Denton Little’s Deathdate by Lance Rubin

denton's little deathdate

4 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this work.

Denton Little lives in a world where most people are able to find out the day they will die by having their DNA analyzed at birth. Denton Little will die when he is 17. That day has now arrived, and he is not sure how to handle it. Follow Denton through his last two days and watch his growing realization that not everything is as it should be.

First note: despite this really seeming like a science fiction novel, it reads a lot more like contemporary fiction. This is a style that will really work for teens who love books like John Green’s novels and maybe want to dip their toes into the science fiction pool. The premise is science fiction: using statistics and DNA analysis to figure out when someone is going to die, but the writing style and voice are very modern.

The world building is very subtle. Pretty much everything looks and feels identical, but people have different funeral rites, and different expectations of people, depending on when they will die (you can get away with a LOT if you are dying tomorrow). Denton has normal teen problems compounded by the fact that he is going to die. He really wants to sleep with his girlfriend, and has less than 2 days in which to accomplish that. He has a quirky best friend that he has to say goodbye to. He has a dead mother he knows nothing about. This book is not about Denton trying to save the world or topple a despotic government. It is a personal book about his reflections about his life and relationships, and how he is going to order his priorities knowing how much time he has left. There are glimpses of how weird it would get attending your own funeral and how scary it would be to count down to the end, but some convincing arguments are made that it would be nice to always have a  chance to say goodbye and get your affairs in order. Some countries even made it illegal not to know, since being able to find out when large amounts of people are going to die may help the government get other people out of a potential blast radius.

Nobody knows how they are going to die, just the 24 hour period in which they will go, so it brings up some important predetermination questions. If you are meant to die by suicide, is it possible to stop yourself? If someone has to die by being murdered, is it fair to blame the murderer? Can you provide substandard medical care if you know someone is going to die the next day anyways?

Denton’s voice and personality come in very strongly, and you can definitely see this guy being someone you went to school with. His interactions with his best friend are goofy and touching. His relationship with his girlfriend is confusing, maddening and about what you would expect for a high-school relationship. These are teens doing teen things: being horny, goofy, confused and angry.

This story is private and personal. It gives a decent view of what modern, western society would be like given a little more information about life. The characters are interesting and personable. This is a very unique read that mixes genres. I would recommend keeping an eye on this book and this author. It mixes very normal teen writing with some surprisingly insightful questions and moments.

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The Art of Freedom: Teaching the Humanities to the Poor by Earl Shorris

the art of freedom

2 out of 5 stars.

I did not finish this, just to be completely honest. I loved the premise and was really interested in how much difference a free course in the classical humanities could make. I read about half of the book and I still have no idea. Earl Shorris may have had a brilliant idea about reducing poverty through free college-level courses but the man has absolutely no sense of narrative.

The chapters consist of brief biographies of everyone included in that leg of the project and a timeline of that stage. There are no charming anecdotes or anything resembling stories. It is very boring personal details about the people and dates. It is a simple timeline peppered with unnecessary facts that has been stretched out into a book. Everyone but Shorris is not sketched out in enough detail to seem real and there is not enough narrative flow to bind everything together. It is sooo dry. The thesis of the book is ill defined and not supported. As much as I was really pumped for this book, I could not drag myself through it.

Painless by S.A. Harazin

painless

3 out of 5 stars

I was given an ARC of this book.

I don’t normally read realistic fiction (the lack of dragons and cyborgs really brings me down), but I tend to make an exception for mental (or strange physical) illness. In this case, the protagonist has an extremely rare neural disorder that means he cannot feel pain. He can get emotional pain, but anything physical, like cuts, bruises, broken bones, just do not register. I have heard of these types of disorders before and always found the idea fascinating. Physical pain is such a big part of being physically instantiated that I cannot imagine being without it. This book caught me at once.

On the plus side, the little details David has to go through to keep himself physically in one piece without the usual twinges and pricks that the rest of us rely on to warn us of problems are really interesting. He constantly has to take his own temperature because he cannot feel himself overheating. He has to check himself each morning and night for bruises, cuts and scrapes. He has to remind himself not to chew on his cheeks and lips. I found those snippets of an everyday life with a very rare disease to be very compelling. It puts you in a completely different headspace and makes you realize exactly how much feedback we are used to from our bodies.

