Book Review: Young Adult: The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie

The Abyss Surrounds Us cover

Cas has fought pirates her entire life. But can she survive living among them?

For Cassandra Leung, bossing around sea monsters is just the family business. She’s been a Reckoner trainer-in-training ever since she could walk, raising the genetically-engineered beasts to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena swoops in on Cas’s first solo mission and snatches her from the bloodstained decks, Cas’s dream of being a full-time trainer seems dead in the water.

There’s no time to mourn. Waiting for her on the pirate ship is an unhatched Reckoner pup. Santa Elena wants to take back the seas with a monster of her own, and she needs a proper trainer to do it. She orders Cas to raise the pup, make sure he imprints on her ship, and, when the time comes, teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to paint the sea.

Title: The Abyss Surrounds Us
Author: Emily Skrutskie, Twitter
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Post-apocalyptic SF
Publisher: Flux, Twitter
Publication Date: February 8, 2016
Format: Paperback
Length: 273 pages
ISBN-10: 0738746916
ISBN-13: 9780738746913

Series or Standalone: The Abyss Surrounds Us #1

Literary Awards: N/A

Themes: QUILTBAG, Romance, Pirates, climate science fiction
POV: 1st Person Singular
Tense: Present

Reviewer: Marisa Greene

Where I Got It: Recced by a friend

Cover Notes:  Holy crap, guys.  Loved this cover!  Normally I’m not much for textured titles, but this just fit so well.  The light effects are a bit flashy for me, but they’re story related, so I’m dealing with it.

Review:  

There are good and bad things about this book.  I don’t love the first person present here.  It doesn’t feel like it serves the purpose I expect that set-up to serve.  The pacing doesn’t match it, mainly.  But I did like Cas’s voice, so that’s something, I guess.  I appreciated her snark in the face of adversity.  I wish the main characters were fleshed out a bit more, too.  Like, I get Swift is the mysterious stranger.  But I could have done with a bit more personality.

Now, the premise of the book is fantastic.  War leviathans?  Sign me up.  Also, the romance angle.  Although the execution was a bit lacking in this book, there’s a sequel.  It gets better, I think.  I should take now to mention I’ve already read the sequel.  A lot of stuff makes more sense, and more plot lines get tied up or at least explored, if you read the sequel.  It’s basically one story rather than two sequential stories.  I could still wish some things developed faster, but that’s how this structure works.

Although I liked Cas’s voice, I wish her character had been a bit less bland.  Besides her Reckoner training training, there’s not a ton to the character.  Perhaps it’s because the action/adventure part started so early.  But I would have liked more understanding of her relationship to her family.  More about who she was besides being a trainer in training.  I think this lack of development hurts her character in this book and the sequel.  It’s a lot more interesting for me when someone has to make tough decisions if I feel I know enough about them to justify both the internal conflict and their choice.

One of the main things I liked about this book was that Cas was both not white and not straight.  The sexual orientation aspect was really well handled, to me.  Not preaching, judging, ham-handedness.  But she seems so bland it’s hard to see any influence from her Asian heritage.  Maybe that’s how it should be.  Either way, it’s nice to see some diversity.

The setting for this story is pretty important.  It’s something of a climate science fiction story, with rising water levels and the break-up of big countries into smaller political units.  Thus the need for the Reckoners.  Although it’s only vaguely sketched out in the book, I think it works well as a backdrop, and there’s nothing that makes you feel like it’s a cheap gimmick.  It informs the attitudes of both the privileged “shore” people with national citizenship, and the nation-less “pirates”.

The supporting characters here, especially as you read the sequel, are very neatly-drawn.  Although the main villain in the first book is a bit one-note, banging the cruel manipulation drum non-stop, the rest of the “bad” characters have some nice nuance to them, which is something you don’t always see in these sorts of stories.

Because it’s the first of a duology, the conclusion leaves a bit to be desired, but it pays off by the end of the second book.  The only plot-hole was the whole trope of animals tasing human blood.  It was played up a lot by Cas, but in the end, as the SBTB review says, it didn’t seem to have much effect?

Finally, the romance angle was cool.  There’s a really fantastic scene where the concept of consent comes up.  You’ll know it when you see it.

