Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Book review: Into the Still Blue (Under the Never Sky #3) by Veronica Rossi

Spoilers for the previous two books in the trilogy will follow in this Goodreads description:

"The race to the Still Blue has reached a stalemate. Aria and Perry are determined to find this last safe haven from the Aether storms before Sable and Hess do—and they are just as determined to stay together.

Within the confines of a cave they're using as a makeshift refuge, they struggle to reconcile their people, Dwellers and Outsiders, who are united only in their hatred of their desperate situation. Meanwhile, time is running out to rescue Cinder, who was abducted by Hess and Sable for his unique abilities. Then Roar arrives in a grief-stricken fury, endangering all with his need for revenge.

Out of options, Perry and Aria assemble an unlikely team for an impossible rescue mission. Cinder isn't just the key to unlocking the Still Blue and their only hope for survival--he's also their friend. And in a dying world, the bonds between people are what matter most."

In the third book of the Under the Never Sky trilogy, you get a rescue mission, a new world, an uprising, and a few other YA dystopian tropes that, despite being somewhat cliched, play out well, with suspense, intrigue, and catharsis.

The first portion of this book did drag, and I was concerned that I would be delving into yet another final book in a trilogy that was rushed and could have benefited from tighter plotting and editing. With so much ground to cover and loose threads to address, I felt a lot less time could have been spent in the first caper. Aria and Perr's rescue team, in an attempt to rescue Cinder from Sable's compound, are captured, and then they escape and are re-captured about 4-5 times before they finally escape for good. Building suspense is fine, and a foiled plan A is to be expected, but the seemingly endless failed attempts were unnecessary after a point and I just desperately wanted to move on to the next issue.

Fortunately, for me, the book did pick up after the team plus Cinder return to home base. The story takes a nice breath in the middle of the action to reconnect several of the characters and build some emotional stakes for the reader going into the climax of the conflict. Overall, I was satisfied with the way the conclusion played out. The showdown between Perry and Sable itself was a bit of a letdown for reasons that I might not be able to explain without getting into spoilers, but because the way it ended was inevitable anyway I wasn't disappointed in a way that detracted from the rest.

At the end of my review for Under the Never Sky, I said, "So do I recommend this book? Sure. If you're not already predisposed to give this genre a try, it probably won't change your mind, but even if you're like me and think you're kind of over it, you may find yourself relieved as I was that this wasn't too high of a concept to swallow." I stick by that initial assessment after rounding out the trilogy. If you're a fan of the genre, it's a fun and well-enough-written series with an ending that is thankfully NOT problematic and disappointing, so each of the books are actually worth reading.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Book review: Through the Ever Night (Under the Never Sky #2) by Veronica Rossi

Plot summary from Goodreads below. Beware spoilers for the first book in the series.

"It's been months since Aria learned of her mother's death.

Months since Perry became Blood Lord of the Tides, and months since Aria last saw him.

Now Aria and Perry are about to be reunited. It's a moment they've been longing for with countless expectations. And it's a moment that lives up to all of them. At least, at first.

Then it slips away. The Tides don't take kindly to former Dwellers like Aria. And the tribe is swirling out of Perry's control. With the Aether storms worsening every day, the only remaining hope for peace and safety is the Still Blue. But does this haven truly exist?

Threatened by false friends and powerful temptations, Aria and Perry wonder, Can their love survive through the ever night?"

Under the Never Sky introduced us to Aria, Perry, and a handful of secondary characters. It detailed the world that these characters live in, and established that there is, if not a full-on conflict, a lack of respect between Dwellers (the people who live in the pods) and Outsiders. In Through the Ever Night, we delve further into the psyches of our two leads, and get to spend more time getting to know some of the secondaries. This second book in the series also sets the stage for what will prove to be the true conflict: humans vs. humans.

