Friday, February 26, 2016

BURNING MIDNIGHT


Review of BURNING MIDNIGHT by WILL MCINTOSH
(review based on an advance reading copy)

Every now and then I read one of those rare books about which I have little to no criticism, only enthusiastic praise. BURNING MIDNIGHT is one of those books.

Sully is a welfare kid who almost struck it rich. In this new, strange world colorful spheres hide all around the world. Find two of the same color and you can burn them for some kind of personal enhancement: smarter, taller, stronger, faster. Each color does something different, and the rarer the sphere the more someone will pay for it. Sully has a humble booth buying spheres from hunters and selling them to collectors for a small profit. Then one day he found a sphere himself, a precious rarity, and made the mistake of selling it to a billionaire collector who manipulated the fine print of the purchase contract to cheat Sully out of the millions that would change his life.

But, as they say, that was then and this is now. Other than an annoying level of fame when someone recognizes Sully as “the poor teenage sucker who was ripped off for millions” his life went back to normal. Well, except he and his mom may not be able to afford their apartment much longer and might have to move far away and into a family member’s basement.

The book opens with Sully meeting Hunter, an edgy teenage girl with a knack for finding spheres. Their professional relationship shifts into an actual friendship as they work out a pact to search together and split the profits. Then they find something no one has ever found before and their discovery takes them on a wild adventure of unexpected twists.

I especially loved BURNING MIDNIGHT because it constantly subverts expectations in subtle ways. From character behavior to plot development, when you think you can see the road laid out in a pristine straight line ahead of you - well, it’s a mirage. There’s always another bend in the road.

I also admired many of the themes woven skillfully into the story. Class comes to the forefront. Not only because someone filthy rich ripped off a broke kid like Sully, but also because Sully has a lot of self-pitying thoughts for his circumstances...until he meets Hunter who shares a cramped apartment with a crazy number of near strangers and admits it’s still a huge step up from when she was homeless. There’s also a powerful theme of consequences. One of Sully’s friends refuses to burn any spheres, because she’s suspicious of these magical abilities without any known drawback. She points out that the spheres really haven’t been around long enough for people to know if there’s some longer-term consequence, like negative health side affects.

While I loved everything about this book, especially the shocking and dramatic climax and the well-handled ending, I couldn’t tell if it’s a standalone or the first in a series. While it wraps up nicely for a book in a series, I would be massively disappointed to discover we’re not going to learn any more about this magic system. I still have so many questions!

Will McIntosh is an established writer, but this is a first young adult novel. Based on how much I loved it, I think it’s time I start reading some of his other books, too. If they’re half of riveting as BURNING MIDNIGHT, they’ll be high on my favorites list.

Friday, February 19, 2016

STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS


Review of STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS by ROBERT L. SLATER
(second in the DESERTED LANDS series)

If you haven’t read the first book in this series, know that this review contains spoilers.

Where ALL IS SILENCE was more action focused, this second installment focuses more on the characters and relatonships. That’s a plus for me, but as I read this I easily imagined others readers being bored. Most of the book is devoted to the complex relationships between the characters and their struggle to keep everything pleasant and content even in the aftermath of an apocalypse.

While I found it perhaps too dramatic that the first book ended with the revelation that Lizzie is pregnant from her drunken, ill-advised one night stand with Zach, I must say that Slater handles that development very well as the story continues. As a cliffhanger, it felt like hollow drama, but up closer we get a more sincere and emotionally affecting look at the ripple effect of this development. For those who don’t remember (or know), I’m going to summarize the complications a little: Zach has a girlfriend. He and Lizzie didn’t exactly cheat. The pandemic killed 98% of humanity and at the time Zach and Lizzie slept together, they thought his girlfriend hadn’t made the cut as a lucky survivor. For that matter, they both felt so relieved to learn they each had someone else they knew who was still alive. When Zach’s girlfriend Nev did reappear, she and Zach reunited without too much hesitation - but Lizzie’s unexpected baby by Zach now certainly complicates things.

In the first book, Lizzie was constantly on the move: searching for supplies and other survivors, running from threats, exploring for signs of hope and help. Now Lizzie’s staying put - or trying to - in the community they discovered at the end of ALL IS SILENCE. And she’s going stir crazy. To make matters worse, everyone has their own ideas about how the world should be run given the circumstances. Some want to mimic the structure from before the pandemic while others focus more on what’s needed now, such as resources, shelter, protection, and reproduction. Speaking of that last one, Lizzie fears her freedom might be forfeit in this new reincarnation of her world. Some even start talking about making it a law that any fertile woman must get pregnant. For the good of humanity. Let’s just say when things get tough, it’s scary what starts to seem necessary “for the good of humanity.”

The book really heats up at the end with more action and twists. While most of the novel focuses on our lead characters and their efforts to find how they fit into this modified version of their society, the end pulls back to look at the greater community. And, man, are people starting to panic. Resources and some technology seemed plentiful at first, despite the circumstances, but then things start really collapsing. We see fallout from all the people who are now gone, who once helped keep our world running a certain way. The end builds to a climax full of power plays and resource control. 

