Cinder by Marissa Meyer

11235712I’ve had such an intense love/hate relationship with YA fiction this year.  And even the supposedly awesome selections weren’t as amazing as I had hoped they would be.  I’m not sure why this is because normally reading 10-15 YA books a year is like crack to me.  Love me some YA.  But this year, not so much. (I’d love some recommendations of amazing YA if you’ve got them!)

However, Cinder was definitely a bright spot.  Soaked it right up – literally read in 1.5 sittings.  It’s a modern re-telling of Cinderella – very well done.  The story takes place far in the future after many world wars have changed the face and politics of planet Earth.  Cinder lives in New Beijing (old Beijing was destroyed) and is a cyborg.  She’s human, but with robotic parts.  She’s also a kick ass mechanic and her best friend is an android.  Her world is rocked when her youngest stepsister comes down with this pandemic plague virus that currently has no cure and Cinder becomes very important in the search for said cure.  Meanwhile, she’s also battling an evil stepmother, stepsister, alien Lunar Queen (you read that right), and her burgeoning crush on the gorgeous Prince Kai.

Most of YA is plot driven and Cinder is no different.  Meyer’s debut novel excels at pacing, story, and characters you come to really care about.  Her take on this fairy tale classic has all the original and essential elements – just with awesomely updated twists.  Plus, the Lunars’ story line adds something new and entirely fresh to enhance what could have merely been a super predictable re-telling.  Aliens, cyborgs, and handsome princes – yes, please!

Cinder endears herself to readers almost effortlessly.  You’ll be touched by her relationships with Peony and Iko and appalled by her stepmonster and the evil bitch queen.  But most importantly, you will CARE.  The romance element, which normally loses me in YA with all the insta-love, is well done here.  This is not love at first site and marriage after first kiss.  Kai and Cinder slowly get to know one another – Meyer actually just lets them crush for the whole book! Almost unheard of and absolutely appreciated.

I also loved Meyer’s world-building and that her story doesn’t take place in America. The Chinese setting lends a bit of mystique and flavor to the novel for those of us who haven’t grown up there or visited. Between China and the Moon, Meyer’s really stepping away from the norm of other YA novels which wins her a ton of points in my book.  I do hope that we learn a bit more about these world wars in future books.

Some readers might complain about the predictability of the story, but it didn’t bother me too much.  While I did see almost every plot twist well ahead of time, I enjoyed the journey regardless.  I looked forward to reading how Meyer’s unsuspecting characters would discover the truths and how these new realities would change and affect their lives.

Most importantly, I had so much fun reading Cinder and can’t wait for Scarlet, the second book in this 4 part series.  The idea of multiple fairy tale heroines teaming up together is exciting and superhero-ish in the best way.  Highly recommended for when you need some fast paced brain candy filled with action, political intrigue, and old-fashioned princesses getting a kick ass modern update.  Plus, the cover is GORGEOUS.

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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Pretty much the entire blogosphere has already read this book as I’m extremely late to this party.  And most of the reviews are overwhelmingly positive – like 5 star, best-book-in-the-world positive.  So instead of focusing on the best aspects of the book, I’m choosing to go the opposite route and discussing the not-so-great bits that turned me off a great deal.

I want to preface this review with some clarifications.  On Goodreads, I rated this a 3 star read which is fairly accurate.  I liked it well enough to keep reading.  An admission that probably stains this review, perhaps unfairly:  I am not a fan of Holocaust fiction.  I just believe that the true stories, the non-fiction has so much more to offer.  A real-life experience about a  person who lived and breathed is always so much more affecting.  And, to be honest, there are so many true stories still left un-told that the fiction just seems misplaced and lazy.

Problem #1:  Death as the narrator.  I was really looking forward to this perspective and the experimentation with the narrative.  I expected a freshness to the story, but instead got a major distraction/intrusion.  I found myself really engrossed in the novel when I forgot Death was narrating, when the POV just seemed an anonymous third person.  When Death would announce himself again and again, I was completely thrown out of the story.  I also found his sarcasm jarring.  While understanding the need for comic relief in such a bleak novel, sarcasm shouldn’t be that humor’s vehicle.  Just bugged me personally.

Problem #2:  The random bits of text that are boldfaced and centered to help bring our attention (or beat us over the head) with one of the author’s genius bits.  Annoyed me to no end and yet again, took me out of the story every time I had to pause for one of these moments.  Just nothing smooth about the transition between flowing prose and gimmicky pop-up text.  Case-in-point – the last line is done in this manner.  It was a beautiful thought, but ruined by the beating it gave me in all its bold glory.  Zusak is telling, not showing.

