Posts Tagged 'ya'

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: Tiger Lily, by Jodi Lynn Anderson

I often feel that there are two readers inside of me. One is driven by pure emotion. She loves angst and melodrama and relationships in conflict. Story is the most important thing to this reader, more important than innovative story structure or deep and thoughtful characterization. If the story is exciting and heart-wrenching, she’s happy. She’s capricious and fast, but also just completely enjoys reading and can finish a book in a day.

The other reader inside me is a close and critical reader. And I don’t mean critical in the nit-picky, grammarian sense (though I can certainly fall into that categorization as well). I mean that this reader applies a critical lens to the text. She draws on her experience in cultural competence and feminist theory and history and social justice to help provide context and meaning to books. If your book utilizes stereotypical gender roles or racist constructions–without critically examining them for some better purpose–this reader will raise her eyebrows, lower her estimation of your book, and say, “Really?”

It’s the rare book that gets my two inner readers to uniformly agree on its quality. Obviously, for me to appreciate a book, I don’t even have to achieve that agreement–some books are enjoyable for my brain, some are enjoyable for my heart, and both are important for my overall love of reading. I don’t discriminate! It does, however, make it really difficult to review books sometimes, when my heart and my mind disagree.

With that long explanation out of the way, let’s talk about Tiger Lily, by Jodi Lynn Anderson.

This book hit me right in the feels, just as I imagine it will hit the teen girl YA audience for whom it is aimed at. I got the little angst chills in my arms that I get when something is deliciously painful. Reading it made my morning and evening commutes fly by, and I didn’t want to have to put it down.

Continue reading ‘Book Review: Tiger Lily, by Jodi Lynn Anderson’

Capsule Book Reviews: July and August

I’m hilariously behind on my reviews, so that means you get some capsule reviews in the interim! Woohoo!

Bossypants, by Tina Fey: Just as good as everyone says it is! Bossypants is a fun, light read that you can devour in an afternoon. If you enjoy Fey’s humor on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, this is a must-read. It’s very much written in her voice–so much so that I felt she was standing there speaking to me–and is a humorous way to get a glimpse at her childhood years and early time as a writer. Her insights on working in television writing and comedy as a woman are particularly interesting. I would have liked some dirt from her time at SNL, though! Four out of five stars.

Matched, by Ally Condie: I had heard this compared to Divergent, so I was a bit concerned (since I really didn’t enjoy that reading experience.) I was pleasantly surprised by how much more meaningful and well-drawn out I found Matched to be. While there were certainly some sappy parts, I thought that Cassia had depth and sensitivity, and I really liked the importance placed on the beauty of art, like poetry. Comparisons to Lois Lowry’s The Giver aren’t unwarranted, but I liked Condie’s take on the dystopian genre. I’m already on the library’s waiting list for the second book in the series, CrossedThree enjoyable stars out of five.

Continue reading ‘Capsule Book Reviews: July and August’

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.

Continue reading ‘Book Review: Divergent, by Veronica Roth’

Book Review: Erebos, by Ursula Poznanski

With a gamer for a dad, we grew up always having computer and video games around the house. I cut my baby teeth on the Sega Genesis (and totally dominated at Sonic 2 and The Lion King), graduated to the Playstation, and fell in love with the GameCube. At various times, my brother, father, and I have simultaneously played computer games like Morrowind, City of Heroes, and of course, World of Warcraft. I play a mean Pikachu and Toon Link in Super Smash Bros.: Brawl, and can still remember the first time my friend R and I beat final boss Master Hand in the original Super Smash Bros.

So as a lifelong fan of video games, I was looking forward to picking up Erebos, by Ursula Poznanski. Erebos is the story of high school student Nick who notices some funny things going on at his school–his friend Colin becomes withdrawn and no longer answers his texts or comes to basketball practice, other students are consistently absent, and some people are secretively passing around a CD. After finally getting his hands on one, Nick enters the immersive computer game world of Erebos, where the graphics are amazing, the music is almost hypnotic, and the game reacts to you almost like a living, learning creature. Nick gets further and further sucked into the game, even as the game’s quests get creepier. Can Nick and his friends figure out exactly what–or who–Erebos is, before it’s too late?

