Saturday, September 28, 2013

Review: Never Fade by Alexandra Bracken

I received an ebook of Never Fade from Disney
Hyperion in exchange for an honest review.
Let me explain to you why I hate reading on my e-reader. Well, one of the many reasons. The biggest reason right now.
You cannot tell when the book is almost over. Sure, there is a little progress bar. But do you ever look at it? No.
You get to the last sentence, and try to turn the page, and what do you find?
Oops. The book is over. You have to wait another year to find out what happens next-- "next" meaning after you yell "AGCHGHH?!?" eighteen times and forcefully throw your expensive e-reader onto a hopefully cushioned surface.

Never Fade begins six months after the end of The Darkest Minds, and Ruby has been training with the Children's League since then. She's not sure she's on their side yet, but she's doing what she can to make sure they're on her side. Which brings me to my first point: Ruby Daly. You could read this book for her character development alone, and still feel fulfilled. Remember when Ruby was afraid of her power? No more. Remember when Ruby carefully schooled her face into a mask of indifference because she was afraid of being noticed? No more. (Now her indifferent mask is meant to keep people out, because her feelings are none of their goddamn business.) Her nickname around the League is Medusa, and she's earned it. Six months without anyone who loves her, or contrarily anyone who would kill her for being Orange, have produced a Ruby Daly who has no more soft edges.

Next up: Plot. There is so much more action and drama in this book. In The Darkest Minds, we had a plot that was kind of like one of those walking conveyor belts at large airports-- it was a smooth power-walk from one point to the next, without many off-the-charts spikes in action or drama. Never Fade is more like a rollercoaster: so fast and wild that you come out of it with wind-blown hair and a mild headache. But it's... the good kind of headache?

Moving on to... new characters! These two new characters in particular could have been thrown at me, they could have been lifeless nobodies whose sole purpose was to fill the void left by missing characters from Book 1, but they were not. Vida jumped out in front of me, told me we were going to be friends but I better not step on her toes, and then walked me to my car, threatening creepy dudes with profanity and knives. Jude walked up next to me, introduced himself, talked about his fears but tried to make it seem like he wasn't afraid, and followed me to my car like a loyal puppy dog. They're not Chubs and Liam, but neither are they replacement-Chubs-and-Liam*. You can't help but love them.

*No, I will not disclose whether Chubs and/or Liam are in Never Fade. Sit down.

The writing even improves on the first book, with practically genius tension-building and tension-diffusing both. Naturally comedic dialogue at all the right moments and heartfelt or strategic dialogue everywhere in between-- it's part of what keeps this book so consistent with the first one, when so much of the plot and cast are so completely different.

I have to say the only thing I did not like about this book was that there was so much drama that was not character-centric. Certain characters and relationships weren't given nearly as much attention as would have satisfied me, given the setup from Book 1. It was so focused on the action and all the different conflicting groups of people that the more personal touches, which I loved so much about The Darkest Minds, faded into the background. But at the same time, this made it exponentially more effective when the focus was on the personal elements-- when the characters would really step into their roles of who they have to be for each other, rather than who they have to be for everyone else (there was ONE LINE that turned me into a flailing, squealing mess). I just wish it could have happened more often.

Finally, back to the end. I have to talk about the end. I won't tell you what happens, but I will tell you it ends even more suddenly and torturously than the first book did. But instead of leaving you with that "NO THIS IS NOT OKAY" feeling, it leaves you with a sly grin on your face and the feeling that maybe, just maybe, this time the upper hand is just waiting for your beloved characters to grab it. It's almost theirs.
Four stars for now, but I get the feeling this is going to end up being one of those books that keeps on poking at my thoughts until I give it five stars.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Review: Sia by Josh Grayson

