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Book Review: Run by Kody Keplinger

February 5, 2017 Leave a comment

Book Review: Run by Kody KeplingerSummary:
Bo Dickinson is a girl with a wild reputation, a deadbeat dad, and a mama who’s not exactly sober most of the time. Everyone in town knows the Dickinsons are a bad lot, but Bo doesn’t care what anyone thinks.

Agnes Atwood has never gone on a date, never even stayed out past ten, and never broken any of her parents’ overbearing rules. Rules that are meant to protect their legally blind daughter—protect her from what, Agnes isn’t quite sure.

Despite everything, Bo and Agnes become best friends. And it’s the sort of friendship that runs truer and deeper than anything else.

So when Bo shows up in the middle of the night, with police sirens wailing in the distance, desperate to get out of town, Agnes doesn’t hesitate to take off with her. But running away and not getting caught will require stealing a car, tracking down Bo’s dad, staying ahead of the authorities, and—worst of all—confronting some ugly secrets.

Review:
This book would have wound up as a Disappointing Reads Haiku except that I actually didn’t have high expectations for it going in. The description didn’t appeal to me that much, and I had a feeling I might feel lukewarm about it. So why did I read it? I heard one of the two girls was bisexual, and hurting as I am for bisexual literature (it’s hard to find just from book descriptions), I’m willing to give most of it a shot if it sounds even moderately appealing. I do like stories of unlikely friendships and representation of less than ideal parenting situations (the realistic kind, not the fantasy kind of conveniently dead parents). I also liked the representation of not just bisexuality but also someone who is legally blind. I found the writing to be clunky, though, and the ultimate plotline to be a bit puzzling, rather than moving.

Agnes is written better than Bo. The depictions of her over-protective parents, what it is to be legally blind but not 100% blind, how others treat her, particularly in her church as an angel and not as a regular person, these were all great. The author is herself legally blind, and you can really tell. I’ve read many books about blind characters by people who were not themselves blind and the depiction was nowhere near as realistic as in this book. I think it speaks a lot to why own voices literature matters.

This realism doesn’t come through in Bo though. Bo reads like a two-dimensional caricature with the quick correction that oh hey I know I’ll make her bisexual but not a slut and that makes her seem sensitively written. Bo whose family is known in the small town as the trouble-makers, the no-goods. Bo with rumors spread about her and no-good drug-addict mom. Bo who, unlike Agnes, doesn’t speak mainstream English but mostly just in the sense that she says “ain’t” a lot. Bo who’s terrified of foster care so runs when her mom is arrested again. What bothers me the most about Bo (this may be a minor spoiler) is the book seems to think it gives her a happy ending. Like everything is ok now. But it’s clearly not. Speaking as a bisexual woman who had a less than ideal living situation in rural America in her teens, nothing about Bo strikes me as realistic. She reads as fake. She sounds fake. Some of her actions themselves are realistic but there’s no soul behind them. It might not have stuck out so badly if Agnes hadn’t been so well-written or perhaps if I wasn’t able to relate to well to who Bo was supposed to be.

One of the lines that I think demonstrates this problem that I couldn’t stop re-reading is below. It should have made me happy because Bo actually says the word “bisexual.” (Very rare in literature). But I was just irritated at how fake it all sounded.

“So … you’re all right with it, then? Me being … bisexual, I guess? I ain’t never used that word before, but … you’re all right with it?” (loc 2359)

It bothers me on two levels. First, rural people don’t just decorate their sentences with ain’t’s and double negatives. There’s more nuance to the accent than that and also Agnes and her average blue collar parents would have the same accent as Bo (they don’t). Second, I’ve never in my life heard a bisexual person speak about themselves this way, and I certainly never have. The number of times Bo asks Agnes if she’s “ok with it” (this is not the first time) is unrealistic. You know as soon as you come out if someone is “ok with it” or not and you deal and react to that. You don’t just keep wondering. You know. No amount of inexperience coming out would make you not know.

If Bo had been written as powerfully as Agnes, this would be a very different review, but since that’s not the case I have to say my dislike of the representation of Bo paired with my like of the representation of Agnes left this an average read for me, and it certainly won’t be a piece of bi literature I’ll go around recommending.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz

January 26, 2017 Leave a comment

Book Review: Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah MoskowitzSummary:
Etta is tired of dealing with all of the labels and categories that seem so important to everyone else in her small Nebraska hometown.