Erebos is a fun, lightning-quick read. I imagine it would be especially good for young gamers, who might be able to see themselves in Nick. Poznanski does a great job illustrating just how seductive the world of Erebos is, and convincingly depicts what appears like addiction. (Students who are kicked out of Erebos, for example, become desperate, pleading, with some withdrawal-like symptoms.) We can easily follow the changes in Nick’s personality the longer he plays Erebos, and see how concerned his friends become the further he draws away from them. It was quite realistic, and Poznanski deserves kudos for approaching the subject carefully.

Young gamers will also enjoy the lengthy descriptions of happenings in Erebos, which do begin to feel very real. Nick’s interactions with other players, as well as his frustration at failing missions or his exaltation at winning duels will be familiar to any gamer. The world of Erebos was rich, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that part of me wanted to explore it, too! Finally, the tension and fear surrounding the game–how does it know what your real name is, for example?–are also well-done. I raced through the book because I was so invested in figuring out these mysteries alongside Nick. While the resolution is somewhat easy to figure out, once one of the central mysteries has been revealed to the reader, it still is a heckuva ride.

A couple things kept this from being a five star book for me, though, the first being that I’m unsure if Poznanski has very much actual gaming experience. It wasn’t even that the mysterious game’s set-up bothered me–it was the logistics. For example, Erebos contains an arena where players can challenge one another to fights. But a non-player character (NPC) calls each player by name, one by one, and everyone else waits as the called player fights their challenger. So you’ve got a crowd of around 150 people watching two people fight at a time. The amount of time this would take–and the amount of griping from players–would be unbearable. (Additionally, the fact that no enterprising player tried to hack the game or make mods was hard to ignore, and we are even introduced to a hardcore gamer!)

The more worrisome issue I had with Erebos was its hard treatment of women and minorities. At one point, someone is described as being half-Asian, but the context implies this is a bad thing–something like, “She likes guys like that? Glasses, half-Asian,” etc. Someone else is described as smelling “oriental,” which is both bizarre and politically incorrect. Nick is also incredibly mean-spirited towards a girl who has a crush on him, judging her by her looks, the way she dresses, and her straightforwardness. The implication is that the boy should be pursuing the girl, not the other way around. Overall, the handling of women and people of color is incredibly regressive, and while I don’t think it was intentional, I was still somewhat taken aback. However, I do applaud Poznanski for her inclusion of multicultural characters.  Nick’s friend Colin, for example, is black, and there are minor several Middle Eastern characters. Were I to give this to a younger reader, though, I would make sure to discuss these points with them after they had finished the book.

Erebos‘s strengths are its depictions of gaming addiction, the many intertwined mysteries surrounding the game, and the well-drawn world of Erebos itself. I think young male readers would especially relate to POV character Nick. In many respects, he’s a normal high schooler, with different demands on his time, trying to juggle school, friends, and fun; watching him become a hero is great. Make sure, however, that young readers understand why its judgement of women and people of color is overly harsh.

I received Erebos for review through NetGalley. It was published January 19, 2012 here in the U.S.; it was already a bestseller in Germany.

Bookwanderer Rating: Three and a half stars

Review: The Hunger Games

Finally read the book that everyone and their grandma has already finished…The Hunger Games! I initially stayed away from it because of all of the hype, and because I don’t read much YA anymore (my stint working in the kids’ section of a library fulfilled that urge). Nonetheless, because I never met a book about a bloody dystopian future I didn’t like, I broke down and bought it. And despite telling myself I wouldn’t, I read it in a day. Spoilers ahoy!

