Tag Archives: book review

Dystopian Overload

I spent all my brain candy reading in the last few weeks on far too many of the recent fad of dystopian YA novels.  Dystopia in YA is hardly new.  The Giver is nearly twenty years old, for example.  Scott Westerfeld’s imaginative Uglies series has been around for several years.  However, the wild success of The Hunger Games has clearly made publishers green light everything that takes place in some sort of nonsensical, overly controlling fascist society.

I’m not sure what’s so appealing about dystopia right now.  Perhaps something about how pessimistic we all are at the moment, what with the state of affairs in the world economically?  Regardless, bleak futures are all the rage.

The No-Thank-Yous

Matched (Paperback) ~ Ally Condie Cover ArtWither (The Chemical Garden Trilogy) (Hardcover) ~ Lauren DeStefano Cover ArtBirthmarked (Birthmarked Trilogy) (Paperback) ~ Caragh M. O'Brien Cover Art

I think anyone who reads this blog’s book reviews already knows I didn’t think Ally Condie’s Matched series about a society that catalogs and controls your every move was very good.  The second book, while it had some moments, just didn’t make any sense.  Add to that one the book Wither by Lauren deStephano, which has a sequel out later this month.  Wither is about a future where everyone, except for the older “first generation,” dies young from a mysterious virus.  The (unfortunately named) Rhine is kidnapped to become a child bride to a privileged young man whose father is extremely creepy.  The whole thing just didn’t hold together for me at all.  Every continent except North America is completely destroyed?  Beautiful young women are alternately really valuable and really expendable.  And, most unbelievable given the course the plot takes, Rhine’s marriage remains completely chaste, without any real explanation as to why.  The only reason I can think of is that it’s a YA novel, but the novel shows other sexual situations (in fact, it may be the most risque of all of these in that sense), meaning that any parent or reader objecting to that is still going to object to this book.  Finally, I also gave the book Birthmarked a try.  In this book, midwives must bring children to a secret enclave for mysterious purposes.  I couldn’t even finish it, it moved so slowly.

The Maybes

Delirium (Paperback) ~ Lauren Oliver Cover Art

There were two more I thought were so-so.  One was Delirium by Lauren Oliver.  The sequel comes out later this month.  In Delirium, young people are basically lobotomized by the government to remove their ability to experience love, which is seen as a terrible disease.  The future world suffered the same problems as many of the books I didn’t like in that many of the elements didn’t make any sense.  The basic purpose of the cure for love isn’t ever really revealed and some of the things that still exist in this future world (like brand names we have now!) didn’t seem to make sense.  Like Matched, the world has a nonsensical mix of old-fashioned technology and futuristic technology we’re not even close to developing.  However, the opening chapter was so good that it drew me in fully.  The writing and the characters were compelling enough to overcome my doubts.

I also kind of enjoyed both of Beth Revis’s Across the Universe books.  In this series, earth has sent a ship full of frozen people, along with a group of people to watch over them and maintain the ship, to a mysterious planet they hope to colonize.  Taking the action off earth and putting it on a closed ship helped eliminate some of the world-building problems the other books I read had.  The ship, which is practically a character itself, gives everything a closed, clear feel and works as a literary device.  The action of both the first book and the sequel unfold like a mystery novel, revealing clues slowly.  There are still a lot of unanswered questions that the final book will presumably answer.  While I didn’t think the writing was outstanding, the storytelling and the mystery kept me reading.

More Please!

Divergent (Divergent Trilogy) (Hardcover) ~ Veronica Roth Cover Art

There was one book I liked wholeheartedly: Divergent by Veronica Roth.  The cover just screams “read me after The Hunger Games” but I actually think it is the book I’ve read that is most like The Hunger Games without feeling like a rip off.  Divergent is about a future society where every person must chose a faction based on their personality.  Individuals are tested to see what faction would fit them best.  While not every aspect of the dystopian future world made sense, Veronica Roth filled the book with details that made it feel believable to me as a reader, much the way The Hunger Games did.  More importantly, the action takes over very quickly as main character Tris trains to join a new faction, where she must learn how to be a complete daredevil and seasoned fighter.  There was a mystery and a plot about how the factions are beginning to turn against each other.  Oh, and an obligatory romance, of course.  However, the main draw in the book was Tris’s strong character and that quick action.  A sequel comes out in a few months, so there’s something to look forward to.

What’s Wrong With Me?