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
So, spoiled rich girl lives a life of selfishness and bullying, putting other people down in order to raise herself up. Girl goes through the trial of a lifetime and realizes the error of her ways, serving penance for the way she has treated those around her. This is not a new story, but it could have at least been interesting. It could have been a story worth telling. Sia could have been a character I grew to care about.
Unfortunately this book is full of near-misses for me. I can get on board with the bully-learns-her-lesson trope, if the bully actually does learn her lesson. Sia does not. Sia didn't need to learn anything; she woke up one day an entirely different person. The only thing that showed her the error of her ways was looking at her previous life through the eyes of a stranger-- eyes that already knew right from wrong.
I could have dealt with this, even, if the book had given New!Sia any glimpses of why she became the horrible person that she apparently had been before, if New!Sia could have said, "Oh, I understand why I acted that way, but really I think I should be a better person anyway." That would have been acceptable character growth. But that didn't happen! Not only was the explanation of Sia's memory loss anticlimactic (it was basically a "Yeah, that happens sometimes" situation), but we did not even get an explanation for what made Old!Sia the supposed worst person, like, ever. There was nothing to connect me to either New!Sia's I-spent-a-couple-weeks-homeless-and-now-I'm-a-champion-for-the-masses attitude or Old!Sia's money-makes-people-superior attitude.
And I've already forgotten the love interest's name, so you can see how much of an impression he left on me. Not only this, but the rest of the characters all around are cliched to the point where I caught myself actually rolling my eyes. The only black character is a wizened homeless woman, the only Latina is Sia's rich family's housekeeper, and every rich person in the book is-- you guessed it-- white. Oh, except for the beautiful Asian supermodel, of course.
Combine all of this with the fact that there is no sustained tension in the story-- every source of potential conflict plays out within a chapter or two-- and a romance that is probably supposed to be cute but hovers dangerously close to annoying teenaged insta-love, and you'll be glad this book is a short one. Had it been about 50 more useless pages, I would have closed this off in the DNF section of my brain halfway through.
Usually when I write a scathing review of a book, I like to leave off with something positive (like, "I hated the characters and the plot, but the writing was beautiful"), but the only positive thing I can say about Sia is that I was able to finish it. The writing was unimpressive and frankly too juvenile for the Young Adult genre, so I can't even use that to soften the blow. But I did finish. It was a breeze of a book, simply because there was so little substance to it.
The takeaway: Don't bother.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell gets it. Whatever it is, she gets it.
With Eleanor & Park, the consensus was clear: Rainbow is a force to be reckoned with, not in just contemporary YA, but YA in general. (And she's super nice, too). Her characters are nothing short of real people living inside your head, kindred spirits in whom you recognize a part of yourself.
I loved Eleanor & Park.
I am in love with Fangirl.
The reason for this, I think, is because I identify so much more with this book, this protagonist, than I ever did with Eleanor, which is set before I was born, in a place nothing like where I grew up. That's not to say that identifying with a character is a necessary step to falling in love with a book, but in this case, I'm pretty sure it is exactly why I was able to choose a favorite. Because it's not just Cath's personality that reflects me back to myself-- it's her life, reflecting mine back to me, showing me my own decisions in a different light.
Cath is a fangirl. A nerd. She would rather sit alone in her room and obsess over fictional characters than go out and be part of a scene where she doesn't think she belongs. Possibly she has social anxiety. Most of her friends are on the Internet. She hates change. She has a twin sister who's more socially involved than she is, but who's always been her built-in best friend. Cath loves to write, and she's good at it, but she has oodles of self-doubt about whether she can go anywhere with it. She doesn't think she can measure up to her favorite author because she can't create her own worlds, so what's the point? She'll stick to fanfiction, thank you very much.
Okay, now take out Cath's name in that last paragraph and replace it with mine. It is all still true. It might still be true if you replace it with your name (except maybe the twin part). Maybe not.
But the best thing about all of this? Fangirl does not talk down to me or tell me that there's anything wrong with the way I am. The way Cath is. Yes, she learns a bit about coming out of her shell and believing in her own abilities, but not once is she ever ashamed of being a fangirl. The only reason she ever keeps it to herself is because other people don't understand, and she doesn't want to have to explain it-- and speaking of explaining it, the book itself does a pretty good job of explaining the fangirl lifestyle. Why it means so much to have characters and stories in our lives that we can escape to, that can help us through when real life just doesn't cut it, that are loved by complete strangers who in turn become some of our best friends because we share something with them that few other people understand. 
The synopsis for the book asks, "Is she ready to start living her own life? And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?" Which is annoying because it suggests that the book argues Cath has to move on from fandom in order to live her own life. But she already is living her own life. She has her own fans, and people who love her because of how passionate she is about her story of choice, Simon Snow. All she really has to do is learn balance (it is the meaning of life, you know. Just ask Barry Lyga).

Anyway, I don't know if people who are not fangirls/fanboys will be this excited about Fangirl (like, maybe if you don't know what the words "canon" or "shipper" mean, you should familiarize yourself first). My coworker gave it to me specifically because she saw me in it, too, and I know that she actually liked Eleanor & Park better. I feel like Rainbow's books are more dependent on personal reactions than a lot of other books, because they're so good at evoking that sense of "Yes, I know exactly what this feels like."
I guess what I'm saying is that I recommend this book to everyone, but I only guarantee you'll love it as much as I did if you're... well, one of my Internet friends.