Apocalypse books have been done to death by now. Yet, with the good ones, I nevertheless find myself rooted in the story and eager to see how this particular disaster plays out. In this case, I’m impressed by how much thought has gone into what would work and what wouldn’t, not to mention what would work at first but start failing under the wrong conditions.

I mentioned typos in the ARC I received of the first book. While I noticed much fewer in this one, near the end the typos multiplied and became very distracting. Some scenes at the end also felt too chaotic and much less polished that the rest of the book.

Especially considering how I criticized the ending of the first book, I want to mention that I really liked the ending of STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS. It’s that nice blend of set-up for intriguing conflict without an unsatisfying cliffhanger. In particular, I really liked the last line. Perfect tone for the book and the series overall. I can’t wait to read the next one.

Friday, February 12, 2016

ON WRITING


Review of ON WRITING: A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT by STEPHEN KING

The subtitle of this book summarizes it pretty well: part memoir and part writing guide. Though now a recognized must-read for aspiring authors, many other readers will find plenty to enjoy here in terms of insight into writers and Stephen King specifically.

I have a unique relationship with King’s work. It’s not my taste and yet I still retain the utmost respect for his talents. I have read a few books and stories by him and I consistently admire the writing, plotting, and characterization...but I'm simply not a horror fan. His advice to fellow writers also pops everywhere a beginner writer looks and I admire and agree with pretty much every quote I’ve heard attributed to him. One of my favorites from this book: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” My critique partners, boyfriend, friends, family have all heard my similar rants - and now I’m definitely posting that quote somewhere around my writing desk.

As an aspiring writer myself, I’ll confess it’s always tempting to compare yourself when reading or listening to an established author talk about writing. I won’t go off on overly personal tangents here, but I will mention one thing that struck me as interesting simply from the standpoint of factors that can lead to becoming a writer. King says he was frequently sick as a child, and therefore often spent a lot of time indoors, usually reading. Myself as well. I have asthma and, up until a few years ago, had a terrible immune system, which led to pneumonia, bronchitis, strep throat, whooping cough, and mono that took me over a year to kick. King credits this misfortune, though, for giving him plenty of time to read and use his imagination. Personally, I feel the same about myself.

In summary, a humble and insightful peek inside a writer’s mind that only increased the respect I feel for this particular author.

Friday, February 5, 2016

FINDING AUDREY


Review of FINDING AUDREY by SOPHIE KINSELLA
(based on a review copy)

I love Sophie Kinsella’s work and FINDING AUDREY is no exception. Above all, I cherish this one for making me laugh on nearly every single page. That aside, the book is also sweet and smart and simply satisfying.

Audrey has some form of social anxiety. She doesn’t want to talk about the events at school that led up to her breakdown, her new shrink, her numerous neurotic needs, and her limited life hiding at home with only her family for company. She wants to talk about her progress graph and how, crazy though she may seem, she’s improving, always improving, always getting better.

When Audrey’s older brother Frank starts inviting his friend Linus over, Frank warns Audrey that her comfort zone is about to feel crowded. Frank wants Audrey to talk to Linus, get to know him, make him feel comfortable so he won’t feel too weird coming over. While that sounds simple, Audrey pretty much hasn’t talked to another person outside her family or therapist since her last day at school.

I could easily have read this entire book in one committed sitting - if only my schedule allowed it. I want to say that the humor should take the credit for my riveted attention, but in truth it was the masterful blend of laughs and sincere sentiment.

Frank gets credit for most of the laughs. He’s the starring comic relief of this novel, taking center stage and delighting the audience no end, while Audrey hides in the background and steels her nerves. Frank’s an aspiring professional gamer and spends most of his free time playing online with his team. Unfortunately for Frank, their mother has decided he has a gaming addiction and needs to be cured, by drastic means if necessary. The snarky tension between the two of them over this provides most of the hilarity. Take, as one example, how Frank passively aggressively torments their dad after their mom takes away his computer: by bursting into his dad’s study during conference calls to request, with honeyed words, the use of the only computer left in the house so poor Frank can look up something for his homework. Part of why this book reads so quickly is that it’s mostly dialogue, the back and forths between different characters, sometimes illuminating, sometimes side-splitting, all worth reading.

Now I want to warn readers already wondering at what event could have caused this reaction in Audrey that’s not the point of the book. In fact, to make it abundantly clear that’s not the point, the author isn’t going to tell you. It won’t be a spoiler for me to fill in what we do know - because, as I’ve mentioned, it’s not the point. Several girls bullied Audrey merciless until she snapped. It’s unclear whether the last day they reference was a particularly malicious event or a standard day in hell for her that simply turned out to be her last straw. And we never find out more detail. I’m torn on my feelings on this. From a psychological level, I mentally applauded the position that this is Audrey’s story, about her, not those girls, and not to be positioned only in relation to the actions of those girls. From a reader standpoint, it’s still a little unsatisfying not to know exactly what the character went through.

That single (half-hearted) criticism aside, I relished every page of this novel. Funny books are harder to find than meaningful ones and FINDING AUDREY is both.