Rambling Review: The Chemical Garden Trilogy

Because of my current lack of work, I’ve had a lot more time to read. I’ve devoted a lot of this time to the Outlander series per a good friend’s insistence, but now that I’ve made it through to the fourth book, I’ve taken a break to return to the world of young adult, which I love so much.

Since the move, I’ve been staring at our beautiful bookshelf full of my beloved YA series.

And so, I thought, why search for a new book or series to get involved in, when I have so many I know are great just waiting to be re-experienced?

I know a lot of people might not re-read books. I am not one of those people. Granted, I like to let enough time pass by that I forget the minute details and get to rediscover the little things that make a story great.

This past week, I read the Chemical Garden trilogy by Lauren DeStefano. The first in the series is available on Kindle for $4.99, and you can buy the whole series for $20-23, depending on print/digital.

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The trilogy centers around Rhine, a lovely sixteen year old who’s been kidnapped and forced into marriage. Usually, marriage is the best a girl can hope for in her short life — females die at age 20, males at age 25. Rhine, however, just wants to live out her days with her twin brother, and she’s desperate to escape and return to him. The series follows her through escape attempts, adventure, budding romance, and learning all different ways to define the term “love”.

I read DeStefano’s Internment Chronicles series first — also highly recommend — before returning to her debut series. The writing in the first novel is a bit stilted at times, but I can’t say if it’s simply because she was a new author, or if it was because of the character. Sometimes the prose felt a bit distant, but that actually works for the story, since Rhine is clearly trying to distance herself from her current situation. As the story progresses and she falls deeper into the messes she and others have made, the narration is tighter, more internalized, and feels more true to who she may actually be.

As I’m sure I’ve made clear through my previous reviews, I love a good love interest. This series is particularly great at giving little snippet-views of a possible romance, without the love story overtaking the action and adventure of the actual plot. Unlike a lot of YA that has a love triangle, there isn’t an exact shape drawn between two obvious choices. Rather, much like real life, my feelings towards her “options” were fluid, rising and falling with each good and bad experience, inevitability wrapped in “what-if”s and “if only”s.

There are some great twists, and anything that might seem too coincidental I think is explained very well with enough plausibility. The ending is bittersweet, life balanced with death, joy measured through pain, and I think that might be what I like best.

 

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Rambling Reviews: Secondborn

**This contains a few spoilers, though — as I’ll go into more below — nothing really felt like a “big reveal” enough to qualify protecting the details**

For July’s “Kindle First” book, I chose Secondborn by Amy Bartol. An aside — Kindle First is possibly my favorite part of being an Amazon Prime member, since I get a free book each month before it’s released to the public. It’s currently $4.99 otherwise.

I love the concept of the story: Firstborns are basically royalty, secondborns are servants and soldiers, thirdborns are illegal and therefore destroyed. Of course, Secondborn follows one such secondborn, Roselle, as she acclimates to her new life as a member of the Fates Army. Since she’s the daughter of one of the highest leaders of the society, she’s something of a celebrity, making her transition into the ranks that much harder.

Bartol’s world-building is pretty phenomenal. I love the different “trees” everyone lives in, and the imaginative technology. After finishing this book, I read that she is well-known for her fantastic worlds, and this time was no exception.

World-building aside, this book felt more like a rough first draft than anything. The relationships are hurried and there is very little depth to Roselle. I liked Hawthorne as a potential love interest, but as soon as I’d thought that, he was declaring his love and they were in this intense physical relationship that just felt strange. Then a year passes (denoted by “one year later”), in which an actual relationship could have developed more naturally between them — complete with the slow, delicious build up of more and more physical affection — and I might have felt more invested when he was suddenly ripped away from her.

She seems to attract every handsome male in her vicinity. That didn’t exactly bug me — after all, her life had been broadcast since a child, and it’s insinuated she’s very pretty — but I couldn’t tell how she felt back. There’s a lot of exposition and “telling” rather than showing, but I don’t feel like I ever really saw inside Roselle’s head.

The whole thing ends rather abruptly, in what feels like the middle of a conversation. There’s no resolution of a goal — and in retrospect, I’m not even sure what Roselle’s goals as a character were for this story. Too many questions were left unanswered, and more cropped up with such a quick ending.

