Book review: ‘The Mad Scientist’s Daughter’ by Cassandra Rose Clarke

Mad Scientist's DaughterA robot love story about the daughter of an eccentric scientist. Maybe not my normal bag — or your average run-of-the-mill plot for a dystopian story, eh? — but . . . that’s what I liked about the premise. And Andi recommended it, so.

This book? Addictive. Weird. Surreal. A little risque, a little off-beat and even naughty. But deeply emotional and thought-provoking and sad, too . . . such a complicated mixture of emotions in a book about a being who feels none.

Or does he?

Finn is brought into the Novak home as an assistant and tutor for Cat, the young daughter of a successful scientist. Under his guidance she learns, explores and grows into a lovely but insecure young woman — one unsure of her place in her family and the wider world. Finn is handsome, articulate, thoughtful, loyal . . . because he was built that way. A one-of-a-kind being who looks and acts human, he still remains incapable of returning the love he knows Cat feels for him. Heartbroken and uncertain, Cat shies away from Finn and builds a safe life elsewhere . . . for a while. But as the changing world begins to examine the rights of and responsibilities toward robots, the staid life Cat has constructed for herself begins to unravel.

Cassandra Rose Clarke’s The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is one of those books I couldn’t wait to finish but didn’t want to end. At points I was ready to clobber Cat for her foolish selfishness; other times I wanted to wrap her up in a big hug and tell her everything would be okay, though I wasn’t sure it would be. The world was just so unkind, and often unkind to her. But she was so determined not to feel — to be as blank as Finn, as her father — that she allowed everything to happen to her.

Finn, on the other hand, was hard not to love. How could you not fall for charismatic, steadfast Finn? What we’re to believe is his inability to love or feel or hope never felt quite right; it was obvious that, regardless of what his makers may claim, he was more “human” than they’d want to believe. His back story was fascinating and disturbing, and I found his affection for the Novak family as a whole to be very moving. As life became more chaotic, his moves toward autonomy were impressive and sad.

And his love for Cat? Crazy. Nonsensical, maybe . . . but definitely there. The stolen moments the pair share were steamy and complicated, but they were also romantic. Much more romantic than I would have ever expected. And as we get to know Finn better, I couldn’t bear the thought of Cat hurting him.

But could Cat hurt him? Can you really “hurt” a robot?

A robot doesn’t have “feelings.” It doesn’t harbor grudges. It doesn’t feel betrayed, tired, burnt out, scared.

Can you fall in love with a robot?  Is it perverse and strange to “love” someone who isn’t a someone at all?

It’s just such an interesting premise. One that hooked me from the start.

Set in a not-so-distant future, it was easy to imagine the America of Clarke’s description — and to consider how artificial intelligence will one day play a role in society. Though the outlook could seem bleak, there was still an undercurrent of hope and love to the novel. It was about family, loyalty, devotion. At her core and as the title suggests, Cat owns her identity as the daughter of a mad scientist — and lets her connection to Dr. Novak be the guiding force in her life.

Though I could get frustrated with Cat to the point of wanting to dramatically shut down my Kindle (the digital equivalent of slamming a book, you know), there was never a point at which I wasn’t dying to know what would become of the characters . . . and I was pleased — nay, delighted — with the ending.

It totally worked for me. And if you’re a fan of dystopian novels, offbeat love stories and/or science fiction without a ton of world-building (no serious societal descriptions here, though we do get glimpses of this broken Earth at times), The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is an engrossing, evocative and lovely read.

4.5 out of 5!

Pub: 2013 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg


Book review: ‘When She Woke’ by Hillary Jordan

When She WokeWhen Hannah Payne wakes, she might as well be in a nightmare.

Sentenced to life as a Red, one of many Chromes forced to scrape by in this new hardscrabble America, Hannah tries to process the weary path that’s brought her to an isolated cell before delivery to a cult — a stunning turn of events after a lifetime of loyalty and piety to God. Her bright red skin now broadcasts her crime to the world: murder. Murder of her unborn child.

