ARC Review- Vault of Dreamers – Caragh M. O’Brien

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eARC provided by publisher through NetGalley in exchange for fair review

Summary:

From the author of the Birthmarked trilogy comes a fast-paced, psychologically thrilling novel about what happens when your dreams are not your own.

The Forge School is the most prestigious arts school in the country. The secret to its success:  every moment of the students’ lives is televised as part of the insanely popular Forge Show, and the students’ schedule includes twelve hours of induced sleep meant to enhance creativity. But when first year student Rosie Sinclair skips her sleeping pill, she discovers there is something off about Forge. In fact, she suspects that there are sinister things going on deep below the reaches of the cameras in the school. What’s worse is, she starts to notice that the edges of her consciousness do not feel quite right. And soon, she unearths the ghastly secret that the Forge School is hiding—and what it truly means to dream there.

Review:

Plus side – this book drew me in enough to get me really going again after a slight bit of burn out.

Down side – um. The rest? Honestly, the book as whole was just kind of okay.

I will give O’Brien credit. While I’m kind of tired of using some kind of reality show aspect in books – no one is going to top The Hunger Games in terms of its scathing satire or commentary – but it’s used decently enough here. It gives a rather loner Rosie a reason to interact with her classmates and a way to keep her classmates clued in on the action, even though she spends large chunks of the book alone or near alone. The problem is, the rest of the book just has this sense of “needs more development time” to it.

For example, one of the prime rules of the school is that students are allowed to be awake from 6 am to 6 pm. At 6 pm they take a sleeping pill and begin the day anew. And these kids – all teenagers mind never fight this rule? Like, ever? Ever?I don’t care that it’s a rule. These are teenagers! I honestly can’t believe that more of them aren’t faking taking their pill so they sneak out and go somewhere. I know that on the face of it, it’s something you can just accept, but human nature! And this book is barely set 50 years ahead. Forgive me for not buying into the idea that teenage rebellion has been wiped out.

On a broader scale, a lot of the problems I have with the book come from the great mystery that Rosie is trying to solve. Without describing what the big secret is (and this is one of those books where you’ll figure out what’s going on before the character does), I can just say that the why be hind it leaves you feeling a bit “oh” and a bit “huh?” when we finally get back to tying all the events together.

The biggest issue though, is that ending. It’s horribly rushed, a bit confusing and unfortunately, it ends on a cliffhanger. I kind of wish that O’Brien would have had the courage to make it stand-alone. The bad guy definitely got the upper hand here, and seeing a YA title end without the MC winning would have felt very fresh, as it isn’t something one normally sees in adult, let alone YA. As it stands, I’m not sure whether she intends to make this a duology or a trilogy or where she could be going with it next and I don’t think I’m particularly interested in finding out either.

Ultimately, there was potential, but it didn’t quite hit for me. Curious, I went and checked out Good Reads to find out what others were saying, and this book is definitely divisive, with just as many people hating it as loving it. I’m sort of in the middle. It was certainly a fast read for me, but it left me feeling kind of cold. It’ll be interesting to see how reviews for the book shake out overtime. I think O’Brien took a bit of a risk here, and it just didn’t quite pay off.

Verdict: Skip it

Available: September 16

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

I went back and forth on whether to post a review, because it’s not really book based. But that said, it -is- science-ficiton/fantasy and amongst the seven (!!) previews, there were a couple relevant to our interests:

The Maze Runner – I wasn’t a huge fan of this book. One thing I didn’t mention in my initial review, though, was that I thought this book felt like a movie. It was very action heavy and story/characterization light – traits that work well (or at least better) on the screen than on the page. And I do have to say that the visuals will definitely help overcome the otherwise unexceptional story. It’ll be interesting to see how this one turns out.

Mockingjay Part 1 – less a trailer and more a tease, of Katniss promising to fight while looking rather-zombie like, broken from her experiences in the Arena. I’m still not sold on the fact that this needs to be two movies, but if nothing else, Catching Fire gives me hope that they will do as good a job cleaning up Mockingjay as they did the last book.

