Second Look: H2O by Virginia Bergin

First of all, HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYBODY! I can’t imagine a better way to ring in the new year than with a stack of books (because books are so much better than a boyfriend) and a book review!

H2O is a hard book to review, so I’m already kicking off the year with a challenge. It’s both hard to love and hard to hate. I just finished it and there’s a jumbled, swirling mix of irritated criticisms and high praises in my head.

h20The Story: In this post-apocalyptic novel (originally published in the UK as The Rain), Ruby Miller is one of the few survivors left. Ruby lives in a world where poisoned rain has contaminated every drop of water on the planet. You can’t drink it or even touch it without developing a rash that literally causes you to claw your skin to shreds.  As bottled water and canned foods start to run out, Ruby decides she must embark on a cross-country trip through the UK to find her somewhat estranged father. On her way, she encounters a variety of other characters who have also miraculously managed to survive and some other wicked surprises along the way.

The Low Down: Virginia Bergin does a phenomenal job of setting up this world in which we are deprived of the very thing that gives us life. It’s very well thought out, and you find yourself saying, “OMG I NEVER WOULD HAVE THOUGHT OF THAT!” which makes an otherwise crazy scenario seem very real and feel very scary. Toxic rain means so much more than not getting caught outside in a downpour. Anything that grows in or out of the ground is off limits, so there are no fresh fruits or veggies. This also means burying the dead is no longer possible either. Touching someone (or something) that has touched or ingested contaminated water is also a no-no, so no more livestock to use for food. Once the water seeps into water pipes and tanks, no more drinking water from the tap and (perhaps the scariest and most mortifying of all) no using the toilet. Bergin really picks out every single little thing that we take for granted every day, and snatches it right out from under us.

So that was my praise. Now for my complaint.

Ruby is a pain in the arse. It’s just that simple. The book is written as Ruby telling the reader the story of what’s happened. It’s not written like diary entries, but instead as a narrative written by Ruby as she reflects on the recent events. Ruby’s emotional roller coaster through the book is exactly how I’d expect an average teenager to respond. That aspect of it was extremely realistic. HOWEVER. Ruby is also terribly vain and self-serving and SO. FREAKING. WHINY. For example…

Poison rain takes out 98% of the population, but she has to make sure she has a spray tan, dyed hair, and flawless waterproof mascara before she goes out to loot houses for supplies. Maybe as a teenager, maintaining a routine helps her feel like she has control over something, which can help her cope with the situation. But it just makes her come across and stupid and irritating. I kept mentally screaming “GET A GRIP ON REALITY AND FOCUS ON WHAT’S REALLY IMPORTANT HERE.” Later, she bumps into a boy she knows from school. Nearly everyone on the planet is dead, and instead of being happy that she actually found another living person, she throws an enormous hissy fit because he’s a huge nerd and does nothing but mock him during their time together.  She just wasn’t an enjoyable character to read about. Her character develops and evolves a bit (although not much), but her obnoxious, arrogant attitude made me not care what happened to her.

There is a sequel on the way (Goodreads lists the anticipated UK release date of The Storm as February 2015), but I doubt I’ll take the time to read it. I’d love to read more about this water-depraved world and how it’s all gone to hell, but hearing it through the incessant whining of the main character isn’t worth the time when I’ve got a stack of books I’d like to read that’s taller than me.

Bottom Line: A+ for plot and detail in this particular post-apocalyptic world. B+ for writing, C- for characters (it didn’t seem fair to fail it because not all the characters were annoying… just Ruby)

OFFICIAL RATING: 6.5/10

Second Look: MONUMENT 14: SKY ON FIRE by Emmy Laybourne.

Wow. Am I the worst blogger ever, or what?

Life has been pure madness these past few months, so please accept my humblest apologies for falling off the face of the earth. While you’re at it, please give Ashley a vigorous round of applause for continuing to post news and reviews in my absence.

As some of you may recall from last year, this is a ridonkulously crazy time for children and youth librarians, and I have pretty much spent every waking moment preparing decorations, flyers, and activities for my library’s summer reading program. Pair that with a book slump (that’s right… I haven’t read a book in weeks and it is VERY depressing) and trying to crazily prepare for my new role as a college student, and you get one very unenthusiastic book blogger. But FEAR NOT! Summer reading has officially started, which means the prep work is done, and I’ve even started reading again! HUZZAH!!

To celebrate, I’ve got a book review! *happy dance* Due to the nature of the madness that is my life, however, the format of my reviews may be changing a bit and my reviews might be a bit more condensed. But, as always, I’ll still lay it down straight for you.

