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The Darkest Minds (The Darkest Minds #1)

4/5 stars

Quotes:

(1) “The darkest minds tend to hide behind the most unlikely faces.”

(2) “You okay, buddy?” Liam asked. “Need to stop and smell the scholasticism?”
For Readers Who Like:

(1) “hidden powers” fiction

(2) The Shatter Me series, The Mindjack series, and Howarth’s The Institute

(3) social and political dystopias

Review:

I don’t know why I have been so adverse to the “hidden powers” theme lately. It seems to be so prominent in YA that I have grown kind of bored with it.

Here’s the run-down of this theme: Kid(s) develop terrifying and dangerous abilities. Society freaks out. “How did this happen? Secret scientific/government experimentation? Evolution? Too much consumption of the orange powder on Cheetos?” Whether we know or not isn’t really the point. It leads to a social and political environment of fascism, fear, and scapegoating. (Most of the books in this genre follow this formula, so you can see why it can get kind of repetitious.)

In this genre, there are two series that I think stand out. The Shatter Me series is notable for its style, but I think its female character is too passive for me to really recommend the book without caveat. The Darkest Minds is written in a style that is neither good nor bad but just forgettable. The novel’s characterization, however, is its strength and is what keeps it from being mediocre.

First, I can’t convey how much I respect Bracken for not focusing on appearances. What do we know about our main character? She has brown hair and it is mentioned maybe twice that Ruby is supposed to be pretty. This runs counter to the trend in YA of waxing poetically on the beauty of our fair heroine. AUTHOR: “How about I slip in another scene with the character just casually looking into the mirror so she can describe (once again) her plump lips and sparkling eyes. Hm, maybe I have these boys tell her how pretty she is and she can narrate about the way her honey-blonde locks shimmer in the moonlight.” Yes, because the story hinges on the detail of our heroine’s shimmering, moonlit hair. Unless there is a point in the plot when she and her friends get trapped in a dark, dank cellar, and they can miraculously navigate a way out using only her incandescently shining head, I’m not interested.

Second, Ruby is believable. Bracken avoids writing her as one of the two female extremes of characterization: the passive victim (more like Bella Swan) or the self-sufficient heroine (more like Katniss Everdeen). Ruby could have easily been written as a girl traumatized into inaction by her experiences in the government camp. Just as likely, she could have been written as a badass teenage weapons expert out for blood and revenge. Ruby is neither of these, but alternates between the poles of self-doubt and blindingly clear determination. Because of this, she is a more richly conflicted character.

Verdict:
This is one of the better series in the “hidden powers” genre. The main character is interesting and nuanced, although the writing is mediocre. Fans of social and political dystopias will enjoy this novel.

Some Girls Bite (Chicagoland Vampires #1)

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Some Girls Bite (Chicagoland Vampires #1)

3.5/5 stars

Quotes:

(1) “Rich people aren’t nicer–they just have better cars.”

(2) “The things that go bump in the night…are probably registered voters in Cook County.”

For Readers Who:

(1) Like snarky heroines.

(2) Don’t mind a bit of formulaic paranormal fiction.

(3) Aren’t White Sox fans. There’s a lot of “Go Cubbies!” slipped into the series that you probably won’t appreciate.

Review:

Okay, so this isn’t the most original novel. I’m probably not going to reread it and I might have trouble remembering the particulars of the plot a month from now. It was predictable and could be formulaic. That said, it wasn’t bad. Neill’s writing style was average, but her characterization was memorable and realistic.

I have to give Neill respect for redeeming the character of the “English literature student” from the vortex of shame that was 50 Shades of Grey. Merit is a literature grad student. Unlike another author (cough EL James) who tries to pass off her truly idiotic literature student (cough cough Anastasia Steele) as some kind of wide-eyed ingenue, Neill makes Merit believable and dynamic.

