Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

I don't even need to add a caption about how beautiful that cover is.
You see it. You know its beauty.
source: galley from HarperCollins
publication: February 10, 2015, HarperTeen

I'm struggling with a solid rating on this one because, while there were elements of the book that I hated and almost couldn't tolerate, I liked it overall. I will read the next one. I will probably buy the book in hardcover because a) my ARC is a bit beat-up, and b) The hardcover is shiny. We all know how I love a shiny cover.

But. Here we go.
I've seen a lot of people on Goodreads talking about how similar the plot synopsis of Red Queen sounds to Red Rising. I haven't read Red Rising yet, so I can't speak to that, but I can speak to a similarity that I did notice that no one else has mentioned:
The bones of this book, a lot of the elements that kept the plot moving forward, are straight from The Hunger Games. At first I thought, "Okay, maybe it just starts out sounding like District 12, and then the main character leaves and it turns into something else." But no. The parallels became so consistent and obvious that I started a list of them in my phone:
We start out with main character Mare, who earns for her family by doing something illegal, much the way Katniss earns for hers by hunting illegally. Mare's method of choice is thievery, and her partner in crime is her best friend Kilorn, who she also seems to kind of hate at first. She thinks he's useless or something. There's even a Greasy Sae character, Will, who buys the things she steals in exchange for things her family actually needs.
Mare is jealous of her sister, Gisa, the less prickly sister, but would also do anything to protect her. There we have our Prim character, who's mostly just in the beginning of the story, of course. There's also a conscription that serves as a kind of Reaping, because it takes teenagers from their families to go fight for the government, and arenas where Silvers (upper class people with silver blood and powers) fight /almost/ to the death, but luckily they have people who can heal them. 
Mare gets plucked out of her impoverished life to live with the royal family and, when it's discovered that she has powers even though she's a Red, she is betrothed to the younger prince and forced to pretend that she wants it. Enter, fake romance to please the masses. We've got the rebels who tell Mare that they need her, that she is their only hope, and they even use the words "face of the revolution." They tell her she doesn't understand what she could do with them, much like how Peeta says that Katniss "has no idea, the effect she can have," and they use the metaphor of a drop that breaks the dam instead of a spark that starts the inferno. Change the metaphor all you want, but it's still the same.
Moving along, we have someone telling Mare that she is a pawn in someone else's game, which is a similarity that I probably don't even need to explain. We've got Mare's etiquette coach who doesn't get a lot of screen time but is clearly the Effie Trinket in this scenario, and her trainer, Julian, also known as Haymitch Abernathy. When the royal family leaves court to return home, they gather crowds and force them to listen to speeches, while Peacekeepers—I mean officers—beat anyone who steps out of line or causes a disruption. Victory tour, anyone?
Later, we are tricked into thinking that the rebels brought Mare and Maven to die in a radiation-soaked, abandoned area, only to find out—surprise! It's not dangerous or abandoned at all. It's rebel headquarters, and they've been manipulating the technology to make it look too dangerous to inhabit. This is presumably where the next book, Red Mockingjay, will take place, while the rebels tell Mare what to do and she begins to question their scruples.
And for one last nugget, someone takes a suicide pill on page 320. Because making it a poisonous berry would have been too obvious.

Listen. I didn't go into this book looking to find these parallels. I hadn't seen anyone else compare the book to The Hunger Games and I still haven't. I wish I could have stopped seeing it, but to do that, I would've had to stop reading.
I'm not saying that any of this was done on purpose, but I am saying that it is bad writing. It's bad writing to be unaware that you're ripping off one of the most popular series in the same age bracket as the book you're writing. It's almost worse than being aware that you're doing it, because it shows carelessness.

In fact, the writing is careless all around. It's heavy-handed and full of metaphors that don't work, descriptions that go on too long without managing to paint a vivid picture (because they're so chock full of metaphors that don't work), and hollow emotion. I remember one time specifically when Mare broke down crying for the first time, and I can't even remember what had happened or where in the book it was because I didn't believe the emotion behind it. A lot of Mare's reactions to things seemed to contradict her actual personality and beliefs, so much so that she seemed more indecisive than anything else. It became difficult to keep track of what she actually cares about; one minute she'll do anything to protect Gisa, then she's petty and jealous. One minute she's totally into Cal, then she hates him and Maven's her guy. She wants the Silvers to stop oppressing the Reds, sure, but she hesitates to do anything to make that happen if it means she has to hurt someone—even a Silver, all of whom she claims to despise. 