Conclusion: 78/100 (Has its flaws, but totally worth it for the awesome sea monsters)
Premise: 10/10 (For awesome, even if the science is bullshit)
Plot: 7/10 (Pretty standard kidnapping story)
Setting: 8/10 (Could have been deeper but worked well)
Main Character: 7/10 (Pretty standard YA protag)
Orientation: 8/10 (No yuck, but little relevance?)
Romance: 8/10 (An extra point for dealing with consent issues)
Supporting Characters: 8/10 (Loved ’em)
Writing: 8/10 (Very smooth aside from the tense and perspective issues)
Themes: 7/10 (Standard but well-executed)
Resolution: 7/10 (First-book-itis)

Buy Or Borrow:  Buy or borrow, either one is a good choice here.

Similar Books:

Can’t think of any obvious similar books off the top of my head.  Paolo Bacigalupi’s Shipbreaker series, maybe?

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
Kirkus Reviews
Publishers Weekly
Books, Bones, and Buffy
Rich in Color
The Lesbrary (major first-half spoilers!)

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
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“13 Reasons Why Series” Review/Critique (with Spoilers)

I though up a couple cutesy titles for this post, but in the end I went with clarity.  I’m also not using our standard reviewing format, as this is less of an official review and more of a response to the criticism I’ve been seeing online lately for the Netflix series based on Jay Asher’s 2007 novel.  There’s a lot of it, and I found much of it to be either shallow or overly-positive.  13 Reasons Why is a great series.  It’s not perfect.  Besides the difficulties of translating a novel with such a unique structure to a narrative television show, the creators were also hit and miss with their narrative editions and their portrayal of the various topical issues.

 

First, I want to say that I really liked the shift in structure from one night to several weeks.  Spacing it out was great because it let the focus widen to show us more context.  And that context played into the themes I most enjoyed in the story.

 

The first such theme is often done, but rarely done well.  The unreliable narrator.  It’s powerful because it’s true to life and creates tension.  The places the narrator is unreliable can do a great deal of indirect characterization.  Many critiques mentioned Hannah as an unreliable narrator.  Even some specific examples were given, such as when she “lied” about Zach throwing away the note she sent him.  But with the hope that I haven’t read too much into things, I think that’s a mistaken criticism.  After all, Zach “showed” Clay the note,  but Clay himself had never seen the note, and even declined to take and read it.  There’s actually no proof one way or the other that Hannah lied.

Technically speaking, only Hannah and Clay are actually narrators.  But many of the other characters lied about what really happened.  Some were clearly in denial, while others had more rational motivations.  Jessica, for example, was possibly in denial or honestly didn’t remember what happened to her at the party.  Justin straight up lied about it for mostly self-serving reasons.  Courtney insisted almost to the bitter end that what Hannah said about her was a lie.  And in the beginning of the show, through Clay’s restricted point of view, many of these lies seemed quite plausible.  The counterpoint to an unreliable narrator is an ignorant one.

 

Given my real-life experience, both in middle and high school and the similar grounds of college, the show’s portrayal of this ambiguity is achingly true.  I’ve had quite similar experiences.  And that’s not limited to just the truth issue.  There’s also the excuses the characters give for their behavior, to others and to themselves.

There’s a very unsubtle scene near the end of the show where Justin explains why he lied to Jessica.  He makes a long speech about how much he owes Bryce.  While the execution was maybe a tad ham-fisted, the premise is absolutely brutally accurate.  Justin’s home-life and his need for both assistance and intimacy solidly ground his character and explain the majority of his actions without having to blame the idiot-ball or breaking character to serve the plot.  While it’s hard to sympathize with Justin due to his actions, I think the show left a lot of room for empathy.

The show also does a good job of showing various shades of peer pressure.  There’s a line that goes something like: “All the popular kids are mean.  That’s how they became popular.”  It sounds good, but I think there’s an unstated message in the show that more realistically captures how popularity works in younger social circles.  Alex’s plot-line for why he and Jessica broke up and for his place on Hannah’s list is a cliche.  It’s been done and done again: the guy lies about his “success” in getting laid to feel like part of the group, and in the process ruins the girl’s reputation.  There wasn’t anything particularly new and exciting about the portrayal of this arc in the show.  But we also saw several other similar situations involving the more popular male characters.  And it’s the combination of these various examples that I feel adds value to the show, as opposed to the one-note single instance portrayals that many other books and TV shows emphasize.

