Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Trial by Fire by Josephine Angelini

Josephine Angelini's new series has a unique concept, one that marries science fiction and fantasy (into what she calls "sci fantasy"). I've seen the melding of these two genres bandied about the past couple of years as the "next big thing," but I haven't actually seen a lot of published stories that truly fit the description. Usually, the story falls pretty firmly on one side of the SF/F line, so I was really excited to give this one a shot.

Aside from the SFF combo, the concept is unique in other ways: the storyline involves female witches whose magic is derived from the energy within their bodies, activated by certain foods and other stimuli. However, this magic only works the proper way in one of the two parallel worlds featured in the book, which is tough for our protagonist. Lily lives in our world and has suffered terrible allergies most of her life, crippling her socially and ensuring she's always in danger of suffering some life-threatening attack. When she's unwittingly taken into a parallel world where witches rule, she learns that her allergies are actually side effects of her magic, which has been held dormant within her body so long without release that it's causing her harm. In this alternate world, she's immensely powerful. Unfortunately for Lily, this kind of magic doesn't work in our world - but that doesn't stop her from trying to get back to it.

Lily didn't get to this alternate world on her own. She was brought there by Lillian, an alternate version of Lily, also a powerful witch. Because of her power, Lillian rules over Salem, and she's not kind or fair. She's set up magic as the one true way of doing things, meaning that doctors and scientists as we regard them are persecuted. According to Lillian, there is no room for science in a world ruled by magic.

Lily isn't sure why Lillian brought her to this other Salem, but she knows she wants to get back home. She's taken in by Outlanders, a group of people who live outside the walls of Salem. They don't have any of the protections offered by Salem and its ruler, meaning they're at the mercy of the Woven, terrible creatures that started out as animals but have now become something else. The leaders of the Outlanders want Lily to develop her own magic so they can use it to make a better Salem for themselves. Some of the Outlanders have counterparts in our own world (like Tristan, Lily's best friend) and some don't (like Rowan, a boy who once worked for - and loved - Lillian before joining the Outlander cause).

It's difficult for me to communicate how complex the concept and world-building are here. In some ways, the story is set up as a basic good vs. evil tale, with the Outlanders as the righteous rebels and Lillian as the power-hungry despot to be taken down. It's complicated, though, because we get some of the story from Lillian's perspective, and it's clear she has goals that are not entirely selfish. She brought Lily - a person who could theoretically be powerful enough to defeat her - to her world, after all, and she must have had a reason for doing so. The matriarchal society of alt-Salem is also fascinating and something not commonly seen in SFF. What will draw a lot of teens, though, is the idea of Lily meeting herself - Lillian - in this alternate world. They're like and unalike in various ways that fluctuate over the course of the story. At first, Lily believes she's completely different from her alt-self and tries to convince the Outlanders of it; but after some time, she starts to doubt it. This comes at about the same time we as readers start to doubt Lillian's characterization as entirely evil.

I really liked the ideas behind this story. It's so creative and so fresh, even when it's using some common tropes (romance, witches, tearing down a despotic regime). The magic system and world-building in particular are standouts. I don't think the story is entirely successful in its execution, though. Lily as a character is a bit flat. She's immensely powerful in alt-Salem, but her actions are mostly reactive (things happen to her, she doesn't make things happen). That's not a criticism of Lily as a person (I think a lot of us mostly react to things), but it's not great for a character in a novel. For a lot of the book, I felt like I was stuck in exposition, even while the characters battled Woven. Lillian's motivations remained murky up to the end, which is too bad, because she is by far the most fascinating character. This is a series, so perhaps Lily will come into her own a bit more in the sequel - and we'll get to spend more time with Lillian.

My review copy came with a letter from Angelini stating that the magic system she writes about is based on actual science, which is clearly a marketing ploy, but it's also fascinating to consider. This would be a good pick for fans of both science fiction and fantasy who want something new and something that makes them think. It's also a worthy entry into the growing parallel worlds subgenre.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Trial by Fire is available now.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang

Liz Emerson planned it all out. She knew what date she'd crash her car and kill herself. She plotted where it would happen, when it would happen, and then she allowed herself 7 days to change her mind. If she couldn't find a reason to, she'd go through with the plan.

Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang begins when Liz follows through with the plan. But this isn't a story that's told in a linear way. Instead, as Liz lies in the hospital, we're given flashbacks and flash forwards into her life. What could possibly make her want to kill herself? For someone as popular and put together and respected as Liz, it seems like suicide would be the last thing she'd have on her mind.

This story is told through a surprising narrator, though readers will catch on pretty quickly to that. They may not be clear on who the narrator is until the reveal at the end, but this deliberate choice is why Zhang's novel stands out from many others and why the book itself is fresh.

The narrator knows Liz and knows Liz well. And that narrator isn't willing to lie about who or what Liz was in life. Liz, despite appearances as a popular and well-respected girl in her school, is far from a nice girl. She's manipulative. She's mean. And she's persuasive. Those characteristics are precisely why she's respected though -- people don't want to get on the wrong side of her because they know that nothing good could come from it. But even being close to Liz is a problem. Her best friends, Julia and Kennie, can't escape her manipulations.

Thanks to Liz, Julia's found herself with a bit of a drug problem and Kennie has had an abortion. While both girls make those choices for themselves, Liz's persuasive power and the fear that acting against what Liz says they should do would be cause for worse, they follow through. They listen. They're under her control, whether they like it or not.

Then there's Liam. He's a nice guy. A really nice guy. And he's at the hospital almost immediately after Liz's crash. Not because he and Liz are a couple and certainly not because she's ever given him the time of day. In fact, Liz and her friends did something awful to Liam early on in their high school career that marred his reputation forever. But Liam, being a bigger person, saw through her actions and knew that maybe, just maybe, there was something bigger and something better lurking beneath Liz's surface. He was, in fact, the person who knew it was her car that crashed. He recognized it and recognized Liz as the driver from the shirt she was wearing. Rather than allow himself to let her be, he instead decides to follow his own good heart and be there waiting for her, whether she recovered or not.

Liam is good, but Liam was also part of the problem, and not by his own choice.

Falling Into Place is fast paced, but it's nuanced. What seems like a cut-and-dry story of a mean girl isn't that straightforward. It's easy to dislike Liz because she's not likable. But her unlikable characteristics have some explanation. She is exceptionally lonely. With a father who died when she was really young by an accident she witnessed and a mother who travels all the time and finds Liz to be more of a pain than a child to love, she finds herself spending a lot of time in her home alone. Drinking. The mean things she does aren't done as a means of being vindictive but instead, they're ways to keep her entertained. To fill her own life with some kind of meaning, despite the fact that she recognizes and knows there are consequences.

Liz is filled with regret for her actions, but the problem is when you're at the top of the social ladder and people respect you and fear you, admitting your weaknesses is an impossible thing to do.

During the seven days prior to her suicide, Liz tries to change herself. She goes out of her way to try to say the things she's intended to say forever -- she wants to apologize to people and she wants to reach out and ask for help. She tries, and as readers, we see that it's not done as a means of seeking sympathy, but as a way of really, truly trying to change herself. We know she feels bad, and it comes through in little and surprising ways. There's a moment when Liz reflects upon her decision and she notes that she has to kill herself on the same day her dad died to minimize the days per year her mother would have to grieve. She's not doing this to make people feel bad; she's doing this for the exact opposite reason. She wants people to be free of her being a bad influence and a problem.

She reaches out. During those last few days, she tries to change. She goes to her school counselor and asks for help, but the counselor unintentionally turns her away. She speaks up about feeling depressed, and she's turned away. Not because the counselor doesn't care, but because the counselor can't do anything for her and, unfortunately, her reputation precedes her. Liam sees through her. But Liam also knows he can't reach her. Kenna and Julia, despite what Liz believes, care deeply about her. They know her. But, as Liz notes, they might not be as perceptive to her inner turmoil as she wishes they could be, and reaching out, she thinks, would be an incredible sign of weakness. Would they care? With how she's hurt them, why wouldn't they hurt her back?

