Review: Red Queen

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Title: Red Queen

Author: Victoria Aveyard

Publisher: Harper Teen

Publication date: February 10, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

The gorgeous cover of Red Queen immediately caught my eye as soon as it came out (it’s hard to tell in the photo, but in real life it’s silver and very attractive to someone who is drawn to anything shiny). This being Victoria Aveyard’s debut, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I dove right in, especially since I hadn’t read any real fantasy in a while.

A quick summary from Victoria Aveyard’s website:

Mare Barrow’s world is divided by blood—those with red and those with silver. Mare and her family are lowly Reds, destined to serve the Silver elite whose supernatural abilities make them nearly gods. Mare steals what she can to help her family survive, but when her best friend is conscripted into the army she gambles everything to win his freedom. A twist of fate leads her to the royal palace itself, where, in front of the king and all his nobles, she discovers a power of her own—an ability she didn’t know she had. Except … her blood is Red.

To hide this impossibility, the king forces her into the role of a lost Silver princess and betroths her to one of his own sons. As Mare is drawn further into the Silver world, she risks her new position to aid the Scarlet Guard—the leaders of a Red rebellion. Her actions put into motion a deadly and violent dance, pitting prince against prince—and Mare against her own heart.

From debut author Victoria Aveyard comes a lush, vivid fantasy series where loyalty and desire can tear you apart and the only certainty is betrayal.

I was hooked within the first few pages of this book. The clear societal differences between the Reds and the Silvers screams social commentary, and I wasn’t disappointed when this issue nicely progressed throughout the novel. It’s amazing how a story set in another world with a whole new set of rules and physical realities can still echo our own society so strongly. Anyway – I though Aveyard made a great point with some of the issues she brought up, framed within the confines of the book’s social classes.

The mystery of the story – how did Mare get her power if she’s not a Silver? – definitely compelled me to keep reading, but even more engaging than that were the courtly interactions and intrigue that Mare got herself whipped up into. Some elements reminded me of Kiera Cass’ The Selection series, but with less emphasis on the beauty pageant/reality television elements and more on the betrayal and political twisting and turning. So, a more interesting and meaty take on it, in other words.

I was really hoping that this book wouldn’t end up having a love triangle, but I was sadly mistaken. Still, the way that it played out didn’t really bother me in the end, because Mare really only loves one character at a time, and the way the young men feel for her is hard to pin down, which is part of the fun.

Red Queen is a meaningful read that’s packed with action, so if you like hidden social commentary and also magical powers and fantasy worlds, definitely give this one a read before the sequel comes out. I’ll be waiting with bated breath for the next installment.

5 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: Mosquitoland

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Title: Mosquitoland

Author: David Arnold

Publisher: Viking Children’s

Publication date: March 3, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

So this is, as I’ve mentioned, the second of the van-cover books (technically, this one is a bus – at first glance I did think it was a van, though) that I read in one sitting at Barnes and Noble a couple of Fridays ago. I genuinely loved it and ended up buying it for my own library.

A summary from the author’s website:

After the sudden collapse of her family, Mim Malone is dragged from her home in northern Ohio to the “wastelands” of Mississippi, where she lives in a medicated milieu with her dad and new stepmom. Before the dust has a chance to settle, she learns her mother is sick back in Cleveland. So she ditches her new life and hops aboard a northbound Greyhound bus to her real home and her real mother, meeting a quirky cast of fellow travelers along the way. But when her thousand-mile journey takes a few turns she could never see coming, Mim must confront her own demons, redefining her notions of love, loyalty, and what it means to be sane.

You know those experiences you have that, when you look back on them, seem so ridiculous that they couldn’t have possibly been real, but you know that they were? In Mosquitoland, David Arnold creates much of the same feeling. Mim’s whole road trip walks the fine line between realism and fantasy. The people she meets and the events that occur are ridiculous, but not quite beyond the realm of believability, making her whimsical adventure something amazing to experience.

Some sections of the book made me crack up, and others had me swallowing down that thick emotion you get when you’re hit hard with something that matters. My opinion of Mim shifted just as suddenly – she’s a protagonist who’s hard to pin down, not wholly reliable, not wholly understandable, but someone who I rooted for throughout the book nonetheless.

