Sunday, April 26, 2020

Review: RED RISING by Pierce Brown

Rating: 2.75/5 stars

I have been wanting to read more science fiction lately, and Red Rising is my best friend’s favorite book, so I thought it’d be a good one to start with.

The society in this book is a caste system based on colors. I’ve never seen a caste system quite like this one, where the people are their Color. Like all the Reds have red hair, all the Greens have green eyes, etc. so physical appearances match your caste Color. The people have been genetically modified to fit a certain Color. It’s also cool that the differences go beyond physical traits and the colors determine what jobs you have. For example, Reds are the miners below Mars’s surface, Greens are programmers, Yellows are doctors, Blues fly the starships, Golds are the ruling class, etc. Each Color has specific traits and rules and speech patterns—basically, a person’s entire existence is dictated by their Color. It’s honestly so cool to see how intricate of a world Pierce Brown created here. It’s definitely something you have to get used to as you read because details are not always explained right away, but this whole system is the best part of this book.

Darrow is a Red, but as can be inferred from the title, he rises to become a higher Color. I won’t spoil how or why, but it was all very interesting.

Unfortunately, that is kind of where this book lost my attention. Once Darrow got to the Institute and joined his House (about a third of the way into the book), the entire story turned into a battle of territory akin to a giant game of capture the flag that lasted for months, a competition between twelve Houses for the land in the valley. The rest of the book to the very last page was consumed with them fighting for this land at the Institute, and it was too long. I didn’t care about what was happening, and I could never really figure out what the purpose of the “game” was.

Something that bothered me a bit was that if I didn’t know this book was set on Mars, I wouldn’t be able to infer that at all from the setting. In the beginning when Darrow is underground, it’s easier to see Mars in the setting there, but during the entire rest of the book above ground, there are trees, streams, snow—pieces of Earth that make the setting look and feel like Earth. I know they mentioned terraforming Mars to make the land livable, but it takes away from the foreign sci-fi setting when I can look out my window and see the same landscape. Red Rising feels more like a dystopian novel than a sci-fi novel.

I also didn’t care about any of the characters besides Darrow and Mustang (and even them, not so much), and a lot of the tertiary characters blended together to me. The whole time I was waiting for the long battle to end so we could go back to Darrow’s individual story. Although, everything seemed to come too easily to Darrow. He was the first to have all the answers, he always figured out the traps before he got stuck, he knew exactly where to go and what to do, and I hated that. The book had no stakes. Nothing seemed like a struggle or trial for him, and he almost seemed robotic in how he was figuring things out. I got tired of him really fast.

Another issue I had with Red Rising was that the writing felt choppy and I found it hard to connect with Darrow or any of the characters. I liked him quite a bit in part one, but once he ascends and undergoes the procedures, he developed a totally different personality and I didn’t like him as much, and his personality (and subsequently the writing style since it’s told in first-person) started to feel robotic and distanced, which I didn’t like.

Pierce Brown also occasionally does a fair bit of showing rather than telling, so I found it hard to connect to the story at times, which was not good since I was already not interested in a great chunk of the plot.

The ending is rather anticlimactic. I do not like how Darrow was made into a savior figure and became almost godlike. I also hate how arrogant he is. Basically, I don’t like Darrow at all. At the beginning I did, but not after all his transformations.

I think the writing style is my biggest issue with Red Rising. I liked the idea of this book, and the setting and unique caste system were very cool, but Brown’s writing style and subsequently Darrow’s voice was just not working for me, and neither was the drawn-out game that comprised most of this book’s plot. I am still interested in the continuation of this story, so I will be finishing the trilogy at least, though I haven’t yet decided if I will read the spin-off sequels.

I expected to love Red Rising, and I’m really sad that I didn’t. I can definitely see why so many people do love it though. It’s a fast-paced competition story, which, unfortunately, is not my taste. The beginning was really good, but the rest was just not interesting to me and the plot got lost for a bit in the middle. If not for the first quarter of the story that I liked, this book would get two stars. I wish more parts of the book had been to my taste, but alas, we can’t win them all. I’m hoping because the whole competition game is done now that the next books will be more interesting to me, but we shall see.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Review: THE DREAMERS by Karen Thompson Walker

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Dreamers is the perfect novel to read right now if you actually want to read about being quarantined because of a mysterious illness.

A contagious sleeping disease spreads across Southern California and people are scared. There is mention of quarantine, shops and schools closing, people instructed to wear masks, no touching others, “five feet apart at all times.” Does this sound familiar? I didn’t even realize that this book was about an epidemic but I certainly chose an apt time to read it!

