Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Review: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

At least it has the best cover of the series.
When I wrote the title of this review just now, in my head I heard the "dun dun" that they play at the beginning of court scenes in every Law & Order episode. You know the one? The one that makes you feel like, okay, this is going to be tense. Because that's how I feel right now. I've been putting off this review-- I wasn't really even sure I was going to write one-- because it's going to be tense. 

Warning: I cannot write this review without major spoilers. I just can't. So if you haven't read Allegiant yet, abort Mission Read-Paige's-Blog until the appropriate mission prep has been accomplished.


Let me say this now before I get wildly ahead of myself talking about the ending. The ending is not the reason I'm giving this book 2/5 stars. It's part of the reason, yes, but ultimately I was disappointed with the whole book.

The end of Insurgent promised some explosive conflict. We found out that the people in Chicago had been locked in there on purpose, and people started shouting. The outside world was beckoning and we were finally going to find out what's been going on out there. I was prepared to have to hold on to my figurative hat, if you catch my drift.

But we did find out what was going on out there, and anticlimactically, the answer was "not much." Some people doing crazy genetic experiments that created more plot issues than they solved (if they could manipulate DNA to create the "genetically damaged" people, why couldn't they manipulate it in the reverse and create "genetically pure" people?), some people eschewing government and living exactly like the factionless were before Evelyn came along, and a few other experiment cities. Where is the rest of it? And more importantly, where is the conflict? For the little conflict that does exist between the people outside the fence and the leaders inside, it seems like Tris is the only person with any idea of how to handle it correctly. And she is sixteen years old. It bothered me that every single leader in Allegiant turned into a villain at some point. Marcus, Evelyn, Zoe, David, and even Johanna. When did Tris become the all-knowing wise girl who didn't make mistakes, while every powerful person around her was tunnel-visioned into doing everything wrong?

And the science. I'm not an expert, but I didn't like the science. Aside from the terms "genetically damaged" and "genetically pure," which made me cringe every single time-- a lot, considering how overused they were-- I don't think this book benefited (the way Reached did, for example) from going the sci-fi route. It took the focus away from the Bureau/Fringe/Chicago tension and slowed the pace so much that at the end of its 526 pages, it still didn't feel like half of the book Divergent was in 487 pages.

The character stuff was... there. Barely. Tris's development pretty much happened at the end of Insurgent, so in Allegiant it was actually pretty great to see her more confident in what she believes and taking control and valuing her life. I even enjoyed seeing Four make a mistake and have to pay for it, showing Tris once again that he is not perfect and everyone is broken in their own ways. But their scenes together made me uncomfortable in two completely different ways: either they were throwing themselves at each other for no reason other than the fact that they were both there, or they were fighting. I hate it when they fight, but a part of me likes it too. Real couples fight and make it through, which is what Four and Tris have always done, but I could have used some more in-between scenes, where they're neither fighting nor kissing. I wanted to see them supporting each other emotionally-- healing each other, rather than Tris healing herself and Four kind of wandering, waiting for her to realize he needed her help. (The alternating viewpoints were also occasionally confusing to me. I would be reading a chapter thinking it was one person narrating, and then he/she would refer to herself/himself in third person and I'd have to go back and read whose name was at the beginning of the chapter. Which means the voices weren't distinct enough.)
Also, she couldn't have waited to put Uriah into a coma later? He was the comic relief! And also I don't care what anyone says, he did not have to die.
I can't skip over Peter, either. I absolutely love Peter. He is my favorite character in the series. I find him simply fascinating-- which is why it is so extremely upsetting to me that he's left as a blank slate. But it makes sense that an awful person such as Peter is going to choose the awful person's way out: instead of developing into a less awful person, he uses his "damaged" genes as an excuse for the way he is, and wipes his memory clean to get away from himself. But that creates another plot hole, doesn't it? If his penchant for violence is in his genes, wiping his memory won't fix him. And if he's really such an awful person, why does he feel so badly about it that he doesn't want to remember the things he's done? I can't decide anymore what's consistent with his character and what's not.

Now that I've established that I do have other reasons for my 2-star rating, I can move on to the ending.