It's frequently suggested that underneath all of the conceptual pageantry, dystopian novels aim to explore issues that are relevant to present circumstances or to ostensible future circumstances. These books are all about the division of resources: land, food, weaponry, technology -- who gets it and who doesn't? The pods had limited geographical space, so the number of the population who lived inside was regulated. Within, they were about to provide infinite necessary resources. Outside, everything is limited and getting worse as the Aether scorches more and more land and renders it un-useable. On a lark that there is another tribe leader who knows of a place called the Still Blue, where there is no Aether in the sky, Aria and her friend Roar (as Perry is occupied leading his tribe) venture to speak with said tribe leader, Sable. Suffice it to say that their meeting with Sable begins the impetus for upending the previous societal structure of Dwellers sequestered in their pods and tenuous peace between the tribes. There's a lot of backstory I'm glossing over, but I want to build on what I mentioned in my last review regarding Rossi handling the dystopian/post-apocalyptic human element in a realistic way. Her thesis in Under the Never Sky seems to be that humans have a survival instinct, and that manifests in some groups differently than others. Some will choose to create a new environment that mimics how they were previously comfortable, and some will adapt to their new surroundings. In Through the Ever Night, though the environment grows increasingly ominous, I appreciated the transition to human conflict and how the story is now more and more exploring the tension between groups that have evolved completely different lifestyles based on those survival instincts. This is exactly what we experience, on a far less dramatic scale, every day.

So far, these are two strong books that I have enjoyed a lot. They aren't perfect, but any issues I've had have been overshadowed by the tight plotting and solid characterization.

Book review: Under the Never Sky (Under the Never Sky #1) by Veronica Rossi

Goodreads: "Exiled from her home, the enclosed city of Reverie, Aria knows her chances of surviving in the outer wasteland--known as The Death Shop--are slim. If the cannibals don't get her, the violent, electrified energy storms will. She's been taught that the very air she breathes can kill her. Then Aria meets an Outsider named Perry. He's wild--a savage--and her only hope of staying alive. 

A hunter for his tribe in a merciless landscape, Perry views Aria as sheltered and fragile--everything he would expect from a Dweller. But he needs Aria's help too; she alone holds the key to his redemption. Opposites in nearly every way, Aria and Perry must accept each other to survive. Their unlikely alliance forges a bond that will determine the fate of all who live under the never sky."

I started this book with trepidation. The YA dystopian stuff hasn't really been grabbing me lately, and they often seem to tread on the same themes, tell more than they show, and exalt the importance main characters without really providing contextual evidence of why said characters are actually so awesome.

For the first hundred or so pages, I was annoyed at Under the Never Sky. I described it aloud as "stupid" when asked how I was liking it. It seemed to do little to separate itself from the endless pack of dystopian YA trilogies (because yes, it's a trilogy. Why have one of these books when you could have three?) But then, something changed. For one thing, Rossi's two leads, Aria and Perry, are good characters with great chemistry. They're still not particularly unique for the genre in terms of the archetypes they embody, but they're well-rounded and charismatic, and the respect and appreciation between them that grows into romance seems genuine and exciting.

The main thing that I realized over the course of reading that helped me grow to appreciate the book was that it wasn't based on some kind of far-fetched human societal thought experiment. Like how in the Divergent trilogy, society divided itself into factions based on personality types, or in the Matched trilogy, the Society picks your partner for you, or in an even further continuation of that, in Delirium, where love is a disease and everyone has to receive a cure. I thought Under the Never Sky was going in that direction, when it started in a pod where everyone wears the same color gray, has little to no experience with illness or physical distress, and spends the majority of their time in virtual Realms accessed through "Smarteye" patches (think Google Glass but bionic.)

The book wasted no time in doing away with that environment though, to my relief. Almost immediately, Aria is cast into the Outside, and the book transitions into more of a post-apocalyptic survival story than a "Evil Government" story. And although the reasoning behind the apocalypse is only loosely explained -- sudden rapid shifts in the Earth's polarity resulted in a substance called Aether infiltrating the atmosphere, and said substance causes random, catastrophic electrical storms that appear almost like tornadoes -- the "dystopian" aspect of having groups of people living in pods becomes very easily explained. It's harsh, of course, that only some people made it into the pods while others were left outside, but as a reader, I appreciated that there was a logical, necessary origin of the dystopia. 