Everywhere she turns, someone feels she’s too fringe for the fringe. Not gay enough for the Dykes, her ex-clique, thanks to a recent relationship with a boy; not tiny and white enough for ballet, her first passion; and not sick enough to look anorexic (partially thanks to recovery). Etta doesn’t fit anywhere— until she meets Bianca, the straight, white, Christian, and seriously sick girl in Etta’s therapy group. Both girls are auditioning for Brentwood, a prestigious New York theater academy that is so not Nebraska. Bianca seems like Etta’s salvation, but how can Etta be saved by a girl who needs saving herself?

Review:
Etta is a character I wish I had been able to find in fiction when I was a teenager. She’s unashamedly herself, even when it hurts or it involves some floundering. She’s from a small town with dreams of the big city. She just doesn’t fit in her small town. She is so very real because she is so many intersectional elements at once. Most important to me is that she’s bisexual (and she actually SAYS the word), but she’s also female, black, and suffering from Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOs), where the name of the book comes from.

What’s so great though is that, even with being all of these things, her main point of conflict actually has nothing to do with any of them. She desperately wants to live in NYC, and she sees a contest to get into a musical theater high school in NYC as just the chance to do that. She has a huge dream, and that is something any YA reader can relate to. So even if the reader happens to not relate to Etta on anything else (and honestly, who cares? kids like Etta have to reach really hard to relate to most of the literature out there so it’s about time the mainstream kids have to as well), but even if they don’t relate to her on anything else, they should be able to relate to her on this adolescent experience of The Big Dream.

I loved that Etta is allowed to be the person she is without speaking for All Bisexuals™. She very clearly presents herself as a bisexual person who is not representative of all bisexual people beyond the being attracted to more than one gender thing. I also appreciated that the complexity of the queer community is shown. Etta talks about being pushed into being an outsider by both the straights and the lesbians because both of them kind of just want her to “pick a side.” The book begins with the lesbians being angry at Etta for dating a boy. They’re acting like she was a “fake lesbian,” and this is how Etta feels about that:

And bi the way, I was never a lesbian, and I told the Dykes that all the time, but there isn’t a Banjo Bisexuals group or whatever. (location 54)

While a lot of the book eloquently deals with Etta’s sexuality, it also takes time to talk about race and racism. I lost the highlighted passage but essentially Etta is talking with a friend and discusses how hard it is to be part of so many minority groups and how she can never hide being black but she can hide being queer, and how that means she can never escape racism. On the other hand, she also points out how exhausting it can be to constantly be reminding people of her queerness. No one denies that she’s black but people keep trying to take her bisexual identity from her. It’s a non-preachy passage that introduces the complexities of intersexuality to a YA audience.

Finally, there’s the EDNOS. The best part about this is the book come in when Etta is in recovery. Most books about eating disorders come in during the downward spiral, but Etta has already gone to treatment and is working in recovery. We so often don’t get to see recovery and how messy it can be in literature, but we see it here. We get to see how mental illnesses don’t just go away, people just have strategies for staying in recovery.

There’s a ton that’s good about this book, but I must say that I did think the level of partying could sometimes be a bit over the top. While obviously not all kids are straight-edged I was a bit skeptical of the level of partying going on in Small Town USA (including high schoolers getting into a gay bar repeatedly). Perhaps what struck me as a bit less realitic, actually, was Etta’s intelligent and put-together mother who is clearly caring being somehow out of touch about the partying going on, whereas Etta’s sister is 100% aware. It wasn’t enough to truly bother me and I do think on some level some YA readers expect an unrealistic set of partying situations just for the interest level but in a book that had so much realistic about it, it just struck me as a bit out of place.