BUT! Before you read on, Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne or my book review of the aforementioned title is required reading. Primarily because I’m reviewing the sequel, Monument 14: Sky on Fire. If you haven’t read Book 1, fair warning: you’ll be in for some spoilers.

Sky on Fire by Emmy LaybourneMonument 14: Sky on Fire returns us to the Greenway Supermarket where we last left off at the end of Book 1. For those of you who have read Book 1, you’ll remember that the 14 survivors of what appeared to be the Apocalypse were holed up in the Greenway after their school bus driver heroically drove the bus into the store (yes, right INTO THE STORE) to save everyone from a deadly hailstorm.

As all survivor stories go, two different camps emerged: 1) those who wanted to leave and trek to Denver International Airport where the military is supposedly evacuating survivors, and 2) those who wanted to stay in the safety of the Greenway Supermarket. M14 ended with 9 survivors leaving on the bus for Denver, and 3 kids and 2 teenagers staying behind.

Sky on Fire begins with a great recap in the form of Alex’s journal entry, which was a HUGE help for those of us readers who needed a refresher on all the characters and the basics of the plot in M14. The story continues from alternating viewpoints. Dean, who was our narrator M14, tells the story in the supermarket, while Alex chronicles the events on the road in his journal.

Like M14, Sky on Fire is filled with suspense, intrigue, lots of dramatic tension, and a mini cliffhanger at the end of every chapter. We meet several new, minor characters as the survivors venture through the ravaged Colorado highways. Some of them are endearing, some of them make you so fueled with rage that you want to jump in the pages and choke them yourself. Laybourne does a really great job at writing truly HATE-ABLE characters (and that’s meant to be a compliment).  The story is filled with heartbreaking separation and heartwarming reunions. While this does feel like an ending for the 14 young survivors from Monument, Colorado, Laybourne does leave enough of an opening for the story to continue.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Sky on Fire just as much as Book 1. The action and fast pacing made me not want to put it down, and I read it straight through in just two days. It’s not a challenging read in terms of reading level or complexity, so reluctant readers who like suspense, adventure, or apocalyptic subjects would probably enjoy both Monument 14 books.

OFFICIAL RATING: 8/10

P.S. If you’re interested in reading more about the secret chemical weapon that was accidentally released in the beginning of Monument 14, take a look at Dress Your Marines in White,Monument 14 prequel that follows Brayden’s father at his new job at NORAD when a weapons demonstration goes HORRIBLY wrong. It’s only available as an ebook and downloadable on Amazon. And, if you’re wondering, yes… I will be downloading it. Like, right now. 

Second Look: SHADOWS by Ilsa J. Bick

For all of us who read Ashes and were blown away/shocked/enraged/held in unrelenting suspense by the cliffhanger ending, I can happily say that Shadows provides some answers for us all. It provides many, many more questions as well, but it at least picks up where it left off and scratches the “OMG WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?!” itch.

SPOILER WARNING: As my standard disclaimer when reviewing sequels will tell you, revealing details (including the ending) of a series’ previous installments is unavoidable. You’ve been warned!

The Story: As I previously said, Shadows finds us right where the end of Ashes left off. In the months following the EMP, things have gone from bad to worse. After leaving Rule, Alex finds herself alone in the wilderness and, having just stumbled upon a ritual ground for the Changed (also known as “Chuckies”), is facing down some bad ass characters. What’s scarier, the Changed/Chuckies are evolving into something more advanced, the Spared are continually being being picked off, and others have simply gone bat-crap crazy. Ruthless bounty hunters are rounding up the Spared in exchange for supplies, and characters we thought we could trust are revealed to be loathsome traitors. And now people are discovering that the Change might not be over yet, and those that were Spared might not stay that way for long.

The Low Down:  This is an extremely hard book to review without giving away any spoilers because it has so much going on. I’d love to tell you that Tom comes riding in on a white horse, saves Alex from a horrendous Chucky-attack, and they live safely and happily with Ellie far from cannibalizing heathens. But I’d be lying if I said that.

The first thing I have to say about Shadows? RE-READ ASHES BEFORE YOU START! Or at least flip through the last few chapters. Or, better yet, go to Bick’s website, where she provides readers with a fantastic refresher. It is super important to have Ashes firm in your memory before reading Shadows. It picks up right where Ashes left off (literally. EXACTLY where it left off) without a recap or summary of the events in the previous book. Things slowly came back to me as I read the book, but I still found myself very confused in the beginning in regards to all the characters and where they left off. Trust me on this one, guys. Save yourself the trouble and read Bick’s recap.

Nextly, (today’s Made-Up-Word-of-the-Day) the gore factor is sky high in this one, folks. Be warned, oh squeamish ones. Shadows is not for the faint of, well, stomach. There’s some serious Stephen King-esque shizzle going down here. It’s been a little less than a year since I’ve read Ashes, but I’m almost certain that Ashes was not quite as gory as Shadows.

