Review: We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan & Brian Conaghan

ARC provided by NetGalley!
★★★☆☆

This was a cute, short read (more of a novella than anything) written in verse, about two outsiders and the bond that forms between them. Jess comes from a violent household and can’t wait to escape, and Nicu recently immigrated from Romania and is having trouble fitting in, and when they both get sent to a youth correctional program on Saturdays, they quickly become friends.

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The book, though short, had a poignancy that some long YA books struggle to achieve, and it managed it in half the words. It’s easily a book you can read in one sitting (I finished it in a few hours). I didn’t realize until I began that it was written in verse; at first I thought my Kindle formatting was messed up. Honestly, I didn’t care for it, but I didn’t actively dislike it either. I don’t think it added anything to the story, but it also didn’t take away from it—overall it was a good thing in that it enabled the story to develop quickly and shed all the excess weight that most YA books have.

Nicu as a character came across as a bit too naive, especially for someone his age—he felt like some kind of innocent baby rather than a teenage boy. I don’t think being a teenager changes much between cultures, so this felt weird, like they were infantilizing him just because he couldn’t speak fluent English. Other than that, he was easily the best character because he was so forgiving and adorable.

Jess on the other hand was hard to care about, because she was such a mean person in some respects. For one, there’s active portrayal of domestic abuse in the book, and Jess continually thinks that her mother is the problem, that she’s not strong enough to leave Jess’ step-father, which is pretty insulting. (Also, I’m not sure I understood the whole obsession her step-father had with Jess filming him while he hit her mother. It was weird and it made me wonder why Jess, who apparently is so talented at stealing, didn’t just take his phone and go to the police with all of that evidence.) In the same vein, she ignores Nicu even when they’re established friends, letting him get bullied in front of her without saying a word. (Later in the book she speaks up, but it still annoyed me that she thought her mother was the weak one when she allowed her friend to be ruthlessly bullied.)

The climax came about pretty quickly, without much explanation, and it all felt a bit rushed, but I think that can be expected from the storytelling method: it was quick and to the point, focusing on feeling rather than details.

In the end it was a nice, quick read, timely in its depiction of racism and a poignant portrayal of love and loss.

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Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

★★★½

“All my life,” she said, “I have been told to ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”

the-bearFirst of all, what a gorgeous, evocative book this was. Everything about it—from the cover to the writing to the entrancing main character—had me soaking up every word. As someone who is pretty sick of the YA/NA genre in general, this appeased me for a few reasons:

  1. We had a fantastic, strong, bold main character, Vasya, who is frequently described as ‘ugly’, although the way she commands herself and her presence is captivating to nearly everyone around her. She also refuses to accept her ‘lot in life’, aka being married off to a man, getting fat, and popping out a few kids, or alternatively going to a convent to live out her years as a quiet, docile virgin.
  2. Vasya doesn’t get all swoony over men. In fact, though there is some kissing and hinting, there’s really no romance in this book. *fist pump*
  3. Although I really don’t know anything about Russian culture (and I should probably change that), the lore and mythology in this book were fascinating and easy to understand for a noob like me.

Okay, now why only 3 stars? I was wondering that myself, because as I was reading the last few chapters I was thinking, “This is awesome. It’s well written. Vasya is authentic and I want to chill with her. So why do I kind of just want this book to end?”

I guess my problem was that a few things throughout the story were compounding and made the ending lackluster. Here are a few (spoilers below, obviously):

  1. A big subplot through the story is that Vasya’s father is given a necklace from the winter king to give to his daughter. Instead, Dunya, the nurse, keeps it to give to Vasya once she’s older. Dunya repeatedly has dreams where the winter king comes to her and, in a pretty threatening manner, demands that Vasya receive the necklace. Dunya begs him, a few times, to give her “one more year,” because Vasya is still just a girl. This all makes it sound as if the giving of the necklace will mean something terrible for Vasya, like the winter king is going to steal her or she’ll be sent on some dangerous mission or something. Well, the giving of the necklace happens finally, and … nothing happens. Maybe I’m missing something, but basically the necklace didn’t do anything or change anything in any way, since what was coming was coming not due to Konstantin’s meddling, not anything Vasya could prevent (even with the assistance of the necklace). The evil force in the book wasn’t deterred by the giving of the necklace, nor did the necklace protect Vasya from harm. Sometimes the necklace would burn like ice against her skin but I’m not sure what exactly that was supposed to … mean. Sure, it sounds cool (pun not intended, but I’ll roll with it), but overall the entire necklace subplot had no purpose other than keeping readers wondering what would happen once Vasya received it. And the answer is … nothing.
  2. At the battle in the end, Vasya calls on the household spirits to come and aid her fighting against Medved/the Bear/the one-eyed man. Then she realizes that’s kinda fruitless, since the household spirits are bound to their hearths and can’t leave. But then they arrive. Somehow. I kept waiting for there to be an explanation for this, but there wasn’t. Further, the spirits don’t even do anything in the battle other than look ragged, enforcing the idea that, if Vasya wins, her victory will have been again nearly unbeatable odds.
  3. I was ridiculously excited to see Vasya kick some evil spirit ass at the end of this book, because she was truly an awesome, strong character. I wanted to see her prove everyone wrong and save the village. But in the end, who does the saving? Her father. UGH. Her father, who was away on some journey to help out a village that had burned down (and this didn’t factor into the plot at all), comes back in the nick of time, barrels into the fight, and gives up his life to save his daughter, which apparently binds the Bear from doing any more harm. Think Lily Potter binding Voldemort with her love for Harry. So yeah, viola, fight scene is over, father is dead, evil force is vanquished, etc. This would’ve been sad because her father was a kind character, except it happened so fast and was so completely random that I barely had time to process it. Adding insult to injury is the fact that we didn’t get to see Vasya beat the odds. Instead, a man saved her. This annoyed the crap out me, because I LOVED this line that Vasya said right before the fight:

