Category Archives: YA fiction

Review: Glass by Ellen Hopkins (Crank series)

Standard

GlassGlass by Ellen Hopkins (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2007), Crank series

Have You Ever Tried

To quit

            a bad habit, one

            that has come to

            define you?

 

Kristina has been clean and sober for months now. She’s living at home and taking care of baby Hunter. She’s studying for her GED and looking for a job. She’ll be eighteen in just a few weeks. Things are looking good, right up until she starts thinking about how boring her life is, and how much weight she gained during her pregnancy, and how nice it would be to have a boyfriend again, and she thinks maybe, just maybe, if she stays in control, she can start using again.

This is the first in a long series of bad decisions that Kristina makes. At first things seem to be going just fine: she’s losing weight, she’s got a job, and it’s easy to score high-quality crank that is perfect for a pick-me-up to get her through the day. But of course, things aren’t just fine, and the last straw for Kristina’s parents comes when she crashes hard and doesn’t wake up even for her screaming baby. Kristina is thrown out of the house and her parents tell her she won’t see Hunter again until she cleans herself up.

That’s when things spiral out of control. Kristina moves in with her boyfriend’s cousin, who is also their drug dealer. She’s living from paycheck to paycheck, spending all of her money on drugs. She’s engaging in risky behaviors—driving while she’s high, having unprotected sex, stealing money—and on the rare occasions when she does talk with her family, she keeps pushing them away—and, she realizes after she hangs up the phone, she keeps forgetting to ask about Hunter. She’s shut herself off from her former friends, her family, even her own child.

While Crank focused on how seductive drugs can be and how anyone can start using and become addicted, Glass is about the impact of addiction on users and the people around them. Kristina’s life revolves around drugs: when and where she’ll score, how she’ll pay, when and how much she’ll use. Her relationships all revolve around drugs: the people she buys from, the people she sleeps with while she’s high. The book is written in free verse and is told entirely from Kristina’s point of view, so it’s left to the reader to imagine what her family must be going through (Kristina, of course, is too lost in her addiction to be able to see anything outside of herself). This is not an easy book to read. It’s utterly heart-wrenching. But it’s an amazing depiction of the destruction wrought by addiction, and the way in which the story is told—Kristina’s words break your heart because you can see what’s happening and know what’s coming, and you know she’s going to keep making bad decisions as long as she continues to use—is unique and compelling.

 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Advertisements

Review: Crank by Ellen Hopkins

Standard

CrankCrank by Ellen Hopkins (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2004)

 

Life was good
before I
met
the monster.
After,
life
was great,
At
least
for a little while.

 

Crank is the story of an ordinary girl who becomes a meth addict. It’s told in free verse form, so there’s not much in the way of narrative or dialogue, but that makes the story all the more powerful because it’s stripped down to its bones.

Kristina is an ordinary teenager. She’s sixteen and it’s the summer before her junior year in high school. She’s a straight-A student with an older sister and a younger brother, a mother and a stepfather. The book begins when she goes to stay with her biological father, who is an addict, for three weeks. While in Albuquerque she discovers Bree: the side of herself that is reckless, a vamp, who likes attention and who is willing to break all the rules that Kristina lives by. As Bree, she attracts the attention of the boy who introduces her to love—and to crank, the monster that changes her life forever.

I can understand why parents wouldn’t want their children to read Crank. But this is the kind of book I would have loved as a teenager precisely because Kristina was someone I could relate to; she could have been any one of my friends. The underlying message—that drug addiction can happen to anyone, and escaping the monster is almost impossible—is a powerful and important one, and the unique structure and the power of the storytelling resulted in a book I read in one sitting.

Hopkins wrote this based on her own experiences with her daughter, who was addicted to methamphetamines, and that gives the book a very real feel. It’s honest and it’s harsh and it pulls no punches about the consequences of drug abuse. Kristina/Bree’s inner conflict is heart-wrenching: she wants to be a good girl, a good student, a good sister and daughter and friend, but the pull of the monster is stronger. She makes one bad choice after another—almost all of them based on her need for crank—and the consequences are life-altering in a way she never could have imagined before she started using.