Not long ago, despite the fact that I had perfectly good books waiting for me, books I even wanted to read, I decided to read Ally Condie’s follow up to her bestseller Matched, the YA novel Crossed.  If you’re an avid reader of this blog, then you may remember I didn’t even like Matched!  Yet, there I found myself reading the sequel.  Nay, actually quickly reading the sequel.  What’s wrong with me?  And why is it that one can read some books, thinking, “this is terrible writing,” yet want to keep reading?  I will ashamedly admit that Twilight did it to me too, yet I’m not even sure why.  Is it like watching a train wreck?  Do we secretly want books that aren’t that good sometimes?

Well, regardless, Crossed picks up where Matched left off.  Cassia is a goody two shoes in love with Ky, an outcast in their tightly controled future society.  Separately, they escape from a nonsensical war zone, make some new friends, and take a harrowing trip through a canyon.  Along the way, they read a bunch of old poetry.  Yes, my summary is a little snarky.

Condie adds Ky’s voice to this book, alternating between his perspective and Cassia’s.  Despite the whiplash I got when the sections jumped so fast that conversations would start in one and finish in the next, I actually think she does a much better job with his voice.  There’s something more believable about him.  At some point partway through, I thought, you know, this book is sort of better than the first one.  But then it left on an even bigger cliffhanger than the first one and I found myself not only annoyed by that, but by some of the other dangling mysteries, like what in the world is up with that war that makes no sense.  Oh, and did I mention a secret cave full of DNA samples?

But, of course, the biggest cliffhanger of all is will I get sucked into reading the next one?  And if so, why?  Just…  why?


If I judged books by their covers, this one would get top marks.  Look at that pretty green dress and girl in a bubble.  Very nice, right?  Matched by Ally Condie takes place in an oppressive future society.  If you choose to marry, then the Society will match you with your most optimal mate, who is usually someone you’ve never met before, living far away.  The story opens with Cassia’s matching ceremony.  Surprisingly, she’s matched to a boy she knows already – her neighbor and best friend.  However, when she goes to look at the data about the match, she sees the face of another boy she knows, a boy who is an outcast.  That starts a chain of events where Cassia risks her safe, secure status to get to know the boy who might have been her match.  As the story unfolds, Cassia begins to see the oppression that she lives under.

The copy I checked out of the library had obviously been well-read as the seams were beginning to come apart even though it’s a new book – still less than a year old.  It’s also had a lot of buzz and I’ve heard it may already be in development as a film.  The ending was left open, and a sequel is already due out in a couple of months.  I think the book may appeal to fans of The Hunger Games.  There are several plot elements which mimic that bestselling series: the romantic triangle, the oppressive future society, a girl who is a pawn in a larger game, and the resistance movement against the oppressors.  I found it to be a quick read.  The plot pulled me along so that I wanted to know what would happen.  However, since the comparison is so clearly there, it’s also easy to see that the book is lacking many of the qualities that made The Hunger Games so good.  The characters and the moral issues presented lacked the nuance of The Hunger Games.  Many of the things the Society does to control people are so blatantly obvious that it strained my credulity that Cassia didn’t know about them.  The ending also felt rushed after a very slow narrative up to that point.  Overall, I think YA readers who find the premise interesting will probably enjoy the book, but it’s definitely one that can be skipped, even if it does become the next worldwide YA girl phenomenon, as marketers are clearly hoping.

Genius Wars

Okay, after saying I wouldn’t have time to blog, I’m up with a sick kid on vacation, so, alas, I figured I may as well write a book review.

The Genius Wars is the third book in Katherine Jinks’s YA genius series.  These books follow the story of Cadel, a young, highly intelligent boy who was raised to become a sort of supervillian, but rebelled against his upbringing to become good.  In this volume, Cadel has tried to keep himself out of trouble, but finds that the people he loves, including his best friend Sonja and his foster father Saul, are being attacked and that he himself may be next.  The book focused on how Cadel, as much as he tries to do the right thing, struggles to overcome being an arrogant, bossy jerk when push comes to shove, imitating the exact behavior of his one time mentor and all around bad guy Prosper English.

The book is slightly on the long side, but I found it to be a quick read.  Still, it’s not for readers new to the series.  I didn’t remember the second book all that well so I struggled to recall some of the ins and outs of characters and plot.  My guess is that some of the relationships, such as Cadel’s love for Sonja, who suffers from cerebral palsy and cannot speak without a machine, would seem confusing to someone who had not read the back story.  Overall, it was just an okay book.  I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in the series, Evil Genius, which balanced the idea of this over the top, comic book-like school for supervillains with a very real, interesting character in Cadel.  Cadel is still a well-drawn character, but the humorous edge has been lost as the series went on and I really miss it.  So, if the premise sounds interesting, go back and read Evil Genius, but give this one a miss unless you really love it.

Beauty Queens

Beauty Queens is YA superstar Libba Bray’s latest novel.  It’s for people who read her last book, Going Bovine, and thought, Gee, that’s just the right amount of trippy, but needs more satire.

