Friday, July 25, 2014

We Were Liars [Review]

Title: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart 
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
What They Say:
A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart. 

What I Say:
I finished reading this book at about 4 a.m. in an absolute puddle of tears, and almost got right online to start this review before I realized how exhausted I was. I picked up this book with no idea of its premise and was pleasantly surprised at first to see that it falls into one of my favorite YA subgenres - books about classy rich kids. But this book is so much more than just that; so much crisper and quicker, so much lovelier, and so much more devastating. This book had an old money family, amnesia, and a love that spans both years and universes. That said:

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Plot: wow
Cadence is a Sinclair. The Sinclairs are an old money family that dates back to the Mayflower. Sinclairs are beautiful, they're tall, they're white. None of them are flawed, none of them are failures, none are criminals. To the outside world, at least. Cadence's grandfather owns a small island off of Massachusetts, a gorgeous idyll where Cadence, her mother, and her aunts' families have spent every summer since she was little. It's a place where Cadence, Johnny, Mirren, and Gat - the Liars - have been free and have been silly and have grown together, these three cousins and Johnny's best friend, who Cadence falls more in love with day by day. Except, after her accident during her 15th summer, Gat doesn't contact her once. Cady spends two years plagued by crippling migraines from the head trauma of this accident - the details of which she can't even remember, along with that whole summer - without even a word from him. Her should-be perfect life has mostly unravelled by the time she finds herself on Beechwood Island for her seventeenth summer. She is determined to find out how her accident occurred and what happened during summer fifteen that no one is willing to tell her. But maybe it's best she doesn't know.

Reading stories about “Classy Rich Kids” adds another layer to the fantasy of YA escapism. Books like this aren’t the kind where you connect to the main character and go on a journey with her; in this sub genre, you accept that you’re reading about complete strangers, and you’re constantly peeking curiously in on them through a window. This story flows so smoothly and hazily between past and present, a mystery in which each puzzle piece will click into place if only you are patient. Despite disconnecting with the lifestyle of the characters, you really feel Cady's veiled frustration at her own lack of memory and mental strength in the wake of her migraines and being heavily medicated - and as the underside of the perfect Sinclair family is slowly revealed, you find that you actually do connect with each of the four Liars. And suddenly you find yourself feeling for these strangers who at first you thought shouldn't complain so much. More cynical readers will claim they knew what the big final secret was all along, but although I thought I did early on, I truly did not. And it will hit you like a ton of bricks, trust. 

Characters: wow
Cadence was a wonderful protagonist. While of course she embodies the "teen girl crushed by family's expectations" trope, I didn't mind a bit. Because of her accident, she's been caught in this state of arrested development, trapped reliving (or not reliving) a summer when she was fifteen until she can finally move past it. Maybe I was too absorbed in the mystery to notice any glaring issues with her narration, but I enjoyed it a great deal. It was light and flowery at times, like the lines in the fairy tales she so often rewrites throughout the book. She works through the issues of her life through these little interval legends, because her life is meant to resemble one.

This book needs a character like Gat - the tenchically-outsider who dares to whisper that, you know, not every family has a private summer island off Massachusetts, and that people out there have it much worse than they do, to which the three others lightheartedly reply: "Stop talking, now", "Stop talking, forever", "I'll give you more chocolate if you shut up"- a simple moment that perfectly illustrates that inability/unwillingness to process certain ideas and truths that are uncomfortable - a theme that rears its head again later in a much more devastating way. In a way, clever, poor Gat is the undoing of the Sinclair family's life of splendor and almost almost-Aryan purity, in an entirely necessary way.

Mirren and Johnny started off as stock-beautiful and carefree cousins. And to be fair, for the most part they are. They help to add, however, to the calm and beautiful atmosphere of the book (if a book can have an "atmosphere"). Reading about them was like reading about the surf rising on a cool beach, these two cousins who spend schoolyears being successful and friendly and who come back each year to the island to spend months lying in the sand and wading in cool water. Sometimes, I was suspicious of how neither character has much motivation - in that they didn't seem to "want" anything, the way every character in a story must - but in that they resemble the kids they are, in the summer at least. Whatever they want in life can always wait for another, less-sunny day.

Relationships: ooh
Gat and Cadence remind me a lot of how summer-camp infatuations go - they're together in the vacuum that is Beechwood Island for a summer, and then suddenly they're apart and Cady doesn't hear from him a single time for two years. And then, as soon as she's back on the island, there he is as if no time has passed at all. Gat's worldly mindset and high empathy for others slowly pulls the three cousins - but Cady in particular - out of their fantasy-world of privilege and splendor, and I appreciate him for that.

Special Features: ooh
This feature isn't exactly special, but I liked the interconnecting family structure of this story, which even starts out with an illustrated Sinclair family tree. There's Cadence and her mother Penny, then her mother's two sisters Bess and Carrie (Mirren's and Johnny's mothers, respectively), then of course Cady's grandfather Harris. Gat is Johnny's mother's boyfriend's nephew, who is part Indian, which makes him stand out easily against the all-white background of the Sinclairs. Then there are the "littles" who are Bess and Carrie's other children, who are mostly background noise save important moments of clarity throughout the story. I have a very small family myself, so I like to see the complex dynamics that arise between so many people stuck on such a small island for three months a year.