So, the majority of reactions to Allegiant that I have seen have been in two camps:

  1. People who are angry or upset about the book for one main reason, but possibly also a variety of reasons.
  2. People who are defending an author's right to end her characters' story the way she felt it had to end. These people are largely assuming that the negative reactions to the book are based solely on the end, rather than the other 450 or so pages.
But you see, the majority of readers of this book are in both camps-- like, say, me. My main emotion for the past week or so has been anger. Anger that this book was not what I thought I had been looking forward to for the past year and a half. Anger that this, the final book in the trilogy, seemed to render it all utterly pointless to me. Anger-- and this is the biggest one of all-- that Tris's death has in fact only made me angry. When a main character dies, I want to feel sad. I want to expel that sadness through tears while listening to sad songs that remind me of the people left behind; I want to cry it out so that later I can look at it and think, "Wow, what a way to go." The main character dying at the end has the potential to turn something into a great story (especially for masochists like me).

And don't get me wrong, I really appreciate Veronica Roth's explanation of why Tris died. And I really appreciate that she acknowledges my right to still think she didn't quite do it justice. I understand now that for her, the series was about Tris's journey from beginning to end-- but for me, the end didn't have to be her death, because her journey was finished before that. She made it through; she defined for herself what selflessness and bravery were, and she was fine.

And then she got shot.

If finishing the story were like trying to choose a meal to get rid of your hunger, this felt like the fastfood option. It seemed like a cheap and ultimately unsatisfying way out and because of it, the story never truly got finished. The hunger just gets replaced by all those undesirable things that come with choosing the fastfood option. Though she was only in the position to get shot because of a sacrifice she decided to chance to show her brother she loved him, getting shot was not the sacrifice. She survived the part where Caleb would have died, and then she died because she was what? Unarmed? Yes, it was very Tris of her to take that risk in her brother's place, but when I read it, the part where she actually died didn't sit right. Not for Tris. It felt extra. One last way to throw a wrench in the works.

As a fan of bittersweet, semi-ambiguous endings, especially for series like this, I was overwhelmingly disappointed. There was no sweetness. There was no ambiguity. Tris died, and now Four-- who Tris has literally just learned is as broken as she was before Allegiant-- not only has to live with guilt over Uriah's death, but with the death of the one person who's ever made him feel like he mattered. The one person who ever told him he was whole.

And this, my friends, is my biggest gripe: we don't get to see him become whole again. We don't get to see him deal with his grief. We don't get to see how the communities inside and outside the fence change and heal themselves, which is something that unquestionably should have been included in the primary plot of the book. All we get is an epilogue, two and a half years later, where we find out that Four and Christina have become friends, and he basically gives us a roster of everyone's jobs, like some kind of "Where Are They Now" special.

I recently had a friend point out to me that the Divergent series as a whole contains a lot of gratuitous death. Characters die left and right, quickly and unceremoniously, and it's accepted as a fact of life. While Tris's death was a bigger deal to everyone than most of the others, Allegiant did feel like more of the same on this issue. I remember texting my sister: "200 pages in and three people have already died." It starts to feel superfluous and lessens the impact when, oops, down goes our main character too.

So it's easy to say I did not enjoy Allegiant. But with an average of 4 stars, it's also easy to say that I enjoyed the series as a whole. And even though I'm stuck on the Anger stage of grief, I thank Veronica Roth. I thank her for bringing me to the Dauntless compound, for showing me true selflessness, for the wonders of ferris wheels and zip lines, for Peter, the actual anti-hero, for the word "pansycake," for a boy who grew up broken and hid himself away until he finally, finally allowed himself to be changed by a bright-eyed Stiff he respected so much that he sometimes forgot she was vulnerable too. But most of all I thank her for Tris, the first jumper, the girl who gave her life for her brother after he betrayed her. She did so well.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Review: Pawn by Aimee Carter

Cool, simple cover. I hope they stick with this design for the whole series.
So, it's no secret that dystopias are a dime a dozen in young adult fiction these days. Everyone's got to get their two cents in about how they think the world will fall, or at least what they think would be the worst way for the world to fall. And it's no secret that a lot of people are sick of it.
Me? I'm not one of those people. I have a six-foot-tall bookcase dedicated to YA dystopias and I would love to fill it up. If I could be the person with the widest knowledge and possession of quality YA dystopias in the world, I would gladly have business cards made up for myself. Maybe someday I will tire of suspending my disbelief when a dystopia seems unlikely, or worrying what if when it doesn't, but today is not that day. So, disclaimer: I write this review from the perspective of someone who is not yet weary of dismal futuristic worlds.