As for Guardians of the Galaxy itself, wow. What a nice surprise! Let me state now that I am not a Marvel fangirl. I haven’t seen most of the individual movies and found Thor boring. I didn’t mind The Avengers, but I thought it was a fairly empty popcorn flick. I didn’t buy them coming together and their saving earth felt more like an obligation, than something they legitimately wanted to do. Take away the banter and there wasn’t much else there, there. On the other hand, the Guardians felt like “Okay, you know, we’re jerks and we’ll probably die, but we’d be even bigger jerks if we didn’t try and stop them.” In other words, if I had to pay money to save my ass, I’d rather give it to the Guardians.

I also liked that all the Guardians had all their quirks. I loved Drax’s literalness, how Rocket really was secretly insecure about being a Raccoon, Quill’s Han Solo swagger and love of his magically-strong mix tape and Groot’s…Grootness. Gamora kicked lots of ass (and I do like how she was the major kick ass in the film) though I’d liked a little more personality on her.

This is one of those films where every few seconds I legitimately found myself chuckling. The film didn’t take itself too seriously, which was vital and worked well with a plot that can be summed up as a rather simplistic “magical object threatens galaxy; must be stopped.”

I saw this in 2D – and I have to say, I don’t feel like I missed anything by not seeing it in 3D or 3D-IMAX and you can safely skip it unless you genuinely love 3D.

Overall, this caught me by surprise in all the right ways. I may well end up seeing Avengers 2, but I’m actively looking forward to seeing Guardians of the Galaxy 2.

It’s a winner.

Verdict: Worth a full price ticket.

Next film: The Giver

3:59 by Gretchen McNeil

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Summary:

Josie Byrne’s life is spiraling out of control. Her parents are divorcing, her boyfriend Nick has grown distant, and her physics teacher has it in for her. When she’s betrayed by the two people she trusts most, Josie thinks things can’t get worse.

Until she starts having dreams about a girl named Jo. Every night at the same time—3:59 a.m.

Jo’s life is everything Josie wants: she’s popular, her parents are happily married, and Nick adores her. It all seems real, but they’re just dreams, right? Josie thinks so, until she wakes one night to a shadowy image of herself in the bedroom mirror – Jo.

Josie and Jo realize that they are doppelgängers living in parallel universes that overlap every twelve hours at exactly 3:59. Fascinated by Jo’s perfect world, Josie jumps at the chance to jump through the portal and switch places for a day.

But Jo’s world is far from perfect. Not only is Nick not Jo’s boyfriend, he hates her. Jo’s mom is missing, possibly insane. And at night, shadowy creatures feed on human flesh.

By the end of the day, Josie is desperate to return to her own life. But there’s a problem: Jo has sealed the portal, trapping Josie in this dangerous world. Can she figure out a way home before it’s too late?

From master of suspense Gretchen McNeil comes a riveting and deliciously eerie story about the lives we wish we had – and how they just might kill you.

Review:

This is one of the books I wanted to like more than I actually did.

About a week ago, I had the fortune of seeing her at a panel of Young Adult authors held at a local library. I hadn’t planned to pick up this book before the panel, but I found the author to be so likable that I wanted to support her and give her books a chance, even though teen thriller isn’t really my thing. Although this book didn’t really change my mind, I do think that there is enough here that that it’s worth a look for the right audience.

The most important thing is that McNeil does make Josie a likeable protagonist. Although her decision to jump through the portal is ultimately selfish and perhaps a bit stupid, McNeil took enough time to make Josie sympathetic that you at least understand why she did it. It goes a long way to making the story work.

The story itself is all right. Like Ultraviolet Catastrophe, it’s central plot does revolve around experimental physics. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work quite as well here as it did in that book. On the one hand, the science is decent; clearly the author spent some time doing research and shouldn’t strike fellow non-physicists as anything particularly off. On the other hand, it worked in Ultraviolet Catastrophe because it was set at a school full of actual geniuses. This is set in a normal high school. A girl with Josie’s level of physics knowledge would in no way still be in AP Psychics. She’d be at the local four year, probably taking upper division classes. That her friend is almost equally as advanced? How? I know it’s not something that we’re supposed to ponder, but logic breaks like that are forever a pet peeve and a bit more problematic when the thrust of your story is centered around this conceit.

