Thursday, July 5, 2018

These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

I came across These Broken Stars on a book blog years ago, and decided to pick it up based on the very positive review I read. After burning out on smart-ass teens and their problems in Kids of Appetite a few days ago, I wanted to read some young adult fiction that felt a bit more straightforward. I figured that this science fiction adventure would meet that need nicely, and I was very pleased to find out that I was right.

The story follows two teenagers taking a trip on the luxury spaceliner, the Icarus. Lilac LaRoux is the daughter of the richest man in the galaxy and is traveling to celebrate her upcoming seventeenth birthday. Tarver Merendsen is a much less well-off soldier, fresh off a mission in which he saved several lives. His new-found fame has earned him some public attention and a spot on the first class decks, which is where he first bumps into Lilac at a party. There is a definite spark of passion between them, but as they come from two different worlds, and Lilac's father is extremely strict and controlling regarding who she associates with, both understand that they can never be in a relationship together.

They are forced together again, however, when the Icarus is suddenly pulled from hyperspace and crashes onto the nearest planet. Due to Tarver's military training and Lilac's technological knowledge, they are able to evacuate the ship in an escape pod and survive the rough landing. Once the dust settles, the pair realizes that they are in major trouble. All of their communications equipment was destroyed in the crash and they have no way of signaling their location to anyone. They set out together to try and find other survivors from the Icarus or any inhabitants on the planet that might be able to help them get home. As they travel, several strange occurrences lead them to realize that not everything on the planet is what it seems. Eventually, they discover a tragic secret that will change the course of both of their lives.

This novel was shockingly entertaining, and I was absolutely hooked from page one. I've always been attracted to survival stories, and this one was both fast-paced enough to stay engaging, and detailed enough to present two well-developed characters. The plot twists were interesting, the romance was slightly cringe-worthy, and there was teen angst-galore. In other words, it was exactly what a book like this should be like, but more competently written then usual.

Like with many of the books I've read lately, this one shifted narration between Lilac and Tarver with each chapter. I liked this method here, and I thought each character retained their own voices and motivations nicely. There were times that I found myself frustrated with some of the choices they made, especially Lilac and the meanness she often used as a shield, but I admit that all of their actions were in keeping with what you would expect teens in space to act like.

As this was a really enjoyable adventure story, there were only three small things I didn't like. First, the protagonists names are probably some of the most made-up sounding names I've ever heard. Lilac LaRoux and Tarver Merendsen. The authors might as well have gone with Beauty McDelicate and Handsome Toughersen. That's a small (and petty) complaint though. It's not like I could have come up with anything better.

My second gripe is with Lilac's father, Roderick LaRoux. He's meant to be an unlikable character, but the way he tries to control his daughter's personal life felt very uncomfortable to me. He was extremely concerned about what might be going on in her sex life, and it was repulsive. It's to the point where Lilac is forced to be brutally mean to all men to keep them away from her, lest they raise the ire of her rich daddy, who will literally arrange for them to be killed. I thought that was gross. 

My last issue was with one of the plot points at the end of the novel. Lilac and Tarver eventually need to figure out a password to unlock something. They try many words with no luck, until Lilac eventually figures it out. The password ended up being the very first word that they should have tried. Like, very obviously. It was the first word that popped into my mind. It was ridiculous that it wasn't the first thing they tried too. If you ever read this one, you'll know what I mean. 

Despite those smaller things, I was very surprised by how much I enjoyed These Broken Stars. I would recommend this in a heartbeat to young adult readers. While I don't think that I would want to read this one more than once, it was an excellent journey that I'm glad I embarked on. This is the first book in a series, but it can definitely stand alone. There is a firm ending to it, so I don't feel like I have to read the rest of it right now. I might do so in the future, but for now, I'm very happy with my experience.

Challenge Tally:
Clear the Shelves 2018: 15 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018: 29

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Kids of Appetite by David Arnold

I picked up Kids of Appetite fairly recently. It was one of my typical young adult impulse purchases. What stood out to me about this one was the beautiful cover design, the fact that it was set in Hackensack, New Jersey (a place I took a surreal vacation to in my younger days), and the fact that it was written by David Arnold. Arnold made some serious waves in the young adult community with his first novel, Mosquitoland. I haven't read that one yet, but I heard an insane amount of good things about it, so I figured that this novel, his second, was a safe bet. I pulled it off the shelf on a whim, looking for something a bit lighter after the dark majesty that was We Have Always Lived in the Castle. 

The novel begins at a police station, where our two protagonists are being interrogated in separate rooms. We are told that a murder has occurred and both characters witnessed it. Few details are given in the beginning; the only concrete fact the reader is given is that both characters are desperately trying to drag out their interrogations for as long as possible. Quite mysterious.