A few examples of this are: Mare decides she's willing to trade the Colonel's life for Cal's; Mare decides she's going to kill Cal herself; Mare doesn't trust Maven at first; Maven shows up at the Scarlet Guard meeting and Mare doesn't think maybe he's there as a spy for his mother?; Mare knows that the tax collector has to die for the cause and she's fine with it, but then she's sad that his hands will never touch hers again? Even though she's never met him before, doesn't know him, and has never touched his hands until now? And so on. She's so inconsistent with her feelings and her strategy that I did not understand what she was doing half the time.

Finally, my other issue with Mare is that she has no skills. Or at least, her skills are never utilized to their full potential. She discovers her lightning power and rather quickly masters it, but this power is not specific to her life the way Katniss's hunting skills are specific to hers. I wish that Mare would have used her thieving skills in combat somehow, tied her backstory up with the person she becomes, but instead she ends up dependent on her lightning and nothing else. Adapting her District 12 survival skills into arena survival skills is part of what makes Katniss such a well-developed character—not doing the same for Mare is a glaring missed opportunity.

Aveyard tries too hard to make her writing pretty, constantly repeating lines like "red as the dawn" and "the shadow to the flame" without realizing that half of them don't make sense. [Flames don't have shadows, they have reflections. They have light. You need something else, something blocking the flame, to create a shadow.] Some of the descriptive, figurative language works, but most of it feels weak and slippery; making sense of it is like trying to hold water in your hands: You think you've got it, but in the end it falls through your fingers. Most of the one-liners that are supposed to leave an impact would be effective if they did not get dragged out or if the author stopped trying to explain them so much. She doesn't leave a whole lot to the reader to figure out.
"The world is Silver, but it is also gray. There is no black-and-white."
Okay, fine. But... can I try something?
"The world is Silver, but it is also gray."
BAM. You don't need to tell me that the world being gray means there is no black-and-white, because a) Nobody ever said there was black-and-white, and b) I get it. Gray is gray. Gray is not black or white. Just the word "gray" carries with it the moral ambiguity that you're trying to get across. Leave the readers to work with connotations on their own! I picked this example by flipping to a random page, but it is by no means the only one—most of the figurative language, in fact, is written this way.

As for the plot, it was pretty conventional and I saw both of the plot twists coming before I was halfway done with the book, but I have no complaints past that. It's well-paced and I didn't think it was too light or silly to be taken seriously. Curiosity got me through a lot of it.

I'm not pandering when I say that I did like this book. It was entertaining and I liked that the characters had a semblance of moral ambiguity (even though it came across as moral inconsistency), and I'm interested in where it will go. I liked Cal because, what can I say, I'm a sucker for the boys with king potential and a lot of weight on their shoulders. But comparing this book to The Winner's Curse does no one any favors; it does not even come close to that level of complexity and strategy and emotional depth. It takes features from The Hunger Games but, unlike that series, doesn't have anything to say. This is definitely closer to the Selection end of the dystopia/fantasy spectrum, which is fine, but sometimes YA readers expect more. That's all I'm saying.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Review: The Witch Hunter by Virginia Boecker

source: galley from Hachette
publication: June 2, 2015, Little, Brown

Summary: Elizabeth Grey is a witch hunter for the king—or rather, his uncle—until she is accused of witchcraft herself and sentenced to execution. When a rescuer comes to save her from the pyre and the jail fever that has taken hold of her, she discovers that he is none other than the most wanted wizard in the country. He brings her to his secret hideout, where she is thrown together with his band of rebels who want to see magic legalized, as it can be used for good, not just evil. Loyalties are questioned, secrets brought to light, and it's up to Elizabeth to save them all.

Review: I don't know if it's because I read too many fantasy/paranormal books in a row or if this one was actually as uninteresting as I thought it was, but I couldn't really get into it. It was fairly fast-paced and the concept intrigued me, but the execution fell flat.