Pawn is about a girl named Kitty, who lives in the United States of the late 21st century, where seventeen-year-olds must take a test on their birthday to determine what kind of jobs they are eligible for and how much they can contribute to society. They are ranked from I to VI based on their test scores, and anyone with a score of I is sent "Elsewhere," never to be seen again. IIs are given the lowliest of jobs, and VIs the most respectable. When Kitty earns a III because she didn't have enough time on her test, she knows that her options are limited-- and none of them are good. But then she's approached by the president, Daxton Hart, whose family "saved" the country from disaster and has been ruling with an iron fist ever since, and he offers her a VII-- the rank that only the Harts themselves have. And all she has to do is change her whole appearance and step in for Daxton's niece, Lila, who was killed for speaking out against her family's objectives.

I have to say, I was not entirely convinced by the premise of this particular dystopia, so I did what was required of me: I suspended my disbelief. I did not ask why or how or what is the rest of the world up to-- though obviously I'm asking those questions now. It's much easier to get into this story if you accept that things are they way they are and move on. Once you do that, you'll find that the story itself is actually pretty interesting. There's political intrigue, action, some science, and a few key relationships* that set Pawn apart from the crowd. Not to mention the whole concept of the pawn's neglected importance in the game? Watch out.

*particularly, the complicated relationships between all members of the Hart family, and the real Lila's relationships with both Greyson and Knox.

Now, if you're familiar with my reviews, you know that I usually pay special attention to characters. Characters are what make or break a story for me, so let me start with Kitty. Superficially her name is what bothers me the most about her, but that might be only because I have no other strong feelings about her. She didn't have much of a personality, which is what made her such a good pawn for the Harts' twisted political game. Moments of spunk and insistence upon risking her life for the lives of people she a) loves or b) barely knows were not enough to give her a permanent place in my heart. In fact, by the time the second book comes out, I'm sure I'll have to re-learn anything I might have learned about her in book one. And if Kitty was unmemorable, you can imagine how I feel about the rest of the cast. The main character should be the one that demands the most attention, but I often found that I was more intrigued by Knox, whose motivations were mysterious but his intentions always seemed honorable. I trusted him and then questioned why I trusted him, and thought maybe I shouldn't trust him. In other words, I spent more time trying to figure Knox out than forcing myself to care about the other characters. Benjy was flat-- I was told more about him than I was shown; Nina and Tabs were plot devices; Daxton was your typical scheevy villain; Celia was the requisite morally ambiguous female almost-villain who thinks she's doing the right thing; Greyson could have been interesting if he had more screen time; and so on.

There were occasional plot twists in the book that had me itching to read more, now, but it did take me longer to get through Pawn than it would have if I had been thoroughly hooked. It's an intriguing and original addition to the dystopian genre, but if you're looking to connect with the characters on any level deeper than the surface (and by 'surface' I mean "I'm reading about these characters and therefore I connect with them"), stick with Legend-- or even Shatter Me, which has characters you'll probably hate but at least you'll feel strongly about them.

P.S. The series is called The Blackcoat Rebellion! I love this series title. Not only because I fancy any series title that isn't based on the title of the first book, but because it tells you where the series itself is going.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Double Review: Ten Tiny Breaths/One Tiny Lie

