Friday, September 21, 2012

Review of Across the Universe by Beth Revis

Across the Universe
by Beth Revis
5 Scribbles

Despite following every series in the Star Trek franchise, I have always been reluctant to read science fiction set in space.  I suppose I feel that odd-looking aliens and artificial gravity translate better to the big screen than to paper. Thus, I was a bit reluctant to embark on the inter-galactic journey depicted in this novel. But, oh, am I glad I did!

The first page immediately sucks the reader in as Amy watches her parents be cryogenically frozen in preparation for a journey through space that will last 300 years. 300 years!  No one really knows what being frozen is like. Does one sleep? Does one dream? Amy’s dad leaves her with a choice shortly before he is frozen, Amy can stay with her friends and her beloved aunt and uncle or be frozen with her parents and wake up in a new world on a new planet after 300 years have passed and everyone on Earth has long since died. The choice seems like a simple one, but it is really? What would you choose if you were in Amy’s shoes?

Fast forward 250 years and the reader meets the second main character, Elder, who was born on the ship that houses the “Frozens” and will one day be its leader. It’s amazing how the culture on the ship has developed since Amy’s freezing, how the residents have become mono-ethnic, non-religious, and uneducated about their planet of origin—Earth.  What’s really amazing is that despite thousands of residents, everyone obeys Eldest, the leader, without question, there are no police or prisons, and peace reigns.Residents don't even mate unless a particular "season" is declared so that incest doesn't become an issue. How has Elder’s teacher, Eldest, made this happen? The descriptions of the ship, its life-sustaining biosphere, and its people are meticulously drawn in an artist’s detail on the page. While reading I imagined myself walking in the small green fields amongst genetically modified plants and animals, imagined myself visiting the colorful gardens and the pristine learning center, and imagined what the 250-year-old recycled air must taste like. The ship runs beautifully, or does it? It doesn’t take long for secrets to start being exposed, for murders to happen, and for Elder to discover that life aboard this ship is not the utopia he thought it was. What’s really pleasing about the novel is that no one is exactly who or what they appear to be—twists and treachery reside on every corner—and that adds mystery and suspense to the story.  The first murder Elder discovers isn’t the only murder that’s taken place on this ship—but how can this be? And when the final secret is revealed the reader will shiver with delight.  

Lastly, good news! You don’t have to wait for the next installment. A Million Suns, book two in the trilogy is already at your local library!

Review of Hero by Mike Lupica

by Mike Lupica
2 Scribbles

Let’s face it, the closest thing to a sport I will ever take part in is a race to the bestseller shelf at Barnes. Yet, I love how Mike Lupica can take a subject that would typically put me to sleep, like baseball and football, weave it into a cast of awesome characters, and keep me riveted to the action. The novels, Heat and Million Dollar Throw captured me for that reason, and it is because of those novels that I chose to read Hero. Sadly, however, Hero didn’t keep me nearly as glued as the others.

Zach’s dad is something of a hero, he’s the president’s right-hand man, scares the bejesus out of “The Bads” (or bad guys) and has the love of everyone around him—especially Zach—who doesn’t get to see his dad nearly as much as he’d like.  When Zach’s dad dies in a plane accident, Zach and his family are stunned, but Zach is more stunned when he discovers that his father had a secret, and now it’s up to Zach to discover what that secret was and what it has to do with Zach. Chapter one begins with butt-kicking action, but then the action slows instantly.  Zach and his friend Kate live in New York City, the city that never sleeps, and yet I was finding myself hard-pressed to stay awake while Zach explores first the plane crash site, and then the park in search of answers. Even when Zach encounters trouble and has to fight for his life, the action slows immediately after each conflict, making the story’s momentum stagger. Couple that with the fact that each conflict is followed by long, suggestive conversations between Zach’s “Uncle” John and the mysterious Mr. Herbert, and it can be easy for even the most motivated reader to stay invested in the outcome. Too little information is provided as the story moves on, and frankly, the identity of the villain and the good guy are a little too easy to figure out.  The best part of this story is Kate’s tough-as-nails attitude, and reading about what living in New York City is like for the well-to-do.  Overall, I prefer Lupica’s previous efforts.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Review of Pure by Julianna Baggott

Grand Central
by Julianna Baggot
4 Scribbles
Why would anyone want to leave a perfectly safe, protected environment like "The Dome" after a nuclear detonation, especially when those who survived outside The Dome are dangerous, hungry mutants? Partridge wants to leave, but only because he believes his mother may be alive and living somewhere amongst the "Wretches" outside, and he knows he has to find her. After his escape, he meets Pressia, running for her life from the deadly OSR, a militant organization that rules the new world. Unexpectedly, the two join forces, but neither can anticipate the truths nor the treachery their partnership will uncover.

