Disappointing January Reads

14 01 2014

Zombie Blondes (by Brian James)

Well this was a bunch of no-sense-making nonsense. Zombie Blondes wants to be a successful marriage between the zombie & the high school YA novel, but it is done so amateurishly that after about 75 pages I went straight into speed-read mode. Hannah moves around a lot, because of her dad’s past. This means she’s *always* the new kid in town, and this time she arrives in “a very special town”, Maplecrest, with “very special” cheerleaders…There’s very little that worked for the cat in this book. Really bland characters, un(der)developed plot, shoddy ending which is not ominous *at all*, but a total cop out. It all amounted to a big fact blah! And seriously: Zombie Cheerleaders… don’t tell me you couldn’t have done anything more interesting with that??? I really do not want to waste any more time than I already have on this one.

zombieblondes

1.5 stars

Eve & Adam (by Michael Grant and Katherine Applegate)

Now I love me some Michael Grant. I devoured the Gone series for its sheer fun and fantastically over the top plotlines and the slew of interesting and sometimes slightly psychotic character. Eve & Adam, however, doesn’t have any of that. Instead, it’s a total waste of talent. Just like with Zombie Blondes, I got a plot that just DOES NOT MAKE SENSE. Perfect creatures (cloning and whatnot), instaloves, instahealing, UberBitch moms, BlandyMcBland protagonists. There’s absolutely nothing ‘refreshing’ or ‘groundbreaking’ about the plot at all, it’s all so superficial and everything in this book has been done millions of times and over and over again. Why bother doing it again? And worse at that? Eve & Adam is a book that shows what happens when two writers aren’t even trying… Seriously, is this just me? Ugh.

eveadam

1.5 stars

Next up: something else: Scowler (by Daniel Kraus)

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December 2013 Reads (Not A List Yet! Ha!)

11 12 2013

Fall for Anything (by Courtney Summers)

fallforanythingAh, for once a Courtney Summers book the cat clicked with. In uncharacteristic Summers fashion, the protagonist of Fall for Anything, Eddie Reeves is fragile from the get-go. Eddie’s father (a once famous within certain circles photographer) committed suicide, leaving her and her mother guessing about the reasons and dealing with the grief. And that grief is what is now consuming Eddie and all the relationships she has: the not-relationship with her mother, the one with best friend Milo, and the one with the mysterious (and creepy) Culler Evans, her father’s (only) ‘student’. The whole grieving process – which almost takes on a whodunit pattern – is described in all its devastating rawness: confusion, guilt, betrayal, anger, depression, it’s all there, and Summers is a good writer, so yeah, I actually got this one…

4 stars

Legend (by Marie Lu)

legendMarie Lu’s Legend trilogy is one that I’ve had for a long time, but due to dystopia-fatigue, I never quite got around to reading it. Set in Los Angeles in the Republic of America in the year 2130, Legend is told alternately from Day and June’s point of view. Day is the 15-year-old boy who, after he failed his Trial at age 10, went underground, wreaking havoc on the Republic. June, on the other hand, scored the only perfect 1500 score on her Trial and has been the Republic’s golden child ever since. Obviously their paths cross. Legend is not revolutionary in any way, ahs *all* of the stock tropes but in light version, the storyline is predictable, the characters are almost stereotypical, but the action is paced throughout the book quite evenly and the writing is engaging enough to keep you going. It’s a ‘fun’, no-nonsense ditty while it lasts. It’s also the ideal book to give to reluctant readers: not too long, not too complicated, some action, some romance, … so again, yeah, I get the appeal, but you know…dystopian fatigue and all that…

3 stars





More Than This (by Patrick Ness)

5 12 2013

morethanthis1The Chaos Walking Trilogy and A Monster Calls set the standard pretty high, in several ways.  In terms of story, Chaos Walking, for instance, was always more than “just” a sci-fi story. Likewise, A Monster Calls is more than “just” a story about grief and loss. Patrick Ness always has a knack of interweaving layers of meaning (like Chaos Walking also explores different types of “society” and what community could mean to a person) into his stories, which is probably one of the main reasons why his books have had so much cross-over appeal.  Patrick Ness is a genre-bender, and a great one at that. Also, he clearly understands that reading can be more than just words on a page. The visual and the aural are definitely important as well. Or how could you explain the gorgeous illustrations in A Monster Calls (which granted, he didn’t make, but still… they add to the ‘reading experience’)? Or the brilliant idea of rendering the Noise in the way that it is shown in the trilogy, Todd’s “voice”, which is totally his own, phonetics and all…  Those four books are definitely on a whole different level of brilliance… and then there’s More Than This.

