UnWholly Book Review

UnWholly by Neal Shusterman

People can no longer turn a blind eye to unwinding. After their revolt at the Happy Jack Harvest Camp, Lev, Connor, and Risa are trying to make society question the morality of unwinding troublesome teens for tissue, organs, and other parts. But how do you take down a practice that has become such a source of revenue for the government and those who work on the black market? Worse yet, what do you do when the very people who are supposed to protect kids are making things like Cam, a Frankenstein monster, made up of over 100 kids who were unwound. As each of the kids struggles against the system, each is searching for the humanity within themselves.

This second Unwind installment, like many sequels, is not the "tear down of the system" that you so badly yearn for. Instead this book is a character study, a journey into the psyche of Lev, Risa, Connor, and Cam along with Hayden, Starkey, and Miracolina as they become the people they need to be in order to lead. Can Lev really live up to the saint-like following he has accrued among those who are tithed? Is Connor really the right leader for the AWOL unwinds? Will a young man who has been abandoned by two families be able to create a new darker one of his own? Can a person hold their values while being forced to display the opposite of what they believe? And what happens when a monster has thought and feelings that can't be ignored no matter what he is made of?

This did make for a less fast-paced story, but I found myself staying up late to finish reading one chapter and then another, unable to put it down, desperate to return to each character.

The thing that I liked about Unwind, was the constant feeling of repulsion, which is obviously what Shusterman was aiming for. I still find it completely unrealistic, especially the "storking" where people leave their unwanted children on doorsteps. I feel even more so with this book as we never actually meet any storked kids whose parents actually like or want them. I felt like storking was basically this society's way of getting people to pay for the upkeep of kids until they were old enough to be unwound. What kind of bond or love would ever be created? Worse yet, instead of preparing their children for unwinding, parents often have the Juvies come pick up their kids in the middle of the night, their shame written on their face. This entire world that Shusterman has created felt very Spartan in nature. 

Just like the first, UnWholly is a well-done dystopian sci-fi with some great characters who are believable, even if the world isn't sometimes.

City of Bones Book Review

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

Clary Fray is like every other fifteen-year-old in New York City. She goes to teen clubs, hangs out with her best friend Simon, and obsessed over her next cup of coffee. Then, Clary witnesses a bizarre murder, in which three tattoo-covered make someone literally disappear. Even more bizarre is that only Clary can see them. This is only the beginning as Clary gets sucked into the dark world of Shadowhunters, warriors who are bidden to rid the world of demons. When Clary's mother is taken, Clary finds herself allying with Jace, a beautiful guy with a jerk personality. Clary must discover what anyone would want with a mundane like her and her mother and more importantly, why she has the Sight. 

I really enjoyed the pacing of this book, the massive amounts of action scenes made me happy. Clary is smart and clever and holds her own against the uber cool Shadowhunters. She never lets Jace walk over her. She may take some of the revelations a little too well, at least not the way I imagine any fifteen-year old would, but then that may have taken away from her coolness. Or added more depth. Either way, we will never know. I loved that her best friend Simon was brought back into the picture as he added a certain amount of levity to the story, especially considering he spent a fourth of the book as a rat.

Despite loving the supernatural action, I'm afraid the plot is not terribly original. Generally, I am a well-behaved reader. I don't try to solve the mystery or figure out the end or guess where the plot is going, but sometimes authors just make it too easy. The twists were rather predictable and I have a preference for being surprised. Of course, there has to be a love triangle, which seems to be the YA go-to these days and I find it incredibly cloying, but there seems to be no avoiding it.

If I have time and can get them on audio book, I think I may continue the series, but I won't be gobbling them down like I do The Maze Runner series or Bloody Jack.

BZRK Book Review

BZRK by Michael Grant

Sadie is a billionaire orphan after the tragic death of her father and brother in a plane crash into a stadium that she happened to be sitting in. Surviving the deadly accident, Sadie is soon drawn into the world of BZRK, a secret organization that uses biological nano technology to fight for the free will of humanity. Noah's brother went insane and no one knows why. When he is recruited by BZRK, Noah understands the stakes of these micro battles. This isn't just about free will, it is about maintaining ones sanity. Together Noah and Sadie have to bring down Bug man and the Anderson Twins who would enslave humanity, one human mind at a time.