Parting Quote:
    "Someone once wrote that a novel should deliver a series of small astonishments. I get the same thing spending an hour with you. Also, here is a green toothbrush tied in a ribbon. It expresses my feelings inadequately." 
So many of Gat's lines made me do a little goofy smile

Thursday, July 17, 2014

City of Heavenly Fire [Review]

Title: City of Heavenly Fire by Cassandra Clare
Series: The Mortal Instruments #6
Genre: Urban Fantasy
What They Say:
Sebastian Morgenstern is on the move, systematically turning Shadowhunter against Shadowhunter. Bearing the Infernal Cup, he transforms Shadowhunters into creatures out of nightmare, tearing apart families and lovers as the ranks of his Endarkened army swell.

The embattled Shadowhunters withdraw to Idris - but not even the famed demon towers of Alicante can keep Sebastian at bay. And with the Nephilim trapped in Idris, who will guard the world against demons?

When one of the greatest betrayals the Nephilim have ever known is revealed, Clary, Jace, Isabelle, Simon, and Alec must flee - even if their journey takes them deep into the demon realms, where no Shadowhunter has set foot before, and from which no human being has ever returned...

What I Say:
After the first three Mortal Instruments books, which I fiercely adored when I first read them in high school, the fourth and fifth books both felt a bit forced; an artificial continuation of a series that should have ended. That said, I made the effort to read all the way to the end of this series, if only to find out who lives and who dies. CoHF would have gotten a much higher rating if there weren't five other books out there that were basically exactly like this one. This book had messed up brothers, a big final battle, and a strong feeling of lethargy throughout. That said:

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Plot: ooh
Sebastian Morgenstern has brought war to the world of Shadowhunters. Though it's not exactly a fair fight. Armed with an Infernal Cup that can convert Shadowhunters into soulless Endarkened warriors, no one is safe from this new fate worse than death - from which there is no cure. Jace Wayland Herondale Lightwood's veins are thrumming with heavenly fire - the only thing that can hurt the now invulnerable Sebastian - but he's having trouble getting close enough to attack, considering Sebastian is completely untraceable. Jace and Clary and co. are left with absolutely no leads as to his whereabouts until three of the Council representatives (and Clary's mother) are kidnapped. Now they have two days to save her mother, find and kill Sebastian, stop a war, and return home in one piece.

Above all things, let me tell you: this book is long as hell. 725 pages, compared to the last Harry Potter book which had 759. I'm a pretty fast reader, but between my summer jobs and studying for the GMAT, I've only had free time to read here and there. By the time I finished this book, I honestly felt like I'd been reading it for years, though in all fairness it'd only been weeks. Now, I'm not critiquing the book simply for being long - because the last three Harry Potter books were extremely long - yet somehow with those I always felt engaged and didn't simply stop caring halfway through. That feeling of lethargy I mentioned before began with the fourth book (City of Fallen Angels) and has only grown since. Characters I used to love, like Jace and Simon, have grown so dull and overplayed that when they faced their greatest ever opponent near the end, I seriously didn't care if they made it. Forget about Clary, who simply bored me to tears consistently, without any hope of redemption. As far as story progression goes - this book is 725 pages long and not that much happens, beside the main story arc of build-up to a large battle. All personal storylines occur as afterthoughts on the really long journey to this final clash, which devolves into one very long scene in which no actual fighting occurs. And then at least a hundred more pages of falling action that should could have been heavily pared down. 

Characters: meh 
What first drew me (and scores of others, I'm sure) to Jace Wayland was his complete disregard for authority and his extreme levels of snark. The more hopeless and deranged his life with Clary became, the brighter he blazed and the harder he fought to protect the things he could be sure of (his family, his world, etc). After the last page of City of Glass, when he and Clary realize their love is no longer forbidden, it all goes away. Things go south in CoFA, but it's not the same. Instead of keeping his head straight and using snark as his strongest weapon, he just broods and angsts - strangely like Alec. Jace at the end of this series is a changed man from where we left him in CoG, and it's not really a good thing.

I admired Clary in the first three books - as I've mentioned in my review of City of Bones - because despite being the audience-insert character, she wasn't a blank slate. Her passion for art wasn't something every reader could relate to, but it fleshed her out and gave her character. In this book, her love of art is only mentioned in relation to her ability to create new runes, which has become an arbitrary power that almost feels like an easy way of allowing her to be a sub-par Shadowhunter with no ability to defend herself and yet not appear completely useless.

Relationships: ooh
Jace and Clary - I got my happy ending for these two at the end of City of Glass, so everything that has come afterwards has gone a bit over my head. All the drama and angst of Jace's possession and then his time spent in his brother's capitivity, it just didn't stir me the way it should have because their story had already ended. Restarting it in City of Fallen Angels just felt forced, so it was like reading about two completely different people's relationship. I feel these two have gotten a watered-down version of what could have been (slash already was) a pretty fantastic love story.

Simon and Isabelle - This relationship piqued my interest, mainly because it's the only plot device that is unique to this book. Painted as the eternal (heh) underdog, I was very glad to see Simon be able to come into his own and be confident in his relationship with Isabelle.