Problem #3:  I’ve read many reviews that cite Zusak’s poetic, gorgeous prose.  So obviously I’m in an extreme minority here.  I do think Zusak is trying to be poetic and that sometimes it works – that he actually creates something profound and moving.  Other times (most other times) I find that he’s trying way too hard to sound poetic and comes off as rambling.  Half the time his phrasing doesn’t even make sense.  It reminds my of my own adolescent poetry where I would try so hard to sound genius.  Sometimes I amazed myself at what I wrote, but most of the time I ended up giggling at my cheesy, heavy-handed efforts.

Problem #4:  The manipulative ending.  Read reviews long enough and you’ll learn how the ending had everyone sobbing and vowing that this book had changed their life.  I call this huge emotional outburst and tragic ending manipulative.  It’s there not to teach us something, but to make us think we’ve read something super amazing because it made us cry.  I get angry at endings like this.  They feel so HOLLYWOOD.  I would have preferred far more subtlety which would have made much more sense with the story anyhow.  For the record:  No, I did not cry.  I was too annoyed to cry.

Those problems aside, I will say this:  I would highly recommend this to actual young adults.  Books like this hold a lot of value and merit for teenage readers because they act as stepping stones to greater literature and the desire to learn more about our world.  Obviously, this book destroys Twilight and the like as being a worthwhile read.  I also think all of my problems above will be things that teenagers really enjoy – the gimmicks and whatnot.  Shakes their reading experience up a bit and doesn’t bog them down in boring prose, but still offers up a serious story.

As for everyone else, also worth a read if for no other reason than to form your own opinion.  The story is sweet, moving, subtle and has a lot to offer its audiences of all ages.  Many characters you’ll find endearing and lovable.  I’m just not as enthralled as others and wanted to be a voice for those who also didn’t feel like this novel had changed their lives.  So definitely give it to the teenagers in your life and when you have a little down time, pick it up for yourself.

Book View: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

My first audio book ever!  Sarah Drew’s narration of Delirium by Lauren Oliver was a great place to start.  Her voice could be slightly whiny at times, but I just chalked this up to proper character treatment as Lena was often whiny.

Delirium is a young adult dystopia set in a world where love has become a deadly disease.  The government has put the US in lockdown mode and requires all citizens to receive the ‘cure’ once they turn 18.  So instead of a world driven by love, hate, and passion, Lena (our heroine) now lives in a world filled with fear and indifference.  She’s perfectly content until she meets Alex, a boy from the outside wilds, who helps her uncover the truth the government has so desperately hidden beyond the city’s electrified fence.  Insert cliffhanger and anxious waiting for second book in series here.

A world without love definitely qualifies as an interesting premise and Oliver does a masterful job at creating a backlist of literature, government propaganda, and medical pamphlets to convince readers that there is something to fear in loving freely.  As a reader, you can almost become convinced that a world without passion, without hate born from passion might be better – until the incident with the dog (no spoilers beyond that!).  Then you realize indifference doesn’t solve our world’s problems, only creates new issues.  Issues with no hope of resolution because no one cares enough to change anything anymore.

Delirium began quite slowly – which can be understandable when you’re building a new world.  A lot of exposition takes place, but I kept waiting for the pacing to pick up – for the action to overtake the languid plotting and that just never happened – until the final few pages.  And by then I was so frustrated that the cliffhanger wasn’t even that exciting and was completely predictable.  I was also frustrated with character development – Lena’s character changes and grows a bit (somewhat reluctantly), but Alex is rather flat and Hannah, in my opinion, regresses.  For this reason, the love story between Lena and Alex didn’t ring true.

What did work for me was the thoroughness of the world.  Oliver’s strength definitely lies in her imagery and description.  The evil government and their incredible lies juxtaposed against a Portland, Maine backdrop of endless sea and the freedom of flying seagulls.  Seeing the citizens completely under the charm and control of representation they’ve put their blind faith in is so scary.  Not only is the US separate from the world now, but each individual city is locked down from each other.  You never leave your little fishbowl – you never know what exists outside that fence.  Terrifying.  The Wilds was also done so well (the world outside the fence where the uncureds and sympathizers live).  The broken streets, abandoned houses, and bombing remnants are visceral and haunting.  I could picture my own street in the aftermath of a civil war.  These were the images that made Delirium soar.

I’ll get around to reading the second in the series, Pandemonium, once it’s released.  I hope the pacing picks up and that Oliver convinces me these characters are worth following for a third book.  If not, I’ve enjoyed the world she’s built and believe she’ll only grow as a writer over time.  Can’t wait to see what she has in store for us next!

I hope everyone has a Happy New Year!  I’m excited for 2012 and many books ahead.