Booknotized

A place to think, reflect, and talk (mostly to myself) about books I love…and a few that I don't.

Book Review: Bumped by Megan McCafferty February 13, 2012

Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release Date: April 26, 2011
Series: Duo (Thumped out April 24, 2012)
Age Group: Solid YA (strong, though not graphic, sexual content)
Genre: Post-apocalyptic
Pages: 336
Source: personal purchase – $.99 January Epic Reads, Kindle Edition
Rating Breakdown: Idea 3.5★; Execution 3★

★★★

Melody has her life all planned out—or, well, technically her parents do, but she’s ok with that. Really, who wouldn’t give their left ovary for a chance at a 6-figure signing bonus, college tuition, and a few moments with one of the most “fertilicious” sperm donors around? All she has to do is cook up a kid for the wealthy, childless Jaydens who’ve hired out her womb. Being a professional surrogate isn’t just the right thing to do, you know, for humanity and all—since the HPSV (human progressive sterility virus) started sterilizing everyone over 18. Without teen surrogates, humanity would go extinct in a matter of years. No, it’s also very hip—at least so say Melody’s parents, all the ads, and the people at Babies R U, who sell prosthetic “FunBumps” to get flat bellies in the mood. And, so says Melody, who was the first to turn pro at her school and make it OK for everyone else to capitalize on their most valuable assets…before they go bad, that is. Even though she has yet to get bumped (the Jayden’s have taken way too long selecting a boy toy), she’s still as excited as she was when this all began—isnt’ she?
 
Not if her twin sister, Harmony—who arrives from her sect’s compound in Goodside unannounced and unwanted—can help it. Harmony’s sole mission in life is to spread the Truth (or so she says), and that includes bringing Melody back from the brink of sinful disaster. Harmony certainly doesn’t intend to bump with anyone. No, sir. Why would anyone want to do a thing like that??
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[So, be forewarned: this book is all about sexuality, as you may well have guessed. Though there aren’t any overly graphic scenes, sex is nonetheless very present throughout. Teenage pregnancy is a topic of ambiguous debate, and neither protection nor abstinence is considered seriously, nor is any perspective really committed to at the end. Perhaps some of those topics will be fleshed out (no pun intended..,) in Book 2, but were not in Book 1.]
 
For the first few chapters, I found this book rather annoying. A combination of heavy, heavy use of unexplained, world-specific slang from Melody, a wad of over-the-top fundamentalism from Harmony, and slow progress resulting from the alternating perspectives caused me to put it down several times. However, about halfway through, I began to get used to the slang. Harmony either softened up or I accepted her as a complex character (and not just an allegorical subject molded specifically to be mocked). The plot finally picked up, and I was surprised to find myself enjoying the last 150-or-so pages.
 
As for the world, it’s rather thin and flat. Fleshed out predominantly through the slang, it doesn’t ever really differentiate itself from “today.” High schools are high schools; hospitals are hospitals. The only discernable nuances are the virus and an internalized blink-driven fusion of the Internet/Facebook called the “MiNet” (clever phonetics for “ME” net?) that we’ve seen 1000 times already (The Uglies…). However, the virus and its repercussions are intriguing enough to consider (for a more structured exploration of the same, see P. D. James’ novel and the movie loosely based on it, Children on Men). The idea of gametes and uterus being commodities, and young girls being pressured to have not only sex, but babies, by peers and parents is an interesting and complex conflict. With the number of women experiencing fertility problems today and signs of a sperm count decrease being linked to water-borne hormones from oral contraceptives, it’s not even that far-fetched an apocalypse.
 
However, I felt the book’s handling of the topic was a bit too ambiguous. The focus was put more on the freedom to keep one’s own child, with adoption treated as somewhat undesirable. (I understood that it was forced adoption that was being looked down upon, but awkward, superficial handling of the subject didn’t really leave room for other considerations.) Because of the social situation, romance isn’t a driving force of the novel, which was quite refreshing. But, again, like the idea of teen pregnancy, the concept of sex outside of affection wasn’t well handled—though you do get a basic hint that the narrator feels one should be a prerequisite for the other. In the end, the story becomes more of an answer to the question, What would happen if extremist views that sex should only be procreative took over? than an exploration of the potential fallout from a debilitating virus or a even a promotion of sex’s other uses.
 