As this is a trilogy, this, the first book, basically sets up the situation and character relationships. That doesn't mean that there isn't plenty of action, or that it's a lot of wasted exposition, because after my initial lukewarm reaction to the book, I actually devoured it once it picked up with Aria on the Outside. I was surprised at how much I ended up liking it, in fact, and started immediately on the sequel once I finished. So do I recommend this book? Sure. If you're not already predisposed to give this genre a try, it probably won't change your mind, but even if you're like me and think you're kind of over it, you may find yourself relieved as I was that this wasn't too high of a concept to swallow ("Something happened to the sky and now we have to survive" as opposed to "When you turn 16 the government turns you pretty".)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Book review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

From Goodreads: “Shadow gets out of prison early when his wife is killed in a car crash. At a loss, he takes up with a mysterious character called Wednesday, who is much more than he appears. In fact, Wednesday is an old god, once known as Odin the All-father, who is roaming America rounding up his forgotten fellows in preparation for an epic battle against the upstart deities of the Internet, credit cards, television, and all that is wired. Shadow agrees to help Wednesday, and they whirl through a psycho-spiritual storm that becomes all too real in its manifestations.”

I’ve literally had this on my bookshelf, wasting away in TBR limbo, for 2 years. Gods only know why I never got around to reading it until now, because this was a fantastic book that I enjoyed immensely. I’ve always been a fan of Gaiman’s writing, and how it feels grounded and human at the same time as being highly imaginative and whimsical. In American Gods, mythology is weaved with contemporary sociological commentary; it deconstructs belief and non-belief in gods and magic and contrasts that faith against our ‘worship’ of technology, something that seems so tangible and accessible but itself contains elements of the unknown. Each of the gods live in human form, in this story, with the ‘old gods’ becoming weak, irrelevant characters due to vanishingly small numbers of Americans worshipping them. Though we like to think of our reverence of technology as a belief and reliance on something real, with a tangible benefit, Gaiman cleverly constructs ‘new gods’ of technology, also in human form, and posits that our worship of the new gods is as subservient and blind as it ever was.

Shadow’s journey leaves him — and us — with a main takeaway, and that is that anything other than oneself is unpredictable, with its own ever-changing motivations and responses. The problem with obeying any god, old or new, is that god might not be looking out for you, and even if s/he is, s/he might be powerless to really do anything for you. It’s a humanist message, overall. We’re ultimately responsible for ourselves, since what we worship is only as strong as our worship itself, and we’re fickle beasts.

Book reviews for June and July

In further confirmation that I was just never meant to be a blogger, I haven't even been cross-posting book reviews for the last few months. Here's a masterpost for all of them.

Saga, Vol 1-3 by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples 4 stars
The Darkest Kiss by Gena Showalter 1 star
Lick (Stage Dive #1) and Play (Stage Dive #2) by Kylie Scott 3 stars, 4 stars
American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar 4 stars

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin 4 stars
A Duke Never Yields by Juliana Grey 2 stars
A Feast For Crows by George R. R. Martin 4 stars
War for the Oaks by Emma Bull 3 stars
Secrets of a Summer's Night (Wallflowers #1) and Devil in Winter (Wallflowers #3) by Lisa Kleypas Both 4 stars
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black 5 stars

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Book review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I want everyone to read you, Eleanor & Park!

I have so spoiled myself over the past few weeks, reading brilliant wordsmiths like Rainbow Rowell and Laini Taylor whose emotive descriptions are devastatingly apt. This book is ADORABLE. It seems like almost everyone I knew in high school fell in love exactly like this; teenagers have a way of each feeling uniquely disenfranchised, and meeting someone else who complements your weird and loneliness feels like finally the universe has done you a solid. Eleanor and Park aren’t, though, overwhelmingly privileged teens who create their own angst, as many of my peers were . Park is mixed-race and experiences racism and ignorance from his classmates and neighbors, and even though most of it isn’t violent or explicitly cruel, it leaves him feeling like an outcast. Eleanor is new at Park’s school, and comes from an abusive home, where she, her siblings, and her mother constantly navigate the whims of her alcoholic stepfather. On top of her home being dangerous, her family is also poor, so she doesn’t feel safe at school either, where her worn-out, unstylish, and ill-fitting clothes make her stand out against her classmates.

