Thursday, October 29, 2015

"Pretty Is" by Maggie Mitchell

This is the last novel off that mysterious list of thrillers that I can no longer locate, but that led me to some truly excellent reads. I expected a thriller of the same caliber going into "Pretty Is," but found something very...different.

Lois and Carly Mae were kidnapped and held in a cabin in the woods when they were twelve years old. Now adults, they have each forged their own life & worked to put this piece of their past behind them. Lois is a successful professor who published a fictionalized account of her kidnapping that is now being made into a novel. Carly Mae, now Chloe, is an actress who hasn't quite made it, but will be starring in the movie of Lois's novel as the detective determined to find the two kidnapped girls. Confusing? Just a bit. Plus, there's a stalker-ish student who may be their kidnapper's son lurking around Lois's life.

The novel gets a bit meta, but it doesn't seem to be intentional. Or at least, there doesn't seem to be a message within this book about a movie being made from a book written by a character about her own kidnapping, starring her fellow victim. The amount of layering struck me as bizarre since I couldn't find a thematic point to it. Maybe I missed it.

But the novel isn't without its strong points. So many thrillers take you through the build-up, crime, and brief resolution. This novel picks up after the crime has already happened, and shows you how the victims are coping as adults. Lois and Carly Mae both try to distance themselves from their experience, while fostering a connection through the novel or film. They don't want to discuss their experience, but they can't discard it and fully move on either. The novel is about how they're coping, and that's not something thrillers typically provide.

Finally, the audio narration was superb. Tavia Gilbert and Nicol Zanzarella each voice one of the female leads, and their voices are different enough that you can easily tell which character's point of view you're listening to at any given moment. It sounds like a small thing, but it makes a huge difference when you're listening intermittently.

Verdict: Jury's Out. Don't be misled and go in expecting a typical thriller with shocking twists. The action-y parts were my least favorite, and I think the novel would have been stronger without them (and the stalker student entirely). But if you're interested in what happens after most thrillers end, this is worth checking out.

"Pretty Is" by Maggie Mitchell, published July 7, 2015 by Henry Holt and Co. Audio narration by Tavia Filber and Nicol Zanzarella published July 7, 2015 by Blackstone Audio.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

"Burn" by Julianna Baggott

I've been writing of my love for this trilogy for the past two weeks. I'm so happy that the third and final book completely delivers. Again, I'll tackle this without spoilers and speak vaguely of themes and what I most enjoyed.

The novel picks up with an intriguing prologue that I went back and re-listened to after I finished the audiobook. It then picks up with Pressia, Lyda, Partridge, and El Capitan where we left them at the end of "Fuse." It was great to listen to these three books back-to-back, and I highly recommend doing so if you can. There's a lot to keep track of in the complicated, well-woven plot, and some of the other reviewers on Goodreads who took time off in between noted their confusion.

The conclusive novel digs deeper into what a rebellion looks like. I agree with other reviewers who think this series has been mis-marketed as YA - it has the romance tropes, but is otherwise far more complex and darker. The novel captures the messiness and lack of surety that plagues those fighting to overthrow the Dome. Each character faces their own unique uncertainty and concerns, fails in their own unique way, and figures out their unique path forward. Miscommunications and missed connections with other rebels abound, as do differing goals, motivations, hopes, and plans for the future. The way to a new future post-apocalypse is not neat or certain or easy. It is confusing and difficult, impossible at times to know if one's actions will do more help or harm. "Burn" portrays this hopeful mess beautifully, with well-drawn, believable, heart-breaking characters.

El Capitan's still my favorite, Lyda and Pressia are inspiring, and Partridge is fascinating. The audio narration does not disappoint. "Burn" delivers on the promise of "Pure" and "Fuse" in a satisfying, realistic way.

Verdict: Affirmed. Highly recommended for fans of post-apocalyptic fiction who want to see what the complex process of starting to rebuild looks like up close.

"Burn" by Julianna Baggott, published February 4, 2014 by Grand Central Publishing. Audio narration by Khristine Hvam, Casey Holloway, Kevin T. Collins, and Nicholes Tecosky, published February 4, 2014 by Hachette Audio.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

"Fuse" by Julianna Baggott

I wasn't kidding when I said last week that I'd be heading straight to the next two books in Julianna Baggott's Pure Trilogy. I'm pleased to say Fuse was even better than the first.

To avoid spoilers for "Pure," I'm going to skip the summary & go straight to what I liked. Mainly, El Capitan and Helmud. I talked in my first review about the compelling cast of characters Baggott creates with her rotating points of view. While all characters get significant development and adequate time in the spotlight, for me this book was all about Capitan and his fused-to-his-back brother Helmud.

