Sunday, May 18, 2014

Book Thoughts: YA Potpourri

As I said in my last post, with no cable or internet to distract me, I got a lot of reading done this past week. Several of the books were YA novels that had been highly recommended to me for quite some time now, which I finally decided to break down and read, in spite of the fact that I tend to dislike YA. It's not that I have an issue with the genre itself, it's just that I find the plots and writing in many YAs to be a bit watered down and overly focused on romance. There are exceptions, of course, but that's my general takeaway.

On that note, here are the YAs I read this week and my brief thoughts on them:

The Madman's Daughter by Megan Shepherd

This is a retelling of The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells, imagining that said doctor had a daughter he left behind in London, and that this daughter comes to his island to find out what he's been up to. Sounds like a good enough premise, but sadly play into just about every cliche that made me step away from the YA genre. We have a female lead who we're constantly told is strong and independent, but still spends most of the novel getting pushed around and saved be various men. We have a shoddy love triangle. Perhaps most disappointingly, we have what could have been a halfway decent stand-alone novel that's pointlessly being stretched out into a trilogy.

On the plus side, it was faithful to the plot of Doctor Moreau on several points, and used some of the old characters in clever new ways. If the author hadn't sacrificed more interesting areas of the plot for romance, I think this could have been a great read. The writing style could also be a turn off, depending on whether or not you need to have your historical fiction told in a historical voice, because the narrator's voice in The Madman's Daughter is unmistakably modern. I personally found it off-putting. There are two more books in this series, one based on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the other on Frankenstein, but judging how Doctor Moreau was treated in this first offering, I'd rather just reread the originals.

Title: The Madman's Daughter
Author: Megan Shepherd
Published: 2013, Balzer + Bray
Pages: 420, though my copy had 19 pages of extras, including a short story, and the first 17 pages of the sequel, Her Dark Curiosity
Would Recommend: Not at all. I was glad to see a new take on a classic that hasn't been done to death like Dracula or Alice in Wonderland, but that's where my happiness ended. There's actually a scene where our protagonist stands helpless off to the side in a burning building while her two potential lovers wrestle on the floor for her affection. Megan Shepherd claims she wanted to explore gender issues in this book, so thanks for that, I guess.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

Walton delivers exactly what she advertises, both beauty and sorrow. Magical realism done magnificently, this is a story told by Ava Lavender, a woman born with wings, about her life and the lives of her mother and grandmother. The heart of the plot involves young Ava and the man next door who becomes convinced she's an angel, but the overall theme is the two-sided nature of love, it's ability to either bring strength or destruction depending on the people and circumstances.

I'm not sure what I can say about this book to convey the effect it had on me. The writing is absolutely gorgeous, succinct yet descriptive, poetic without getting too flowery. Almost everything in this story is devastatingly sad, yet the words steer you from one tragedy to the next so gently and, ultimately, with just a twinge of hope. Magical realism quite naturally links to poetry in my mind, both using the unreal to convey something more true than any literal description ever could. Some people enjoy this type of writing, while others do not, and that difference is what will ultimately decide how you feel about this book.

Title: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
Author: Leslye Walton
Published: 2014, Candlewick Press
Pages: 301
Would Recommend: At least give it a try, even if magical realism isn't your thing, since a well written book should be just about everyone's thing.

Angelfall by Susan Ee

As a former religious studies major, I can't begin to explain how happy it makes me to see a novel about religious subjects, like angels, that appears to have actually been well researched. I don't think I can go into much detail without spoiling the book, but the way this author used the concept of the Watchers and the Nephilim was both true to the source material and delightfully inventive. Maybe "delightful" is the wrong word to use for a post-apocalyptic novel, but that's the best word I could think of. I truly found this book delightful.

The end of days has come, angels have descended from on high to rain down fire and brimstone on humanity. Our protagonist Penryn is just trying to survive with her wheelchair-bound sister and schizophrenic mother when she accidentally stumbles into the middle of an angel-on-angel fight that results in the kidnapping of her sister. The only chance Penryn has of finding her sister, Paige, is by teaming up with the injured and wingless angel left behind, a warrior named Raffe.

On the downside, the first half of Angelfall is pretty slow. A lot of getting-to-know you awkward banter and budding feels from our main characters when I feel there should have been more worldbuilding. A whole book into this trilogy and we know next to nothing about why the angels are attacking, where they come from, or how the world as a whole is faring. If things hadn't kicked off the way they did in the second half I wouldn't have many good things to say, but boy, did things kick off. It helps that the romance wasn't tied up neatly in a bow for us at the end, either.

I think what made me like this book so much is that Susan Ee clearly knew what she was talking about. Penryn's mother isn't TV schizophrenic, she's real, pitiful and terrifying, obviously as well researched as the mythology behind the plot. I hope we see more of her in the next books, because her character is just phenomenal. I hope we see more of the angels, and more action too, because I'm excited to see what this author can do when she's not putting her leads through silly and stilted attempts at flirting.

Title: Angelfall
Author: Susan Ee
Published: 2012, Feral Dream
Pages: 283
Would Recommend: Yes. Definitely yes. I'm usually not one too forgive an uneven story, but the direction this goes in is just so interesting, plus it's a story about angels that manages to make them flawed and intriguing, rather than completely perfect. Not to mention that we've got a "strong female lead" that's actually strong for once. Imagine that. Overall, a really nice effort.

So there you have it, my foray into YA. It was better than I thought it would be. I know there are poor offerings in every genre, but for some reason I've read a disproportionate amount of sloppy YA, so I'm pretty gun-shy about picking up YA novels, even if they're well received. If you're reading this, feel free to recommend one you feel is worth the read. Maybe I'll give it a shot.

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