 

This contrast between the melodramatic, stereotypical examples of various social topics with the more understated versions is one of the general strengths of the show.  And though they are melodramatic, the examples at the high end of the scale aren’t false.  Bryce functions as the high end example of the sexually predatory untouchable jock archetype.  But while some of his actions may seem like he’s being used as a caricature, I’ve experienced or witnessed almost all of them multiple times in my own life.  He has a line from his confrontation with Clay where he talks about how girls play games and they all secretly want it, etc.  Then he asks if Clay is a virgin and tells him to go get laid a few times (or try) and then they can have a real talk about sex like adults.  A friend of mine once sent me a screencap of a guy on Facebook saying to him that he couldn’t talk about whether fucking drunk girls involved consent or not because he didn’t “know what it’s like to be an attractive white man and constantly have girls throwing themselves at you.”

 

In many ways, 13 Reasons Why is a very accurate portrayal of life in high school and by stretching a bit, in college.  It’s depressingly accurate, in fact.  And while everyone is going to have a different reaction to scenes of graphic violence such as the rape scenes and the suicide scene, I personally felt they added a great deal to the show and were not gratuitous.  The rapes were not titillating or fetishized as such scenes often can be.  They were violent and disturbing, and far less graphic than many articles criticizing them have suggested.  I would not be averse to having a sort of content warning  at the beginning of the relevant episodes.  Some basic text warning of the scenes and their general location in time, even.  But I think they deserve to be in the show.

Although there are some definite places where the show could have been better,  mostly in regards to whacking the reader over the head with the message, overall I think I’d give it 85/100.

 

~ Marisa Greene

Magical Realism Mondays: The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle

a girl falling upside-down

It’s the accident season, the same time every year. Bones break, skin tears, bruises bloom.

The accident season has been part of seventeen-year-old Cara’s life for as long as she can remember. Towards the end of October, foreshadowed by the deaths of many relatives before them, Cara’s family becomes inexplicably accident-prone. They banish knives to locked drawers, cover sharp table edges with padding, switch off electrical items – but injuries follow wherever they go, and the accident season becomes an ever-growing obsession and fear.

But why are they so cursed? And how can they break free?

Title: The Accident Season
Author: Moira Fowley-Doyle
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Magical Realism
Publisher: Transworld Publishers, Corgi Childrens’
Publication Date: August 18, 2015
Format: Paperback
Length: 280 pages
ISBN-10: 055257130X
ISBN-13: 9780552571302

Series or Standalone: Standalone

Literary Awards: N/A

Themes: Abuse, Family
POV: 1st person
Tense: present

Reviewer: Marisa Greene

 

Administrative Note from Nick:  Due to a WordPress post-scheduling error, this is the unfinished draft of this review.  The full, complete review will be up as soon as Marisa has a chance to log in and make corrections.  Thanks.

Note 2:  From Marisa: I’m so sorry, guys!  I don’t know what happened!  I like to get all the non-review stuff out of the way before I actually sit down to write the review and save it as a draft.  Somehow that draft got published instead of the real post, but it’s a hassle to delete this and fix all the links, so I’m just copying and pasting the review into this post.

Where I Got It: Loaned to me by Atsiko after I heard great recs for it. I love Magical Realism, so I was very excited when Atsiko offered to loan me this book.  The premise sounded real interesting.  The cover was beautiful, as I mention below.

Cover Notes: The cover was beautiful.  I wish I saw more covers like this in YA.  I like the out of focus look and the odd orientation.  The font is nice, too.

