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Book Review: Article Three

I was extremely lucky to be gifted an English version of this originally Swedish dystopian YA novel from the author herself for unbiased review. I spent my Christmas holiday reading this book and enjoyed it immensely!

article3

Trust will get you killed – and trust will keep you alive

In a world where the System governs everything, Ava’s a rebel – one who can control other people’s thoughts with her mind. As part of a resistance movement preparing for war, this is a useful skill.

Levi stopped believing in the struggle for freedom when it snatched his parents from him. Now he’s just trying to live a quiet life and control the voices that threaten his sanity.

One night Levi’s sister is arrested. To free her, he has to break old promises and get involved with people he swore he’d never associate with. Ava’s ordered to help him and, together, they leave on a rescue mission. She says he has to trust the rebels. But should they?

First of all, I tend to have a hate and hate-some-more relationship with translations, especially translations from languages I’m somewhat familiar with. While my Swedish definitely isn’t good enough to allow me to read this novel in its original form, I feel I know just enough of the language to be thoroughly irritated when I sense it going wrong. This book, however, was translated very well! There are a few instances of incorrect word use or slightly clunky syntax, but it was never enough to annoy me. And this book gets huge bonus points for being a self-published translation as well! I have read some truly atrocious Big House translations! Okay, but let’s get to the story…

This is a YA dystopian and starts off feeling comfortingly familiar with several identifiable tropes that have made this sub-genre of sci-fi so immensely popular. What made it so different and refreshing is that Lund presents us with a trio of main characters made up of strong, independent young women, and a physically weak, not particularly good-looking guy who freely admits that he isn’t all that smart either. Levi is the antithesis of every brave, buff, and (supposedly) intelligent hero of YA fiction. Forget Roar or Four or Gale – Levi is none of those things and yet, it’s his faults and ineptitude that make him so endearing, not only to the readers but to the women in his team.

Another refreshing aspect to this story was the Scandinavian setting. Without giving too much away, I can say that this book starts off somewhere in what might be the remnants of Germany and takes the trio on a several thousand-kilometre journey north through Denmark, past some well-known sites, to a snowy Sweden where they even get to interact with Sami reindeer herders! Being a resident of the north myself, it was pretty awesome getting to read a YA dystopian novel set in this part of the world.

And finally, the touch of near-supernatural that comes into the story in the form of ‘faculties’ some people possess – that is, explicable talents such as a form of mind reading – makes this a little different again from the way dystopian books usually play out, and another layer to already well-developed characters.

For a first book in a trilogy, the pacing is great and the resolution was satisfying while leaving plenty more story to be told in the sequels. But herein also lies my only gripe. While I know this is a series and Lund is very much going for a slow-burn approach to revealing the characters and their motivations, I did feel like I wanted to get to know the trio all much better as individuals. There are brief moments of flashbacks explaining their behaviour or thoughts but I wanted so much more! I also have to note that the ‘accent’ with which the one character speaks is really distracting and I wish it hadn’t been written into all their dialogue. So two gripes then – both fairly minor things.

Overall, this book is a refreshing take on the dystopian genre, a great first installment in a promising trilogy, and definitely a book I’d recommend to readers who are looking for something fresh in their YA sci-fi.

4/5 ink splats from me!

4 inksplats

~Suzanne~

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2017 in Reviews

 

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Book Review: An Ember in the Ashes

I heard a lot of buzz about this book, particularly noted for its diversity and fresh setting. I couldn’t wait to read it, but when I did, I was left a little shocked to be honest.

*Spoilers ahead – you’ve been warned!*

ember

Laia is a slave.

Elias is a soldier.

Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

This book is YA, meaning it’s technically for teen readers about teen characters doing teenish things and dealing with teenish issues even in fantastical settings. And it was with that understanding that I cracked open the spine on this novel.

While I did thoroughly enjoy the Spartacus TV series (back when Andy Whitfield was the lead) and can generally handle the violence and brutality in shows like Game of Thrones, I was absolutely not prepared for the brutality of one of the very first scenes in this book. Remember this novel is aimed at teen readers… and yet, in one of the opening scenes introducing readers to Elias and his life at Blackcliff (much like the ludus in Spartacus only for kids as young as 5) a ten-year-old boy is publicly flogged to death by a commanding officer. I struggled with this scene. Even more so because the vast majority of the characters in the story seem so unaffected by the brutal abuse (actually, it goes beyond abuse really) of a child. A child! I should’ve known from this opening scene that the rest of the book would continue in a similar vein.

This book is brutal! The CO of this elite warrior school is an unapologetic sadist delighting in the continuous and brutal torture of slaves and Martials (the upper echelon attending the warrior school), even tormenting her own son! The brutality visited upon Laia is unspeakable and had me cringing for the majority of the book. If this were a movie, it would have to be R-rated for violence. But it gets worse, because the physical damage done by a sadist isn’t nearly as bad as the psychological torment Elias endures as part of the trope-ish three trials he is meant to pass in the hopes of becoming Emperor. The violence and brutality kicks up yet another gear to the point where I actually felt queasy reading some scenes and had to put the book down. I was so overwhelmed by the brutality, which often felt unnecessary and senseless, that when the few tender moments did happen, I was so relieved, I felt myself falling in love with these characters for the most minor of niceties.