In a world where disease has rendered many women infertile, abortion is seen as the ultimate sin against church and state. And now that the lines between religion and government are increasingly blurred, no one can speak freely — or defend the defenseless.

Life as a Chrome — a criminal whose skin has been genetically altered to match their offense — is a stunning, cruel wake-up for a serious young woman who never wanted to hurt anyone . . . least of all the ones she loves. But after a deep friendship turns into a passionate affair with a prominent and well-respected leader, Hannah carries the product of their passion alone . . . for as long as she can.

But where will that lead her?

Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke is a heart-stopping thriller raising countless questions about faith, love and loyalty. A dystopian novel set in the not-so-distant future, Jordan’s America is a stark, unforgiving and frightening place — but one that remains recognizable, making it all the more hair-raising.

Every time I caught a glimpse of our current world, I imagined a time at which our prisons would be too full for new inmates. Of what it would be like to have your skin altered to reflect a crime you could have committed ten, twenty years ago — and how it would feel to have every movement charted on a port for public consumption. Of violence against Chromes being the norm, and for racism to be all but eradicated in favor of hatred and misunderstanding for a new enemy. Friendships, relationships, family life, work . . . nothing can be pure for a Chrome. Nothing can be the same.

As a character, Hannah is a strong-willed, broken but determined young woman. So many times I wanted her to scream out the truth, reveal everything in the hope of saving herself, but I knew she couldn’t — wouldn’t — do that. Still in love with the man who fathered her child, she knows that exposing him will cause a tremendous scandal and wound for her community — and possibly make those who depend on him for spiritual guidance question their beliefs. Still somehow hoping to find her way back to God, Hannah simply can’t do that. Not even to free herself.

You have to commend her, really. For everything she endures, everything she suffers, Hannah never wavers in her commitment to guard the identity of her love — and to push forward despite it all, finding some way to return to her family and faith. After nearly everyone has abandoned her, including her own mother and sister, Hannah manages to summon the courage to imagine a life after the abortion. After Chroming. Even if it means disappearing from life as she knows it.

What makes When She Woke so compelling are the shades of current society in Jordan’s splintered future — as well as the dynamics between Hannah and her love as well as Kayla, a fellow Chrome she befriends in a harrowing place designed to purge them of their sins. I loved that the pair bonded in a hopeless situation, and it was their loyalty to one another that guided them through countless miseries.

And make no mistake: there were miseries. This isn’t a happy tale, friends, though I must say how pleased I was with the ending. Even when life seems unbearably bleak, tiny rays of hope crack through the darkness. I wondered at points if When She Woke was making a statement against the hold of the religious right over America, perhaps, or how easily swayed the people can be by the thoughts of man — not God. But in the end, I don’t think that’s so. Jordan had me questioning many aspects of modern society, but she didn’t belittle the Paynes’ faith. Wonder about it, certainly, but not cut down.

In the end, I found this novel deeply imaginative and incredibly interesting. The idea of melachroming was very unique, and it’s been a while since I read a work of dystopian or science fiction that captivated me so completely. By the conclusion I felt as though I’d spent days white-knuckle gripping a sinking life boat with Hannah, riding out the waves and hanging on as best I could. Though I wish certain events had gone differently, I was proud of her.

If you think this might be a book you’ll enjoy, it is.

4.5 out of 5!

Pub: Oct. 4, 2011 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library

About the audio: Narrator Heather Corrigan had a voice dripping with just the right amount of curiosity, disdain, fear and youthful exuberance — a reader who captured the conflicting emotions and situations of Hannah’s existence quite well. I loved both her crispness and innocence . . . which made everything that befalls Hannah all the more powerful.

Book review: ‘The Age of Miracles’ by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of MiraclesThe Earth is slowing. Days are no longer true “days.” Phrases like the “crack of dawn” lose all meaning, and everyone is taking a stand. The world’s citizens divide into those who follow “clock time” — and those who don’t. Our 24-hour days eventually stretch to 40 hours or longer, with days or weeks stretching with no sunlight. Weather patterns shift; birds begin to mysteriously fall from the sky. Gravity alters. Life begins to dissolve.

