Sunday, March 9, 2014

Some recent book reviews, because to be a writer, you must love books

Isn't that the truth? That to be a writer, to want to labor over stories and words and sentences and meaning and themes and truth and the hard realities and the wild fantasies…you really have to love reading books, too.

I find as an author myself, reading informs my work in subtle and overt ways. There have been times when I can't read a certain book because the project I'm working on at the moment is too close in theme or content (e.g., last year when I was living with my father's cancer and writing my novelette CANCER GIRL, I knew I couldn't read John Green's THE FAULT IN OUR STARS because it's about a girl with cancer. I both was too raw emotionally to read his telling, plus too concerned that I'd accidentally co-opt his writing style or thematic treatment. Now I'm still being a big baby about picking up the book. It's been six months since we lost my Dad but it still feels too close…)

But other times, like after reading THE LAST UNICORN, which due to some fluke and horrible oversight of my schooling I had never read before…I found all kinds of interesting similes and metaphors slipping into my writing. Things I had never thought to compare before suddenly seemed easy to compare. Peter Beagle makes the most amazing comparisons throughout the book, and I found myself nodding vehemently more than once. That's magic, right there, when an author can inspire me to write better/work harder/put more into my own work.

So with that as a long-winded preamble, I invite you to read a few of my recent book reviews. These are posted on Goodreads as well. (and I welcome the follows! If you're into reading YA and Middle Grade speculative fiction I need you in my corner!)

First up - THE DREAM THIEVES, by Maggie Stiefvater which has been reviewed elsewhere on The Prosers… (we've all been a bit obsessed with this series…)

So difficult to review this book….it is, in short, excellent, amazing,
wonderful, fantastic, and the best of all that is literature. 
I read The Raven Boys last year (about 12-13 months ago) and it was one of my favorite books of the year. I've recommended it right and left. Something about how the book *feels* just…it just feels wonderful to read it. You feel very enmeshed in the lives of these interesting and earnest kids, none of whom are perfect though two of them are perhaps less damaged than others in the cast. 
So the prequel to this book is excellent and well worth a read. But this book just kind of blew my socks off. It's the kind of book I DELAYED finishing…by a longshot (partly because I got sick and was mentally out of it - I didn't want to finish when I wasn't fully "there." It's too good a book for that.) I didn't want to finish because now I have the problem of WHAT DO I READ NEXT??? Wah! :( 
Okay, specifics…for any kid readers or gatekeepers - be aware that there's a number of curse words (mostly uttered by two characters, and it's completely in character for the two) and some alcohol use by minors and some drug use by minors (mostly a side character, but one character uses a sleeping pill type of thing to do the dream-theiving the story title alludes to.) From my perspective this is only for the mature readers, but it's a completely fine book for mature readers because it really opens up into thematic content about personal responsibility, identity, loving yourself, family bonds, friendship bonds and relationships (and how in your teens those sometimes become stronger than family, depending on your family), etc. There are some really wonderful messages about learning to accept yourself with your faults, though you have to get through some mucky stuff with a drug-abusing side character to see that. 
I strongly recommend you read THE RAVEN BOYS in close connection to this book. I read them too far apart, and it's not that I had trouble figuring out what was going on - the author is far too skilled for that, but I felt like I was missing out on cool stuff that I would remember if only I had more recently read RAVEN BOYS. It bummed me out to the point I borrowed Raven boys from the library and may just read it now because I don't want to leave the world Maggie Stiefvater created and these people and their kind of complicated but awesome relationships and connections to one another. 
Just read this book, please. It's set in modern-day Virginia and touches on magic and paranormal but is much much much more than that. 

