7 May 2015

Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern

 Release Date: 27th March 2014
Publisher: Harper Teen
Pages: 368
Format: Paperback | Purchased

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Synopsis (from GR): John Green's The Fault in Our Stars meets Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park in this beautifully written, incredibly honest, and emotionally poignant novel. Cammie McGovern's insightful young adult debut is a heartfelt and heartbreaking story about how we can all feel lost until we find someone who loves us because of our faults, not in spite of them.

Born with cerebral palsy, Amy can't walk without a walker, talk without a voice box, or even fully control her facial expressions. Plagued by obsessive-compulsive disorder, Matthew is consumed with repeated thoughts, neurotic rituals, and crippling fear. Both in desperate need of someone to help them reach out to the world, Amy and Matthew are more alike than either ever realized.

When Amy decides to hire student aides to help her in her senior year at Coral Hills High School, these two teens are thrust into each other's lives. As they begin to spend time with each other, what started as a blossoming friendship eventually grows into something neither expected.

My thoughts: I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I'm highly suspicious of contemporary YA novels that claim to be the literary love child of Rainbow Rowell and John Green. With books I'd recently read and adored claiming to be so - Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda and All the Bright Places - I thought I'd try for a trifecta. Unfortunately, this book did not live up to expectations for me, and I basically felt like I was being told, "this is a book about people with disabilities, love me!"

Amy has cerebral palsy, and is unable to walk without the aid of a walker, or talk without her computer voice machine. She has a total of three facial expressions. Her physical disability means that she had been alienated from her peers, with only her teachers and adult aides for company. When she decides she wants peer aides to help her during her final year of high school, her mother is reluctant - but Amy is persistent, and her wish is granted. She wants Matthew, a boy suffering from OCD and the only person who has ever told her the truth, to be one of those aides. Although Matthew is reluctant at first, he agrees, and pair form a strong friendship. Say What You Will shines a spotlight on both physical and mental illnesses, something that isn't really showcased in contemporary fiction, young adult or otherwise. I'm not really a contemporary fiction reader - I prefer fantasy - but I was really looking forward to reading this, and bought it as soon as it was recommended to me by GoodReads. I essentially read it in one fell swoop, starting it before bed one night, and finishing it the next day after I woke up.

This book and I... we started off well. It's a weird book, because the first half felt completely different in tone and pace to the second half. If anything, the first half of the book was actually Eleanor & Park-esque, although not as well executed. The pacing was different to what I expected - I thought this book would cover Amy & Matthew's final year of high school with the climax occurring around their graduation, but the second half of the book covered Amy's first year at uni, too. I struggled to engage with Amy - I found her to be a Mary Sue with a walker, and kind of manipulative, too. Whenever she's called out on her behaviour, she just brushes these criticisms off and ignores the speaker.  When the big ~plot twist~ is revealed,  Amy expects Matthew to drop everything and come running to help her, even though they haven't spoken in three months. I felt for Matthew - he was being emotionally manipulated by Amy and deserved better. He actually was a character that I could relate to, and whose arc I was emotionally invested in, but despite his growth he remains stuck in the same place, which was really frustrating to read.

I guess I'm in the minority of readers here, but I spent most of this book wondering where it was heading, and being frustrated with Amy and her awful behaviour.


The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken

Release Date: 18th December 2012
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Pages: 488
Format: Paperback | Purchased

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Synopsis (from GR): When Ruby woke up on her tenth birthday, something about her had changed. Something alarming enough to make her parents lock her in the garage and call the police. Something that gets her sent to Thurmond, a brutal government “rehabilitation camp.” She might have survived the mysterious disease that’s killed most of America’s children, but she and the others have emerged with something far worse: frightening abilities they cannot control.

Now sixteen, Ruby is one of the dangerous ones.

When the truth comes out, Ruby barely escapes Thurmond with her life. Now she’s on the run, desperate to find the one safe haven left for kids like her—East River. She joins a group of kids who escaped their own camp. Liam, their brave leader, is falling hard for Ruby. But no matter how much she aches for him, Ruby can’t risk getting close. Not after what happened to her parents.

When they arrive at East River, nothing is as it seems, least of all its mysterious leader. But there are other forces at work, people who will stop at nothing to use Ruby in their fight against the government. Ruby will be faced with a terrible choice, one that may mean giving up her only chance at a life worth living.

