Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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.
Monday, September 15, 2014
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.
Sunday, September 14, 2014
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:
- Alice and Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis by Alexis Coe: This is one of the first books in Zest's new non-fiction "New Adult" line. It's a love story between two women in the late 1800s, and it's told through ephemera.
- 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.
- Some Assembly Required by Arin Andrew: This is a companion to Hill's memoir in that it's Arin's story of gender reassignment and choosing to become a boy, after being born 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.
- 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).
- Liz blogged about how reading as an activity is something that can be enjoyed for pure enjoyment purposes. I love this post since it counters a lot of narratives that reading needs to be done for a reason. It doesn't. You can encourage and enjoy reading because it's a thing to do and to like doing.
- 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.
- I didn't notice this trend, but I am so glad that Tirzah did. Have you ever noticed that YA books featuring lesbians tend to show hands on the covers?
- 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!
- Leila has a roundup of books featuring teens who work.
- 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.
Friday, September 12, 2014
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.
Thursday, September 11, 2014
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.
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
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.
Tuesday, September 9, 2014
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.