All that being said, if the second book shows up as a free option, I might check it out. There’s so much potential for a great series. The characters can be fleshed out more, given actual motivations and backstory and their relationships and interactions to flow more naturally. The underlying concept of the story has potential to generate enticing plot lines. And like I said earlier, the world itself is fascinating. The first book was just too rushed and disjointed for me to recommend it.

Rambling Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was very hard to read. Not because it was poorly written or boring — that’s not the case at all. The story was intriguing and I was invested in the narrator’s plight. The end felt like such a cliffhanger that I audibly yelled “are you serious!” which scared my husband, but then I realized there was more to the story in a new section with a different perspective (so if you hit a snag near the end, keep reading — it’s not just end of book acknowledgements!).

No, the reason this book was so hard to read was its terrifying plausibility. Most dystopian novels are set in a far off future, after wars and bombs and viruses and apocalypses have utterly changed the face of the earth and how society runs. Some dystopian novels are a chilling commentary on where the world could be headed (think: 1984), but this is so much more immediate. The changes, the leeching of power from the people — or from certain types of people — are so subtle at first, so insignificant that by the time enough people start to question things, it’s far too late.

In a lot of dystopian stories, there is one dictator or a small group of “bad guys” lording it over the masses. The majority of the people don’t agree with their leadership, but are too downtrodden and tired to fight back. In The Handmaid’s Taleplenty of people agree with the new society. There are rumors of underground movements, sure, but most people seem supportive of the new order’s ideals.

The story is both intense and detached, told by a narrator who has nearly given up on everything that mattered to her in the world before. It is both resigned and angry, rebellious and cautious, disgusted and apathetic. It is a desperate warning wrapped up in inevitable possibility.

I had to take a lot of breaks while reading this one. It isn’t something you’ll binge-read for hours or enjoy while lounging on a beach. It’s a tale best told in snippets and whispers, with long silences to digest each piece of new information. It’s heavy with real-life foreboding, but I’m so glad I read it.

Rambling Review: Garden of Thorns

Recently, I’ve been reading more “adult” books (Slaughterhouse-Five, The Handmaid’s Tale — reviews to come), modern classics that make me sound more cultured and grown up than the usual YA fiction I prefer. I do feel more well-rounded, but I’ve missed the adventure and angst and inevitable romance that all winds together into nearly every young adult novel.

Garden of Thorns by Amber Mitchell popped up on my Amazon recommendations, and I couldn’t resist. In all honesty, I was fully prepared to re-read any one of my favorites I already own, but currently they would need to be fished out of boxes, and Garden of Thorns was only $3.99 on Kindle, so I figured I’d take a chance on it.

The story is about a girl, Rose, who is part of a traveling entertainment troupe called the Garden — in which the Flowers dance and the Wilteds are punished for any infraction the Flowers make. The Gardener is cruel and abusive, and very early on we get to see just how devastating life in the Garden can be. Rose manages to escape, only to find herself in a rebellion against an emperor every bit as cruel and emotionless as the Gardener. All she wants is to free her sisters from the Garden, but first she has to prove herself worthy of the rebellion’s help.

Her growth throughout the novel is a beautiful thing. She struggles with trust issues and hope, vacillating between the two nearly constantly. Frustrating and relatable, it sometimes seems like one step forward is met with two steps back. I soared with her triumphs and screamed (internally) when she seemed to have run out of chances for success. As a reader, her fears seemed objectively ridiculous but also extremely valid at the same time. The frequent reminders of her past felt repetitive at first, but were necessary to continuously explain her hesitations.

I’m not sure if this is a stand alone novel or part of a series. Unlike most series, the ending was satisfying and didn’t hint at another story waiting to be told. I’d be perfectly happy with this as its own novel, but I can’t deny I’d love to see Rose and the others back for another adventure.

Rambling Review: The Virgin Suicides

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References to The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides kept popping up around me recently, so I decided to check out this modern classic for myself. I can’t deny I’m into darker/heavier stories like the synopsis suggests (5 sisters kill themselves within a single year) and was intrigued right off the bat by a collective narrator (the story is told by the neighborhood boys as a whole).