Review: 

The writing of this book is the kind people like to call atmospheric.  it really makes you feel like you imagine the characters feel.  Which is odd in a 1st person narrative, but really nifty.  The opening is a bit contemplative for my taste, I think.  Very introspective and a lot of what I’d call exposition.  I don’t necessarily love the main character, Cara’s voice.  it’s a bit bland for my taste, although you might argue that contrasts well with the magical side of magical realism.  It’s a lot easier to take seriously when described by such an every girl.  Whereas if her best friend, Bea, was the narrator, her wild world-view would ground the piece.  A re-write from Bea’s perspective could be very illuminating, though probably not worth it for the author or most readers.

To be honest, the major flaw with the narrator is that besides her ex-step-brother Sam, I find basically all of the other main characters more interesting.  While they are built from their own stereotypes, the author does a great job of making it seem like they have lives beyond the narrator.  They do things with each other that don’t involve Cara, and that they must know would even be hurtful to her.  In a lot of YA, there’s so much focus on the narrator or their antagonist or their LI, that the relationships between the secondary characters get underfed.  The side characters and their independence are definitely one of the strengths of this book.

The plot is not a fast-paced headlong rush of action.  Even some contemporary or magical realist stories insist on a fast pace with a few slow interludes.  But I think Accident Season does very well with the slow unfolding and a few quick scenes instead.  I also enjoyed how, like in Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls, the normal activities of teenagers function so well to drive the plot forward.  It never seemed like anything was forced to advance the plot.  That’s a rare trait in a lot of books, YA and Adult.

The conclusion was a bit disappointing for me, especially given how much I enjoyed the build-up.  It fit the Magical Realist pattern beautifully, but it seemed a bit too pat, especially in the romantic arcs.  It’s quite obvious in my eyes who Cara will end up with, but two of the side characters ended up together in the one seeming authorial intrusion in the novel.  And the implications of that coupling irritated me.  They seemed a bit sexist, I think.  And if that had to be the pairing, I would have preferred it to not work out, be a sort of a tragic miss or just a case of unfortunate circumstances.

While there’s nothing new or innovative in the underpinnings of this story, or how it worked out, I think the arrangement of pieces was very adept and satisfying.

The one thing I’m unsure about is the setting.  This could really have been set in any English-speaking place.  There wasn’t anything in particular that anchored the book in small-town Ireland, County Mayo.  It could as easily have been in the Midwestern or Northeastern US in the month October.  I was a bit disappointed by that.  Or maybe I just missed the clues?

The premise of the accident season, which I really should have touched on earlier given its titular role in the story was one of my favorite parts of the story.  Even as just a character superstition without the magical realist elements, I think it could have been a strong basis for a story, even this story.  It’s unique as a device in my experience, but it’s totally believable that a real person would think this way, and the author does nothing to ruin that effect.

Overall, this was a solid story with some really fun elements.  It sits in the middle of my list of favorite Magical Realism novels.  I look forward to further work by this author.

Conclusion: 76/100 (A good book, though not great)
Premise: 9/10 (Accident season: really cool and original)
Plot: 8/10 (Solid and few plot holes, if any)
Setting: 7/10 (Atmospheric and believable, though not rooted strongly in a specific real-world place)
Main Character: 7/10 (Not bad, but overshadowed by the side-characters)
Magical Realism: 9/10 (Beautifully balanced ambiguity between reality and whimsy)
Romance: 4/10 (Predictable and boring, even disappointing)
Supporting Characters: 9/10 (Well-drawn, independent actors)
Writing: 8/10 (Beautiful and served the story)
Themes: 8/10 (Not new, but very well-explored)
Resolution: 7/10 (Good parts and bad)

Buy Or Borrow:  It’s definitely worth buying if you’re a big fan of (YA) magical realism.  If you like to visit but not stay, maybe borrow it from a friend.

Similar Books:

Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry

Interviews:

Writing.ie

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
TeenReads
The Book Smugglers (at Kirkus)
It Starts at Midnight
MuggleNet
Please Feed the Bookworm

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
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Magical Realism Mondays

A popular new genre in YA fiction is that of Magical Realism.  There are various definitions, but it is essentially a literary genre in which the fantastic is presented as no more remarkable than the mundane.  Also referred to as fabulism or new fabulism, it generally consists one no more than a couple fantastic elements in an otherwise normal world, generally unexplained, though often with an alternative rationalist explanation not privileged over the fantastic by the author or even sometimes the characters.

