July 23, 2014

Review: Like No Other

Like No Other By Una LaMarche
Available July 24 from Razorbill (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

The cover is a clear bid to convince ELEANOR AND PARK fans to pick up LIKE NO OTHER.  I think it's a smart move.  LIKE NO OTHER is a bittersweet book about a cross-cultural romance, written in an appealing and immediate style.  It is contemporary, although I can see the lettering making a potential reader think seventies.

Devorah is part of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic Jewish community in Crown Heights Brooklyn.  She's a good girl to friends, family, and teachers alike.  But when she sees her sister's light crushed after her marriage and meets Jaxon, she starts questioning the strict traditions that govern her life.  Jaxon is a somewhat nerdy Brooklynite of West Indian descent who can't believe he managed to hit it off with Devorah when they got stuck in an elevator together.  He's caught up in the first flush of love, and hurt that Devorah wants to keep him a secret.

I thought LIKE NO OTHER was a wonderful depiction of a young relationship and two teenagers' growing confidence in themselves and their desires.  But this book made me so mad (often in a good way).  I hated that Devorah had to risk being cut off from her community and her family, because so many of the rules she lives under are ridiculous.  Being accidentally alone with a man is a potential smirch on her honor.  Giving birth is unclean.  No dating before marriage.  I understand things like when a woman wants to dress modestly before God.  But this felt, because it is how Devorah felt, like she was being forced to dress modestly to prevent being a temptation.

Meanwhile, Jaxon kept making the dumbest romantic gestures.  He just wants to impress Devorah and reassure himself that she feels the same way, but he really never gets that Devorah could get disowned because of their relationship.  He forces her to take stupid risks, which really soured me on him.  I could accept the risks of the relationship not being equal for them, but I had trouble with him refusing to understand the gravity of the risks Devorah takes.  (Although, to be fair, in the end the relationship is quite risky for Jaxon.)

I thought that LIKE NO OTHER was a compelling look at Hasidic Judaism and a sweet, ultimately very realistic romance.  Una LaMarche's novel might've made me angry, but it's a powerful book that can make me feel so deeply.

July 22, 2014

Review: Extraction

Extraction First in a trilogy
By Stephanie Diaz
Available now from St. Martin's Griffin
Review copy

In the world of Kiel, people from the Surface are tested on their sixteenth birthdays to see whether they are worthy of living in the Core.  Maybe five people are picked per year.  Clementine is determined to make it, and to do well enough to convince the Core people to change their mind about Logan, her brilliant and strong boyfriend who happens to be disabled.  When she does make it to the Core, it is a struggle to fit in and excel.  Especially because the Core sees the Surface as an enemy, still.

I have to give it to Stephanie Diaz.  She does a good job of making the division between the Core, Surface, and other layers seem plausible.  The Surface people did revolt, and lost hard.  They're all killed off before they turn twenty, and a population of mostly children doesn't have much potential military force.  There's an acid rain that plagues the surface and also keeps them from becoming upwardly mobile.

EXTRACTION definitely has some narrative influence from the dystopian trend.  However, it does slot more into the rising science fiction trend as the story goes on.  There is much more to Clementine's world than there initially appears to be.  EXTRACTION also avoids the dreaded love triangle.  Any gestures towards it are mere feints, and the boy who would usually be the other leg of the triangle is not a mysterious bad boy but a petty, cruel villain with the merest shade of sympathetic backstory.

I thoroughly enjoyed EXTRACTION, even with the brutality of life on the Surface and the boot camp in the Core.  The romance between Logan and Clementine is both sweet and strong, two people who love each other deeply and have each other's backs.  I like that their love story was allowed to stand on its own.

And for those who aren't sold, I have one word: aliens.

July 21, 2014

Review: Second Star

Second Star By Alyssa B. Sheinmel
Available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Macmillan)
Review copy

I wrote earlier this year about how much I love stories based on Peter Pan.  Therefore, I was quite excited to see that Alyssa B. Sheinmel's newest book was a modern retelling.  In SECOND STAR, the Lost Boys are surfers, Hook is a drug dealer, and Wendy is searching for her twin brothers.  They went out in search of a wave and never came home.

SECOND STAR is not a very straightforward contemporary.  It is dreamy, possibly made up entirely by Wendy as she struggles to cope with her brothers' disappearance and apparent deaths.  She stumbles onto the cove where Pete lives almost by accident after seeing a picture of it.  The dreaminess only increases once drugs become involved.  (Wendy doesn't just take the known-to-be-highly-addictive drug, but things happen.)  I didn't find the "fairy dust" sequences entirely convincing.  It is very over the top in a Reefer Madness way, and seems like possibly the least fun drug ever.