Because it’s a relatively slim paperback, I brought it along on vacation, intending to read it on the beach or during down-time between activities. This encouraged a lot of horrified feedback from my friends, who always ask what I’m reading. They then spent the week checking in by asking “how many girls have died now?” then following my answer up with a head shake and a “why do you read stuff like that?”  That’s how I discovered pretty much my entire group of friends consists of happy, shiny people like my husband who prefer little depth and pain in their entertainment.

Leaving aside my friends’ responses, this is not a good beach read. In the way of most classics, the story needs your attention for good chunks of time. I found myself re-reading sentences and chapters and getting frustrated because I couldn’t devote more focus to it.

The story is beautifully written. There are some of the lovely descriptions and word-pictures that I love, and the fact that it’s like the neighborhood boys have sat me down to tell me their observations adds a touch of near-innocence to a tragic experience. Rather than being a novel about suicide, it’s more of a love letter to the sisters from the boys who grew up watching them.

It is sad. The parents are misguided and in my opinion arrogant in their negligence. The novel does discuss suicide, the ways the sisters end their lives, in just enough detail to make the reader uncomfortable without turning it into a caricature. Suicide should make a person uncomfortable to read about.

But it’s also a subject that is treated with respect. Eugenides captures the bewilderment and guilt and shock and grief that lingers over those left behind. The narrator shows how suicide affects a neighborhood, the process one goes through to try to understand something no one will explain outright.

It is a heavy book. It’s tragic and inevitable and beautiful. A modern classic, indeed.

Rambling Review: And I Darken

Okay, the next book in this series (Now I Rise) comes out in July, so I was putting off rereading And I Darken until the end of June to get ready for it, but I just noticed it’s currently $1.99 on Kindle so I need to share my love for it RIGHT NOW.

That being said, I’m a little foggy on all the details that make this book great and can’t really remember anything glaring that made it difficult to read.

It’s one of my favorite young adult books out there. I love the opportunity to learn things while reading historical fiction, and Kiersten White gives a great little blurb about her research and the areas she took liberties and tweaked timelines.

I love the imagination behind turning Vlad the Impaler into a woman and exploring what might have been different (and what might have stayed the same). Lada is a beautifully written character, with depth and strength and fierce rejection of her weaknesses. Even though she is rough and hardened, she’s relatable. I could relate to the little girl trying desperately to make her father proud, to the woman afraid of losing herself in love, in the man she loves, to the fighter who refuses to lose sight of her end goals, no matter how hopeless they can seem at times.

It isn’t a light-hearted read. The book explores the dark side of a person’s character. It exposes flaws in heroes and muddies the waters between right and wrong. It’s full of painful sacrifice and selfish choices, hurt and betrayal and love and ambition. It ripped holes in my heart and put the pieces back in ways that weren’t neat and tidy, but satisfying in their “rightness”. For the bright and shiny people, those like my husband, this isn’t the book for you. But if you like books that blur the line between hero and villain, books that spit on your expectations and make you question your own nature, your own response to a hostile world, this book is everything.

Rambling Reviews: These Vicious Masks

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Do you like the X-Men series? Do you like Victorian England? If not, this is not the book for you.

If, like me, you are intrigued, then let me tell you about These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas.

I became so hooked on the characters and their stories I immediately downloaded the sequel (These Ruthless Deeds) and let me tell you, this series does not disappoint. There are terrifying and clever powers, an explanation for such powers that is plausible yet not overly explained, and interesting characters who wield said powers. You’ve got a heroine who grapples with what it is to be a “hero” (and one might argue she doesn’t quite live up to the title) while stopping at nothing to reunite with her sister. You’ve got a charming suitor and a mysterious, brooding gentleman — Jane Austen would swoon — who trap our heroine in a delicious love triangle. Dangerous escapades and comic misadventures balance well throughout the novel, making for a quick and enjoyable read.

The writing is not flawless, and some things seem to wrap up too neatly, but nothing that sticks out as blaringly awful or even memorable once the story is through.

I adored the ending of the sequel. I won’t say anymore than that because I’ve tried wording my feelings a dozen times and I can’t figure out how to convey my thoughts without somehow spoiling it or creating an expectation that I did not have going into it, so I will leave it at that. It was fascinating.

The first book is $4.22 for paperback, $7.09 on Kindle ($14.89 for both books on Kindle). I highly recommend checking them out!