 

As of this leap day, we will be instituting a new feature, Magical Realism Mondays, where on the first or second Monday of each month, Marisa will be reviewing, possibly with spoilers, a Magical Realist YA novel, beginning with  Moira Fowley-Doyle’s The Accident Season.  Spoiler alerts will be posted if necessary.

Regularly scheduled ARC and post-pub reviews will still be posted, just not on these day.

Book Review: Young Adult: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Red Queen cover

The poverty stricken Reds are commoners, living under the rule of the Silvers, elite warriors with god-like powers.

To Mare Barrow, a 17-year-old Red girl from The Stilts, it looks like nothing will ever change.

Mare finds herself working in the Silver Palace, at the centre of
those she hates the most. She quickly discovers that, despite her red blood, she possesses a deadly power of her own. One that threatens to destroy Silver control.

But power is a dangerous game. And in this world divided by blood, who will win?

Title: Red Queen
Author: Victoria Aveyard
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Dystopian, Science Fantasy
Publisher: HarperTeen
Publication Date: February 10, 2015
Format: ARC
Length: pages
ISBN-10: 0062310631
ISBN-13: 9780062310637

Series or Standalone: Red Queen #1

Literary Awards: N/A

Themes: Loyalty, Betrayal, Class Warfare
POV: First Person, Singular POV
Tense: Present Tense

Reviewer: Marisa Greene

How I Found It: Happened across an ARC by way of a friend.

Cover Notes: Normally I prefer a bit more of a visual, but this cover was minimalist and surprisingly effective.  I like to think the Red blood on the Silver crown has a certain thematic resonance.  Plus the font is not horribly gimmicky, and the background color is soothing.

Soundtrack:  Hard to decide between Baroque music or more martial tunes for this one.  Or some angsty emo pop.  Because, damn there’s some whining in this book.  I like to think I was a bit more mature as a teenager–probably not.

Review:

I’ve seen a lot of comparisons in other reviews to either Red Rising by Pierce Brown.  There are some shocking similarities.  You can find plenty of examples on Goodreads.  It’s almost the female version, really.  The marketing hype played it up as The Selection by Kiera Cass meets Graceling by Kristen Cashore.  I fail to see any Graceling here, but the first few chapters are almost a novelette length version of “Selection”.

Let’s talk about that, for a bit.  It was boring.  A huge info-dump to display various Silver powers and introduce the Silver aristocrats who played a major part in the cast of the story.  Perhaps if Aveyard had gone into a bit more detail it could have been interesting.  As-is, it felt rushed, and the transition was poor.  I really liked the first couple chapters.  The Roman Empire with electricity thing was a bit heavy-handed.  The book starts out with literal bread and circuses in the form of a gladiatorial match.  Aveyard shoved quite a bit of info-dumping into that, too.  I understand her desire for a quick hook, in the form of threat of conscription for the main characters.  But she pushed too hard, and the set-up of the novel suffered for it.  It also relied on too many cliches.  I would have loved for Mare to steal her way into transport with the Scarlet Guard.  See how things go from there.  But of course, we had to go the sudden awakening of secret powers route.

Now for the steamy bits!  Or rather, the lack thereof.  There’s the requisite love triangle.  Or a square, in this case.  We have the childhood friend, in the form of Kilorn.  And then we have the two Princes of the Realm.  Because what’s a female MC without attracting every eligible bachelor for kingdoms around?  Honestly, I have no idea what the Princes see in Mare, whose a work-a-day Mary Sue character at best, and the speshulist of snowflakes.  I don’t think it’s a spoiler to admit that she naturally has a power no-one else does, having done nothing to earn it, and makes zero use of her pre-awakening skills once she learns to control that power.  There’s nothing but that undeserved power to distinguish her from every other angsty, helpless YA heroine.  I loved Mare the pickpocket, cliche or not, but Mareen the lightning-flinger has little to recommend her.

