Book Review: Love is the Drug

Love Is the DrugTitle: Love is the Drug
Author: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Genres:  Speculative Fiction, Thriller
Pages: 335
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Review Copy: Bought from my local Barnes & Noble
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: Emily Bird was raised not to ask questions. She has perfect hair, the perfect boyfriend, and a perfect Ivy-League future. But a chance meeting with Roosevelt David, a homeland security agent, at a party for Washington DC’s elite leads to Bird waking up in a hospital, days later, with no memory of the end of the night.

Meanwhile, the world has fallen apart: A deadly flu virus is sweeping the nation, forcing quarantines, curfews, even martial law. And Roosevelt is certain that Bird knows something. Something about the virus–something about her parents’ top secret scientific work–something she shouldn’t know.

The only one Bird can trust is Coffee, a quiet, outsider genius who deals drugs to their classmates and is a firm believer in conspiracy theories. And he believes in Bird. But as Bird and Coffee dig deeper into what really happened that night, Bird finds that she might know more than she remembers. And what she knows could unleash the biggest government scandal in US history.

Review: Having loved Johnson’s “The Summer Prince”, I was really looking forward to “Love is the Drug.” I can’t say that I didn’t like it because it was a compelling read, moved at a fast pace, and I enjoyed Johnson’s lush writing. I think what makes me pause, and this is strictly a personal thing, is that I figured out the twist way before (like early in the book), so I was constantly waiting for the reveal and for Bird to discover the truth. The fact that she doesn’t learn it until practically the very end bothered me. I wanted to spend more time with her after she learned the truth and how it effected her relationships with the important people in her life. Instead, we’re given a solution to one of the conflicts, which I will commend Johnson here for not making it an easy solution, and then the novel is over. There is a part of me that longs for a sequel to the book, though I’m pretty sure the story is finished.

One of Johnson’s greatest strengths is to create compelling characters that we all can relate to, and Emily Bird is no exception. Bird, as she comes to call herself, through her experience with a fateful night grows from a scared young girl under her mother’s thumb into a smart, vibrant, young woman holding her own. The novel is told in third person, but slips into first person occasionally, which I believe is to show how the woman within Bird emerges. I will admit, some of those parts threw me out of the story, but aside from those sparse moments, Bird’s voice is strong and she learns to stand up for herself, even fight for herself. She comes to an awareness of how empty and shallow her life was turning out to be, and realizes that she is much happier following her heart. A moment in particular that stands out to me is when Bird decides to cut off her hair, reveling in the afro she now has. She knows she’s going to receive criticism from her mother, lose her social status as school because of it, but she doesn’t care. She owns herself in that moment and stands up for her rights to anyone who tries to tell her otherwise. That wisdom that she has, many women are still searching for, and I commended her for it. It didn’t seem out of character or unrealistic at all for a teenager to feel that way because I know a number of African American young girls who have decided to own their beauty and wear their hair natural. Bird also doesn’t hold back on her comments regarding privilege and race, which I found refreshing in a Young Adult novel. Often times the concept of privilege and race, specifically from African Americans with money, is glossed over (or not even written about!), that I loved how Johnson, through Bird, hit the topics head on. Bird is a type of young girl I would like to know and is one of the reasons I enjoyed the novel.

Lastly, while “The Summer Prince” was otherworldly and fantastical, the tone of “Love is the Drug” is vastly different. While a time period is not explicitly stated, it feels like it could be our current day as the world wide tensions focus on Venezuela and Iran, two countries of concern to our government right now. The novel could take place in our very near future, and the aspect of such an event intrigued me. Like Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower”, Johnson takes our current society and asks, what if this happened as a result of our actions? Asking these type of questions, looking into a potential future is was speculative fiction is all about and Johnson hits all the right notes in this novel.

Recommendation: Get it soon.

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New Releases

Here are a few diverse new releases hitting the shelves this week.

bettingBetting Blind by Stephanie Guerra
Skyscape

The cards are stacking up against Gabriel James: first there’s Phil, the guy paying the bills for Gabe’s mom (but not leaving his wife). Then there’s Gabe’s new school, filled with kids competing for the Ivies, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street—while Gabe’s just trying to swing enough Cs to graduate.