Their meet-cute isn’t much of one: Eleanor stands awkwardly at the front of the bus looking for a seat; Park, begrudgingly, almost angrily, allows her to take the seat next to him. Soon, though, as they’re sitting together, Park notices Eleanor reading his comics, and he takes to bringing some with him for her to read. Soon after, they’re sharing Walkman headphones. Then, mixtapes. As teens identify themselves so much by the stuff that they like, Eleanor and Park’s mutual interest in these things and the seeming intuition about what the other will like (because they, themselves like it) eventually grows into affection and then breathless, all-consuming young love.

Their love is an escape from a world that doesn’t understand them into one that does, but it also in small ways gives them more strength to survive the parts of their lives without each other. As much as they hate being apart, they take courage away from being together. Park, for instance, feels more comfortable expressing himself and starts wearing eyeliner simply because he likes it. Eleanor’s situation is different — she can’t undergo any kind of obvious transformation without rocking the boat with her stepfather, but the knowledge that she finally has a real support system in Park (and a growing one in his family) subconsciously empowers her to believe that she is loveable. It’s a more subtle transformation, but as she loves Park more, she needs him less.

I’m, again, so grateful to the Cannonball for introducing me to Rainbow Rowell. After two books, she’s immediately on the list of authors I will read, regardless of the description, because I now trust her to write a great book even if it’s not a plot that appears to immediately grab me. Attachments is now on my library list and I can’t wait for her next to be published later this year!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Book review: Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor

Though not really reflected in my earlier (rather superficial, in retrospect) review, I have had a whirlwind of emotions with this series. I wrote said prior review as one piece for both of the preceding novels, Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight probably to avoid spoilers but also because I read them literally back-to-back: I finished Smoke and Bone and began Blood and Starlight with the same breath. As such, it became difficult to separate them for the purposes of thematic or ‘first impression’ review — which, it seems, is what I did, reading it over — but as time had gone by, I began to remember S&B more favorably, overall, than B&S. I have no desire to review those two over again, but for the sake of recapping how I felt when I began Dreams of Gods and Monsters, I’ll just mention that while I was excited to be reintroduced to Taylor’s worlds and characters via her stunning prose, I remembered feeling fatigued by the number of words and pages it took in B&S for Taylor to state, more or less, that supernatural wars are scary and dangerous and they tear lovers apart. I was concerned, therefore, about how long G&M would take to get to where it was going, and whether that narrative would be gripping along the way, or if it would lazily meander around several tangents before getting to the point. It sounds harsh to say it that way, because Taylor’s writing is so uniquely lovely and the tangents are so artfully drawn, so scenes that beautiful shouldn’t feel extraneous, but they just sometimes do.

So, with all of that said, how did G&M do? Well, I liked it better than B&S but not as much, still, as S&B. Which is to say, in some aspects, my concerns were justified. A new main character was introduced in G&M that, within the context of G&M, created an interesting secondary plotline; however, it seemed to me that her part in the conclusion could have been fulfilled using existing characters and mythology that was established in the first two books. Instead, this new character is given an arch that, in and of itself, could have been an interesting standalone novel, but in this context it comes across as an overly convoluted backstory that’s hastily introduced into what otherwise is the climax and resolution of the primary narrative. Her arch does tie into the overall conclusion, but as I said, the purpose she served could have probably been achieved through means that didn’t distract from the main story and take time away from other characters whose stories were never fully resolved. There was also a little bit of an infodump at the end that was full of really epic consequences, and it was played as utterly devastating, but the way that the information was delivered took a bit of punch out of the reveal. This, again, was something that, had it unraveled more slowly over the course of the novel, might have built up mystery and stakes, but instead passages featuring the key players were shuffled in and out sporadically and with a very tenuous connection to the main stage that remained tenuous up until said infodump.

