Posts Tagged 'two stars'

Book Review: Blackfin Sky, by Kat Ellis

I know that young adult literature is undergoing a revival, both in publisher interest and popular culture. I know that everyone, young and old, has been enjoying “new” YA, from Twilight to The Book Thief to The Fault in Our Stars. I know that there is some fine YA out there, and that I’ve been lucky enough to have read some of it when I was actually a young adult.

I also know that I personally struggle to appreciate the current trends of YA sometimes, and that I am basically a grumpy old curmudgeon, yelling at kids to get off my lawn.

All of this to say that I am not the target audience for Kat Ellis’s debut YA novel, Blackfin Sky, but  it’s not because it is YA; it’s because it is not a well-crafted novel overall. In fact, I think it is pandering and insulting to its intended audience of young adults, many of whom are critical and discerning readers themselves.


Blackfin Sky starts off promisingly enough: Sky Rousseau is dead. Or rather, she was dead–for three months. Now, to the shock of the town of Blackfin, she’s alive and well, with no memory of the time that she spent “dead.” This part of the book was enjoyable, as Sky’s family and friends tried to deal with her apparent resurrection, and Sky struggled to unravel the mystery of what really happened the night she supposedly drowned. Then things start getting a little bonkers, as Sky discovers she has certain special abilities, that the burned-down circus on the edge of town holds importance to many of the secrets of her past, and that someone out there is hunting her down. This summary makes the disparate elements sound more cohesive than they actually are. Thrown into that main plotline are narrative cul de sacs like a missing little boy at the circus, a murder mystery, a “haunted” house, and some truly distracting attempts at a French accent.

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Book Review: Hemlock Grove, by Brian McGreevy

My honest reaction upon finishing Brian McGreevy’s debut novel Hemlock Grove:

See more on Know Your Meme

And I was so, so disappointed, because I had wanted to read it since it first came out, even moreso after I heard it was being adapted into a series on Netflix. I love werewolves, I love post-industrial town settings, and I love creepy paranormal murders, all things that I was promised in this updated take on the Gothic novel.

Instead, I got lackluster characterizations, a slow and frequently-lost plot, bizarre allusions to concepts that were never resolved, tortured writing, and some final twists that were eyeroll-inducing.

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Book Review: Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon

This book was not for me, and I knew it within the first 200 pages or so. And yet, I persisted in finishing it. Testimony to Gabaldon’s ability to spin a yarn, or to my own masochism in attempting to complete the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge? Whichever it was, by the time I was able to turn the last page of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, I was also ready to say goodbye to our intrepid heroes Claire and Jaime.

At the same time, I feel like it’s unfair for me to have disliked Outlander as much as I did, because it has to do with my own expectations of the book’s focus and scope. Before reading Outlander, I had assumed it was a fantasy time traveling novel much like that of Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book or Blackout. I expected intrigue and action, following a spunky heroine trying her best to fit into a new (or old, as it were) society without her origins being discovered before making it back to her own time. From its coverage on sites like io9, I simply assumed that this was a fantasy book first and foremost, despite its historical setting.

What I did not expect was romance and sex (both consentual and non-consentual) to take such a central place in the story and plot. As in…the entire story and plot.

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Book Review: White Horse, by Alex Adams

Alex Adams’ White Horse came galloping out of the herd of dystopian fiction earlier this year, accompanied by lots of positive reviews and buzz. I took a bet on it, but unfortunately, for me, what I had taken for a White Horse was, in actuality, a bob-tailed nag.

(Okay, okay…no more horse puns.)


While it initially seemed like a promising example of a post-apocalypse novel, I ended up finishing White Horse solely for the reveals. Even when reading something that I don’t entirely enjoy for various reasons, if there are unanswered questions and the twists come fast and furious, I’ll still read it. This was the case with White Horse, where though I could tell within the first 75 or so pages that this wasn’t going to be a favorite of mine, there were tons of twists.

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Book Review: The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living by Helping College Students Cheat, by Dave Tomar/Ed Dante

My feelings about this book, as presented to you by the venerable Kevin McCallister:

Okay, okay, that was snippy, but this book brings out the worst in me.