Worth noting that readers get to make the choice on whether or not Liz is redeemed in the story. Zhang doesn't give us a solid answer, and because of who the narrator is, it's further complicated. This was a smart, savvy narrative choice because it's the kind of story that has no good answers at the end. It can only lay out the facts, and those facts are inextricably tied to the narrator sharing them, and that narrator shows both the good and the downright ugly. The narrator loved Liz, but the narrator didn't love everything Liz did.

Falling Into Place is tightly written, and the complex structure works. This book is a fast-paced read, and it's one that could easily be done in one sitting. Personally, I appreciated walking away a few times because there was a lot to sift through -- Liz is anything but one-dimensional and holding the contradictory thoughts of her meanness with the sadness she felt inside required some away-from-the-page reflection. The writing is solid and at times really lovely, and while some of the renderings of high school and secondary characters can feel a little bit flat, it's forgivable because of who the narrator is, how long that narrator has followed Liz, and, perhaps the thing worth noting but not lingering on, the author wrote this book when she was 18. Without being beyond her own high school experience, it'd be impossible to see the wider world. Which isn't to say it's bad -- it's far from that -- but instead, some of the depictions read a little young and yet, they show really huge promise.

Zhang's debut is a memorable one, and I can see this being a title getting some Morris discussion. It hadn't been one I paid a lot of attention to, but I'm really glad I picked it up because it far exceeded my expectations and left me eager for what Zhang will write next. This book could be called If I Stay meets Before I Fall and that would be an accurate description, though I liked Falling Into Place more than either of those titles. There are shades of Thirteen Reasons Why in this book, too. While a mash-up of the three books may make this sound like it's the kind of book that's been done before, it's not. Falling Into Place is new, different, and it will have huge appeal to readers who liked any of those prior titles without it ever feeling like it's trying to be any of those titles. This is a book for your realistic YA readers who like complex characters.

Falling Into Place is available now. Review copy received from the publisher. 

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

This Week in Reading: Volume VI

It's been a couple of weeks since I did a "This Week in Books." So let's call it an irregular regular feature here. Rather than try to round up all of the books I've received over those weeks, I'm keeping it to just the titles that showed up this week. Here's an interesting trend: this was the first time my review copies were weighed more heavily in non-fiction. Pictured above:

  • Rethinking Normal by Katie Rain Hill: A memoir about Katie's choice to undergo gender reassignment surgery. I've been excited about this one for a while. Katie was born a boy and is now a girl. 

  • The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks: Apparently, this one has caused a stir in the UK, and it's been described as Room meets Lord of the Flies. So, pretty up my alley. 

Over the last couple of weeks, I've not read as much as I've hoped to. 

I finished:

  • Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang, which I'll review this week. This was really great, and one of the best debut YAs I've read this year. 
  • Press Play by Eric Devine, a good book for readers looking for an intense look at sports, bullying, and peer pressure through the eyes of a boy 
  • I'll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson, which didn't work for me. The language was lovely, but it overshadowed the story and I never once bought the male main character as a 13-year-old boy.  
  • Six Feet Over It by Jennifer Longo, which tackled the heavy topic of grief, but did so in a way that makes this a really great read for younger YA readers (the main character is younger than most, too). 

I'm about half-way through Stephanie Perkins's Isla and the Happily Ever After and I'm a bit underwhelmed with it. It's not bad, and I'm not going to quit it, but it's not blowing me away in the same way that Anna and the French Kiss did. I think there's a big problem with the book, and it's one I've been thinking a lot about recently in YA: this book would be so much more believable and enjoyable if it were not set in high school. Were Isla and Josh college students, even freshmen, rather than high school seniors at a posh American boarding school abroad, I'd be so much more charmed by the story because I would be questioning their privilege and character development far less than I am. Perhaps this is something I'll write about. 

