& Review: California by Edan Lepucki

California by Edan Lepucki

California by Edan Lepucki. Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

What have you done in the name of containment, and where does it stop?”

The Book Itself: It’s a very striking cover: the trees all topsy-turvy, purposefully disorienting, and the image wraps around the entire book jacket, in beautiful greens and grays.

Review:
The world Cal and Frida have always known is gone, and they’ve left the crumbling city of Los Angeles far behind them. They now live in a shack in the wilderness, working side-by-side to make their days tolerable despite the isolation and hardships they face. Consumed by fear of the future and mourning for a past they can’t reclaim, they seek comfort and solace in one other. But the tentative existence they’ve built for themselves is thrown into doubt when Frida finds out she’s pregnant. Terrified of the unknown but unsure of their ability to raise a child alone, Cal and Frida set out for the nearest settlement, a guarded and paranoid community with dark secrets. These people can offer them security, but Cal and Frida soon realize this community poses its own dangers. In this unfamiliar world, where everything and everyone can be perceived as a threat, the couple must quickly decide whom to trust.”

You guys…it’s my hot button word: dystopian!! I love me some dystopians.

On a quick side note, this is the book Stephen Colbert mentioned in his bit about Amazon’s tiff with Hachette. Plus, I’ve been seeing it on the Facebook newsfeed of a local bookstore. So, at least to me, this one has already gotten quite a bit of buzz.

Which is, for the most part, deserved. You get worried as the story opens, that Cal and Frida are going to bore you for the rest of the book with the little tasks they do every day: foraging for mushrooms, attempting to set snares for game, harvesting from their little garden, etc. Luckily, the stakes ramp up pretty quickly, and it’s not long before we get a change of scenery. So it’s well-paced.

They hear of mysterious structures called The Spikes, which (obviously) had to be man-made, and which (probably) indicate a settlement not to far from their current shack. After a tragedy involving their nearest and only neighbors, and Frida’s suspicion that she is pregnant, Cal and Frida set out to these Spikes in search of more settlers like themselves.

There is also a sprinkled in backstory of Frida’s brother, killed during a radical movement inspired by the world falling apart several years ago, and the alternative college both he and Cal attended before the world really went to crap.

It gets surprisingly domestic and trivially annoying: most of what you get from the community setting is Cal being annoyed with Frida about one little thing and her getting annoyed at him for another, separate minor infraction. There are some Big Mysteries in this isolated community that have sinister roots. Why are there no children in the community? What will happen when Frida starts to show/people find out she is pregnant? Will this close-knit group of off-the-grid-ers welcome Cal and Frida into the community?

Of course I’m not going to tell you the answer to those questions! But some prove more quietly horrifying than others.

I do take issue with the end. It’s rushed. This book seems to take its time with everything else, and then after a whirlwind of action and intrigue right at the end there….we jump to 8 months in the future. A chilling plan revealed by the Spikes’ leader never comes to fruition, even though it could actually spell huge trouble, generating huge amounts of unrest and turmoil not only in the land of the Spikes, but places outside of it as well….just dies. Nothing happens. You expect it to end the book on a big note, and it just…goes away. Why?? It could’ve been a big thing! A HUGE thing. A thing that Cal and Friday kinda sorta find themselves smack in the middle of after the books jump to the future. But nope…is Lepucki opening up California to a sequel? I hope not, as the book stands just fine on its own, and there’s not a whole lot she hasn’t spelled out for the characters except for that one little, HUGE PLAN AT THE END THERE. It kind of ends where it should maybe begin…or the jump itself just shouldn’t have been included, making me think I missed a huge chunk of story.

(There are also Lots of Capital Lettered Words. So much so that it feels like they’re sprinkled in every other sentence. The Land, the Spikes, Morning Labor, Communities, the Group (I mean really, you couldn’t think of a better name for an organization??), the Pines, the Forms. It gets a little too simplistic and annoying).

It is a good book. A solid, almost domestic dystopian, not concerned so much with the Big Picture of the apocalypse and harrowing moments of action for its characters, but on the human relationships we have when things get rough.

My Grade: B

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& Review: The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Publisher: Harper

“Even a book can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and when that happens, you blame the hands, but you also read the book.”

