I wanted to really like All These Things I've Done by Gabrielle Zevin. In fact, there are many aspects of the book that almost demand that I like it:...moreI wanted to really like All These Things I've Done by Gabrielle Zevin. In fact, there are many aspects of the book that almost demand that I like it: crime drama, vintage clothes, (arguably) dystopian setting, mafia family, Prohibition era inspired laws, smart protagonist. I was basically imagining Anya as Tommy from The Black Donnellys; smart, sensitive, really wants out of the family 'business' BUT a) has an older brother with disabilities and poor judgment to take care of and b) stuff just keeps coming up that drags them ever deeper in -- only, you know, a girl. Unfortunately, much of the dialog between Anya and Win (and Zevin's physical descriptions of Win, his hats and his non-band) reminded me of a younger Gabriel Macht as Johnny Dresden in Because I Said So. Inevitably, this how I envisioned Win:
Which, naturally, led me to picture Anya in her ever present red dress like this:
After that, for good or ill, Anya was Mandy Moore.
I had a hard time buying the plausibility of Zevin's vision of the future. I can understand a culture getting caught up on health food and banning something like high fructose corn syrup, and, yes, even caffeine -- but chocolate? It just seem irrational and unlikely; the parallels made between chocolate production and organized bootlegging were tenuous. I also wanted more, needed more, than a curfew and supply shortages to make this a dystopian book (for starters, a repressive and controlled state disguised as an utopian society.) As it is, it is just a crappy vision of the future -- no better or worse than many eras our grandparents or parents have gone through. (Honestly, a good deal better than my grandmother's descriptions of growing up in rural Arkansas during the Dust Bowl, but I digress.) The only real dystopic flavor I tasted was Anya's incarceration in Liberty -- which was all too short and felt like a plot device constructed exclusively to introduce Anya to Win's father. Can we please explore the issue of the tattoos a little more?
The romance between Win and Anya also feel very flat. It just felt too contrived and convenient. Win is almost too nice to be real, and all the interesting bits of him were external -- so, he wears cool hats. Does he have cool thoughts? He was great with witty and charming one-liners, but I never saw substance. I felt like a lot more could be done with him. I found his dad to be substantially more interesting and compelling a character than Win.
I actually feel pretty conflicted about Anya. I appreciate that she is so smart, tough, responsible and self-reliant. However, unlike the aforementioned Tommy, I never really empathised with her. Along with those wonderfully positive traits came a heaping dose of smugness and ego. The first person narrative felt authentic -- I just didn't like her. She was a bit like Mrs. Elton from Jane Austen's Emma, "I would never brag about myself, but my friends say..." Her "confessions" don't read as, "Please forgive these things I've done?" but rather, "Hey, did you hear about all these things I've done?!" Anya constantly underestimates those around her, while simultaneously remaining firmly convinced that she is right about everything. So many of her problems arise from her inability to see past what she thinks about everyone around her to who and what they truly are.
I don't really know where I stand on All These Things I've Done. It wasn't what I wanted it to be, nor was it what I expected it to be. However, it wasn't bad either. I liked quite a few of the characters, and I might even read the next books. I guess I am in that rare place of being truly indifferent.
One would think that a dystopian novel set in a future that is not only post-apocalyptic but also post-alien contact would feel, well, alien, and woul...moreOne would think that a dystopian novel set in a future that is not only post-apocalyptic but also post-alien contact would feel, well, alien, and would take some suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader - especially when the superhumans are added in. One would be wrong. Susan Jane Bigelow is a master world-builder; it is frighteningly easy to see the roots of our earth in hers. The dystopia feels like an organic evolution, a natural conclusion, for all that it feels so different. What is even more interesting is how Bigelow achieves this - no info dumps, bad-guy monologues, or even omnipotent narration. Everything comes directly from the experiences of our characters - sometimes flashbacks, sometimes flashforwards, sometimes during the action - but always first person. I don't particularly like Robert Southey, but Bigelow's writing reminded me of a one of his most famous quotes that, despite myself, I do like:
"If you would be pungent, be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams. The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn."
