack of agency there, and I’m not super comfortable with that level of lack of agency being in a book marketed toward teenagers, who are at the best point in life for learning agency and responsibility.

I similarly have a hard time believing, from a neurological perspective, that the rewind boy, Cam, could exist.  His brain is dozens’ of peoples all wound together.  I could believe replacing a brain piece here or there with transplant technology, I couldn’t believe mish-mashing many together and having them actually function.  Let alone with the only issue being that Cam struggles to learn to speak in words instead of metaphors.  While Cam did strike me as grotesque, he mostly just struck me as an impossibility that I was then supposed to have sympathy for because he’s a person with his own feelings…but are they really?  The whole thing was just a bit too bizarre for me.

On a related note, I found the scenes where Cam wakes up and learns to talk and slowly realizes what he is to be very tedious to read.  They move slowly, and there is an attempt at building of suspense, but it is clear nearly immediately that Cam is a Frankenstein’s creature like experiment, even without Cam himself knowing it right away.

The other big new character is Starkey, a boy who was storked who is brought into the Graveyard.  He’s basically exactly the same as Connor (he’s even still a white boy), the only difference being that was a stork and that he has no Risa to ease down his temper.  I found his characterization to be uncreative, even if the building up of strife between the storks and the rest of the unwinds was a good plot point.  It would have been better if the leader of the storks was more creative.  Similarly, Starkey’s two main assistants are a black girl and an Indian-American boy.  Just as with the first book, non-white people exist, but only as seconds to the white people.  Why couldn’t either of them have been the leader of the storks?

All of these things said, there was still a lot of plot to keep the interest.  I’ve barely touched on a couple of them.  The world is still engaging, even if it’s hard to suspend the disbelief for it.  I doubt I’d keep reading if I was reading this in print, but the audiobook narration makes it feel like listening to a movie, and it’s the perfect match for my commutes and doing dishes and such.  Plus, now I’m curious as to where else the plot will go.  I’m betting it will end up going in a direction I find it even harder to suspend my disbelief for, but it’ll be a fun ride seeing where that is.

Overall, fans of the first book may be disappointed by the slightly more meandering plot in this one.  The addition of two new characters to follow will be distracting to some readers while others will find it adds to the interest and suspense.  Some readers may be turned off by the continued lack of diversity in such a large cast of protagonists.  The plot is engaging and the world is unique, though, so fans of YA dystopian scifi will probably still enjoy it.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Previous Books in Series:
Unwind, review

Book Review: Unwind by Neal Shusterman (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Luke Daniels)

September 29, 2015 7 comments

Book Review: Unwind by Neal Shusterman (Audiobook narrated by Luke Daniels)Summary:
In the near future, the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life debate explodes into a war called the Heartland War.  The only way the war could reach a peace was to come to an agreement.  There would be no abortion but when children are between the ages of 13 and 17 their parents can sign an order to have them unwound.  New scientific technology allows doctors to transplant all of a person’s body parts.  They will then “live on” in a “divided state.”  Teens whose parents choose to sign an unwind order for them are rounded up by juvie cops and brought to Harvest Camps to await their fate.  Some families, particularly from fundamentalist branches of all faiths, believe in tithing 10% of their children, and will have a child simply to raise them to be a tithe.  Additionally, many children end up unwanted and living in State Homes, where they are all given the last name of Ward–for ward of the state.

Connor is a light-hearted bad boy who just accidentally found his own unwind orders in his parents’ desk and immediately goes on the run.  Lev is a tithe who is on his way to Harvest Camp.  Risa is a ward of the state, and she is on a bus to be unwound, because she isn’t deemed exceptional enough to justify her upkeep.  A series of events throws them into each other’s lives and leaves whether or not they will be unwound in question.

This was recommended to me years ago, but when I first read the description I was skeptical that the book was anything but Pro-Life propaganda.  Years later I decided to check it out again, and most reviews mentioned how neutral the book was.  Additionally, I read some interviews with the author where he stated he genuinely was trying to present a neutral story that analyzes some tough questions, so I thought I would give it a shot.  Ultimately, the author has succeeded at creating a future world that is fascinating to visit and that also analyzes medical ethics in a creative way.  I would honestly say the book is much more about medical ethics, particularly in regards to transplants, than it really is about abortion rights.