There is a romantic element (but at least no real threesome) that’s decent and the Nox (which need a better name, calling night-dwelling creatures “Night” always strikes me as lazy) are sufficiently creepy and play into the physics theme well and the whole thing moves along briskly. There’s a nice message in here about trying to make the best of your life because you can never know what lies behind another’s “perfect” one, but I don’t know, this book just lacks that hook, that je ne sais quoi, to reel that general audience in. Ultimately, I don’t see this book truly appealing to those beyond its intended fanbase.

Verdict: Borrow it.

Available Now

Dreamwalker (Dreamwalker 1) – C.S. Friedman

18114183Summary:

All her life Jessica Drake has dreamed of other worlds, some of them similar to her own, others disturbingly alien. She never shares the details with anyone, save her younger brother Tommy, a compulsive gamer who incorporates some aspects of Jessica’s dreams into his games. But now someone is asking about those dreams…and about her. A strange woman has been watching her house. A visitor to her school attempts to take possession of her dream-inspired artwork.

Why?

As she begins to search for answers it becomes clear that whoever is watching her does not want her to learn the truth. One night her house catches on fire, and when the smoke clears she discovers that her brother has been kidnapped. She must figure out what is going on, and quickly, if she and her family are to be safe.

Following clues left behind on Tommy’s computer, determined to find her brother and bring him home safely, Jessica and two of her friends are about to embark on a journey that will test their spirits and their courage to the breaking point, as they must leave their own world behind and confront the source of Earth’s darkest legends – as well as the terrifying truth of their own secret heritage.

Review:

Way back when I reviewed Friedman’s Feast of Souls I mostly focused on how I felt that inviting comparison of that series as a “spiritual successor” to her Coldfire Trilogy wasn’t the best idea. What I didn’t mention was just how influential that former series really was me. I would go so far as to say that reading that book was a transformative experience. I can point to those books and tell you with all sincerity that that book had what I look for in my fantasy now: a fantasy world that isn’t just medieval earth, a plot that isn’t just save Kingdom X from Threat Y, magic that isn’t just another form of wand waving and characters that can’t be easily defined as good because their journey makes them make tough decisions that not all would agree with. I read those books when I was a young teen, when Young Adult really meant Middle Grade books like the Babysitter’s Club. These books really helped to shape who I am as a reader today so when I found out that Friedman was dipping her toes in Young Adult fare I wanted to see. If I had been a teen today, would her new book have made as much an impact on me now as those books did then? While the answer to that is “probably not,” that doesn’t mean that this is a bad book. Far be it, it’s actually one of the more enjoyable Young Adult titles I’ve read in a while and I think it has a great message about what family and how it ultimately runs deeper than simple blood.

Jessica (Jesse) Drake is a likable protagonist. She’s an artist with unique dreams that she translates into unique paintings. And although she is forced to question who she is when she discovers that she is literally not the child of her parents through a paternity test, but that there is no explanation for it, when malevolent forces kidnap her brother and burn down their house, she doesn’t think twice about going after to try and rescue her brother, even though she knows it’s most likely a suicide mission.

The plot here is a simple science-fiction tale of aliens and alternate worlds. Jesse makes friends with others like her and they join her because they know it’s only a matter of time before they’re next. The parallel world that Friedman creates is both recognizable and foreign at once, putting you at a slight disease because you the reader are as thrown off as Jesse and her friends are. There’s some good action here and the exposition as to the truth of her being is enough to catch your eye, but not slow you down. You do get the sense that this book is really meant to be the set up for a grander tale to come, but the experience does feel complete in and of itself, which I do like to see in books that are meant to a series.

The weakest point of the book is in the characterization. All suffer from it, but the biggest offenders are the friends Devon and Rita. They join Jesse on her trip – and aren’t very well developed. Rita is the Foster Child, bounced from indifferent house to indifferent house and would probably end up in jail one day if she hadn’t met up with Jesse. Devon, a potential love interest that doesn’t seem to go anywhere, is a nice Rich Kid whose money finances the trip and feels awkward on Virginia Prime because he is African American in an America where few exist and feels bad for the slaves because he imagines the plight of his people in their position and not much else. They’re cardboard characters. Jesse is fleshed out enough to avoid that, though this book will never be considered to be character driven. It’s far from a fatal flaw, but it is something to note.

