Book Review of a Y.A. dystopian: The Ward

The Ward

The Ward (Click here to view the book on Amazon. It will be released on April 30, 2013.)

I LOVE dystopians and was totally intrigued by the cover of The Ward. It didn’t disappoint. It’s not an exaggeration to say that my heart was pounding while reading various sections and that NEVER happens. Needless to say I read it all in one sitting because I didn’t want to put it down.

The Ward is set in a futuristic Manhattan that is completely flooded. Only the tops of skyscrapers pierce through the water after a meteor collided with a glacier in the Antarctic sometime around 2048 causing high-temperature gases to be released which caused a rise in the sea level. As the Ocean levels rose, fresh ground water was contaminated and the landscape totally changed. Instead of asphalt roads, canals thread their ways through the upper stories of remaining buildings. Boardwalks and suspension bridges stretch from area to area and instead of cars, there are water vehicles.

“Upstate” NY is its own country and, after a conflict with New York City in 2054, they embargoed access to fresh water. New York City is now separated into two areas: the West Isle and The Ward. When the government closed access in and out of the Ward, everyone who was there was stuck for good, even if they lived and commuted from the West Isle. World building is released in little bits of information here and there and while you understand what’s going on in the NY area, very little if anything is said or described about the rest of the world or what happened to the United States. Still, it’s enough information to set the stage and satisfy.

The West Isle is filled with the upper class who have relatively easy lives with plenty of access to water despite the embargo while the Ward is cordoned off to contain people infected with the deadly HBNC virus and is more like a slum with little access to life-giving water. The residents of the Ward filter their rainwater but it’s always a struggle. From the book: “…and (I) look down into the murky water. To think – people used to fill toilet bowls with fresh. Pissing into a pot you can drink out of. Unbelievable.”

It’s a crime to transmit the HBNC virus and roving bands of enforcers test residents to see if they are contagious. Test positive and you’ll be arrested. Those that live in the Ward live in constant fear of either contracting the disease, if they don’t already have it, being arrested if they do or dying if they’ve been infected and can no longer transmit the virus. It’s an ugly world where the dying scrape together money for injections to relieve the pain and the healthy are just surviving.

Sixteen year old Ren lives in this world and struggles to take care of her younger sister Aven (actually a friend who grew up in the same orphanage) who is infected with the HBNC virus, but no longer contagious. A tumor bulges out from the base of her skull. She’s dying and Ren races to earn money to take care of Aven and buy the meds that give her temporary relief from the excruciating and debilitating pain she suffers. Through Aven you get to see a very tender side of Ren underneath the tough exterior. She truly loves this fragile girl who has become her only family.

Ren has a secret; she’s working for the hated enforcers to earn extra money for Aven, looking for a freshwater source during the races. What she finds under the water’s surface will be the beginning of a dangerous journey where age-old mysteries are unraveled (along with a little bit of a fantasy element). Ren finds water, but it isn’t just any water…and what it can do is the catalyst behind a world-rocking change and plenty of personal imperilment.

To say The Ward is riveting is an understatement. Besides the intriguing premise, it delivers with rich characters, plenty of twists and plenty of heart-pounding action. There were some underwater scenes where I was nearly gritting my teeth. You know the kind where a vehicle plunges into the water and water starts rushing in and someone is trapped and gulping air and….yeah…that kind. Definitely intense.

I loved it that the characters in The Ward are fully fleshed out. Ren is completely likable as well as genuinely funny. The novel is told in first person from her perspective but there is plenty of world detail along with her humorous insights. Thankfully The Ward is lacking the usual sickly-sweet love triangle Y.A. dystopian novel focus. There is a little bit of a love interest but it’s such a mild sub-plot that it doesn’t steal from the show.

The racing part of the story (Ren races some sort of water vehicle that skips across the top of the water and skids across the sides of partially submerged buildings) is NOT my usual fare, however I found myself enjoying it. It’s a technical, sci-fi type of racing that would make a terrific action scene in a movie. Ren is struggling to make it in what is apparently a male-dominated venue but her tenacity and raw skill earn her reluctant respect. As the story progresses, the racing takes a back seat to the plot twists surrounding Ren’s discovery and the revelation that everyone isn’t who they appear to be as the story unfolds. I don’t want to share anymore because part of the fun is seeing how the story unravels and twists as you read along.