Aside from the brutality – which I really shudder to think is considered okay for inclusion in a book aimed at young readers – the plot is complex and kept me intrigued. The main characters you couldn’t help but feel for given their circumstances and heinous mistreatment. I loved Elias and Laia although I could’ve done without all the convoluted love-quadrangling going on.

The biggest issue I had with this book was the constant threat of sexual violence against the girls in the story and the numerous near-rape scenes. Had there been at least one threat of sexual violence toward a boy (completely realistic) it would’ve perhaps felt more balanced, but as it stands, it seemed to be a stereotypical ‘boy taking what he thinks he can get without consequences from the weak and frightened girl’. Even the strongest female character in the book wasn’t immune to rape threats and that infuriated me! Why is rape always used!?

Had this book being marketed as adult or even new adult, I probably would’ve enjoyed it more or at least handled it a little better because I would’ve known to expect a different level of violence. There are several books with big cross-over appeal being marketed toward a more adult audience, books like Six of Crows and A Court of Thorns and Roses, and I think An Ember in the Ashes should’ve been marketed similarly. I was left emotionally damaged after reading this book and had nightmarish images of dead children playing in my mind for days after I turned the last page. Even as an adult book, I think this story will upset some readers with the amount of violence leveled at children. Did I mention a five-year-old little girl gets deliberately blinded with a hot poker as retribution for something an adult slave did? Yeah. Nauseating.

So, good plot, good characters, good prose if not very descriptive, and an interesting world with a slightly Arabic or Middle Eastern flavor featuring a cast of PoC characters, but it wasn’t quite as diverse as I was hoping. I kept waiting for an LGBT+ character to make an appearance but sadly, they never did. I find it really difficult to rate this book. I was intrigued, I kept turning pages – when I wasn’t battling nausea – and I did sort of enjoy it, but the brutality was simply too much for me. This gets 3.5/5 ink splats from me.3.5 inksplats

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2015 in Reviews, Uncategorized

 

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Book Review: Empire of Night

This is book 2 in the Age of Legends series. Over here, you can read my review of book 1 Sea of Shadows. I knew I would return to this series because I adored the characters, and I’m really glad that I did because what I felt was lacking in book 1 was delivered in spades in book 2!

empire

No blurb this time because it would give away too many spoilers. This is going to be a spoiler-free review as well, so I won’t be discussing too much of the plot. You’ll just have to trust me when I say that this book kept me turning pages way past my bed time!

Book 2 picks up almost exactly where book 1 leaves us, weaving recaps of book 1 into the narrative in a way that didn’t feel like a major info dump. While book 1 was mostly about two girls traipsing through the wastes and battling legendary beasties, book 2 dives straight into what I thought was lacking in the first book: political intrigue! Book 2 introduces quite a few new characters which not only adds to the world-building but also forces the characters to grow and change in unexpected ways. Again, the girls are split up by circumstances and must face their own trials and tribulations, but the book never lets you forget that this story is first and foremost about the sister-bond between Moria and Ashyn. There is romance, but it always comes second to the love between the sisters which I found most refreshing.

While I found the world-building a little confusing in the first book, book 2 reveals far more about the cultures and construction of this fantasy world that seems to be a mesh between East and West, with a tendency toward 17th Century Japan although I think Armstrong does well to avoid some of the cliches while still introducing recognizable elements of the culture. There is also mention of foot-binding which was a Chinese practice, but the caste system comes straight out of Edo-era Japan. Coupled with the northern cultures we’ve only begun to get a taste of by book 2, I would say the world in this series isn’t a borrowed version of the ancient East so much as an continental amalgamation which I found really different from the vast majority of Euro-centric fantasy.

While there are no openly LGBT+ characters in the series – yet? – same-sex relationships are mentioned several times and seem to be accepted if not quite the norm. I’m not quite sure how this would work in a society very much concerned with family and lineage, but I hope that Armstrong explores this in the final book.

I cannot talk about the plot without giving away major spoilers. This book is all about the plot! There is substantial character development as well, but what kept me turning the pages was the political intrigue and wondering who the girls could trust, or who might betray them next. What I do absolutely love about this story is that the girls are both strong, independent young women who aren’t strong because they act like men. They are still young girls with a rather narrow if slowly broadening understanding of the world and people who use their significant skills to help themselves and others while not being afraid of asking for and accepting help when needed. Too often, strong female characters are written like male characters as if any show of femininity is somehow a show of weakness, but this is definitely not the case in this novel where the girls can do battle just as easily as they can chat about pretty dresses.

If I have any criticism of this book, it’s that the ending was a punch in the gut and is going to make the wait for book 3 a special kind of torment. While book 1 wasn’t my favourite, book 2 was excellent and I strongly recommend giving this series a chance because I’m sure it’s going to finish on a high! 5/5 splats for Empire of Night.