The Book Itself: The cover is very old-school storybook (Kelsea, our protagonist, has a thing for Grimm’s Fairytales), and is also a good fit for the medieval feel of the setting. The material the dust jacket is made out of is the most annoying kind – it’s porous and soaks up/shows any oil on your fingertips, so anywhere you touch, it gets smudged and looks bad. Plus, peeling stickers off (like, you know, for sales at bookstores…) is a huge pain in the ass. But I digress…

On her nineteenth birthday, Princess Kelsea Raleigh Glynn, raised in exile, sets out on a perilous journey back to the castle of her birth to ascend her rightful throne. Plain and serious, a girl who loves books and learning, Kelsea bears little resemblance to her mother, the vain and frivolous Queen Elyssa. But though she may be inexperienced and sheltered, Kelsea is not defenseless: Around her neck hangs the Tearling sapphire, a jewel of immense magical power; and accompanying her is the Queen’s Guard, a cadre of brave knights led by the enigmatic and dedicated Lazarus. Kelsea will need them all to survive a cabal of enemies who will use every weapon—from crimson-caped assassins to the darkest blood magic—to prevent her from wearing the crown.

Despite her royal blood, Kelsea feels like nothing so much as an insecure girl, a child called upon to lead a people and a kingdom about which she knows almost nothing. But what she discovers in the capital will change everything, confronting her with horrors she never imagined. An act of singular daring will throw Kelsea’s kingdom into tumult, unleashing the vengeance of the tyrannical ruler of neighboring Mortmesne: the Red Queen, a sorceress possessed of the darkest magic. Now Kelsea will begin to discover whom among the servants, aristocracy, and her own guard she can trust.

But the quest to save her kingdom and meet her destiny has only just begun—a wondrous journey of self-discovery and a trial by fire that will make her a legend…if she can survive.

Review:
Lots of buzz for this book, which meant that it was perhaps highly probable that I’d hate it. But it turns out I didn’t. Despite questioning some of the story origins, the book is well-written and for the most part, and compelling. It had its lags, its unnecessary allusions (mentioning “the seven books of Rowling,” really?!), but I gobbled it up. I will be reading more in the series (but sigh now I have to wait for them to be written…).

Let’s start with my problem with the book’s core conceit. I’m going to ask a question that even I didn’t think I’d ever breach about a book:

Did it really have to be dystopian?

I know, hard-hitting stuff here. I ask the tough questions.

The Queen of the Tearling begins many years after the collapse of society as we know it. There are mentions of The Crossing, the capsizing of the White Ship (a tragedy in which the world’s most accomplished doctors all died – too convenient, and to be honest, silly), a conflict between British and American sides and influences. But they are just that: mentions. Brief descriptions, explained away by the fact that Kelsea has lived in exile, and thus is unfamiliar with most of Tearling history. It’s confusing, and not enough. My understanding of the backstory of the setting is like Swiss cheese – lots of holes, no real big picture.

So it couldn’t be just a Medieval fictional setting? It feels like it’s just following the trend. Dystopian and Science Fiction might be hotter sells than fiction set in historical times. Kind of just seems like a ploy to sell books, rather than a thoughtful and necessary plot point.

Johansen also has an issue with age. Anyone over twenty-five is often described as “old.” When Kelsea first meets her guards in the opening chapter, she describes them as haggard, wrinkled, exhausted-looking…and all around thirty five or forty. Not an age I typically associate with old-ness. And the author is inconsistent with it as well. In one scene “The prisoner wasn’t old, perhaps thirty or thirty-five.” In a previous scene, an uppity society woman is “much older than she’d seemed in the dim light of the throne room, perhaps as old as forty, and her face appeared to have been pulled unnaturally taught. Cosmetic surgery?” Really? Five years is the difference between young-looking and a hag? Bad people look old, good people look young, no matter their age? It’s annoying, and untrue. It makes me wonder how young the author is – around Kelsea’s age perhaps (nineteen), and unable to accurately pinpoint the age of others? It ends up detracting from every scene in which she describes a character’s age.