Now for the Mom part of the review: I would rate The Ward PG-13. The Ward is definitely a gritty novel that doesn’t shy away from Ren’s inner dialogue or violent events. There are several instances of instances of cursing (or “near” cursing) like: hell, dam*it, effed up, brack (I guess it’s the Ward’s version of a cuss word), bada$$ery, slut, a couple mentions of giving the finger and so on. There is no s*x, although this topic exists in various venues, such as the time when Ren is naked in front of one of the guy characters at one point and there is a kiss and Ren gets distracted by a young man’s hands lifting her by her armpits (“dangerously close to other places”) and other similar instances. There is also mention of two dragster “girlfriends” (apparently homos*xual although no further details are fleshed out) and Ren talks about her breasts and backside (but not in detail, just in the context of an outfit). There is some underage drinking, although it doesn’t play a big part and Ren herself doesn’t like it but “takes a sip” to be “polite”.

I would say The Ward is more appropriate for older teens vs. the younger crowd and it definitely has an adult edge to it mixed with a strong “teen flavor”. Ren is a strong character leading an adult life despite her age. Conservative Christian families will probably not feel comfortable with some of the situations she finds herself in, even though The Ward is a bit more tame than other novels in this genre with less specific “adult” material. Ren has a crush and she’s in adult situations, but it’s straight forward and there isn’t much, if any, fluff. The focus is on the action, not on a love story or a heavy does of s*xual tension as Y.A. novels sometimes tend to lean towards.

I read other reviews of The Ward written by teens and apparently many of them were kind of “lost”  or not drawn into the story as frequently and easily as I’ve seen for other titles. The Ward is more subtle in letting you know what’s going on as far as world building goes and how it describes the past. I’ve summed it all up in the beginning of my review, but that info was gleaned from multiple areas in the book. I think the fact that the racing scenes were described but the reader is not told the “hows” behind it was probably a bit mildly disconcerting to some readers as well. The thing I read over and over was how the readers enjoyed the main character Ren and I have to agree she’s the one that anchors the book as a whole. While I would have liked more background or world building, Ren kept me from caring too much about whatever might be lacking as the action barely ever let up from start to finish.

Quick Summary:

I found The Ward to be a refreshing entry into the dystopian genre and even though it’s a Y.A. novel, as an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Ren is such a strong character that she manages to pull the book through any potential weak spots. The action swept me along and I’m looking forward to the next book. Even though the ending was wrapped up nicely, there were a few big elements where you are left hanging and hungry to read more. I can’t wait for book #2 and recommend The Ward to anyone who likes either dystopians, a bit of modern/futuristic worlds with a fantasy/mild sci-fi twist or just a good action story.

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Book Review Blitz: Taken – A dystopian for teens

Taken book review

Taken will be released on April 16, 2013. I received an ARC in exchange for my honest opinion!

Taken is one of those books that grabs you from the beginning and never lets you go. Even at the end I was sitting there wanting the next book in the series NOW. I’m adult reader of Y.A. dystopian & sci-fi fiction and I can confidentially say that Taken is one of those books that successfully crosses the age barrier. It has a terrific premise, fleshes it out with great characters & situations along with twist and turns that leave you wanting to find out more.

I’m going to be careful about what I say in my review because part of the fun of Taken is NOT knowing what is going on and having it unravel for you thread by thread right along with the main characters. There is a feeling you get while reading the book – the same feeling the characters are experiencing…something isn’t quite right sprinkled liberally over a sense of unease. Just as a layer of one mystery is revealed, you still are left suspicious and wondering until yet ANOTHER layer is uncovered as it turns out that everything you thought you knew had another dimension to it – as lies are slowly peeled away and the truth begins to shine through.

Taken is told from a first person POV by Gray, a 17 year old in the village of Claysoot. His older brother Blaine is 18 and today is the last day Gray will spend with him because…there are no men in Claysoot. Every boy becomes a man at the age of 15 and then, at 18, they are all gone. Taken. They call it the Heist.  No one knows why it happens,  just that it always has.

There are other mysteries to the town. How it began, and why there is a wall that surrounds the countryside.

“When the Wall was discovered, Bo volunteered to go over first and scout things out, but he was unable to see what lay on the other side. The view from a large oak tree in the northern portion of the woods yielded nothing but pitch blackness beyond the Wall, and he deemed it unsafe. He tried to talk others out of climbing, but a few tried. Their bodies came back a charcoaled mess, burned and lifeless…”

After Blaine is taken by the Heist, Gray is left…alone as his mother died years ago. He discovers a note to his brother hidden behind a picture frame:

“And so I share this with you now, my son: You and your brother are not as I’ve raised you to believe, Gray is, in fact…”

…and then there is nothing more. The missing part of the note propels Gray to start searching for answers and what he finds just raises more questions. He discovers he’s not who he thought he was and that just might be the key to finding out about his town, his people’s origins and the Heist.