For 11-year-old Julia, her sunny life in California is forever altered — and not just by the government-mandated time changes. The Slowing affects everyone: her parents, who experience a sudden rift in their marriage; her friends, who retreat into religion or new acquaintances; her young love interest, who has already experienced a devastating loss and isn’t ready for more.

While some of Earth’s denizens wrestle with the Slowing as a harbinger of the End Times, others use it as the impetus to shake up their quiet existences — joining cults, switching spouses, leaving jobs. As a middle-schooler, Julia understands little of the world’s changes . . . but The Age of Miracles is told from an older, wiser and more broken-down Julia: a woman from the future who knows things don’t pan out well. But we never quite get there.

And that’s my biggest issue — and disappointment — with Karen Thompson Walker’s novel: we never quite get there. Wherever “there” is. We know Julia is reflecting on her youth in California from a decade or so down the line, but we never feel the true grips of despair because it’s all so . . . vague. Despite being a true scaredy-cat, I came into this book hoping for a repeat experience of Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It. That book captivated me, terrified me, left me aching for more . . . and even when life seemed unbearably bleak, Pfeffer knew how to pull us along and save us at the very last moment.

There was no saving here. The tone of the book? Bleak. Confused. No one is redeemed; no one gets saved. Julia is lost in a quagmire of longing and uncertainty, but we never see the Earth deteriorate past a point of recognition. Where rural Pennsylvania turns into a minefield of desperation in Life As We Knew It, suburban California just feels so mundane in The Age of Miracles. I wanted something to really happen, and . . . well, nothing much actually happens. Nothing to satisfy me, anyway.

But here’s the rub: I liked Julia. Because the tale is told from her older, first-person viewpoint, she often comes across as absurdly mature for an almost 12-year-old — but that goes with the narration. Her maturity didn’t bother me . . . in fact, I liked that she was wise enough to discuss the beginning and results of the Slowing so clearly, even if it lacked any urgency.

That’s what was missing for me: that sense of foreboding. I tore through Pfeffer’s novel with my heart in my throat, unable to focus on anything that wasn’t about a lunar disaster, and The Age of Miracles — while well-written and lyrical — lacked any commotion or connection. Honestly, I found much of it boring . . . not something I’d expect when discussing the potential end of the world. (Though we know it doesn’t end.) It did provide some food for thought, especially about the potential breakdown of society, but it wasn’t enough.

Fans of dystopian novels and young adult, coming-of-age tales might find Julia to be a young woman with whom they can relate, but it lacked that urgency that keeps me reading. I didn’t need fiery explosions, volcanoes erupting, nuclear holocaust or a perpetual winter . . . but I did want something to ignite in The Age of Miracles. Like, um, my interest.

But alas.

3 out of 5!

Pub: Jan. 15, 2013 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library

Book review: ‘America Pacifica’ by Anna North

Born on a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific, 18-year-old Darcy Pern has never known life beyond America Pacifica. She’s heard about an ice age that overtook most of the United States. She knows her mother, Sarah, was one of the first Americans to arrive on the island, which is ruled by a mysterious man named Tyson. And she knows that Sarah, ever dependable, would never abandon her. Would never not come home to their damp, private apartment.

Until she disappears.

Left to her own (weak) devices, Darcy must work to find her mother amidst the decaying world she calls home — and in the process, unravel the frightening mysteries surrounding America Pacifica’s founding . . . and a plan that will change the Perns’ lives forever.

Anna North’s America Pacifica is a grim, imaginative but ultimately sad novel set in a dystopian world in which the United States has been reduced to an island teeming with filth, waste and suffering. The past — the happy American land of plenty we know — is nothing but a tattered memory in the minds of the elderly. Though Darcy is resourceful, she’s decimated after her mother’s disappearance — and I could feel the panic, bewilderment and fear seeping through the pages.