And the finale to Marie Lu's excellent LEGEND trilogy:
I liked this better than Prodigy, the middle book of the Legend trilogy. This book again
alternates between Day and June point of view chapters. It takes their story broader than we've seen before, with a trip to Antarctica. I would have liked to see even more set in Antarctica, as the environment and cool sci-fi elements of Lu's imagined world were brighter and more interesting than the dark and frustratingly dystopian world the main characters live in most of the rest of the trilogy. I would have also liked to see more depth given to the Colonies' governmental system based on corporations, something I think the author dipped into but didn't explore adequately to pit the styles of governance against each other. 
Instead, this story is fundamentally about a boy trying to do everything to save his brother, and trying to come to terms with his feelings for a girl who has caused his family deep loss in the past. This is where my biggest frustration with the book comes from, as I feel that the June/Day romance could transcend the past that the author uses as a wedge between them. I am perhaps hampered by having read each book in the trilogy quite a distance from the other. It could be reading the three in a row or with less time elapsed between would lead to a different take on the emotional beat here, but I felt the romantic plot difficulties were ones that were recoverable instead of wedge issues as the author portrays them. 
I do have to say after some significant dissatisfaction with other Dystopian trilogy endings, this one at least was satisfying, albeit a bit of a head-scratcher. At some point the two main characters will have to have a reckoning….but so be it. At least the principals survive the storyline, something other YA Dystopia authors don't seem to care to do. (Or have them survive but with so much psychological damage that they're hardly the same people, as was true at the end of Mockingjay.) 
Still, Lu's writing style sparkles throughout, and she keeps the story moving through small but exciting turns of events and various meetings and re-meetings of the main characters. I did enjoy this book and will continue to look out for Lu's writing in other venues, as I believe she is one of the contemporary voices of YA. 
Content warning for those reading this review with an eye toward recommending it for children. The main characters do have sex, although it's done with a reasonable "fade to black" YA sensitivity, but there's no ambiguity about what transpired. It's that scene that makes me recommend this only for mature readers, probably age 12/13 and up, 7th grade and up.  
THE TESTING by Joelle Charbonneau
Isn't this cover excellent?
I really enjoyed this first novel from Joelle Charbonneau. I thought the main character was likable and believable. The setting was interesting, the idea of having to genetically re-engineer plants to survive a blighted landscape is a bit of a twist on the usual dystopia "struggle to survive." 
Like many other reviewers, I found many similarities to The Hunger Games, however, I felt this book compared more positively in virtually all ways. It is a "survival of the fittest" style challenge (The Testing) that young people must go through, but most are excited about the opportunity and looking forward to it, even as the challenges up the stakes and kids die. The main character is a mostly hopeful sort, a glass-half-full, plucky and determined. I contrast her with the main character of HG who is hard to get into the head of, hard to get to know. It's a deeper immersion here in The Testing, I believe, and thus it makes it easier to root for the character fully, without the conflicted feelings I personally experienced when reading HG. 
The love story is a little simpler, which I actually liked. I get tired of authors writing in love triangles just to up the dramatic tension. Sometimes there really aren't competing beaus and confused girls who don't know what's in their heart. Or, the only confusion is "do I like this particular guy or not?" instead of "Do I like Dude A or Dude B better?" 
I also thought the ominous overbearing governmental agency was a little less dramatically bad in The Testing, which makes for some more ambiguous feelings about it on the part of the character, which I found a little more interesting a dynamic. I found myself really puzzling over what the motivations of the government could be, whereas in HG I found myself revolted by the bad-as-possible-then-they-killed-my-dog style of forces of antagonism. Too much. This is more subtle. In general I think The Testing is a more subtle book, plays its hand a little more lightly, but in a good way. 
I really enjoyed this book but from reading reviews it seems to me to be a love it or hate it kind of book. From my perspective it's a fine book for grades 7 & above, and below that if they have some familiarity already with Hunger Games or similar ilk. The Testing does feature a few tiny sips of alcohol, a fair amount of kid death, and later on some kid-on-kid violence that gets a little gory. The main character maintains her own moral code throughout, though, which I think is a little more straightforward than where you get by books 2 and 3 in Hunger Games. 
 EYE OF MINDS by James Dashner:
A new series from James Dashner, who's well known for the Maze Runner
series. I enjoyed this book, it's a virtual-worlds set story, of the cyberpunk ilk and gave me a vague feeling like I was reading a Gibson or Stephenson book, without the extra brain warping those two SF/cyberpunk giants do. It also felt a little like Ready Player One (by Ernest Cline), though much quicker and shorter. 
The pace was very fast. That raises to me the one limitation/downside of this book. It feels as though the characterization was sacrificed in service of a quick moving plot. I found it a little difficult to really connect with the main character, which is what usually carries me through a book. He was a bit too much of an "everyman" and it was difficult to find reasons why THIS story was happening to HIM of all people. 
However, because it's in an interesting setting and moves fast, the book kept me turning pages regardless of my reader engagement with the character (and that's not something every reader cares about, either.) 
The main mature content in this is violence. I found it a little less bloody/gory than the first Maze Runner book, in part because any of the real violence or blood happens in the VirtuNet, which we know from the very beginning is not the real world. There are some creepy bits that might scare some readers. It is certainly no worse than others of its ilk like Hunger Games (and less bad in ways because it's not kid on kid violence.) I think this book would be fine for mature readers grades 5 and up. Particularly great for any boys who are into video games, since that's an underlying theme of the book and the main character is male. 