In addition, the reasons why in vitro fertilization isn’t more widely used is not satisfactorily explained at all. This was one of my biggest gripes. As an obvious alternative that’s medically available today, not to give any real reason it isn’t being used in such a future as this is just sloppy world-building. Additionally, though young people are having rampant sex (orgies included) STDs are never even mentioned. A cure has been found for AIDS, the reader is informed at one point, but no other mention of the hazards of unprotected sex are discussed, which I found rather irresponsible, given the age of the characters and the book’s target audience.
 
Finally, the ending was soooo incredibly forced. It was an unexpected cliff-hanger that was obviously manufactured to extend the brand. I usually hate those types of endings. I didn’t so much this time, but that may be due to the fact that I was reading an e-book, and thus unable to get outraged that the remaining pages were far less than needed to wrap up the plot (until it was already upon me!). Or, it simply might have been because I was so ambivalent about the characters and their story in general.
 
That said, I can’t deny that I did enjoy it, though I can’t really pinpoint why. While I am not sure I can say exactly what was good about it (nor sure it’s worth spending the time to craft such thoughts…), I can say what wasn’t bad: It wasn’t full of awkward phrases or overly simplified lines—that is, it wasn’t badly written on a line-by-line basis. The characters weren’t utterly odious, annoying, or flat. The plot didn’t completely stagnate. The idea wasn’t totally cliché. It wasn’t a cotton-candy read since, thankfully, it did have some thought-provoking substance. Oh, and it wasn’t romance-driven. (Perhaps its best quality.)
 
I will surprise myself by giving it a thumbs up on the jargon, which so turned me off at the beginning. Though hard to get used to, it was quite clever. If as much time had been spent developing the themes and plot as was spent on the slang, it would have been much better book.
 
All in all, I would be flat out wrong if I said it didn’t have something. I’ve spent a lot of time lately contemplating the idea that we are often judging books by too-narrow standards. Where literary criticism doesn’t always turn up any merit (case and point: Harry Potter!), popular opinion belies qualities that the ivory tower is overlooking. It reminds me of the idea of differentiated learning styles—you know, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Whatever the literary equivalents of those are, this book has some of them. More on that topic to come.

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Book Review: Rotters by Daniel Kraus February 9, 2012

Publisher: Delacorte
Release Date: April 5, 2011
Series: stand-alone
Age Group: Solidly YA (warning: violence, gore, language, sexual content)
Pages: 464
Source: purchase
Genre: (macabre) Realistic Fiction (some say “horror” but there’s no real fear angle, so I don’t think that truly fits)
Rating Breakdown: Idea 4★; Execution 3.5★

 

★★★★

Joey lives a sheltered life. His mother fulfills all of his needs, and it seems Chicago fulfills all of hers—they never, ever leave the city. But when a tragic accident sends Joey to a remote town to live with his father, he finds he has a lot to learn about life…and death.

Before he knows it, he’s been drawn into a macabre underworld that thrives on decay: a secret society of graverobbers. And, as much as his own accumulating stench and his father’s mysterious reputation as a “garbage man” isolate him from the insular, closed-minded society of Bloughton High, they might eventually be the very things that draw him back in.

___________________________________________________________________
 
The pros…
 
This book starts with much promise. I didn’t realize just how long it had been since I had sunk my mental teeth into truly high-quality writing, until I finished the first few pages of this book. I was immediately hooked.
 
The style is what I can only describe as “piecemeal” in a most clever way—each sentence requiring more than your average bit of thought to process. Sometimes information precedes itself—if you know what I mean—and then unravels in the following sentences. For instance, my favorite passage in the book is the description of a girl—only, you’re halfway down the page before you fully understand what or whom it’s talking about. When it finally clicks, however, it’s a truly satisfying sensation.
 