Links and News

I keep an eye on book announcements, and I don't tend to blog about them (it's easier to put them on Twitter or Tumblr). But last week, I was talking about Joshua Cohen's Leverage and wishing for a second book from him, since I'd heard nothing at all since that book came out. Low and behold, he's publishing a second novel next year. It's a middle grade novel out of Egmont and it looks good. 

Here are a few posts and resources that caught my eye in the last couple of weeks:

  • Looking to dig into comics and want to find comics who are people of color to read? MariNaomi developed a great cartoonists of color database. This could get you started
  • This one is for those who are writers or work with writers (and readers, too): check out this Tumblr dedicated to "writing and resources centered on cultural and ethnic diversity." Speaking of diverse books, you know about the We Read Too app you can get for free, which allows you to search for books by and about people of color? Check it out. It was created by a college student. 
  • In keeping with the diversity theme, if you're a blogger (or a reader!), you should consider taking part in the #Diversiverse Challenge. It kicks off tomorrow and runs through the 27th, and all it asks is you read and talk up a book by a person of color. Easy! 
  • Going to Kid Lit Con or considering it? Here's the lineup of panels and speakers. I'll be talking twice: on Friday I'm talking about social media and on Saturday, I'm part of a really exciting panel talking about how to speak up for and about diversity in kid lit. 

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Friday, September 12, 2014

This Week at Book Riot

Over at Book Riot this week...

  • 3 YA books that are about football, since it's that time of the year. I could have written about dozens more, so feel free to throw some other great titles in the comments.

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Hardcover to Paperback Makeovers: Backlist YA Covers To Consider

We talk a lot about cover makeovers when it comes to new books, and recently, I talked about a slew of books that had their titles changed when they were rereleased. But after spending a little time with recent publisher catalogs, I noticed a pile of older YA titles -- those which aren't front list but have been out for quite a few years -- being rereleased with new paperback editions. Some of these are for anniversary editions and some are being redone in conjunction with a new release by the same author, often as a way to garner attention for the older title for when readers get hooked on the new book.

Some of these redesigns are winners and some of them aren't as great. While the designs tend to mimic trends going on in the moment, it's always interesting to see which of the older designs managed to become somewhat iconic in reader minds and to conjecture whether the same can be said about the newer designs. If we've read a book in the past, do we tend to prefer that cover? Will a new cover bring new readers who haven't otherwise discovered the book before? 

All descriptions are from WorldCat. As always, I'd love to hear what covers are speaking to you and which ones were better left in their older versions. All of these are single titles being repackaged, except for one, which is a trilogy. In some cases, this isn't the book's first redesign, so I've tried to grab the original hardcover and original paperback design. 

On the left is the original hardcover design for Gail Giles's Shattering Glass and on the right is the original redesigned paperback. They maintain a lot of similar elements. It's just the perspective and focus changes a bit. In the hardcover, the boy's face is hard to make out behind the glass. In the paperback, the shattered glass is focused around his eye and the rest of his face can be made out. The design for the title and author name differ quite a bit, too.

Out January 6, 2015 is the new paperback design of Shattering Glass. This cover goes in an entirely new direction, and it's a positive one. There's no longer a face nor a pane of glass. Instead, we have broken glasses. It showcases the violence within the book, and the fact there's blood on the cover is enough reason to pause. How often do we see that? How often do we see a book with such a violent cover written by a woman? This cover is reminiscent of Winger and that's not a bad thing. 

My only issue with the new cover is that the alternate coloring for "Shattering" isn't extremely clear. It took me a long time to pull out that the red says "Hate," and maybe that's because it's an uneven spacing between the letters -- I kept reading it as "Hatte," rather than "Hate." I almost think the impact would be greater if that weren't how they chose to color the title. 

