Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book review: Fuse (Pure #2) by Julianna Baggott

This is the second book in the Pure trilogy, so understand that this review and the following summary from Goodreads will have spoilers:

"We want our son returned. This girl is proof that we can save you all. If you ignore our plea, we will kill our hostages one at a time.

To be a Pure is to be perfect, untouched by Detonations that scarred the earth and sheltered inside the paradise that is the Dome. But Partridge escaped to the outside world, where Wretches struggle to survive amid smoke and ash. Now, at the command of Partridge’s father, the Dome is unleashing nightmare after nightmare upon the Wretches in an effort to get him back.

At Partridge’s side is a small band of those united against the Dome: Lyda, the warrior; Bradwell, the revolutionary; El Capitan, the guard; and Pressia, the young woman whose mysterious past ties her to Partridge in way she never could have imagined. Long ago a plan was hatched that could mean the earth’s ultimate doom. Now only Partridge and Pressia can set things right.

To save millions of innocent lives, Partridge must risk his own by returning to the Dome and facing his most terrifying challenge. And Pressia, armed only with a mysterious Black Box, containing a set of cryptic clues, must travel to the very ends of the earth, to a place where no map can guide her. If they succeed, the world will be saved. But should they fail, humankind will pay a terrible price..."

This may be a rare example of the YA trilogy where I liked either of the sequels better than the first. So often, it's the first that really grabs the imagination, but the second and third books in the series feel rushed and underwhelming. Since in the case of Pure I was underwhelmed by the opening novel, it was refreshing for Fuse to raise the stakes by moving the plot more quickly and placing the characters in situations that test their integrity, composure, and loyalty.

I loved the progression of the Lyda character from Pure to Fuse. She started out not having much direction and seemed to function basically as the unfortunate doormat that Partridge wiped his feet on, on his way outside of the Dome. Once she herself leaves the Dome, you expect her to flounder, but she immediately takes to the non-sanitized environment and comes into her own. She loves Partridge, but she doesn't sacrifice any part of her new empowerment for him or tether herself to him. She becomes much more self-possessed and in charge of her emotions and directions than even Pressia, who spends much of Fuse wrestling with her feelings for Bradwell. For her part, Pressia is less of a pawn here, too. She even gets the opportunity to do her own research and problem-solving, and proves to be much better suited to that than to physical combat or Survivorman-type scenarios. I still think the boys are a little underdeveloped, particularly Bradwell and El Capitan. Baggott is wrestling with several POV/main characters here, and she may have stretched herself a little thin, preferring to give the meat of characterization to Pressia, Partridge, and Lyda. Bradwell is the most disadvantaged since he doesn't have his own POV chapters and we only see him through others' eyes, but considering he's the main love interest, I'd love to know a little more about him other than that he's tough and kinda revenge-motivated. (That's not LITERALLY it, but he mostly boils down to that.)

Fuse saw Partridge enter a new stage of his development as well. Whereas before he was straightforward and guileless, he's now been asked to deceive and perform morally objectionable tasks in the name of The People. He thought what he knew about Dome leadership was bad before, but it's not until he finds out how deep the rabbit hole goes that he agrees to be a part of the plan. It's something he obviously struggles with, not only on the moral level that any human would, but because he can't help but be concerned that he will be transformed into the same kind of liar that he's fighting against.

Overall, Fuse got me interested in what the conclusion of this series would be. I'm in the middle of Burn, the final volume now, so I'll be reporting on that shortly.

Book review: Pure by Julianna Baggott

I believe I mentioned this before, probably recently, but I am pretty sure I have maxed-out, for awhile, my patience with post-apocalyptic/dystopian YA fiction. Pure might be an above-average entry to the genre (I say might because, genuinely, I can't tell anymore), but my overall interest while reading it was tepid at best. The scenario is this, according to Goodreads:

"Pressia barely remembers the Detonations or much about life during the Before. In her sleeping cabinet behind the rubble of an old barbershop where she lives with her grandfather, she thinks about what is lost-how the world went from amusement parks, movie theaters, birthday parties, fathers and mothers . . . to ash and dust, scars, permanent burns, and fused, damaged bodies. And now, at an age when everyone is required to turn themselves over to the militia to either be trained as a soldier or, if they are too damaged and weak, to be used as live targets, Pressia can no longer pretend to be small. Pressia is on the run.