Overall, this is a great addition to contemporary YA with an out and proud main character and a timeless plot of a small town girl with big dreams. I requested it at my library to be added to the collection (and they did!), and if you can’t buy it yourself, I highly recommend you doing so as well. It bring so much different to the YA table.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Counts For: Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge #miarc
Specific Illness –> EDNOS

Book Review: Made You Up by Francesca Zappia

January 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Book Review: Made You Up by Francesca ZappiaSummary:
Alex fights a daily battle to figure out the difference between reality and delusion. Armed with a take-no-prisoners attitude, her camera, a Magic 8-Ball, and her only ally (her little sister), Alex wages a war against her schizophrenia, determined to stay sane long enough to get into college. She’s pretty optimistic about her chances until classes begin, and she runs into Miles. Didn’t she imagine him? Before she knows it, Alex is making friends, going to parties, falling in love, and experiencing all the usual rites of passage for teenagers. But Alex is used to being crazy. She’s not prepared for normal.

Review:
A YA book featuring a main character with schizophrenia has a lot of potential — both to be great and to go awry. While Alex is always written with empathy, something I appreciated, I ultimately found other elements of the story to be too detracting for me to be able to wholeheartedly recommend it.

Alex, her battle with schizophrenia, and her parents’ attempts yet simulatneous inability to really deal with it fully, are all depicted well in this story. While I think the plot comes dangerously close to making Alex’s parents look like bad guys, ultimately enough other perspectives are shown that it does appear more like a mistake on their part, and a consequence of dealing with such a serious illness and situations for such a long time, rather than something truly mean-spirited or cruel. Alex has enough of a grip on reality to be relatable, while her struggles with aspects of her mental illness are heart-breakingly represented. So why so few stars?

First, while it may be part of her delusions, it’s never made clear if Miles’ grandfather was actually alive during WWII. Alex takes it as fact, and it’s not one that’s ever disputed the way others are. It’s a real stretch for someone Miles’s age to have a grandparent who was alive in WWII as anything other than a baby (and even then, that’s a stretch), particularly since this grandfather is through his maternal line, and women have less of a window in which to have children than men do. It may seem like a small issue, but it’s something that really bugged me. I’m ok with it if it’s ultimately part of one of Alex’s delusions but I do think that should be made clear somewhere in the book.

I also didn’t like the entire plot surrounding Miles’s mother. Essentially, his father falsely convinces the authorities that she’s crazy so that she’ll get locked up in a mental institution and not be able to leave her abusive marriage with her son. The fact that she’s been locked up for years and no one has noticed is just not something I believe could happen in this day and age. The initial mental health screening? Yes. A sane woman remaining in an institution for years against her will? No. It’s clearly established that this is a real thing that happens, not one of Alex’s delusions, and it just had me rolling my eyes.

The ending struck a sour note for me as well. Without giving anything away, Alex is presented as a strong young woman battling an equally strong illness and in the end she kind of just loses her gumption. While I think accepting help is good, the way she accepts it and the way she graduates from it both rubbed me the wrong way. I’m not sure about the message it’s sending to the YA audience.

So while I really appreciate the character of Alex and seeing schizophrenia represented to realistically and while the plot did keep me reading, enough sour notes were hit for me that I ultimately just found it to be an average read.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Counts For: Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge
Specific Illness –> Schizophrenia

Audiobook Review: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Brandon Espinoza and Phoebe Strole)

March 7, 2016 3 comments

Audiobook Review: The 5th Wave by Rick yancey (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Brandon Espinoza and Phoebe Strole)Summary:
When a giant spaceship showed up above Earth that wasn’t ours, Cassie and everyone else expected contact. What they didn’t expect was waves of attacks, everything from EMP to disease. Now, she’s at a refugee camp with her father and little brother wondering what the 5th wave of the attack might be. When it comes, will they even know?

Review:
I really enjoyed Rick Yancey’s other series (The Monstrumologist, series review). I must admit to being surprised that this is the series that got picked up into a movie. I didn’t find the blurb nearly as intriguing as that of The Monstrumologist. But since I liked the other series so much, I figured I’d give it a shot. While I can see why it’s taken off, I don’t find it to be as well-constructed or nearly as unique as Yancey’s other series.

The beginning of the book is very slow-paced. Cassie is off hiding in the woods on her own and through her diary where she tries to deal with what has happened the reader learns about the waves of the alien invasion. I like a diary book, but the slow pacing just really didn’t work for a book about an alien invasion.