The main flaw of the book is that David and Luna (the female friend/ love interest) are not written very well. David does not have much personality aside from his disorder and his need to find his parents. Nothing makes him jump off of the page and compels us to really care about him. Same thing with Luna. She cares about David and is hiding something, but does not seem to have ANY other interests or quirks. Both fall flat.

David’s emotional reactions can also be a little unbelievably boring and insensitive. People die and he seems to not care much. He does cry, but the writing does not actually convey any deep feelings about anything. I did not get upset because the characters did not seem to. It is hard to care if the protagonist doesn’t.

I also found some of the writing confusing. It was linear, but there were jumps in the narrative where it would travel forward in time without really telling you until you were a few paragraphs into the next section, leaving you reading pages extremely confused about what you missed and what happened in the interim and if whether there was a printing mistake that left out a couple of pages. It was jolting.

Overall, comparable to John Green, but without the clever writing and emotional response. The best part of reading the book was honestly thinking about the logistics of a life without pain, not the story itself.

Gates of Thread and Stone and The Infinite by Lori M. Lee

gates of thread and stoneinfinite

3 out of 5 stars.

I received ARC of this work.

Spoiler alert for the first book.

Another very standard YA fantasy series. A girl finds out she has special powers. She must save her kingdom and her friends from a tyrannical overlord. She turns out to be the daughter of someone special. She loses her first love and has to decide whether to turn to another boy or pursue the first guy when he reappears. I am getting somewhat tired of reading the same story over and over again.

As is characteristic of YA, this has far too much romance for my liking. Too much romance that ends up squishing the action, adventure and world building into far too little space. This work also has the weird characteristic of being two entirely separate stories stitched together imperfectly. One story is about a post-apocalyptic society that needs to be overthrown, and the other is about a magical system in which the personification of abstract concepts meddle in human affairs. They do not blend perfectly, so through a lot of these two books I was a little on edge. Something just does not sit right.

The magic system seemed interesting, but not explained in-depth enough. The world was very standard, with the added touch of magic-powered machinery which made it an unusual crossover with science fiction. The protagonist and the love interests did not have much personality. They were generically “brave” and “good”, but their voices were not distinct or rounded. They felt more like placeholders that the author could then tack powers or abilities onto.

I actually liked the second one in this series a little better. It leaves behind the magic a bit more and concentrates more on the political/ dystopian side of the story. I felt it moved along at a better pace and was more coherent as a whole.

This was not a horrible read. It is well-written enough that you do not get yanked out of the story, and I did end up finishing it. It is just not anything extraordinary.

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

darkest part of the forest

3 out of 5 stars.

Holly Black has a very distinct storytelling style. She takes fairy stories or tropes that have, over the years, become Disney-fied, and dials them back to the old, European traditions. Her settings are contemporary, but the character of the faeries is much earlier. They are spiteful, childish, and sometimes downright murderous. They steal your cow, spoil your milk, and occasionally kidnap you baby and replace it with a creature of their own. The best you can hope for is them ignoring you. The worst is dyeing their headgear with your blood.

I did not love this book the way I did with her “Tithe” series. Those were the first novels of hers I had touched, so her dark, gritty and urban style was a complete, novel surprise (It also did not hurt that the second in that trilogy was a rewrite of my favourite fairy tale). This was not as fresh for me, but it still has that creepy, unworldly approach to faeries, and the realization that magic will have to come at a price. It is a really good way to rewrite faerie tales because it takes you back to a time when these types of creatures were feared. It makes them darker and more serious.

Hazel and her brother live in a town that has always been a little more touched by magic than others. Anyone foolish enough to traipse through the woods after dark is probably not coming back. A boy with horns and pointed ears sleeps in a coffin, and those brave or foolhardy enough can bargain with the faeries for their heart’s desire. The townspeople and the beings of the forest have lived with an uneasy balance for years, until the horned boy is awoken. Then, all hell breaks loose.

Black does such a good job intertwining a modern town with a fantastic forest. Kids go get drunk around, and make out on top of, the glass coffin. It is just accepted that some people in town have special, fairy-granted skills and the whole town works around a large percentage of their tourists just disappearing. She mashes contemporary and creepy fairies so well.