I’d also like to talk about the portrayal of women in the novel.  They’re all mean and conniving, except for out heroine who is selfish and whiny.  We even have a bona fide Evil Stepmother(TM), and a jealous rival for the heroines main princely love interest.  Some of the Goodreads reviews go into a lot more detail here, with quotes, even.  But practically every silver woman hates Mare on sight, despite plenty of male Silvers who like her, and more nuanced reactions from those who don’t.  Even to the point of being ridiculous.  Cal her no apparent reason to care for the MC, and his throwaway kindness at the beginning could have managed perfectly fine as just that, a throwaway that gets the heroine’s story going.  There are even the standard mean girls.  I would have liked more depth to most of the characters in the novel.

Finally, I need to talk about the conclusion.  No spoilers, but it was horribly predictable.  There’s a huge plothole involving the Queen’s powers.  She’s so powerful, and yet she seemed almost incompetent given how easily a couple of teenagers outwitted her.  So the end of the book did not come as a huge shock to me.  Perhaps the reader is supposed to be a bit sharper than Mare, but the difference between what the readr could figure out and what Mare could was way too large.

I thought I was prepared for this book when I saw the comp titles.  Not really my favorite area, though I’ve enjoyed other dystopians well enough.  But the massive hype left me quite disappointed when I flipped the last page of this book.  Though to be fair, I’m not quite the target audience.

Conclusion: 60/100 (I enjoyed it a bit, but it could have been a lot better)
Premise: 5/10 (Nothing new or exciting here)
Plot: 5/10 (Too many characters passing around the idiot ball)
Setting: 7/10 (Could have been better developed)
Main Character: 4/10 (Selfish and whiny)
Love Interest(s): 5/10 (Lots of boys, little variety)
Powers: 8/10 (Standard, but with great presentation)
Supporting Characters: 7/10 (Far better than the main characters, really.  Loved Julien and the King)
Writing: 6/10 (The mechanical aspect was quite good.  The meaning, rather pedestrian)
Themes: 6/10 (Some of my favorite themes, but poorly handled)
Resolution: 7/10 (Would have been cool if it wasn’t so obvious)

Buy Or Borrow: Borrow, unless this is your genre.

Similar Books:

The Hunger Games bu Suzanne Collins

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

The Selection by Kiera Cass

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Publishers Weekly
Kirkus Reviews
Muggle Net
USA Today
The Guardian
The Book Smugglers

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
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Book Review: Young Adult: Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

farizan cover

High-school junior Leila has made it most of the way through Armstead Academy without having a crush on anyone, which is something of a relief. Her Persian heritage already makes her different from her classmates; if word got out that she liked girls, life would be twice as hard. But when a sophisticated, beautiful new girl, Saskia, shows up, Leila starts to take risks she never thought she would, especially when it looks as if the attraction between them is mutual. Struggling to sort out her growing feelings and Saskia’s confusing signals, Leila confides in her old friend, Lisa, and grows closer to her fellow drama tech-crew members, especially Tomas, whose comments about his own sexuality are frank, funny, wise, and sometimes painful. Gradually, Leila begins to see that almost all her classmates are more complicated than they first appear to be, and many are keeping fascinating secrets of their own.

Title: Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel
Author: Sara Farizan
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Contemporary with a side of romance
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Publication Date: October 7, 2014
Format: NetGalley DRC
Length: 306 pages
ISBN-10: 161620284X
ISBN-13: 9781616202842

Series or Standalone: Standalone

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes:GLBT
POV: First person
Tense: Present

Reviewer: Marisa

Where I Got It: I asked Nick to keep an eye out for interesting contemp novels on NetGalley, especially involving diverse authors or characters. He gave me the summary for this one, and it sounded fun. Even though the cover was pink and had lips on it, it didn’t seem like a standard romance, so I figured why not?

Cover Notes: I really liked the cover here, although it was a bit pink. I think it implies a more classic romance plot than is really present, but that might just be me. I wish there had been more of an actual image here.

Review:

There were a lot of things to like about this book. The main character, Leila was a very good YA MC. She was a bit clueless, and a little privileged; which is fairly standard for YA protags. She also had a bit of a social misfit vibe, which Farizan handled very smoothly. It never felt forced or overdone. Despite Leila going to a fairly elite school, Farizan managed to make the story and Leila’s school life feel accessible to me, a middle class public school kid. That’s something I really like in an author.