The basic plot is that three very different teenagers are supposed to be unwound but then find themselves on the run instead of actually at Harvest Camp.  The book is in the third person but from the limited perspective of one character, and that one character switches around.  It is predominantly Connor, Risa, or Lev, but it is also sometimes someone like a juvie cop or a parent.  Sometimes this narrative structure works really well, providing many different perspectives on the same event or issue.  Other times it feels too contrived.  The perspective switches at just the right moment to keep the reader in the dark, or to reveal something we wouldn’t otherwise know.  Sometimes this structure builds suspense and other times it kind of ruins it.  Overall, though, I enjoyed the structure and found that the multiple perspectives really added to the world and the story.

This narrative structure is enhanced by clippings from real, modern-day newspaper articles and blogs, as well as fake advertisements and news from the future the book is set in.  Partially due to the Audible narrator, who did a fantastic job at the ads, I really enjoyed these snippets of media from the future.  They are very tongue-in-cheek and adult, but will still appeal to teens reading the book for their over-the-topness.  I found the modern day news articles to be less interesting, and mostly felt a bit like scare mongering.  They read as a bit heavy-handed in pushing the “this could really happen!” angle.

I did find it a bit frustrating that all three of the main characters are white and straight.  While it is acknowledged that a few people (primarily adults) could be GLBTQ, the assumed norm is straight and cis, no matter what social organization is in control.  Whether it’s mainstream society, rebels, or anyone in-between. The norm is always straight cis.  Similarly, while the author does include non-white people to a much greater degree than non-straight/non-cis people  (there are a wide variety of ethnicities and religions represented in the society), they are all secondary characters.  One thing that really stuck out to me was that at one point in the book we meet a Chinese-American girl who is being unwound because her parents wanted a son, and they just kept trying until they got one and then picked a daughter to unwind, because they couldn’t afford all the kids.  She’s also got an interesting punk aesthetic to her.  What an interesting main character she would have been!  Can you imagine her in the role of Connor? They are both running away from being unwound, and she could easily have taken that main character role.  It just bothers me when a book has three main characters who are all in a similar situation due to society-wide problems, and yet they are so non-diverse, with just a nod at gender by having one female character.

With regards to the female character, Risa, I must say I was very disappointed to have one plot point be an attempted rape of her, and her then being saved by a male character.  First, we only get one female main character and then she naturally is almost raped.  Then naturally she must be saved by someone else.  The whole scene sickened me, especially when I thought about teen girls reading it.  It was just a completely unnecessary plot point.  I once read an article that talked about how often rape scenes (or attempted rape scenes) are a sign of lack of creativity. I don’t think all of them are, but this one certainly came across that way.  Unnecessary and a convenient plot point without thought to how it would affect the readers.

In spite of these characterization and style complaints though, the plot is very good, and the world is fascinating.  Characters in a natural manner talk about and explore the ethics of life, when life begins, and who has the right to life, as well as who has the right to end it.  The plot is fast-paced, and I read as quickly as I could to find out what happened.  There are also a couple of twists at the end that rocked my socks off and left me immediately downloading the next book in the series.

All of that said, I have a few questions about the world that were never addressed.  First, if everyone who is unwound is between the ages of 13 and 17, how does that work out with transplantation?  People have not yet finished growing at 17, especially their minds.  Does this mean a 67 year old woman would have a 15 year old’s arm if she needed a transplant?  If so, that sounds very grotesque to me, and I wonder how society has learned to deal with something so mis-matched.  This isn’t particularly addressed, except to say that sometimes it’s weird to look at someone with two eyes that don’t match.  Similarly, the world at large isn’t really talked about at all.  The kids who are trying to escape being unwound don’t even consider running into another country but they never explain why.  How has the world at large reacted to the United States’ new law? Is there any country that would be a safe-haven for unwinds?  Are there other countries following suit?  The international impact is woefully underaddressed.

In spite of these various shortcomings, the plot and the world still sucked me in.  It was a quick read that left me wanting more.

Overall, fans of dystopian ya looking for another series to whet their appetite will definitely enjoy this one.  It’s a completely different dystopia from most of the ones that are already big, and I am sure YA readers who are currently teens themselves will find the idea of their parents being able to sign an unwind order on them chilling.  Dystopian YA fans should definitely give this one a go.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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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.

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?

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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


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