 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review: Defy by Sarah B. Larson

Standard

DefyDefy by Sara B. Larson (2014, Scholastic Press)

Blurb: Alexa Hollen is a fighter. Forced to disguise herself as a boy and serve in the king’s army, Alex uses her quick wit and fierce sword-fighting skills to earn a spot on the elite prince’s guard. But when a powerful sorcerer sneaks into the palace in the dead of night, even Alex, who is virtually unbeatable, can’t prevent him from abducting her, her fellow guard and friend Rylan, and Prince Damian, taking them through the treacherous wilds of the jungle and deep into enemy territory.

The longer Alex is held captive with both Rylan and the prince, the more she realizes that she is not the only one who has been keeping dangerous secrets. And suddenly, after her own secret is revealed, Alex finds herself confronted with two men vying for her heart: the safe and steady Rylan, who has always cared for her, and the dark, intriguing Damian. With hidden foes lurking around every corner, is Alex strong enough to save herself and the kingdom she’s sworn to protect?

After reading the above description, I was really excited to read this book. I expected a strong female character, an action-packed fantasy novel, and a lot of in-depth character interaction. Sadly, that is not what this book is. If you want a strong female character who is decisive and self-confident and a leader, this is not the book for you. Alexa is defined, both by others and by herself, solely in terms of her relationships to other (male) characters: she is Marcel’s twin; one of Damian’s elite guard; Rylan’s friend. This evolves or devolves (depending on how you choose to look at it) into Alexa as the love interest of both Damian and Rylan, and as the pawn of the Men with the Plan. At no time does Alexa come up with a plan of her own—virtually all of her actions are the results of orders given to her by men. The only reason Alexa lives to the end of the book is that men perform heroic actions, they protect her, save her life, and tell her what to do to stay alive. That’s not really my idea of a strong female action character.

The world-building in Defy is minimal; it’s a romance novel with swords and magic and a generic fantasy setting, not a fantasy novel with a romance. I didn’t actually mind that so much because so many books go overboard with world-building. What I did mind were the places where the world-building slipped, for example, when one character tells another that “pride goeth before a fall.” I couldn’t quite work out how a character in a fantasy setting with no real mention of religion was able to quote the Bible.

The focus on the romance rather than on a plot is also responsible for the wildly uneven pacing of the book. The plot-based scenes do have a fair amount of action in them, but the minute the action stops, all Alexa does is moon over the dudes. Seriously! If she’s not actively fighting, during her weeks-long journey through the jungle, while being held captive, the most efficient, skilled soldier in the king’s army thinks not about survival or escape tactics, but is instead unable to produce a single coherent thought that does not involve her attraction to Rylan and/or Damian.

The author uses the gender-swap device solely as a means of getting Alexa close enough to Damian and Rylan that she can fall in love with them. There’s no exploration of gender roles in society—theirs or ours. The same-sex aspect of the love triangle, which I was looking forward to, was completely sidestepped. I would have wondered if the issue of same-sex attraction was deemed inappropriate for the target YA audience were it not for the vivid descriptions of the breeding houses—oh, didn’t I mention that? All captured children are separated by sex: boys train to be soldiers, girls are forced to bear children who will then be subjected to the same fate. Although this is disturbing enough just on the face of it, what’s even more disturbing is that their inclusion seems to be more to evoke in the reader a reaction against the current regime than to serve any real function within the story. The characters themselves just accept the breeding houses as the way things are rather than as, you know, a reason to actively oppose a vile regime instead of being part of the elite guard ensuring the regime’s survival.

All in all, this book was a huge disappointment. Between the lack of a plot, the lack of any real character or relationship development, and a fair bit of what seemed to me to be anti-feminist content (I won’t go so far as to call it misogynistic, but others have), based on this book I’m going to give the rest of the series a pass.

This ARC was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 2 stars out of 5.

Review: I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga

Standard

IHuntKillersI Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga (Little, Brown & Co., 2012)

 

Blurb: What if the world’s worst serial killer…was your dad?


Jasper “Jazz” Dent is a likable teenager. A charmer, one might say.


But he’s also the son of the world’s most infamous serial killer, and for Dear Old Dad, Take Your Son to Work Day was year-round. Jazz has witnessed crime scenes the way cops wish they could—from the criminal’s point of view.


And now bodies are piling up in Lobo’s Nod.


In an effort to clear his name, Jazz joins the police in a hunt for a new serial killer. But Jazz has a secret—could he be more like his father than anyone knows?

 

I was really hoping to like this book because I’d heard so many positive things about it. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for me. While the premise is intriguing, the quality of the writing and the reliance on clichés ensured that the book didn’t live up to its promise.

