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

November 25, 2014 5 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: From a Buick 8 by Stephen King (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

October 9, 2014 3 comments

cover_buick8Summary:
When Pennsylvania state troopers are called in for an abandoned car, they expect it to be a simple report and transfer to impound. But instead they find a car that is slightly off.  It looks like a Buick 8 but isn’t quite one.  Plus its engine by all laws of mechanics should not work.  The troopers agree to make the Buick their responsibility, putting it in a shed and keeping an eye on it.  Because it’s not just a car. It might not be a car at all.

Review:
I was told before I read this by other Stephen King fans that it’s not one of King’s better books, but I would like to read everything he has written, so I picked it up anyway.  This is a book that builds thrills slowly and gently to a conclusion that may not seem satisfying to many readers.

The biggest thing that I think took the thrills out of the book for me is that I am not a car person.  When the narrator was describing the Buick 8, I had no idea any of it was off at all, so it didn’t give me the creeps.  When they first describe the engine, for instance, I was surprised they were freaked out by it because it just seemed like a mysterious engine to me….like all engines.  I definitely think there are more thrills to be found here if the reader is a car person.  A car person will get caught up in what’s awry with the Buick, and see it as the mystery that the state troopers recognize it to be immediately.

What this book excels at is what King always excels at.  The book establishes the place and feeling of rural Pennsylvania beautifully.  The characters all speak in accurate and easily readable dialogue.  There is a large assortment of characters, and they are easy to tell apart.  The timeline of the book is carefully selected for just the right tempo for the book.  These are all wonderful things that kept me reading and made me engaged with characters I might not normally identify with.

Some readers might find that the plot and thrills move too slowly for them.  The Buick has issues gradually over time, and the conclusion they build to might not feel like a satisfying conclusion for all readers.  Personally, I enjoy slower moving thrillers, so this worked for me, but it might not work for all.  Similarly, I believe the ending will be more satisfying to those who have read the entire Dark Tower series than to those who have not.  What is going on with the Buick is more understandable and a bigger deal if the reader is aware of all of the context provided by the Dark Tower.

Overall, if you are a car person who will appreciate a car that is slightly off and also enjoys slowly moving thrillers enhanced by a strong sense of place, this will be a great read for you.  Similarly, those who have read the Dark Tower may be interested in this book due to some possible connections to that series.  If neither of those descriptions fit you, you may want to pick up a different Stephen King book for your thrills.  He certainly has plenty to choose from.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Harvard Books

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Book Review: The Prometheus Project: Captured by Douglas E. Richards (series, #2)

Alien buildings.Summary:
Brother/sister duo Ryan and Regan are back only this time they’re officially part of the team of scientists working in the top-secret alien city discovered deep underground in Pennsylvania.  They rush off every day after school to work in the city of Prometheus.  One weekend they convince their parents to let them sleep over in the city, only to wake up to discover all of the adults captured by a ruthless alien escaped convict whose mind control abilities mysteriously fail to work on the kids.  It’s up to them to save not just the adults, but the earth itself from alien rule.

Review:
This follow-up to The Prometheus Project: Trapped (review) brings even more action and science than the first time around.  It’s also a longer length that is more suitable for the older middle grade crowd.

Ryan and Regan’s relationship with each other has progressed from sibling tolerance to a level of respect for each other clearly due to working together in the city.  It’s nice to see a healthy sibling relationship modeled in a middle grade book.

Again the plot fooled me with a twist ending I didn’t see coming, but that made perfect sense when it was revealed.  This is the sort of thing I’d have loved as a middle grade reader.  A mystery that manages to out-wit me without playing any tricks.

The villain is threatening without being too frightening.  Although the kids’ parents are held captive, no undue violence is shown.  Predominantly the scientists are held with plastic ties on their wrists and a simple verbal threat of “do this or else….”  It seems an appropriate level of suspense for the age-range.  The enemy is formidable, but it is possible to out-wit him.

Although the science, plot, and characters are strong, something just couldn’t let me jump from liking it a lot to loving it.  Perhaps this is because I am out of the age-range intended, but it does seem to me as though sometimes the story expects a bit too little of the young reader enjoying it.  I hope in future books that Richards challenges young readers a bit more with the writing in addition to the science.

Overall, this is another strong entry in this middle grade series.  I firmly believe the series will keep young readers with an interest in scifi and secret government operations happily engaged while parents and guardians can have peace of mind about what they are reading.

4 out of 5 stars

Source:  Won copy in exchange for my honest review from the author via LibraryThing

Previous Books in Series:
The Prometheus Project: Trapped, review

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Book Review: The Prometheus Project: Trapped by Douglas E. Richards (series, #1)

August 23, 2011 1 comment

Silhouette of two kids standing in outerspace.Summary:
Ryan and Regan can’t believe their scientist parents made them move from San Diego to the total snoozefest of Pennsylvania practically overnight just so they can work at a boring science corporation, Proact.  But when they accidentally overhear their parents talking, they realize there may be more to Proact than meets the eye, and they’re determined to find out!

Review:
I don’t think I realized when I entered the giveaway for this (a really long time ago, sorry about that, Richards!) that it’s a middle grade/children’s series.  I don’t usually read below the YA level anymore unless I’m reading to my four year old nephew, but I am a librarian, so I put my librarian cap on for this book.  I also tried to hearken back to what I would have enjoyed at the age of eight or nine.

Ryan and Regan are a cute brother/sister pair.  Ryan is older and thus underestimates his sister sometimes.  They tease each other, but never cruelly, and it is evident that they truly love each other.  The sibling dynamic is definitely well-done.  It was refreshing to see the adults depicted as adults and not idiots or mean-spirited.  What Ryan and Regan accomplish is because they’re the smart kids of smart parents, not out of any short-comings of the adults.

The science is really well-done.  Richards’ author bio states that he used to write for National Geographic Kids, and it shows.  He explains things eloquently without talking down to kids.  All of the science found in the book is factual.  I would have loved stumbling upon such learning in fiction as a kid.

The ending has a twist that even I didn’t see coming, and I was sort of expecting to being a grown-up reading it, haha.  It’s not cheesy or over-the-top, and I’m betting kids will love the surprise.

My main criticisms are that sometimes the descriptions of the characters focus too much on their hair and eye color to the exclusion of other things, and the book felt too short.  It just seemed a bit short for the grade level.  Mentally I compared it to Nancy Drew which are generally like 25% longer, and I think that length would be ideal.  The sequel is longer though, so that’s a good thing.

Overall I think if you have middle grade reading level kids who like science, mysteries, or scifi you should feel completely confident in handing them this book.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Won copy in exchange for my honest review from the author via LibraryThing

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