First of all, it's set in the 1500s, which I was confused about until the date was finally mentioned toward the end of the book. I went into it assuming it was a medieval fantasy or set during the Salem Witch Trials, but the style of writing missed the mark for both of those. The author writes with modern language that clashes with the historical costumes, social constructs, and lack of electricity. Not to mention the specificity of the time period left me wondering whether the world was an alternate Europe or U.S. or if it's just completely made up? The mental images would not come.  Atmospheric, this book is not. And it should have been.

The main character, to me, was somewhat vanilla. For most of the plot, we have no idea why she is the one chosen to destroy the tablet and break Nicholas's curse, and it makes her seem like just another Special Snowflake YA protagonist. Nicholas might as well have told her, "You have to be the one to break the curse, because you're the main character."

Ultimately we learn why it was Elizabeth, but it was too little too late for me. Her romance with John was bland and undeveloped, and once again I felt like it was part of a formula for a marketable YA book. Don't get me wrong, I love and encourage YA romances when they're done right, but I'm beginning to tire of reading the ones that feel disingenuous or like they're part of a checklist to trick readers into getting emotionally invested. Like they're saying, "Look, readers! These characters care about each other so you should care about them, too!"
I much prefer to care about the characters first and watch them grow into caring about each other.

I don't really have much else to say about this one. It was good enough. I gave it 3 stars. I'm not going to be raving about it on release week or expecting it to become the Next Big Thing, but it was an entertaining read when I managed to force myself to pick it up. The standalone factor might be my favorite thing about it.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Review: The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler

source: e-galley from Simon & Schuster
publication: June 2, 2015, Simon Pulse

Synopsis: Elyse d'Abreau was on the verge of stardom with her twin sister, Natalie, when a boating accident took her voice and sent Elyse fleeing her home of Tobago to live with her aunt and cousin in Atargatis Cove, Oregon. There she meets Christian Kane, infamous playboy and world-class charmer, who invites her to be first mate on his boat—which Elyse had been using as her hideout before he came back. He and his little brother, Sebastian, listen to Elyse more than anyone has since she lost her voice, and her relationship with Christian challenges her to get her voice back in whatever way she can.

Review: Okay, y'all, I'm gonna lay it down for you: this is Sarah Ockler's best book.
I don't know how I feel about that cover, frankly, because it doesn't do the book justice. Yes, this is a summer romance, but it is so much more than that. I appreciate that the cover did no whitewashing and that somehow it seems to reflect Elyse and Christian's silent communication, but when all is said and done it still looks like just another summer romance destined for the Pop Culture or Teen Romance section of your local Barnes & Noble.
And this book is way too important for that.
I've been a fan of Sarah Ockler for years; she is an auto-buy for me, but somehow I've never really read one of her books and thought, "This book is why I read contemporary." Twenty Boy Summer made me cry, sure, but I haven't picked it up since I finished reading it 3.5 years ago. Fixing Delilah was always my favorite of her books, but I still only gave it 4 stars. Bittersweet was the weakest for me, The Book of Broken Hearts didn't leave an impression, and #scandal was a solid comedic effort (not to sell it short, I laughed a lot reading that book, and swooned pretty hard too). 
The writing in The Summer of Chasing Mermaids so far surpasses any of the others that I found myself wondering where Ockler had been hiding it for so long. Poetic, lyrical, metaphorical, figurative: Lauren Oliver meets Deb Caletti meets freaking F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Yeah, I went there.

Elyse is a strong female character, but not in the Strong Female Character kind of way. She's vulnerable and weak and we find her in the midst of her greatest tragedy: losing her ability to sing. Not being able to sing has led Elyse to recede into herself, to stop being the Elyse she was before, to stop using her inner voice as well as the outer voice she's lost. The sea is part of her and the sea broke her, and she's left trying to reconcile those two facts in a way that will let her become whole again.
Aside from the writing, what I loved most about this book was the fact that a boy does not come along to make her whole again. Her relationship with him, it says right there in the book, isn't what saves her; it's what challenges her to save herself. She and she alone realizes that she's trapped herself by not letting go of the accident, by not even admitting to herself that she will never speak again. To paraphrase Queen Elsa, only once she lets it go can she rise like the break of dawn.
Er, you know. From the sea. Where she's been drowning.

The mythology in this book is so well crafted and well-researched and almost makes the book feel like magical realism, like maybe the Queen of Mermaids is real and she has taken Elyse's voice. Maybe she will take Elyse, too, and our heroine will become Christian's siren and it will all be very tragic and beautiful. Thankfully, no, it's just mythology, but I love that it made me think that way.