In fact, that’s how I felt about this one: panicky, bewildered and fearful.

The bleak tone of the novel never picks up, never gets better, never changes pitch. Everything is gritty, grisly and grim. The warm, tropical setting of the island is in sharp contrast to the mountainous icebergs we’re told cover most of the U.S. these days, but even the heat can’t save its inhabitants from misery. Poverty is the norm; food is scarce, disgusting and strange. When America Pacifica’s residents aren’t getting high on solvent, a concoction made from seawater to power the island, they’re hurting one another or desperately trying not to be hurt.

It’s a bleak place.

But you know, this book was compelling. It tied my stomach up in knots and left me feeling achy and tired and I didn’t want to read it before bed — that’s for sure — but North’s imagery, world-building and command of tone is to be admired. Her prose is beautiful. Through her vivid and often disturbing descriptions, I could taste the briny air and feel the itchy fabric of Seafiber shirts. The omnipresent danger of Little Los Angeles encompassed me like a cloak. A sense of foreboding — from start to finish — never left me in America Pacifica, and I’d say that’s an accomplishment.

But at the end of the day, did I like this book? No, I don’t think I did. It was too seedy — too bothersome, too sad — for me to enjoy. Though I read quickly and worried for Darcy, I didn’t find myself emotionally invested in the plot. And the ending? Well, many have discussed its ambiguous nature . . . but as I was discussing with Meg, I’m starting to see it as concrete. Final. Not all together unexpected, but most definitely depressing.

Readers interested in dystopian fiction might be intrigued by North’s interpretation of an America gone cold and rebuilt in a tropical locale, but I struggled to stick with a book that felt like a slog because of the bleak subject matter. North’s lovely writing kept me reading and interested in her fast-paced story, but the novel itself was disheartening. Be prepared for a vivid — but grisly — read.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0316105120 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by Amazon Vine

Book review: ‘Bumped’ by Megan McCafferty

I’m going to be straight with you: when it comes to Megan McCafferty, I am not an unbiased reviewer.

When a copy of her latest novel — and first departure from the beloved Jessica Darling series — arrived in my mailbox last fall, you could probably hear me hollering from here to California. Not to go all breaking-the-fourth-wall-and-getting-fangirly on you guys, but when I started write meg! years ago, I had absolutely no idea that I’d someday find myself in a position to receive a book like this.

And I say that not to brag. Merely as a frame of reference for — ahem — my aforementioned bias.

All of that being said, I’m never going to lie to you. When I began McCafferty’s Bumped, the first in a new young adult series, I was . . . confused. And for about 100 pages, pretty unsure.

Unsure of the story. Unsure of where this all was going. Unsure of whether I actually . . . liked this book.

It’s true. My initial reaction? Lukewarm. I wasn’t feeling a connection with the characters or storyline, which seemed outside my comfort zone and realm of comprehension. I’ve read a few dystopian books in my day, sure, and never had much trouble grasping what was happening. But this? Well. This was proving troublesome.

Here’s the rundown: in McCafferty’s less-than-ideal future, a virus has run rampant and rendered anyone over the age of eighteen infertile — both men and women. Considering no one is cheering for the demise of the human race, teenagers — the only people still able to conceive — have become hot commodities. The government has had no choice but to legalize “transactions” between prospective parents and the teens they contract to give them a child.

And you know what that means? Sexy sex sex. All the time. Everywhere. Encouraged — no, demanded — of high school students, young women and men who are now being represented by, um, “talent” agents garnering the best deals possible for the product of a union between desirable teens. Every couple wants the perfect “pregg,” of course, and those with the funds will stop at nothing to get it.

Enter Melody Mayflower, considered by many to be the perfect candidate for “bumping.” Smart, beautiful and independent, Melody was the first in her high school to “go pro” and enter a contract to conceive for money. After signing with a wealthy couple looking for the perfect offspring, Melody’s adoptive parents encourage her to keep her virginity until a suitable suitor comes along to contribute his part of the deal. And though she’d have a willing candidate in her best friend, Zen, his desirable biracial background isn’t enough to save him from his main genetic issue: he’s short.