Bigelow's words are brief, and they burn. The tension, the fear, the sense of danger felt by the characters is palpable on each page. There were multiple times where I felt my heart racing, or caught myself holding my breath, trying to remain silent so that Micheal wouldn't be caught. Bigelow surprised me. For someone who loves to wallow in descriptions, I was amazed at how evocative I found her writing.
Broken is full of love stories: friendships, romances, families. It is full of conflicted emotions: characters doubting themselves, doubting others, struggling with what defines a hero or heroism, which sacrifices are worthwhile. These things are all in the story because they are part of all human stories; but they do not define it. I think that is one of the things I liked best about Broken; everyone was shown in all their glory and beauty and muck and mess. Each possible future laid out before the characters says as much about the characters themselves as it does their future. Michael can see only possible futures of choices they might actually make - and Bigelow uses this to show the readers so much more about the characters than we would otherwise know.
Broken works really well as a stand alone, but the world Bigelow has created is interesting enough that I would read more books set there. Broken did have a few detraction's - I was a little sad to see that the villain was not given the same depth and breadth as all of Bigelow's other characters. Also, on a slightly-spoilery note, Michael reads much older than 14 or 18, the two possible ages given for him. If he is really 14, which I think he is, then (view spoiler)[ I wasn't completely comfortable with all of his relationship with Janeane. (hide spoiler)]Broken is technically adult speculative fiction, but I think it would do well with an older YA audience, and see why it is occasionally being billed as such.
Free copy provided by Candlemark & Gleam as part of the promotion for the sequel, Fly Into Fire.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
The Weepers: The Other Life engendered really mixed responses in me - some of them even conflicting - which is makin...moreActual Rating maybe more like 2.5?
The Weepers: The Other Life engendered really mixed responses in me - some of them even conflicting - which is making it hard to process exactly what I think about it. It is not very often that a book can simultaneously remind me of The Diary of a Young Girl and Resident Evil! And therein lies, I believe, the problem: it almost feels like there is more than one book here. It's as if Winnacker had more than one direction she wanted to go with the book and, in failing to choose a direction, pulled it to pieces. That is not to say that there weren't some really great bits, so let's start with those.
I think Winnacker did an excellent job introducing Sherry and her family to the readers. She communicates their frayed psychological and emotional states very well in the tightly wound, claustrophobic interactions between people who clearly have been forced too close together for too long. As a reader I felt the urgency to get out quite acutely; but was equally fearful of what they would find when they left. I also liked her use of flashbacks. They at first felt completely arbitrary. However, as the story progressed these emotionally charged snapshots coalesced into clear images that displayed just how starkly the characters had changed. The adults, but especially Sherry's Grandmother, were empty shells of what they once were, resigned to their new reality. The Weepers, too, were actually quite chilling. I really liked Winnacker's take on Zombies; I had some heart-thumping moments where I was truly frightened for the characters and was genuinely intrigued by the differentiation between types of Weepers. (I could see the whys of this getting much more interesting in future books.)
But this is where Resident Evil kicks in: the plot felt entirely too safe. NOTHING that came about really surprised me. (view spoiler)[ The virus was manufactured by the government; they had built a wall to keep people in, knowing they were not all infected; there was a cure available if only they could get out; someone who had been outside and tested on came back in; a scientist stayed behind because his family had been infected. (hide spoiler)] I almost feel silly for hiding that, because every single reveal that should have been climatic was already right there in RE.