5 inksplats

 
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Posted by on July 28, 2015 in Reviews

 

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Book Review: Love in the Time of Global Warming

This book has been on my radar for ages. It’s also my first foray into the writings of Francesca Lia Block, but it certainly won’t be my last.

love global

Her life by the sea in ruins, Pen has lost everything in the Earth Shaker that all but destroyed the city of Los Angeles. She sets out into the wasteland to search for her family, her journey guided by a tattered copy of Homer’s Odyssey. Soon she begins to realize her own abilities and strength as she faces false promises of safety, the cloned giants who feast on humans, and a madman who wishes her dead. On her voyage, Pen learns to tell stories that reflect her strange visions, while she and her fellow survivors navigate the dangers that lie in wait. In her signature style, Francesca Lia Block has created a world that is beautiful in its destruction and as frightening as it is lovely. At the helm is Pen, a strong heroine who holds hope and love in her hands and refuses to be defeated.

What you need to understand before you venture into this story is that this is less science fiction and more magical realism. While Block does attempt to provide some sciency answers to what’s happening in this post-apocalyptic world, most of what’s going on is decidedly trippy and surreal. If you start trying to make sense of what’s happening in terms of science and technology, you will not enjoy this book. Rather, suspend your disbelief, and embrace the bizarre yet beautiful landscape Block effortlessly crafts with elegant prose.

This is the first YA magical realism book I’ve ever read and I absolutely loved it. At first, I was wondering how on earth the author would justify what was happening, but I quickly ceased to care about the details as I became utterly engrossed in the story and emotionally invested in the characters. There isn’t an awful lot of plot in this book. It’s really just a roadtrip adventure through a surrealist landscape with some obvious goals to keep the story moving forward, but the plot isn’t what’s important here, it’s the characters. I should mention that this story is quite openly inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey, with some overt references to the classic. If you’re not au fait with Greek mythology, however, fret not as these references are fairly well explained given that the target audience is teens.

In the world of YA we talk a lot about diversity and the need for intersectionality – where minority meets minority – and this book delivers that in spades. While the story revolves around Pen – a teen girl coming to grips with her bisexuality – all four of the main cast members are queer teens. How refreshing to read about an entirely queer main cast! We have Hex, Ash, and Ez – each with their own gender identity, sexuality, racial identity, and socio-economic background. These traits are masterfully handled by Block so that at no time does the story seem preachy or like a lesson in privilege. Instead, the author weaves the back-stories of each character into the narrative in a way that helps the four friends understand each other and better come to terms with their situation.

In order to fully explain why I loved this book so much I need to give a few details about Hex and Pen which may seem spoilery, so skip the next paragraph if you’d prefer to avoid spoilers…

Hex is a trans boy with whom Pen falls in love. Their relationship brings to mind the unfurling of a flower as they get to know each other and their own hearts. I have never before read open-door sex featuring a trans character in YA fiction. Block handles the love scenes between Pen and Hex as she does everything else in this book, with an easy elegance that results in scenes of true beauty, scenes that are honest and open without becoming crass. I think it’s important to show trans teens having normal relationships and exploring those relationships physically without the usual genital fixation that comes from the cisgendered. This book shows that love is love, subtly giving the reader insight into Hex’s identity while also developing Pen’s character and burgeoning sexuality. Kudos to the author for going there in this book and doing it so well!

Spoilers are over!

This book has a dreamlike quality to it with refined prose referencing art and music in a way that made my nerd hurt extremely happy. References to Goya and Bosch abound – two of my favourite artists – so this was a personal win for me! For anyone who enjoys magical realism and is looking for something a little different, or is looking for a diverse read, I strongly recommend Love in the Time of Global Warming. I’m now going to hunt down the sequel and then make my way through the rest of Block’s works. 5/5 splats for this book!

5 inksplats

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2015 in Reviews

 

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Book Review: The Girl at Midnight

While this title has been languishing on my TBR pile for a while, it was still a bit of an impulse grab at the library because I saw it sitting looking pretty on the shelf and just had to take it home with me.

TGaM

Beneath the streets of New York City live the Avicen, an ancient race of people with feathers for hair and magic running through their veins. Age-old enchantments keep them hidden from humans. All but one. Echo is a runaway pickpocket who survives by selling stolen treasures on the black market, and the Avicen are the only family she’s ever known.

Echo is clever and daring, and at times she can be brash, but above all else she’s fiercely loyal. So when a centuries-old war crests on the borders of her home, she decides it’s time to act.

Legend has it that there is a way to end the conflict once and for all: find the Firebird, a mythical entity believed to possess power the likes of which the world has never seen. It will be no easy task, but if life as a thief has taught Echo anything, it’s how to hunt down what she wants . . . and how to take it.

But some jobs aren’t as straightforward as they seem. And this one might just set the world on fire.