As with most sci-fi stories, the idea of the story is solid. Two factions, using nano technology fight for the fate of humanity inside the mind. Tiny, microscopic robots literally battle one another behind a persons eye or within their brain. How terrifying to know that someone could crawl into your mind and rewire you. The problem is, that it has been done before and much better. The stakes are always the same, but in Brain Jack by Brian Faulkner where humans are being turned into mindless robots, the stakes felt much more immediate and possible. Because of the nature of the book, I was never sure if either group could pull off a takeover or take down and so the threat never felt immediate. Far too much micro to ever get a sense of the macro. Even in Feed by M.T. Anderson or Starters by Lissa Price, even the loss of one life felt so much bigger than in BZRK.

This may be in large part because of the characters. In the beginning, Sadie seemed like a great character, rich, spunky, and fit to take over her father's business, she is a perfect heroin. The tragic plane crash that nearly kills her only deepens the readers desire to learn more about her. When we meet Noah, we really feel for him and are curious as to how his brother has gone insane. Great character setup that sadly went nowhere. I never felt like I got to know Sadie or Noah. Their sexual liaisons aside, both felt flat and reactionary in a world that was anything but. Instead, Grant felt it necessary that we get into the heads of the bad guys. I learned more about Bug Man, understood his motivations, witnessed him interacting with his family and girlfriend and frankly, it was like being inside the mind of a cold blooded murderer. Every time the story returned to Bug Man or his cohorts I grew increasingly disgusted and confused. Did the author want me to think these guys were good? Why did we keep returning to them? Why were these characters more fleshed out than the heroes of the story?

I can promise you this though, should you read this book, you will never look at an eyeball or a flea in the same way again. With disturbing clarity, Grant describes the microscopic in detail. Eyelashes become trees. A bead of sweat, a giant pool. A fingernail, a deadly instrument. But once again, I grew confused. The characters continually speak about the microscopic world as if it is the most terrifying thing one could ever see. That by simply seeing these things, one is risking their own sanity. Yet, doctors and scientists, people who Grant probably relied heavily on for his research, look at these things all the time. They don't go mad from looking at hair follicles or fleas or pores. The detail was amazing, but personally I think it would be very cool to see things on the micro. It isn't the brain they have to be afraid of after all, it's the other guys with nano-bots that could be waiting inside.

Last thing and personally I think this one is huge, I found the description and use of conjoined twins in this book to be absolutely appalling. It is a terrible thing for a writer to fall into the trap of using disability, scarring, or deformity to show how a person is "bad" on the inside. The Anderson Twins, a pair of conjoined twins, are described with the words grotesque, repulsive, horrifying, a science experiment gone wrong, and terrible to look at among other things. But their disability is in no way a reason why they do what they do, nor is it a product of what they have done. If this is how they were born, why does every character describe them in such terms that you would think these two men were the ugliest "things" to ever be born. I seriously doubt if Grant feels this way about conjoined twins, but it does nothing for people with this kind of a disability to not only portray them as evil, but to then use such descriptive language to inform young readers about how hideous their disability really is.

All in all, an interesting concept bogged down with far too many ill-drawn characters and micro descriptions that are beautiful and obnoxious all in the same breath.

Disney in Shadow Book Review

Disney in Shadows (Kingdom Keepers #3) by Ridley Pearson

In this third installment of the Kingdom Keepers, Finn, Philby, Willa, Charlene, and Maybeck are once again back in the parks, this time in search of Wayne who has gone missing. Following clues that are sent to Jez through visions, they, along with Jez and Amanda are led to Disney's Hollywood Studios and Epcot. Once again, the Kingdom Keepers come face to face with Maleficent and grow closer to one another.

This series, although not terrible, is one giant commercial for Disneyworld. Ridley Pearson likes to insert clues to little known places throughout the parks so that, should his young readers visit the parks, they can then visit all the places that were in the books. I imagine he walks through the park with a pad of paper and writes down on the various places and then tries to insert them all into the book.

That is exactly how this book felt. Full of cryptograms and amalgous clues that often didn't make sense, I often wondered how these kids were coming up with the answers to these obscure clues. They have a date and a clue, "A place where stars don't go up." Television. Therefore, they should watch what is airing on the Disney channel that day. Dumbo. Dumbo is about what? Love, friendship, the circus? The circus...or like a carousel. A carousel like Cinderella's...or possibly an old mural painted on a wall. Which leads them one step closer to Wayne. 

What? How did a date and TV lead them to a mural?

To be fair, it turns out that the misinterpreted the clue and were wrong, but they got to the right place in the end, so it was all okay. Considering that this mystery is the majority of the plot though, it was very frustrating.