Elements like that, combined with some truly unusual and refreshingly insightful details really put you behind the narrator’s eyes—you’re right there with him and it’s visceral. When it comes to the gory bits—and OH are there some gruesome passages!—it can be shocking, as well it should be. I won’t lie: I found myself on the subway closing my eyes and massaging my temples, or just gaping in horror at the page (and being gaped at in return by my fellow passengers) after happening unawares upon particular moments. And they are well placed for just such effect. Because not all of the related scenes contain descriptions of what Joey sees in the coffins, you never know when one will jump up and gum you to death. And, don’t be surprised if they stick to you for a while, either. (I confess, I eyed my roasted sweet potatoes warily last night when one of the mushier pieces smeared across the pan: unwillingly found myself thinking about how it had once been “alive”…)
 
If you’re like me, it will also be those lingering images that prompt a reconsideration of life, death, and mortality, and not Joey’s haphazard and drawn-out goose chase of the subject. As with the sweet potatoes, I can’t help but be constantly reminded of how dualistic life is. No matter how much we remove it from our everyday sight, package it in cellophane, and smother it with sweet-smelling euphemisms, death and decay are inextricably intertwined with life. They are two inseparable sides of one coin. And, the unabashed promotion of this realization is the true strength of this story.
 
The cons…
 
However, the book’s faults are intertwined with its assets, to some degree. Joey’s character, though the stream of his thoughts are belabored, didn’t ever solidify for me. Dimension was given to the smallest details outside of him, but the inside remained opaque. And similarly throughout the book, the evocative style, while excellent when it had something to focus on, wasn’t pared down enough when it didn’t. When combined with a multitude of meandering (sometimes superfluous) twists of plot, it resulted in a really drawn-out story. I put the book down more than once wondering if it would ever end. Without a doubt, the manuscript could have used a good strong structural edit to scrub some of the excessive prose and unnecessary scenes. (For example, I think more than one run-in with “Baby” wasn’t really necessary. They could have been combined and made more effective. Or, a more willing and resolved embrace of the book’s Jeckyll and Hyde undertones would have made the plot as clever as its metaphors.) Alas, this wasn’t done, and without the masterfully gruesome detail, many of the story’s finer points would have been lost in the overabundance. (I know: pot calling kettle!)
 
Finally—and herein lies my biggest criticism—while this book doesn’t try (or succeed if it did) to be anything other than macabre realistic fiction (despite the fact that the world of the “Diggers” is other, it’s not paranormal), the ultimate villain is absurdly unrealistic. Everything else in the book I could buy, and to strong effect; but that guy’s purported feats—especially his nothing-short-of-miraculous reappearance at the end—were not only surprising and disappointing, but truly irritating.
 
The final word…
 
Overall, however, Rotters is an utterly different, refreshingly nuanced, and excitingly complex read. Though I found the final third of the book lost its way, and am not sure that I gained much from the last 150 pages that I hadn’t gotten from the 300 preceding it, the provocative look at mortality that was offered up so starkly and unapologetically until that point made it worthwhile to finish. Until Hyde took over, I couldn’t help thinking of it as the (less svelt) YA version of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God.
 
But, if the mark of good literature is that it changes you somehow, alters your perspective in some way, then I’d give this one a solid vote. Whatever my gripes about the wandering plot, I will never look at rotters (the living or the dead…or the vegetable), in quite the same way again.

 

Series Review: Incarceron / Sapphique by Catherin Fisher November 4, 2011

Publisher: Dial
Release Date: January 26, 2010; December 28, 2010
Age Group: YA (utterly gratuitous mature language; mild graphic violence)
Pages: 448; 480
Rating: Idea 5★; Execution 2★
Genre: dystopia, sci-fi, & (some) fantasy with overtones of steampunk
 

★★1/2

Claudia lives in The Realm—a place where an Era of Victorianesque habit and aesthetic is enforced by a malevolent monarchy. She dreams only of escape from the life that has been planned for her. Her only solace is her tutor, Jared, who has been more of a father to her than her own morose parent, John Arlexa the Warden of Incarceron. At least she is Outside.

Inside, Finn lives, and has lived for the three long years of his life that he is able to remember. He, too, longs to Escape from the miserable existence within the great sentient, malevolent Prison to which he—and all others deemed undesirable or superfluous by the aristocracy—have been sentenced.

All too quickly, as age-old plots and schemes come to fruition, Finn and Claudia’s fates are thrust together. The future of both worlds, it seems, depends on their ability to unlock the secrets that lie deep within.
 