Gabe’s luck seems ready to change when he meets Irina Petrova: a hot violinist who is home-schooled by her strict Russian parents. When Gabe gets her number, he impresses the top guys at his school. When he becomes the drug connection for parties, his reputation is solidified. How else is he going to afford hanging with his new crew and impressing Irina? Anyway, it’s not really dealing if you’re just hooking up friends…right?

Gabe’s never been loyal to a girl before, but he finds himself falling for Irina hard. As the stakes are raised, Gabe will have to decide how high he’s willing to bet on school, on friends, on Irina—but most of all, on himself.

Mature content, ages 14 and up. – Cover image and summary via Goodreads

sixThe Silence of Six by E.C. Myers
Adaptive Books

“What is the silence of six, and what are you going to do about it?”

These are the last words uttered by 17-year-old Max Stein’s best friend, Evan: Just moments after hacking into the live-streaming Presidential debate at their high school, he kills himself.

Haunted by the image of Evan’s death, Max’s entire world turns upside down as he suddenly finds himself the target of a corporate-government witch-hunt. Fearing for his life and fighting to prove his own innocence, Max goes on the run with no one to trust and too many unanswered questions.

Max must dust off his own hacking skills and maneuver the dangerous labyrinth of underground hacktivist networks, ever-shifting alliances, and virtual identities — all while hoping to find the truth behind the “Silence of Six” before it’s too late. – Cover image and summary via Goodreads
the walled cityThe Walled City by Ryan Graudin

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

There are three rules in the Walled City: Run fast. Trust no one. Always carry your knife. Right now, my life depends completely on the first. Run, run, run.

Jin, Mei Yee, and Dai all live in the Walled City, a lawless labyrinth run by crime lords and overrun by street gangs. Teens there run drugs or work in brothels—or, like Jin, hide under the radar. But when Dai offers Jin a chance to find her lost sister, Mei Yee, she begins a breathtaking race against the clock to escape the Walled City itself. — Cover image and summary via Goodreads

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Review: Extraction

Extraction

 

Title:   Extraction (Extraction #1)
Author: Stephanie Diaz
Genres: Dystopian, science fiction
Pages: 416
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: the library
Availability: July 22nd, 2014

 

 

Summary: Clementine has spent her whole life preparing for her sixteenth birthday, when she’ll be tested for Extraction in the hopes of being sent from the planet Kiel’s toxic Surface to the much safer Core, where people live without fear or starvation. When she proves promising enough to be “Extracted,” she must leave without Logan, the boy she loves. Torn apart from her only sense of family, Clem promises to come back and save him from brutal Surface life… (Summary cut to avoid massive spoilers!) [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: There’s a certain formula that is expected from most dystopian YA. You know, one girl who happens to be a unique, special snowflake fights the dystopian government, powered by her heterosexual love. Extraction is no exception to this proud tradition, but does it slightly better.

Extraction‘s feisty protagonist Clementine is one of the chosen few who is extracted from the desperation of life on the Surface and brought to the earth’s Core. The world is divided up into layers, literally, and the most oppressed are on the surface. The rich, safe and privileged live in the Core, far away from the moon’s toxic acid. When Clementine goes to the core, she excels in almost everything she does — powered by her wish to save her love Logan, who is still on the Surface.

This is definitely a plot-driven book. The characters have little depth, but serve their purpose in propelling the plot forward. Many plot elements ring familiar: evil government! simulation tests! training montages! injections! I was reminded of both Divergent and Ender’s Game, but the writing in Extraction is much stronger. And unlike in Divergent (SPOILER ALERT? Sort of?)… the stock character of the cruel hot guy does NOT become the love interest, which was awesome.

What sets Extraction apart from other dystopian YA is the twist ending. The end of Extraction lands the book firmly in science-fiction territory, and makes the entire book far more interesting. This, in addition to the better-than-average dystopian worldbuilding, is the strength of the book.

Extraction is a solid book as far as dystopian YA goes. While I wish the plot and characters were a bit stronger, the worldbuilding and plot twist at the end make it all worth it. I look forward to picking up the sequel, just to see how the new direction Extraction takes at the end will pan out.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday, particularly if you’re a fan of dystopian YA!

Further reading: Stephanie Diaz, YA Author of EXTRACTION talks about diversity and her debut novel at Latin@s in Kid Lit

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Review: Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories

KaleidoscopeTitle: Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories
Editors: Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios
Genres: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Dystopia/Post-Apocalyptic
Pages: 437
Publisher: Twelfth Planet Press
Review Copy: Received review copy from publisher
Availability: Available now

Summary: Kaleidoscope is an anthology of diverse contemporary YA fantasy and science fiction stories.