I have to begin this review by saying that I pretty much loved this book.  The story set up is basically teenage beauty pageant contestants crash land on the set of Lost…  I mean…  on a seemingly deserted island filled with mysterious and nefarious plots.  The remaining girls (you know, after a bunch of them violently die in the crash) have to learn to fend for themselves and survive.  The book is full of surprises, so, of course, the girls don’t turn out to all be vapid beauty queens.  Each one has a unique story and perspective.  In between chapters, Libba Bray gives us tidbits of various other things, including the contestants’ questionnaires, advertisements for beauty products made by the sinister Corporation, and reality show excerpts.  This is in addition to snarky footnotes throughout the text.  Readers should be forewarned that the book is decidedly YA, with a healthy dose of sex of all sorts, drugs and rock n’ roll from some lost reality show pirate bad boys.

If the story sounds absurd, that’s because it is.  It made me laugh out loud repeatedly throughout.  However, more than just being funny, the story is clever.  I like how Libba Bray takes the idea of empty beauty queens and brings us these fully fleshed out individuals who actually have something to say about what it means to be a young woman growing up in our society.  The way she explores ideas about sexuality is especially powerful.  She gives us one chapter that stands out in particular in tone, so much so that “the Corporation” has to come in after and rewrite it to make it more like the view of female sexuality that the media peddles.  That’s the sort of book this is, going from one tone to another, shifting from one character to another, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink and somehow emerging with a whole book that is hilarious fun but also gives you some deep thoughts to chew on.

Teen Wanderlust

I have one more summer themed read to review.  I recently finished up As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth by Lynne Rae Perkins.  This YA book follows 15 year old Ry as a series of bizarre accidents leave him stranded without much money, any ID, access to his family or much else.  Ry is happily adopted by Del, who decides to take Ry on a cross-country (and later cross-sea!) quest to find his family.

This book hooked me pretty quickly with Ry’s initial predicament.  Then it kept me reading trying to figure out how it could all end.  Ry’s new friend and mentor Del is a great character – flawed but admirable.  And Perkins really captured that sense of the thrill of adventure and the precariousness of travel without a net.

When I was Ry’s age, I took a cross country train trip without adults (though with a friend) and it was quite an adventure, even if not anywhere near on the scale of this book.  Reading this book had me recalling that adventure, as well as many others – especially all those times I was stranded, broke or spent a day with strangers on the road.  Everyone needs those sorts of adventures in their lives, I think.  This book really got that and reminded me how much I yearned for them when I was a teenager.

Our Last Four Bedtime Reads

As I sat down to write this, I realized with a bit of a shock that the last four books we read aloud for bedtime were all from the 1950’s (Well, almost – Comet in Moominland was actually published originally in the late 40’s). I’m finding something magical about the books from this era, at least as read alouds.  They are imaginative and have rich, complex language.  Some of these are newer discoveries for me as well, which makes them extra fun.

Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson
We had already dipped into two Moomin books, but had not read the first one.  What a delight it was!  Moomintrolls are funny little creatures who live in a fantasy world populated by other things you’ve never heard of, but just have to accept as you read about them.  In this first volume, young Moomintroll and his friend Sniff set off to find out if a comet is on its way to destroy Moominvalley.  Along the way, they meet a cast of characters and have adventures fighting off poisonous bushes, octopi, and lizards.  All the Moomin books are a bit absurd.  You just have to dive in and go with the flow.  They’re incredibly popular in Jansson’s native Finland, where you can apparently visit a full size replica of Moomin house.  Mushroom wrote about Finn Family Moomintroll for his library book review contest entry and when he found the pictures of the Moominhouse, he announced that we really ought to go Finland just to see it.  If I’m ever in Finland, I’m sure we will.

Magic or Not? by Edward Eager
All of Eager’s books are a lot of fun.  I like the sense in them that magic, when it comes into the real world, inevitably goes awry in some way, or turns out to be more mysterious and confounding than one might have imagined.  In this book, twins Laura and James move to a new house in the countryside.  Quickly they find themselves embroiled in adventures helping people and encountering strange coincidences.  In the end, they can never decide if what has happened happened because of magic.

The 13 Clocks by James Thurber
This book was reissued a few years ago by the New York Review Children’s Collection, which has happily put a number of forgotten gems back into wider circulation, though this one may be the most welcome and popular to benefit from it.  It’s a sort of fairy tale though it’s hard to describe beyond that.  On one level, that’s all it is – a prince must rescue a princess from an evil duke.  On another level, it’s much more and if you haven’t read it, then Thurber will delight you by playing with literary constructs and language. The world needs more books with this many alliterations and unexpected rhymes.