And now for the story itself. All the main characters are separated, so the chapters are told in alternating POV’s, which can add to the confusion. In the first half of Shadows, we read about Character A for a chapter, then Character B, then C, then A, then two chapters of B, three of A, one of C, and so on. (Could you follow that? Because I couldn’t either.) In the second half, the chapters still alternate, but are more consistent. I think this has both a positive and negative impact on the book. On the good side, it definitely keeps the reader invested in the story and the characters. When the chapter cuts off, you can’t wait to get through the next one so you can find out what happened. It definitely makes the pages turn quickly. However, on the other hand, it also makes things a little choppy in terms of keeping track of what is going on with each character.

We also didn’t get any more answers as to how/why any of this is happening. I realize the focus is on the after-effects of the EMP, not the cause. But Ashes introduced us to lots of mysteries and gave us nuggets of information to help solve them. There was lots of speculation as to why people changed after the EMP and who was developing super senses and why. These mysteries weren’t even discussed in Shadows, which I found disappointing because that was part of the draw for me. However, it does have it’s fair share of revealing “OMG! HOLY CRAP!” moments, which made up for the disappointment I initially felt.

One quality that never changes is Bick’s writing. It’s not just that the woman can write a good story, but the fact that she can do it so gosh darn well. Phrases like, “her thoughts were like wet watermelon seeds that kept slipping between her fingers no matter how hard she tried to hang on” and “this was a bubble in time that was no more than a gasp and as fragile as the thinnest, most perfect glass” are not just descriptive, but are beautifully crafted. Bick’s writing style is elegant and lyrical without coming off as boring or pretentious, and instead leaves the reader hanging on every word.

Extra Goodies

  • As I mentioned above, Ilsa Bick is awesome and has a link on her website titled “So You Read ASHES a Year Ago…” which give us a rundown of what you may have forgotten about Ashes. Wasn’t that nice of her?
  • Also on Bick’s website is a blog post in which she talks about why she ended both Ashes and Shadows the way she did. It’s pretty interesting, and I was eager to see what she was referring to when she discussed the ending of Shadows. (Read the post, you’ll get what I mean.)

Readability: Shadows is evenly paced and the chapter cliffhangers encourage readers to race through it. However, the writing is a little complex for young and/or reluctant readers. Like Ashes, Shadows is definitely recommended for stronger readers, both in terms of content and readability.

Content: Language is moderate (a random f-bomb or two, and a smattering of other lighter obscenities), a scene or two alluding to sex and sexual acts, and off-the-charts violence and gore.

Bottom Line: The addition of more characters and alternating chapters make Shadows a bit difficult to follow, and without a recap of Ashes, readers should refresh their memories of the first installment before reading the sequel. Though still action packed and suspenseful, Shadows seemed to fall victim to the Curse of the Sequel. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it or won’t read book 3 (titled Monsters, to be released in 2013). It’s still an engrossing, groundbreaking series, but I wasn’t as enamored with Shadows as I was with the first book in the Ashes Trilogy.

OFFICIAL RATING: 7/10

Second Look: MONUMENT 14 by Emmy Laybourne

The Story: The day disaster strikes in Monument, Colorado, Dean is on a school bus with his classmates on the way to school, while his younger brother rides in the bus in front of his. The next thing he knows, he’s taking refuge in a Greenway superstore with his little bro and twelve other kids, ages 5 to 17. The world has gone to pieces outside their safe haven, with everything from massive hail storms, 8.2 earthquakes, and a devastating chemical cloud spreading over the area. It becomes an intense battle for survival as the community of kids tries to endure what’s going on both outside and inside the superstore.

The Low Down: Monument 14 is what you would get if The Mist by Stephen King and Gone by Michael Grant had a love child. This book was incredibly compelling and simply un-put-downable (today’s Made-Up Word-of-the-Day).  While I wouldn’t consider it a quick read, it’s very fast paced and I read it in one sitting (well, two technically. Barnes and Noble was closing and the library’s copy wasn’t in yet…)

The plot is well thought out and the bit of science behind it seems legit. It’s not like some b-movie on the Syfy Channel about a tornado forming in the middle of a volcano and the characters decide to use something from their high school chem lab to create a hurricane to counteract the ice age that’s going to occur within 24 hours. No, no, no. Laybourne’s disaster has a cause-and-effect relationship that MAKES SENSE. And, call me crazy, but I love when books do that!