Despite the inconsistent pace and loose threads, though, I was pretty satisfied with G&M. The prose was as beautiful as ever, and she continued to respect the journeys of each of her main characters, giving them each something to contribute and underlining the necessary support system that they are for each other. I also never felt at any point like the end was being broadcast, or like the the story was taking predictable turns. I also, overall, appreciated the way that Taylor chose to end the book. It wasn’t all rainbows and roses, but things were generally looking up. Additionally, despite outing myself as someone who doesn’t really buy into the ‘star-crossed lovers’ narrative a lot of the time, the way that Karou and Akiva’s story played out had me on board by the end and even had me wanting much more for them in a potentially un-YA way. (It doesn’t hurt that the way that Laini Taylor writes love and longing reads like it’s the most important and essential thing in the history of the universe, and I’m not poking fun by putting it that way: THE FEELS ARE REAL, is what I’m saying.)

Dreams of Gods and Monsters was, for me, a solid 4.5 stars. Based on some of the “technical” complaints, I’d give it four, but it’s such a satisfying end to a well-written, unique, and quality series that I concede the extra nudge. For bringing me back around after the dull Blood and Starlight alone, G&M gets a merit award. Overall, I highly recommend the series and look forward to more from Laini Taylor. In particular, I’m curious of what a more straightforward PNR would look like from her, since she’s so talented and writes longing, desire, and UST so well.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Book review: This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It (John Dies at the End #2) by David Wong

Goodreads has this PSA for you: “WARNING: You may have a huge, invisible spider living in your skull. THIS IS NOT A METAPHOR.

You will dismiss this as ridiculous fearmongering. Dismissing things as ridiculous fearmongering is, in fact, the first symptom of parasitic spider infection-the creature secretes a chemical into the brain to stimulate skepticism, in order to prevent you from seeking a cure. That’s just as well, since the “cure” involves learning what a chain saw tastes like.

You can’t feel the spider, because it controls your nerve endings. You can’t see it, because it decides what you see. You won’t even feel it when it breeds. And it will breed. So what happens when your family, friends, and neighbors get mind-controlling skull spiders? We’re all about to find out.”

Much like with John Dies at the End, the first book in this series, I was only about 85-90% sure of what was going on at any given point in time while reading this book. The prose here is lightning fast and wickedly quippy, and David Wong’s gift of gruesome detail — both metaphorical and not — cannot be understated. I liked this book a lot, with its hapless wannabe action hero protagonists who are only ever involved in these supernatural/alien doomsday scenarios because they have the misfortune of living in a town that’s basically Sunnydale and because they took a psychedelic drug called Soy Sauce one time that elevates the consciousness and perception to be able to see all of the creepy crawlies that regular humans can’t. As a twosome, John and Dave are sarcastic, horrible at planning, short-sighted, and immature, but they’re also weirdly experienced, very loyal, and above all, incredibly lucky. That Dave has a very smart girlfriend in Amy (and a dog named Molly with great timing) also doesn’t hurt.

Prior reviews have all mentioned that this book seamlessly blends horror, gore, and suspense with comedy, and I agree completely. Wong has also been described as a spiritual successor to Douglas Adams, and I agree with that as well. Certainly all fans of Hitchhiker’s Guide should read this series, as should anyone who just likes comedic books in general. I docked a star because I am being persnickety and I liked the overarching plot better in John Dies at the End than I did in Spiders, but this really was very good.

Book review: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Quickie summary: “In this classic story that inspired the hit movie by the same name, Charlie Gordon, a mentally disabled adult who cleans floors and toilets, becomes a genius through an experimental operation.”

I never read this in school, as I believe many did, so though I came to understand popular references to the book or film, I still felt like I was lacking in some collective education. One thought that continually ran through my mind as I was reading the story was the question I posed above: could this story be published today and achieve the same critical and cultural success? Keyes aptly (I believe) addresses the treatment of mentally challenged adults by critiquing through Charlie’s eyes both the overt maliciousness and teasing he experienced as well as the more subtle prejudice of the psychologists conducting the experiment, who often treated him more as a lab subject than a full human being, with or without his new “genuis.” Despite that sensitive and thought-provoking content, the beginning and (spoiler?) end of this book are written in the author’s idea of mentally disabled pidgin, and it’s uncomfortable to read, to say the least. Where in overall content and intent, Keyes seems to have hit the right notes, the “retarded” affect seems a bit like crip drag to me, though as I’m not mentally disabled it’s probably not my place to pretend to be an expert here.