At a certain point, this narration switches for one chapter to that of the perspective of an alien. Then it switches to the perspective of a boy from Cassie’s high school she had a crush on and his experiences with the alien invasion. Later it flips back to Cassie, only it’s now no longer her diary. Her diary just sort of gets dropped. While I can enjoy multiple narrators, I don’t think these are handled as well as they could have been. The chapter from the alien’s perspective ruins any tension or mystery that had been building around a certain event, in particular. Often switching between Cassie and Ben just feels like it’s convenient for world building and not adding very much to the plot. That said, I do like that the “star” position of this YA action is shared between a boy and a girl fairly equally.

The plot, although slow-moving, starts out strong. There is a plot twist that made me roll my eyes and that I think makes this less unique in YA literature than it started out.

Initially it appears that there will be no love triangle but there ends up being one. I can’t go into the details without some big spoilers but I will say that you make it through most of the book without a love triangle, and then there ends up being one in the last bit. It was disappointing, as I thought something more unique was being done (something akin to a crush turning into a real friendship…but that’s not what happens).

Ultimately the book ends up feeling less about aliens and more about the horrors of child soldiers and war stealing childhood. I definitely think scifi can bring a current issue such as this to people’s attention, but I also think the narration and various irritating and/or confusing plot points ultimately weakens the point. I doubt when I was a teen that such a book would have made me think about child soldiers. Instead I would have felt misled by the title and blurb and been irritated about that, distracting from the point.

All of that said, if a YA reader is looking for an apocalyptic setting featuring dual leads instead of one hero, this is a book that will fit that bill. Just be sure the reader is ok with some surprisingly slow-moving portions for a book with an action-packed blurb. However, I would suggest that a YA reader looking for something truly different check out Yancey’s other YA series: The Monstrumologist.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: UnSouled by Neal Shusterman (Series, #3) (Audiobook narrated by Luke Daniels)

February 9, 2016 Leave a comment

Book Review: UnSouled by Neal Shusterman (Series, #3) (Audiobook narrated by Luke Daniels)Summary:
Connor and Lev are on the run from the Juvenile Authority but for once they’re running to something. Or rather, someone. They’re looking for a woman Proactive Citizenry has tried to erase from history, hoping she’ll have some answers about just how the world got to be the way it is.  Meanwhile, Cam, the rewound boy, is plotting to take Proactive Citizenry down in the hopes of winning the heart of Risa.

Review:
This entry in the series really fizzled for me with the far-fetched ideas and shaky execution of a complex plot finally becoming too much for me to really enjoy the story.

On the one hand, this book is more of the same. There’s multiple characters in vastly different situations who will clearly all come together at some point in a convergence that should read like fate but oftentimes just reads as too convenient. On the other hand, the action this time is interspersed with some flashbacks to the scientist who discovered unwinding, and how it went from something to be used to save lives to something to keep adolescents in line. This plot was interesting, but its reveal was awkwardly handled. The flashbacks are from the perspectives of the scientists, just as we switch around among the perspectives of the teens in the story, rather than letting them naturally discover what happened.  It’s a change that could have been used to build up more tension and excitement but instead just makes the pace awkward and changes the feel of the story from one told primarily by teens to one routinely interfered with by adult perspective.

The big reveal of how unwinding came to be failed to really strike a chord with me, and I believe this is partially because it’s still a bit unclear to me as to who exactly the big bad is. I do think it’s interesting that basically unwinding came to be because big business was trying to protect their investment in health care. I appreciate the angle of how health care needs to be more than just a business. However, I question the supposed solution for unwinding offered at the end of the book. I feel it is just more big business.

Overall, this book continued the issues with the second book, only more so. Too many plots that conveniently intersect and confusion over what exactly is going on in the world.  Additionally, the far-fetched elements that challenged my ability to suspend disbelief in the first two books become at the center of the big overarching plot of the series. Given both of these issues, I will not be continuing reading the series, although I am glad that I read the first book, as it is an interesting and unique dystopian YA world. It’s just one that went off the rails a bit.  This entry is recommended to those readers who simply must know how unwinding came to be and how the characters plan to stop it.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Previous Books in Series:
Unwind, review
UnWholly, review

Book Review: If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan (Audiobook narrated by Negin Farsad)

January 18, 2016 2 comments

cover_ifyoucouldSummary:
Seventeen-year-old Sahar wants three things in life: 1) to become a doctor 2) for her widowed father to come out of his depression and be the Baba she once knew 3) to marry her best friend Nasrin. The problem is, she lives in Iran, and she and Nasrin could be imprisoned and beaten for just their stolen kisses in private, let alone if they tried to marry each other. When Nasrin’s parents announce that they’ve arranged a marriage for her to a well-to-do doctor, Sahar is heartbroken. Nasrin thinks they can continue on as they have been, but Sahar wants to love her exclusively, and she is determined to find a way.

