All These Things I’ve Done

by Gabrielle Zevin
First sentence: “The night before my junior year — I was sixteen, barely — Gable Arsley said he wanted to sleep with me.”
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Content: There’s talk of sex and a lot of kissing, but nothing graphic. And there’s talk of violence, but again, nothing graphic. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-9) of the bookstore.

This one is a hard one to sum up, partially because the world Zevin created is so complex. It’s futuristic, but not exactly a post-apocalyptic or dystopian. It’s a world where things are strictly rationed, and coffee and chocolate and books are illegal. So, much like alcohol in the 1920s, there is a strong black market for those items. And our main character, Anya Balanchine (her friends call her Annie), is part of the Balanchine mafia family that has a strong presence in the chocolate market. Her father was the head of the family until he was shot and killed (in front of her) when she was 9. Annie and her older brother, Leo (who is slightly mentally disabled due to another hit meant for her father that killed their mother and disabled Leo) and younger sister Natalya have been raised the past 7 years by their grandmother, whose health is slowly failing.

Over the course of the year, things spin out of control for Annie. Her ex-boyfriend, Gable, ends up poisoned by chocolate, and Annie ends up in juvenile prison because of that. She falls for and dates the son of the assistant DA, in spite of the extreme pressure to break it off. She stresses about Leo, especially since he begins working for the family. And her grandmother finally passes away.

All that managed to fill up the book, which I wanted to like very much. But, aside from world creation, there really isn’t much there. Annie is a fascinating character, but I got tired of her waffling. I wanted her to step up and take charge. It’s not good when the most interesting character is the head of the Japanese mafia family who shows up for probably 10 pages. I hoped for more out of this one, and was disappointed.

I might give the second one in the series a try, just to see if it gets any better.

Slated

by Teri Terry
First sentence: “I run.”
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Content: It’s a pretty intense book, and I think the plot would be a bit difficult for younger readers to understand. But there’s nothing “objectionable” it. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Kyla has no memory beyond the past six months she’s been in the hospital in London. See, she’s been Slated by the government: a process done to criminals and terrorists to remove their memories. It’s most effective the younger you are — Kyla is only 16 — and after the process, they tie your consciousness to a device called a Levo, which monitors your endorphin levels. If you get too low, you black out. And die. Obviously, it’s supposed to reform the people who have it done, make them happy, productive members of society.

Except it didn’t quite work on Kyla.

While she doesn’t have any memories of her former life, she has nightmares. And she’s not as compliant as she should be. And so, back with her “Mom” and “Dad” in their small village outside of London, she starts noticing things. Noticing things which leads to questions. And we all know that in books like this, questions are never good.

This is a much less futuristic dystopian fantasy than most, and that’s one of the things, I think, that make it stand out. (The other being that it’s set in London. It’s nice to know that Big Brother is happening over there, too!) Sure, it’s set in the future — roughly 30 or 40 years — but there’s a lot that ties it to contemporary culture. The anti-terrorism movement, which leads to a really broad definition of “terrorist”. A government that seeks to control their population. The other thing that made this one unique for me is that Kyla wasn’t (for this book, at least; it might change) a lynchpin on which the Revolution of the Evil Government resides. She’s a girl who’s lost her memory but retained her consciousness. And it’s not until her friends start disappearing that she feels she needs to take action.

That lack of action is also a downside. I’m hoping that this is mostly just a world-building book, and that there’s more going on in the next one. While I did find the situations Terry put her character in fascinating, by the end of the book, there was more unanswered questions then there were answered ones. Additionally, I think the love interest was a bit forced; there was no need for her friendship to end up as a romance, and because of that, there was no underlying chemistry between the two of them.

That said, it was unique enough to hold my attention, I am curious to see where the next book goes.

Landry Park

by Bethany Hagen
First sentence: “Two hundred years ago, America found itself at a crossroads.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at work.
Content: There’s some talk of violence, though it’s all offscreen; a few mild swear word; and an illusion to an affair. It’s in the YA section (6-8th grade) of the bookstore, but I’d have no problems giving it to a younger child if they were interested.