What makes this novel important? Not only does it sympathize with and empower people who have been silenced in general, but it addresses gender roles specifically. Elyse faces a lot of misogyny from powerful men about her being first mate on Christian's boat, but she does it anyway. Christian himself, bless him, makes a lovely joke about hitting his head on the way out of the time machine and not realizing he was back in the 1850s. His brother, Sebastian, loves mermaids and wants to walk in the mermaid festival, but those same powerful men tell him he can't because he's a boy. The patriarchy is good for no one, you guys. [ALSO, I've been saying for years that "What Would Tami Taylor Do?" should be everyone's life motto, so thank you, Sarah, for Vanessa's mom.]

It addresses parental expectations and the very YA themes of living within the limits your parents have given you, even when they're telling you to grow up and be independent. It's that uncertain middle area when your life is still ultimately decided by the people who raised you but you're starting to break free of the mold they've created for you. Christian doesn't agree with or even like his parents, but at the same time he understands and respects them. His father tells him to prove himself and then takes away all the resources he needs to do so. It's one of the most direct approaches to this theme that I've ever read, but it works because it feels so real. A signature of being a young adult these days is that you're expected to leave home by a certain age but a college education doesn't guarantee you a job anymore, and it's nearly impossible to live on your own, and so many parents think that it's a reasonable expectation because they did it way back when. "Climb that mountain," the world demands, as it locks our climbing equipment behind a door whose key is at the top of the mountain.

My only issue with the book is that it may have dragged on a bit just before the regatta race; it felt like Elyse's hesitations and questions were starting to be so repeated that she herself should have been asking why she hadn't done something about it. I have felt this way about Ockler's books before, though, and it's really not a big deal in comparison to how much I loved this book overall.

Elyse might not have a singing voice anymore, but her poetry and her bond with the sea and her resilience were like music, a song that will speak to something in everyone.
"When one dream burns to ash, you don't crumble beneath it. You get on your hands and knees, and you sift through those ashes until you find the very last ember, the very last spark.
Then you breathe.
You fucking breathe."
God. I'm just gonna leave that there.

Review: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

source: ARC from HarperCollins
publication: April 7, 2015, Balzer + Bray

Gonna try to keep this short and sweet.

Simon is one of my favorite narrators I've ever encountered. I found him and his high school experience more relatable and realistic than any contemporary novels I've read lately, or maybe even ever. There were certain passages in this book that I read twice because I couldn't get over the fact that someone had actually said it. I couldn't get past how believable these characters were; who among us hasn't kept a secret for fear that it would change how people saw us? Who hasn't had that friend or been that friend who gets jealous when they aren't the first person to be told a secret, or when their friends hang out without them?

While steeped in the realities of suburban high school, the book also has a delightfully ridiculous element to it: the school blog, where students can post something anonymously and everyone will know its content the next day. This is what brings Simon and his secret pen pal, Blue, together, and it's what puts their relationship at risk the most. The mechanics of the Tumblr are not explained very well (probably my most severe criticism of this book), but I assume people could submit posts on anon and wait for them to be published by the admin? I wish the identity of the admin had been explored further, because honestly. Everyone at that school would no doubt be curious about it (like in Sarah Ockler's #scandal).

Albertalli doesn't stop at depicting a realistic setting with realistic characters; she also raises questions and addresses heteronormativity with Simon's mixture of romanticism and cynicism. Why don't straight people have to "come out"? Why will his "coming out" change the way people see him, when he's been gay all along? As Simon says (ha), there should be no default. And he says it so simply and beautifully.

The romance was adorable. I totally called who Blue was and found myself wishing that they'd met sooner and had that romantic tension in person rather than just via email, but I loved reading their correspondence. It was all light and fun and then heavy and emotional and yes. Ugh. Connection.