It’s no surprise that Gray makes it over the wall (as the book blurb states) but what he finds there is unlike anything he could have imagined. As answers to his world start pouring in, things get even more complicated and just when it looks like he finally understands what’s going on, there is yet another layer of truth to unravel.

I’m going to refrain from saying any more about the plot details, because as I stated before,  part of the fun of this book is discovering that what you thought you knew isn’t necessarily correct. Everything is revealed to you as it’s revealed to Gray. There are no obvious answers, just hints to keep you guessing.

I really enjoyed the world building in Taken. It was like a cross between Running Out of Time by Margaret Haddix (which is similar to the movie The Village) and Revolution 19 -only done RIGHT (because the characters move from a rustic world to an advanced one).  The book blurb compares it to The Maze Runner, but I have to disagree. Maze Runner felt a lot less sophisticated than this book and seemed like it was intended for younger teens. Taken is a much more mature novel.  Don’t think that Taken copies other dystopians because of the comparison to other books. I found it fresh and original in many ways.  It’s not just a dystopian though. There are also a few sci-fi elements, but these are understated and there’s nothing like aliens or anything like that.

As far as the world building goes, Erin Bowman paid attention to little details that made Gray’s observations very realistic. She takes a young man transported  from a rustic village to an entirely different type of world and makes it believable. Some of the history of the current world’s situation is glossed over, but you have enough information to securely know what’s going on (at least by the time you hit about 70% in the book).

I also think Bowman did well with the relationship building between the characters.  Nothing seemed forced or unrealistic. There is a love interest but it’s not the focus of the book and doesn’t drown the plot in teenage angst. I won’t write any details about it because there is a bit of a twist and surprise in this realm that I don’t want to spoil. Suffice it to say that it contains a “triangle”, as most books seem to do, nowadays.

At the end of Taken (which I read in one sitting except for a necessary trip to the grocery store), I was sitting there thinking NOOOO… because I wanted more! It’s clear there is going to be a 2nd book and I can’t wait to read it! Taken is Erin Bowman’s first novel and I suspect she’s going to get a brand new legion of fans with this first foray into novel writing. I know I’m one!

Now, for the MOM part of my review. 😉

Because of some of the more mature themes that are implied at in the book, I wouldn’t recommend it to younger kids. Of course each family/individual will want to make the decision about whether it’s appropriate or not based on their family’s values and beliefs. Here are some possibly objectionable items:

The boys of Claysoot are slated to sleep with different girls with the intention of getting them pregnant (how else can the little town repopulate itself since men don’t exist?). There are several times where it’s made clear that teens are sleeping with other teens (or supposed to) but nothing is explicit. In the context of the world, the teens aren’t doing anything rebellious or bad.

There are a few moments where attention is drawn to a young woman’s curves or clinging undershirt and that type of thing (slight s*xual tension for the main character). You have descriptions like “lips taste like rain” and “Her limbs are long and lean, her curves itching to be touched.” The last quoted sentences is about the extent of it and there are about 11 instances of that type of thing in a book of approximately 247 pages. There is an incident where it’s mentioned that Gray and someone are stopping things from getting too “heated” because they don’t want to end up making a baby.

The characters drink alcohol and get drunk, act inappropriately (it’s clear that if he would have given in, a girl would have kissed Gray or perhaps more because she was intoxicated) and several have hangovers.

The characters play a drinking game called Little Lies where they have to pick out truth from lies and if they get it wrong they have to take a drink.

There is a minor amount of swearing, mainly the word d*mn , one incident of bullsh*t and the expletive “scr*w you”.

Summary: Taken is an engaging, interesting story with lots of twists and turns and a refreshing male POV. I think it will be well received by  Y.A.  readers and new fans will be clamoring for the sequel! It does, however, have some items of concern for younger teens and conservative families. Although I enjoyed the book, I’m not ready to hand it over to my 14 year old.  For me as an adult, it was quite tame compared to what you find in most contemporary novels, but it’s still a bit much, in my opinion, for a young teen.

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Book Review: Revolution 19

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I love YA (young adult) sci-fi and dystopian books and blaze through them on a regular basis. I’m always on the lookout for another great YA read along the lines of Hunger Games, the Delirium series, Starters, etc.

Revolution 19 looked like a great new title (just look at that beautiful cover with the eye implant!) and the book description sounded intriguing and interesting enough for me, an adult, to want to pursue. I jumped at the chance to snag an ARC (advance reader copy) and promptly sat down to devour what promised to be such an interesting story. Instead I had to force myself to finish it (a rarity for me!). It’s what my husband and I call a “Wesley Crusher” story (if you remember the young man on Star Trek Enterprise who would amazingly save the day when all the brilliant adults around him couldn’t) where the dumb kids save the stupid grown-ups and everything is fluffy and unbelievable along the way. Maybe whomever wrote the book jacket should have written the story. All of the great writing ends there.