The romances from the first book are still here, and play a much larger role. They no longer feel shoehorned and forced - if you read this without the first, you'd just assume these are real, fully-developed relationships. It's only because I remember their shaky foundations from the first novel that I'm still meh on them. But Cap's relationship with his brother is real. The stress, obligation, guilt, pride, and love that he feels are well-drawn and deeply explored. I could connect with him and understand the difficulties he faces and the guilt he feels for the resentment they cause. His romantic feelings felt similarly well-developed. They weren't rushed into the first book, so his gradual discovery of them felt organic and earned.

This installment packs more puzzles and allusions as some of the characters head back to the Dome and others continue their search from the first book. This was an excellent second book, and I'm glad I can go straight on to the third!

Verdict: Affirmed. One of my few five-starred books on Goodreads this year.

"Fuse" by Julianna Baggott, published February 19, 2013 by Grand Central Publishing. Audio narration by Khristine Hvam, Casey Holloway, Kevin T. Collins, and Pierce Cravens, published February 19, 2013 by Hachette Audio.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

"Pure" by Julianna Baggott

This YA trilogy started popping up on several blogs and sites I read. Since I'm always looking for more audiobooks to take on my dog walks, I put holds on all three.

The world has collapsed under some sort of nuclear attack. Society has been split in two - the "pures" in the Dome who were protected from the blasts; and the "wretches" who live outside and suffer illness, mutations, and deformities as a result of the attacks. Those who made it to the Dome promised to return for those outside, but many outside are skeptical and resentful. 

Pressia lives with her grandfather outside the Dome. Her hand was fused with a baby doll's head and her face was burned during the attacks. She is 16, and age at which her life becomes far more dangerous. Partridge, son of one of the Dome's designers, lives inside the Dome. His mother died trying to bring those outside to safety, and his older brother committed suicide. Both begin to question society as they know it, are brought together, and decide whether they want to protect their ways of life or fight for the hope of something better. 

Baggott creates a unique cast of characters, and her rotating between several points of view is natural. She focuses on characters impacted by the blast and how their lives, and society around them, have been reshaped by their mutations. I was surprised by the turns the book took, and enjoyed them all. Bonus points for clever plotting & mythological references. My one complaint is the romances. Perhaps they're obligatory in YA, but they felt underdeveloped, circumstantial, and unrealistic. It would've been a stronger novel without them. 

Verdict: Affirmed. Not a crossover stunner, but if you're a fan of post-apocalyptic YA, it's definitely worth checking out. I'm moving straight to book two.

"Pure" by Julianna Baggott, published February 8, 2012 by Grand Central Publishing. Audio narration by Khristine Hvam, Joshua Swanson, Kevin T. Collins, and Casey Holloway, published on February 8, 2012 by  Hachette Audio.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Fates and Furies" by Lauren Groff

"Fates and Furies" generated a ton of buzz. I'm pretty sure I first heard about this book all the way back in January, and it was just released in September. Lauren Groff is known for several previous novels, including "Arcadia" and "The Monsters of Templeton," but this was my first of hers.

Lotto and Mathilde have been married since their last semester of college. Each is the product of a tumultuous upbringing, though in different ways unbeknownst to the other. The novel traces the story of their marriage, first from Lotto's perspective, then from Mathilde's. Lotto finds success and acclaim as a playwright; Mathilde supports him in his career, ever the dutiful wife. The novel moves gradually forward in time, flashing back from Mathilde's perspective to fill in background on some events we initially see only from Lotto's point of view.

Lotto observes the great paradox of marriage - "You can never know someone entirely. You do know someone entirely." Groff spends the novel exploring that gap - how it's created, its impact on the couple and those around them. Who are Lotto & Mathilde really? Is our true self who we believe ourselves to be, or who our partners know us to be? It's a deep book, tackling the questions of who we are among all of our secrets and hidden histories; why we choose to hide certain things from our partners; and whether our partner's perceptions of us can drive us toward kindness, greatness, and the best version of ourselves.

Throughout reading the book, I waffled as my interest waxed and waned. Yet, like many books this year, the last two or three chapters grabbed me and shifted my perspective on all that preceded them, such that the book as left a lasting impression. As a bonus, the audio narration is great, and the themes of Greek tragedy woven throughout are complementing my reading of "The Secret History" quite nicely.

Verdict: Affirmed. I wouldn't recommend to all readers, but anyone looking for the literary novel of the season, or generally enjoys domestic sagas should take a look. I'm especially curious to hear how readers who are not in committed relationships interpret these themes

"Fates and Furies" by Lauren Groff, published September 15, 2015 by Riverhead Books. Audio narration by Will Damron and Julia Whelan, published September 15, 2015 by Penguin Audio.