Alec and Magnus - I really appreciated this relationship at first, because it was absolutely typical and ordinary in all ways except for that Alec and Magnus are both boys. That's good to see in literature, because that's what it's like in real life. Over time, though, I feel the relationship itself just became a symbol of Alec's angst because he's looked down on by his father for being gay, which ventures into After School Special territory. The actual issues of their relationship - Magnus never aging and Alec wanting him to be mortal - only come to the forefront at the whim of the author as a plot device to keep them apart. To be fair, the same is done to a lesser extent to Clary and Jace's relationship in the case of the Heavenly Fire, whose function early on seems to be solely to keep them from making out.

Special Features: meh
Two new characters, Julian Blackthorn and Emma Carstairs, are introduced in this book, as Cassandra Clare's way of setting up her next book series, which will feature these two as protagonists and follow their adventures at the California Institute. That's nice and all, but considering how much exposure they get in this book, it's like their series has just started early, in the middle of the current one. Part of my frustration with the 725-page count came from the heavy inclusion of these two characters, who won't be terribly relevant until the next series (which I don't know if I'll read) and yet I'm forced to sit through whole chapters of backstory and information about their families. This felt a lot like a marketing technique to garner interest in even more Shadowhunter books, which just seems like a ploy to make more money off of a series that peaked three books ago. I've put this under Special Features simply because I've never seen this technique employed quite so blatantly in a novel before, and felt it deserved its own category.

Parting Quote:
“Your boyfriend's crazy,” he said to Clary.
“Yeah, but he’s hot,” said Clary. “So there’s that.”
That sound you hear in the distance is me groaning.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Never Fade [Review]

Title: Never Fade by Alexandra Bracken
Series: The Darkest Minds #2
Genre: Science-Fiction
What They Say:
Ruby never asked for the abilities that almost cost her her life. Now she must call upon them on a daily basis, leading dangerous missions to bring down a corrupt government and breaking into the minds of her enemies. Other kids in the Children’s League call Ruby “Leader”, but she knows what she really is: a monster.

When Ruby is entrusted with an explosive secret, she must embark on her most dangerous mission yet: leaving the Children’s League behind. Crucial information about the disease that killed most of America’s children—and turned Ruby and the others who lived into feared and hated outcasts—has survived every attempt to destroy it. But the truth is only saved in one place: a flashdrive in the hands of Liam Stewart, the boy Ruby once believed was her future—and who now wouldn’t recognize her.

What I Say:
I was worried that the first book in Bracken's Darkest Minds series had been too good to follow up, but I was quickly proved wrong. This book had underground organizations, a new gang of kick-ass kids, and a feeling of constant and fatigued angst That said:

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Plot: wow
When we last saw Ruby, she was joining the Children's League a group of freedom fighters/terrorists hell-bent on tearing down President Gray's regime through violence and subterfuge, but with good intentions (maybe). Liam has been let go in exchange for Ruby's loyalty - but in her hysteria and sudden angst, she's erased his memories of her, in hopes that he can move on and be safe without coming back for her. However, she doesn't take into account that Liam Stewart sprints towards danger by nature, so her sacrifice is quickly rendered pointless - to her great dismay. While she's been doing top secret spy-type missions with her teammates - the bitchy Vida and the hyperactive Jude - Liam's unwitting found himself in possession of a Super Important Flashdrive after switching coats with his brother, a top-level agent of the CL who'll be royally screwed if he doesn't get it back. In fact - the info on the drive is so important that they'll all be screwed if they don't find him before the corrupt agents of the CL do. So of course, despite the high emotional/angsty toll it will no-doubt have, volunteers gladly for this highly dangerous mission. After a series of coincidences and close calls with capture, her solo mission grows to a team effort: Ruby, Vida, Jude, and Chubs vs. The World. The task: Find Liam, get the flash drive, bring both back to California. Simple. (Not.)

This book doesn't stray too far from the formula of the first, but considering the high volume of new information and unanswered questions, I was glad for that small gift of familiarity. I enjoyed the balance of old characters and new ones, popping up at unexpected points in the journey and sending them on completely pointless side-journeys, for the most part. The constant close calls with death or capture got a bit tiring, but it was probably an honest depiction of their dystopian world - danger hides around literally every corner. Their chances of success were very slim and it actually felt that way. Well done. Unlike the ending of the first book, this ending was highly satisfying. Of course there are unanswered questions, but I don't feel - as a reader - like I'm groping around in the dark, desperately trying to understand what the hell is going on. Also, considering how crap Ruby's life has become, I'm glad she gets one tiny victory in the end.

Characters: ooh
Ruby has grown and hardened when we meet her again. She's essentially miserable from start to end. Even when relatively good things are happening. It's very clearly explained why things are so horrible for her, but I can't help but feel like a lot of it is in her head. Like, at one point she uses her power to hurt someone who's trying to hurt her, and her internal anguish over it spans pages, fueled by a fear of being similar to Clancy Gray - who uses his abilities solely for his own personal gain. But, like, she isn't using her abilities for personal gain, and unless she's systematically brainwashing everyone she meets to get her way, she's nothing like Clancy! I assume this is one of those realizations that will strike Ruby on the last page of the last book, but I'm willing to wait for her to get her shit together in the meantime.