I do not want to go into the story of More Than This too much, because it is definitely a book you want to go into knowing as little as possible. I will give away, though, that it’s about a boy, Seth, who wakes up, naked and alone, outside of the English house he grew up in (Seth moved to America with his family after a rather traumatic experience when he was about 8). The entire first part of the book (about 150 pages) is all about Seth ‘discovering’ the world he has woken up in. There’s only Seth. This leads the reader onto a certain path… but then, this path is bent, and other characters and a different story that is at first seemingly completely unrelated unfolds. What that story is, well, you should read that yourself. The book is about 500 pages, but it’s definitely a page-turner, because Ness asks question after question, and it’s a mystery and an adventure all in one too and after the initial 150 pages, there are 2 other great characters (Tomasz and Regine), and you’ll be dying to know the answers to all the questions Seth also has…

But, my main questions has to be: did More Than This live up to its predecessors? Well, not quite, I think. And I have some really petty reasons, which have *nothing whatsoever* to do with the writing skills of Patrick Ness and everything with my own expectations – because we have been so spoiled in that department with Patrick Ness’s books, of course! I talked about the visual and the aural before, and I think that both of these aspects (especially the visual) could have been even more prominent in More Than This. Granted, the cover is really something, but I think that the different narratives in the book could have been ‘presented’ in a different way as well. For instance, Seth’s flashbacks. To me the flashbacks are the more interesting parts of this book, and highlighting this in some way (besides presenting them in italics) would have been a nice touch … also in light of what they actually mean in the story as a whole (and to Seth). This is *not* just a book about “a different world”, or a straight up sci-fi story (although there are many ‘familiar’ sci-fi elements in the book, from The Matrix to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, yeah, this is some weird shit). It’s a book about “being” and what constitutes “a life”. As such, the flashback are quintessential. So, yeah, I know, petty… but I think that in light of the existential mind-fuck that’s going on here, things might have benefited from an extra ‘visual’ layer.

morethanthis2

Then secondly, I also don’t think that More Than This lives up to its predecessors in terms of “ a complete story”. Yes, there are many layers, yes, it’s a great ride, but in the end, I was still waiting for … something more, something that never came. The intriguing (open) ending, obviously, makes you wonder. Is this it? Lots of questions and hardly any answers? Is this what it boils down to in the end? Or is there something more for Seth? Is there another book for the reader? I honestly don’t know if I want that, but I know I wanted “something” after that last page.

In any case, this book is an existential mind-fuck if nothing else. And Patrick Ness is still one of the most original and daring voices in YA these days.  Not wanting to be pinned down, writing books that do not want or need to be put into that one box. He runs with it, people. That’s what the cat wants in a writer: guts.





Allegiant (by Veronica Roth)

4 12 2013

allegiantHow hard it is for *all* the books in a series to kick ass (and I’m not even talking about middle-book syndrome) is proven once again with Veronica Roth’s Allegiance. Divergent did kick some monumental butt, if you’re into no-thinking-too-hard-fun-entertainment-dystopian-adventure: it had a fierce protagonist in Tris, a fairly exciting love interest with Four/Tobias, it had action and adventure galore and the drive of the characters themselves was easily matched by the excellent pacing of the book. Divergent: SOOOO much fun! Insurgent, on the other hand, already totally disappointed in the pacing department: lots of running around, doing something, running around again, doing something again, all with very little focus. Result? A boring follow-up.

Allegiant, however, is even worse. Not only is the pacing in this book completely off – why have a 529-page book I wonder, when so little really matters or advances the plot significantly? – but what made the characters so kick ass to begin with, is completely undone by 2 things:

First, the weird choice to have a dual narrative all of a sudden: Tris and Tobias. Dual narratives are tricky, especially in the hands of an inexperienced (or not so gifted?) writer. The trick is to make sure that the voice of the narrators differs considerably enough so as to persuade the reader that, yes, this is another character seeing and experiencing things. That is not the case here. There is virtually nothing that distinguishes the voices of Tris and Tobias. I had to check repeatedly…who am I reading here? Never a good sign…  Also, the dual narrative thing? Totally spoils your Big Ending, duh!