Oh, the mixed feelings I have about this book. There were some things I found extremely problematic, and some moments that made me wish I could forget the problematic things because they made me want to love the entire book as much as I loved those moments.
Let's start with Kacey. First off, I just hate the spelling of her name. It's a dumb thing to focus on, I know, but it bothered me throughout the whole book. There's an unattractive red underline under it as I write this, and I feel like I was seeing that red underline every time I read the name in my physical copy of the book. But anyway, Kacey herself was a decent character. I loved her snark, and I understood her desire to push people away. I've never had a problem with a prickly character before. For some reason, though, I never felt that emotional attachment to her-- maybe in her attempts to push everyone else away, she made me feel pushed away too. Obviously this book was about her personal journey into someone who actually lets herself care about other people (I don't think this is a spoiler; it was always fairly predictable that that was where it was going), which was a moving journey to witness. But I felt like that's all I did: witness it. I never felt like I was experiencing anything with Kacey.
Then there was Trent, whose entire purpose in the book seemed to be "stand there, look pretty, and wait for Kacey to fall in love." I mean, they barely had one conversation before she was thinking about him constantly. He somehow found out where she worked and came to watch her every night. He watched her, in true stalker fashion. Of course, he wasn't doing it to be creepy, but nobody ever is, are they? He knew that she was attracted to him, and he used it to help both of them. My problem is that as characters, they didn't seem like a key and a lock that were made for each other. There weren't facets of Trent's personality that were perfect for Kacey's, or vice versa. He stalked her, he found her, they "fell in love," and then his secrets were revealed. The only convincing part of their relationship was the lack of immediate reparations when things went wrong. Their time apart made everything more realistic and kind of quelled the ragey fire in me that is only ever lit by insta-love.
The secondary characters-- namely Storm, Mia, Livie and Cain-- were possibly my favorite thing about this book. Storm and Cain smashed stereotypes left and right; Mia was that requisite adorable little kid who says just the right things; and Livie was the perfect little sister who probably had more going on than she let on.
So basically, I liked Ten Tiny Breaths. I didn't love it. I felt there were one too many of those scenes without the heart to back them up, and the romance was a little flat, but the plot moved along and I barely predicted the twist toward the end (though I did kind of feel like I had just read Hopeless for the third time-- once for Hopeless, twice for Losing Hope, and three times for Ten Tiny Breaths). And I enjoyed the way the epilogue wrapped things up for Kacey while setting things up for...


*I received a copy of One Tiny Lie from Atria Books in exchange for an honest review.
To simplify my reaction to this book after Ten Tiny Breaths: That's more like it. I know a lot of people absolutely adored Ten Tiny Breaths, but One Tiny Lie worked so much better for me on so many levels, I don't even know where to begin.
I guess I'll start with Livie. Her problems seemed so much more accessible to me, not just because I identified with them, but because they seemed like a much more natural reaction to her situation than Kacey's problems did. The last thing her father said to her before the accident that killed her parents was "Make me proud." Of course she's going to dedicate her life to getting good grades and going to Princeton, and not letting herself get distracted by the things everyone else her age is doing. Of course she'll feel it's her duty to do well so Kacey doesn't have to worry about her, because Kacey herself is broken and Livie doesn't want to add any stress to her sister's life.
But all of this sensibility has put a lot of pressure on Livie. She's had tunnel vision for so long with exactly one end point in mind, that she hasn't looked around to see what other options she has. She hasn't asked herself if the promises she made her parents, her sister, and herself so long ago are still the ones she wants to keep.
Enter: Ashton. He's got that bad-boy-with-something-deeper thing going on, and he turns out to be exactly what Livie needs. They just met, got to know each other, and fell in love. It was forbidden, yes, because they were both seeing other people, but it never felt wrong the way Kacey and Trent did to me. Ashton is good for Livie because he helps her think about what she really wants for herself instead of what everyone else wants for her, and she's good for him because she is the only person who's ever tried with him. Everyone else wrote him off as a thoughtless party boy who sleeps around, and while that was what Livie thought of him at first, she gave him a chance to show her otherwise. Someone told Livie that you know if a guy loves you not by what he says, but what he does-- especially the things he does quietly-- and there are so many small moments in this book where Ashton proves this to her. He doesn't ask for anything in return; he doesn't even ask to be recognized for any of it. He helps her because he cares about her.
Also: those scenes had the heart to back them up. They didn't just happen because two characters were in a room together; they happened because two characters had an emotional connection in the scene first.
I love the new cast of characters in this one, too. They all have that friendship chemistry that I love so much: in addition to being fleshed-out individually, their relationships were three-dimensional as well. And it was nice to see Kacey and Trent again, having worked out all their heavy issues and finally moving on with their lives. Acting, for once, as a steady support system for someone else.
Overall I just think One Tiny Lie was a more subtly moving novel, and all the better for it.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Review: These Broken Stars

A cover that is actually 100% true to an actual scene in the book! Le gasp!
*I received a copy of These Broken Stars from Disney Book Group in exchange for an honest review.