The two romances were more convincing.  Wendy is romanced by both Pete and Jas (not always at the same time).  She's attracted to both charismatic boys, but can't trust either.  Pete teaches her to surf and seems sweet, but he has the possessive Belle hanging around and keeps secrets.  Jas seems sweet and caring, but he's a drug dealer, which is a huge negative in the people-to-get-involved-with column.  It doesn't hurt their pursuit that Wendy is feeling vulnerable.

The ending of SECOND STAR is quite ambiguous, fitting the imaginative mood of the novel.  I know what I think happened, but I like that it is open to interpretation.  This is not a straightforward retelling of Peter Pan with surfers, which is for the best.  Sheinmel takes the basic framework and throws in a friendship betrayed and a girl who just wants her family back.  She also ages up the material - SECOND STAR is definitely on the older end of YA.

I personally didn't love SECOND STAR, but it is a compelling beach read.

July 18, 2014

Review: After I Do

After I Do By Taylor Jenkins Reid
Available now from Washington Square Press (Simon & Schuster)
Review copy
Read my review of Forever, Interrupted

In AFTER I DO, the love has gone out of Lauren and Ryan's marriage.  They decide that Ryan will move out for a year, leaving Lauren with the house and the dog.  They'll meet in six months to trade the dog, and then meet in another six months to decide what to do next.  No other contact.

It's a strange solution, but as everyone in the book points out, it is telling that neither Lauren nor Ryan wants a divorce.  The year apart is to give them room to breathe, room to rediscover what they want from life, whether they still want each other.  It is a bit of a strange premise, but Taylor Jenkins Reid makes it work.  Lauren's ups and downs through the year are compelling.

There is the loneliness, coming home to no one but the dog.  There's the difficulty of confessing her troubles to her family, just as her mother and brother are having new success in their own relationships.  There's meeting new people.  There's meeting new men, and deciding whether to date (as they both agreed to be non-exclusive during the year).

The difficulties in the marriage seemed real.  AFTER I DO is in Lauren's POV, but it doesn't let her off the hook.  She's just as responsible as her husband for their failures in communication and microaggressions toward each other.  She isn't a saint in the year off, either.  But it's still easy to root for her to heal from their nasty final fight, and to find out who she is on her own.  (They married young.)

AFTER I DO is less wrenching that Jenkins' debut novel FOREVER, INTERRUPTED.  But it is an equally compelling look at a young woman who suddenly finds herself alone.  The ending is a touch contrived, but heartfelt.  This is definitely a wonderful, emotional read to pick up during the summer doldrums.

July 17, 2014

Review: Half a King

Half a King Book one of the Shattered Sea series
By Joe Abercrombie
Available now from Del Rey (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I have never read a Joe Abercrombie book before, but I knew his name from discussions of modern fantasy. When I saw he was starting a new series, I wanted to give it a try.  HALF A KING begins much like this year's fantastic THE GOBLIN EMPEROR

After a sudden assassination, a younger son who doesn't fit in at the court becomes the ruler.  But there the books sharply diverge.  Prince Yarvi is knowledgeable, but not a particularly savvy ruler, and he is quickly eliminated by a rival from the throne.  Presumed dead, Yarvi is sold as a slave and must find a way to rescue himself and his country.

HALF A KING is a twisting adventure full of unexpected allies and enemies.  Yarvi encounters people from many countries, and people who have much less and are more desperate than anyone he's known before.  He also meets people who are not so ambitious as to murder for power, but loyal to the end.  It's often pretty obvious which characters are which, but Abercrombie manages some surprises.

No one ever expects much of Yarvi, because the countries prize physical strength and he was born without a hand.  His brain is one of his greatest assets, as he often has to convince people that he is too valuable to kill.  And, as his journey continues, it starts to become true.  The spoiled prince learns skills - physical, social, and mental - that he was lacking.  At the same time, it may not be enough to make him a good king even if he would be a better one than at the beginning.

I've heard that Abercrombie writes fairly grim and dark fantasy.  HALF A KING certainly isn't optimistic or idealistic, but neither is it grim (even with all the slavery).  I'm sure it will have a significant overlap with the YA audience, given Yarvi's young age.  I really like that HALF A KING stands very well on its own despite being the first book in a trilogy.  I think the story works even if Abercrombie never writes another word about the Shattered Seas.


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