I’ve always been interested in what happens in dreams and in books about dreams, which was why I originally wanted to read The Dreamers. But this book isn’t really about dreams, not exactly.

People fall asleep and stay asleep for days, unable to be woken up. Everyone is scared they will catch this disease. Doctors and scientists don’t know what’s going on, but they do know that the sleepers are having heightened brain activity, more than has ever been recorded before: crazy dreams are taking place. What could the sleepers possibly be dreaming about?

The story follows a few different families and how they each are affected by what’s going on. There are a lot of characters in this book, but we don’t fully get to know any of them. This is a book more about what’s happening than about who it’s happening to, and showing the family portraits helps make the story more personal.

It is eerily uncanny how similar the beliefs and situations are in this book to our world in early 2020. First, people are skeptical. No one believes they will really get sick.
“If this thing were really spreading, would the neighbors be raking their lawns? Would the mailman be delivering catalogs?”
Then the conspiracy theories begin and people start freaking out.
“Think about it, they say: Do you really believe that a completely new virus could show up in the most powerful country on earth without scientists knowing exactly what it is? They probably engineered it themselves. They might be spreading this thing on purpose, testing out a biological weapon. They might be withholding the cure.”
And then we have people trying to figure out how so many people are dying.
“Maybe they’re killing everyone in town to stop the epidemic.”
This was truly a fascinating book. If I had read it when it was published last year then I’d say it predicted the future. But now, I feel like I was inspired to read it at this time. It gives a good look at situations like the one we’re facing today with COVID-19 and how widespread diseases impacts society. We do not see economic repercussions in this book as the disease lasts only a few months and affects only one town, but it is still an interesting comparison, especially when we realize that some rash decisions characters make in this book are still more sane than what some people are doing in the read world.

I would definitely recommend reading The Dreamers, but you decide for yourself if this is the perfect time to read it or the perfectly wrong time to read it. It’s ethereal and beautifully written and a story that I will be returning to in the future.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Review: SPIN THE DAWN by Elizabeth Lim

Rating: 4/5 stars

The gorgeous cover is what first drew me in, like everyone else, to this book, but the premise also caught my attention. It was pitched to me as Mulan meets Project Runway. Now I don’t know anything about Project Runway except that it’s about fashion, but I’d say that’s an accurate comparison.

Maia Tamarin is the daughter of a master tailor, and as such, she has learned the craft herself. When her Baba is invited to the Summer Palace for a chance at becoming the new Imperial Tailor, Maia knows if he or one of his sons don’t go, their family will be shunned and their already suffering shop will lose all hope of surviving. So Maia has a plan: her Baba is too old and sick to go and her brother can’t sew, so she will impersonate her brother Keton and go to the palace in his place. This is where the Mulan references come in, and I’m a huge fan of Mulan so I was excited to see the similarities.

Spin the Dawn is divided into two parts. The first half of the book is the competition for the Imperial Tailor, and the second half of the book is a quest. Maia is tasked with crafting three dresses: one from the laughter of the sun, one from the tears of the moon, and one from the blood of stars. She has to journey across the land to find the materials to make these dresses.

I loved this book a lot—the premise, the execution, the characters, all of it was amazing.

I love that Maia was accompanied by the high enchanter, Edan, and that they developed a friendship and then a relationship throughout the book. Although, I will say that the relationship became the forefront of the plot by the end of the book compared to the beginning and the middle of the story when the competition and then the quest were the main plot. I don’t have an issue with a plot that becomes all about the romance, but it did seem to fall into some overused YA tropes that I’ve seen, so that was a little disappointing. Overall not a complaint though; I did like Edan a lot and I’m very curious to see what’s going to happen in the next book after the ending of this one.

I also love the magic in this book, particularly Maia’s magic scissors that can cut and even embroider any fabric and create grand designs. I think it would be so cool to have scissors like that! Basically all the magicial portions of this book made me so happy. And the idea of making dresses out of pieces of celestial objects is a really cool idea that I personally haven’t seen before.

Overall, I really enjoyed Spin the Dawn and can’t wait for Unravel the Dusk to come out later this year. This series has a fun premise, great characters, and unique magic. Definitely a standout book for me.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Review: THE CITY WE BECAME by N. K. Jemisin

Rating: 4/5 stars

This book is very weird. But I also kind of liked it?

It has a very strange start, and for a while I had no idea what was going on, yet I was still compelled to continue and figure it out.

Basically we start with Manny, a human avatar of the borough of Manhattan, as he awakes from amnesia and tries to figure out what he’s supposed to do.

The prologue is nearly word for word (excepting the very last sentence) Jemisin’s short story that was published a few years ago called “The City Born Great,” which is kind of the jumping off point for The City We Became.