Quick summary time: Thanks to an unspecified apocalypse, the United States no longer exists; instead there is Panem, made up of 12 poor Districts and the Capital, the decadent and oppressive ruling state. As a result of crushing the Districts’ rebellion, every year the Capital demands tributes in the form of a girl and a boy from 12 to 18 years old. These tributes from each District are forced to compete in the Hunger Games, where the goal is to be the last one standing.

So yeah, it’s somewhat similar to Battle Royale, but with some very major differences: The Hunger Games has Americans teens instead of Japanese, much less gore and violence, no sex, and no rule that at least one person has to be killed a day. In Battle Royale, you get to know a whole swath of characters well; in The Hunger Games, there are two main characters, with the other tributes remaining mostly sketches. I’d call The Hunger Games Battle Royale for the younger set. But uhhh not too young because kids still die, some in particularly nasty ways.

 Where The Hunger Games really succeeds, for me, is with heroine and narrator Katniss. She is HARD. CORE. And unlike other “OMG look at what a badass magical female hunter hero I am” characters, Katniss is NOT ANNOYING. That gets caps because so many other iterations of this kind of character are grating. Katniss isn’t. She’s gritty. She’s dirty. She’s starving half the time. She hunts and trades out of complete necessity. Her life is hard, and you really believe it. Everything she has, she has earned with blood and sweat. (I also LOVED Katniss’s lingering feelings of resentment for and distance from her mother. So angsty, so teenage girl, so believable!) In a literary world that seems flooded with Bella Swan knock-offs, it’s refreshing to have a strong, intelligent, and independent female character whose life doesn’t revolve around her vampire/werewolf/fae/mermen suitors, and who isn’t defined only by her relationships to men. Because choosing who you’re going to be with 4-everzzz kind of takes a backseat when a pack of kids are trying to fucking kill you with spears. Priorities, people, priorities.

The other characters are great too, though they all tend to be dunces when it comes to emotions and stuff (like I have any room to talk–repressing your feelings FTW!) Peeta’s cleverness and will to survive were a nice compliment to Katniss’s own; I liked that he couldn’t rely on his physical strength since he was so outclassed by almost everyone else. (To be honest, though, I went back and forth between admiring him for playing the game the only way he could, and being annoyed at him for being weak. ) I imagine him being a hard character to write, but that’s just me. Gale was cool for being the male version of Katniss. And Cinna, for being a Capitol/Hunger Games lackey, was unexpectedly interesting. Seriously, A+ for Susanne Collins for creating some believable, well-rounded characters that the reader quickly becomes emotionally invested in.

The only part of The Hunger Games I didn’t like was the appearance of the wolf “muttations” near the finale, and not because they ended Cato. They actually yanked me out of the flow of the story, and brought up questions that there wasn’t time or space to address. Were they wolf muttations mixed with the dead tributes’ DNA? Or were they just given certain aspects of the other tributes (eyes, hair color) to fuck with the survivors? Were they created after those tributes were killed, or before, and just held in reserve–and would that mean there’s wolf Cato, Peeta, and Katniss in some lab somewhere? Is this a new thing for the Hunger Games, or has it happened before? And the most important question of all: UM, WTF? I really would rather that they were straight-up muttations, without the aspects of defeated tributes. Because a giant wolf with flowing blond fur and green eyes was LOLZ-worthy, and I’m sure that was totally NOT the reaction that Collins was going for.

Heeeeeere's Glimmer!

It seems weird to complain about something being unrealistic in a book that freakin’ has kids killing each other in a game televised for a post-apocalyptic US, but whatevs. I make no apologies: the wolf muttations were lame.

It’s really a minor quibble though, the fact that I just wrote a thesis about it notwithstanding. (I like to complain!) A day after I finished The Hunger Games, I had ordered the second book in the series. If that’s not a stellar recommendation, I don’t know what is.

Bookwanderer Rating: Four out of five stars

Bookwanderer Tagline: Come for the kids killing each other, stay for the character development and interpersonal drama!

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