Vida and Jude are introduced in this book as Ruby's co-agents in the CL. I really didn't see the point of either of them. Vida is so constantly unpleasant that I kept waiting for some clear moment of redemption - where she reveals that she's not actually a rude and unlikeable person. But that doesn't happen. Yes, she helps the team throughout their journey, and she doesn't do anything to hinder them, but her constant jerkass commentary was like a loud buzzing in the background of the story. Another loud buzzing in the background was Jude, who seemed to exist solely to get them into danger by making noise, or to ask questions as the Audience-Insert but only in the most obnoxious way/at the most inappropriate time, or to just be blatantly naive about their whole experience. Over time, he became the book equivalent of an injured puppy, and I felt like his story was played mostly to add some easy tragedy/guilt to the ending, which he didn't really deserve, as a character.

Relationships: wow
Ruby and Liam - Considering the events at the end of Book 1, these two don't interact much in this one, at least not the way they did before. Liam's upset, with reason, that his brain has been addled against his will, and not even well (considering his memories are gone, but his feelings are intact - making him essentially go mad). Ruby feels that she's done the right thing at first, which makes her miserable that she has to give Liam up. Then, Ruby realizes she's done the wrong things, making her miserable and guilty at the damage she's caused. I said in my last review that these two would have one hell of a hard time surviving this series, and I was right. That said, I'm rooting for these two in Book 3.

Special Features: ooh
The Children's League are described from many different viewpoints throughout the series so far, which leads to a bit of cognitive dissonance when it comes to the reader, and a nice topping of moral ambiguity to go along with it. Like, yes they're trying to change things in the world by deposing President Gray, but despite their name, they don't really have the children's best interest in mind. Now, at first I thought this was completely heinous, much like Liam did, but at one point Ruby learns that there are only like 20,000 children left out there. In that case, it makes a teeny bit of sense that they're focusing on the well-being of the millions of adults still alive. That said, it's completely misleading and exploitative to call themselves The Children's League just to snare Psi kids into thinking they've found a safe haven when they're actually just being used for their abilities. If you're going to take advantage of the kids, at least be honest about it. Interested to see what becomes of TCL in the last book, after the events at the end of Never Fade. Fingers crossed Cate's still around!

Parting Quote:
  “I was just an okay person."
This is the highest that Ruby's self-esteem ever gets, to be honest.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Darkest Minds [Review]

Title: The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken
Series: The Darkest Minds #1
Genre: Science-Fiction
What They Say:
When Ruby woke up on her tenth birthday, something about her had changed. Something alarming enough to make her parents lock her in the garage and call the police. Something that gets her sent to Thurmond, a brutal government "rehabilitation camp." She might have survived the mysterious disease that's killed most of America's children, but she and the others have emerged with something far worse: frightening abilities they cannot control. Now sixteen, Ruby is one of the dangerous ones.

When the truth comes out, Ruby barely escapes Thurmond with her life. Now she's on the run, desperate to find the one safe haven left for kids like her-East River. She joins a group of kids who escaped their own camp. Liam, their brave leader, is falling hard for Ruby. But no matter how much she aches for him, Ruby can't risk getting close. There are other forces at work, people who will stop at nothing to use Ruby in their fight against the government. Ruby will be faced with a terrible choice, one that may mean giving up her only chance at a life worth living.

What I Say:
Not going to lie, the sole reason I picked up this book was because I saw online that the author was a graduate of my Alma Mater, which is pretty awesome. I figured, written by a William & Mary student, it'd be full of cheeky Virginia references the way half my conversations at this school are. Let me tell you, I was not disappointed. This book had evil presidents, kickass kids, and a road trip that stops through my very own hometown. That said:

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Plot: wow
One day when Ruby was nine, kids at school starting dying. Dropping dead in the lunchroom before recess, or at the store with their parents, or after the first bell in her fourth grade class. A epidemic called I.A.A.N. spread across the country seemingly all at once, and killed every kid entering puberty at the time. Except, on Ruby's tenth birthday, she didn't die. Instead, she woke up with a terrifying new ability that she couldn't yet control. Which is how she ends up in a nightmarish internment camp called Thurmond, where the surviving children - all of whom gained one of four types of supernatural abilities, and are called "Psy"- are penned behind barbed-wire fences and basically treated like crap while the outside world thinks they're being "rehabilitated". Spoiler: they're not. By complete chance - or for more sinister purposes - a group of freedom fighters called the Childrens' League break her out of the camp five years later, hoping she'll join their cause. I say freedom fighters, evil President Gray says "terrorist group". With her till-now-suppressed ability, Ruby quickly realizes that the League are not what they seem, and makes a run for it...straight into the arms of gorgeous southern golden-boy Liam, whose ragtag friends are on the run, in search of a mythical haven for Psy kids run by the legendary Slip Kid (why is he called this? we never find out). To keep this summary short, the Slip Kid is the last person on earth they'd expect, and as their life of constant running and danger catches up with them, they realize that even the leader of their new-found safe haven has plans of his own.