Second, undercutting the elements that made your main characters so kick ass in the first place. Seriously, Tobias? Wuss much? WTF is going on here?  Does he even know what he wants? And Tris? OK, I get the stubborn bit of her character, ‘cause that’s what she does, but here we get petty jealousy behavior, and when she’s called on it (by Tobias), she basically shuts him out “you’re wrong, I’m right, accept it”. Then 2 minutes later, it’s kiss and make up time? Uhm.. yeah, way to go. Also, seriously, Tris: Little Miss Perfect much?  Talk about one-dimensionality!

Also, this is supposed to be the conclusion to a series, right? So why on earth would you want to drag things out and introduce completely new elements (the whole genetics things, which is a) too ridiculously explained to make it believable, b) too much of a bother to explain here anyway), new characters who contribute NOTHING to the overall scheme of things (kill’em off? Oh, you did? See me care…) I mean, even the whole ‘Allegiant’-thing is not even what this book was about?  Really? Why would this then be the title of your book? Seriously, why not just focus on… oh, I don’t know: the conflict between the factions and the factionless? I get it…it totally makes more sense to introduce a new conflict between Genetically Pure and Genetically Damaged…. :::sigh:::…

And the plotholes, OMFG, they are the size of Chris Carter’s ego! But more than just having plotholes, in hindsight, the plot and the worldbuilding was always so convoluted that it’s no surprise Roth got trapped in it herself. Does any of what happened in this book even make sense? I mean, look at it objectively. Do the math…or the science, whatever…

So no, it’s not the ending that makes this a weak book (I didn’t even care at that point, no emotions at all with regards to The Big Surprise). It’s all of the above: perspective, pacing, character err… assassination, plotholes. Maybe with Allegiant, the whole “dystopian hype” has finally died too… One can always wonder. Oh, that’s right, Hollywood first needs to milk the cashcow for another movie or 3… who knows, maybe they’ll also split this book in two like they’re doing with Mockingjay… :::insert massive eyeroll here:::.





The Giver (by Lois Lowry)

8 10 2013

The_Giver_CoverMore than 25 years after its initial publication, Lois Lowry’s The Giver still holds up as a decent initiation into dystopian MG or YA fiction. However, at the same time, it seems more of an ‘important work’ than a ‘great work’.

There’s no denying that Lowry’s vision in The Giver is still contemporary. The string of dystopian YA novels – Hunger Games, Divergent, to name just the two most obvious series – that has been so incredibly popular with teens in the last so many years proves this. But the book itself – as a standalone, that is – doesn’t really feel very ‘completed’. There’s a more than sufficient build up in the book, fairly slow even, as Lowry introduces her readers to most aspects of the Community and its rules as a rationalization of things to come. Once Jonas meets the Giver, though, the book rushes towards a conclusion, which in and of itself is meaningful (though obviously to be taken with a big grain of symbolism), but I can’t shake the impression that there was more to be done with this book.  It’s true that the picture that is painted here is very black and white (no pun intended, btw), and doesn’t really allow for many shades of grey or color… despite the many issues that are raised! There’s some blatant moralizing going on in this book too, which obviously needs to be put in a certain context, which Lowry in this book does not really provide (maybe she does that in the sequels?).

Anyway, undoubtedly, this is an important book: a book that many a contemporary dystopian MG or YA book (series) shows allegiance to in some way. It may have been newish in 1993 – although Orwell wrote much of the same in his 1984 (in 1949!), obviously – but as far as dystopian MG/YA novels go, there are series out now that far surpass Lowry’s The Giver!





The Testing (by Joelle Charbonneau)

11 09 2013

testingOK, so let’s start by stating the obvious:  Yes, this book is a blatant rip-off of The Hunger Games!

There, got that off my chest.

Now, let’s focus on the book itself, OK?

16-year-old Cia Vale is from the Five Lakes Colony and about to graduate and become an adult. Every year at graduation, representatives of Tosu City (the capital) go to the colonies to select those graduates they deem worthy to start the Testing, a severe ‘screening process’ to determine who will be admitted to the University and to ultimately become leaders of the country to restore the war stricken colonies and revitalize the country. Along with four others from her colony, Cia is chosen to compete in the Testing, something she is very excited about. Especially her father, though, who went through the Testing years ago himself, isn’t all that enthusiastic. The day before Cia leaves, he tells her he does not have any memories of the selection process itself, but is still haunted by nightmares of it. He pleads her to trust no one and to be very careful because the competition will be fierce!