I was also disappointed in the romance between Sherry and Joshua. It felt lackluster at best; and two such otherwise well crafted characters deserved better. This good set-up with poor follow-through is a problem throughout the book - especially with the world building. Why didn't George and Izzy's family come directly to Sherry's house when they decided to leave their bunker? I'm sorry, but best friends/neighbors who've been planning survivalist shelters together for years pre-disaster, and talking via radio for the last couple of years post-disaster, have absolutely got a backup plan to get to each other. (view spoiler)[ Especially if all it takes is getting a key out of the cookie jar - a place that has always been the hidey-hole for spare keys. And the "military's" behavior through the whole thing just doesn't make any sense to me at all - why now to shut off the radios? Why not during the bombing, when it would have been quite logical for radio signals to fail? How did they come in and get all the working radios without it being more obvious? (hide spoiler)]
At times Winnacker had a no-holds-barred approach to her novel - the hint of rape and brutality in the public shelters, the bleakness of the characters' futures, her (seeming) willingness to sacrifice people of great importance to her main characters - but then she would backtrack or fail to follow through with the threat. (view spoiler)[ It just felt inauthentic that Sherry's father survives AND Mia is safe. The loss of Grandma doesn't really count because the woman who died was in no way the same woman in Sherry's memories. Real War has Real Casualties. And with her ending, Winnacker even hints that Zoe might be saved? That's just a little too much rainbow and sunshine for a zombie dystopia. (hide spoiler)] A really good book is buried inside The Weepers underneath the weak romance and contrived hope; a book that I wish I had read. There were the seeds of something dark and gritty and meaningful, but they were never allowed to flourish. Instead it was cut off before coming to fruition. (In fact, the ending is so abrupt and incongruous with the rest of the story that some reviewers thought they hadn't been given the complete novel.) I wish they were right and there were another hundred pages, because then I might have gotten the depth that Winnacker promised but failed to deliver. She absolutely has promise; maybe I'll find what I'm looking for in the next books.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I enjoyed Incarnate, but find that I feel a bit let down as well. Medows' world building is phenomenal. The world of Range, the city of Heart, the tec...moreI enjoyed Incarnate, but find that I feel a bit let down as well. Medows' world building is phenomenal. The world of Range, the city of Heart, the technology, the creatures - they're all fascinating. I quickly realized that it would be better to rid myself of expectations because Medows broke with convention as often as she followed it. I love that her dragons, sylph, and centaurs are recognizable but also refreshingly new and different. Medows' also brought forth some very intriguing concepts - the idea of a new soul in a society comprised entirely of souls that have been living together, reincarnating over and over again for thousands of years is absorbing. How would she fit in? Why did it happen? There was so much promise!
However, rather than really letting the reader explore this stimulating new world, or perhaps dive into the mystery of how and why Ana was born, (view spoiler)[ or why the city feels safe to everyone else but creeps Ana out (hide spoiler)], or even investigate some of the questions about Heart that Ana reminded the old souls they had all once had, we are instead left with a somewhat boring romance. Don't get me wrong! The romance between Sam and Ana is so much better than what one often comes across. They slowly get to know each other; the relationship builds upon shared interests and experiences. However, in a world so amazingly crafted, with so many mysteries waiting to be unveiled, their romance wasn't really what had my interest. I wanted it to be part of the novel, not the focus of the novel.
Incarnate is meant to be the first in a trilogy (series?), and as such is absolutely good enough to make the next one an instant read. I just hope that now that Sam and Ana have their stuff figured out, we can actually get somewhere with the real mysteries.
I want to start by saying that the last fourth, perhaps even third, of the book was pretty good. If I were reviewing a novel that had started out the...more I want to start by saying that the last fourth, perhaps even third, of the book was pretty good. If I were reviewing a novel that had started out the way it ended, I would probably be saying something completely different. However, That is not how Article 5 began. Article 5 begins with some seriously flawed world building that not only creates a bad novel, but also encourages some very bad political ideas and behaviors.
The premise of Article 5 is that a totalitarian theocracy controls what amounts to a dystopic contemporary America as a result of a war - The War. The War apparently included some bombing of major US cities, but left other areas almost completely untouched. It was severe enough to warrant the re-establishment of the draft and wiped out our basic media infrastructure. However, at least as far as can be inferred from the novel, it did not affect Mexico or Canada. Also, it lasted less than three years. There is very little information about the War provided, but what is provided is conflicting in nature. The physical effects of the war imply an external 'other' - that this war is with a nation that is geographically independent of the US. However, the socio-political effects do not match up with this sort of war.