I always thought the cover for John C. Ford's The Morgue and Me was pretty good. It tells you everything you need to know about the book: it's a murder mystery. But the new paperback on the right, out February 19, 2015, is such a winner. It's creepier than the original, but it's creepier in a way that has tremendous appeal to fans of murder mysteries. Where I think the original cover is a little young, the redesign has more appeal to a wider range of readers. I'm a big fan of how creepy toe-tags are on book covers, and the redesign still managed to get the money into the image (you can see it just below the "E" in "Morgue." The fact this is void of most color is what makes it most eye-catching, too, and it sets the tone for the book. 

Jandy Nelson has a new book out this month, and so it's not really a surprise to see the cover of her first book getting a redesign. Above are the original hardcover design on the left and the original paperback redesign on the right. I'm not a particularly huge fan of either cover, though they both fit the tone of The Sky is Everywhere and both definitely give off the "literary YA" vibe. Both also do a pretty solid job of making clear this book is meant to have crossover appeal to teen and adult readers, perhaps more so in the hardcover edition than the paperback. I think it's a little bit of a stronger, more iconic cover, as well. The paperback falls into the trend many paperbacks at the time had: a girl who is on the cover, and in this case, she's lying down (asleep probably more than dead in this instance). 

Penguin's catalog keeps trying to tell me that the newly redesigned paperback, as seen above, came out in 2011, but I know that's not the case. You can see it as available for purchase on retail sites, too, though on Amazon, when you look at the back cover of the "view" feature, it shows the original paperback redesign image. And the kicker for knowing this isn't an older redesign? It notes that Nelson is the author of I'll Give You The Sun, meaning that this book is either just out or won't be out until her sophomore title comes out. That also tells you why the redesign: they're banking on I'll Give You The Sun to be the reason people would want to pick up The Sky is Everywhere, which now looks a heck of a lot like the second book in terms of design. 

The new paperback look is neither here nor there for me. It's pretty enough and clearly, it's angled toward literary readers and being put in a position to capture crossover readership. While I think it's also going for an iconic look to it, it looks too much like I'll Give You The Sun to be really memorable for me. It's nice, but it's not particularly special. 

Polly Shulman's Enthusiasm has been a staple selection for "clean reads"/younger YA but the cover hasn't always done it a whole lot of favors. On the left is the original hardcover and on the right, the original paperback redesign, which didn't change a whole lot from the original, except to superimpose the image atop a well-known Jane Austen cover. The hardcover always felt a little too enthusiastic to me in terms of color choices, though that's toned down in the paperback. The jumping girl though, I've never quite understood. I do appreciate she's not wearing heels and instead has gym shoes. She's rebellious. Note the Stephenie Meyer blurb beneath the girl on the paperback -- that was an especially big deal when the book published in 2007.

Like The Sky is Everywhere's new paperback, I can find no information about the new paperback for Enthusiasm. It appears to be available now. This cover is a refreshing change from the originals, though I am curious about the fact there's now a boy in the foreground and the girl has been relegated to the mirror in the background. The design of the mirror, as well as the wallpaper, really do get at some of the classic influences of Austen that fit the novel. More interesting, the blurb for this book is no longer the one with Stephenie Meyer's name attached. It's been changed to a Time Magazine blurb -- in many ways, that's a smart change. Not because Meyer isn't still important, but because Meyer's influence on today's teens, as opposed to the teens who may have been compelled to read this in 2007, 2008, 2009, is definitely different. This redesign is a winner. 

The original hardcover design for Chris Lynch's Inexcusable was fairly risque when it came out 10 years ago. The bra on the cover! While it was certainly eye-catching, I do wonder how that design choice impacted the readership. Would boys pick up a book with a bra on the cover? I'm not entirely convinced. The paperback redesign of the book, on the right, easily has more appeal for a wider audience. There's the football field under the lights. There's the half a face of a girl, her mouth covered by the title, which in effect silences her. Laurie Halse Anderson's blurb is a big boon on the cover, too: the design feels a little like Speak and that only further gives insight into what the book is about. The hardcover, on the other hand, is less effective to that point. 