Before I eviscerate the book, let me say upfront that the 10 year old in me liked it. Although I think this book is marketed at the YA audience, after reading it, I’d throw it into the very lowest age range of that category, specifically tweens or younger. If I was a kid and I didn’t pick apart books yet (or expect much from them) and just want a fast paced story where the kids win and nothing is really scary (although we’ll pretend it is) and I wasn’t going to notice inconsistencies…then this books is perfect. If I was ten I’d give this book 5 enthusiastic stars and would be itching for the movie to come out. In fact, if they ever do make a movie out of this, it’s one of the rare cases where I think the movie would be much better than the book.

Now, with that out of the way, it’s time to tear the book apart. The story centers around a group of teens varying in age: Nick 17, Kevin 13 (almost 14!) , Cass 15 and later Lexi and some others. Although we have some older teens featured, they all feel flat and much younger. Nick, his brother Keven and their adopted sister Cass live in the wilderness to hide from the robots who’ve apparently turned on humanity and are rumored to enslave people in the cities. The first problem I had is that the community seems fairly well established and somehow the robots don’t discover them (even though they throw out small bits of tech called chaff that people might pick up and take back to their camps for the purpose of locating them). In a bit you find out that the wilderness area turns out to be within walking distance of a city filled with robots. The robots are smart enough to run a city, enslave humans (as the rumor goes) and yet they can’t find these pockets of people living within 2-3 days walking distance. Hmm.

After an attack by the robots (well I guess they found them after all!) the 3 siblings are left to fend for themselves in the woods when their parents don’t show up at a designated “safe” area. The kids decide that must be due to the fact that their parents must have been captured by the robots and so they make the next logical decision – they must go into the city to save them!

The very first part of the story wasn’t so grating. It had an interesting premise and I was still in the mode of giving the characters time to be fleshed out. However, right after the robots attacked, it started falling apart with juvenile, magically perfect scenarios that will appeal to younger readers but not the teens I think it was intended for.

The teens end up in the city and things aren’t as they expected them to be. Humans are living peacefully alongside the robots. Things don’t seem right…Ah, here is an opportunity for the book to redeem itself, as this new development could have been eery and interesting. Sorry to disappoint. The kids end up in a cafeteria and since they were hungry, decided to order food, nevermind they’ve never been in a cafeteria or restaurant before.
“Oh my G*d,” said Kevin, looking through the menu. “You can get anything you want here.”….”Chicken or steak or pizza or hot dogs or French fries….”

Hold on a sec. Here you have kids raised in the wilds who have never known anything but living in the forest and somehow they know what steak, pizza, hot dogs and French fries are?

They meet a girl (Lexi) who basically saves them rears after realizing they are “freemen”…complete with providing a disguise of a hat and sunglasses! From there they have all sorts of adventures like learning about the reeducation centers (another chance at being interesting but nope), getting fake chip implants, going to school (for one day) and so on.

It’s so amazing how they also run into their parents and how these country bumpkins manage to think up an amazing (I’m being sarcastic) tech solution to defeating the robots! Wow! With all the intelligent adults living in the city, you’d think someone would have thought of that before! I won’t spoil what happens. It’s not really all that exciting though. Unless you’re ten. 😉 It’s certainly not the “REVOLUTION” I had envisioned.

In the meantime we have a very juvenile romance (well not quite that but…they do have to slip a kiss in there don’t they?) where one kiss is exchanged but there is no real relationship or anything complex. It felt like it was thrown in there for the twelve year olds.

The robots themselves (Peteys….such a scary name) are basically floating boxes with slits in their faces and lasers that shoot people. At the reeducation center there are robots that look more human…and even seem to sound human at times (another glimmer of hope that things might get good but no…).

I hate to tear this book apart because there WERE moments that were interesting or had a huge amount of potential. However, as a whole it was predictable, juvenile and unbelievable. I think the best part of the book was the very end in the epilogue!! Now that was interesting and perked my interested up again. Too bad it was only a few pages long and it certainly wasn’t worth wading through the rest for! I wish that last element had been developed more somewhere in the story.

So, if you are an adult looking for your next YA fix, I’d not recommend Revolution. However, if you have a younger child into sci-fi or dystopians, Revolution might be a winner. It’s fast paced and pretends at being scary which might appeal to a younger tween not ready for a darker or more involved read.