I love dystopia novels, I cannot lie. But a dystopian story set in my state with a relatively unique premise that kind of doubles as a coming-of-age road trip story? I can't explain how glad I am to have randomly given this book a chance. As with any kids-on-the-run tale, there were parts that dragged - whole chapters where the characters met and challenges faced didn't really progress the story at all - but for every scene like that, there was a great chapter full of banter where you could feel Liam and Ruby and Chubs becoming a family. In a book where the idea of family has been dashed early on and yearned for by every character - adults and children alike - this was important. Because I have to cover all aspects of the book, I admit there was a lot of internal angst that elicited a few eye-rolls from me, mainly any time Ruby referred to herself as "a dangerous monster!" because of her abilities. The horrible shock at the end of this book was perfect, because when it happens, you (the reader) are so deep into Ruby's head that you're horrified but also forced to agree with how clever it is. Picked up the sequel yesterday and I'm already hooked.

Characters: wow
I can dig Ruby Daly. Considering she's sixteen and only has a fourth-grade education, she's done pretty well for herself (almost too well, at points when her vocabulary and reasoning skills are blatantly advanced). She's thrust into these unbelievable situations, and she acts on instinct. She doesn't crumble or sit around asking questions, she just tackles the issue and moves on to the next. To be fair, this does a number on her psyche, which I mentioned earlier in the part about her inner angst. I wanted to sit her down so many times and just say, You did a bad thing when you were ten. Okay! No one thinks you're a monster! But I guess she's internalized all the nastiness they taught her in Thurmond, which I can't fault her for.

I can't help but like Liam. He's painted as this all-around great, charismatic guy, which he is. He inspires people to follow him and trust him, and he has good intentions, so most characters in his position would get cocky and blinded to the possible consequences. But Liam has already seen what overconfidence and charisma can lead to; he's made it happen himself and he's got blood on his hands. He may not live in angst like Ruby does, but he uses his own personal failures to see them in other people, which saves them from deceitful people a few times. Especially in this dystopian future filled with sociopaths and desperate people. And, of course, I love the southern snark.

Relationships: wow
Ruby and Liam - These two come together so naturally, I don't think anyone could argue their relationship is too rushed or too slow. It's based largely in survival and protection - but it's a two-way street, unlike in some other YA relationships. They've both been through hell, and weirdly, it's made them kinder and warmer people. The snark and banter is excellent and even charmed me a bit. That said, these two are going to have one hell of a hard time surviving together until the end of the series.

Special Features: wow
So let's talk about I.A.A.N. It's the epidemic that starts it all - a mysterious disease that, by the time our story really gets started - has killed essentially 99% of the country's children and blessed (cursed?) the survivors with special abilities and the widespread hatred of the American people. In addition to dystopian stories, I'm very interested in stories about epidemics and the like. Movies like Contagion fascinate me. This books gives you many chances to consider the world that Alexandra Bracken had created, which to be fair is not very hopeful for the future. There are no kids, all the schools have been closed or bombed by extremist groups, the economy has tanked and most people are homeless. Every adult is angry and desperate in some way. Every kid is afraid and desperate in some way. I wondered throughout this novel: even if, at the end of the series, Ruby somehow saves the day and defeats whoever it is she needs to defeat (it's not yet entirely clear), well - then what? Things look very bleak and there are many unanswered questions so far, which makes for an extremely interesting series!

Parting Quote:
  “But hey, what's life without a little adversity?"
   That had to have been the fakest attempt at optimism since my fourth grade teacher tried reasoning that we were better off without the dead kids in our class because it'd mean more turns on the playground swings for the rest of us.
The future is so crappy! But sometimes darkly hilarious!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Insurgent [Review]

Title: Insurgent by Veronica Roth
Series: Divergent #2
Genre: Science-Fiction
What They Say:
One choice can transform you—or it can destroy you. But every choice has consequences, and as unrest surges in the factions all around her, Tris Prior must continue trying to save those she loves—and herself—while grappling with haunting questions of grief and forgiveness, identity and loyalty, politics and love.

Tris's initiation day should have been marked by celebration and victory with her chosen faction; instead, the day ended with unspeakable horrors. War now looms as conflict between the factions and their ideologies grows. And in times of war, sides must be chosen, secrets will emerge, and choices will become even more irrevocable—and even more powerful. Transformed by her own decisions but also by haunting grief and guilt, radical new discoveries, and shifting relationships, Tris must fully embrace her Divergence, even if she does not know what she may lose by doing so.

What I Say:
I was planning to review the first book in this series, because that'd be logical, but I recently picked up the second book instead and absolutely had to write about it. Considering this series' recent box office success, this seemed like the perfect time. This book had relationship issues, shitty relatives, and some good old dystopian insurrection. That said...

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Plot: wow
Beatrice Prior is not having a very good month. She may have thought being Divergent - or fitting more than one of society's virtue-based factions, and consequentially being hunted down by those who see her as threat - was the worst of her problems; but like, no. For one - Jeanine Matthews, leader of Erudite, launched an attack on Abnegation which led to the death of both her parents. Now she's on the run with her instructor-turned-lover Tobias and some majorly undesirable companions. One of whom is Marcus Eaton, a generally horrible father who made Tobias's childhood a living hell. The problem is: Marcus is harboring information about a game-changing secret that Jeanine will do anything to keep the factions from finding out. Entering into secret deals with Marcus will jeopardize her relationship with Tobias (obviously), so Tris will have to decide what she values more: her broody boyfriend or the future of the entire world as she knows it.