On January 13, 2015, the tenth anniversary edition of Lynch's Inexcusable will be published with another new cover. This one is exceptionally eye-catching and powerful. Design-wise, it's great. But I don't love it for this book. Although the title tells you that what happens isn't excusable, the bed with the rumpled sheets almost makes this look too romantic. The tone feels off and at a disconnect with the title, and I think it might be a bit of a hard sell to teen readers (especially boys, for the same reason noted with the original hardcover). I think were this an adult novel, it would work much better than it does as a teen novel. I'm a much bigger fan of the original paperback look. 

Here's what the first two books in Margaret Peterson Haddix's "Palace of Lies" series look like. These are definitely on the younger end of the YA range, if not considered outright middle grade books. The covers remind me quite a bit of Meg Cabot, and that's not a bad thing. I think there's some good appeal for these titles with fans of Cabot's The Princess Diaries.

There's a third book coming to the series April 7, 2015 titled Palace of Lies, and with it, all of the books in the series are getting a redesign. They'll all be available on the same day.

These are gorgeous, well-designed covers that will appeal to the same group of readers who loved the series initially. That's not a bad thing. But what makes these covers even more special is that they are much more timeless than the originals, which look a bit dated design-wise because they used models on them, rather than illustrations. The colors are fresh and memorable. If I were buying books for my library collection, I'd order the entire redesigned set and retire the older covers. 

I can't track down the exact timeline on the cover evolution of Let It Snow, the holiday short story anthology featuring John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle, so here's a look at the three cover designs it's hard. All three have been pretty straightforward in what the book is about. These are holiday short stories. The book features three heavy hitters in YA. I don't have a whole lot more to say about the designs since they all get right to it, and I think they're all pretty good. They're all the kind of images that work and will work for a long time.

But there's a redesign coming September 30 of this year. And you know what this redesign does that none of the other covers did? It gets to the romance angle of these holiday short stories. It's definitely a pretty cover, and clearly, there's some love going on here. But to me, it's less of a long-lasting cover image than any of the other three, and I wonder about the ages of those models (teenagers? I have a hard time buying that). I suspect part of why this book gets redesigned like it does is because it does feature such big names in YA, so the new looks get it to new readers who may not know about it in the same way they know about the authors' other works. More, in this case, I suspect the fact that there's a new anthology of holiday short stories written by New York Times Bestsellers and edited by Stephanie Perkins, out in early October, helped fuel the redesign (and focus on romance).

I remember when the redesign for E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks came out, the paperback was such a disappointment to me. I love the hardcover. It embodies the story so well, and it's got something iconic to it. The paperback, on the other hand, features a girl who looks far too young to be Frankie. The entire design of it, including the school in the background and the way that the title is rendered on top of a piece of old, torn paper, feels mismatched. 

Recently -- and, as far as I can tell, available now -- there was another paperback redesign of Frankie. This one is better than the original paperback, but it's still not as iconic as the original hardcover. I'm not entirely sure what's going on here, though, and I'm not sure it tells me anything about the book nor about how feminist it is nor about how awesome Frankie is as a character. Sure, those things aren't evident in the original hardcover, either, but this redesign looks like so many other books that I'm not sure it does anything special or new. In fact, Frankie, if that's her on the left, is wearing pretty nice clothes and toting a nice purse for someone who is who she is in the story. Or maybe Frankie is the one on the right? If that's the case, I can be into that a little more. 

But I want to know: what happened to the dog emblem? 

Continue reading...

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Reality Television Redux

Back in January, Kelly created a pretty lengthy booklist of novels featuring reality TV and documentaries. As 2014 has progressed, I've seen more and more books on this theme being published and buzzed. (It's been on my mind since I first picked up The Vault of Dreamers several weeks ago.) Part of the trend for these newer and forthcoming novels seems to be teens creating their own reality shows or videos, usually online via Youtube or something similar. While Kelly rightly mentions that reality television itself peaked in popularity a while ago, I think the Youtube/online angle is something that's still being explored, and it's especially attractive to teens since it allows them to flex their own creative muscles.

Here are a few more recent and forthcoming titles that tackle reality TV in some way. Descriptions of currently published novels are from WorldCat; forthcoming titles are from Goodreads.