As Melody is waiting and debating, she gets a surprise: the arrival of her identical twin, Harmony, a young woman raised in a religious order. In a future where premarital sex is glamorized and seen as a responsibility of teens, residents of Goodside shun this sinful lifestyle, marry young and reproduce within the safe confines of their own organization. Harmony hasn’t questioned the world in which she was raised until she goes in search of her twin, hoping to bring Melody out of the darkness of immorality and into the good, clean world of Goodside.

The world has other plans, of course.

McCafferty’s novel, like many others, left me at a loss for words. For all my early inability to process Bumped’s unique brand of slang and unusual circumstances, once I got the story straight and grasped the whole “pregging” situation, I raced through this one like my pants were on fire. As always, McCafferty’s wit and humor shine through in her sophisticated, sassy heroines, and I’m pleased to say that plenty of Jessica Darling’s snark and spitfire is visible in our main twin, Melody.

The world of Bumped is cleverly drawn and realistic, and what I loved best about the book was the scary way in which I could really see this happening. As a sensible-minded woman living in 2011, I can’t say that parts of the story didn’t horrify me — but I think that was the point. With songs encouraging teens to “do it,” fake “Fun Bumps” designed to show girls how their own pregnant bellies will swell and all the talk of being “fertilicious,” any adult would read this book and think, “Um, really?”

But yes. Really. It’s slightly deranged and creepy, sure, but also somehow . . . plausible. And fascinating. And addictive. That’s what made it work.

There’s so much to take in with Bumped: religious implications; moral implications; government manipulation; the disturbing way in which teen girls are used for their wombs — and not much else. But McCafferty packs it all in with humor and wit, and I was left breathless on several occasions waiting to see how the stories — and love stories — would play out.

Of course, I can’t talk about my favorite author without talking about my most favorite of her creations: Marcus Flutie. The dashing, rebellious and unbelievably hawt hero of her Jessica Darling series, Marcus has pretty much ruined me for all other literary love interests. That being said, Zen Chen-Chavez — Melody’s best friend and purveyor of giving young women “everythingbut” — is pretty swoonworthy. I love his dedication to his friends and the sweet, sensitive side we see when no one else is looking.

Is he Marcus, with his red hair, Barry Manilow obsession, swagger and sensuality? Nope. But that would have been a tall order to fill — even by the author herself. And I certainly don’t hold that against Bumped.

Was this review long enough? I think it was long enough. In summation: loved it.

Grab your copy on April 26.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0545230500 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by author in exchange for my honest review

Book talk: ‘Mockingjay’ by Suzanne Collins

There are many things you probably need right now.

A sandwich, maybe; you skipped breakfast again and wow, does that make you ravenous come lunchtime. Maybe a nice nap, too, after eating that big meal. And I’d wager you could really do with an extra thousand bucks to put towards student loans, a mortgage or your addictive book-buying habit.

What you probably don’t need right now? Another review of Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay.

But before you mark this post as “read” in Google Reader or immediately skip past it to look at photos of cupcakes and baby cows, I’ll say this: I’m not going to review Mockingjay. Not the way I typically review books, anyway, with a good ol’ summary and my extensive thoughts on a novel.

Because honestly? I don’t really have extensive thoughts on this novel — and definitely not those already covered extensively by far more intelligent, comprehensive and devoted fans of the series than yours truly.

So here’s how I felt about it. After months of hearing about some crazy young adult novel called The Hunger Games, I finally broke down and snagged a copy off BookMooch. I read it — devoured it, really — and was in loooove. Out came Catching Fire and, you know, that one was pretty great, too. Action, adventure, a weird love triangle — I was hooked.

And then we have Mockingjay, the third and final book in Collins’ best-selling series. And while I liked the book, there were many things about it that just . . . made me feel very ambivalent. And it took me almost two weeks to finish it, which is crazy to me. Especially since I put aside everything else I was reading when it was released in August.

