Polyphonist’s #CBR5 Review #11: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Wonder-RJ-Palacio
Though it’s a New York Times Bestseller, I first caught word of this brilliant gem of a YA book on Amanda Palmer’s blog.. She says:

i’m reading an incredible book.
this one is a “just trust me. read it.”
it’s a quick one (technically a young adult book – total page-turner).
it’s connecting a lot of dots for me.

(Side Note: The “connecting a lot of dots” part, while it stands on it’s own as a phrase, obviously, is also in reference to her talk at Grub Street’s 2013 “The Muse and the Marketplace” literary conference in Boston. The link has the transcript of her talk and the video, which is fascinating to me as a writer, a reader, and a human.)

So, with a “just trust me. read it” recommendation from one of my favorite musicians/writers, I hit up my library and a few days later Wonder by R.J. Palacio was in my hands. One page in, I was hooked.

Wonder is primarily about August Pullman. By his own description, he is “not an ordinary ten-year-old kid.” He says that he does ordinary stuff, sure. Eating ice cream. Riding his bike. Playing XBox. However, he knows he’s not ordinary because “ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds.” Continue reading

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 29: Poison Princess by Kresley Cole

Goodreads: Sixteen year old Evangeline “Evie” Greene leads a charmed life, until she begins experiencing horrifying hallucinations. When an apocalyptic event decimates her Louisiana hometown, Evie realizes her hallucinations were actually visions of the future—and they’re still happening. Fighting for her life and desperate for answers, she must turn to her wrong-side-of-the-bayou classmate: Jack Deveaux.

With his mile-long rap sheet, wicked grin, and bad attitude, Jack is like no boy Evie has ever known. Even though he once scorned her and everything she represented, he agrees to protect Evie on her quest. She knows she can’t totally depend on Jack. If he ever cast that wicked grin her way, could she possibly resist him?

As Jack and Evie race to find the source of her visions, they meet others who have gotten the same call. An ancient prophesy is being played out, and Evie is not the only one with special powers. A group of twenty-two teens has been chosen to reenact the ultimate battle between good and evil. But it’s not always clear who is on which side…

I’m going to plagiarize myself here, because I left a comment that ended up being a short review over on the Vaginal Fantasy discussion board for this book (yes, this was another VF selection.) So, here is that, slightly expanded:

This book was really problematic for me in a lot of ways. I had a really hard time getting behind the romance: I get it, they were lusty for each other, but otherwise they both treated each other pretty badly and I don’t understand why that’s supposed to be hot. Like, here is an actual quote from the male hero: “Hell, Evie, you’re probably the last girl on earth for me. Would it kill you to put out?”

I mean, *SWOON*, right?

For her part, Evie has a lot of icky class-based issues with regards to Jackson. She doesn’t explicitly express these thoughts to him, other than calling him “Cajun,” but she’s supposed to be one of the wealthier town residents before the apocalypse, and he’s very poor and wrong-side-of-the-bayou and all that, so despite her physical attraction to him, she initially views him as wrong for her just based on the money issue.

I also thought way too much of the book was spent recounting her high school angst in excruciating detail. At least a third of the book was spent in this retrospective, which is, specifically, the week leading up to the apocalypse (here it’s called the Flash.) Cole’s motivations, here, were probably two-fold. First, she needed to set up the relationship with Jackson, and how they were attracted to each other but ultimately “all wrong for each other” in the high school scenario. She also probably wanted to paint a picture of what Evie felt was her declining sanity, but I think all of that could have been done much more concisely. What I felt like we ended up with, as the reader, was a lot of obnoxious brand-name dropping and class-based snobbery to establish Evie’s queen-bee credentials, and a lot of contrived exposition about gothic drawings and Evie trying to re-assure her peers she is totally fine, didn’t just come out from the mental ward, etc.