This book has been compared a lot to the beloved Daughter of Smoke and Bone series. I read the first book in that series and can see where readers may find similarities. In both books we have a pretty sassy heroine who flits about the world through magical doorways. There are mythical creatures in both series – demons and angels in Laini Taylor’s books, anthropomorphic dragons (Drakharin) and birds (Avicen) in Grey’s. To be honest, that’s where the similarities ended for me. I don’t understand why some reviewers see The Girl at Midnight as a ‘rip-off’ of Taylor’s series. It’s really not, and, to be honest, I strongly preferred The Girl at Midnight – Although Taylor wins hands down when it comes to exquisite writing, world-building, and description.

The Girl at Midnight is a little be Neverwhere-ish in that there is a hidden world operating in tandem with the human world, a world divided into the scale-adorned Drakharin and feathered Avicen. These two are, of course, at odds with each other and a human girl – our protagonist Echo – gets caught up in the middle of all the action as she goes in search of the mythical Firebird. At the mention of the Firebird, I was hoping for a stronger tie-in with Slavic folk-lore and was disappointed when the Firebird in this story seemed completely disconnected from the traditional mythology. Not that it isn’t cool in its own right in terms of the story world, but it’s a lot more Phoenix than fiery peacock from Russian fairytale.

It’s a little tricky to talk much more about this story without spoiling the plot. Suffice it to say, there was a twist, but I saw it coming from about halfway through the book. That said, it was still fun to see how the characters coped with the revelation even if it didn’t elicit quite the OMG reaction in the reader as I think the author intended.

The true strength of this novel lies in its characters, and not just the protagonist. Actually, Echo is possibly the least interesting of the lot. This book has multiple POVs, switching between various characters sometimes erratically. At first, I found this irritating because I was struggling to connect with Echo. In the end, I’m glad the author chose to give the reader personal time in the other characters’ heads because they were a fascinating bunch. I strongly preferred the chapters from the dragons’ perspective. Caius and Dorian all but stole the show, Dorian in particular who seemed to suffer the most internal conflict which made him the most interesting character even if he was relegated to the periphery. His interactions with the Avicen were some of the best scenes – particularly the snappy dialogue between Dorian and peacock-ish Avicen named Jasper. I could easily have spent the entire book in their POVs, following their story rather than Echo’s. This is both a positive and negative, I guess, because the story was meant to be Echo’s but there was so much going on with the side characters that I sometimes resented returning to Echo when I found other characters more compelling. I was particularly pleased to see the LGBT characters getting so much page time and even POV chapters of their own. Hooray for a diverse YA fantasy read!

In conclusion, I really enjoyed this book and appreciated the fact that the romance element took a backseat to the plot. I also really enjoyed the exploration of supporting characters even if the switching POV chapters sometimes felt disruptive. I think there could’ve been more nuanced world-building, but this is only book 1 so perhaps more details are coming in book 2. While I don’t find myself too emotionally invested in the protagonist, I am absolutely enthralled by the supporting characters and hope that book 2 continues to follow all the story threads presented in book 1. Ultimately, this was a fun urban fantasy read and scores 3.5/5 ink splats from me.

3.5 inksplats

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2015 in Reviews

 

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Book Review: Jackaby

The cover of this one first caught my eye and made me think the story would be dark. This book turned out to be a quick and enjoyable read, but not one I loved.

jackaby

Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary–including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby’s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it’s an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it’s a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police–with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane–deny.

Doctor Who meets Sherlock in William Ritter’s debut novel, which features a detective of the paranormal as seen through the eyes of his adventurous and intelligent assistant in a tale brimming with cheeky humor and a dose of the macabre

Not being a huge fan of Doctor Who (I enjoyed Torchwood far more) I can’t speak to the Doctor Who comparison, but the Sherlock comparison is spot on. And by spot on, I mean, once again we have the socially inept genius who sees what no one else can see. In this instance, Detective Jackaby sees paranormal oddities, from pixies and trolls to auras and magical residue. The entire story is essentially a Victorian episode of Sherlock with werebeasties, and, as in Elementary, Watson is now played by a woman… a girl? This book is marketted for young readers after all. The Sherlock-Watson vibe isn’t subtle. Abigail Rook keeps a journal of their escapades and even writes up a story about it all in the end – much like both Sherlock’s and Elementary’s Watsons do. The parallel isn’t cute though, it’s almost tedious because it’s all been done before. To be honest, I’m not sure the paranormal element in this book really offers enough freshness to the story.

Jackaby is at least a quick read and that cheeky humour in the blurb definitely does come through. That’s the book’s saving grace. Were it not for that snide sense of humour, this book would not have been nearly as enjoyable.

I’m struggling to think of what else to write about this. I don’t think this book is going to linger in my thoughts for very long. With the recent slew of Sherlock retellings, it’s just not that unique or memorable and the paranormal detective story has been done to death. What is perhaps unique is the touch of feminism thanks to Abigail’s stubbornness and assertiveness. Given the era in which this is set, Abigail certainly fits the strong female character trope, but is still second fiddle to the male, genius detective. Now, this book would’ve been truly refreshing had it made the Sherlockian-detective the woman. Actually, why hasn’t this already been done? Or are women simply incapable of being sociopathic geniuses?