That said, Neill doesn’t avoid the trap that seems to have, unfortunately, become a trope of paranormal fiction. Why is it that so many men have to find the heroine so attractive? Merit hadn’t dated for two years before becoming a vampire and then we get a little bloodsucking action and she is magically the most appealing woman in Chicago? If you’re going to make this annoying plot choice, at least give me a good reason why this is the case. I am much more open to a woman wooing men through her sparkling personality or her ability to make even the grumpiest person laugh. If you want an example of how to employ supernatural explanations, Amy Bartol did a damn good job in her Premonition series.

I can’t call for a moratorium on this literary device of “sudden hotness,” so authors, please abide by these rules: (1) Don’t give your readers no reason as to why your heroine is suddenly so sexy. This is unrealistic and sloppy. (2) Don’t just say that your heroine’s supernatural transformation made them suddenly exponentially more attractive. This defies even the fictional rules of a supernatural universe…your character’s getting an upgrade like everyone else does, she’s not going through second puberty. (3) We don’t like reading about perfect women, so it’s okay to not make heroines perfect either. You can do better than Bella Swan or Anastasia Steele (please give characters personality), but give them some other redeeming qualities.

Verdict:

Read it if you just enjoy light, fun books and aren’t too concerned about the novelty of plot. However, I am campaigning against “sudden hotness” because it’s getting lame.

Intangible (Piercing the Veil, Book 1)

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Intangible (Piercing the Veil, Book 1)
2.5 (characters)/3 (plot) out of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

For Readers Who:
(1) Are fans of Arthurian legends.
(2) Won’t mind if the premise of the book is stronger and more imaginative than its characters (who were rather flat).

Review: 
One of my favorite books is T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. King Arthur’s story, as retold by White, is the epitome of good storytelling. My love of White’s novel was what made me excited to read Intangible.

C.A. Gray’s Intangible is an Arthurian revision along the lines of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus series. Gray uses the legend of Camelot to bring to life a hidden world where Arthurian stories are anything but myth. Like Riordan, Gray centers the story on teens with special powers, a hidden world of gifted people and fantastic creatures, and a prophecy that foretells either the end of the world or the salvation of it.

Unfortunately, although the plot is interesting, the characters are anything but riveting. Peter Stewart, one of the main characters in the novel, was often angsty and annoying. The other characters never developed a degree of interiority. These flaws kept me from connecting with the characters and I remained disinterested rather than sympathetic.

Gray does revise Arthurian legend in interesting ways. For instance, she makes Guinevere a villain in a completely unexpected fashion. Also, she fashions the city of Carlion (which Mallory mentions in his Le Morte d’Arthur) as a hidden city populated by men and women with special powers. Gray’s revisions of these well-known myths are perhaps the strongest aspect of Intangible.

Verdict:
If you are a fan of Arthurian legend or you can come to terms with good world building (made at the expense of character depth), this book is for you. Although I loved the imaginative things Gray did with mythology, I couldn’t become deeply invested in the book’s plot because I wasn’t invested in the characters.

Warm Bodies

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Warm Bodies
4 out of 5 stars

Quotes: “Nora, this is R. R . . . Nora.” Nora stares at me like I’m Sasquatch, the Chupacabra, maybe a unicorn. “Um . . . nice to meet you . . . R.”

For Readers Who:
(1) Have read Romeo and Juliet. Warm Bodies is a reworking of my least favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. Zombies and Shakespeare? Trust me. It works.

(2) Have the patience to ponder deep metaphysical questions. Although the book was made into a pretty awesome movie, the novel explores themes that I don’t think most teenagers would really understand. Quite honestly, I think I need to re-read it to fully comprehend what the book was doing because there were some big picture, “what is life?,” “why are we here?” questions into which the book delved.

Review:
I did not anticipate the kind of book that this was going to be. I saw the movie and really enjoyed it. I’m not a big zombie fan, but I found the humor of the film really endearing so I gave the book a chance.

I admit that the book is funny, but it is also a whirlwind existential journey. Marion rewrites Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet within the framework of a zombie apocalypse. The zombie “R” (he can’t remember anything more of his name) falls in love with the human Julie. Yes, Marion could have been more subtle with the choice of names. We get it: R and Julie are stand ins for Romeo and Juliet.