    “To the oak-tree. To the Bear’s clearing,” said Vasya. “As fast as you can run.” (…)
    Solovey put his head up, a stallions scenting battle. But he said, You cannot do it alone. (…)
    “Cannot?” said Vasya. “I will do it. Hurry.”

    What a BAMF! Alas, her BAMFness was foiled by a middle aged man.

  4. Konstantin, the priest who is basically bringing about all of this evilness by making the villagers afraid (that is what the Bear feeds on), is tossed from the story at the end in almost a throwaway scene: Vasya and the winter king go to his room, and the winter king stands behind her menacingly, projecting himself like a flame-eyed skull, and Vasya basically tells the priest to get lost, which he does. This happens right after Vasya is supposed to be mourning her father’s death, and instead the scene came off as comical—they walked out of the room laughing. I feel like this was included because there was no other way to wrap up Konstantin’s plotline.

Overall, the book had so many loose ends that I can’t even count them all. As I was writing this, more and more kept popping into my head. The gorgeous writing honestly made up for a lot of what it lacked in plot, but in the end I didn’t feel connected to anyone in the story but Vasya, none of the deaths affected me, and the climax/battle scene was a let down.

Still, I encourage you to read this if you’re looking for a beautifully written book with a strong main character. On both of those fronts, The Bear and the Nightingale is gold.

ARC received through Barnes & Noble. The Bear and the Nightingale goes on sale January 17, 2017.

Review: A Wizard’s Forge by A.M. Justice

★★☆☆☆

DNF at 31%.

This book wasn’t bad in any sense. It just felt kind of lackluster. I would advise readers not to judge it based on its title or cover, because it’s really not a strict fantasy. It’s got a lot of interesting sci-fi elements mixed in, and the world-building was by far my favorite part of the book. You can tell the author spent a load of time imagining this world and the societies in it.

Basically, the book centers around a young girl named Vic, who becomes the youngest Logkeeper in her village’s history. It’s her job to memorize the logs of the ancient ship that brought humanity to the planet, and then travel around the countryside and teach the meaning of the logs to children. At least this is what I understood to be happening. Apparently humanity began because this ship, Elesendar, was unable to make it to another planet. I might be butchering this, but it was kind of confusing. There are some who see Elesendar as a ship, and others who see it as a god (which was a cool touch), and then there are moments when the narrator mentions that Elesendar was setting (like a star or constellation) — I really didn’t know what to make of it.

Vic is kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery – as the mistress of the “bad guy”, Lornk, who is leading the war against a neighboring country. He traumatizes her emotionally, stripping her of who she was. This doesn’t translate well to a memorable protagonist, because for the rest of the book she’s looking to become who she was before and get vengeance. She felt hollow and not fleshed out, which was perhaps the point, but it didn’t make it very palatable.

She eventually escapes and meets another royal family, is sent on walkabout in a forest in the middle of winter to learn her destiny, then joins the army, and… this is where I stopped because it was just too much. It felt aimless and disjointed for the majority of the book, with too many characters that weren’t fleshed out, plot lines that would begin and end, hints at romance that went nowhere, and the change of scenery every other chapter was really hard to keep a grasp on.

Another odd quirk was the idea of “mindspeech”, where certain civilizations spoke only through their mind. This had a weird effect of not meshing well with my imagination, because it was hard for me to picture Victoria speaking out loud while everyone else in the room spoke to her through their brains. It seemed awkward and kind of goofy.

I think I just wasn’t the right person for this book. Again, it wasn’t bad by any means, and aside from some odd quirks I thought it was interesting. I just couldn’t connect with it at all.

** I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to the author and publisher for giving me the chance to check it out!

 

Review: In the Present Tense by Carrie Pack

★★☆☆☆

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The premise of this was pretty interesting: Miles, 25, wakes up one morning to find himself lying next to an unfamiliar woman in an unfamiliar house, when he swears he just fell asleep in his bedroom at his parents’ house, age 16, after kissing his boyfriend Adam goodnight. What he’s experiencing is one of many “episodes”, his wife Ana tells him, where he seems to time travel. Retaining the body of his 25-year-old self, his mind reverts to all of the memories and emotions of another version of him, whether past or present.