I enjoyed this book, but have a few caveats/warnings for those unfamiliar with it or considering it.
First, as far as appropriateness for kids - there's some explicit nudity mentioned very early in the book, plus mentions of loss of virginity and sex (with consequences being only shame/embarrassment on the part of the main character because the boyfriend talked, not for any other reasons.) The remainder of the book progresses with very little explicit anything (til near the end when there's some implied sex but not described.) At any rate, all this to say this to me makes this a solidly high school and up book. 
Next, storytelling-wise, this book paints a really interesting world, a very richly detailed one. I was fascinated by the main character and her crossing between multiple worlds - her own and the shop in "elsewhere" where she grew up, and the fascinating characters who raised her. That said, by midway through the book takes a turn and it's almost a different book, telling a different person's tale. Because of this and the overall dreamy storytelling style, it was difficult to get a sense of the structure of the book - the way most books lead you to an increasing pace, speed, need to answer some burning question. The main character is on a quest of sorts, but it's like the author forgot to restate the quest very often, forgot to light the fire under the main character and give us the burning desire to pursue the quest with her. Then takes a left turn and tells us someone else's tale for a while (in flashback-style, since that character's tale happened earlier chronologically than the events of the story), which in my opinion derails the narrative somewhat. 
I still found the book very enjoyable, but be forewarned that it's not a traditional linearly told story. I listened to it on audiobook and enjoyed the voice narrator, who took on several different accents and speaking styles to denote different characters (even though I didn't care for the jamaican-sounding accent she gave Brimstone.) Very good voice talent. 
ALL OUR YESTERDAYS, by Cristin Terrill

Great book examining the kinds of things that would change if you could go back in time and...change yourself and/or those you are/were close to. Hard book to explain as time travel books usually are, but this was a very enjoyable read. It's brutal at times, and there's at least one instance of the f-word and a few other curse words for those reading with children. A few references to sex/sleeping with someone. For these reasons I'd put it up in the higher YA range, teens and up (7th/8th grade at the youngest.) 
But very very interesting and worth a read, I really enjoyed this. Rather than being a big story about all the huge issues a time travel device could create, it's a small story about three friends and their intertwined relationships with each other, their parents, and a few key figures. Definitely one of those books that makes you think. 
MIND GAMES by Kiersten White
This was a read-in-one-sitting book, if at all possible. I read it in two. Fast. The disjointed narrative (it switches between two POVs and a gradually decreasing time interval from the past) makes it a little tricky to keep up with (and something I think many other reviewers had a problem with) but it added to the way the story *feels* which is something of an accomplishment as most writers seem to think the only way they can make a reader feel something is by murdering puppies or parents or shoot...well, that doesn't work so well as my analogy. 
At any rate - the story is riveting. It's a psychological thriller with paranormal components. The main character is hard not to root for, even as she reveals her brokenness over and over (perhaps a bit too much. It is hard at times to bear.) But the lovely thing about this broken main character is that she ends up controlling her destiny. It's difficult to say more without spoilers but I'll just say I have a great appreciation for the arc of the main character and the journey we see her take in what is a short time interval (the flashbacks cover a much longer range of time, but ultimately the main storyline takes place over the course of maybe 2 days.) 
I'd recommend for anyone interested in darker, moodier YA books. Due to the alcohol use and some allusions (but no actual) sex, I'd say this is best for teen readers and up. 

So, I'll be done with what I'm reading soon…any recommendations? :)


  1. I've read about half of these books, and my to-read pile has gotten alarmingly small lately, so I'm excited to be able to add to my stack. Thank you so much!

  2. We all have been a little obsessed with the Raven Cycle, although I personally have never blogged about it. Maybe we should try to get an interview with Maggie Stiefvater.

    Great list, and yet more books to add to the never ending TBR pile.


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