The other element that dated the story actually came from Charlie’s “genius” end of the spectrum. Put bluntly, the ruminating he does on psychology and sexuality with his new-found intelligence absolutely SCREAMS 1960′s. In fact, many of these passages reminded me of the pompous blustering performed by Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land, another book where each woman is a different cardboard archetype and sex is a mystical and significant but also, like, totally normal thing, man. As interesting as it was to read along with Charlie as he reaches epiphanies about himself, his relation to others close and distant, and draw hypotheses about humanity as a whole, much of the discussion that didn’t cover Charlie’s direct progress and emotions felt like thinly veiled podiums for the author’s own pedantry.

I can see why this is read in many schools. There is a good message about treating others as you would like to be treated, and a nice cautionary tale about the importance of making sure science has rigorous checks and balances before human experimentation commences (seriously, a sample size of one successful rat does not a completed experiment make.) For me, it wasn’t the top-tier science fiction classic its often made out to be, but you know what they say about mileages varying and all that.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Book review: Ruins (The Partials Sequence #3) by Dan Wells

The first thing I will say is this: Ruins, despite its bleak title, had possibly the happiest ending in a YA dystopian trilogy that I remember reading in quite some time, and, admittedly, I was kind of relieved.

I was getting the sense that many YA authors have been under pressure from publishers — and their own ambition — to write ‘shocking’ or ‘original’ endings, so they’ve been steered away from neat resolution and feel-goods. But an ending can be positive without being trite, you know? And my feels can only take a beating for so long. So while I won’t get into specifics here, I’ll just re-iterate that it was bizarrely refreshing for Dan Wells to give us a hopeful ending in this trilogy; the main conflict seemed to be headed in a productive direction, and the love triangle (yes, of course) was resolved in as mature of a fashion as I’ve ever read.

I’ve always felt that “The Partials Sequence” has been an underrated YA trilogy. The world-building is solid and sits right in that neat pocket of believable near-future sci-fi that personally grabs me, and the characterization remained consistent across the trilogy — in a good way — these people weren’t static; their actions seemed in line with their motivations, personalities, and goals. The action and tension slowly and consistently ramped up but never became wildly unrealistic, and while Kira, as a heroine, suffers a little bit from a Messiah complex, the supporting characters are diverse enough to keep the story grounded.

While I liked the trilogy overall a lot and was satisfied with the final conclusion, I did have some issues with this particular book. It’s hard to discuss some of them without getting a bit specific, so if you’re wary of spoiling yourself avoid the rest of this paragraph. I briefly mentioned my first issue above, which is that Kira kind of consistently performs above her grade-level, so to speak? I have tried to pledge myself to never use the term Mary Sue (and there I’ve just invoked it, so ugh) because I think it’s so overused that it doesn’t mean anything at this point (see also: “hipster”), but it’s difficult to justify a teenager of above-average but not exceptional intelligence being able to solve two world-changing medical problems that have had preeminent experts scratching their heads for decades. Which isn’t to say that the problems were real stumpers, since as a reader I figured out at least the second one — the one that is solved in Ruins – ages before everyone else did, but still. One of the many geniuses in the book should have caught on before Kira did. Even that would have been easier to accept if she weren’t always on all of these “I’m the only one who can do this” missions, of which there are at least 2 in every standalone novel, I’m sure.

I also think that, in an issue nearly identical to one in probably every YA trilogy closer I’ve read in the last five years, this volume could have benefited from some editing. There are extended passages where Kira and/or other characters are wandering around some landscape feature, and while these journey sequences have compelling moments, they could have been clipped or condensed quite a bit without sacrificing the significance of the outcome.

All in all, those issues aside, I still thought this series collectively finishes on top of many of its more popular contemporaries, or at least many of the ones I’ve read. I’m not going to clamor for it to be optioned for a film because I think Hollywood definitely needs to stop banging on the corpse of YA dystopia for awhile, but the series is still certainly worth a read (the original entertainment!)