Once Cia is in Tosu City, the first couple of tests seem innocent enough. They are more like general knowledge exams. However, as the testing progresses, a more sinister and deadly side becomes apparent. Cia’s roommate ends up committing suicide, for instance. And not completing certain tests results in pain or even death for some of the candidates…

Once the first 3 phases of the Testing are complete and (obviously) Cia and her love interest Tomas (of course there’s a love interest) are still part of it all, the part of the book that is so very Hunger Games-y starts. The candidates are dropped off into what’s left of Chicago (although they are not supposed to know that it’s Chicago), basically a vast post-apocalyptic wilderness. This part of the Testing is all about the candidates finding a way back to Tosu City… with whatever means necessary to get there. You can imagine what happens: it’s Battle Royale, Hunger Games, and every other book or movie in which a sort of race until only one (or more, depending on the game’s rules) winner is found, all over again. If you can find a way to get over the derivative nature of this scenario then you’ll see that there’s quite a bit of suspense going on in this book.

It’s a page turner for sure, and honestly? This book? A total blessing for the hundreds of reluctant readers that come into my school library every year! I will have no problem whatsoever to sell this book to them. I’ll mention Hunger Games (because you know, they only come into a library – or a bookstore – to get “that” book, the book that everyone is reading), they’ll look at the cover (which is also an almost exact copy of the HG), they might read the blurb (or they’ll ask me what it’s about) and they’ll get it, and they’ll be happy to have found an easy read, with a bit of suspense, that has a dash of romance, and that didn’t absolutely bore them to death.

That being said, obviously The Testing has flaws, and unoriginality is only one of them (not just HG, but there’s quite a bit of Divergent here too…). Cia is not the most interesting of characters.  She is definitely your stereotypical dystopian heroine with No Actual Apparent Character Flaws Besides Being Too Trusting. She’s nice, she’s smart, she’s resourceful… and ultimately also quite boring. Then, I want to know more about the Seven Stages of War and the world in which Cia lives: what are the colonies all about? There a lot of things mentioned that seem relevant (like the cameras), but that ultimately don’t really serve a purpose. And there’s also a lot of running around and then more running around, and then some encounters and some more running… so… I guess the writer and editors could have made things a lot more compact to add to the tension even more. And finally, I wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about some of the writing. You know how you sometimes spot ‘a thing’ and it bugs you and then you just see it everywhere? Well, here I had it with half-sentences… Or (relative) subclauses, to be more precise. Chardonneau kind of likes them a lot. Which is annoying. When that happens a lot…. See there what I did? That’s what I’m talking about.

I do realize that as a writer you don’t write in a vacuum. Joelle Charbonneau doesn’t, but Suzanne Collins didn’t either. Also,  genre fiction would not exist if they did. But neither does a reader read in a vacuum, so obviously the many voices of “this book is a total fake and a rip off of the Hunger Games” will be as strong as “I loved this book to bits because it reminded me so much of the Hunger Games”.

Once again, The Testing is hardly original: it “borrows” from all over the dystopian YA market, the writing is a bit wobbly and the main character is not that interesting…. and yet…. It reads like a friggin’ train and yep, I’ll read the sequel…





5 Graphic Novels read in July 2013

25 07 2013

gn1-072013First Second is a blessing for teachers. They publish graphic novels for a very mixed audience, from younger kids to adults, on a variety of topics, from photo-journalism inspired graphic work to graphic novels about ghosts or second generation Chinese immigrants… Add to that that they have supplied teachers with quite a lot of lesson plans, activities and discussion questions for some of their most famous publications, and you have yourselves a real blessing for teachers with reluctant readers in their classes… and reluctant readers… there’s plenty of those around. This year, the cat had a 16-year-old boy who, for the first time ever probably, read all graphic novels for his required reading, 3 of which were First Second publications , and all of which he genuinely liked.

I’ll be very happy to introduce him and kids like him to three other First Second publications I recently acquired. They all three have a bit of a supernatural slant too, which is just what a lot of these kids are looking for, what with the popularity of The Walking Dead and all. First there is Braibraincampn Camp, a collaborative effort of Susan Kim & Laurence Klavan (text) and Faith Erin Hicks (artwork). Brain Camp is the story of 2 “underachievers”, Jenna and Lucas, who are sent to a very special summer camp, Camp Fielding. Once there, weird stuff is going on, with weird food and missing cabin mates. Turns out the food is what is used to subdue the kids at Camp Fielding before they are  inoculated with some serum that causes an alien (which weirdly looks like an evil chicken!) to grow inside their bodies. Story-wise, this didn’t really stand out for me, but this is one book you have to read because of the great talent of Faith Erin Hicks who did the artwork.