All of that said, I did really enjoy it! There are a lot of names to keep track of, a lot of backtracking to explain an idea in order for the current scene to make sense. But now that this book has set up the world, the sequels can build and not delve so much into shaky history. Kelsea is compelling and flawed at the same time. In an interview with the author, I read that she will make some questionable choices as a ruler. I look forward to that, as she’s a bit of a martyr/perfect queen figure right now. The story of a kingdom in turmoil is compelling, Kelsea’s role in it ripe for story.

It’s a first novel, and the first book in a series. There’s a lot of setting up to be done: the voice of the author, the world the book is set in, the characters, the tensions, the crux of the story to carry it over three books, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I think Johansen did an admirable job. If she backs off on the age-judging and focuses on the present scenes of the story, the next books will be worth even more hype.

My Grade: B

How I Picture the Characters: 

Disclaimer: I do not own these images. The belong to the Game of Thrones franchise. Did I do that right?

Melisandre, aka The Red Priestess

Melisandre, aka The Red Priestess

Lots of Game of Thrones connections here for me…The Red Queen sounds exactly like The Red Priestess (Melisandre): she’s ageless, she might be a dark-lord-worshipping heathen (there’s a super creepy scene in which our nameless Red Queen communicates with her fireplace), and she’s beautiful.

 

 

 

 

The Hound

The Hound

Arya Stark

Arya Stark

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mace, Kelsea’s trusted Head of Guard reminds me of The Hound. Gruff, stoic, huge and imposing. Which would make Kelsea Arya Stark (the daughter of a disgraced family who has to disguise herself as a boy…whereas Kelsea looks “boyish,” and “plain”).

Changin’ It Up

Oh heyyyyy all! So…I’ve been a tad lazy (this seems to be a common theme in my “About Me,” tagged posts, eh?). I mean, I’m proud of the review-churning-out that I’ve done (at least one a week, and pre-vacation it was two a week!!). But I need to, you know, talk to y’all more. And maybe…get more of y’all to read this thing!

This is me when I have tons of things to do...sooo much Pinterest surfing...

This is me when I have tons of things to do…sooo much Pinterest surfing…

So I embarked on a tentative book review blog perusal on the Interwebs. And man, are there a lot of these puppies. Not that I thought I had a super original concept for a blog, but MAN, there are just SO MANY!! And I noticed many key differences between their reviews and mine…namely, that their reviews are, well…shorter. Less category-heavy. Just…a little nicer to read. Quicker and more succinct, more personality on the side of the author.

Plus, filling out basically a form for every review was already getting tedious. So, LESS FORMS, MORE FUN! In concept. I’ll still comment on book covers and quality of the physical books themselves, because I’m a cover nerd, but my focus will be the review, short and sweet. But let’s face it, I’m a parenthetical rambler (I love me some asides via parentheses), so the reviews will still be extensive. Let me know if I start taxing your eyeballs 🙂

Also on my blog-related To Do List:
– Properly use Twitter to make this blog more pithy, enjoyable, and popular (is there a brief handbook for this? Maybe in 140 characters or less?)
– Get more lovely followers by commenting on blogs, delving more into social media (Facebook maybe?!), and generating comments on these here reviews!
– Write more posts that aren’t reviews. Like this one, in which I am clearly rambling forever and ever and just expecting you to follow along.

So it’s a work in progress, all of this. Thanks for those already on the bandwagon with me, and those yet to stick out their thumb to hitch a ride! (Note to self: doodle the “Ampersand Read Bandwagon.” I think the windows would be doughnut-shaped. Mainly because ALL I WANT IN LIFE RIGHT NOW IS A CRONUT. SERIOUSLY, DO THEY NOT EXIST OUTSIDE OF NEW YORK?!)

& Review: These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

Book Title: These Broken Stars
Author: Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
Pages: 306 epages
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Date Published: December 10th, 2013
Date Read: July 5th, 2014
Format: ebook on my nook
Cover Love: I think it’s beautiful! Definitely very YA – two young people, reaching for each other, obviously in luuuurve and separated somehow. The blue sky brings to mind Doctor Who as well 😉
Given Synopsis: “It’s a night like any other on board the Icarus. Then, catastrophe strikes: the massive luxury spaceliner is yanked out of hyperspace and plummets into the nearest planet. Lilac LaRoux and Tarver Merendsen survive. And they seem to be alone.