This is definitely going on my shelf of comfort books, to be reread when I finish books that destroy me just a little too much.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Review: The Sin Eater's Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

Look. At that. Cover.
Source: e-galley from edelweiss
Publication: February 24, 2015, Scholastic

I feel like I've been waiting forever to read this book. I first saw it on Scholastic's catalog last Spring when the cover was slightly different (but still very, very pretty) and my coworker and I read the synopsis and both of us were like, "That. Sounds. Awesome." So, since Scholastic rarely, for some reason, sends actual galleys to our store, I've been checking Edelweiss for the DRC regularly for the past — oh, 9 months? And then our rep, who hates fantasy, posted a glowing review, and my hands got even more grabby, but STILL NO GALLEY.
And then, finally, a month before the book is released, it was there.
And then my Nook stopped working.
And then I got scammed on eBay trying to buy a Kindle to replace it.
I did not get to read the book until I went to Best Buy on Super Bowl Sunday to buy a Kindle FULL PRICE (I am defeated and ashamed). I had to deal with a salesman for this book, you guys.

Was it worth it?
Yes, I would say that it was. Probably I could have waited until the book was out to read it, because I was always planning to buy it either way (dat cover), but I'm glad I read it early. Because now I can actually sell it.
Basically, what the book is about is this: Twylla is the Sin Eater's Daughter — her mother is a giant woman who eats food off of caskets to wash the dead of their sins. Twylla grew up knowing that this would be her fate eventually; when her mother died, she was to become the next Sin Eater. She did not want to be a Sin Eater.
Then, the royal family requests her mother's services and end up taking Twylla away to be Daunen Embodied. Without getting into the mythological details, that means that after drinking a concoction of poison and her own blood, her skin can poison other people with a single touch. She is to be the executioner for traitors until she marries the prince, Merek, and becomes queen.
[cue the twist] But then she meets Lief, her new guard who shows her that all is not as it seems, and she must decide her fate.

My favorite thing about this book was the mythology and world-building. I'd never heard of Sin Eating before, and it does not sound pleasant, but I totally believed that it would be something certain religions or cultures would practice. I believed the myth of Daunen Embodied and the gods who created her. There is no other YA fantasy that achieves quite this level of myth-weaving and directly relates it to the main character. I mean, Twylla's relationship to her religion was kind of the driving factor of the whole plot, and it was done very well. The first-person narration allows the reader to suspend disbelief until the very moment Twylla stops doing it herself.
And there wasn't only mythology, either. There were fairy tales so entwined in reality that real people would die for mentioning them. As a sucker for symbolism and all that AP English stuff, I really appreciated the symbolism of all of this, the line between tale and reality, smashed in our faces like delicious pie when Twylla goes to a "House of Glass" (house of mirrors, fun house) with Merek and he thinks the mirrors show the exact truth at all times. She can see that he's wrong, because there is someone in the room whose position hides him from all the mirrors but the one behind Merek— so Merek can't see him, but Twylla can. In her life nobody has ever told her the whole truth, but now she's the one looking out for the lies.

The writing was enough to keep me reading, if not super heavy on style or lyricism. I expected more on that front, but it was unique enough to the story that it didn't feel anachronistic or tone deaf (like, say, Snow Like Ashes).

My main gripe about the book is that Twylla does not get to act much. She spends the whole book reacting to things other people tell her and do to her. Her relationship with Lief didn't convince me that it had to be; it seemed more of a convenience relationship than anything. She fell in love with him in much the same way that Juliette Ferrars fell in love with Adam Kent: because he was the first male around her age to ever be nice to her or take an interest in her. Maybe this was on purpose, because of Big Plot Twist At End, but it made a good portion of the book feel too melodramatic and overdone. If you don't buy into a love story, you can't relish its drama.
There was also the fact that Twylla's emotional stakes rested so much on this love story that she completely forgot about her original emotional stakes: her sister. She only agreed to everything the queen asked because her sister would pay if she didn't, but then she stopped thinking about her sister altogether once she fell in love with Lief (aside from telling him stories about her childhood). No me gusta.

That said, her relationship with Merek interested me a lot. It reminded me a bit of Celaena and Dorian from Throne of Glass, except that for a part of the book you're not sure about Merek's motives. He could be totally evil or totally good, and I liked that ambiguity while it lasted. You don't even have to give me a romance on this one, because I so enjoy dudes respecting ladies after they've been "friendzoned." Or even without any romantic context whatsoever.

Aside from a couple of things that were mentioned and then never addressed again (e.g. Twylla's brothers), I thought the plot was solid and built well into the next book, though I'm wondering if it's going to be more of a companion than a sequel. We'll see.

Overall a very different, compelling fantasy world with somewhat lackluster characters who have a lot of potential.