There are those who escaped the apocalypse unmarked. Pures. They are tucked safely inside the Dome that protects their healthy, superior bodies. Yet Partridge, whose father is one of the most influential men in the Dome, feels isolated and lonely. Different. He thinks about loss-maybe just because his family is broken; his father is emotionally distant; his brother killed himself; and his mother never made it inside their shelter. Or maybe it's his claustrophobia: his feeling that this Dome has become a swaddling of intensely rigid order. So when a slipped phrase suggests his mother might still be alive, Partridge risks his life to leave the Dome to find her.

When Pressia meets Partridge, their worlds shatter all over again."

As someone who generally loves fantasy and science fiction and such reality-bending genres, I carry into every reading experience a healthy willingness -- desire, even -- to suspend disbelief. So when an author asks me to, initially, just accept that this world they have built exists, for whatever reason, I'll get on board. I expect, throughout the progression of the novel (or trilogy, because OF COURSE it's a trilogy,) for that reasoning to get fleshed out, and for a little backstory to be given. Pure does this successfully, I believe, since it employs the audience-learns-along-with-the-characters method of reconstructing the events that led up to the present day. 

All of that said, there are elements here that were too implausible even for me to accept. For instance, on multiple occasions, the protagonists battle literal monsters: Beasts are creatures created by the fusion of human beings with animals at the time of the Detonations, and Dusts are former humans fused with the earth itself. Both are alive, technically, but neither have retained the higher-order logical processing of human beings and are driven always to kill to feed. Pressia, herself, has one fist that is completely fused to a doll's head, and it's not "fused" in the way where the really high temperature from an explosion might have caused the plastic to burn and meld onto her skin; it's literally a part of her in that she can feel pain if she incurs an injury to the doll's head. 

Recounting those complaints, it seems like further evidence that I'm just fatigued by this genre rather than finding legitimate grievances. I mean, I'm not okay with fused bodies, but I am okay with the "genetically engineered" creatures in The Hunger Games or a society dividing itself into factions as in Divergent? (And, well, even then, by the time I got to the rationale for why that happened, I totally rolled my eyes at it.) 

Maybe it's that I wasn't that interested in the characters themselves? Pressia is something of an idealist and optimist, even in the face of destruction all around her. She seems to have a positive impact on the people around her, but I personally found her a little simplistic and I had a hard time understanding, frankly, how she survived as long as she did after the Detonations. Her co-conspirators, Bradwell and El Capitan -- neither of whom are mentioned in the Goodreads blurb above, but are no less important than either Pressia or Partridge -- each have distinct traits that have ensured their survival thus far. Pressia, herself, is determined and means well, but she seems to be always on the verge of being killed or captured (and is in fact captured outright several times) but escapes danger by luck or thanks to the skill of her friends. It's fine, but I wish she brought something to the table other than a chipper attitude.

I don't know. I thought a lot about how to be fair to this book before writing this review, because I suspect it's really not as troubled as I'm making it out to be, but the bottom line is that I had a hard time fully enjoying it. I'm going to complete the trilogy because that's just the kind of thing that I do, but I don't unreservedly recommend it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Book review: Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day is about “A,” a quantum-leaper who, every day, inhabits a new body and peeks in the window of a new life. A doesn’t have a full name or a true identity, but s/he does have a basic code for living and a pretty healthy sense of empathy. There are a few rules to the “jumps” that A makes; namely, A only jumps into the bodies of geographically nearby people who are about the same age as A is (about sixteen), and the jump happens every night at midnight. When A inhabits a body, s/he access that person’s memories, but doesn’t necessarily know what that person’s personality is. So when A is in a body, that body has A’s personality for that day. A mostly maintains a very neutral, unassuming personality, or takes context cues based on the body’s personal affects, or how their friends act around them.