Anyway… if you’re looking for a quick and entertaining read for a rainy afternoon and enjoy paranormal stories, you would probably enjoy this book. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, it just didn’t blow me away and I probably won’t remember this story at all in a couple of months. Jackaby gets 3.5/5 ink splats from me.

3.5 inksplats

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2015 in Reviews

 

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Book Review: Love is the Drug

I thoroughly enjoyed The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson and have been eagerly anticipating her latest book, Love is the Drug. I am delighted to say, it did not disappoint!

lovedrug

Emily Bird was raised not to ask questions. She has perfect hair, the perfect boyfriend, and a perfect Ivy-League future. But a chance meeting with Roosevelt David, a homeland security agent, at a party for Washington DC’s elite leads to Bird waking up in a hospital, days later, with no memory of the end of the night.

Meanwhile, the world has fallen apart: A deadly flu virus is sweeping the nation, forcing quarantines, curfews, even martial law. And Roosevelt is certain that Bird knows something. Something about the virus–something about her parents’ top secret scientific work–something she shouldn’t know.

The only one Bird can trust is Coffee, a quiet, outsider genius who deals drugs to their classmates and is a firm believer in conspiracy theories. And he believes in Bird. But as Bird and Coffee dig deeper into what really happened that night, Bird finds that she might know more than she remembers. And what she knows could unleash the biggest government scandal in US history.

Sigh. Ignore the blurb. Here’s what you need to know: Johnson has once again crafted an intelligent YA novel that swirls a toe in sci-fi waters while the other foot remains firmly planted in the realm of conspiracy theory thriller. This hasn’t got a lot of love from YA reviewers and I think I know why. While the characters are teenagers and there is a lot of teenage stuff happening on the pages, this book doesn’t pander to its audience and the plot is a slow-burn more common to adult reads than a frenetic rush from one moment of life-threatening excitement to another as in many YA novels. That’s not to say this book isn’t exciting. It is, but the realistic timeline means the reader needs patience.

While there is the deadly flu virus thing going on in this story, that almost becomes backdrop to what is truly a coming of age story and a wonderfully real and raw romance between two teenagers who don’t quite fit in at their elite prep school. For me, it’s this part of the story that is truly awesome, original, and page turning. At some point I realized I couldn’t care less if the flu was an act of bioterrorism or not, so long as the protagonists could find a way to sort out their lives and be together despite the odds stacked against them.

While the blurb makes this book seem like a plot-driven thriller, it’s not. This novel is all about the characters and they’re wonderful. Emily Bird is Black. Yes, Black with a capital B as written and emphasized in the story. This book addresses issues of race without the story becoming about race or racism and that’s fantastic. This novel really opened my eyes to what life is like for a black teenage girl in the upper echelons of American society. I had no idea, which is why books like Love is the Drug are so important. Emily Bird also has a diverse group of friends at her preppy school. Some black, some white, some Latino/a, some mixed, some international, some straight, some gay. If you’re looking for a diverse read, this book has diversity in spades! The other lead character in this book – Coffee – is a white Brazilian diplomat’s kid and is a middle finger, not only to the establishment in the novel, but to several YA tropes, which demand hunky heroics from the love interest. Coffee is smart and uses his brain rather than brawn to get things done.

My favourite part of this novel was the unlikely romance between Bird and Coffee. They are so different from such different backgrounds with such different families and family values and yet somehow they manage to see and bring out the best in each other. It was an absolute pleasure reading about a young couple who challenged each other to be better people, to think for themselves and make smart choices – if not always the right ones – these are teens of course and they’re going to mess up. Given how many near-abusive relationships are touted as the epitome of romance (I’m looking at you Twilight and Hush,Hush) it was a wonderful surprise to see the girl choose to be with the nice guy who treated her as an equal on all fronts. It’s this sort of positive reinforcement I’d like to see in more teen reads.

If I have anything to gripe about with the story, it’s that once again the parents are reduced to absentee monsters. Since the story is told from Bird’s perspective perhaps they aren’t as bad as she perceives them to be, but I still found the parental roles in this book slipping into the YA cliches of absent and/or awful. Granted, there are probably parents like this in the world, but everything else felt so fresh in this novel that this one aspect stood out as being a little stale.

The writing in this novel, as with The Summer Prince, is excellent, although there were a few passages I thought might’ve been a little over done. There were also one or two stylistic POV switches I wasn’t convinced were necessary, but these minor blips in no way reduced my enjoyment of the book as a whole. 5 glorious ink splats for this intelligent, thought-provoking, authentic, and diverse YA novel.

5 inksplats

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2015 in Reviews

 

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Film Review: The Maze Runner

Firstly, I know this film was based on a beloved book and I have not read that book, so this review is based purely on the movie version. Also, there are going to be a lot of spoilers…

maze runner

*Warning: There be Spoilers!*

 

Despite having not read the books, I admit that it was knowing this film was based on a dystopian YA series that made me want to watch the film in the first place, because I’m a total sucker for these stories.