There’s a very weird premise here, and one that I didn’t even fully know when I started the book. Each of the five boroughs of New York is represented as a human avatar who is simultaneously a person as well as an embodiment of everything that that borough contains. Basically, the city is also a person. It’s very weird. But it’s also a totally unique concept that I don’t think I would have thought up in a million years.

So we have the five people who represent everything that comprises New York City, and they basically have to work together to birth (what many believe to be) the greatest city of all time.

I have never been to NYC (I much prefer rural areas) and I know next to nothing about its many cultures and rich history, but from what I’ve been able to gather online, the five boroughs—Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island, and Brooklyn—are all distinct neighborhoods, each with its own culture and people and history. New York City is these five places combined, and it would be incomplete if one of them was missing.

So knowing this about real-life New York City, it makes sense in the book that the five people representing the five boroughs would have to work together to create the city, because the city would be incomplete with the absence of one or more of these cultures, etc.

I think that’s a crazy cool concept for a book. It took me a long time of reading to really figure this out and put the pieces together, but I do think that if you are from New York or know even marginally more about the city than I do then you would be able to see this earlier on than I did.

I thought this book was going to be about the five boroughs finding each other and fighting the Enemy, but it appears that’s the plot for the entire series as they barely managed to even find each other by the end of the book. This is a very character-focused story that really delves into the lives and personalities of each borough before and after their realizing they were part of New York. The plot is slow-moving, but the story is not a slow story, if that makes sense.

The City We Became is a love letter to New York City and its diverse cultures, histories, and personalities. (N. K. Jemisin even says in her acknowledgments that this book is her homage to the city.) If you love NYC then you should read this book. It’s very different from Jemisin’s other works, but don’t let that deter you. It’s definitely outside the zone that I normally read, but I really enjoyed it nonetheless and look forward to continuing on with the series.

Manhattan: “I’m going to need a crash course in how to be a New Yorker.”
Brooklyn: “There ain’t no one way to be a part of this city.”

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Review: MOST LIKELY by Sarah Watson

Rating: 5/5 stars

I loved this book so much. I didn’t expect to really even like it because it is so hard for me to find young adult contemporaries that fit with my tastes these days, but this book is all around good, and I can’t recommend it enough.

The quotation on the back says it all: “Great friendships can help young women achieve anything.”

Most Likely is a feminist novel focused on the power of friendship that gets us through the tough times. It starts with one of the girls married to a Mr. Diffenderfer and is about to be inaugurated as President of the United States of America, and then the story jumps back thirty years to when the four girls and Logan Diffenderfer are in high school together, and you have to figure out which one is “most likely” to end up as the President. I think that’s a really neat concept.

This book features really diverse characters and ways of life. There were lots of real-world issues discussed and deftly handled as each character was facing a challenge in his or her life. I honestly did not find anything in it to be negative or offensive but instead the whole story was just so well crafted.

We have Ava, an adopted Latinx girl struggling with her identity and whether or not she should pursue her passion of art; CJ, who has a big dream of going to college but is worried that her terrible SAT scores will prevent her from getting accepted anywhere and who’s also trying to connect with a young wheelchair-bound girl; Jordan, a budding journalist who is lobbying to keep the local park from getting demolished; and Martha, a quiet girl struggling to find a way to pay for college after her parents’ divorce. Each of these girls has hard decisions to make during their final year of high school as they all worry about college, new relationships, family issues, and staying close to each other after graduation.

I love that all four girls are interested in politics and social issues going on in the world, but the book doesn’t really focus on that. Instead, it focuses on each of their lives during their senior year of high school and how they each, with the others’ help, overcome their trials. As the whole mystery is which one of them will become the President, there are little conversations or clues here and there that could lead you to believe any of them will be it, but it’s so fun trying to guess throughout the book how it will end.

The characters have great relationships with each other. I really felt like these girls were going through real issues and were very relatable to teens today. This is exactly the kind of book I think every high school girl needs to read. That is such a formative time of your life when friendships mean the world and can get you through anything. I love how these girls constantly support each other no matter what and are always helping each other succeed. They even have a rule that none of them will talk about any of them behind their backs, only to their faces. Honesty and communication are so important in any relationship, and I love the emphasis on that here.

The ending of the book was so excellently done in my opinion. I had a guess the whole book about who I thought would be President, and I won’t give anything away, but my guess was both right and wrong, and I absolutely loved how the book ended. There is a planned sequel, which I’m not sure what the premise will be, but I’m definitely interested in reading it because of how well written Most Likely was. This book was so heartwarming and enjoyable to read, and I hope everyone loves it at much as I did.