I’m not gonna lie, I really enjoy the plot of these books. There were very few scenes that felt like filler, and even though a lot of characters are introduced hastily and brought back later on, I didn't feel overwhelmed the way I do with other series, where I eventually stop caring what peoples' names are because 1) there are just too many and 2) they're probably going to get killed off anyway. On that note, I was weirdly impressed with how dire things get for a YA novel, by which I mean how many people die in horrible ways. Everyone is fair game: Kids? Dead. Close friends of main characters? Dead. People that seem generally nice and don't appear to be in any danger at any point? D-e-a-d. In a weird way, it really raises the stakes for our main characters, whose evasion of death seems downright miraculous. I am beyond intrigued for the last book, Allegiant, although I've heard ominous rumors about the ending...

Characters: wow
People often compare this series to The Hunger Games because of the "tough teenage girl" angle, but I feel like Insurgent takes that to another level. Some girls get paper cuts or a bad burn on the leg; Tris has a bullet wound in her right shoulder for at least half the story. So yeah, this book goes there. Because of her ties to Dauntless and Abnegation, Tris has an internal complex about being selfless and brave that gets tedious after a while (considering those aren't the only virtues that matter...), but I'll give her the benefit of the doubt because of her faction-obsessed society.

I like Tobias a great deal, but in Book 2 he's painted as this dual-sided character: One part brave, impressive fighter; other part twice-kicked puppy with serious daddy issues. And mommy issues. And issues related to trust in general. Hm.
Relationships: ooh
Tris and Tobias - These two have been brought together by coincidence and are held together by their general moodiness, shared personal tragedy, and the fact that they're both very attractive. The only thing keeping them apart is Tobias's difficulty outgrowing his role as Dauntless instructor. A lot of the "arguments" in this book are really Tobias lecturing Tris on making irresponsible decisions and being reckless, which is less of a lovers' spat and more of a chastisement. Not exactly romantic, but neither are the super dark times they live in, so.

Special Features: wow
The Divergent series introduces a society organized by factions. And it's awesome. There's Abnegation (the selfless), Erudite (the intelligent), Dauntless (the brave), and Candor (the honest). Everyone fits into one of these, or they’re chucked out of the system and have to live with the Factionless on the sketchy side of town. It's one of those cool dystopian novel tricks where something we see as completely normal (having many personality traits that conflict) is a disturbing anomaly - considered dangerous to society as a whole. At least, that's what Jeanine Matthews thinks. Granted, she's the absolute worst, so.
Parting Quote:
     “I also wanted to ask you if we can talk to the Erudite you’re keeping safe here,” I say. “I know they’re hidden, but I need access to them.”
     “And what do you intend to do?” [Johanna] says.
     “Shoot them,” I say, rolling my eyes.
Stress, fear, and adversity make even the sweetest characters into total jerkasses. I love it.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Program [Review]

Title: The Program by Suzanne Young
Series: The Program #1
Genre: Science-Fiction
What They Say:
Sloane knows better than to cry in front of anyone. With suicide now an international epidemic, one outburst could land her in The Program, the only proven course of treatment. Sloane’s parents have already lost one child; Sloane knows they’ll do anything to keep her alive. She also knows that everyone who’s been through The Program returns as a blank slate. Because their depression is gone—but so are their memories.

Under constant surveillance at home and at school, Sloane puts on a brave face and keeps her feelings buried as deep as she can. The only person Sloane can be herself with is James. He’s promised to keep them both safe and out of treatment, and Sloane knows their love is strong enough to withstand anything. But despite the promises they made to each other, it’s getting harder to hide the truth. They are both growing weaker. Depression is setting in. And The Program is coming for them.

What I Say:
This book was my first plunge back into YA in a long while, so I was itching to get back into that crazy world where anything can happen. Knowing me, of course a dystopia novel would be my first choice! This book had creepy procedures, seriously moody kids, and a unique chance to look at fate and human nature and if a person really is only made up of their memories. That said:

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Plot: ooh
At some point in the not-too-distant future, American teens start killing themselves. Like a lot of them, a third of the population. For no discernable reason, they sink into this sudden all-consuming depression that spreads among others like a contagion. In a desperate attempt to cure what has now been classified as an epidemic, the government starts the Program in one school district in Oregon. Now, if you exhibit any signs of depression, you can get flagged by your peers or your parents and taken away to the Program, which is like a sinister version of rehab, where I imagine phrases like "for your own good" are thrown around all the time. Because people blame antidepressants for infecting the next generation, the Program has resorted to a different kind of treatment: erasing the patient's "infected" memories (i.e. all of them) and returning them to society a clean slate. Sure, they resemble zombies in polos, but at least they're not depressed anymore! It's for their own good! (see?) Sloane is sad, but not depressed. Her brother killed himself, and her best friend was taken to the Program, so she tries her best to mask her emotions in public, trying to get by until she's eighteen and free from the Program's clutches. As things start getting worse, however, she begins to spiral downwards and the Program closes in. But Sloane is so endlessly stubborn and full of righteous anger, she'll never let them erase her!