What do a disabled superhero, a time-traveling Chinese-American figure skater, and a transgendered animal shifter have in common? They’re all stars of Kaleidoscope stories!

Kaleidoscope collects fun, edgy, meditative, and hopeful YA science fiction and fantasy with diverse leads. These twenty original stories tell of scary futures, magical adventures, and the joys and heartbreaks of teenage life.

Review: Science-fiction and fantasy are my favorite genres, but I’ve been painfully aware of how few people like me survived an apocalypse, let alone got to be the main character. So it comes as no surprise that I did a mental fist pump when I came across “A Note From the Editors” in Kaleidoscope:

“…in some ways this is a purely selfish drive: we want to see ourselves reflected in the stories we read. But it’s not limited to that; we also want everyone else to have the chance to see themselves, and we want to see stories about people who aren’t like us.”

Oh, does Kaleidoscope deliver. It’s filled with all sorts of diversity—racial, ability, sexuality—and several stories feature characters who are diverse in more than one way. There are people of color who have disabilities (“Signature” by Faith Mudge), LGBTQ characters who deal with mental illness (“Ordinary Things” by Vylar Kaftan), and a host of other intersectional combinations. Many of these stories don’t have their diverse characters exist in isolation, either. Throughout the 400+ pages of this anthology, the writers have resisted the white/straight/cis/able-bodied-character-as-default way of thinking and have created rich, vibrant worlds that are much closer to representing the real world in spite of the SFF trappings than many other books I’ve read.

Perhaps the best part about this Kaleidoscope is how genuinely entertaining these stories are. Editors Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios did an excellent job of curating this anthology. There are dystopian societies, time-travelling, parallel universes, superheroes, mythology tie-ins, aliens, and more. Chances are, if you’re at all interested in SFF, you’ll find a story in here that you’ll love.

As in all anthologies, not every story is perfect. Some stories simply don’t linger once you’re finished with them, but I don’t remember disliking any of them in particular. My personal favorites were some of the darker ones: “The Legend Trap” by Sean Williams, “Krishna Blue” by Shveta Thakrar, “Walkdog” by Sofia Samatar, and “The Day the God Died” by Alena McNamara. Some of these stories have triggering content, such as suicidal thoughts, violent deaths, or homophobic slurs (“Celebration” by Sean Eads is set in a conversion therapy center). I should note that the anthology as a whole is not all grim—it has a good mix of fun, lighthearted stories, too.

Recommendation: Buy it now. (Or, if you have a U.S. mailing address, you could enter to win a copy below.) Kaleidoscope features a great mix of twenty stories with diverse characters. The variety of stories is a great thing for people who like to read widely in the SFF genres, as I do.

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Mini-Review: Hungry

hungryTitle: Hungry
Author: H.A. Swain
Genres:  Dystopian, SciFi
Pages: 372
Publisher: Fiewel and Friends
Review Copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: In the future, food is no longer necessary—until Thalia begins to feel something unfamiliar and uncomfortable. She’s hungry.

In Thalia’s world, there is no need for food—everyone takes medication (or “inocs”) to ward off hunger. It should mean there is no more famine, no more obesity, no more food-related illnesses, and no more war. At least that’s what her parents, who work for the company that developed the inocs, say. But when Thalia meets a boy who is part of an underground movement to bring food back, she realizes that most people live a life much different from hers. Worse, Thalia is starting to feel hunger, and so is he—the inocs aren’t working. Together they set out to find the only thing that will quell their hunger: real food.

Review: I admit that the premise of Hungry sounds both interesting and a bit far-fetched at the same time. The concept of having meal replacements is not a new concept in science fiction, but it is one that if the science isn’t done right can be very unbelievable. In her novel, Swain almost makes it work. She provides the science of how it works; society takes a substance called Synthamil that is calibrated for every person’s specific nutritional needs. The reason for the Synthamil is that there was a war over food, hence food shortages, and Synthamil was the answer. Therefore, one can assume that in Thalia’s world there has been a population explosion which immediately made me wonder “what about the poor folk?” And this is where Swain’s premise gets deep and the book becomes less about the fact that people don’t eat food but the social inequalities that exist because of it. At it’s core, Hungry is a study of the “Have” and the “Have Nots” as Thalia learns that the privilege life she has lived comes at a cost. By becoming involved with Basil (one of my critiques was the food names for people) Thalia is able to see how the other-half lived and really see how controlled her society has become.