My thoughts: I came late to the party with this one. I've been seeing rave reviews for it all over GoodReads and Tumblr - people are touting it as being the next The Hunger Games, a YA dystopia that you could actually see happening. I didn't love it as much as I thought I would, but I liked it enough to want to check out Never Fade... for whatever that's worth.

Going into The Darkest Minds, I didn't know what to expect. Ever since The Hunger Games was turned into a multi-billion dollar franchise, publishers have been churning out YA dystopian after YA dystopian, many of which are really romances pretending to be dystopians - I'm not really sure the authors understand what a dystopian novel sets out to do (for my HSC comparative study unit, I studied Blade Runner and Brave New World, so if nothing else I judge dystopian novels pretty harshly). Bracken had the foundations of a really good novel, but it wasn't executed as well as I'd hoped, and a lot of questions I had about the world she'd created were left unanswered (hopefully they're addressed in the next two books).

In Bracken's world, a virus has killed off most of the teen population. The ones that survive are Psi, gifted with powers such as mind control, telekinesis, and memory manipulation. They are placed into concentration camps and sorted into colours: Green and Blue aren't so bad - and if you're at Camp Thurmond, being one of those two colours is most probably the only way you'll survive - but Yellows, Oranges and Reds are seen to pose a serious threat to the population and are killed. Ruby is one of the children sent to Camp Thurmond - she's an Orange capable of memory manipulation, and manages to convinces the officer conducting the test that she's actually a Green. Convinced that the PSF officers are hunting down any Yellow, Orange or Red children hiding in the camps, Ruby is broken out of Camp Thurmond by a group of insurgents, but later runs away from them, too. She falls in with a crowd - Suzume, Chubs and Liam - looking for 'the Slip Kid,' who they hope can offer them protection and help them to find their families.

Bracken is an author who doesn't spell things out for her readers - which I appreciated - but I still felt that there were important plot points that were left unanswered or brought up and then completely ignored. For example, we know that a disease killed off most of the children in the US, and gave the remaining children supernatural powers, who were placed in what were essentially concentration camps. How did they get these powers from that disease? We know that the government were doing experiments on these children, shouldn't there be at least a theory floating around? It appears that this disease was something that only affected the US population - Mexico and Canada apparently built huge walls to keep US citizens out, and there's an English character who mentions she'll need to bribe customs officials to re-enter the country after being in the US. Why only the US? There's a ban on having children following the outbreak - or at least a lot of restrictions placed on reproducing - but wouldn't this mean that the US population is going to die off at some point in the near future? What makes the officers so willing to put children as young as ten in concentration camps and kill them? At points, the officers seemed flat and one-dimensional. I know I keep coming back to why why why in my reviews, but if a character is going to be painted as a bad guy with no redeeming qualities, I need to know what led them down this path, because we are all morally grey. At one point it felt like Bracken was suggesting that the officers were acting out of fear, but this idea was introduced rather late in the book. I had a lot of questions based on the premise of this world that I hope will be explained in later books. It's also suggested that each colour correlates to a certain power (like, blue is telekinesis, orange is mind control or manipulation), but this also wasn't really explained (except that Yellows, Oranges and Reds were the most dangerous), so I'd have liked a clearer idea of what each colour meant.

This is very much a character-driven novel, and it really is the main cast that makes this such a great read. Although I struggled to connect to Ruby at times, I really loved Liam, Chubs and Suzume, and they are what kept me emotionally invested in this novel. The writing moves at a brisk place, and while there are points where it feels disjointed - most noticeably the action scenes - for the most part it is a smooth, reasonably-well-plotted novel. Like I said earlier, Bracken does not assume that because she is writing for a younger audience, she needs to spell everything out for her readers - for the most part, she drops clues that an astute reader can pick up on. I could see Bracken leading us to a Ruby/Liam romance, but if I'm being honest, I'm not sure what made Ruby fall in love with Liam, or vice versa. It's hard to see what they connected over - aside from being locked in a concentration camp, something that Ruby shared with multiple characters in this book - and there's points where they don't see each other for days, so it felt like the romance was underdeveloped and a little forced, but once it was there, it was the driving force of the novel. Underdeveloped romance or not, the ending scene between Ruby and Liam made my heart hurt.

Overall, The Darkest Minds wasn't a bad book - it's just that the hype left me wanting more. I wanted more explanations, more answers, more detail. Although I felt that the world-building was a little fuzzy, Bracken's story is highly original and a welcome addition to YA dystopia. The ending gave me high hopes for Never Fades - which I checked out at the library today so you can probably expect a review for it sometime in the near future. 


Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Release Date: 12th February 2015
Publisher: Orion
Pages: 383
Format: Paperback | Purchased

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Synopsis (from GR): This is a world divided by blood – red or silver. The poverty-stricken Reds are commoners, living in the shadow 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. Then Mare finds herself working at the Silver palace, in the midst 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.

My thoughts: Sometimes you've just got to ignore the (perfectly valid) criticisms of a book and go with your gut - and this is one of those times. I really, really enjoyed Red Queen. It was an enjoyable read, and did a good job of setting the tone for the next two novels. Although everything about this book was screaming, "Love me, Kim, LOVE ME!!!" I went into it with a few reservations, if only because there were less-than-favourable reviews from bloggers that I respect and usually agree with, but while I can see where they were coming from, it didn't stop my overall enjoyment of the book.

Mare Barrow lives in a society that is divided into two classes - the Silvers, those with silverblood who wield extraordinary powers and are the ruling class, and the Reds, who basically get the short stick in life because of the colour of their blood. As a Red, Mare is born into poverty and struggles to survive. Without any skills or useful talents - aside from her ability to pickpocket - Mare knows she will be conscripted into the army on her 18th birthday and most probably die a prolonged and painful death. One night, Mare meets a mysterious stranger who arranges a job for her at the palace. This mysterious stranger happens to be Cal, the Silver prince who is about to be married off to whomever his father and stepmother decide they like best, and it is during this pageantry of princess hopefuls that Mare accidentally demonstrates that she, too, possess powers - the ability to create lightning, an impossibility amongst both Reds and Silvers.

The King and Queen tell the Silvers that Mare is a long-lost Silver girl - Mareen Titanos - who was taken in by a Red family. She had no idea that she was truly a Silver, until the display at the Queenstrial. This admittedly kind of threw me - the Silvers are so named because they literally have silver blood, and Reds, red blood. Am I to believe that the King and Queen convinced people that Mare had never bled in her life?

A lot of reviews have cast Mare as some Katniss Everdeen-type heroine, but I didn't see that. Like Katniss, she does care deeply for her loved ones and would do anything to protect them; like Katniss, she lives in poverty at the hands of a higher ruling class; like Katniss, she is frustrated and disgusted by the people she meets in that higher class and the attitude that they have towards her own. But Mare isn't coldly pragmatic like Katniss is - she allows her emotions to cloud her judgement. Mare comes across as selfish and bratty at times, and at times was just plain frustrating.  A lot of people - innocent people - get harmed as a result, and to be honest? It made it hard to get behind Mare and her cause. Mare also doesn't listen to the advice she is given. It's a fairly simple piece of advice - anyone can betray anyone. You would think this would mean Mare carefully navigates the world she's been thrown into, but she falls for the villain's story, hook, line and sinker (admittedly - SO DID I. Did not see it coming, at all).

Another problem I had with Red Queen is the mean girl antics. Evangeline Samos and Queen Elara become cardboard cutouts - they exist to be cruel and to be an obstacle in Mare's journey. I know Evangeline likes torturing people and cares deeply for her brother, Ptolemus. I know Elara likes torturing people and cares deeply for her son, Maven. I don't know anything else about these characters. They are mean for the sake of being mean. I like my villains to have a backstory, for me to understand how they came to be that person. No one is Lord Voldemort - we all have shades of grey. No one is completely good or completely evil, and even though this story is being told from Mare's perspective, I wanted more. This wasn't a problem that was limited to Evangeline and Elara - a lot of the female Silvers we met were evil, unnecessarily so.

There's kind of a love... square happening in this book, but it's like every love interest has a purpose. It's strategic. In a book where characters manipulate one another for their own gain, it made sense. Mare may be betrothed to Maven, but she's in love with Cal and Kilorn's most probably in love with her but Mare doesn't know. I will say this: if the endgame is for Mare to be Queen, then Mare is going to have a lot of growing up to do. She's reckless and rash, and while she wants the best for her people, she goes about it the wrong way.

The execution of Red Queen may not have been perfect, but it was still an enjoyable read. While there are a lot of common YA tropes in there, what makes it stand out is the (mutant) powers of the Silvers and the political plays. Aveyard is a solid writer, and I cannot wait for the next book in the trilogy.


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