Thursday, May 26, 2016

"The Crown" by Kiera Cass

Despite my mixed reviews of the previous books in The Selection series, I was excited to get off the holds list quickly for the final installment. With graduation and moving back to DC permanently, it was perfect timing for a light read. Like the rest of the series, this book has a lot of problems, but still kept me reading.

First, the good: The audio narration is excellent, as always. The premise of this book is absurd, but juicy and entertaining if you're not expecting something with substantial depth. The world is intriguing, and my biggest complaint throughout the series is that not enough was done to flesh out the world and provide it with a proper history. It's nice to see America and Maxon as adults.

But, two large complaints: Eadlyn goes from being insufferable in the first book to being a completely normal, compassionate human in this book. There is no growth, she just does a fairly complete 180. In my last review, I predicted she'd grow, but we don't actually see that happen. She's just suddenly a better person, despite this book picking up exactly where the last left off.

Similarly, the ending is almost completely unfounded in anything that came before. These books did not adequately explore the political machinations of this world, and the last two installments are particularly bad at it. Ending the book with a large political decision from Eadlyn misses the point of what these books turned out to be - they were about the dating game, not the politics (much to my great disappointment). If the books were going to center primarily on the Selection, that's what the ending should have focused on as well.

Verdict: Jury's Out on the series, dismissed on this installment.  If I had known how it ended at the outset, I probably wouldn't have started. Yet, I can't bring myself to fully dismiss this series, because it kept me listening for all five books. I was clearly engaged enough to keep requesting them from the library, despite the many bothersome bits. In the end, though, I ended up disappointed in the ending, and really books four and five entirely, as they reflected much of my problems with the series as a whole. If you're interested in the series, I recommend sticking to just the first three.

"The Crown" by Kiera Cass, published May 3, 2016 by HarperTeen. Audio narration by Brittany Pressley, published May 3, 2016 by HarperAudio.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

"Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle" by Katie Coyle

I loved the first book in this duology, "Vivian Apple at the End of the World," thanks to AudiobookSYNC. Luckily, its sequel, "Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle" was available in audio from my library through Overdrive. I checked it out immediately, and like the first, I finished it in a day.

Coyle picks up the second book where the first leaves off. Vivian & Harpreet have figured out the mystery behind the rapture, and now they're on a mission to do something about it. (Keeping things vague to avoid spoilers!) Where the first installment was a mystery, this one is an action-packed adventure story. It's fast-paced, with one development coming right after another so the story just barrels along at a delightful, engaging breakneck speed.

All the characters from the first who are still around make their way into the second in natural, sometimes surprising, ways. It's great to check in with the full fascinating cast, but watching Vivian develop into a strong young woman who is determined to continue taking charge of her life and the situation around her remains the highlight of this series. I also appreciate the central relationship between Viv and Harp as two strong women who support each other and become each other's found family amid a chaotic backdrop.

Verdict: Affirmed. If you like the first, move straight on to the second for a fast-paced adventure that wraps up the story nicely.

"Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle" by Katie Coyle, published September 1, 2015 by HMH Books for Young Readers. Audio narration by Julia Whelan, published September 28, 2015 by Dreamscape Media.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

"The Big Picture" by Sean Carroll

FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Thanks to Dutton Books, I had the opportunity to read something a little outside my norm - a book on science & philosophy, proposing a unified theory of physics and the meaning of life. "The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself" came out this past Tuesday, May 10, and tackles a big subject matter in a fairly approachable way.

I don't have the background in science, philosophy, or theology to critique Sean Carroll's argument and theory on any of those terms. I'm just a lay reader who was looking to read something very different from the legal texts I'd been cramming for my finals. That mission was accomplished. What I can do here is comment on how well he communicated his theory to me, a relative layperson to science. (Most of daily interactions with science come from reading hard science fiction, for your reference.)

Carroll, a CalTech physicist and ardent atheist, has developed a theory of the world that he calls poetic naturalism. This theory takes naturalism, the idea that the laws of nature are all there is in the world (i.e. no supernatural/other realm), and adds the additional gloss that for there only being one world, there are many ways to describe it and how we choose to do so matter. That gloss is the "poetic" part. In Carroll's own words, "Poetic naturalism strikes a middle ground, accepting that values are human constructs, but denying that they are therefore illusory or meaningless...The meaning we find in life is not transcendent, but it's no less meaningful for that." To develop this theory, he provides a primer on the development of key scientific theories and thought, from basic physics with Newton and Einstein (and even further back) to modern quantum physics.