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As I tweeted the other night, I have rarely been as frustrated or disillusioned by a book or series as I was when I closed the cover on this one.

The idea is magnificent—something like The Matrix, something like The Scarlet Pimpernel, and still something like Mad Max and Blade Runner.

However, the idea’s execution in writing was deplorable, cheap, and utterly unsatisfying. You know how it was with Lost? Where the opening was fairly explosive and mysterious, but as the seasons dragged on it slowly became apparent that the writers had no long-term plan for the plot? No real ingenious answer to the mystery?

And everyone remained hopeful, despite being dragged on for eons by endlessly convenient twists, turns, and dramatic fluff, because they thought there surely would be some masterfully big reveal to tie it all together in the end?

★★1/2

Well, that was exactly my experience with these books, except without the hunky actors and special effects to tide a girl over. Full of fluff; unartful writing; and bad, see-through dialogue; impromptu/incongruous twists when the plot looked sure to dead-end; flat characters who neither were fully explained nor grew a millimeter over the course of 928 pages, and were often self-contradictory…

And, then, like the Lost finale, no questions answered. If anything, more were introduced, as if to cover the tracks of an MIA direction—yet again.
 
I am almost angry at myself for reading it. I knew at the end of Incarceron (bk. 1) that the execution was shoddy (I even tweeted my feelings), but was so curious about how the idea would come together that I convinced myself to keep going. I remained hopeful to the very end—past elements that didn’t really work in the world (the “Incarceron” beast; the “chain gang,” children born—as opposed to healed or reconstructed—with metal parts), or with the characters (Keiro’s fickleness; the Queen’s pseudo-evilness; the Warden’s loss of the key vs. the trio’s ability to keep the glove; the Prison’s simultaneous omnipotence and impotence, whichever suited the moment; etc), but were instead just convenient to the goose-chase of a plot.

I even clung on through the last few pages when things got really weird, and it seemed impossible that it could ever be satisfactorily pulled together, all the while thinking, Surely; surely no one would have published an idea this ambitious without a real, clever, mind-blowing ending.

This book has gotten lots of buzz. Taylor Lautner is starring in the movie, for goodness sake. Surely they wouldn’t…

But they did.

 
I think—if someone figures out how to salvage the plot/ending—it will be a truly wicked movie. But, as a book?

There are so many good, strong, dystopian/steampunk novels out there—The Hunger Games (bk 1), Birthmarked, Fever Crumb, etc. I would normally never do this—I am a book champion—but I suggest spending your reading time on the above and waiting to see Incarceron on screen.

 

Currently Reading: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin July 11, 2011

{{Note: these books are marketed for adults and contain mature graphic content, as does the show that is based on the series, and I do not recommend them for the typical YA audience.}}

Two episodes into the HBO series based on Martin’s work, I knew I had to read the A Song of Ice and Fire series they were based on. I will confess, I think I’m reading it more slowly than I would – going along at something like a meander – because I already know the plotline. That leads me to think that I prefer reading BEFORE watching (nothing new). Although, I will say that the cast of characters was so well chosen for the show that I don’t mind having their faces implanted in my head. All together, looking forward to reading #2 before Season 2 starts…and then watching Season 2. Sigh. I’m a lost cause.

**George R. R. Martin is appearing at Barnes and Noble Union Square in NYC this Thursday!**

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“Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom’s protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens.

Here an enigmatic band of warriors bear swords of no human metal; a tribe of fierce wildlings carry men off into madness; a cruel young dragon prince barters his sister to win back his throne; and a determined woman undertakes the most treacherous of journeys. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.” (via barnesandnoble.com)

 

Book Review: The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett June 30, 2011

Original Release Date: 1983
Original Publisher: Colin Smyth
Series: Discworld

★★★★★

Far away, in a land shaped like a saucer, which sits balanced on the backs of four elephants, who in turn ride the shell of a giant, deep space-swimming turtle (gender unknown)…live Rincewind and Twoflower. Diehard cynic and failed wizard, Rincewind is bound to Twoflower (Discworld’s first ever tourist) by fate. (The magistrate’s threat if Twoflower should come to any harm might also have had something to do with it…)