Dave Tomar is a producer of “study guides,” papers written to the exact specifications of the students who pay him. Those students then hand in Tomar’s papers as their own work. Tomar, who found attending Rutgers to be a tumultuous experience (and ultimately, a waste), starts in this line of work as a student himself; upon graduation, he continues it by working for several different “paper mills” that have perfected the paper-buying system by moving it online. The Shadow Scholar is his account of his time at Rutgers and post-graduation as an essay-writer-for-hire, interspersed with facts and statistics about the U.S. education system, Generation Y, and business practices. (And yes, this is the same Tomar who, as Ed Dante, wrote this article for The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

My main issue was this: so much of the book smacks of justification of Tomar’s job. While I appreciate knowing the motivation behind a memoirist’s decisions, to go on angrily and at length about how you were forced into an unethical career due to campus parking tickets, poor professors, and a terrible job market is not pleasant reading. Because college failed Tomar, he decided that helping to widen the cracks of a broken system wasn’t a big deal. (Tomar likening himself to a neglected child, lashing out against the abuse of college, was a particularly offensive bit of metaphor. Really, dude?)

The contrasts between The Shadow Scholar and Always Running, a memoir of growing up as part of a Chicano gang and of truly lacking access, autonomy and choice, could not have been sharper for me. Sure, I have student loan debt, but my brothers never cut my tongue with a razor blade when I lost a fight. Everything’s relative.

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Book Review: Divergent, by Veronica Roth

It did not take me long to realize that Divergent, by Veronica Roth, was probably not the book for me. I am naturally a critical person, though I can happily and willingly suspend my disbelief for a variety of sci-fi and fantasy premises. But I could really and truly not buy into the faction system in Divergent, and that–among other issues–prevented me from losing myself in the novel and enjoying it to the fullest.

First, here is the summary from GoodReads:

In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves… or it might destroy her.

Sounds cool, right? Yeah. But then you learn more about the factions system, and you realize there is just no way this could possibly work. And I guess that’s the point, as the reader comes to understand all is not well in future Chicago, with inter-faction tension boiling. But what did they think was going to happen if you arbitrarily divide people up and then focus on cultivating a single trait to the exclusion of all others? Who proposed this, and how the heck did they get everyone else to go along with a system so doomed to fail? How are these artificial divisions any better than divisions along race, political affiliation, gender, etc.? What about traits that don’t have their own factions, like loyalty? How can someone be honest without being brave, or be selfless without being peaceful? It was never adequately explained and it was a real thorn in my side. The world-building failed to convince me, and so I approached everything that followed feeling off-balance and a little cranky. Again, I love creative sci-fi premises, but I need to see that the work has been put into making the world seem logical. When compared to the world-building of A Song of Ice and Fire or Ender’s Game or, yes, The Hunger Games, the setting and atmosphere in Divergent feels very juvenile.

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Review: The Watchers, by Jon Steele

These are the hardest reviews for me to write (other than the reviews where I absolutely loved a book and just want to gush about it without any critical thoughts): when a book’s ideas were interesting, but the execution left something to be desired. This is the situation I find myself in with The Watchers, by Jon Steele. The idea of fallen angels roaming the Earth (who were the watchers the title alludes to) is a cool one, and a lot could have been done with the biblical Nephilim. However, The Watchers fell flat for me for several big reasons: the pacing, the characters, and the story-telling.

I’ll start with the good. Many of the twists were unexpected, and there were several mysteries whose resolutions I wasn’t able to guess. Once the plot kicks in, you will probably want to finish the story, even if just to figure out who Harper is, who the “bad shadows” are and what they’re after, etc. Also, the scenes with Katherine after she is kidnapped are genuinely scary. The novel was unafraid of getting dark, that’s for sure, which I appreciated. And like I said, the biblical lore is interesting enough to stand on its own.

“The angel has come to Lausanne Cathedreal, Rochat, just like Maman said.”

Now for the bad and the ugly:

The first 200 to 300 pages are excruciatingly slow, as we are introduced to our main characters of Harper, Katherine, and Marc through largely-unconnected vignettes. As the plot finally begins to unfold, the pace then switches back and forth between “frenetic” and “glacial.” It was…disconcerting. Each time I began a new chapter, I would wonder if I could skim it or if this would suddenly be the paragraph where a twist or plot point was unveiled. I think if those first few hundred pages had been pared down, the actual plot would have been given some more urgency, as well as space to expand. As it stands, the pacing is just too disjointed to allow the thriller this book wants to be take hold.

As for the characters: Katherine was completely useless, there to be a pawn/damsel-in-distress/excuse to write in sex scenes/allegory for Mary Magdelene. She is meant to undergo a sort of transformation as the book proceeds, from a selfish, silly young woman to someone more thoughtful and mature. The problem was, I didn’t really believe it, or her as a character. Whatever characterization she is given is about as deep as a puddle. Harper was…eh. Technically our hero, but surprisingly low on the heroics and instead more consistent on a) getting beaten within an inch of his life, b) lagging a step behind the major good/evil forces, and c) cursing at people who can help him/have more knowledge than he does. Amnesiac detectives can be written well, but I felt as little connection with him as I did with Katherine.

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