Having laid those ground-rules, there are two main aspects to the plot of Every Day. The first, primary, plot, is that A one day lands in a body named Justin, who is boyfriend to a girl named Rhiannon. A falls in love with Rhiannon, and also fairly quickly deduces that Justin isn’t actually that great of a boyfriend to her, but she stays with him out of comfort and that (very familiar, very teenaged) misguided belief that the power of her enduring love will bring him back to her. What follows in this plotline is, for me, a very uncomfortable tale of how A pursues Rhiannon in all manner of different bodies, therefore not only breaking his/her code of not interfering incredibly with the bodies’ usual routines, but also forcing Rhiannon into an awkward sort of relationship where Rhiannon acknowledges that she could love the person who A is, but she has an obviously difficult time accepting every new body. Now, I know there are a lot of people who love this book and find it very bittersweet, but this whole aspect of the story comes across to me as pretty stalkerish and light on regard for Rhiannon’s confusion. As much as A verbally says s/he understands how it’s difficult for Rhiannon, his/her continued pursuit of her is an uncomfortable mirror for real-life situations where so many girls and women are pursued by boys and men who are told to just keep trying and trying until she’s worn down. As much as A is supposed to be genderless, his/her behavior follows a very gendered pattern.

The second aspect of the plot is A’s cursory explorations of the bodies s/he is in. Of course, every body belongs to a person with a drastically different life situation, and Levithan uses this conceit to explore, in small vignettes, some of those tougher situations. At different points, A jumps into a hardcore drug addict, a morbidly obese person, and a suicidal person, among others. A describes how s/he feels in that body, and how the artifacts of that person’s life affect him/her, and also, when applicable, how the world at large reacts to that person and their body. This part of the book comes off a little after-school special and hamfisted to me, but I also appreciate what Levithan is trying to do, and I would hope that the younger readers of Every Day take the advantage they’re given here to consider other perspectives — especially since, for more privileged teenagers, it’s often very difficult to break out of their own self absorption (and I’m not throwing shade, more like speaking from experience.)

This is definitely a book that skews a little more Young than Adult, and as an adult I found it often tediously lacking in subtlety. I gave it three stars because I thought Levithan ended up giving the saga of Rhiannon and A a pretty fair conclusion, and despite the issues I discussed above — and logical inconsistencies that I didn’t really spend a lot of time talking about, because I didn’t want this to become a pedantic rant — I think the effort to write a more “conscious” novel is a commendable one.

Book review: The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

Goodreads summary: “Miss Minerva Lane is a quiet, bespectacled wallflower, and she wants to keep it that way. After all, the last time she was the center of attention, it ended badly–so badly that she changed her name to escape her scandalous past. Wallflowers may not be the prettiest of blooms, but at least they don’t get trampled. So when a handsome duke comes to town, the last thing she wants is his attention.

But that is precisely what she gets.

Because Robert Blaisdell, the Duke of Clermont, is not fooled. When Minnie figures out what he’s up to, he realizes there is more to than her spectacles and her quiet ways. And he’s determined to lay her every secret bare before she can discover his. But this time, one shy miss may prove to be more than his match…”

Listen: I raved about Milan not that long ago, and in that review, I touched upon my admiration of her skill with writing character psychology in a believable way. It’s one thing that elevates her romances above others, because a very florid and purple romance can be great fun indeed, but to so expertly blend fun and reality is an uncommon trait in the genre, IMO. Another thing I love about Milan is how almost every book bends (or breaks) convention in some way, but it’s never gauche or out of place; these characters and these current events could surely be real. This was particularly evident in Unclaimed, with its virgin male hero and rather experienced heroine — not to mention the hero’s whole manifesto about respecting women. The Duchess War has, for its part: two virgin leads, an accused atheist genetic theorist, a pro-union and workers’ rights sentiment, and actual PTSD/social anxiety disorder. From this, you could surmise correctly that there is a lot of plot here that isn’t just romance, and that’s what makes it so cool; in the context of everything else, the romance is still, well, romantic, and the leads are still very charming and charismatic together.

I don’t want to give too much away regarding the first love scene, other than that it’s utterly unique, very brave, and above all, completely real. For Milan not being one of those authors whose virgin heroine gushes the River Thames on her first outing, I am utterly appreciative.