What makes this novel unique might also be its only real weakness. The Wretches who live outside the dome all have experienced scars, deformities, mutations or fusions as a result of the nuclear detonation. This is science fiction and some stretching is required, but it’s hard to imagine people with birds, dogs, rocks, and even other people fused to their bodies; it’s even harder to imagine both humans and creatures still living after such a fusion. And yet, it is that very quirky detail that adds flavor to the work and sets this novel apart from a sea of post-apocalyptic works. The author makes the reader see these creatures and this scorched earth through incredibly descriptive language. Pressia survives with a doll head fused to her hand, her grandfather has a fan fused in his throat, Pressia’s nemesis-turned-friend, Bradwell ,survives with birds "nesting" in his back, and El Capitan, the vicious and emotionally broken OSR captain, lives with his brother Helmud fused to his back. Perhaps these deformities, and the deformities of every character outside the Dome, every character who is not "Pure," add a fascinating, morbid level of interest to the novel. Told in the alternating voices of Pressia and Partridge, the story contains plenty of fighting and bloody battles along the way to satisfy even the most hard-core zombie fans, while at the same time keeping characters realistically drawn with very human weaknesses and emotions. But what really cements the story and makes it enjoyable are the clues that Pressia and Partridge uncover on their journey, unexpected clues that reveal secrets about the past neither could have ever imagined—secrets and new evidence that those who think they are safe in the Dome may be even more at risk than the Wretches outside.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Review of The Raft by S.A. Bodeen

Feiwel & Friends
The Raft
by S.A. Bodeen
2 Scribbles
After reading The Compound, I dedicated myself to reading everything written by S.A. Bodeen in the hopes of finding that all of her works would cause me to flip the pages in earnest while gnawing on my nails and leaning forward in my seat like The Compound did.  So, after minor disappointment with her second work, The Gardener, I was excited to see The Raft hitting the shelves—so much so that I pre-ordered my copy—something I seldom do. 

First let me say that the cover of this novel is rockin’! It promises a riveting and adventure-soaked ride. Alas, that’s where the excitement ends. Robie is a teenager who lives on a remote island near Hawaii where a great deal of research takes place. Because of this, sometimes Robie stays on the mainland with her aunt. During one of these visits, circumstances force Robie’s aunt to leave, and when Robie tries to make the flight home, she finds herself in a plane crash.  Miraculously, she survives, but in the process becomes a hostage of the sea.  Perhaps part of the problem with this novel is that stories like these have appeared so many times in the past before in film and have been done so well (Castaway anyone)  although perhaps not with teenaged characters.  It seems like being in a raft at sea would pose far more risks than Robie faces, and the risks that are mentioned, hunger, dehydration, torn raft, sunburn, sharks, are too far understated. The biggest risk in Robie’s ride seems to be boredom—and perhaps that’s the problem. Being in a raft floating at sea would be boring, and the author hits too close to home. And while there are a few minor twists to the story, and Robie’s knowledge of nature and geography is impressive, there isn’t enough tension to drive the story forward. Robie’s character is sort of ho-hum and she’s very hard to identify with. She has no real friends because she lives on a remote island most of the time anyway, and other than her newly-pierced nose and henna tattoo, she seems to have little depth. It’s hard to say who or what she lives for—other than her parents—and that just seems odd. The reader really has to be committed to this journey in order to finish the novel.  Very short chapters help that problem, but the mysterious finding at the end borders on hokey. Overall, this work just doesn’t meet the expectations set by the cover. Perhaps Bodeen’s next novel, The Fallout, which is the sequel to The Compound, out next year, will be her next masterpiece, but unless you’re a hardcore Bodeen fan, I’d float right past this one.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Review of Unwholly by Neal Shusterman

Simon & Schuster BFYR
Unwhollyby Neal Shusterman
5 Scribbles

Everyone thought that “unwinding,” the practice of using every body part from a living teen for transplant, was a humane way to solve two problems at once. After all, The Unwind Accord ended The Heartland Wars that began years ago between the pro-life and pro-choice factions, thus saving thousands of lives and resolving the abortion conflict once and for all in the United States. At the same time, unwinding gave frustrated parents a way to deal with their troubled teens. However, the solution of unwinding isn’t nearly that simple. Now, rogue crooks capture teens (whether Unwinds or not) and sell them for parts on the black market, religious extremists tithe their children to the Harvest Camps, and thousands of AWOL Unwinds are hiding in the desert—but that’s not all. A top-secret, underground group has an even bigger plan now that unwinding is legal, and readers will be shocked when they find out just what that plan entails.