I’ve seen tons of discussion about Mim’s cultural appropriation (or rather, David Arnold’s, as the author), and how she’s not a solid portrayal of Native American culture – one of her coping mechanisms is to put on her “warpaint” lipstick across her cheeks, though she is part Cherokee. The way I took it was that she’s a teenager, and if it is inappropriate, she doesn’t know better – that’s why she’s still growing as a person. So I didn’t find it offensive, but then again, I’m white. So. Keep that in mind if you’re sensitive about cultural appropriation.

The time it took me to read Mosquitoland flew by in a flash, and when I finished I wanted to dive back into the world it had painted around me, no matter how much pain it caused. David Arnold has supremely impressed me with his debut novel, and I highly recommend this to those of you who want something equal parts gritty and sweet.

5 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: No Parking at the End Times

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Title: No Parking at the End Times

Author: Bryan Bliss

Publisher: Greenwillow Books

Publication date: February 24, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s twitter

Picked this one up because two books on the recent releases shelf at Barnes and Noble had vans on the covers, so clearly it was a sign from the universe that I was meant to read both van books in one day. My brain doesn’t make sense sometimes, but I usually just go with it. (I’ll post my review of the other van-cover-book later this week!)

A summary from the HarperCollins website, of which Greenwillow is an imprint:

Abigail’s parents believed the world was going to end. And—of course—it didn’t. But they’ve lost everything anyway. And she must decide: does she still believe in them? Or is it time to believe in herself? Fans of Sara Zarr, David Levithan, and Rainbow Rowell will connect with this moving debut.

Abigail’s parents never should have made that first donation to that end-of-times preacher. Or the next, or the next. They shouldn’t have sold their house. Or packed Abigail and her twin brother, Aaron, into their old van to drive across the country to San Francisco, to be there for the “end of the world.” Because now they’re living in their van. And Aaron is full of anger, disappearing to who-knows-where every night. Their family is falling apart. All Abigail wants is to hold them together, to get them back to the place where things were right.

But maybe it’s too big a task for one teenage girl. Bryan Bliss’s thoughtful debut novel is about losing everything—and about what you will do for the people you love.

First of all, on a slightly unrelated note, name-dropping in book blurbs is actually my least favorite thing on this planet. Rainbow Rowell wrote a “moving” book, and if you liked that one, you’ll also like this one! No. Incorrect. Wrong. Just… stop.

Anyway. Continuing on.

Some things about this book were great – like the focus on family dynamics and the close relationship between Abigail and her brother as the emotional center of the novel. I don’t think the importance of familial love gets enough attention in YA literature. And the whole people-get-taken-by-basically-a-religious-cult-leader thing is becoming more prevalent in contemporary media lately, as seen in Vivian Apple at the End of the World (my review of which is here) and the new comedy “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” on Netflix (which I absolutely loved). I don’t know what it says about our society that religious cults are becoming more of a talked-about issue, but… I do think the topic is intriguing.

But however interesting the premise, and however compelling the familial relationship between parents-children and sister-brother, I closed the book with a vague feeling of disappointment. First of all, nothing was really resolved by the end of the novel. It wasn’t even resolved in a this-isn’t-resolved way. It just kind of fake-happy-ended me. Happy endings don’t just happen like that, in a page and a half, with no reason and no hint as to the troubles that they’ll have to face in the future as a result of that ending.

Also, for a book that focuses on the hardships of this family after they become basically homeless and living in their van, it kind of… romanticizes? The idea of homelessness? Like, they sleep in the van, but the kids sneak out to do whatever, whenever they want. They hit up all the charity food lines, collect donations from churches, etc, and while Abigail does talk about how hard it is to eat spaghetti every day, and brush her teeth without a real sink, I don’t think the book hit the gritty realities I was hoping it would. I was left distinctly unsatisfied.

I much enjoyed the other van-cover-book, to be honest. Review of that one is forthcoming. But for No Parking at the End Times? Ehhhh.