Together the two set out to follow Twoflower’s insatiable appetite for adventure, danger, and whatever other legendary predicaments strike his fancy—and end up towed in the wake of his uncanny penchant for trouble. In fact, if not for the undying devotion of Twoflower’s sapient (and apparently carnivorous) pearwood luggage, neither character could make it through the dragons, the inferno, the 8-legged demon, shipwreck, or kidnapping mayhem that ensue. Finally, washed up at the end of the world, it’s up to their combined (and questionable) wits to save them from virtual annihilation…

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Packed with a brilliant combo of sparking wit and superb writing, it’s no wonder this first installment of the Discworld bibliography spawned the 38-odd books that followed…and their devoted fans. Hilarious, adventurous, inventive, but above all precise, even in its absurdity, Pratchett’s prose provides not only some welcome relief from the conventional fantasy world, but is first-rate reading all on its own.

I highly recommend this to those seasoned fantasy-lovers looking to investigate the roots, influences, and permutations of today’s otherworldly fiction—or just those seeking something truly original, witty, and lighthearted. While I do think a younger reader would get a kick out of the superficial storyline, the satiric undercurrent of its humor, as well as some mature content, really make it a more satisfying read for the older bibliophile. In fact, the more you know of the allusions contained (Rincewind’s wizardly problems are a cracked mirror to those of LeGuin’s Ged, for instance), the more fun it becomes.

 

**This is the only Discworld title “to be continued.” It is finished in The Light Fantastic. If you intend on speeding through this title—which, if you’re anything like me, you will—I recommend having the second book handy, to avoid frustration. The first ends…well, abruptly, as is absolutely fitting, considering the circumstances.**

 

Book Review: daughter of smoke and bone by laini taylor June 5, 2011

Release Date: Sept 27, 2011
Publisher: Little Brown

“Once upon a time,
an angel and a demon fell in love.

It did not end well.”
Daughter of Smoke and Bone, part I

Usually, I won’t do this – preface a review this way (or, who knows? maybe I will?) – but Laini Taylor deserves some introduction. She is, hands down, my favorite YA author. And for good reason.

There are many YA books that fall into the category I like to call “cotton candy”: they look pretty, taste pretty, but melt in your mouth and are gone. (Not to mention that a steady diet of them will give you a stomach ache…)

Laini Taylor is not one of those.

If I were to give her work a flavor, I’d call it chocolate, deep and luxuriant, with surprising, biting, hidden flecks of sea salt. She intimately wields the thrill of YA, but weaves it with a visceral poetry that much of YA lacks. It is a style that is clearly her own. It shines through all of her works like a thumb print. And it swallows you up.

Her latest (or should I say, forthcoming) book is no exception.

★★★★★

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Karou, Karou. Girl with  the lapis blue hair knows very little about herself except that her name means “hope.” Oh, and that her life straddles two worlds: the human, and the elsewhere. She has tattoos of eyes (hamsas) on her palms, may or may not have imagined the creatures that appear in her sketchbooks, and is filled up with a strong sense of emptiness – as if her world were not complete.

When a painfully beautiful seraph is pulled into her life – wings like living fire – however, he brings with him a glimmer of otherness, of wholeness and fullness…of love?, of the path to elsewhere, and the scent of…war.

As the story unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Karou is more than what she seems. But when she discovers it for herself, it may be too late, and the road back to the only family she has ever known will cost her dearly.

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Fraught with elegant and bittersweet romance, this action-laced page-turner is a hands-down work of art. It is the YA we all love – thrilling and exhausting, brimming with suspense – but skillfully so, so you almost won’t even realize that the secrets have been spilled until you are already lapping them up. Taylor’s teases and revelations aren’t abrupt; they are elegant, seamless, and utterly satisfying.

And, though it is only Part 1 of a trilogy, never fear: all of your burning questions will be answered by book’s close – just in time to realize you’ve got a whole aching slew of new ones.

This book, much like her previous Dreamdark and National Book Award-Nominated Lips Touch: Three Times, is signature Laini. Just what that unmistakable style is (delicate? steely? sensuous? ephemeral? lithe? dark? iridescent?) you’ll have to discover for yourself.

 

 
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