Jazz Dent is almost 18. His father, a notorious serial killer, is now in jail, and Jazz lives with his (increasingly unstable) grandmother. He spends his days avoiding the social worker who wants to put him in foster care and trying to reassure himself that although he may well be a sociopath (officially he can’t be diagnosed until he turns 18), he isn’t a killer. This becomes increasingly difficult as his dreams—memories?—seem to be telling him this is a line he might have already crossed. Then suddenly there’s a series of murders in Jazz’s town, and since he has Keen Insight into the Criminal Mind, he takes it upon himself to investigate the murders and badger local law enforcement until he is officially made a part of the investigation.

And this is where we get into the clichés: the flashbacks that seem to indicate Jazz is a murderer—or do they?; the missing mother, likely one of his father’s victims (although, this being a series, I’d be stunned if she doesn’t show up at some point in a future book); the safe girlfriend who shows that he may be capable of Real Feelings; the best friend who provides comic relief and the vehicle for Parental Disapproval.

Add to this some major info dump about serial killers—yes, I get that this is a YA book, but teenagers are capable of grasping information the first time it’s provided, and this book was all about repetition, especially when it came to Jazz’s “inner turmoil,” by which I mean whining. I don’t usually mind being inside a character’s head, but this was just too much of the same thing, again and again: Oh no what if I’m evil? I have been shaped to be a super serial killer and all I think about is killing and not killing! It’s exactly the wrong combination of self-awareness and teen angst for me.

 

My rating: 2 stars

Review: BZRK Reloaded by Michael Grant (BZRK #2)

Standard

BZRK ReloadedBZRK Reloaded by Michael Grant (Egmont USA, 2013): BZRK series

 

The first book in the series, BZRK, was a true thrill ride: nanobots, biotech, mass murder, espionage (both political and industrial), good vs. evil, and a hit of romance. The book ended with the failure of the BZRK mission: to stop the Armstrong brothers, Charles and Benjamin, conjoined twins who want to make the world a perfect place through technological enslavement.

BZRK Reloaded is even better.

The book picks up where the previous book left off. Having failed in their mission, the BZRK group is left to pick up the pieces. The president is under the secret control of the Armstrong brothers—maybe—who are using government resources to track down what remains of BZRK. Olivia has suffered horrific injuries; Vincent, having lost one of his biots during the battle, teeters on the brink of insanity; Nijinsky has become the reluctant leader; and Plath and Keats have realized the true stakes of the battle. In fact, part of what makes BZRK Reloaded better than the first book is the transition of BZRK from a group of loosely affiliated gamers who enjoy the action at the nanolevel to a group of individuals with a personal grudge against the Armstrong brothers. Yes, they oppose the utopia the Armstrong Fancy Gifts Corporation would impose upon everyone, but more than that, they have a score to settle with Charles, Benjamin, Burnofsky, and Bug Man. And Anonymous makes a guest appearance as a minor annoyance that turns out to be not so minor.

The characters develop nicely in this second book in a planned trilogy. The book is still full of action, but as with the Gone series, the shifting alliances and perfectly timed conversations reveal motives and secrets of each character without becoming mired in introspection. Grant uses these devices to explore philosophical issues (What makes a good leader? Can battles or wars ever really be cast in terms of black and white, good and evil? Can a person employ tactics he despises for what he believes are the right reasons, and still be a good person? Where and how is that line crossed?) in a way that preserves the book’s rapid pace.

The battle scenes are not as frequent as in BZRK but are no less fascinating; microscopic nanotech making its way around the human body makes for great description, and the in-depth view of what goes into “wiring” the brain—and how the brain reacts—is as compelling as it is cringe-inducing.

This is clearly a second book; while it stands alone, it does so within the context of the series and would be utterly confusing to anyone who didn’t read the first book. It’s setting up the final battle in the third book, BZRK Revolution, so while the ending is a resolution of sorts, I’m left anticipating what is to follow. I’ve got questions, and I’m looking forward to the next book so I can get some answers.

This book was provided by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 stars

 

Review: Countdown by Michelle Rowen

Standard

CountdownCountdown by Michelle Rowen (Harlequin Teen, 2013)

Kira Jordan awakens in a pitch-black room, chained to a wall, with no idea how she got there. She soon realizes the room’s other occupant is Rogan Ellis, convicted murderer, and that he holds the key—literally—to her survival.