I didn't like this book at first. The first big chunk of this book was like a moody lecture, where Sloane reminds you over and over how much life in her world sucks. The exposition seemed endless and never really stopped, as the story took on an almost cyclical structure - dealing in flashbacks and memories and characters/story elements that are essentially re-introduced halfway through the novel. These gimmicks all added to the eerie feel of the book, but I groaned at some of the repetition throughout. It's hard to explain without revealing key plot details, so trust me on this one. Perhaps an unintentional advantage of Suzanne Young's long-winded introductions, as characters began to forget people and events, I had by that point forgotten them too! To be fair, I did read the book over multiple sittings, so I'll attribute some of that to my own distraction. Regardless of my opinion of the book's opening, by the halfway mark I was absolutely hooked. It had everything: evil government, secret resistance forces, a kind-of love triangle (if you're into that). The last few pages left you with the clean break of a book that could stand alone, but also a gnawing curiosity about what'll happen in the sequel.

Characters: wow
Because of the premise of this book, Sloane is a good old unreliable narrator. It's not her fault, she spends so much time reminiscing on better days and worrying at length about herself that of course she's going to get a few details wrong, more and more often as the story progresses. At her core, she's brave and curious, but throughout the story she's also broody and snarky and too optimistic in equal turns. More than once, her personal opinion or assessment of a situation seems completely off, and in a weird way, that was cool to see in a book - the main character's mind and the reader's mind diverging at points.

James is that bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold. He cares deeply about the people he loves, but also by consequence hates everyone else and behaves accordingly. He's the rock that keeps their little friend group together when things seem bleak, but you have to wonder, who keep James together? Also, James's protective nature bends under pressure at times, and I wonder if - in the sequel - we will see this interesting dynamic again.

Michael Realm would be the comic relief if this book had any proper comic relief. He's charming, charismatic, and a bit wise beyond his years. He eases Sloane into a new and scary world by giving her someone to trust and befriend. But, well that's a bit weird, isn't it? That's not how people work.  You have to wonder about this kid's hidden motives, is all I'm saying. Is doing the best thing for Sloane really doing what's best for her?

Relationships: ooh
Sloane and James - Here's a relationship born out of equal parts affection and tragic neediness. It works because they're a bit of a team, living that kind of you-and-me-against-the-world life. I was impressed with the natural and non-ridiculous aspects of this relationship. They don't just suddenly fall in love, they don't agonize over having or not-having sex (although they have so many external forces to agonize about, I guess they can't find the time).

Sloane and Realm - Honestly it's pretty clear how this relationship is going to work from the very start. He's the Second Guy who also finds himself in best friend territory. He never stood a chance. Add on a hazy layer of uncertainty about his self-proclaimed personal hero status and I just don't know if this will last into the sequel. (Who am I kidding, it's a novel with deliberately set up loose ends. Of course it will.)

Special Features: wow
Let's be honest, the dystopia in which Sloane lives could honestly be much worse. See, usually with a dystopia, some small problem occurs in society and the government uses that as an opportunity to take over everything and enslave all the people in a world of misery and suffering and stuff. In this book, you kind of get where the government's coming from. For one, the Program only operates in Sloane's school district; two, once you're 18, you're completely free of them; three, sure your friends don't remember you after treatment, but at least they're alive! On the other hand, the way they implement the Program is completely counterproductive! In order to prevent suicide - rather than, I don't know, trying to make the kids happier - you present this rehab program, not one your parents drive you to, but one where you're violently dragged out of class while your classmates watch?! Which then makes the kids too scared to express their emotions, which makes them depressed. Who sat down one day, dreamed this up, and thought This is a great idea! I want to hit that person.

Parting Quote:
"It's fun to sneak around, isn't it?" [Realm] asks.
"It is. And I thought nothing could beat being constantly medicated." 
It's like they try to be a little snarky? But never quite get there. Alas.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

City of Bones [Review]

Title: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
Series: The Mortal Instruments, #1
Genre: Urban Fantasy
What They Say:
When fifteen-year-old Clary Fray heads out to the Pandemonium Club in New York City, she hardly expects to witness a murder - much less a murder committed by three teenagers covered with strange tattoos and brandishing bizarre weapons. Then the body disappears into thin air. It's hard to call the police when the murderers are invisible to everyone else and when there is nothing - not even a smear of blood - to show that a boy has died. Or was he a boy?

What I Say:
(sidenote: when I returned to this blog, I found this incomplete gem waiting in the Drafts folder, like a sign that I should start here. Plus, with the Mortal Instruments film coming to theatres this August, it's perfect timing! So some of the information in these first two sections is dated because it's from 2011 haha) Okay, so maybe I've read this book a hundred times over the last two years. Aaand maybe I'm at this point entirely biased when it comes to rating this particular series. But. With exams coming up and all, I won't be able to read a new book for at least a week or so. Solution? This. City of Bones peels back the glamour of the human world, revealing a dark underworld of demons, warlocks, vampires, all that just under our noses. This book is a fast-paced, snark-filled adventure that will shock and amaze and bend your mind just a little. That said...