R and Julie are “star-cross’d lovers” because, well, he’s dead, she’s not, and both of their kind wants to kills the other. Sounds familiar, right? We could just call one side the Montagues and the other side the Capulets. Where Marion breaks with Shakespeare is in his portrayal of death. What makes Romeo and Juliet my least favorite Shakespearean play is that the deaths of the two teenagers “solved” all their families’ problems. This is from the Prologue of the play:

“A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove…”

Marion takes the opposite approach to life and death: what if dying is the problem and living is the solution? Both R and Julie’s worlds are devoid of life. R, obviously, is a zombie, but Julie and the other uninfected humans live jammed into a football stadium, which R refers to as nothing more than an “ossuary” (a building which holds the remains of the dead).

Unlike Romeo and Juliet, and Julie’s boyfriend Perry (who seeks out death early in the book because he no longer sees the point in living), R and Julie want to live. Marion rewrites Shakespeare’s play, revising it from a romantic epic of two lovers’ deaths, to a celebration of the redemptive power of life and of love.

Verdict:
If Shakespeare would have shared Marion’s approach to life and love, there may have been a chance that I would not have loathed Romeo and Juliet when I was first assigned to read it at 14. Although teenagers will likely still enjoy Warm Bodies (it is, after all, still a zombie romance), older readers who take the time to understand the literary parallels and philosophical questions will be those who will get the most out of this book.

Under the Never Sky (Under the Never Sky #1)

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Under the Never Sky (Under the Never Sky #1)
Rating 5 out of 5 stars

Quotes:
(1) “She knew how to put one foot in front of the other even when every step hurt. And she knew there was pain in the journey, but there was also great beauty.”

(2) “And in life, at least in her new life, chances were the best she could hope for. They were like her rocks. Imperfect and surprising and maybe better in the long run than certainties. Chances, she thought, were life.”

For Readers Who:
(1) Enjoy slow-building romances. This is not a love-at-first sight plot.

(2) Like post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction.

(3) Don’t mind third-person alternating narrative. The novel switches between Aria and Perry’s points of view. I really like this, especially since there has been a recent trend in YA fiction to later publish separate novels or novellas from the point of view of the romantic interest. Why not just write the book in which we get to see the romance develop from both sides? It’s like cutting out the middleman in the equation.

Review:
The Under the Never Sky series is, in my opinion, the most imaginative in the last couple of years. My mom and I debated this very topic (I know–I live an enviously adventurous life…), and we both came to the same conclusion: while we also love Divergent, Veronica Rossi’s plot and writing style are probably the better of the two.

Okay, hold up on the public stoning. I am not arguing that one series is better than the other. What I am trying to say is that Under the Never Sky scores serious points for creativity. The novel is set in the future. The basic premise of the plot is that Earth’s environment had become uninhabitable. A select few families were lucky enough to live in compounds that protected them from the outside world. The rest of the population had to fend for themselves.

Fast forward a couple hundred of years. The two groups are still living separately, but both groups have begun to evolve in different ways. Now, this is not a hard core science fiction book. The thing I found so spectacular about Rossi is that she manages to incorporate elements from science fiction without making it generically science fiction. Under the Never Sky is very much a YA romance. It is this unexpected combination of futuristic, sci-fi-esque, “us vs. them,” Romeo and Juliet romance that is really rather genius.

I also enjoyed the narration; Rossi alternates between the third person viewpoints of Aria (who grew up in the sheltered society) and Perry (who grew up on the “outside”). However, I hope that the success of this novel doesn’t start a trend in which every author narrates his or her book this way. The reason the alternating viewpoints work, in this case, is because Aria and Perry have grown up so differently that they see the world, both literally and metaphorically, from completely different views. For instance, Aria has never seen snow and asks Perry what it’s like. When the narrative changes to his point of view, Perry can’t understand how first, you could live and never see snow, and second, how you describe snow to someone. Under the Never Sky is a Romeo and Juliet story, of sorts, but the plot doesn’t follow “Two households both alike in dignity.” Perry and Aria’s worlds are not at all alike.