Madeline Landry has grown up in a luxurious world: she’s the only child of an elite family and surrounded with opulence. She’s not particularly happy: she has struggles with her father over her education. She wants to got to university; he (and his will, not to mention the law) wants her to stay home, get married, run the estate, and pop out an heir. But she’s not entirely unhappy either: she loves her family and her home and the life. That is, until David Dana — the un-landed son of a gentry — comes into her life. Then, the things that have been skirting around her life — the class issues, the environmental concerns, especially with the lowest class, the Rootless — come front and center. Not to mention that David’s pretty dreamy.

In many ways, Hagen is treading the same ground as every dystopian book before her. America falls to the Eastern Empire, only managing to hang on by a thread. In the aftermath, a class system is formed — not based on race, as Hagen is so careful to point out — based on money and influence. And at the bottom are the Rootless, who handle the nuclear charges the gentry’s energy — and much of the wealth, especially the Landry wealth — comes from. And they’re getting restless. Where Hagen’s dystopian diverges from the pack is in the focus: Madeline is one of the elite, not the underclass. And when she has her eyes opened, she stands to lose everything. And I respected that.

I also really loved the world Hagen built, even though she never really gave us an explanation why the women were corseted and shoved into ball gowns and paraded around like it was Victorian England. I’m sure I could come up with some hypotheses — fancy dresses are synonymous with wealth? the women are as shackled as the Rootless? — but they are just that. No matter: Hagen is tackling issues that aren’t (readily, I think) usually seen in dystopia. Also, she doesn’t have a Romeo & Juliet love story going on here: both Madeline and David are from the gentry, and have to come to terms with their increasingly dissenting opinions.

It’s not a perfect beginning, but it is an intriguing one. I’m going to be curious to see where the rest of this series goes.

Cress

by Marissa Meyer
First sentence: “Her satellite made one full orbit around planet Earth every sixteen hours.”
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Content: Some violence, none of it gruesome. It’s shelved in the YA section (grades 6-8th), but I’d have no problems giving it to a capable younger reader.
Review copy given me by our MPS rep, who likes to enable my addictions.
Others in the series: Cinder, Scarlet

Obviously: If you haven’t read the other two, there will be spoilers.

So, our fearless (of sorts), rag-tag crew of a cyborg, a scruffy-looking nerfherder of a pilot, a disembodied android, a human girl, and a Lunar wolf-man operative are on the run from the Commonweath government. What are the most-wanted on Earth supposed to do? Especially when there’s an insanely evil queen who’s trying to take over the world by marrying the super-hot emperor? (“Tyrone, you know how much I love watching you work, but I’ve got my country’s 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I’m swamped”) Well, hang out in space, of course. And then go rescue Rapunzel in her tower. Or Cress in her satellite, that is.

Except the rescue operation goes wrong, and our group of rag-tag outlaws are split up. Scarlet ends up on Lunar (and doesn’t figure much in the story), Cress and Captain Thorne end up in the satellite, crashing in the Sahara desert. And Cinder, Wolf, and the New Guy end up looking for the crazy Dr. Erland. As the plot thickens….

C’s biggest complaint with this one was that there were too many plot lines. Which is true, to an extent. Meyer is juggling a LOT of balls here. And there are at least 5 (if not more) story threads running through the book. BUT. I thought she managed all her threads well. With the exception of Scarlet, who really wasn’t interesting until nearly the end of the book (oh, but then her story line is tantalizingly interesting, setting up the last book in the series, Winter, well), I thought what all the characters were doing were fascinating. My favorites — probably goes without saying — are the two MAIN main characters in this one, Cress and Thorne. I adored Cress as a character: she’s a bit insecure around people, having been trapped in a satellite for 7 years. And she’s a total fangirl. But she’s also a smart hacker, and a resourceful and determined (if a bit naive) girl. And Thorne, well, let’s just say Thorne is that perfect mix between all the roguish bad good guys in all the books and movies I’ve ever loved. (It’s hard NOT to have a crush on him.)