The Maze Runner starts off strong with NO VOICE-OVER!! (does the happy dance). I braced myself for the voice-over prologue explaining the way the world worked, but it never came and I was immediately more intrigued because of this. The film throws us right into the action where our teenage MC wakes up to find himself in a cage, shipped off to a mysterious glade populated by other adolescent males. This has the potential to be all very Lord of the Flies-ish and I anticipated the story to head in that direction. But not so much…

We discover that the boys who wake up in the glade have no memories of their life beyond the walls of their rather picturesque prison except for remembering their name. Convenient and I’m not sure this can be credibly medically explained but okay, I’ll go with it. Second, we discover that the boys have established a mostly self-sufficient community that is extremely well-structured and ordered despite being run and populated by hormonal teenage boys. These boys are prisoners in the glade and have tried just about everything to fine their way out of the surrounding maze. The kicker is that this maze is only open during the day and the huge, imposing gates close every night to keep mysterious nasties out of the glade and curious boys in it. So ‘maze runners’ spend the daylight hours trying to run and map the maze in the hopes of one day getting out. It’s not that simple though, obviously.

Thomas, our MC who remembers a little more than just his name but can’t really make sense of it, being a curious lad starts to question everything in the glade as he should. The answers to his questions boil down to: we’ve tried everything else, the only way out of the maze is through. This is problematic because despite being able to build fairly sophisticated housing structures, including watch towers and trees houses, these boys never think to build scaffolding to help them scale the walls of the maze and approach the problem with an aerial view. The reason for this? The vines only go half way up the walls (please consult the above image which was an official movie poster and take note of the vine placement.) Okay, movie, you clearly want these boys to have to run through the maze. Fine. But I do think they could’ve come up with a better reason for it. Anyway…

Thomas, possessing all the qualities of an intrepid YA hero, starts challenging the status quo and things start going wrong in the glade. At this point, the film really wanted to be a zombie movie but didn’t quite get there. Apparently, the nasty creatures which inhabit the maze at night are suddenly active during the day. A sting from one of these creatures turns the unlucky stingee into a rabid, zombie-esque monster and of course panic ensues. I anticipated a lot more Lord of the Flies like divisiveness in the camp when their leader gets stung and there are a few minor dust-ups – some pushing and shoving – but nothing more than that, and I didn’t buy it one little bit. These are teenage boys in a highly stressful environment, not zen masters! I also wanted to see more of that moral grayness that arises when good people do bad things for potentially the right reasons, but our MC is almost boring he’s so good and decent about everything – even accepting punishment for basically being brave from the jerk of the group far too good-naturedly. To be honest, I found Thomas a tad dull and lifeless. More bad stuff happens and Thomas proves he’s a hero by selflessly putting himself in harms way, running into the maze as it’s closing for the night to help his friend. Fine, but then a terrifying flight from the scorpion-like, semi-organic, mostly robotic creatures ensues and it is shown repeatedly that these creatures can scale the walls – so why have they never scaled the walls at night and terrorized the glade? If they’re programmed not to hurt the boys, why the sudden change in MO? WHY IS ANY OF THIS HAPPENING!? I actually might’ve been grateful for a voice-over explaining some of this to me.

Also, considering this is a camp full of boys, some of whom have been there for years, there is absolutely no discussion about sex or sexuality. It was conspicuous by its absence and was made even more conspicuous by its absence when a girl arrives in their midst.

It’s abundantly clear from the get go that there are external forces controlling the situation and manipulating the boys’ circumstances in the glade, so what person (presuming the external forces are human of course) sends a girl into the midst of an all boy camp? What on earth were they hoping to achieve? With the arrival of the girl, I expected a lot of chest bashing, awkwardness, maybe some lewd looks or comments, or at least some comments about the fact that there was now a girl in their midst but nope, the boys are as passive as ever. After three years of this sort of isolation with no memories of a previous life including no memories of morality or societal norms, I just don’t buy the almost genteel way in which this situation was handled. It’s all very disappointing and unbelievable. I couldn’t help but think back to that fabulous New Zealand-made series called The Tribe where teenagers are left to rule the world and the type of society that becomes. That felt authentic. This glade business? Not so much.

At least the girl’s presence seems to be the catalyst for change and one night, the gates don’t close, meaning the big bad nasties get to tear loose through the camp, which is the final straw for Thomas and crew to find their way out of the maze once and for all. Suffice it to say, they do in a somewhat improbable way, but okay. The explanation they’re given when they reach the control center presumably set up to monitor the glade and manipulate the goings-on, is that the sun has scorched the earth and people are dying. With the future of humanity in jeopardy, the best solution the government could come up with was to stick a bunch of boys together in a glade and conduct increasingly brutal psychological experiments on them, hoping these kids would somehow prove themselves strong enough to survive, thereby proving there was hope for humanity. What the what? So, we’re running low on people and our solution is to systematically maim and murder our future generation because if kids can’t defend themselves against giant robot scorpions with a zombie sting, you’re right, the world is totally screwed. I just couldn’t even at this point, but wait… presumably government agents swoop in at exactly the right time to save these kids from the institution – now defunct considering all the people controlling the glade are dead, thanks to those same goons now swooping in to rescue the kids. Confused yet? I was! How about those government dudes go save the kids still trapped in the glade considering they have flipping HELICOPTERS and could easily have landed AT ANY TIME within the glade to airlift these kids to safety. Also, what’s with the morbid fascination with watching kids die or killing each other in gruesome ways (I’m looking at you Hunger Games).