Verdict:
Under the Never Sky revolves around a clash of two worlds, but Rossi’s use of elements from different genres does anything but clash. The plot is unique, the characters are likable, and the narration enhances the theme of a romance overcoming differences. With the final book in the trilogy coming out in January 2014, pick up Under the Never Sky and delve into Rossi’s universe.

Glimpse (Zellie Wells #1)

Glimpse by Stacey Wallace Benefiel

Glimpse (Zellie Wells #1)
4.5 out of 5 stars

Quotes: “Since we’re nearing the ever so wonderful state sanctioned standardized tests, there are thirty extra vocabulary words this week. Apparently, none of you is to be left behind.”

For Readers Who:

(1) Don’t mind a bit of teenage angst. Wait, hear me out. I am usually averse to all forms of angst (I still shudder at my experience with Holden Caulfield), but this book spins the situation in a humorous and quite lovable way.

(2) Enjoy clever plots. Benefiel doesn’t just stick a supernatural creature into a human world. Her books are far more creative.

Review: Glimpse is one of those books whose concept I would have never been able to come up with on my own. I love books that fit into that category because I read a lot of plots from many, many books.

Plot aside, what is most memorable about Glimpse is its humor and dynamic characters. When I mentioned that it was an “angsty” book, I did not mean that Zellie had the kind of angst of Holden Caulfield (gag). She isn’t having an existential dilemma. As she journeys through high school with her best friend Claire and her little sister Melody, she tries to attract the attention of the boy who always seems to catch her eye, Avery, without looking like too much of a spaz in the process.

The book’s humor comes from the sheer relatability of Zellie’s awkward encounters with the boy she likes. She may have visions, but she is still a teenager, and her inner dialogue and her interactions with Claire and Melody are memorable because they are genuine, sometimes self-deprecating, but (most importantly) fueled by their love for one another.

The supernatural element in this book is original and exciting. I will not say more, because I do not want to spoil it. However, Zellie’s visions are just the harbinger of her supernatural power.

Verdict: While this is a book about a girl with extraordinary powers, Zellie’s appeal is her very ordinariness. Her relationships with her best friend and sister are the anchor of this novel and are at the heart of its humor. While Glimpse is somewhat angsty, in the sense that Zellie is rendered as a genuine and believable 16 year old girl, it is not annoying because her inner dialogue is so funny.

Darkness Watching (Darkworld #1)

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Darkness Watching (Darkworld #1)
3 out of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

For Readers Who:
(1) Are willing commit to a series. This book leaves the reader with many unanswered questions.
(2) Don’t need for a plot to revolve around romance.
(3) Enjoy reading about fictional worlds populated by demons (in some ways, this book reminded me of Rachel Vincent’s Soul Screamers series).

Review:
I’m torn about how to review this book. The series has a lot of potential and Adams has clearly put a lot of thought into the world she has created. However, I didn’t love this book. 

The hidden world of demons that she creates is an interesting one. However, the plot moves slowly so that we learn hardly anything about it by the end of the novel. Like Clare’s Mortal Instruments series, there are a couple of run ins with creatures from hell. These scenes, which should have read as action-packed, ass-kicking, edge-of-your seat (or wherever you like to read) page turners, instead felt like they were only there to move the plot forward.

I had a similar reaction to the characters. I really, really wanted to love the main character, Ashlyn. She goes to college to study English literature and I went to college to study English literature. You think that I would have had a natural affinity for her. All I can say is that if we had ended up in the same class, we wouldn’t have been friends because she was just plain boring most of the time.

As for her romantic interest, he was more boring than she was, which is kind of an impressive feat. 

Verdict: The plot is slower than it needed to be and the main character sometimes lacked dimension. However, the way in which the book ends promises that the sequel will be far more interesting. Adams’ world-building is what redeems this book, and I will likely continue with this series.