Laybourne’s characters also shine in the book. Whether or not this is how 14 kids and teens would react during such a disaster, I have no idea. In my head, I would think it would be a bit more chaotic than what Laybourne describes. However, what really speaks is the development of the characters. Characters you would expect to be traumatized cowards become heroes, and vice versa. As the story progresses, we understand more about the characters and how complex they really are. It’s told first-person from Dean’s point of view, but we still get great insight into the rest of the characters.

The ending is solid and does not disappoint. Most most-apocalyptic and dystopian novels all seem to have one thing in common… a wide open cliffhanger ending with everything left open to the reader’s interpretation. Often we get a sequel to satisfy our curiosity, but sometimes we don’t. Without giving too much away, I will say that the ending to Monument 14 is an actual conclusion that does not necessarily require a sequel. If you don’t feel like getting involved in a new series, this could be a stand-alone novel.

Extra Goodies:

  • I have it on good authority (Emmy Laybourne’s website) that there will in fact be a sequel titled Monument 14: Sky on Fire. If you’ve read Monument 14 and would like a wee bit of insight into the sequel, you can check out an interview with Emmy Laybourne at Emily’s Reading Room.  She doesn’t reveal too much info so as to avoid spoilers. BUT! Only read it if you have read Monument 14, because it will give away a crucial decision made in the final few pages. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Bottom Line: Monument 14 is an gripping story of survival. If you like the post-apocolyptic genre or are a fan of disaster movies, this is definitely the book for you. With lots of suspense, twists, and surprises to keep readers on their toes, it’s sure to please.

OFFICIAL RATING: 9/10

Also from Emmy Laybourne’s website, here is a very cool book trailer that I feel the need to share…

Second Look: Divergent by Veronica Roth

PLOT:
In a dystopian version of Chicago, people are split into 5 factions: Amity (the peaceful), Dauntless (the brave), Erudite (the intelligent), Abnegation (the selfless) and Candor (the honest). On the day of the Choosing Ceremony, the 16-year-olds of the community must choose the faction in which they want to live for the rest of their lives. No swapping or mind-changing here, kids. Once you’re in, you’re in for life. Either that, or live factionless among society’s derelicts. On the day of the choosing, Beatrice makes a surprising decision, renames herself Tris, and takes the opportunity to reinvent herself. In doing so, she discovers there’s big trouble in their idyllic world, including a group trying to overthrow the government. There goes the neighborhood…

CHARACTERS:
Two main characters are worth discussing here. Tris is eerily similar to our favorite heroine, Katniss Everdeen. She’s tough as nails (with some insecurities), strong willed, rebellious, fights hardcore for her family, and has a fire in her that can’t be put out. She meets up with a young man nicknamed Four, who could potentially be my new fictional boyfriend. He’s rugged and hard, and there’s nothing I love more than a guy who can take charge. But he’s not all rough and tumble. There is an affectionate side to him that, yes, is sweet and romantic, but can be ever-so-slightly fluffy. With a little polishing, Four and I could get along REALLY well.

EXTRA GOODIES:

  • Four. ‘Nuff said.
  • The trauma of wondering what it would be like to confront your worst fears. All of them. In rapid succession. *shivers*
  • Learn how to abandon your family without any of the guilt!

OPINION:
Hey! If you read this and really like it, I have a great recommendation for you. It’s this book called The Hunger Games. Ever hear of it?

In Divergent, you’ll find fights! Shooting! Teenagers pitted against each other for nothing more than glory! Young girls getting the crap beat out of them! Political upheaval! Huzzah! (Sound like any other awesome dystopias you know?) Divergent may scream HUNGER GAMES RIP OFF, but, to be honest, it’s a really good book. I was skeptical at first, but once I dug in a little deeper, I was hooked. The pacing is similar to Suzanne Collins’, in that it keeps rolling and never slows down. Roth’s fictional world is NOT one I would want to live in, but her writing made it feel very real. It’s suspenseful and action packed, but also has a legit storyline.

Roth hits on some interesting topics in Divergent. It could hit close to home with anyone who is preparing to leave home, especially for college. Tris is a young teen who voluntarily decides to leave her parents behind so she can strike out on her own. Roth also throws in political and moral dilemmas without being preachy.

I would absolutely recommend this to any fan of The Hunger Games. Divergent is nearly identical to THG in terms of content: it ranks pretty high on the violence scale (there’s some pretty brutal stuff in here), no sex (but some romance), and some harsh language. The ending sets up the next book nicely, and I’m very excited for the sequel in this planned trilogy (titled Insurgent, tentative release date May 2012). My only fear is that Insurgent will be nothing more than filler to get to the conclusion. My advice to the author: Don’t sell out! Keep the good stuff coming Veronica!

OFFICIAL RATING: 8.5/10