I was irritated because Cole was working with such a cool idea here — kids/young adults having powers based on the Tarot, leading up to an epic battle — but I felt like she just threw out a bunch of post-apocalytic cliches at us in lieu of actual world-building. All at once, after the apocalypse, we find out that there are zombies for some reason, and that basically all men have gone rotten because there aren’t enough women, and there are cannibals, and we’re all supposed to go “Oh, okay, that sounds about right for the end of the world,” except that none of these things really make sense given the context of what actually happened during the apocalypse (solar flares maybe? parts of the earth scorched, people burned up immediately, no one really knows) and we’re not given any kind of explanation as to why they evolved. All of the time spent in the high school part could have been used toward fleshing out this new world.

I was, fortunately, reeled back in toward the end for spoilery reasons. I’m the kind of person that will put aside a lot of crap I don’t like if the plot is a page-turner, which, frankly, this was. So even considering all of my gripes above, I’d still be interested in picking up the sequel(s) because I’m still interested in how this story resolves itself. I can let go of my world-building issue, but I think that if Cole wants Jackson and Evie’s romance to be a main draw, she needs to put a lot of work into making these people more likeable as a couple, because right now, I have no patience for two people who snipe back and forth at each other so crassly but are supposed to be in love. I happened to catch a sneak peek of the cover for the sequel, and Evie is posing with a different guy (from my understanding, it’s the guy who represents Death in the Tarot.) So, love triangle! I’ve gotta say — the guy hasn’t even really been properly introduced yet, only hinted at, but I’m already kind of rooting for him, because I really don’t like Jackson at all. Anyway, I’d recommend this maybe for people who are like me: you don’t mind spending a few hours reading something that is ultimately fun, despite being pretty problematic.

2.5 stars

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 25: Fragments by Dan Wells

Goodreads summary with spoilers for Partials removed: “Kira has left East Meadow in a desperate search for clues to who she is… Her companions are Afa Demoux, an unhinged drifter and former employee of ParaGen, and Samm and Heron… the only ones who know her secret. But can she trust them?

Meanwhile, back on Long Island, what’s left of humanity is gearing up for war with the Partials, and Marcus knows his only hope is to delay them until Kira returns. But Kira’s journey will take her deep into the overgrown wasteland of postapocalyptic America, and Kira and Marcus both will discover that their greatest enemy may be one they didn’t even know existed.

The second installment in the pulse-pounding Partials saga is the story of the eleventh hour of humanity’s time on Earth, a journey deep into places unknown to discover the means–and even more important, a reason–for our survival.”

In case it wasn’t clear, this is the sequel to Partials, a book which I reviewed here for CBR4 and quite liked. I read Fragments fairly quickly, like I did Partials, but it was a little less engaging than the first. It suffers a bit from the sophomore slump: stuck between the opening novel that piques the imagination by introducing the world, characters, and story; and the finale, with its climax and resolution.

As you can see from the plot description, much of this novel is the main character and her companions traveling across the country, and though the landscape is fraught with peril and all that, stories just about journeys need to really be done well to be extremely compelling. This one wasn’t badly done, but it did lose steam and feel repetitive at times. Wells’ writing is sometimes a bit clinical, so even though I’m invested in the characters’ journeys simply because I find the plotline interesting, I haven’t really connected with any of them much emotionally, even after two books. The tepid emotional connection is especially apparent when Wells dances around the love triangle between Samm, Kira, and Marcus — I gathered that Kira and Samm were feeling increasing tension between each other not necessarily because it was written to express that tension, but, frankly, just because I expected it from the circumstances.

I think that the slight flatness of the writing may be what has prevented this series from being as well known as some of the other YA dystopias, but even with that said, I still do like the characters well enough as people and the world Wells has built well enough to finish the series. I also would like to give credit where it’s due to Wells for what I see as being pretty egalitarian writing when it comes to gender and race. The protagonist is a woman of color, and she’s not a token — there are lots of other important women and POC in the story. Overall, I think YA dystopia fans will enjoy this series, and I’ll be looking forward to the third novel.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 23-24: Pandemonium and Requiem by Lauren Oliver

The very short, spoiler-free version of this review is: you will want to read the sequels if you’ve read Delirium, because you’ll want to know how the story ends. For this reason, they are probably both worth reading. A lot of what made Delirium such a strong novel, though, is lost in Pandemonium and Requiem: the pacing gets kind of uneven, and Oliver’s prose — which I have praised before and is still very lush and almost musical — starts to overwhelm itself sometimes, especially in the scenes in the Wilds. Some of the scene-setting is abstract and convoluted, and I ended up having to re-read sections a couple of times to figure out what she was talking about.