Summary: Lilac is an heiress, a socialite, the privileged daughter of the protective founder of a company that explores and develops space. Tarver is a war-hero soldier from a modest but close-knit family, who is all but unaware of the ramifications of smiling at the pretty redhead across the room. When the spaceship in which they're hurtling through space suddenly breaks down and everyone aboard must flee to their lifeboats ("pods") a la Titanic, Lilac and Tarver end up in the same pod, crash-landing on a seemingly abandoned but strangely developed planet. They're the only humans in the entire world, but strange things begin to happen and secrets about Lilac's father's company are slowly revealed while the two of them struggle to survive.

Review: You guys, this book is what Beautiful Creatures should have been. What?, you're saying to me, Beautiful Creatures is not science fiction.
Yes, I know. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the written-by-two-authors-with-two-equally-important-protagonists thing. This book does it right. Why, you ask? Because Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner understand that with two authors and two leads, it makes so much more sense to tell the story from two points of view. I don't know how they broke it down, if one author wrote Tarver and one author wrote Lilac, or if they split it a different way, but I don't care-- because it's obvious that they worked together on this.
The chapters alternate between Tarver's point of view and Lilac's, but you don't have that sense of constantly being jolted between the two, right when you were getting into the flow of one character's narration. It's done cohesively, and the scenes are written such that it makes sense for Tarver to narrate this scene and for Lilac to narrate that scene, or vice versa. There are no chapters where you go, man, I wish I were in the other character's head for this part, the way I did for oh, 95 percent of Beautiful Creatures, wherein every chapter is all-Ethan-all-the-time despite the fact that Lena is by far the more captivating character.
But I digress.
These Broken Stars is not your average science fiction novel. It sparkles. It's sparkly. I don't know how else to describe it. And, boys, if you're reading this, stop making that face. Sparkles do not a girly book make. There are spaceships and aliens and soldiers and vast amounts of sarcasm here, too. The girl in the dress on the cover is just that: a girl in a dress. I've never known a boy to hate girls in dresses in real life, so I'll never understand why they avoid books with girls in dresses.
The characters in this book are few, I will say, but they are vivid and dynamic and they have so many facets that you don't need any more characters. Lilac is privileged and occasionally shallow, yes, but she is also whip-smart and fiercely protective of the people she loves. She knows more about the technology of her world than just about anyone, and she's an equal match for Tarver, the war hero who knows more about survival than just about anyone. Tarver is sarcastic; he doesn't respond well to stupid questions, and his mental quips about Lilac will get you through the first half (maybe less) of the book while the two still mostly dislike each other.
My favorite thing about Lilac is that she could have been entirely selfish, having been raised in a privileged environment where she was coddled by everyone who dared to get to know her, but she isn't. She is, for the most part, selfless-- and not in that Bella way that makes her entirely useless. She has intelligence to back up her selflessness; when she needs to help someone, when for any reason someone is counting on her for their survival, she knows how to handle the situation. Girlfriend gets things done.
My favorite thing about Tarver is that he can be both amusing and serious. After Lilac treats him like he doesn't deserve to breathe the same air as her, he thinks, "Duh, I should have known," but then he thinks about it some more and decides she does not have the right to treat him that way. He's respectful to her, but condescendingly so, which I love. Not knowing her motivations for her cruelty, he has every right to mentally complain and make jokes about being stuck with this girl on a strange planet with nobody else around. But at the same time, he expertly balances the fact that she saved his life before they got here with the fact that now it's up to him to keep her alive too.
As for the plot, well, honestly there's not much of it. It's a subtle thing that creeps along and builds tension and then explodes in your face (it's a contained explosion), but for the most part of the book it's a whisper in your ear. It's something that demands your attention, but you can't really say why. All you know is that you want to keep reading. And the romance? Not really a slow-burn, but not really an insta-love situation either. Tarver and Lilac just work. They're a good team, and once they get past the I-hate-you, I-hate-you-more stage, it's actually endearing that the majority of the book focuses on their relationship.

I don't know where the next book is going from here, but I'm sure it will take me with it. I hope it shines with the same subtle intensity as this one, and I hope we get some more awesome characters like Tarver and Lilac. Sparkle on, Starbound series.