But the real kicker comes at the very end as Thomas and crew – minus a few members, because of course we needed Thomas to shed a few tears to prove he’s human despite his apparent dissociation from everything that’s happening to him – fly off in the chopper to apparent safety. The film ends with a scene showing the maze mastermind – who we saw murdered a few moments ago – hale and hearty and planning to move the escapees onto the second phase of the trials. Trials for what? Given the amount of sand, I’m guessing the sun did cook the Earth, or perhaps we’re in the Sahara? But if all that was true about the sun and the imminent demise of humanity, why is the government killing children!?!?

This film was incredibly well done – the CGI was fantastic and the cinematography wonderful. It was visually appealing and the soundtrack was great too. The acting wasn’t bad, even if the actor playing Thomas wasn’t terribly exciting. He might’ve doing a great job of recreating the character from the book, but he came across as almost apathetic in the film. What failed most miserably for me was the premise, so basically the entire story. A few weeks after watching this movie, I’m still trying to figure out the why of it all, and without that I don’t know if I should care. Also, where were the rest of the girls? What was the point of having an all boy group, other than to make the story a ‘boy’ story? I just don’t get it. Maybe I missed something. Maybe the movie failed utterly to adapt a brilliant book, but judging the film as it stands, I’m really not impressed. 1.5/5 ink splats from me.

1.5 splats

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2015 in Reviews

 

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The Giver vs The Giver

giver book

The Giver is a highly influential work, which laid the foundation for modern YA dystopian literature, but – to be honest – I only picked up this novel after seeing the trailer for the film version. When I eventually got around to reading this sci-fi classic, I saw many parallels in world-building with some of the most popular current YA books (cough Divergent cough cough). My reaction to this rather short novel was a little mixed.

I found the book thought-provoking and highly engaging, but the ending left me completely dissatisfied. Bear in mind, however, I’ve only read book 1 of the quadrology so perhaps my many questions will be answered in the sequels. Still, the first book has a lot going for it especially when taken less literally and more allegorically as I think the story was perhaps intended. This is not hard sci-fi and many aspects of the world simply are. One has to suspend disbelief a fair amount, but that’s part of the beauty of the novel. Metaphors abound, and the poignancy and power of the story lies in peeling away those parable-like layers to uncover the simple truth at the core of the story.

Suffice it to say, given my expectations for the story after seeing the movie trailer, I was a little disappointed. Looking at the book and ignoring what I thought I glimpsed of the film, I enjoyed the book and can see why it has become such a beloved and seminal work in the genre.

giver

Fast forward eight months and I finally got around to seeing the movie. Had I known Taylor Swift was in it, I might have been less enthusiastic about the film, however, I can promise you that any Taylor Swiftness on posters and in promo is all a marketing ploy. She has a tiny – if important – role in the film and has very little screen time. The real star of the show is Brenton Thwaites as Jonas and he’s really quite lovely in his role as the compassionate and curious Receiver.

The Giver film is competing against franchises like The Hunger Games, Divergent and even The Maze Runner. In order to give The Giver more teen appeal and to capture The Hunger Games/Divergent audience, the movie tried to be a lot that the book was not. The movie – despite being adapted from the predecessor of the modern dystopian trend – feels a little too familiar and cliche because it tries a little too hard to fit in aesthetically and tonally with the other YA adaptations. I wish the film had foregone the shiny technology additions and stuck with the utilitarian world-building of the book. I can also understand why the film producers chose to up the age of the protagonists and up the angst as well, but I’m not sure it really added all that much to the overall story except making it feel like another teen movie when it should’ve been so much more than that.

Where the film did excel was in the cinematography and use of black&white and colour. This is described well in the book, but the visual medium of film really brought this to life. I do think they could’ve done even more with that, although I think they were trying to stay true to the book here. I was also hoping for more of an emotional impact from the memories in the film. Some of those memory sharing scenes in the book are brutal and really broke my heart for Jonas. It didn’t have quite the same impact for me in the film – perhaps because the character was older.

The ending of the book disappointed me but the film managed to deliver a very similar ending in a way that stayed true to the book while also providing a greater sense of closure. Where I think the book meandered into allegory, the movie developed the plot and made a more compelling story overall, even if some of the ‘science’ of how all this was possible is dubious at best.

A major highlight from the film for me was seeing the usually uber sexy and seductive Alexander Skarsgård playing a nurturing father figure who worked in the nursery with newborns while his wife – played by the petite Katie Holmes – was involved in politics. Seeing 6’4 Eric Northman – sorry, Alex Skarsgård – so tenderly caring for tiny babies really highlighted the gender dynamics and theme of equality in the book. It was a very clever casting choice.