Pandemonium has these issues, but at the end of the day I still ended up giving it four stars on Goodreads, which is clearly not a “bad” score. We got some nice development on Lena, our protagonist, as she learns to cope with her new situation, and there is a lot of fun action and twisted revelations. The end, though, was telegraphed a mile away, which took me out of my enjoyment (my reaction at the end: “Come on, really? I was expecting this and I wish you didn’t prove me right!”) After the jump is the rest of the review, because that exasperation that began at the end of Pandemonium and continued into Requiem is spoilery. So – henceforth, THERE BE SPOILERS.

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alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 22: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

deliriumGoodreads: “They say that the cure for Love will make me happy and safe forever.

And I’ve always believed them.

Until now.

Now everything has changed.

Now, I’d rather be infected with love for the tiniest sliver of a second than live a hundred years smothered by a lie.

Lena looks forward to receiving the government-mandated cure that prevents the delirium of love and leads to a safe, predictable, and happy life, until ninety-five days before her eighteenth birthday and her treatment, when she falls in love.”

I wanted to review Delirium, the first book of its trilogy, separately from the other two because I felt that this is a much stronger book than its sequels, so it deserves to be reviewed on its own merit.

There is a pretty implausible premise, here, that you just have to accept and move on if you’re going to enjoy this book. I’m pretty good at willing suspension of disbelief, so I dove right in and took Oliver at her word that in the future, we’ve decided that love — and the litter of hot-blooded emotions it inspires — is a disease that we can cure. The cure has resulted in a society that seems to be on its surface much more peaceful, efficient, productive, and obedient. Of course, we know that this can’t be true, because this is a dystopian novel, so early on we also learn that there are Uncureds and Invalids, or people who have been literally “invalidated” in society by refusing the cure. Furthermore, administration of the cure has been demonstrated to be unsafe before the age of 18, but anyone who has ever met a teenager knows that they are pretty good at falling in love or something like it before the age of 18. As such, there are many small acts of rebellion among the as-yet-uncured youth that need to be discovered and squashed by violent patrol groups of cured adults called Regulators. In case it’s not perfectly clear, the violence that these groups employ is evidence that simply “curing” love doesn’t stamp out our most base tendencies.

At its bare bones, this is a story about forbidden love: forbidden because love itself is, and because the boy Lena falls in love with is an Uncured, and the only way they could be together is if Lena rejects her arranged match and flees to the Wilds, territory that has been given up by the regulated society. The story is elevated, in my mind, firstly by Oliver’s prose, which is really beautiful and descriptive and appropriately fraught with teen anxiety (though it doesn’t come off as too whiny or excessively dramatic, just urgent.) She has a way of drawing me right into Lena’s thoughts such that I don’t feel like I’m just observing the action, but that I’m actually in it. Secondly, I think Oliver has written a love interest who is actually compelling beyond just being attractive: there is that tantalizing hint of danger to him, but Alex is also clever, respectful, and protective of Lena without being overbearing. He understands her and the peril she puts herself in simply by being with him, so he never tries to push her too far. He actually seems to love her back, rather than just trying to seduce her into his way of life. While in many other tortured love YA stories I’m just supposed to accept that this is deep, epic love for some reason, having Lena’s love seem real, justified, and reciprocated makes the decisions she makes more relate-able. Taken with Oliver’s engrossing prose, it really does have the effect of making you feel like you are the one falling in love.

The hardest thing about writing a review for this book is that I would really highly recommend it, except that you really can’t just read it on its own. It was written with the sequels in mind, and the sequels are, well, not bad, but just unsatisfying. I don’t want to doom anyone to that frustration, so I guess the best thing I can say is that for me, it was still worth it. If, even knowing how I would feel by the end of book 3, I got to go back and choose whether or not to read the Delirium series again, I would still do it for the thrall of this first book.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 13-14: Daughter of Smoke and Bone + Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

laini taylorGoodreads summary of “Daughter of Smoke and Bone”: Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.