Leila’s family, was also well-written, from my perspective. I felt like there was a strong theme of unreliable narration there, in the sense that at first, you really only see them through Leila’s eyes, but as she grows throughout the book, you realize she’s just as clueless about everybody else’s true selves as any teenager. It’s a common theme in YA, but only because it’s pretty common in real life.

The romance plot in the book was also great. Better than many YA romance plots I’ve come across. Saskia is exactly like many of the girls/boys who seem most alluring as a teenager. Now, there are a few cliches common to GLBT romances (and straight ones, too, to be fair): the clueless straight best friend with a crush, etc. But they’re handled pretty well by Farizan. There are some fun twists and turns, and they all felt pretty natural.

I said earlier I didn’t see this book as a classic romance; I think I should elaborate a bit. What I mean is that there’s so much more going on here than a straight romance plot. Many (but not all!) romance stories have way more focus on the romance than I’m interested in. Especially with love triangles–(I’m looking at you, Twilight!). There’s absolutely a strong romance component in this book, and it’s marketed that way. But there’s more than just that romance plot, and I think that gives a book more depth. I think a fair number of readers who aren’t romance fans could still enjoy this book.

Finally, this is a coming-out story. Not only is Leila not out, but she’s also a bit naive about the whole thing, and she believes many stereotypes about lesbians. The coming-out plot itself is fairly standard. There’s nothing shocking or unique about Leila’s experience, although her cultural heritage–she’s Iranian–does add some flavor to it. Farizan telegraphs many of the developments coming-out-wise fairly early, although she manages to keep the romance aspect of it a bit less obvious to the reader. That said, I’m not really criticizing her handling of it. Any readers not familiar with the coming-out narrative in modern fiction will find Farizan’s version accurate and interesting, and there are no real stereotypes perpetrated by the author herself.

Conclusion: 79/100 (Not brilliant, but very enjoyable)
Premise: 8/10 (Interesting, though not unique)
Plot: 8/10 (Engaging)
Setting: 8/10 (Well-depicted)
Main Character: 8/10 (Standard teenager, fun and not irritating)
Coming out plot: 7/10 (Nothing new or unique, but well-written)
Romance plot: 8/10 (Strong and realistic, but still cute and fun)
Supporting Characters: 8/10 (No cardboard cut-outs here)
Writing: 4/10 (Engaging)
Voice: 5/10 (Very realistic)
Themes: 8/10 (Well-executed)
Resolution: 7/10 (Very optimistic but not contrived)

Buy Or Borrow: If you’re looking for a contemp with strong romantic or GLBT themes, this is definitely worth a buy. If not, you might be better off borrowing it.

Similar Books:
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth
The Difference Between You and Me by Madeleine George
Ask the Passengers by A.S. King
Empress of the World by Sara Ryan

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
Publishers Weekly
YA Midnight Reads
Good Books and Good Wine
Writer of Wrongs
Little Hyuts

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
nook

Book Review: Young Adult: Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Love is the Drug cover

Emily Bird was raised not to ask questions. She has perfect hair, the perfect boyfriend, and a perfect Ivy-League future. But a chance meeting with Roosevelt David, a homeland security agent, at a party for Washington DC’s elite leads to Bird waking up in a hospital, days later, with no memory of the end of the night.

Meanwhile, the world has fallen apart: A deadly flu virus is sweeping the nation, forcing quarantines, curfews, even martial law. And Roosevelt is certain that Bird knows something. Something about the virus–something about her parents’ top secret scientific work–something she shouldn’t know.

The only one Bird can trust is Coffee, a quiet, outsider genius who deals drugs to their classmates and is a firm believer in conspiracy theories. And he believes in Bird. But as Bird and Coffee dig deeper into what really happened that night, Bird finds that she might know more than she remembers. And what she knows could unleash the biggest government scandal in US history.

Title: Love is the Drug
Author: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Thriller
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication Date: September 30, 2014
Format: DRC from Netgalley
Length: 355 pages
ISBN-10: 0545417813
ISBN-13: 0545417813

Series or Standalone: Standalone

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Family, Trust, Epidemics, Bioterrorism
POV: 3rd person
Tense: Present

Reviewer: Marisa

Where I Got It: Nick scored the DRC from NetGalley. I’m glad to find something in the thriller genre that doesn’t also touch on dystopia. Not that I dislike dystopia, but it’s nice to have a break now and again.

