Tag Archive | 4 stars

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.

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.

World After (Penryn & The End of Days, Book 2)

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The World After (Penryn & The End of Days, Book 2)
4 out of 5 stars

Quotes: “You’re naming your collector’s-item, kick-ass sword that’s made to maim and kill, specifically designed to bring your ginormous enemies to their knees and hear the lamentation of their women—Pooky Bear?”

For Readers Who:
(1) Enjoy kick-ass, weapon-wielding heroines who don’t need to be saved.
(2) Like to laugh…out loud…probably at inappropriate times.
(3) Don’t mind plots that bounce from one thread of a story to another (Oh, unraveling romance. Yes, I forgot about that weird angel political campaign. What the…genetic engineering?) It is clear that these will converge later in the series, but right now, these plot lines are tenuously connected.

Review: Susan Ee makes me laugh. I can’t read her books in public because her wry sense of humor elicits sounds from me in which strangers think I am either possessed or need the Heimlich maneuver.

Besides the one above, these are some quotes that I found dry and very witty. Too bad I was drinking water while reading the second one (there should be warning labels on humorous prose):

Penryn finds Angels on Alcatraz: “At least the angels didn’t have the sense of humor to take over the neighboring Angel Island instead.” 

On the damage to San Francisco: “Splinters the size of redwood trees are everywhere. Too bad angels aren’t killed like vampires. We could lure them here and have a field day.” 

I have to agree with some reviewers that noted that the plot of the novel was slow. About a third of the way through reading, I got frustrated and starting paging through the rest of the book to figure out when Rafe made his grand entrance. Yep. This book kept the male protagonist from me for so long that I became the literary equivalent of a peeping tom.

The consolation for this was that Rafe’s sword had its own POV sections. Yes…a sword with a narrative point of view. It’s actually kind of an ingenious move that Ee makes because the sword is emotionally connected to Rafe and has shared almost all his experiences. So while Rafe isn’t with Penryn, the sword is.

Some of my favorite characters are still Dee and Dum. Their banter with each other and Penryn adds a humorous dimension to the narrative to a book whose subject might keep it from being having moments of lightness. I hope that we will see more of the twins (and learn more of their history) in Book 3. 

Verdict: For fans of Angelfall, World After is a must read. Ee’s use of humor and her believable relationships are what separate this series from the many dystopian /apocalyptic novels that have appeared in recent years. She uses fictional conventions in new and interesting ways (i.e. who ever sat down and wrote from a sword’s POV?). Remember, I advise you not to read her books in public…try explaining how a book made coffee come out of your nose.

Angelfall (Penryn & The End of Days, Book 1)

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Angelfall (Penryn & the End of Days, Book 1)
4 out of 5 stars

Quotes: “Asleep, he looks like a bleeding Prince Charming chained in the dungeon. When I was little, I always thought I’d be Cinderella, but I guess this makes me the wicked witch. But then again, Cinderella didn’t live in a post-apocalyptic world invaded by avenging angels.”

For Readers Who:
(1) Enjoy kick-ass, weapon-wielding heroines who don’t need to be saved.

(2) Are looking for a series in which romance is not the main focus of the plot.

(3) Can keep an open mind to the unexpected mash-up of genres that the novel employs. This book incorporates varying elements of dystopian and apocalyptic fiction, paranormal romance, and science fiction (specifically genetic engineering). Surprisingly, Ee makes it work, but only if the reader is able to give her a measure of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “poetic faith.” If you are already reading a novel about an angel apocalypse, is it really that much stranger that the story moves to a 1920’s themed club? I mean, even angels have to have somewhere to unwind after a long day of smiting.

Review: Angelfall has many things in common with YA books that have become bestsellers. For instance, like a number of series, Angelfall is set in a post-apocalyptic or dystopian world. Similarly, the plot of Angelfall revolves around YA’s current obsession with angels and demons.

However, Angelfall is not your usual YA novel. Where it differs from the majority of books that are published today is that, rather than following a formula (plot, genre, etc.) of what is selling, this novel breathes new life into these all too formulaic genres by defying the reader’s expectations.

I struggled over the best way to describe Angelfall because it is so unique. I honestly had nothing else to compare to it. After significant deliberation, I believe I figured it out. This is what I finally came up with:
YA books = Twilight, The Hunger Games, etc.
Angelfall = the appeal of the above + Buffy the Vampire Slayer (more weapons and action, more humor, more female self-sufficiency)

Penryn and Buffy are both strong, female heroines. One thing I loved about the plot (and Penryn’s character) was that Ee did not make her strength purely physical. Before the reader is witness to Penryn’s amazing training at self-defense, the first few chapters show her as a devoted sister to a physically handicapped sister and a schizophrenic mother. Her interactions with her mother are fascinating. Before the apocalypse, her mother’s paranoia about the devil led her to sign Penryn up for as many self-defense classes as she could find. 

While Penryn is now able to protect her family from much of the violence, her mother’s hyper vigilance also helps keep them safe: “In a civilized world where there are laws, banks, and supermarkets, being a paranoid schizophrenic is a major problem. But in a world where the banks and supermarkets are used by gangs as local torture stations, being a little paranoid is actually an advantage.”

The relationship in the book unfolds slowly and is not the singular focus of the novel. Angelfall is plot-driven, although it sets up a romance that offers much promise for the future books in the series.

Verdict: Penryn is a kick-ass heroine with a heart of gold. In a similar vein to Katniss from The Hunger Games, Penryn sacrifices for the good of her family. Likewise, she is used to “saving” herself, and when a man comes along who can save her, she refuses to be cast in the role of the damsel in distress. Rather, she continues to fight. Angelfall is anything but formulaic. Although the romantic element of the novel unfolds slowly, the plot is quick-paced and the novel offers unexpected twists through Ee’s unique combination of elements from a variety of genres (post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, and paranormal romance).