Another fantastic thing is her use of LGBTQ characters. They are there, but it is not the only important facet of their personalities. They are treated like all of the other characters: romance is mentioned and explored, but a huge deal isn’t made about their sexual preferences. They are presented like real people, not crude stereotypes, with fully formed personalities and interests.

This book, and other Holly Black, is a must-read for those that want their fantasy a little darker and weirder. I have not found another author with quite this style.

The Princess in the Opal Mask and The Opal Crown by Jenny Lundquist

princess in the opal maskthe opal crown

4 out of 5 stars.

Spoiler alert!

Think “The Prince and the Pauper” and “Cinderella” mixed in with political intrigue. Elara is an unpaid servant in a family that is paid to care for her. Wilha is the kingdom’s princess who has never been seen without an ornate mask covering her face.  It turns out they are twins. Wilha is being sent off to marry a Prince in a kingdom (Kyrencia) that has long been an enemy of hers and Elara is being bundled off as an unwilling decoy for the trip.

Both of the girls are understandably angry and hurt. Elara was abandoned to a heartless family that abused and neglected her. Wilha has never been told why she must constantly cover her face, so she is distanced, if not feared, by everyone she meets. Both are being treated like pawns by a father that never cared for them. They get a taste of the others’ life when they arrive and Wilha runs away, leaving Elara to figure out how to imitate royalty and Wilha to survive alone on the streets.

Both girls are very different and express their anger in different ways. They are both well-written and complex characters. Their relationship runs the full gamut of emotions, between “I have always wanted a sister” and “I hate you for ruining my life”. It is fascinating watching their different personalities clash and work around each other.

The girls grow even more in the second book, when their father dies, their brother takes the throne, and the two are pushed forward as possible contenders for the throne. Elara has a natural empathy for the poor that makes her a good candidate, but is impulsive and knows nothing of ruling. Wilha knows the protocol and the manners, but is timid and has never disobeyed orders before. Both are pushed around by rebel factions and any loyalty they once had to their brother, who is now king. Neither is comfortable with the other being the sole ruler, but they cannot rule together (the kingdom has a long-standing mythos of twin queens betraying each other). Since being summoned back to their home, the betrothal and alliance with Kyrencia is also in question.

The political aspects of the books are complex enough to be intriguing, but not so complicated that you need a spreadsheet to keep track of everything (looking at you George R. R. Martin). The focus on the sister-relationship alongside the romantic and political relationships gives the reader a really faceted look at the princesses and develops the characters into real people. Elara and Wilha have to both find new identities and roles as the fate of two kingdoms rests on their shoulders.

H20 by Virginia Bergin

H2O

1 out of 5 stars.

An asteroid is about to crash into earth. We manage to explode it before it hits, but the dust of the asteroid contains a deadly virus that makes it into the rain. Now, if water hits you, you die. If you drink it, you die. All water but bottled is contaminated.

The premise is wonderful because it adds an element of danger that you do not normally see in survivalist and dystopic fiction. I have read books where water is rare and precious, but none that take all natural water sources and turn them unusable and deadly. This immediately limits most of the protagonist’s options for survival and makes scavenging even more important.

The reason that I could not stand this book is that the protagonist, Ruby, is too dumb to live. One of her first acts on her own, after she has found some precious bottled water, is to use it to wash makeup off her face, having spent the last night looting the makeup and clothing stores and giving herself a makeover. She runs into two more survivors in the jail, who generously offer her some of their supplies when she faints. She takes them and then demands they give the rest of their supplies to the inmates whom she releases. Since one of the few living people left in the town is a seriously uncool nerd, she spends most of her time with him (when not freely giving away his medicine and water) complaining about what a nerd he is and how she would not normally give him the time of day. When she still has her stepfather around, she spends most of the time unable to comprehend that the water is bad and complaining about him. She is one of the most spoiled and oblivious protagonists I have ever encountered. I am not sure whether this is the way Bergin thinks teenagers think, but since Ruby is too dumb to realistically survive, I really don’t care what ridiculous plot twists the author is going to use to keep her alive. Not recommended for anyone. Seriously, you have been warned.