So all said, I still recommend this book. It’s science fiction in a time when Young Adult genre fare is dominated by fantasy, the parallel worlds are a cool concept and there’s some interesting set up for later books. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is a breath of fresh air and a fun read for those looking for something a little different and it’s worth a look.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: Now

Without Bloodshed: Part One of Starbreaker – Matthew Graybosch

without-bloodshed-final-coverAn ARC was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Summary:

“All who threaten me die.”

These words made Morgan Stormrider’s reputation as one of the Phoenix Society’s deadliest IRD officers. He served with distinction as the Society’s avenger, and specialized in hunting down anybody who dared kill an Adversary in the line of duty. After a decade spent living by the sword, Morgan wants to bid a farewell to arms and make a new life with his friends and his music.

Despite his faltering faith, the Phoenix Society has a final mission for Morgan Stormrider. A dictator’s public accusations made Morgan a liability to his organization. He must put everything aside, make his way to Boston, and put down Alexander Liebenthal’s coup while taking him alive to prove he is not the Society’s assassin.

Despite the gravity of his task, Morgan cannot put aside his ex-girlfriend’s murder, or efforts to frame him and his closest friends for the crime. He cannot ignore a request from a trusted friend to investigate the theft of designs for a weapon before which even gods stand defenseless. He cannot disregard the corruption implied in the Phoenix Society’s willingness to make him a scapegoat should he fail to resolve the crisis in Boston without bloodshed.

However, the words with which he forged his reputation haunt him still.

Review:

I find this book tricky to review, because in some sense, this is a tale of two books. On the one hand, we have an enjoyable science-fiction thriller set in the near future (2112) as Stormrider seeks to carry out his orders. You get that enjoyable sense of tension from not only the game of cat and mouse being played with Liebenthal, but also from the Phoenix Society: not only those that would see him a scapegoat, but those who seek to use him for other purposes. This book is worth reading for this aspect alone. Morgan and his allies are well written, likable and you want to pull for them, and hope they succeed. The action is well paced, and I feel the author does a good job of developing the characters and giving us down time between the big fights. It’s fun enough and tight enough that if you focused on this part of the book, you might even get a nice little movie out of it.

Unfortunately, the science-fiction elements of the book are where things start to break down a little.

A lot of the elements feel fuzzy, like they don’t quite fit in with the rest of this book. It’s like the author had these ideas about what he wants to see, and couldn’t quite figure out how to fit them in. For example, several characters in this book have a disorder called Congenital Pseudofeline Morphological Disorder (CPMD). That is to say, they bear resemblance to cats: pointed ears, slitted eyes and their diet needs to be much more protein heavy, like a cat. Oh, and they have vestigial nipples that are extra sensitive. What impact CPMD is really supposed to have on this book I really can’t say. There’s a throw a way line in there about how some think that this is the next step of humanity and another that says it’s a competing species, but who cares? I can’t recall reading about the origin of it, what impact it has on the lives of those with it, or what the heck it has to do with the plot. It kind of feels like the author created it so he could mention the nipples.

There is also something called Deva in this book. I think it might be related to the CPMD, but I honestly can’t quite tell you if that connection was really there. They also have some abilities that let them manipulate space and time; but what they are doing here in this novel? Again, not really sure. We’re told the Starbreaker is a weapon and that it can be wielded against the Deva’s enemies, but we don’t know what this weapon does or who these enemies are. I think the author didn’t want to focus on it now, but he really should have, because I honestly found myself scratching my head during these sections. I just was never fully able to wrap my head about what they were, what their motivations were or why they were in this book. Had enough time been devoted to them (at less then 300 pages, I think the author could have spared more time to fleshing out the world without harming the pacing of the story) I think they could have worked a lot better. As it stands, however, these sections really were a drag for me and I think they brought the book down as a whole. The best of these science-fiction elements were things we’ve seen variations on before, such as implants that let people communicate to each other wordlessly, and AI that act as butlers. These worked well, but weren’t enough to overcome the problems that the more creative parts provided.

All in all, this book leaves me wondering if this title was construed as a thriller first and then the science-fiction elements were added on later because these pieces just never quite come together to work as cohesively as they should, and I think that is a shame. There are some interesting things going on here on both sides of the equation, they just don’t belong together in this same book. Presumably part two will go into further detail on these things, but I can’t say that there was enough here to make me want to find out more.

Verdict: A middling Borrow It. Fans who don’t mind some sci-fi in their thrillers will enjoy the book for what it is, just be prepared to possibly be confused while reading this.

