So, I came across a weird coincidence today. "Prized", the second installment in the Birthmarked Trilogy, has been on my list of requests on Netgalley...moreSo, I came across a weird coincidence today. "Prized", the second installment in the Birthmarked Trilogy, has been on my list of requests on Netgalley for quite some time (I asked for it a month or so ago, might be more). I was thinking about how to review this one and just two days ago I changed my rating of Birthmarked from three stars to two. And lo and behold, a couple of hours later my Netgalley request was declined. Now I don't want to accuse anyone of handpicking only people who are gushing about the first book to review the second, but I did find it amusing that my request hung in limbo for that long and got swiftly denied that very same day. The universe work in mysterious ways, ne?
About Birthmarked, I'll have to talk about one of those absolute kneejerk "WTH" reactions that ruined a whole lot of the book's realism for me. The more I think about it the more fume seems to want to force its way out of my ears and the more I start to look like a deranged tea pot, I'm sure. But anyway, we're not here for tea. We're here for a post-apocalyptic/dystopian world in which a group of people have survived what was supposedly an extreme increase in temperature on a global scale and formed themselves a settlement called The Enclave, a walled place which seems to provide its inhabitants with luxuries non-Enclave people could only dream of. Everyone outside the walls lives in service of the Enclave nonetheless.
Through some rigorous inbreeding the 'Clavies are having more and more trouble with rampant hemophilia and other diseases related to incest. Midwives from outside are forced to meet a quota - they have to deliver every first three babies born each month outside the walls to the Enclave gates and hand them over to the Nursery in preparation for adoption by a wealthy family and a supposedly cosy life in the Enclave. They need the new blood and diversity in their gene pool.
Gaia Stone, the protagonist, is the daughter of one such midwife and has been an apprentice to her mother ever since she could help out. She's supposed to become one herself. She has two older brothers who were "advanced" to the Enclave themselves and she would have been too if not for the scar that runs across one side of her face. 'Clavies like their babies intact.
When Gaia's parents get arrested by the Enclave without her knowing why she has to take on her mother's duties. Now here comes the tricky part. At one point Gaia delivers a baby who doesn't start screaming when its born and she starts to panic. In a frenzy, she does everything she knows to (including literally) breathe life into the baby - voila, after a whole lot of fussing about and a whole lot of drama the tiny thing starts yelling its heart out at last. And then Gaia cuts the umbilical cord.
Let's repeat that again: And then Gaia cuts the umbilical cord. Just...what? This book is about MIDWIVES and the author made a mistake akin to, if not worse than, Hollywood films depicting babies entering the world all pink and looking like they have been scrubbed clean using Burt's Bees Body Wash by tiny little hands in the womb they supposedly just left. Or those films with "newborns" that look like they could be more suited to play the part of the older toddler brother than the baby. A NEWBORN DOES NOT SCREAM WHEN IT IS STILL ATTACHED TO THE UMBILICAL CORD, BECAUSE IT CAN'T. That's the whole point of the umbilical cord - the screaming is there because it's the first time the child has to breathe on its own rather than use oxygen provided by the mother through the cord. How this err...oversight got past numerous editors and actually got published boggles the mind. It's painful to read, and it casts a shadow on the credibility of the whole story.
Let's focus on some stuff I liked:
- The first few chapters positively sizzled; you could feel the heat of the world inhabited by Gaia et al on your skin - and it wasn't a comfortable feeling. The author created an atmosphere that fit the plot and that was consistent throughout the whole story.
- The question about the Enclave's gene pool and its problems was a breath of fresh air compared to a lot of cut-and-paste concepts of what a dystopia should be in YA literature these days. Although a lot of the "puzzle" was solved in a rushed manner, the technicalities were washed over with simpleton language (but that's YA for ya) and overall didn't involve me all that much I give Caragh O'Brien kudos for trying something else.
- There was romance, and it was well done. Gaia's mixed and oftentimes conflicted emotions towards Sgt. Grey were actually refreshing and added a dimension to her character while romance has proved to be able to have quite the opposite effect on other YA female heroines. When something finally happened between the two, it was almost underplayed and felt natural for once. Never did it impose on the story at large.
What I didn't like (besides umbili-gate):
- Gaia Stone obviously didn't get a decent education growing up outside the Enclave, but she's portrayed as someone with a strong head on her shoulders and an equally strong will. Still, to me, she came across as extremely stubborn and not too bright at best and absolutely simple-minded and clueless at worst. But that probably portrays a teen pretty well, doesn't it? Yet I couldn't shake the feeling that the writer intended for her to be an intelligent young woman but I kept wondering if she was supposed to be this dense more than a couple of times throughout the story. I don't mind characters of low IQ, au contraire, if it's done realistically and tastefully then mad props to you. But I don't think that was the intention here.