In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grown dangerously low.

And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”; she speaks many languages–not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

When one of the strangers–beautiful, haunted Akiva–fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

I’m not going to summarize the plot at all for the second book, “Days of Blood and Starlight,” because that gets into spoiler territory, and this is one of those YA series where if you read the first book and like it, you’re probably going to read the whole series. So up there is the hook for “Smoke and Bone,” and I’ll just more generally opine on concepts and themes across the two for the rest of the review.

One of the first things I found myself quickly enjoying was the female friendship between Karou and Zuzana. There was an authenticity to it that struck me as somewhat unique for the genre. In my experience, a lot of the female protagonists from the ‘high-concept’ YA of late (I’m thinking about the various urban fantasy, dystopian, etc series that are ubiquitous now) are either lone-wolf types or their closest friend is a guy. And that shouldn’t be notable, except that it’s essentially a trope now that the closest-guy-friend is inevitably one of the points in the coming love triangle. Anyway, Karou is a would-be lone wolf: she literally leads a double-life, and since the hidden part of her life revolves around things of a supernatural nature, she isn’t exactly forthcoming to anyone, at first, with personal information. However, her strong-willed best friend Zuzana eventually becomes familiar with Karou’s secret life, and though Zuzana isn’t equipped to be an active participant in that world the way Karou is, she’s a great tether for Karou to the human world. These girls have a friendship based out of genuine mutual respect and fondness for each other, so their dialogue and banter seemed strikingly real and not always forced by a requirement to advance the plot.

As far as Karou herself: I like her, but I wouldn’t say she’s my new best friend. There’s no concrete reason for that, really. She’s got the qualities I like for a female protagonist in this genre: among other things, she’s capable, pragmatic, creative, thoughtful, brave, and a little sassy. It’s possible that how she develops as a character becomes a little too fantastical for me to relate to her, directly, but that’s fine. I don’t need to be drinking buddies with every heroine of every book.

Taylor’s writing is really descriptive and beautiful, so her world-building is pretty top notch. I liked that she used an unusual location like Prague as the backdrop for her story, as opposed to a more commonly selected city like London or New York. I’m definitely interested to check out other books of hers based on what I’ve read here. I think the weakest aspect of the story, for me, was actually the romance. It’s partly my bias as a reader, because I don’t always respond well to the star-crossed lovers narrative, and that’s what is happening here (with characters explicitly referencing “Romeo and Juliet” in case it wasn’t already obvious enough.) I like to read about love being built on something a little more than “He saw her across the square, and she was beautiful, and he was drawn to her in a cosmic way.” (That’s just me, not a quote from the book. Taylor did it better than that, I promise.) Even across two books, not much of a foundation for their One True Love is built, though at least in the second it’s arguable that they both influence the other’s actions for the better, so that’s something.

All together, this is another very fun YA urban fantasy series, and I’m looking forward to the next book/books. I have no idea how many books it’s going to be by the end, but it’s certainly not done at the end of Blood and Starlight. So overall this is recommended, especially if you are a high-concept YA lover like me.

Baxlala’s #CBR5 Review #11: Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

daughterofsmokeandboneI can’t believe I’ve never read this book. I mean, NOW I’ve read it, obviously. I’m not going to come here and review some book I’ve never read before, though that does sound kind of fun, to just puzzle pieces of books together from bits I’ve heard about them or movies that have been made. Like so: Twilight is about a sparkly vampire and a wereboy who fall in love with Bland. The vampire is allergic to emoting and showering. The wereboy is allergic to shirts. There are some fights and Michael Sheen is there for some reason. GET OUT OF THERE, MICHAEL SHEEN.

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WTF is happening here?

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is fucking awesome and you should read it THE END.

Oh, right, I’m supposed to write more. So it wasn’t so long ago that I was complaining about how I was swearing off of YA fiction because of that book that broke me, and then I realized that I’d accidentally gotten some YA from the library (it just happens, you guys, I’m like a moth to a flame, burned by the fire) and so, begrudgingly, I sat down to read it one bright, Saturday morning, and, after not-so-very-long, I was telling my husband that I hoped he had plans for the day because I was going to be reading that damn book until I finished it, such was the power it held over me.