And even though Cinder’s finally coming into her own, and there are some brilliant moments, it’s still a middle book in a series. It doesn’t stand as well on its own as Scarlet did, but I wasn’t disappointed with where the story is going. Meyer has created a terrifically interesting world, and is doing some fun things mixing the fairy tales in with the cyborg/futuristic elements. I can’t wait to see how it all ends.

Allegiant

by Veronica Roth
First sentence: “I pace our cell in Erudite headquarters, her words echoing in my mind: My name is Edith Prior, and there is much I am happy to forget.
Others in the series: Divergent, Insurgent
Content: There’s violence, some swearing, and a whole lot of kissing. In the first half, anyway. It’s in the Teen (grades 9-12) section of the bookstore, but I wouldn’t have an issue giving it to someone younger.

I’m going to get hate for this.

This is how my opinion on the series has gone (without looking at my reviews): Divergent is a unique dystopian idea, with some cool action scenes. The movie might be good. Insugent I don’t remember a thing about. Not a thing. Except that I don’t remember liking it all that much. And I had no interest in reading Allegiant. I only picked it up because I succumbed to the hype and stuck my name on the hold list at the library.

So, if I gathered right, after the events of Insurgent, Four’s mom has taken over things, deciding that the factions are to be done away with. Except that’s not working. And she’s executing people right and left. So, there’s an underground movement to fight against the Man (still) and to get people out to explore the world outside the fence. Tris and Four are part of that group. And when they get out they discover that 1) their life is an elaborate experiment by a government bureau in order to make people’s genes “normal” again after a gene war (or something like that) and 2) I was so over it.

I was. I didn’t care that Four was angsting about not being a true Divergent. I didn’t care Tris stressing about Who She Was. Their hallway snogging did nothing for me. I found the world to be trite and simplistic. I was over caring about government conspiracies or parental abuse or revolutions.

So I bailed. I admit I’m a little curious to know why the whole fandom was up in arms about the book, but I have so many other books to read, that I honestly don’t care if I don’t finish this one. Ever.

There’s just not enough time to waste it on things that I’m so over.

Parched

by Melanie Crowder
First line: “Sniff-sniff.”
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Content: There’s some harsh situations — a character was kidnapped and brutally treated, another character is shot and killed — but there’s no swearing at all. It’s not an action-packed book, so even though it’s on a 3-5th grade writing level, I’d be picky about which kid to give this to.

The world has turned to dust. Water is hard to find. And that makes anyone with water — or who can find water — valuable. Sarel’s family had water, until the gangs came through and killed Sarel’s parents and burned the compound to the ground. All that’s left is Sarel and the dog pack her father trained. It’s not a good thing; Sarel is running out of the little water she has left. Musa has a talent for dowsing, and has been kidnapped (or sold; I was never quite sure) to the gangs to find water. One night, Musa escapes, and finds his way to Sarel’s compound. It’s up to the two of them to work together to survive.

As you can tell, there isn’t much to this slim (seriously: it’s 152 pages.) novel. It’s highly introspective, more narrative than anything else. Even with the tension mounting to the end, it’s a quiet book about survival. I liked it, but I never really connected with it. Some of that was the quietness of it all. But it was also that I wanted more. I am not saying I needed a 300 page action-filled book, but I finished this one feeling like there was something missing. There wasn’t quite enough to it. I wanted more about how the world ended up parched. More about Sarel and her past. More about Musa and his talents. (Though I didn’t want more dog.) I wanted more connection between the characters. And the ending kind of came out of nowhere to me: I wanted answers as to how the book got to that point.

That said, the writing was gorgeous. And I have to give Crowder props for setting a dystopia book in an African-feeling setting. But it just wasn’t all I wanted it to be.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

Sky Jumpers

by Peggy Eddleman
First sentence: “You would think I’d never jumped off a cliff before, based on how long I stood there.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There are some intense moments, but other than that, it’s pretty tame. It’s shelved in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.

It’s a future after World War III, which devastated the world. The scientists thought they were doing good in creating “green” bombs, but (because, you know, BOMBS) it still wiped out many cities and destroyed most of the population. In addition, they changed the properties of metal and magnets, and while they made some ground more fertile, it made other places toxic. And — perhaps worst of all — it created the Bomb’s Breath: pockets of air that if you breathe, it’ll kill you.