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Plot: wow
Clary Fray is fifteen and totally normal. Her best friend Simon is also fifteen and totally normal, though more nerdy than not. That is, until the day she sees three teens murder a boy at a nightclub. At least, she thinks that's what they were doing. Except they had odd marks on their bodies, and the killed boy could change his shape and they called him a demon. But that's silly - demons don't exist, right? Clary tries to forget it, but keeps running into one of the killers, Jace. Jace is snarky and arrogant and beautiful and calls himself a Shadowhunter - a trained demon killer. Curious as to why Clary, an average "mundane", can see Downworlders, he keeps tabs on her while becoming an endlessly frustrating pain in Clary's side (though she's a pretty big thorn, too). Then, without warning, Clary's mother begins acting strangely, insisting that she and Clary leave the city immediately. And then her mother disappears. Jace’s vigilance saves her life when she returns home only to be attacked by a demon lurking in her ransacked apartment. And when Jace draws a healing rune on Clary’s arm – runes are deadly to the average person, but I guess Jace just isn’t thinking? – it works on her. Clary, Jace decides, isn’t a mundane at all. She’s a Shadowhunter. And that’s only the half of it.

So I remember way back in 2008 when I first picked up this book at the library. From the summary and thickness of the thing, I wasn't impressed. Buzzwords like Shadowhunter and Nephilim were big turn-offs, because it sounded like try-hard fantasy nonsense. But it wasn't that! Cassandra weaves intrigue through the story like individual threads in gorgeous hipster hoodie. Masterful storyteller that she is, each chapter feeds into the next, presenting new mysteries but considerately solving old ones along the way - so the reader never feels hopelessly lost. The book's equal parts action/mystery and Like Story, easing non-fantasy-fans into the world gently, padding the random new words and monsters with a classic albeit predictable love triangle that - in turn - isn't presented as the Most Important Thing In Clary's World, which I appreciated.

Characters: WHOA
I like Clary well enough. She's artsy and likes to read and fights with her mom and probably mirrors most of the girls reading the book - so she's very relatable, especially as the first-person audience-insert character - but most of the big events in the book seem to happen to her, rather than because of her. Granted, it's the first book in a series, so character development is sure to be a long and dangerous journey (hah).

Jace Wayland is one of the few YA characters I've ever gone really daffy over. At first, his over-inflated ego brought on a few fond eye rolls, but over time you start to realize he thinks he's so great really just is that great. And everyone else begrudgingly knows it, too. Jace's main point of intrigue stems from his attempts to appear flippant and cool in this state of Jerkass Perma-snark, a fact he actually lampshades at one point when he jokes "I use my rapier wit to hide my inner pain." And whoa, does he have some inner pain! And serious Daddy Issues! Lastly, I truly appreciate how True Like doesn't dilute his personality into love-soup, as often happens in books where a Good Girl Fixes a Bad Boy. This shows that while some of his snark is just bravado, it's also deeply embedded into his very soul. Jace Wayland is the true Snark King, is what I'm saying.

The things I would do for a best friend like Simon! Brooklyn-born, huge personality, clever and nerdy, and kind of a massive hipster if I'm honest, Simon has got it all going on. He's thrust into this amazing world of magic and intrigue that turns its massive nose down at him because he's a "mundane" human, but does he let that get him down? If his best friend Clary's going to be fighting monsters and getting into trouble, he's going to be right there with her, no matter how little anyone wants him around. He's especially interesting to me because he's the only one who, when things get too weird or dangerous, can walk out and go back to his normal life. Only he chooses not to. Yeah, Simon's the best.

Relationships: wow
Clary and Jace - I like the Darcy Phase in this book, because at no point do these two necessarily dislike each other. It's more of a drawn out Snark-Off between two people so clever and proud and just waiting for the other to blink. And by blink I mean tumble headfirst into Like, of course. However, because of Rule #3 of YA: Happiness Doesn't Last and OH MAN does it not last in this story. Star-crossed lovers to the max.

Clary and Simon - They should make sad Sarah McLachlan commercials for lovesick best friends like Simon Lewis. Except instead of the SPCA phone number, the screen would flash Rule #2 of YA (Under no circumstances can best friends end up together) and Rule 2 Subsection B (The Girl must be completely oblivious to said best friend's love until the most devastating possible moment). Subsection B is here attributed to Clary's teenage self-absorption and Simon's general selflessness and thing for red-heads. Never had a chance, poor kid.

Special Features: WHOA
This series focuses around the Shadowhunters. Said to be descended from angels, the Shadowhunters were created to protect the human world from demons, who slip between dimensions and do nasty things on earth. Aside from the obviously exciting action aspect of the Shadowhunter world, fighting monsters, completely unknown to humans and being general hardasses, you get hints here and there that the society of Shadowhunters is inherently flawed as they move into the modern age, full of prejudice and a constant attitude of supremacy over humans and Downworlders. It's cool to see the "new generation" (Jace, Alec, and Isabelle) start to challenge some of those old-timey social norms that mirror our own more closely than you 'd think!

Parting Quote:
"Don't touch any of my weapons without my permission."
"Well, there goes my plan for selling them all on eBay," Clary muttered.
"Selling them on what?"
Clary smiled blandly at him. "A mythical place of great magical power."
Ooh a book with an even distribution of snark between male and female characters yes!