American voters are, in actuality, on a spectrum. We have Liberals and Conservatives on each extreme jockeying for control, hoping to sway the Moderate Independents in the middle to their side each election. The result, therefore, is that, on really polar issues, the country is often divided into fairly equal, diametrically opposed sides with a huge mass of not-as-concerned people in the middle. That is part of why our politics tend to take a pendulum-type pattern - it takes something extreme to move the middle. In order to have such an extreme Neo-Conservative government take power, we would have had to have experienced a civil war, or a long, sustained war with an external 'other.' Neither of these options are even remotely possible with the way the war is described. (Seriously. Bush barely pulled 50.7% of the popular vote against a weak opponent three years after 9/11 while fighting two ongoing wars!!!)
Therefore, a contemporary America that could be interchanged for Nazi Germany, with a Morality Militia reminiscent of the Iranian militias and the Republican Guard, is really implausible based on Simmons' premise. On this shaky ground she then proceeds to build every Liberal's worst nightmare of America. Each flash-point is pulled directly from our current headlines, divided perfectly down the R/D line. However, most of what Simmons shows in the early part of the novel, while frustratingly offensive to most liberals, would have the average conservative saying, "yeah, and?"
This is where I have to ask myself who, precisely, Simmons intended as her audience. I mean, I get that she anticipates them to be teenagers - hence the young adult label. However, no age group has uniformly similar beliefs. There are conservative teenagers, liberal teenagers, and those who could really care less. Her portrayal of the 'liberal' characters is just sympathetic enough, and the 'conservatives' just offensive enough, to alienate most conservative readers. If she was trying to change anyone's political beliefs by showing some of the hazier implications of conservative ideology (which she admittedly does later in the novel), she fails by alienating her conservative readers early on. I doubt they even finish it. The worst part? If they do, it only reaffirms the often held belief of the religious conservative that all liberals are out to malign them as evil, simply for being religious and conservative.
More dangerously, though, is what I feel this book does to the liberal reader. The further the book progresses, the worse it gets. Article 5 is perfectly calibrated to push every liberal hot button. It makes your blood boil. It makes you angry. You feel frustrated rage and what those conservatives are doing to our country!!!......in a book. It is, in short, fear and hate mongering! Yes, these issues echo our current newspapers. BUT we are still working on it! There are equal and opposite reactions from the other side as well.
The only way to make a democracy work, without tearing ourselves apart, is to encourage discourse. When we are busy whipping ourselves up into a fervor over imagined slights, it discourages discourse in a serious way. America has real problems right now. Women's rights are seriously in danger. Religious freedom is daily being called into question. The LGBTQ community is still systematically disenfranchised. Racial equality has not yet been obtained. We have problems, but books like this - books that encourage righteous anger but offer no answers - contribute to the problem, not the solution. This is why, in my opinion, if you want to tackle serious issues in current events through fiction, it is best to create artificial distance by making the characters aliens or dragons, creating a futuristic or fantastical setting. Books like this are too personal. You can't get people to listen to you if they are busy defending themselves.
Add to these problems a heroine who is truly too stupid to live - and who is UTTERLY CLUELESS about basic world history if she believes all she professes to through the book. She also had to basically have lived in a box during the war to treat Chase the way she did when he had to become physically violent to protect her. (Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but I eventually thought of Ember as an allegorical representation of how the politically active often view the 'clueless' mass of moderates in the middle. I can't even count how many times I have seen people on both sides of the fence nearly scream in frustration, 'how do they not see what is going on?!' I was definitely screaming that at Ember.)
In Simmons' defense, once she quite pushing her political agenda the book really did get quite enjoyable. I really liked Chase, and the action was fast paced and engrossing. I just really didn't like how Simmons got there. I don't think I will be recommending this book.(less)