This is the world that Hope has grown up in.

Living with her adoptive parents in White Rock, a town in a fertile valley, she has discovered that the thing that is most highly prized is Inventing. Since the war destroyed all our technology, it’s up to everyone, really, to invent gadgets and come up with ideas to make life less, well, primitive. Except Hop is terrible at it. What she’s good at is being daring: she’s figured out that if you hold your breath in the Bomb’s Breath you won’t die and that the thicker air has a slowing quality to it. She has taking to jumping off cliffs (sans parachute) through the Bomb’s Breath for fun. (No, she didn’t ask permission.)

Then, one day in winter, some bandits infiltrate their previously safe town and take hostages, demanding access to the town’s one true commodity: the antibiotic they’ve developed. The only hope for the town — since their guard and the weapons are guarding the next town over — is to go fetch the guard back. And the only way to do this is to go over the mountain and through the Bomb’s Breath. And the only one who can do this is Hope.

I’m a bit torn on this one.

On the one hand: I love Eddleman’s take on the dystopian genre. It’s so overdone that it really needs something unique to grab my interest. And Eddleman did just that. I also liked how Hope was a fierce girl, taking the initiative in spite of her misgivings, and using her strengths to not only get the guard but also help outwit the bandits.

On the other hand: I’m not sure. It’s not something I can pinpoint, but I felt disconnected from the book the entire time. Like I was on the outside, looking in, rather than being grabbed and immersed into the world. Perhaps I was turned off  by the BOOK ONE on the back of my ARC. I don’t know if it’s truly going to be a series — this one wrapped up just fine — but the idea of that just set me on edge. I really am so tired of series books.

I shouldn’t let that prejudice interfere with my reading of this one, though. It was a good book. One that I think will appeal to both genders. And there’s a lack of “magic” that was refreshing as well; Hope got by on her wits and her ingenuity and her reliance on her friends. I can get behind that.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

The Rithmatist

by Brandon Sanderson
First sentence: “Lilly’s lamp blew out as she bolted down the hallway.”
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Content: It’s pretty mild; there is some talk of murders, and some intense situations by the end and a mild romance. It’s only upper middle grade because of the length. I’d give it to my 10 year old, if she showed interest. It’s shelved in the YA section (grades 6-8) at the bookstore because of the length. That, and the publisher’s recommendation was 15+, which I disagree with.

Imagine a future where some unforseen disaster splits the US into several island country/states. Imagine a future where there are people — Rithmatists — who can draw with chalk and make it come… alive. Imagine a future where wild chalkings — two-dimensional chalk drawings that are sentient, somehow — can attack and kill a person. It’s in this world that Joel, a chalkmaker’s son, exists. His father used to be the chalkmaker for a prestigious Rithmatist training school, before he died. Now, Joel and his mom are scraping by. Joel would love to be a Rithmatist, but they’re chosen at age 8, in a mystical/religious ceremony, and Joel wasn’t Chosen. That hasn’t stopped his passion for Rithmacy and the history. He’s pretty much shunned until one of the top professors, Fitch, is toppled from tenure by a young upstart. And then, top students start disappearing. With another not-so-great student, Melody, Joel works at figuring out just what is threatening the students.

This was slow-going at first. I didn’t quite grasp the idea of the world, or the importance of the illustrations. Which, in many ways, is a drawback: if you can’t grab a kid in the first chapter or two, then in many ways you’ve failed as a book. But this one is worth the slog in the first couple of chapters. It takes a while, but as the mystery develops, and things become more intense, and more about the Rithmastist world is explained, Joel — and especially Melody — come into their own. The final couple of battles are quite intense and very much worth the while. And even though I kind of called the mystery, there is a bit of a twist that I didn’t see coming, which was very satisfying. And as I came to understand the illustrations — which admittedly were off-putting at first — I found them at least as fascinating as the story. If Sanderson wants to write a guidebook for the Rithmatist world, I’m sure there’d be a market for it.