Lilac is the daughter of the richest man in the universe. Tarver comes from nothing, a young war hero who learned long ago that girls like Lilac are more trouble than they’re worth. But with only each other to rely on, Lilac and Tarver must work together, making a tortuous journey across the eerie, deserted terrain to seek help.

Then, against all odds, Lilac and Tarver find a strange blessing in the tragedy that has thrown them into each other’s arms. Without the hope of a future together in their own world, they begin to wonder—would they be better off staying here forever?

Everything changes when they uncover the truth behind the chilling whispers that haunt their every step. Lilac and Tarver may find a way off this planet. But they won’t be the same people who landed on it.”
What I’d Add: This is all pretty accurate. Everything outlined here happens in the book. And if anything further were included, it would be major spoilers.
It’s Sorta Like: Two people who survive a luxury liner crash – Titanic in space, anyone? Plus some deserted island jaunt.
My Grade: B+
Review: I knew a girl in high school named Meghan Spooner…(one of the authors here). I mean, it’s not the same one, because they spell their names differently, but I did a double-take when I saw the authors…

Anyway! Is this my first YA review on the blog? I feel like I’ve written another one, but I really do read a lot in the sci-fi fantasy portion for Young Adults. There are a lot of great dystopian reads there, which might be my favorite genre ever in the history of books.

And this one is pretty great. The names are a little weird…Lilac? And when her friends call her “Lil,” is it pronounced with the long “I”? Tarver is a little less weird, but still, what happened to calling kids James or Emily? But despite that, the story is really solid. And has a hell of an ending.

I wish I could discuss the ending with you all, but that would be some spoiler-rich territory. But let me just say that the action really ratchets up towards the end. Those “chilling whispers” lend a nice, eerie air to a story that would otherwise be about two attractive teens trapped on a deserted island together.

Because up until then it was a little vapid, a little predictable for me. Lilac is rich, Tarver is poor. They have a moment of connection onboard a luxury liner (only this one’s in space), but she’s from the upper caste in society, while he is poor. They Can’t Be Together. Which means, of course, that they will have to be together, because the odds are against them.

Of course the luxury liner goes down. Of course these two end up in the same escape pod and land on the same planet. All alone. Without anyone else in sight. And of course they bicker and hate each other at first. They surprise each other with what they know and what they’ve been through. As they spend more nights together (conveniently the weather getting colder, needing to sleep closer together. You know, for warmth), they learn secrets of each other’s past. Annnnnd they fall in love (betcha didn’t see that coming, eh?)

So it’s a mite bit predictable. Nothing too surprising.

Except that Lilac starts hearing voices and Tarver begins to suspect she’s going crazy.

She’s not (is that a spoiler? I don’t think it is…), and there is a lot going on here on this abandoned planet that surprise and horrify both of them. The mystery is built up here very well. The planet seems to be in advanced stages of terraforming: preparation for human life and city growth. So why aren’t there massive settlements? Where is the wildlife? The people?? A shocking twist towards the end rips at your heartstrings a little, and the book’s conclusion makes you want to tear up a little and whoop with joy a the same time.

Between chapters are brief transcriptions of Tarver being interrogated by authorities after his little jaunt on the island. Despite knowing that he gets off the planet, that he survives, you still hold your breath during scenes of action, during treacherous moments of danger for both characters. The interrogation adds to the tension instead of taking it away.

SO. Sorry I can’t reveal many details of this well-crafted ending, but it really does make the book. Without it, I’d have to give the book a slightly lower score. Everything is written well, the characters endear themselves to you, and I will be reading more in the series (especially because the next installments feature different characters. Lilac and Tarver’s story wrapped up well. I look forward to reading about someone else in this world).

& Review: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman

theloveaffairsofnathanielp

“As a rule, men want a reason to end a relationship, while women want a reason to keep it going.”