And she proves what a great visual artist she is in her solo work Friends with Boys. Unlike Brain Camp, this one is in black and white, which somehow works a lot better for her style of drawing than the colored imagesfwb of Brain Camp. Maggie has been homeschooled for a long time. But now that her mother  has left the family, she has to go to high school for the first time. She hasn’t really had any friends before besides her brothers, and because there are 2 other kids there, Lucy and Alistair, who also seem to eat their lunch alone, they end up teaming up.  Huge bonus here, besides the exquisite artwork, is Maggie as a heroine coming into the world by way of the high school experience. A nice touch was when Maggie claimed she wasn’t really into typically girl stuff growing up with all those brothers, but loved kick ass heroines like Ripley from Alien. There’s a supernatural element in this story too, since Maggie is able to see the ghost of a woman. This part of the story, though, isn’t properly developed…

The 3rd First Second publication is Life Sucks, another collaborative effort, this time by Jessica Abel, Gabe Soria and Warren Pleece. This time around the supernatural creatures are vampires, but we’re not really talking about those gothic-romantic Anne Rice vampire-types, nope… this time around, we get vampire Dave who works the night shift at the Last Stop corner store and his undead life literally sucks (no pun intended). Dave’s master, who’s also his boss is Radu (or Lord Arisztidescu), an immigrant vampire who has discovered the wonders of capitalism in the USA, and can’t stand lazy-ass no-good American vampires who take multiple lifesuckspaid breaks… Dave is in love with a mortal girl, Rosa a Goth who likes poseurs in fancy black capes and fake pointy teeth, which may or may not have been made by the same guy who did the fangs in Buffy. Dave is also a “vegetarian” and for a while there it looks like he might get somewhere with Rosa, until Wes, his vampire “brother” , a surfer vamp starts to get interested in Rosa too.  Life Sucks is definitely one fun vampire story, with lots of winks and nods to other vampire stories, and some nice critical touches. This one will make you forget about all those mediocre vampire stories before you can say Bite Me!

Lost at Sea is something complete different from the three First Second publications. It’s the first published graphic novel of nerd hero Bryan Lee O’Malley, who’s obviously known for his Scott Pilgrim series.  Lost at Sea centers on Raleigh, an 18-year-old girl who claims she has no soul: it was stolen by a cat. Now, that is something the cat can get behind, of course, but despite this feline premise and the really deceptively simple yet lovely art by O’Malley, the story of Raleigh didn’t grip me as much as it should have. In essence, this is a stlostatseaory about a girl who pines for a boy and feels ‘lost’ without him. OK, there is lots more existential teen angst going on and there’s some bonding going on between Raleigh and the other teens on the road trip, but the angst and confusion of being a teen has been done more interestingly and more grippingly. The existential ennui didn’t really annoy me like it did in for instance this book right here, but the emo-stuff is still pretty tiring.

Last in line is G. Neri’s Yummy, the Last Days of a Southside Shorty, a documentary graphic novel, based on the true story of 11-year-old Robert “Yummy” Sa

yummy

ndifer, one of the many kids who were caught up in the gang violence of Chicago’s Southside in the 1990s. Yummy is basically

a re-telling of the story as it appeared in several  media sources (newspapers, Time Magazine), and the author claims that his intention was not to make any moral judgment about what Yummy did. Clearly, Yummy committed crimes, but circumstances make it hard to paint a black-and-white portrait: was Yummy (only) a villain, or was Yummy (also) a victim? Besides the poignant story of Yummy, the graphic artwork is equally gripping and will pull in even more readers. Yummy, the Last Days of a Southside Shorty is illustrated by Randy DuBurke and was also a Coretta Scott King Award Honor book in 2011. Recommended!

gn2-072013

  • Brain Camp: 3 stars
  • Friends with Boys: 3.5 stars
  • Life Sucks: 4 stars
  • Lost at Sea: 2.5 or 3 stars
  • Yummy, the Last Days of a Southside Shorty: 3.5 stars







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