Having said that, I’ll now give the “mom” part of my review and mention any potential items of concern. The first is the cussing. There are quite a few instances and variations of d*mn as well as hell, God’s name taken in vain, & bastard. There is one instance of kissing with mention of a girl’s body pressed into the boy’s chest. One of the characters suggests Cass draw a nude (she is going to exchange artwork, which is illegal, for the insertion of fake chips that would allow them to integrate into some parts of society) and there is mention of “homebrew” and pretending to be drunk in order to draw the attention of the bots.

Compared to some of the YA drek out there right now (like Beta), Revolution 19 is quite tame by comparison.

Quick summary: I was very disappointed with Revolution 19. I felt like the beautiful cover was misleading (there is a girl with an implant featured on the cover and that is not the case in the book) and the book description didn’t convey how bubble-gummy the story was going to be. While I think it could be a hit with younger kids, I don’t think it will resonate with older readers, even the ones in the intended age group. The ending was enough to tempt me to read a sequel, should one come out, but only because that’s the only part of the book fleshed out a small glimmer of great sci-fi promise. The rest of the book was simply a kiddie-romp that didn’t flesh out its beautiful grown-up package.

Note: I received a free ARC copy in exchange for my honest review.

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Book Review: Beta by Rachel Cohn

Beta

Beta by Rachel Cohn

I’m a dystopian junkie. I can’t get enough of them. Otter also enjoys them so I’m always on the lookout for a book we both might like. We both enjoyed the Hunger Games as well as other titles like The Maze Runner.

I was really looking forward to reading Beta which appears to be a dystopia/sci-fi mix, but it turned out to be a colossal disappointment. I’m giving it two stars (for an adult reader) instead of one because the concept was terrific but the execution of the story fell totally flat. As a parent looking for a book for my teen it gets a huge thumbs down.

Beta started out with an interesting premise: On a island built around luxury, dead humans are cloned and created to serve in a variety of positions. These clones, while functioning like their human counterparts are missing a very important component: a soul. They function, but they don’t taste, wish or feel. They are mimics programmed to serve and please their human masters.

The main character of Beta is an untested clone, one of the first teenage “experimental” models – a Beta named Elysia. She is born, not knowing who she is, learning about the world around her by accessing the chip implanted in her brain and slowly acclimating to her role of servitude. She is a “good girl” doing what she was programmed to do and fitting into her new family in a role not unlike a pet.

The first part of the book was intriguing. Elysia seems to be very good at certain things like swimming and diving…holdovers from her “First” – the person she was cloned from. She discovers she can taste. She experiences flashbacks of her previous, human life. She begins to realize she’s different from the other clones. Maybe something is terribly wrong? And yet it feels so right! Elysia carries this secret with her – afraid of what it might mean. Perhaps she is defective…

Sadly, the story started falling apart as it progressed and felt like something a tween would write with wooden non-varied sentence structure that reminded me of a second grade primer. The potential to have a deep, meaningful, haunting narrative turned into something shallow sprinkled with sex scenes including a rape that did NOT fit the character who committed it (this is a DISNEY book??!!) and quotes like “blond surfer god”. (Where is a spoon so I can gag myself?)

The insipid teen verbiage became a total distraction. Maybe it’s that I’m not in the targeted age group for the novel, but I found it totally irritating.

The teen characters in the book are constantly getting high on “Raxia” and are flat representations of the spoiled rich. Almost all of the supporting characters are trite and predictable. The plot twists can be seen miles away and the story’s credibility started unraveling about half-way through. There is also have a case of “insta-love” that is totally unconvincing (and drug-induced by the way) where by the 4th “date” they were ready to get intimate (and this is already after planning on running off together previously).

I also didn’t care for the world building. I can see what the author was trying to do, but I found that it just wasn’t believable and I didn’t care about any of the characters other than the little sister Liesel and Elysia – but only at the beginning.

Of course the ending was a cliff-hanger (to suck readers into a sequel) but absolutely outlandish. There is only one element (which I won’t mention since it’s a spoiler) that had me the least bit curious about taking a look at the next book. I’m sure the readers who liked the story will be clamoring for the next book.

Bottom line: If you are an adult who likes the dystopian YA book genre, Beta may not be a good fit. I see it appealing more to younger teens unlike some other dystopians that are able to cross the teen/adult divide. Because of the gratuitous sex (that serves no purpose other than to titillate as far as I can tell), drugs (seen as positive and even necessary), violence and lack of a real message – I don’t think it’s a good fit for that age group either. If you are a conservative, Christian family – you probably won’t want your kids anywhere near this title.

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