Book Title: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
Author: Adelle Waldman
Pages: 237 digital pages
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
Date Published: July 16th, 2013
Date Read: July 10th, 2014
Format: ebook on my nook
Cover Love: Love the idea of the silhouettes depicting the people in Nate’s life. It’s eye catching. Promising.
Given Synopsis: “Nate Piven is a rising star in Brooklyn’s literary scene. After several lean and striving years, he has his pick of both magazine assignments and women: Juliet, the hotshot business reporter; Elisa, his gorgeous ex-girlfriend, now friend; and Hannah, ‘almost universally regarded as nice and smart, or smart and nice,’ and who holds her own in conversation with his friends. But when one relationship grows more serious, Nate is forced to reconsider what it is he really wants.

This absorbing and funny tale is set in a twenty-first century literary world alive with wit and conversation. Here Adelle Waldman plunges into the psyche of a sensitive, modern man—who is drawn to women, yet has a habit of letting them down, who thinks of himself as beyond superficial judgment, yet constantly struggles with his own status anxiety. With tough-minded intelligence and wry good humor, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. reveals one particular (though also alarmingly familiar) young man’s thoughts about women and love. ”
What I’d Add: I don’t know who this “sensitive, modern man” is that the blurb talks about. I’ll get into my issues about Nate down there in the review, but this synopsis gives him too much credit.
It’s Sorta Like: If that jerk you dated in college wrote a novel from his point of view about dating you.
My Grade: D
Review: This is what happens in Nathaniel P. : our acerbic narrator, Nate, dates a girl for a few months, and has many quibbling and tiresome “academic” fights with friends he doesn’t seem to like very much. That’s it. You think maybe you’ll go back in time to revisit his past relationships, go over how he met them, what he learned from each girl. But apart from the occasional afternoon musing about an ex, you don’t get to really hear about anybody but Nate.

And Nate is an asshole. A really boring asshole.

I literally like every single other character better than Nate. And a lot of the other characters suck.

Let’s go back up to that synopsis briefly. Nate is supposedly a “sensitive, modern man.” Which is completely untrue. He’s not sensitive in the least. He disparages all women in his life, painfully agonizes over mundane, archaic things about dating, women, relationships, none of which is new. Even worse is the thought that this book “reveals one particular (though also alarmingly familiar) young man’s thoughts about women and love.” Which is technically true, only because it will be familiar to any woman who has ever dated a womanizing asshole. Why is all this lauded as positive?! Without reading the book it might sound promising. After reading Love Affairs , it just points out what a terrible person and character Nate is.

Now, Nate does share thoughts and feeling similar to anyone who dates or has ever dated. He has a lot of the same concerns, selfish thoughts about himself and other people, and dark moments that a lot of us have when faced with the daunting task of trying to find another human being to hang out with and possibly love.

Except that Nate only has these selfish, whiny concerns. They are the only things expressed. And I got sick of it about forty pages in.

Another character nails this issue on the head. In talking to Nate, she says: “I feel like you want to think what you’re feeling is really deep, like some seriously profound existential shit. But to me, it looks like the most tired, the most average thing in the world, the guy who is all interested in a woman until the very moment when it dawns on him that he has her. Wanting only what you can’t have. The affliction of shallow morons everywhere.”

And then, Nate disparages her for a good five pages or so and points out how everything complained about isn’t his fault, really, but hers, and isn’t she just awful for doing and saying that.

Whereas I’m rooting for the other person, 100%, in every aspect of the argument and beyond.

So Nate spends 70% of the book trying to make his whinings about dating and relationships seem valid and worthwhile. The other 30% of the book is Nate interacting with friends at various restaurants or parties, and ALWAYS getting into random arguments about random philosophical/psychological/political topics they may or may not write articles about to sell for freelance gigs. Such as the export of labor as the height of capitalism. Or obesity. Or book reviews.

And seeing as there’s no reason for me to care about these arguments: no common ground is struck, no argument is returned to or becomes a major plot point, and no one is ever in any danger of losing a gig or even suffering for money for some reason (probably because they all seem to have written a book for a huge advance – the plots and characters of which are treated as unimportant, inconsequential).

There’s nothing for me to care about here. No actively stimulating plot. No stakes. Nate is a sexist, boring asshole who thinks he is Someone Important. Women tend to like him (who knows why), but he’s bad at dating, he’s selfish, and apart from his asshole-ness, doesn’t have anything interesting going for him. I don’t care is he gets a happy ending. Or even an unhappy ending. I would not recommend Nate or his boring, boorish story.