So… The Giver as both book and film is thought provoking and definitely worth experiencing. I would say it is a must-read/must-see for anyone who is a fan of modern dystopian YA. I think both book and movie score equally for me. I give them 3.5/5 ink splats each.

3.5 inksplats

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2015 in Reviews

 

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Book Review: Books 1-3 of The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

Book series. Be they duologies, trilogies, or the seemingly never-ending story cycles that hit double figures, some people love them – I do not. I am not a fan of book series in general, but I will tolerate an exceptional trilogy such as the Celtic Crusade books by Stephen Lawhead or the Wanderer’s trilogy by Caiseal Mor. I have attempted several longer running series such as Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth books but gave up after reading only three. Even series by some of my favourite writers have been casualties of my lack of patience: Frank Herbert, Juliet Marillier, Lawhead (with his Pendragon series), Gemmel and Terry Brooks. It takes an especially rare and special type of story to keep me enthralled beyond book 3, and Maggie Stiefvater’s books have done that and more.

*beware, there be minor spoilers ahead*

raven1

When I first picked up The Raven Boys I was extremely nervous. I read somewhere that the book was 1 of a planned 5-book series, but I figured I’d read book 1 and move on as I usually do with series. I should’ve known better. I adored Stiefvater’s stand-alone novel The Scorpio Races and found The Raven Boys just as mesmerizing, engaging and delightful, so by the time I turned the last page I knew having to wait a year for book 2 was going to be a peculiar kind of agony I had never experienced before.

Not only is Stiefvater’s writing poetic and ‘voicey’ weaving snide humour into both dialogue and narrative, but her world is whimsical, soaked in magical realism and utterly engrossing while her characters are complex, endearing and totally relatable. This story stars three living boys – Gansey, Adam and Ronan – one dead boy – Noah – and a girl who sort of sits between the worlds whose name is Blue. Set in a Virginia town described as redneck and hick by the characters, this unlikely group of friends are brought together by Gansey’s search for a legendary Welsh king allegedly buried somewhere in town. This search for Glendower brings Gansey crashing into Blue’s world of mysticism and magic.

I absolutely loved The Raven Boys. It is a book that defies categorisation, equal parts fantasy and urban fantasy, magical realism and contemporary YA. Don’t be put off by the YA tag. Although the main characters are teenagers, there is very little school drama and teen angst in this book as the third person narrative switches between multiple characters including several adults in the book who are just as important as the teens to the story. I waited a year and finally managed to get my hands on book 2…

raven2

Book 2 is all about my favourite character, the truculent Ronan Lynch, who has one of the most amazing and terrifying superpowers I’ve come across, as well as a pet raven called Chainsaw. I adored this book even more than book 1, which I didn’t think was possible. We were taken deeper into the magical side of Henrietta, met new and intriguing characters, and got to know the five teens a little better with a few pleasant surprises along the way. I was delighted when certain developments in the story hinted at the inclusion of an LGBT character. Stiefvater also has a knack for ending things on serious cliffhangers and this novel was no exception. I thought I would expire with need for book 3. Finally, book 3 arrived and I read it just this past week. Here it is…

raven3As the title implies, this book focuses on Blue’s story and her character’s journey as she navigates the rocky relationships with the boys she has grown to love (not in a weird love pentagon kind of way, although there is a smattering of romance between Blue and a certain boy) as they find themselves delving deeper into the magical world on the periphery of their town, and it certainly isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. The magical element here is wonderfully vague. There are no clear rules, no spell-books dictating rituals or werebeasties killed by stakes or silver bullets. All the magical encounters are something entirely new making the series fresh and fierce in a genre prone to cliche. This series seems determined to break convention, the plot twisting and turning along the meandering pathways of the magical setting. Book 3 was everything I hoped it would be and, despite my usual abandonment of series round about here, I found myself absolutely ecstatic that there were two more books to come. Sadly, it seems I was grossly misinformed and rather devastated when I discovered that this series is, in fact, a quadrology which means only one more book and then it’s over! Nooooo! I have never ever wanted more books in a series, but I do with this one. In fact, I want an entire spin-off series starring Ronan Lynch, that’s how good these books are.

If you’re a fan of epic or urban fantasy and fancy trying something a little different, or if you are a fan of magical realism with a little more magic than realism, then I strongly recommend this series. Of course, I don’t know how it ends yet, but I trust Stiefvater to wrap up her story as beautifully and whimsically as she started it. If I were to have any criticism of this series it’s that some of the hints at possible diversity could be explored a little less ambiguously. I don’t know if the author is afraid to categorically state that a certain character is gay or black for fear of losing readers (really? In this era? I doubt it!) or if she’s deliberately trying to be vague about these things because in terms of the story, they don’t really matter and aren’t a big deal to the characters themselves. I’m not sure, but I do hope the reason is not the former.

Now my year-long wait for the fourth and final book in this series commences and I am equal parts excited and anguished that I will only get to spend another 400 pages with these characters who have stolen their way into my heart. Each book scores 5/5 ink-splats from me.


5 inksplats

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2014 in Reviews

 

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