Can't Look Away by Donna Cooner [August 2014]
Sixteen-year-old Torrey Grey's YouTube videos on fashion and beauty for teenagers were famous, but when her younger sister is killed by a drunk driver during a filming her world falls apart--cyber bullies are attacking her, her father moves them to Texas, and she does not know who to trust at her new school or whether her cousin is really a friend.

Not in the Script by Amy Finnegan [October 2014]
Millions of people witnessed Emma Taylor’s first kiss—a kiss that needed twelve takes and four camera angles to get right. After spending nearly all of her teen years performing on cue, Emma wonders if any part of her life is real anymore . . . particularly her relationships. Jake Elliott’s face is on magazine ads around the world, but his lucrative modeling deals were a poor substitute for what he had to leave behind. Now acting is offering Jake everything he wants: close proximity to home; an opportunity to finally start school; and plenty of time with the smart and irresistible Emma Taylor . . . if she would just give him a chance. But on-set relationships always end badly. Don’t they?

Diamonds in the Rough by Michelle Madow [October 2014]
The three Diamond sisters survived the summer in style after coming to live with their long-lost billionaire father. But making a place for themselves at their exclusive new Las Vegas private school is throwing them any number of gold-plated curves. Savannah's YouTube stardom turns into a Sweet Sixteen reality show extravaganza—with complimentary enemies on the side. Dangerous flirtations don't keep Peyton from a gamble that will risk far more than she planned to bet. And when Courtney and the sisters' archenemy, Madison, uncover two explosive secrets, it will rock even this town of glittering illusion—and turn their lives upside down all over again.

The Vault of Dreamers by Caragh O'Brien [September 2014]
Rosie Sinclair, who attends an elite arts school where students are contestants on a high stakes reality show, skips her sleeping pill one night and discovers that the school is really a cover-up for the lucrative and sinister practice of dream harvesting.

Scripted by Maya Rock [February 2015, no cover image]
To the people suffering on the war-torn mainland, Bliss Island seems like an idyllic place. And it is: except for the fact that the island is a set, and the islanders’ lives are a performance. They’re the stars of a hit TV show, Blissful Days—Characters are adored by mainland viewers, yet in constant danger of being cut if their ratings dip too low. And no one really knows what happens to cut Characters.

Everybody Knows Your Name by Andrea Seigel & Brent Bradshaw [March 2015]
When two teens are cast in Spotlight, a reality TV singing competition, both see it as their chance to start anew. With each episode, as they live together in a Hollywood Hills mansion and sing their hearts out, Ford and Magnolia fall in love. But how genuine can that love be when a television audience is watching their every move—and when their pasts are catching up them so much faster than they can run?

The Pretty App by Katie Sise [April 2015]
Poor Blake Dawkins! She's rich, she's gorgeous, and she's the queen bee of Harrison High. But it turns out Blake’s life is not so perfect—just talk to her dad, who constantly reminds her that she's not up to par, or to her ex-bff, Audrey, who doesn't even look her in the eye. Then Harrison—and every other high school in America—becomes obsessed with posting selfies on the ubiquitous Pretty App. Next: Leo, an adorable transfer student, arrives at Harrison and begins to show Blake that maybe being a queen bee doesn't mean being a queen bitch. And though Audrey suspects somebody’s playing foul, Blake finds herself catapulted to internet fame after being voted one of the prettiest girls in the country. She's whisked away to star in a reality show—in Hollywood, on live TV. But she doesn’t know who to trust. Because everybody on the show wants to win. And nobody is there to make friends.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Vault of Dreamers by Caragh O'Brien

The year is 2066. Rosie Sinclair attends the Forge School, the premier place for creative teenagers to hone their skills and get ahead in subject areas like filmmaking, acting, dancing, and fine art. Graduation from the Forge School is a guaranteed ticket to the good life.