The Borrowers by Mary Norton
This book tells the story of tiny people who live in your home, slowly stealing little bits of things to live.  I really liked these as a child, but on this read, I admit that Homily, the mother, drove me a little crazy.  Why is she such a pain to her poor husband, Pod, or overemotional when it comes to her daughter Arrietty?  I have no clue.  Luckily, the parts about Arrietty as she goes out on her first trips borrowing and befriends the boy are much more enjoyable.  And there’s something fun about picturing the scale of things when the Borrowers take thread spools to be chairs and tea saucers to be tables.

One Crazy Book

I’ve been catching up on my backlog of books to write about.  Many of them have a summer theme, like this one (and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, which I reviewed last week).

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia is an award-winning middle grades novel from last year.  It tells the story of three sisters in 1968 who go from their home in Brooklyn to get to know their absent mother in Oakland.  Unfortunately, their mother, a poet who is involved in the Black Panthers, proves hard to get to know and the girls encounter a world with very different ideas about what it means to be black than the ones they knew at home.

Everything I had read about this book made it sound great and I wasn’t disappointed.  Not only is the story, narrated from the oldest sister’s point of view, beautifully told with sharp writing and a great voice, but the plot interweaves a complex set of elements.  Characters themselves are left messy enough for my taste – the middle sister continues to annoy her older sister and never fully pays for some bad behavior and the mother’s behavior is explained but never fully redeemed – while the plot is brought together neatly, connecting several unexpected pieces.  That’s just the sort of narrative I like – with wiggle room for real people to be real, but a strong, resolved story.  You wouldn’t think that you could find such a gentle middle grades novel about the Black Panthers, but there it is.

Can I Be a Penderwick too?

I just finished up the most recent Penderwick book, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall.  If you don’t know the Penderwicks, they are a family of four girls who look out for one another, in part because their mother died when they were young.  Each girl has a different strong personality, but they all support and love one another through various family adventures.  This latest book is the third in the series.  All the books have an old-fashioned, timeless feel about them.  They remind one much more of Eleanor Estes’s The Moffats or Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy series than anything coming out these days.  The books have a similar target age as well, for middle grades readers, though I hear they work nicely as read alouds (we intend to read the first one to Mushroom and BalletBoy soon as a break in our trail of older books, and I think they will enjoy it greatly).

I’m enamored with the whole series, and this volume was no exception.  This book takes us back to a summer setting, a year after the first volume.  The girls lose their motherly oldest sister to a separate vacation, while they (along with their honorary brother, Jeffery) go off with their aunt to Maine.  Skye must struggle with being the OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick, that is), Jane has her first crush on a boy while trying to write a novel about love, Batty discovers a talent for music, and Jeffrey continues to have to deal with his difficult family.  The story lagged a little in the middle for me, but it’s a minor quibble.  Overall, I enjoyed it greatly.  The language and the way the perspective of the books flows from one Penderwick to the next is as enjoyable as always.

A Conspiracy of Kings

I finally got to Megan Whelan Turner’s A Conspiracy of Kings.  This is the latest in her fantasy series that began with the Newbery honor book The Thief.  The Thief was an extraordinarily good read.  It interwove mythological stories into the text as characters told the tales that had clear parallels to their own situation.  The ending of the story has an excellent twist that can make a reread satisfying as well.  The two volumes after The Thief built on the first.  The Queen of Attolia was nearly as good as the first.  The King of Attolia was good, though it lacked some of the tightness that marked the first two.  This latest story was enjoyable for me, but not nearly as good as the others in the series.

A Conspiracy of Kings follows Sophos in his quest to become the king of Sounis.  Sophos has never had the charisma to be a real leader and when he inherits his uncle’s throne, he finds his country in shambles.  Part of the problem with this book is that Sophos simply isn’t as compelling a character as Eugenides, who was the central figure in the other three volumes.  Not only that, but a shifting perspective between first and third person dragged down the narrative for me.  When Sophos recounts what happened to him, there’s too much telling and not enough showing.  When the narrative comes to life with action, it’s wonderful, and Sophos’s voice and Turner’s writing style are strong enough to carry some of the feeling of summary, but not all of it.  But that said, glimpses of Eugenides and seeing Sophos grapple through how to take back his country made the book well worth the read for me.

Even though this particular sequel wasn’t the most amazing entry into the series, the series itself is among the really great upper middle grade, early young adult fantasy series out there.  I rank it alongside works like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Robin McKinley’s Hero and the Crown.  If you’ve got a fantasy loving kid who hasn’t read it yet, then absolutely go out and start them on The Thief.