Cover Notes: Simple, but effective. It does follow the thriller dystopian trend of having a basic color and a symbol, but I would totally pick this up in a bookstore.

Soundtrack: I found my X-Files soundtrack perfect for this one.

Review:

This is a difficult book to review. It had many elements that I loved in isolation. The main character is a well-off black girl living in DC. There are shady operatives everywhere, and the plot is based on biology and epidemiology. The main character is coming to a realization that not everything is the way she thought it was, and that “perfect” is an illusion. I love all these things in a book, especially a YA book. But!

This book is smack-dab in the thriller genre, and so is basically every single trope, convention, and character archetype. There’s basically nothing seasoned thriller fans haven’t seen before. Seasoned romance readers will also be quite familiar with the way this book goes. For the most part, the pace was fast enough that I did’t stop to think about these things too hard, but when I did, the cracks showed pretty clearly. I’m sure many readers will say it’s just a consequence of the genre. For that reason, didn’t mark the book down in those areas as much as I might have otherwise.

Another issue I had with the book was the love interest. Coffee is a drug dealer. We first meet him snorting coke in the basement at a party. He seems like a nice dude. He claims drugs to him, especially his own personal formulas, are mind-expanders in his pursuit of enlightenment. But I dislike the fact that the cynic whistle-blower in these sort of books is always a criminal of soe sort. He also takes the role of the magical poor person, because of course all the rich folks are clueless or corrupt, and can’t see past their selfish goals. It’s quite a “teenage rebellion” cliche with all the tropes, including the “perfect”, popular boyfriend who’s going places, that everyone knows the MC would be perfect with, pitted against the bad boy loner with a few good friends who’s so “real”, and “bad” for her supposed goals. Again, this could just be my personal preference. Plenty of books with similar romance plots have sold very well, so I didn’t mark the book down too much for this.

The plot itself is quite tight, and has few holes. It’s no particularly creative, but the writer has a great sense of pacing, and you’ll keep turning the pages. You can see most of the twists coming, but at least they make sense for the most part. There were a few times when the book was confusing, such as when it would switch to first person seemingly randomly. I think it was a narrative device the author was trying out. I don’t think it worked too well.

The main character, Bird, has a good teenage voice. That’s an important aspect of a good YA novel, and Johnson has it nailed down. The fact that she is black comes across very clearly. I didn’t find myself falling into the default white MC trap. She responded mostly realistically to the various revelations, and she had that teenage flip-flopping/back-and-forth thing going on, especially in her romantic life. There was strong but realistic peer-pressure. She didn’t come across as whiny or immature. This was one of the more positive aspects of Johnson’s writing.

I found this book pretty average. I’m writing this review a few weeks after finishing the book, and I had to remind myself of a few things. But I would definitely pick up another book by this author, assuming the back cover sounded good.

Conclusion: 74/100 (Mildly entertaining, but not fantastic)
Premise: 6/10 (Standard thriller premise)
Plot: 8/10 (Well-constructed but not very original)
Setting: 7/10 (Could have been anywhere, really)
Main Character: 8/10 (Good concept, decent execution)
Romance sub-plot: 6/10 (Cliche, but decently written)
Love Interest: 7/10 (Not a fan of the noble badboy trope)
Supporting Characters: 7/10 (Standard thriller cliches)
Writing: 4/5 (Not bad enough to make me stumble)
Voice: 4/5 (Good when not confusing)
Themes: 7/10 (Fairly cliche approach)
Resolution: 8/10 (Nice twist)

Buy Or Borrow: Definitely worth a buy, if you like thrillers or conspiracies

Similar Books:
There are a surprisingly small number of YA thrillers that don’t strongly overlap with another genre such as dystopia or speculative fiction. I might update this section as I run across more.

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Publishers Weekly
Kirkus Reviews
Lit Up Review
Teen Librarian Toolbox
YA Books Central
Dreams in Tandem

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK Not currently available
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
nook