Spoilers below.

Continue reading

Book review: ‘The Dead And The Gone’ by Susan Beth Pfeffer

And so the nightmares continue.

After an asteroid collides with the moon, pushing it dangerously closer to Earth, all hell breaks loose — literally. Tsunamis ravage coastlines, killing many instantly. Volcanoes erupt globally, sending plumes of ash so thick into the air that the sun’s rays are completely blocked. Crops die. Water is contaminated. Illness spreads rapidly, crippling those already starving and sickened.

Sounds awesome, right?

Um. Okay, so definitely not awesome. But there’s something about Susan Beth Pfeffer’s novels that keeps me frantically turning the pages, even when I know I’m going to be up half the night quaking with nightmares.

The Dead And The Gone was no exception. After finishing Life As We Knew It last fall, I was absolutely sure I’d have to read this parallel story chroncling life for Alex Morales, but I was simply not up to it. Pfeffer’s first novel in a three-part series shook me to my very core, basically ruining me for other books. It was unbelievable. Gripping, terrifying, heartbreaking — and realistic. Through Miranda’s eyes, her small Pennsylvania town was transformed from a quaint locale into a minefield of misery. And I wasn’t ready to return to that place just yet. But when Steph Su agreed to do a read-along for the story with me, I pushed aside my fears and dove in.

In this, the second of Pfeffer’s books detailing the moon disaster, we leave Pennsylvania for nearby New York City — but the worlds couldn’t be any more different. At 17, Alex is the second-eldest son in a working-class Latino family, left to care for his two younger sisters Bri and Julie after his parents fail to come home in the early days of the tragedy. Unsure of where Mr. and Mrs. Morales could be and desperate for information, Alex, Bri and Julie must stay together in a dangerous city slowly seeping closer and closer to ruin.

It’s impossible for me to discuss The Dead And The Gone without comparing it to Life As We Knew It, though that’s not entirely fair. Just starting the second novel, the differences were glaring: particularly since this book is told in third person. In LAWKI, Miranda is our narrator — and that book is her very diary, sharing the day-to-day dramas and strife inherent with the scary, deteriorating conditions in which they lived. Because we’re never inside of Alex’s head, Pfeffer really doesn’t tell us much of what he’s feeling. And that’s what’s important about these books.

What makes the series so successful, to me, is the horrifying notion that what’s happening here could actually happen. Do we have any indication that our moon could be knocked out of orbit and pushed dangerously close to our world? No, I guess not. But, um, it could. And what makes the books un-put-down-able is the fear coursing through our veins, the literal shot of adrenaline pushing me onward to finish and find out what happened. And if I possibly could survive with my own meager stockpile of rations.

But I didn’t feel that here.

The Dead And The Gone was scary, yes, and far more grotesque than its predecessor. Some of the images Pfeffer describes won’t easily leave my brain, much more so than in LAWKI. The first novel was much more psychologically terrifying because I was so invested in Miranda, her brothers and her mother. Here? Alex proved himself to be a steadfast sibling and easily took over the responsibilities of caring for his younger sisters, but I just never felt what he felt. Things were happening around and to him and while I was completely invested in the events, I just never felt like I was sitting in a cramped room alongside him.

Religion played a much more prominent role in this book, too. The Morales siblings attend religious schools and rely heavily on their faith to guide them through the uncertainty in the wake of their parents’ disappearance. Through everything that befalls them, Bri never wavers in her belief that God would rescue and assist them — and bring their mother and father home. Normally I shy away from work which centers around religion, but I feel that Catholic faith was essential to the storyline and was done well.

Though I wasn’t as emotionally connected to this novel as I was to Life As We Knew It, The Dead And The Gone was still a fascinating and goosebump-creating to return to the dystopian world of Pfeffer’s creation. I’m absolutely dying to find out what happens in the third book in the series, This World We Live In (released April 1), and will look forward to reading it long into the night — just with all the lights on.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0547258550 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Copy borrowed from my local library