While I enjoyed the novel and felt that it moved at a good pace, I was thrown out at times because I questioned a bit of the world building. I wondered how far into the future the novel took place because based on small clues given, it seems like Thalia could be my future granddaughter’s generation. If that is the case, some of the science Swain includes, such as Thalia’s genetic mutation for hunger, doesn’t work. In fact, Thalia’s mother is the inventor of Synthamil therefore making the product a fairly recent change. Because of that, I couldn’t believe that a society could completely change from one dependent on food (and the controls that went with it) to one without. I feel with Synthamil being so recent in Thalia’s world, that more people would be resistant and still feel hunger. I feel that Swain’s premise was an interesting one and attempted to ask questions about fairness and privilege, but her science just didn’t fully work. And when one is writing a science fiction/dystopian novel, one’s science really needs to work.

Recommendation: Borrow it

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Review: Of Metal and Wishes

17303139

 

Title:  Of Metal and Wishes
Author:  Sarah Fine
Genres: gothic, romance
Pages: 320
Publisher:  Margaret K. McElderry Books
Review Copy: the publisher
Availability: August 5th, 2014

Summary: There are whispers of a ghost in the slaughterhouse where sixteen-year-old Wen assists her father in his medical clinic—a ghost who grants wishes to those who need them most. When one of the Noor, men hired as cheap factory labor, humiliates Wen, she makes an impulsive wish of her own, and the Ghost grants it. Brutally.

Guilt-ridden, Wen befriends the Noor, including their outspoken leader, a young man named Melik. At the same time, she is lured by the mystery of the Ghost and learns he has been watching her … for a very long time.

As deadly accidents fuel tensions within the factory, Wen must confront her growing feelings for Melik, who is enraged at the sadistic factory bosses and the prejudice faced by his people at the hand of Wen’s, and her need to appease the Ghost, who is determined to protect her against any threat—real or imagined. She must decide whom she can trust, because as her heart is torn, the factory is exploding around her … and she might go down with it. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: When I first started Of Metal and Wishes, I had to stop after three pages. Within those few pages, I was so strongly reminded of the 20th century Chinese stories and dramas I had to read in college that I couldn’t continue — it was that overwhelming feeling of reading nostalgia (that’s a thing, right?). I didn’t resume reading until a week later. When I did, I sat down and burned straight through it.

In Of Metal and Wishes, Wen struggles to adjust to her new life living in the factory compounds with her father, as a shipment of Noor workers arrive. When Wen’s wish to the factory ghost goes horribly wrong, Wen discovers that there is so much more to the factory, and the Noor workers… The writing vividly evokes the life Wen lives in the Gochan One slaughterhouse, both through voice and imagery.

Now I have to admit that this book hits all of my weak spots — ghosts, mechanical spiders, and family. And a gothic retelling of Phantom of the Opera? Sounds good to me. I came for the ghost story and stayed for the, well, detailed world building, multi-dimensional characters, and political conflicts. Issues of discrimination and labor rights are woven in among the drama of Wen’s encounters with the ghost of Gochan One, and her budding romance.

Who Wen will fall for is obvious from the get-go. She locks eyes with Melik, the mysterious jade-eyed Noor, and you know they’ll be in true love soon enough. It’s very much in the proud YA tradition of love-at-first-sight between a girl and the mysterious hot guy who stands out from the crowd. Of Metal and Wishes is advertised on the back cover as a “love story like no other,” but, to my mind, it wasn’t the most compelling aspect of the book.

In recent years, I’ve grown weary (and wary) of “Asian inspired” fantasy and sci fi books that end up being 70% cultural appropriation and names straight out of the dictionary. I was relieved and happy to find that Of Metal and Wishes is, as far as I can tell, not one of those books. Research has gone into this book and it shows, through subtle details and solid writing.

 

Of Metal and Wishes is definitely a book to put on your to-read list. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel (!!) when it comes out. 

Recommendation: Get it soon (er, when it comes out on August 5th, 2014 anyway)

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