I was also often confused by the "rules" of the world. When and how can the kids bring things with them when they fall asleep? Why do drugs affect the kids if they can't feel anything from their sleeping bodies? Why do some of the parents think that this DHI stuff is like magic when it is so obviously science?

Pearson does try to play around with characterization this go around, but as per usual Finn is the only character with any real depth, and I wouldn't exactly call him an ocean.

Maybe book four will be better?

Fantastic Qualifications of a Magical Variety

"Myths and mythology weren't to give meaning to life but to give us an experience of life, an experience of vitality in being alive."                                -Joseph Campbell

When you think of fantasy, what springs to mind? Elves, orcs, fairies, vampires? Perhaps a certain broom flying wizard? Is it archaic language that sounds like the words were lifted from the King James Bible? Perhaps an epic quest for a magical stone?

Here's the thing, the thing I think some writers, especially those who don't understand fantasy, don't get. There are no rules in fantasy. Ursula LeGuin describes fantasy as, "A journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you." And what amazing journey's fantasy authors have been taking us on.

Fantasy has been around for as long as humanity. With the Epic of Gilgamesh, we have been searching for meaning, pushing the boundaries of our imagination. The Odyssey, Divine Comedy, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Princess and the Goblin, and Grimm's Fairy Tales make up many of the early fantasy traditions. As we moved into the 19th Century authors became more inventive creating more than just a quest-like journey or morality tale to scare young children into behaving. Rudyard Kipling had talking animals, Edgar Rice Burroughs dabbled in both science fiction and fantasy, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne was the father of what we now consider steampunk. And all of these writers have opened the door for modern fantasy writers, particularly children's writers like Tamora Pierce, Lloyd Alexander, J.K. Rowling, Megan Whalen Turner, Natalie Babbitt, and Rick Riordan.

Sure there are tropes as with any kind of storytelling. Most popular currently is a cataclysmic disaster that shatters the world, often sending civilization into a medieval existence. Although I do differentiate between sci-fi and genre, I understand that others do not, and so this would probably encompass dystopian sci-fi for some readers. Tied to the disaster stories are the advanced technology subgenre. Examples would be City of Ember and Artemis Fowl.

Perhaps my least favorite trope is the ancient language with thee and thou and shall nots, because you can't have a fantasy medieval like world if they don't sound like they are from the middle ages, right? Wrong. Fantasy, even high fantasy, doesn't need old language especially considering these are by definition, fantasy world. They can talk any way they want. Beka Cooper by Tamora Pierce proves that an author can create their own dialect and cadence. Holly Black often has worlds full of fairies and magic and I don't recall a single 'doest thou' in her novels. 

Of course, there is a whole cast of fantasy characters to choose from. Zombies, vampires, wherewolves, fairies, nyads, dryads, elves, dwarves, orcs, unicorns, goblins, mages, priests, knights, sorcerers.

Personally, I don't mind when fantasy novels have these elements, but the point is, they don't have to have any of these things. 

The Thief is set in a fantasy world that has no magic, only old gods, who may or may not be helping those in need. The contemporary, The Secret Tree hinted at magic, but at no point was any displayed. Tuck Everlasting featured a family that never dies but the true magic lies in the journey and not immortality. Kneebone Boy felt magical for almost the entire book, but in the end, was a created fantasy by others, featuring no fantasy elements, although there was a castle. Fantasy can be portals, medieval worlds, urban, and fairy tales. It can have wise old wizards or be completely devoid of anyone wise. 

Recently, I finished a book by an author that shall not be named who simply did not understand what fantasy is. This author didn't understand that sometimes magic is just a feeling, created within the journey. When a good author pushes the boundaries of imagination, ignoring the stereotypes of whatever genre they are writing, the freedom to create will take the story from fantasy to something fantastic. Taking both the reader and the writer on a journey that in Ursula LeGuin's words, "will change you."

Beka Cooper Bloodhound Book Review

Beka Cooper: Bloodhound by Tamora Pierce

Beka Cooper has been a full Dog--a member of the Provost's Guard--for just over five months. When counterfeit silver coins begin turning up in shops all over the city, merchants begin raising their prices. Coupled with a bad grain harvest and a hard winter coming and Beka knows things are going to get bad in the city of Corus. Following her nose, Beka, her four-legged dog Achoo, and her partner Clary Goodwin head to Port Caynn on the tails of those who would ruin the kingdom. No mission is ever without its perils and Beka finds that she must protect her life and her heart.