3 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: Trigger Warning

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Title: Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances

Author: Neil Gaiman

Publisher: William Morrow & Company

Publication date: February 3, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

I love Neil Gaiman. Ever since I read Coraline as a kid (and had subsequent nightmares for weeks), I’ve been in love with his books. I re-read Neverwhere on the London Underground; I hurriedly consumed The Ocean at the End of the Lane in line at his book signing in Portland; I spent all last summer tracking down each issue of The Sandman. So as you can imagine, I was PUMPED about this new collection of short stories.

Before my reviews – a quick summary from Goodreads:

Multiple award winning, #1 New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman returns to dazzle, captivate, haunt, and entertain with this third collection of short fiction following Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things–which includes a never-before published American Gods story, “Black Dog,” written exclusively for this volume…

A sophisticated writer whose creative genius is unparalleled, Gaiman entrances with his literary alchemy, transporting us deep into the realm of imagination, where the fantastical becomes real and the everyday incandescent. Full of wonder and terror, surprises and amusements,Trigger Warning is a treasury of delights that engage the mind, stir the heart, and shake the soul from one of the most unique and popular literary artists of our day.

It’s hard to judge a collection of stories as a whole, because I loved some and was completely uninterested by others. So like I’ve done for other short story compilations, here’s a brief review of each story separately. It’s a little unconventional, but the best way to do it, I think. I won’t review the poems, but here are my thoughts on the nineteen short stories, in order from least favorite to favorite (so if you just want to hear about the good ones, scroll down or pay attention just to the bolded titles):

19. “Black Dog” – I feel like I would have appreciated this if I’d read American Gods, which has been on my to-read list for years. Since I wasn’t familiar with the characters, I skipped this story as a result, so I can’t comment.

18. “An Invocation of Incuriosity” – I skimmed this one. It was uninteresting to me.

17. “Feminine Endings” – I didn’t get this one. I probably just need to re-read.

16. “The Case of Death and Honey” – Based on why Sherlock Holmes was so obsessed with beekeeping in his retirement. I liked the premise, but the execution (the style, mostly) was lacking for me.

15. “Jerusalem” – Eh. Okay. Not particularly scary or interesting, though slightly amusing.

14. “Adventure Story” – Funny but relatively unremarkable.

13. “A Lunar Labyrinth” – Cool mythology, creepy setting, nice.

12. “Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale” – A dark, modern spin on a fairy-tale-like situation. I enjoyed it well enough.

11. “The Return of the Thin White Duke” – Another great fairytale.

10. “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” – A sweet (and creepy) tribute to Ray Bradbury – and also very appropriately reminiscent of Fahrenheit 451.

9. “Orange (Third Subject’s Responses to Investigator’s Written Questionnaire” – This one is fun because you get only the interviewee’s answers, but not the questions, and have to piece together what happened yourself. A great (and successful) experiment in style.

8. “A Calendar of Tales” – Short stories WITHIN a short story – one for each month. All of them were great, and I’ll be re-reading this mini-collection in the future.

7. “Nothing O’Clock” – Essentially, a mini, written Doctor Who episode, set in the Eleventh Doctor & Amy’s era. Gaiman has written for the show before, and this was just as great as any full-length, produced episode.

6. “‘And Weep, Like Alexander'” – Perfectly over-the-top in its execution. A story about a man who can un-invent things – satirical and hilarious.

5. “Down to a Sunless Sea” – YES. SO GOOD. Short and anti-sweet.

4. “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains…” – A story twisted up in murder and mystery and mythology. This one is longer but it felt like it passed in the blink of an eye.

3. “The Thing About Cassandra” – Cute but also creepy, in a perfect balance. The twist ending actually blew my mind and made me question my own existence.

2. “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” – Supremely horrifying, and definitely a story you won’t want to read when you’re home alone.

And my #1: “The Sleeper and the Spindle” – Combine a kick-ass Snow White with an inverted Sleeping Beauty and you get this story. Absolutely perfect in every aspect. This should be the bedtime story for all children forever.

So while about six of the stories were uninteresting or “eh,” I absolutely fell in love with the other half of my list. The great thing about short story collections is that you don’t HAVE to read them all – you have the power to decide which deserve your attention and which you’ll leave for later (or never). For example, I bolded my must-reads. If you like creepy, if you like funny, if you like mind-blowing, or if you like Neil Gaiman, I’d recommend picking up Trigger Warning.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tara