I recall that not everyone was as thrilled about The Duchess War as I was; they didn’t think it was romantic enough or that the two leads had enough chemistry. This must be one of those complete YMMV situations, because I am really growing to love a romance that seems to be less about cosmic attractions defined by fate alone and more about two characters loving each other in a way that is borne out of respect. Needless to say, the latter is exactly what happened here, and I loved the book all the more for it. Now I am wrestling with whether I should get going reading the next two in the Brothers Sinister series — I would devour them, I fear — before the fourth comes out, or whether I should wait and space out my Milan and save them. Fortunately my to-read pile is large enough to maintain a modicum of self-control!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Book review: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Goodreads overview: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." So the second Mrs. Maxim de Winter remembered the chilling events that led her down the turning drive past the beeched, white and naked, to the isolated gray stone manse on the windswept Cornish coast. With a husband she barely knew, the young bride arrived at this immense estate, only to be inexorably drawn into the life of the first Mrs. de Winter, the beautiful Rebecca, dead but never forgotten... her suite of rooms never touched, her clothes ready to be worn, her servant - the sinister Mrs. Danvers - still loyal. And as an eerie presentiment of the evil tightened around her heart, the second Mrs. de Winter began her search for the real fate of Rebecca... for the secrets of Manderley.

Rebecca is a fantastic 'mood' novel: it's suspenseful and ensnaring without being obvious and brash. du Maurier adeptly chooses diction that conveys the tone and scene and draws the reader in, seductively but mysteriously, much like how the second Mrs. de Winter must have felt upon arriving at Manderley. It's a very easy book to get lost in. It's not a proper mystery, in the sense that there isn't a case laid out that requires solving, but our young protagonist does by necessity unravel the truth behind Rebecca's legacy and her marriage to her mercurial husband.

The second Mrs. de Winter is, literally, nameless, since her whole being becomes entangled with her husband and Manderley. She's a hopeless romantic -- young, naive, and eager to please. I don't recall her age ever being explicitly stated, but she is probably in her late teens. As romantic as this novel is in its idyllic descriptions of Manderley's gardens and great rooms, Maxim de Winter himself leaves a lot to be desired as a husband. du Maurier skillfully allows for the reader to recognize Mrs. de Winter's infatuation with the man as a hallmark of her youth and inexperience, even through her breathless adoration, for he really is quite sullen and condescending, and not the type that many young women would rush to marry were it not for the promise of the marriage plucking them out of some kind of dreadful current situation (as was the case with MdW2.)

Of course, such a marriage, even without the specter of a seemingly perfect dead first wife, will tend to change a person. Though MdW2 spends much of the novel feeling hopelessly gauche and undeserving of her husband's love, the secrets that are revealed to her cause her to grow and gain wisdom almost instantly. As such, I also relate to her loss of innocence directly correlating with her increase in confidence and, yes, maturity.

This is something of a classic and a novel that I'd definitely recommend to anyone, particularly those interested in historical fiction.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Book review: The Radleys by Matt Haig

The Radleys  is a vampire novel that isn't a vampire novel. The family are vampires, to be sure, but vampirism here is a metaphor for identity in general. The novel, then, explores the consequences of denying one's true self; the facade erected by the Radleys alienates the family members from each other, and the family unit from society at large, ironically, as the facade is constructed for the single purpose of fitting in.
The Radley parents, Peter and Helen, are abstaining vampires -- they don't drink blood. Physically, this makes them fragile and under-performing. Emotionally, it strains their marriage, as their whole relationship becomes centered around the sacrifice they make together. Their children, Rowan and Clara, don't even know that they are vampires; they only know that they are sickly, awkward outcasts. After a gruesome incident, though, the parents are forced to tell the children who they really are, and the fallout from discovering their true identities shakes the family's carefully constructed place in the social order. One of the children chooses instantly not to abstain, and the freedom in that decision further strains Peter and Helen's marriage, as Peter observes a happiness and confidence in his child that he and his wife haven't known in years. Throw Peter's brother Will in the mix -- he's a reckless, unabashed blood drinker who is nonetheless depressed over lost love and circling the drain -- the suddenly the Radleys have gone from the unassuming neighbors to the center of the spotlight.
I thought this book was creative and clever. It took a different tack to vampirism that's less sensational and paranormal, and more focused on the real-world consequences of what it means to be different. The writing was refreshingly uncomplicated and concise, and the chapters themselves were short and smoothly flowing. And let me stress again that this is more of a book about family relationships, love, secrets, betrayal, mending, and self-realization than it really is about vampires. There's enough urban fantasy to explore the more, well, fantastical side of vampires -- and lord knows I read it -- but this isn't that book. So if you have vampire fatigue, never fear. The Radleys isn't interested in another star-crossed, tortured YA romance between a hundred-year old vampire and a teenager. It's much more real, and resonant for that.