Review:
This book was all the rage on GLBTQ book blogs a couple of years ago, and it’s been on my tbr pile ever since. When I saw it on Audible and heard a clip of the narration, I knew it was time to read it. I found an interesting, unique piece of YA.

First, let me say, if you at all enjoy audiobooks and have the chance to listen to this rather than read it in print, please do so. Farsad’s narration adds so much to the book. From her light Persian accent to her unique voice for each character to her perfect pronunciation of Persian words and Iranian place names, her narration made the reading of the book much more immersive than it would have been if I had read it in print. Plus, at just over 5 hours, you can read it very quickly. I finished my copy in under a week, thanks to commutes and runs.

Let’s start with the things in this book that really worked well for me.  First, I really appreciated seeing a teenage girl’s relationship with her single father at the forefront. It’s difficult to find a YA book talking much about a girl’s relationship with her father, let alone a single father.  The book pushes beyond even this though and addresses how a parent’s depression affects a teen. Part of why Sahar is so desperate and attached to Nasrin (bare in mind, they are only 17), is that her mother died and her father fell into a depression. He is there every day but it doesn’t feel like he is. At one point, Sahar skips school and says that her baba will not even notice. And he doesn’t. Until the school calls him directly. Her father’s depression is situational, not genetic or chemical, but it still affects him and their relationship, and I thought this and its resolution was well depicted.

The depiction of a non-western culture and issue in a book marketed to western teens is well-handled. Iran is not demonized. The good and bad sides of the country are depicted (and of course there are good and bad sides of every country). Teens who may not personally know someone from the Middle East will benefit greatly from seeing things like the fact that even Sahar’s mild father will sneak a bootleg copy of a DVD to watch but also will be intrigued by and appreciate elements of Iranian culture such as the well-protected oasis-like back yards. Farizan also does a good job establishing things like recent wars in Iran, how the current political situation came to be, etc… without infodumping.

While I sometimes found myself rolling my eyes at the level of emotion Sahar was showing, it was to the appropriate level for a teenager.  Also, other people in Sahar’s life clearly see that she is acting like a teenager and attempt to lovingly and understandingly speak with her about what is going on.

Before I move into speaking about what didn’t work for me, I’d like to talk about the trans content. It’s no plot spoiler that Sahar seeks to keep Nasrin to herself by pursuing a sex reassignment (I am not calling it a gender confirming surgery because for her it is not). This is in the official book blurb, just not mine. Essentially, in Iran (and this is still true), having same-sex attractions is haram/forbidden but being transgender is not. The state will even pay for having the treatment and is known for pushing people with same-sex attraction to get a sex reassignment. Sahar meets Parveen, a transwoman, at her cousin’s party, and this plants the idea in her head that she could marry Nasrin if she gets the surgery. Now, I’m not a transperson, but I do think that the author does a good job depicting real trans people and contrasting that with Sahar’s rather adolescent idea to get to be with Nasrin.  Sahar tells Parveen she thinks she’s trans, and Parveen brings her to a support group where most of the people are actually trans, except one woman, who we later find out was forced to get the sex change. Thus, both the genuine trans experience and the forced sex change experience are depicted in the book. Iran is lauded for its support of trans people (there is even one passage talking about how trans people have to pay for their own surgeries in the US unlike in Iran) but also it is clearly shown how harmful it is for the state to demonize same-sex attractions. Additionally, the trans characters do talk about how while the surgery is supported by the state, culturally they still face discrimination from some of their families, when dating, and when looking for jobs.