Following the action-packed, tension-filled style of book one in the trilogy, Shusterman hooks the reader and doesn’t let go until the last page. Key characters return in book two, although they are much changed. Connor has become a burdened, brooding young man with more responsibility than he ever wanted—and yet he is in a unique position to understand and guide the AWOL Unwinds under his guardianship. Lev too has grown, although he has begun to struggle spiritually, not fully understanding what his purpose in life might be.  Risa, now confined to a wheelchair, becomes more of an observer, slowly watching her relationship with Connor crumble under the weight of his leadership responsibilities. Despite the heavy character development, however, the introduction of new conflicts and players creates grand culture clashes and skirmishes the reader will scramble to keep up with.  Clever and ironic Public Service Announcements riddle the story, encouraging teens to accept and embrace the special, “divided state” and advertise that unwinding is “an adventure.” Other PSAs encourage adult unwinding, voluntary unwinding, and repealing the 17-year age restriction for Unwinds. All PSAs conclude that citizens should see “Unwinding. [As] not just good medicine, it’s the right idea.” Yet, even more disturbing than the repeated propaganda is the appearance of a new, brainwashed character, Miracolina, who wants more than anything to be unwound for God.  And finally, but perhaps most importantly, is the introduction of a new character so disturbing and chilling that Mary Shelley would be proud to claim him, a character named Camus, who wonders, —“If a human being has a soul, then where is his?”

This timely trilogy speaks to the ethical dilemmas of our generation and promises to become a staple in YA literature. Applause to the next installment in Shusterman’s disturbing vision for the future of our country.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A response to Life Happens Next by Terry Trueman

Harper Teen
Life Happens Next
by Terry Trueman
5 Scribbles
When I read Stuck in Neutral, Trueman's first book, ten years ago, I remember being impressed by the story of Shawn, moved by Shawn’s character, his realistic and cynical voice and his internal struggles, and sympathetic to Shawn’s family. What must it be like to be trapped in a body which will not obey? I pondered this for a few weeks then went on with my life. I had no idea that, fast-forward ten years, I would be one of those family members caring for a severely disabled young man, and that Shawn’s story would at least in part, become my own.

Above right is a photograph of my stepson, Thomas. Thomas is 21 years old, weighs 64 pounds, is tube fed, nonverbal, wears diapers, has cerebral palsy, seizure disorder and other various developmental disabilities. Unlike Shawn though, Thomas does have some limited motor control. I married Tommy’s dad, Terry, several years ago, after thinking long and hard about whether I was ready to jump ship from my single, no-responsibilities life into a family situation. I knew that Thomas was in his father’s sole custody, and was to be our full-time responsibility. Top that off with the fact that Thomas’s dad travels for sometimes days at a time and at a moment’s notice, and you can see how my lifestyle might change. And oh, has it changed! Over these past three years I have cared for Thomas: fed him, changed his diapers at three A.M., bathed him, washed his bedding, cleaned up his accidents, wiped his nose and mopped up pools of drool, lifted him in and out of wheelchairs, cars, his bed…you get the picture. I have become his advocate, learning how to prepare for doctor’s appointments to make them rapid and efficient, how to file an appeal to a health insurance denial, what types of paperwork needs to be done in Thomas’s support on a yearly basis, what a “Trust” is, how to hold Thomas’s wondering hands and write a check at the same time at the grocery store, how to manage my time better so that I can work full time and still be there to get Thomas ready for school, what “Home Health Care” means and how to keep my tears under wraps when Tommy’s nutritional formula is delivered late. It’s been challenging, but I’ve learned much about myself and others in the process.

What I love about this sequel is what the reader learns about humanity through Shawn’s jaded thoughts and Debi’s tender, humorous voice. I have never heard my dear Thomas speak, but in these pages Trueman has gifted Thomas with a voice, and it shouts from every page. Thomas is very smart—I see it in the way he looks at me, in the way he laughs when his father and I kiss, in the way he reaches for me when I am sad, in the way he flirts with his sister’s friends, and in the way he becomes fixed on television shows and music. Thomas is magnetic—people recognize him everywhere, and he has a hug and a smile for everyone who gets near enough to touch him. So, in Shawn’s words, “what is God’s big plan” for Thomas? I have often wondered this myself as I bathe him or feed him. How will people grieve Thomas when he is gone? How will they remember him? What will he leave behind when he cannot work, get married, have kids, or even talk? In the words of Shawn’s mother from the novel, we live “in a society…that gives a material value to everything and everybody,” but that’s not really what it’s all about is it? We need to look past our bodies and see what Shawn calls the “souls and spirits” that live on forever. Unless we learn to “pay attention to [our] world” and to one another, we may never really know the wonderful people like Thomas and Shawn who have a little something to give—or people like Debi, who give us the gift of knowing ourselves.

Thank you once again, Terry Trueman, for giving kids like Shawn, Debi (and Thomas) a voice.