But the Forge School is also a reality television series. All students who attend are on camera for twelve hours of the day. The other twelve hours, they're put into a drugged sleep, a sleep they're told will enhance their creativity. As any reader of dystopias (and this is a sort of micro-dystopia, if we consider the school to be its own community) will realize right away, everything is not as it seems at Forge.

Vault of Dreamers opens with Rosie fretting over the "fifty cuts," the point in the television series (and the school year) at which the fifty students with the lowest "blip rank" (meaning popularity with the viewers at home) will be cut and sent home. Rosie is nearly number 100 (out of only 100 students), and she's pretty resigned to not making it past the cuts. But it wouldn't be much of a story if it ended with her going home, so I'll give a grand non-spoiler and tell you that she makes it.

Rosie is a bit of a rebel, and because she figured she had nothing to lose, she decided to forgo her sleeping pill one night before the fifty cuts. She pretends to swallow it, then sneaks out of her sleeping pod and goes up to the roof, just for kicks. She also sees one of the doctors putting an IV in the arm of a sleeping classmate, which alarms her. Sneaking out one night is a relatively small act of rebellion, but it kicks off a series of similar acts. She starts skipping her pill more frequently, meeting up with a non-student who works in the cafeteria, and planting her own cameras around the school to determine what exactly is going on at Forge - because she knows the school administrators are not simply encouraging creativity in the students by making them sleep 12 hours at night.

This is an odd duck of a book. The premise is actually quite creative, particularly when the sci-fi reason behind the existence of the school and its enforced sleep is fully discovered (the title is kind of a spoiler, but it's fairly complex, so there's lots to puzzle out even if you already know it involves dreaming). At the same time, its creativity hampers it a bit. Because the explanation is strange, it's harder for the reader to grasp, and I left the book feeling a bit confused still. The last pages - and I do mean the very last ones - take the book to a new realm entirely, and that's where it finally lost me. I don't need my endings tied up with a neat bow (nor do I need them to be happy, which this one isn't), but I do think it's important that the reader is not left saying "huh?" after she turns the final page.

2066 is probably still considered the near future, at least in terms of SF writing, but it's far enough in the future that the references to Youtube and Facebook sprinkled throughout the book are jarring. They seem very out of place mixed in with references to new and unusual technology we've never heard of, and I think teens will rightly question O'Brien's assumption that such things will still be around 50 years from now. Won't they be replaced by something newer and shinier? How long did MySpace's popularity last?

Those were my two biggest hangups with the book, one pretty major and the other relatively minor. There's a lot this book does right. Rosie's voice is done very well; she sounds like a teen, not like a world-weary adult (a lot of teens in futuristic sci-fi seem middle-aged cynical to me). This doesn't mean she's bright-eyed and bushy-tailed all the time, it just means she sounds her age: young. She's naive, and even when it's clear that the adults aren't looking out for her best interests, she clings to the idea that they are still the ones to be trusted. It's heartbreaking.

The fact that the school is also a reality series is an intriguing twist. There's an explanation given for it partway through - at least an explanation for the public, not necessarily the real reason. The concept is relevant for today's teens and explored fairly well. The students are encouraged to speak directly to the camera, and viewers at home can pull up their favorite students' feeds whenever they like (there's not a single camera creating a single story; each student can help shape their own story). Students use the cameras to their advantage in various ways, particularly as the fifty cuts approach, to gain popularity with viewers, which is also directly to "banner ads" that make them money they can cash upon graduation. There's also the claustrophobic feel the cameras create: Rosie is sure she's always being watched, but she can't let that stop her from her quest. It just means she has to get more creative with it.

This is a thrilling read, fast-paced, with a lot of secrets for our protagonist to unearth. There's a small dash of romance and a couple of subplots (a strange fight with a friend, Rosie's rough home life) that add layers. The unsuccessful ending notwithstanding, this is a worthwhile read for fans of near-future SF and would make a good readalike for Lauren Miller's Free to Fall or Rae Mariz's The Unidentified, both also tech-heavy books set in highly-monitored schools where the adults turn the students into consumable products.

Review copy received from the publisher. The Vault of Dreamers will be published September 16.

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