The first character we meet is Victor Benucci, a high school student still reeling from the death of his father two years before. As if that isn't hard enough for him to process, he was also born with Moebius Syndrome, a condition in which his facial muscles are totally paralyzed. He can't show expressions, can't blink, and slightly drools all the time. The second is Madeline Falco, an eighteen year old girl struggling to make her way in the world after the death of both of her parents in a drunk driving accident. She lives with her uncle, her only remaining relative, but his drinking is out of control and he is becoming abusive. The narration shifts between them from chapter to chapter, and as they give their interviews (very slowly) to the police, the full picture of what they witnessed emerges.

Tied up in the recounting of the murder is the evolution of Vic and Mad's relationship, and Vic's quest to spread his father's ashes around the New Jersey/New York area in several specific places. The story is difficult to summarize as it involves a lot of backstory, but essentially, Vic's journey begins when his mother receives a marriage proposal from her boyfriend. He freaks out at what he sees as a betrayal to the memory of his father, grabs his father's urn full of ashes, and runs out his front door. His initial plan is to scatter his father's ashes at a museum he likes to hang out at, but when he opens the urn to do so, he discovers a letter from his father inside of it. The letter lists five specific places that he would like his ashes spread, but the letter is meant for Vic's mother, so it's written using inside references to their relationship - to an outsider, it isn't understandable. Vic decides to make it his mission to figure out the locations in the letter and fulfill his father's last wishes before returning home again.

As he is trying to do this, he runs into a group of ragtag kids from his neighborhood that are always hanging out together. The kids all have troubled backgrounds and are essentially homeless. Mad is a member of this group. They all live together in an abandoned greenhouse in a closed-down botanical garden. As helping people is what this group always tries to do, they offer to help Vic with the ashes. Sparks ensue between Mad and Vic, mysteries are solved, love blossoms, and, eventually, a murder occurs. It's quite a long, winding story.

I had very mixed feelings on this novel. Some of the aspects that I liked were the non-sequential storytelling and the mystery elements. Both the murder and the quest of the ashes were interesting storylines, and wanting to figure out what happened kept me reading. There were a lot of heartfelt moments as well, with the themes of friendship and kindness having a prominent place in the story. The ending of the novel was pretty cool as well, as it had a neat little twist that framed the story nicely and offered some extra information about some of the more minor characters. I mostly enjoyed reading this, and it went relatively quickly.

What I didn't like was David Arnold's tone and style. He clearly graduated from the John Green school of young adult fiction; his characters are impossibly eccentric and quirky, a manic pixie dream girl teaches a geeky boy how to love, frequent references to literature and music that no modern teenager would know fill the pages, and everyone is an incredible smart-ass with perfect comedic timing. I am officially weary of these tropes. Instead of seeing humor and beauty in Arnold's writing, I saw pretentiousness. I don't mean to say that his writing is bad, on the contrary, it is probably a great example of this particular style of storytelling, I just don't think I like it anymore. I'm getting burned out on sarcastic, wise-beyond-their-years teenagers, I guess.

Because it felt like every sentence was crafted specifically to go on a "clever quotes" list, I had difficulty connecting with the characters. I thought the constant one-liners undercut the very serious problems the characters were facing. There is no better example of this than Coco, one of the kids that hangs around with Vic and Mad. She is only eleven, and has run away from home. She can't go to school because she can't provide an address or a guardian name, so she lays around in the greenhouse all day, stuffs herself full of junk food, and swears profusely. This wasn't funny to me (in fact, it was rather alarming), but the group didn't seem to have a problem with it. Her situation is disturbing, but it was played for laughs. Inclusions like this made the story feel odd, like the situations didn't match the emotions. It featured kids with very serious problems, but the overall mood was lighthearted. The kids don't have regular access to a toilet, shower, laundry, or kitchen, but hey, at least they're having fun and being cool, right? It is clear that the group existed just to further Vic's character development, and their situation would not be tenable in real life.

I also got confused about who was narrating which parts of the story, as both Vic and Mad are written using the same voice, more or less. Their quirks are different, but their general personalities are the same, an offense that's difficult to excuse in a story with split narration. I think Arnold struggled with writing a believable teenage girl, as Mad came off as the weaker character to me. I found myself frequently pausing in my reading and looking back to figure out who was talking.

Despite all that, Kids of Appetite wasn't a terrible read. I enjoyed parts of it and rolled my eyes at others. It's the very definition of a "meh" kind of book. I'm disappointed with this as I know David Arnold has a lot of fans, but this wasn't the story for me. However, if the story wasn't for me, I wonder who exactly this novel was written for. It's classified as a young adult book, but it contains vocabulary and references clearly designed for an older audience. I doubt that very many teenagers would catch all the meanings behind the jokes. I think it's meant, at least partially, for older women that like to dabble in young adult fiction. This would normally include me, but the issues with uneven tone made it a bit too juvenile for me to enjoy. I still want to give Mosquitoland a shot due to all the praise its received, but Kids of Appetite isn't destined to become a favorite. On the brighter side, at least I have another book for the donate pile.

Challenge Tally:
Clear the Shelves 2018: 14 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018: 28