- A whole lot of the story felt rushed and underdeveloped. Characters were introduced and discarded seemingly at random. Besides Gaia and Sgt. Grey nobody got fleshed out either. I get that this is a trilogy but this book packed a hell of a lot of rushed plot and set-up, which in hindsight felt both bloated and flat, yet oddly empty.
Verdict: I had a lot of gripes about Birthmarked but its more or less original premise will probably keep the interest of people who are bored with standard YA fare. Some will find Gaia's character refreshing and others will find her more frustrating than strong like I did. I was definitely prepared to check out the sequel because I feel Birthmarked still had a lot of the right ingredients and if the next books were to be tweaked and more polished compared to this one it could be the beginning of an absorbing trilogy.
But since my galley request was denied it'll take more time before I'll have access to Prized. I normally buy hardcover copies and paperbacks of galleys or ARC's I liked to support the authors but honestly, I'm not sure if I'd want to pay for Prized now. Call me paranoid and petty, because I probably am. ;) But I do have a huge TBR pile to go through and I wasn't waiting with baited breath or anything either. Prized won't be on that TBR list if/until I hear a lot of praise for it when its publication date rolls around. I hope people enjoy Birthmarked a lot more than I did because it does have a lot of potential.(less)
I'm Only Human After All, for me, consisted of two parts. The first half was a moving tale, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story th...moreRating:
I'm Only Human After All, for me, consisted of two parts. The first half was a moving tale, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story that touched on themes a lot of people have dealt with in their lives: the confusion of going through puberty, feeling like you're grasping at straws just to be able to exist, searching for your identity, trying to do the right thing when you feel the odds are always against you.
I've been lucky to never have been bullied, I'm an only child so I don't know about the pains of sibling rivalry and I've never grown up in a religious home. The simple crystalline prose that makes you feel like you're inside the main character's head from the moment you start reading is a testament to the author's wish to engage his audience from the get-go.
A lot of the more general and familiar themes like the claustrophobic nature that is inherent to high schools (mainly because of the students themselves, who are close-minded by nature and perceive it to be their whole world - who can't relate to that?) were addressed very honestly and openly. While the prose wasn't very descriptive its straightforward yet pensive stream-of-conciousness approach served the narrative very well; it truly felt like you were hearing the voice of a teenager, yet you could still hear the traces of the strong adult that teenager eventually grew to be. There were some typos throughout but they didn't bother me all that much. A little bit of editing could fix all of that.
Then came the second part of the story. I have very mixed feelings on this, to be honest. I'm aware that this was probably an accurate depiction of the family dynamics and religious thoughts during the time depicted by the author but I can't not feel shocked by the way the only semi-prominent female in the novel, Alex's mother, was portrayed as a confused (and sometimes grotesque) stereotype of how women where generally perceived around 1950. She was frail and insecure, extremely disorganized, emotionally all over the place and became some sort of a laughing stock for the males in the house to shake their heads at and whisper to each other, "women...", with a collective sigh. Nobody else in the house (the males) was portrayed as having any faults or even special quirks or character traits. The father was strong-willed, unwavering and an apparently exemplary god-fearing man, and all the narrative revealed of the other teens' personalities seemed to reek of "boys will be boys". This might've been the author's point of view at the time, but it was painful to read nonetheless. Some balancing out and giving more personality to the others would have worked better.
Then there was the hurricane Katrina. I've never had to deal with such a big catastrophe and I am sorry for all those who had to go through this disaster. My shock at the sermon scene in which the pastor exclaimed the hurricane was a 'cleansing' of the city took a while to subside, even if that wasn't the first time I'd heard of that notion. And then, even after watching the news reporting continuous killings, lootings and rapes in the devastated city the family still seemed to perceive this as a test from a deity who only had the best interests of his people at heart. I'm as blatantly atheist as they come but I've always been actively studying, out of sheer curiosity, the world's societies including various religions. I tolerate people's faiths within reason and respect a plethora of beliefs. But I can't keep myself from feeling really testy at some of those religious ideas pushed forward in light of this natural disaster. I know that's just my personal opinion but it did take away from the positive message the story was trying to convey throughout, not because of the fact that there was religious content but because of what kind of content it was. I couldn't ever think about people suffering in a positive light.
Overall, this was an emotional ride and I think that it will be one for everyone who reads this, whoever you are and wherever you come from. There are a bunch of elements to this story that are universal and that's what makes I'm Only Human After All pack a considerable punch.(less)