With every mention of Beka's name, I long for George Cooper and Alanna and all the wonderful characters from Pierce's Lioness Rampant series. Not that Beka isn't an interesting character, but it does feel like she is lacking in the complexity both in character and plot that made Alanna so interesting. We are given such small snippets of Beka's life, a few weeks at a time, and I want to believe that Beka is made for greater things than simply being a Dog, otherwise why am I reading this series? It isn't enough that she is George Cooper's many greats grandmother. She must be more.

This second installment left me wanting more. More characters. Higher stakes. And less Beka. Yes, that's right. Less Beka. The entire book is Beka's thoughts, achievements, experiences, moments. Her mistakes are rare, and even when she makes them, things always come out right in the end. The other characters took such a backseat position that I found myself wandering, yearning for richer secondary characters with more substance. The most prevalent secondary character was Beka's scent hound, Achoo. An important part of the book to be sure, but not much characterization in a dog that can't talk. I was also sorely disappointed in the "relationship" that Beka forms with Dale. He quickly became the thing that made her tingle, but in the end I felt like he treated her like one of his tarts and strong tenacious Beka, let him.

On the bright side, the mystery was intense and although counterfeiting is a big deal, the problem of a corrupt Provost and guard almost gets Beka killed. That said, the pacing always felt off-kilter and the action stretched on and on in a way that made it impossible for readers not to guess the twists and turns. Tamora is a brilliant world builder, but Beka's world was just too small for me.

Liar & Spy Book Review

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

When Georges' family falls on hard times, they move from their nice home to a Brooklyn apartment. There he meets Safer, a twelve-year old coffee addicted spy and Georges is his newest recruit. Their current mission, a neighbor named Mr. X, who may or may not be a serial killer, causes Georges to wonder about his new friend and lengths he is willing to go to be true to himself.

To be perfectly honest, I wasn't a huge fan of Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me as the minute she mentioned A Wrinkle in Time, I automatically guessed it was a time travel story and thus the entire book fell apart for me. That said, I give every story it's fair shake even if Liar & Spy did sound like a modern re-telling of Harriet the Spy.

For the first 120 pages or so, that is how it read too. A predictable middle grade spy novel about two kids who have some eccentricities to be sure, but in a way that didn't seem too outside the norm. And then, in two pages, the author revealed a whole new depth to her story that made me loudly exclaim, "Wow." To which, my boyfriend asked me what was going on and I had to summarize the entire book in order for him to understand the nuances of a book that just a minute before I had been hum drum about.

This is not a spy novel. This is the story of a boy in the middle of an existential crisis. It is about phobias and games, bullies, illness, job loss, and the little dots that make up the big picture that is us. Stead crafts a beautiful novel, whose only flaw may be that young readers might not make it to the end to discover that beautiful moment as there isn't a whole lot of action in the story. Perhaps one for my end of the year list: Book that adults like more than kids.

A Hero for WondLa Book Review

A Hero for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi

Eva Nine grew up in an underground sanctuary, raised by her robot Muthr (multi-utility task helper robot) having never seen another human being before. At the end of The Search for WondLa, Eva and her friend Rovender Kitt meet a boy named Hailey who hails from New Attica, an entire colony full of humans  who live together in peace and harmony.

But New Attica is not the Utopian paradise she was promised. The people know nothing of Orbona or the aliens who have made it home. They questions nothing and their leader is clearly bent on reclaiming this world for the humans.

Launching from where the last book left off, A Hero for WondLa is just as action packed as the last installment. DiTerlizzi has created a sci-fi world that feels like a classic fairy tale with talking trees and flying warships. It is a world that feels like it should be home and yet it is not and it was easy to relate to both Eva, a new creature for a new world, and the humans who are so desperately trying to hold onto the old one. I absolutely love to see science fiction for middle grade readers because it was a book like this one that made me fall in love with the genre, a love affair that has continued to this day.

Caught within the pages are DiTerlizzi's beautiful illustrations, all tinted with blue in this sequel. Like any good picture book, the illustrations enhance the story, but at no point did they feel like a substitute for good storytelling.

The stakes are getting bigger with each book, more questions are answered, and for Eva this is a coming of age story like none other, with changes that are both metaphorical and physical. A gem of a sci-fi that isn't afraid to allow its readers to think. I cannot wait for the third installment.