So what didn’t work for me? I get it that Sahar and Nasrin are adolescents, but I just could not get the appeal of Nasrin to Sahar. I felt I would have been much more empathetic to the whole situation if Nasrin hadn’t been so selfish and annoying. To be fair, multiple characters point out Nasrin’s selfishness to Sahar, and Sahar even at one point questions why she’s willing to risk so much for Nasrin. There is one scene that I believe is supposed to redeem Nasrin of her bad behavior, but I still struggled to like her or feel empathy for her. It bothers me that Sahar never tells her father about her sexual orientation, in spite of him being depicted as quite modern and understanding.  I also felt that the ending didn’t push things far enough, compared to beginning of the book.  I wanted more from and for Sahar. Perhaps the ending is more realistic, but it did disappoint me.

Overall, this is a unique piece of YA showing the GLBTQ experience in a non-western culture that will elicit both an understanding of a non-western culture and empathy for other life situations and experiences from YA readers.  Readers will identify with Sahar’s genuine adolescent voice, which will draw them into the perhaps quite foreign-feeling situation.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Unreal City by A.R. Meyering

December 2, 2015 2 comments

Book Review: Unreal City by A.R. MeyeringSummary:
Sarah Wilkes can hardly believe she’s going away to freshman year of college without her twin sister Lea–who was discovered dead from drowning far away from any water.  She moves through life in a haze until a cat-like creature shows up on one of her walks through campus.  He claims to be a familiar spirit who can bring her to Unreal City, a place where she can make her dreams come true.  There’s only one catch. The price of permanent admission is drinking her blood.  Unable to resist, Sarah journeys to Unreal City but the dream world soon takes on a sinister tone.

Review:
This book piqued my curiosity when it was submitted to me as a possibility for review last year.  I knew when I read the summary that a plot such as this could only go either well-rendered and touching or flat and ridiculous.  I took a chance, and I’m glad I did.  The book offers a look at grief in the young, but wrapped in a fantastical setting that makes encountering such a big topic more palatable.

The fantastical plot at first seems simple.  A familiar spirit who reads as sinister comes to Sarah and offers her a bargain.  Feed him (preferably with her blood, but her hair will do in the meantime), and he will bring her to a world where she can escape her grief.  It seems that he is targeting her for sinister reasons, but slowly over the course of the plot the reader realizes there is more to it than this.  This is one of my favorite types of fantasy.  One that reads initially as simple but becomes increasingly complex over the course of the book.  The fantastical plot slowly takes the reader first deep into Sarah’s grief then into her trying to solve her sister’s death and finally into forgiveness and healing.  It perhaps sounds heavy-handed when I put it that way, but the book makes it so it is not at all.  The reader realizes initially they are encountering a young person’s grief, but then gets pulled into the fantastical world of Unreal City.  Sarah’s grief process then becomes part of that fantasy, so it is more subtle.

The fantasy world is interesting.  It takes the basic concept of a familiar spirit (traditionally, a spirit that a witch would allow to suckle from her in exchange for its magical service) and expands upon it.  There are a set number of familiars in Unreal city, each of whom is correlated with a certain sector of the city.  They each must find a person from our world to feed them and even give them an identity and appearance.  That person can control their own sector, and I do mean control.  They dictate its appearance and are able to defy all scientific laws.  But they can’t control what happens in other people’s sectors, and that’s where Unreal City becomes more complex.  It’s a mix of parallel universes and familiar spirits.

The mystery of Lea’s death kept me guessing, and its resolution is eloquent.  The only thing holding me back from five stars is that for me, personally, at the time I read this, I did not have the level of experience with the book that is necessary for me to consider a book a five star read.  It needs to be something life-changing or that I know I will think of over and over again.  I am sure I would have felt differently though if I was either younger when I read it or had recently experienced a close loss.  (Interestingly, I read this only a couple of weeks before my father passed.  I am certain I would have had a more powerful experience with it if the order had been reversed).

Overall, this is a relatable rendering of grief and loss in the young, particularly in the late teen years, wrapped in a fantastical world that is engaging and keeps the plot from becoming too heavy-handed.  Recommended to readers suffering from recent loss or looking for a unique fantastical world. Especially those who are interested in a new adult setting.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Categories: Book, contemporary, Genre, Review, YA

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

October 21, 2015 1 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.

Review:
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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Unwind, review

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

September 29, 2015 8 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.

Review:
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.

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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