For the most part, Carroll succeeds in making his theory accessible to readers. He does a fantastic job laying out the context and scientific developments throughout history that have brought the scientific community to its present theories and understanding. I could follow along and understand his argument without needing to Google much. There were, though, a few points were he presumed a basic level of scientific understanding or agreement with scientific methods that did not seem adequately developed. For example, he tosses around the term "spacetime" in the first part of the book without adequately explaining what it means. I had some ideas from Dr. Who, but I'm guessing that's not exactly what he meant, and had to read a bit on Wikipedia before I could continue.

More broadly, Carroll's base level of inquiry seems to be primarily what is useful to a scientist attempting to understand the world around him or her. That viewpoint makes sense given his life's work, but lay readers searching for a life's meaning in a different personal context may not be wholly convinced by his theories and arguments. Nonetheless, it's an engaging read, and readers will walk away with a better understanding of physics, irrespective of their personal views on the meaning of life.

Verdict: Jury's Out - if you have a basic level of understanding of science and a general interest in philosophy informed by science, definitely check this out. If that's not the lens through which you view the world, you may still learn a good chunk about science from this book, but you're not likely to be convinced by the unifying theory.

"The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself" by Sean Carroll, published May 10, 2016 by Dutton Books.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

"Vivian Apple at the End of the World" by Katie Coyle

Due to finals, I've been listening to more podcasts while walking the dog than audiobooks (they're shorter, so less temptation to continue listening once I get home). But last Thursday (5/5) was the first day of AudiobookSYNC, a fantastic program from Audiofile magazine that provides teens (& anyone else over the age of 13) free pairs of audiobooks - one new and one classic - every week for the summer. So I downloaded the first pair, and the "new" title got me right back into audiobooks with a compelling story & fantastic narration. Best part - this book is still available until Thursday, 5/12 when new titles come out - so go download it now!

"Vivian Apple at the End of the World" by Katie Coyle tells the story of the rapture, and those left behind. 17-year-old Vivian doesn't believe her Believer parents who tell her the rapture is coming. But when she comes home from a party and finds two holes in her ceiling and no parents, she has to confront her new reality. But something seems off about her parent's disappearance. Along with her best friend Harpreet and a new crush Peter, she sets out to find the family members who may not have been raptured, and figure out what's actually going on.

I listened to this audiobook from start to finish the day it came out. It's a quick story with clues to the mysteries at the center doled out well - enough to keep me interested, but still guessing. There are twists I didn't see coming, but didn't feel out of place, which is always a hard line to walk. But best of all is watching Vivian come into her own. She describes herself pre-rapture as meek, with the superpower of blending into the background. Post-rapture, she knows she must take control of her life if she wants to survive and get to the bottom of everything happening around her. Since the novel is told from her point of view, the reader sees her grappling with overcoming her timid nature and learning to assert herself.

Verdict: Affirmed. Recommended for YA fans, especially those who like post-apocalyptic works. I went straight on to the sequel & downloaded the book this was paired with as well. Can't wait to start both.

"Vivian Apple at the End of the World" by Katie Coyle, published January 6, 2015 by HMH Books for Young Readers. Audio narration by Julia Whelan, published January 22, 2015 by Dreamscape Audio.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

"The Ramblers" by Aidan Donnelly Rowley

Along with "The Expatriates," "The Ramblers" was my other read during finals. I like to read lighter books when I'm focused on other things & both fit the bill. Like "The Expatriates," "The Ramblers" focuses on three characters whose lives intertwine in a large city. Here, though, how their lives intersect is not as unexpected & the plot and prose ramble a bit more.

In New York City, Clio faces a decision about where she wants her relationship with her boyfriend to go. Her best friend & roommate Smith is still reeling from the break up with her ex while coping with her sister's upcoming wedding when she meets Tate, who is coming off his own separation from his wife. The novel follows these three 30-somethings over the course of a week or two as they figure out how they got to this point in their lives & where they want to go from here. 

The first half of the book had me hooked. I liked the main characters, and the secondary cast was intriguing. Rowley gets New York City, so the book is littered with allusions that will ring true to anyone familiar with the city. Unfortunately, once the stage was set, the pace slowed. It's possible this was intentional, given the title and the message Rowley is trying to share about this time in her characters' lives. Yet, days stretched out to dozens of pages more than felt necessary for characters I already knew. Multi-page descriptions of characters' morning routines
are a pet peeve of mine. It wasn't enough that I put down the book, or even to make me dislike it as a whole. It was just enough that things dragged & I wasn't as compelled to pick it up again as I was at the start. 

Verdict: Jury's out. It won't be the first book I recommend to someone looking for lighter literary-ish contemporary fiction, due to the pacing issues. But it's probably make a long list, especially for readers interested in the privileged NYC setting.

"The Ramblers" by Aidan Donelly Rowley, published February 9, 2016 by William Morrow.