Seraphina Book Review

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Despite a four decade old peace treaty between human and dragon kind, the kingdom of Goredd is rife with distrust and prejudice. Dragons have the ability to fold themselves into human shape, but have strict laws regarding how they display emotion and other human like traits. In turn the humans are deeply discriminatory towards dragons.

Trapped between both these world is Seraphina Dombegh, a unusually talented musician, and self-enforced loner. Seraphina is unwittingly drawn into a plot, along with the Queen's guardsman, that could very well destroy the truce between the two nations. Struggling to keep a terrible secret, Seraphina searches for a way to solve the mystery of a dead royal before the treaties fortieth anniversary.

Seraphina is a rich and intellectual world, with deep thoughts regarding love, music, art, religion, and philosophy. The author seems to be asking the reader with profound implications, What does it mean to be human? What must happen for a person t accept themselves? Should the prejudices of others affect how we see ourselves?

Seraphina is a deliciously complex character. Although she has been told to keep a low-profile, her curiosity and keen understanding of both dragons and humans along with a stubborn crankiness and bravery always seem to draw her into situations that catch the attention of her superiors.

The secondary characters are well-drawn as well, with the truth seeking and handsome Prince Lucian and his fiancee Princess Glisselda. These two, despite their differences were perfect foils for Seraphina. Lucian has just enough charm without feeling false. Princess Glisselda is bubbly and bright, but also intelligent and intent on protecting her kingdom. Add to these cast of characters is Seraphinas cantankerous father, her diplomatic dragon tutor, acrobats, evil dragons, and deceitful Earls.

Despite the dark plots and twists, Seraphina reads more like a mystery than an epic fantasy though. The dragon confrontations are never as scary as in The Hobbit or Eragon, and until the very end the stakes never felt as big, but that didn't change its impact or its beauty.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth Book Review

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

Mary lives in a world overrun by the Unconsecrated. Tucked away in her village, Mary lives a life of expectation, making plans on who she will marry and dreaming of the ocean. Then, when her mother is bitten and becomes one of the Unconsecrated, Mary's world is thrown upside down. Forced to live with the Sisterhood, a religious order of sisters whose secrets seem impregnable. Then Mary sees an outsider, proof that there is life outside her small village in the midst of Unconsecrated. But the outsider is only the beginning and when the fences are breached, Mary escapes into the Forest of Hands and Teeth desperate to find others and herself.

It's a great premise. Hundreds of years in the future humans struggle to survive amidst millions of zombies who never die. Oceans, cities, skyscrapers are barely believed stories passed down from generation to generation. A secret order of Sisters knows things that they never share with anyone including the fact that there are others out there.

Too bad Mary was the most irrational, impulsive, selfish, and stupid character I have ever met. In fact, I would go as far as saying that Mary is directly responsible for the deaths of most of her friends, if not her entire village due to her selfishness. She knows of the outsider Gabrielle, but never thinks to help the girl even though the sisterhood has proven that they are not above killing in order to keep their secrets. Mary only wishes to speak to Gabrielle so the girl can tell her about her beloved ocean. When Mary does decide to look for Gabriel, it is too late for the girl who has become one of the undead.

Now may be the time to mention the strange love triangle, if it can be called that. Follow this if you can: Mary likes Travis, but Travis is set to marry her best friend Cass. So Mary is all set to marry Harry, Travis' brother, but when her mother is bitten, Harry never comes for her and Mary is forced to join the Sisterhood because her brother refuses to take her in. While there, Travis hurts himself and Mary quickly falls in love with him. But Travis doesn't come for her either. Then, surprise, Harry says he will marry her, but Mary hates him for it, because she is really in love with Travis. And then things get all weird because Harry really likes Cass and for reasons unknown will not marry her. I mean how hard would it be for these two guys to just switch girls, girls the supposedly love, and be done with it?

Of course, the biggest issue with all of this is that Mary lacks communication skills. She would make a terrible wife because she always feels the need to keep secrets from everyone. REALLY IMPORTANT SECRETS! Secrets that could save everyone's life. Yet, Mary spends most of her time lamenting about her life, her love of Travis (which is really just an infatuation tied together with some lust), and her ocean. Mary is more of an enemy than any zombie.

This would actually make an interesting character if that was what the author was meaning to do, but I don't think that is the case here. We are supposed to empathize with Mary, feel her pain, throb with her lusts, and understand her. Instead, I was screaming at the character, quite literally yelling out loud, "You are so selfish. You deserve to be bitten by zombies."