I do wish — and I know that I’ve said this before — that people would stop writing series books. This one worked quite well as a stand-alone, even with a few threads hanging. I do appreciate that (even though the last three words are “To Be Continued.” ARGH). But overall, it was a fascinating world to immerse myself in.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

The Neptune Project

by Polly Holyoke
ages: 10+
First sentence: “I wake to an urgent tap at my window.”
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Nere Hanson (a terrible name, that, as A pointed out) has never understood why she felt more at home in the sea, with the dolphins. Her parents are scientists who study the ocean, but that’s not the whole picture. Nere has problems breathing on land, and it’s just getting worse. Then the government of the Western Collective (roughly some futuristic dictatorship that came out of the US; this is set along the Pacific coast) demands that everyone who lives by the ocean move inland, to help with “food production.” So, Nere’s mom pushes forward her plans, breaking the news  to Nere and her friends Robry and Lena that the reason why they struggle to live on land is that they’re genetically altered to survive — like breathe seawater and everything — under the ocean.

I’m going to stop here for a minute. I’ve read books about exploring the ocean as an option for when global warming takes over and turns this planet into one gigantic mass of water, and I’ve read books that deal with genetic mutation of people (and I think I’ve read one that combines the two in some search for Atlantis, now that I think about it), but this one struck me as unique. Holyoke has done her research and this one felt, well, authentic. I appreciated that. I also enjoyed her use of dolphins; they weren’t props, but rather their own characters, which added another interesting layer to the story.

After they make the change, and get away from the Marine Guard (read government thugs), Nere, Robry, and Lena have to figure out how to survive in their new environment. They meet up with another group of kids who have had this change done to them — Nere is resentful for a good part of the book because her mother did this to her, without her consent, and didn’t give her the time to adjust to this. I love Bad Mom Decisions in Middle Grade books — and set out for the rendezvous point. From there, they head north to Vancouver to the colony that Nere’s father is setting up.

Even though it’s a first in a series — I really would love a stand-alone speculative middle grade fiction book sometime — and it’s just an elaborate set-up, Holyoke does a fantastic job creating her world. And I liked the dynamics she created in the group. It wasn’t as middle school-ish as the jacket flap led me to believe, but a genuine portrayal of kids thrown in a new situation and forced to survive. And Holyoke isn’t afraid to kill characters off or have characters betray one another. It was complex, and I enjoyed that.

I only wish I had more of a sense of closure with this one; I’m not sure I’m all excited to read further adventures of Neve and the Neptune Project. But this one was definitely enjoyable.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

I, Robot

by Isaac Asimov
ages: adult (ish)
First sentence: “I looked at my notes and I didn’t like them.”
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This is one of those books that I’ve always heard of but never had gotten around to reading. I can’t really tell you why; it just never seemed like something I’d be interested in.

Thank heavens for book groups.

Framed as an interview with retiring robopsychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin, it’s a series of interconnected short stories detailing the evolution of robotics in the “future”. It’s an interesting look into what Asimov thought our future would be like, and the prevalence of robots in society.

I’m not quite sure what to say about the book other than I really, really liked it I thought it was fascinating to read about what Asimov though the future would be like. I liked the character of Dr. Calvin; she was an interesting person to frame the book around, smart and capable (if a bit cold), and gave the book a good grounding. In fact, the stories went down better for me than short stories usually do, mostly because they seemed like chapters in something larger.

That said, two of my favorite stories were “Liar”, in which a mind-reading robot just tells humans what they want to hear; and “Little Lost Robot,” in which a robot goes missing, hiding in the midst of a bunch of other robots that look exactly like it. I found it fascinating the things the psychologists and scientists go through to figure out which one is the missing robot.

But my favorite was one near the end, “Evidence,” where a man is running for mayor of the region, but there are allegations against him: he’s a robot. The point is to prove he’s not. It’s a fascinating look at the line between robotics and humanity, and the issues about whether or not it’s ethical for a robot to actually “act” human.

It’s a good work, one that stands up to the test of time, even if there were moments when I cringed at the 1950s-ness of it all. Even so, I’m glad I had the chance (finally!) to read it.