Kira soon discovers that she and Rogan have been thrust into a world of underground entertainment—it’s like Survivor on steroids, a brutal series of challenges where contestants have no choice but fight to the death. Theirs is a society where the very wealthy, the Subscribers, are willing to pay for brain implants so they can access “the Network” and watch programming such as Countdown. Kira, who has lived on the streets since the brutal murder of her parents and her sister, is stronger than she thinks, and she soon realizes the benefits of having Rogan on her side outweigh the risks of teaming up with a murderer.

At first the story moves at a breakneck pace, setting aside world-building and characterization for the sake of building tension and suspense. Information about Kira, Rogan, and Countdown and who’s behind it is given out slowly and only when necessary. This works well for the first three-quarters of the book. It’s a thrill ride, and I couldn’t put the book down because I needed to know what happened to Kira and Rogan. But then the story seems to lose its way. Rather than focusing on their own survival, Kira and Rogan suddenly become pawns in a game of industrial espionage, and the action slows almost to a halt. The characters whose survival has depended on quick thinking and immediate action suddenly start agonizing over every decision, hesitating before they do anything, and because there’s been no narrative preparation for such a drastic change, the introspection and need for approval from each other comes across as forced.

There’s a lot going on in Countdown—it’s a dystopian society where a plague has wiped out much of the population but somehow has allowed for the development of psi abilities in some girls, and there’s this forbidden world of ultra-violent “entertainment”—and unfortunately there’s just enough of that to be fun, but not quite enough to make for a complex, compelling read. This is a perfect airport thriller: fun and quick to read, but doesn’t really stay with you once you’ve finished.

This book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 3 stars

Review: The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

Standard

TheBoneSeasonThe Bone Season by Samantha Shannon (Bloomsbury, 2013)

One of the great joys of being a reader is finding a book that incorporates familiar elements in a way that is completely original. The Bone Season is such a book.

Paige Mahoney lives in 2059 Scion London, where “voyants”—people with special mental abilities—are hunted down. Some are imprisoned, some are executed, and some are forced to join the security forces and use their powers to capture other voyants. Paige is part of an underworld group called the syndicate, which is kind of like a mafia protection racket: the voyants go to work for the syndicate, and the syndicate looks out for the voyants. Paige is the group’s “mollisher,” the second in command; and although she recognizes her powers are somewhat unusual, she doesn’t fully understand what they are and what their limits might be. One day, riding home on a subway, she has a run-in with the Scion security forces that changes her life forever: she’s captured and sent to a penal colony run by the Rephaim—an alien race who control the Scion—where voyants are the soldiers in the Rephaim war against their own enemies.

If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. But Shannon has an incredibly deft hand at world-building: the descriptions of London and Sheol I, the prison, are richly layered and full of details. And it’s not just the places. The societies are also fully realized—the human world, where ESP is viewed as a potentially curable illness and people volunteer for “treatment”; the voyant underworld and the syndicate; and then the world of Sheol I—each with its own set of rules and hierarchies. All this information is presented in a way that is effortless for the reader. There’s no slogging through background information or paging through excessive description, and as a reader I never got the sense that I was being given more information or detail than I needed.

Paige is an engaging and incredibly frustrating character. She’s smart, she’s passionate, and she’s intensely loyal, which means that she makes a lot of decisions that an outsider can instantly identify as bad ones, but that Paige is going to make every time because that’s who she is. Paige is also endlessly curious, and at Sheol I she’s got a lot to explore: the prison itself; the Rephaim; her own powers, which she is beginning to realize are even more unusual and special than she ever imagined; and her relationships within the prison. Her master is a Rephaim called Warden, who manages to be simultaneously cruel and sympathetic. The relationship between Paige and Warden is very well drawn; Paige, so slow to trust but so incredibly loyal, doesn’t know what to do with this Rephaim whose motives are so unclear—is he trying to help her or destroy her?

To sum up: I loved this book. It’s richly layered, complex, and compelling. I plan on re-reading it when the sequel is published because I know there’s more under the surface that I’ve missed.

The Bone Season is the first book in a planned series of seven by debut author Samantha Shannon.  Apparently Andy Serkis has already optioned the film rights; if so, I hope this book makes it to the screen, because it has the potential to be amazing in a visual medium.

 

This book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 5 stars