Right off the bat, if you can’t stand switches in POV or timeline changes in books, this is definitely not for you. Within just the first 10% of the book, the POV switches at least twice, and the character wakes up, goes to sleep, passes out, etc. probably a dozen times in between his episodes. This got pretty irritating quickly.

The plot centers around Miles’ quest to find out why exactly he time travels. Most don’t believe him, and his psychiatrist says that he might have a form of Dissociative Disorder, but Miles swears that there’s more to the story and sets out to find answers, even if those answers have to come from his high-school ex, Adam.

The story started off interesting enough, although the multiple timelines and dates and “versions” of Miles to keep tabs on were difficult to jump right into. I found Miles a pretty boring, undeveloped character with kind of stereotypical behaviors (for instance, when he reverted to his younger self, he was always chewing his thumb, not making eye-contact, shuffling behind people, etc.). All of the characters suffered from being underdeveloped, although Ana was definitely my least favorite. She was really mean and cursed a lot. Overall, I couldn’t connect with any of them.

The reason I gave it two stars is that you can tell the author spent a lot of time working out these timelines, and time travel is a really difficult idea to pull off. The mystery aspect of it, including the secret time travel society and experimentation aspects, were really cool and I was eager to learn about them, making it a fast read.

Unfortunately, this book just wasn’t for me. It felt flat, other than the time travel aspects, and pretty dull, with most of the big scenes being totally glossed over. For instance, when Miles checks himself into a psychiatric center for continuous care, he meets a young girl who says (SPOILER, kinda?) she can time travel too. The two plan an escape, talking about how difficult it will be and all the planning that will go into it… and then the next chapter, they’re already out. The entire escape scene wasn’t included, even though it could have brought some much-needed excitement and action into the story.

The romance between Adam and Miles felt kind of forced, and Ana and Miles together made zero sense to me. They said they fell in love (despite the original, loveless reason for their marriage), but I never felt that Ana loved him, just that she didn’t want him to be alone. Maybe that’s just me.

So yeah. That was kind of harsh. But majorly cheesy dialogue + forced love-triangle/quadrangle/hexagon/whatever + zero action + not-so-great ending = meh. I honestly wanted to give it one star, but it was a fast read and I wanted to give the author props for putting time into it (no pun intended).

P.S. I think there might be a planned sequel, but I don’t think I’ll be reading it.

Review: Down Station by Simon Morden

★★☆☆☆

Review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

DNF at 68%. I feel terrible about this, but I just can’t finish it. I really wanted to so it would count toward my 2016 goal… Alas. I was slowly losing interest throughout the entire thing, but when people start turning into birds, I’m out.

Short description:
On the run from a massive, fiery cataclysm (of unknown origin), a group of tube workers escapes from the underground through a door that leads to … a rocky ocean shore. And when they turn around, the door is gone. Stranded in a strange new world where the moon is too big and the stars are gone, they meet a man with wolves on chains who tells them to go find the geomancer. Using the skills between them, they set off across the wild, empty world, wondering if they could be walking into a trap.

This book is different. It’s weird. It’s a mixture of elements I love, like survival and magical realism, time travel (sort of), portal fantasies, etc. The whole time I was reading, I wasn’t anticipating the next plot point like so many other novels tend to make me do; instead, I was simply along for the ride, waiting to see what would happen next.

I really love the idea of having the ability to simple “reset” and start over, and it was interesting to see the way that the author shaped the effects of this freedom on different characters. Some thrived, some stayed out of the way, some wanted nothing more than to go home, and some questioned what it was they truly wanted. It was a large cast of characters, to be sure, but with only two POVs I think the author handled it well. Another great thing: this cast is so diverse. The two main characters are Mary, a bad-mouthed orphan with a knack for not following the rules, and Dalip, a young Sikh and engineer.

Dalip struggles with his idea of identity in a place that doesn’t even have his religion, and Mary struggles with who she wants to be: as a reformed criminal and orphan before she came to this world, she has a choice now: she can either run away and make a life for herself with no rules and no one to tell her what to do, or she can rescue the people she may have come to think of as friends.

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Props for the beautiful cover, though!

My biggest issue, and the reason I simply can’t read any further, is that I couldn’t actually connect with these characters at all. I didn’t feel anything for any of them, and I couldn’t really root for their success.

Of what I did read, up to about 68 percent, I’d give it a 2/5. It was interesting, but not very original (portal fantasy with light magical elements [including a dragon]), and throughout the book there was so little explanation of what was going on that it all felt kind of pointless. I wanted to learn more, but I’d like that learning to be sprinkled throughout the book, not just dumped at the end so as to blow my mind.

Down Station is available now! Check it out if you’re interested.