Can you believe I’ve made it this far without even really talking about the book? I CAN. I’m avoiding it because I don’t even know where to begin. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is about Karou, a young woman with peacock-blue hair who spends her days in art school and her nights in league with creatures known as chimaera, who grant wishes in exchange for teeth (human, animal, whatever). Then some angels show up and they are PISSED.

See, now, right now, you’re all, “wtf, this sounds ridiculously weird, why would I want to read this?” and just trust me, OK, you’re going to get to a certain point of this book and realize you can’t put it down, and you’re going to spend the entire day ignoring your husband and pets (and kids, if you have them) so you can finish it. TRUST ME. This book is weird and clever, bursting with originality, the heroine is flawed and strong and can fight like Buffy, and the author has pink hair. WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT?

taylor

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 12: Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Goodreads summary: What if you only had one day to live? What would you do? Who would you kiss? And how far would you go to save your own life?

Samantha Kingston has it all: looks, popularity, the perfect boyfriend. Friday, February 12, should be just another day in her charmed life. Instead, it turns out to be her last.

The catch: Samantha still wakes up the next morning. Living the last day of her life seven times during one miraculous week, she will untangle the mystery surrounding her death–and discover the true value of everything she is in danger of losing.

There is another blog I read, Forever Young Adult, that is aimed at a crowd they call “a little more A than Y” and serves up (among other things) reviews of YA books. Despite their site slogan, they still have a category for books that fall into the inverse: “a little more Y than A.” That category is where I’d place Before I Fall.

This is not a bad book by any means. In fact, technically speaking, it’s pretty great; but, despite its Groundhog Day conceit and superb character arc, it was difficult for me to enjoy. This is, in part, due to the authenticity with which Oliver captures the adolescent voice, which is one of those technically-speaking “good things” I was talking about. To read such a voice now, though, without any of the trappings of dystopia or paranormal fantasy that so much of popular YA these days revels in, feels uncomfortable and un-relateable. At the beginning of the book, Sam is one of the Mean Girls. She and her three best friends aren’t Mary Sue popular girls who are pretty and smart and also nice — they’re bullies, and they lie, cheat, and steal. We aren’t supposed to like these girls, and Oliver candidly lays their nasty qualities out without any hint of apologia. It’s risky, because she risks alienating readers by giving us a purposefully shallow, vain, and unsympathetic protagonist. And I almost was alienated. Not only was I struggling through the earnestly presented “typical teen issues,” but I was also given a lead who was the kind of person I wouldn’t have cared to befriend, even as a teenager.

But then, somehow, throughout the book, she helps us understand the Mean Girls better. She doesn’t redeem them, per se, but Sam comes to see herself and her friends as others do (“I am a bitch,” she tells one of the girls they bullied, not looking for sympathy or forgiveness, just stating it as a fact.) Another interesting choice that gives the girls dimension is that Oliver fleshes out the quality of their friendships. Many times in the Mean Girls narrative (and indeed, in Mean Girls itself) there is the suggestion that the popular girls wouldn’t even be friends if they weren’t bound by their popularity. Oliver turns that on its head a bit and gives us some moments to suggest that there is real friendship there. Even at the end, when Sam is attempting to fix some of went wrong by way of her being a bitch, she doesn’t disavow her shallow, popular friends; rather, she states things she loves about them, but that she now sees the bad that comes with the good.

All of that is to say: I commend Lauren Oliver’s work here. Reading this was literally like tripping and falling back into high school. The characters and angst felt real, and the conclusion of the book was pretty emotional (I won’t admit to crying, but I was misty for sure.) The question for you, would-be reader, is: do you want to go back to high school? I was neither bullied horribly nor a textbook popular girl, and this was already a difficult enough mindset to get back into, so I can only imagine how it could be to relate to anyone on the extreme ends of the popularity spectrum as described here. The book is a quick read, but it’s an emotional investment.