Available Now

Good Reads #53: Ultraviolet Catastrophe

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When I first read the blurb for this book, I was hooked: a girl discovers that she’s a genius and goes to a school filled with like minded people. Once there she discovers that not all is as it seems and it takes the brain power of her and her classmates to try and find a way to save the day.

I love the premise of this book. It’s so painfully rare to find books that a) feature girls interested in STEM, let alone as protagonists and b) lets the characters be smart and uses that intelligence as a central plot point. It’s a refreshing find and a book that I think you could give to girls and be like, see? It’s cool to be in this stuff. Lexie isn’t looked down upon for being smart (if anything, upon arrival she’s looked down on either for being a perceived threat and/or possibly not being smart enough) or her abilities – she’s lauded for them. That the author found a way to take some real world physic theories and weave them into a compelling plot that’s almost like James Bond for geeks is just awesome.

Another thing that I like is that Lexie feels real: she has Issues (abandonment, self-esteem) that she earned. They’re believable and she deals with them in believable ways – she’s quick to judge her absentee father and quick to get defensive when she thinks someone is doubting her intelligence. She lashes out, as quickly as a teen can too. She gets a crush on a classmate named Asher, and yet has heard enough gossip about him to make her weary to jump in.  Even so, she is loyal to her family and develops loyalty to her friends and I do think that she makes a good role model.

All that said, I do have some nitpicks. The lesser one has to deal with the way the author uses pop culture references. For one thing, they’re jarring. The first one that I remember seeing came in 40% of the way through the book. If you’re going to use them, they should be consistent. Also, at best these references will date the book. While there might be a year or two left in a description of a “why-so-serious” smile, I’m not convinced that the intended age group will actually know who Veronica Mars is. At worst, and I hate to say this…it comes off as lazy writing and almost feels like fan-fiction, especially when she repeatedly describes Lexie’s hair as being “Hermione-like.” It doesn’t even always work either. While I know that the author means book Hermione, the Hermione in the movies doesn’t really have that hair outside of like the first film and so the readers of this book may not even get what she was going for. Just describing it as “bushy” or “unmanageable” would probably have worked better.

The biggest problem I have though, comes with the conceit of the book. As the summary explains, Lexie was drugged to keep her at “average” intelligence. As the drugs stopped working, she suddenly found herself a genius. This is all well and good; except that apparently along with a genius intelligence comes the ability to just “know” things. Lexie talks about answers popping into her head, or wondering how to do something and than suddenly just knowing how to do it. Not even looking it up once and getting it, it just there, like someone just fed the information into her brain. It’s a conceit needed for the book, because although her classmates are all high-school aged, they’re working on “graduate” level physics problems and if she doesn’t suddenly get all this there is no way that she could ever go to this school and the plot of this book wouldn’t exist. The story is good enough that it’s worth suspending disbelief, but at the same point in time I believe that the best stories can set up their world so that you don’t need to.

On the whole, I do think the author has written something unique and should be commended. If you’re into smart books, go give this a shot. As I type this, it’s a steal at $3.99 for the Kindle edition. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is a steal.

Verdict: Buy it.

Good Reads #34: The Gameboards of the Gods

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This is a difficult book for me to review. This is one of those novels where there are a lot of great parts, but I’m not sure that they come together cohesively.

All the parts of a good novel are here: the protagonists are interesting, the world building is interesting, the murder mystery is good, the parts about the Gods trying to find their way back are great but do they come together well? I’m not so sure that they do. Like, I honestly think that the books would have been better without the Gods trying to claim humans. I thought it kind of distracting. Also distracting was this notion that the Patricians – the aristocracy – are those that are “genetically pure” people who haven’t intermixed, despite the fact that it was the intermixing that saved humanity from the disease that nearly wiped them out. It does play into the story and they aren’t revered or anything, but it’s there. And kind of a disturbing notion. I don’t know. All I know is that it did serve as a low-level distraction for me and it might for others as well.

I think I’m going to check out the Vampire Academy series and see if this kind of thing works better there, but in the mean time I’d recommend borrowing it. The societal structure and the way that the male protagonist talks to what appear to be voices in his head maybe be off putting enough to give it a pass.

Verdict: Borrow it