Friday, March 7, 2014

Review: The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Tags: young adult, dystopian, sci-fi, LGBT, POC, art


The lush city of Palmares Três shimmers with tech and tradition, with screaming gossip casters and practiced politicians. In the midst of this vibrant metropolis, June Costa creates art that’s sure to make her legendary. But her dreams of fame become something more when she meets Enki, the bold new Summer King. The whole city falls in love with him (including June’s best friend, Gil). But June sees more to Enki than amber eyes and a lethal samba. She sees a fellow artist.

Together, June and Enki will stage explosive, dramatic projects that Palmares Três will never forget. They will add fuel to a growing rebellion against the government’s strict limits on new tech. And June will fall deeply, unfortunately in love with Enki. Because like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die.

Pulsing with the beat of futuristic Brazil, burning with the passions of its characters, and overflowing with ideas, this fiery novel will leave you eager for more from Alaya Dawn Johnson.


It is with regret that I say I couldn’t finish this book. I got within several dozen pages of the end, and even then I couldn’t make myself finish. This book has so much going for it: the world-building of a future South American enclosed society that’s extremely hierarchical and matriarchal and sci-fi is one of the best I have encountered in books marketed as YA, and as a result of this spectacular world-building, Johnson had a LOT she could work with in terms of exploring dystopian ideas and socially relevant themes of art and technology and race-based issues.

Unfortunately, what THE SUMMER PRINCE lacked for me was an emotional connection with the characters. In between Johnson’s sinfully sensuous prose and her attempts to portray Enki as this beautiful and irrepressible, yet enigmatic, near-mythical being, it seems like there was lost the ways in which readers could concretely grasp the characters’ traits and motivations and desires. Enki read too much like a MPDG (except a guy) to me, and I don’t really have a problem with MPDG characters, except Enki’s character was much too slippery and bright for me to even grasp at the edges.

Johnson is a talented writer, having already published several acclaimed works. But perhaps THE SUMMER PRINCE would have been better marketed as not-YA, for in this genre in which so much depends upon readers’ connections with the characters, THE SUMMER PRINCE will have to face an uphill battle despite all that it has going for it.

Similar Authors
David Levithan
Malinda Lo

Cover discussion: One of the best covers of 2013, hands down. Evocative of the book's thematic content of art, technology, race, and the future without being lurid. So, so, so beautiful.

Arthur A. Levine / Mar. 1, 2013 / Hardcover / 304pp. / $17.99

Borrowed from library.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review: The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay

Tags: young adult, contemporary, PTSD, romance

Former piano prodigy Nastya Kashnikov wants two things: to get through high school without anyone learning about her past and to make the boy who took everything from her—her identity, her spirit, her will to live—pay.

Josh Bennett’s story is no secret: every person he loves has been taken from his life until, at seventeen years old, there is no one left. Now all he wants is be left alone and people allow it because when your name is synonymous with death, everyone tends to give you your space.

Everyone except Nastya, the mysterious new girl at school who starts showing up and won’t go away until she’s insinuated herself into every aspect of his life. But the more he gets to know her, the more of an enigma she becomes. As their relationship intensifies and the unanswered questions begin to pile up, he starts to wonder if he will ever learn the secrets she’s been hiding—or if he even wants to.

The Sea of Tranquility is a rich, intense, and brilliantly imagined story about a lonely boy, an emotionally fragile girl, and the miracle of second chances. [summary from Goodreads]

This is one of those unusual circumstances where I definitely remember loving the book as I was reading it--going so far as to plan to myself that I would give it 5 stars--but, upon reflection months later, I can't seem to recall a single element of this story that had transfixed me so. Peculiar, isn't it? I didn't even remember the main characters' names, their conflict, or the plot. This put me in a bit of a difficult position. How could I possibly rate a book highly if it left so little of an impression on me? For my other 5-star books, I can quote quotes and allude to characters' quirks even outside of my reading life. Where, then, should THE SEA OF TRANQUILITY fall?

Despite not even remembering the characters' names, I think that what got to me most while reading this book was how thoroughly Millay's prose swept me up into Nastya and and Josh's love story. Millay's writing perfectly reflects the emotional responses she wishes to wring from readers: the frustratingly languid slow burn of two messed-up people learning to open themselves up to each other. In that way, then, THE SEA OF TRANQUILITY's prose is a more accurate depiction of real-life love than most love stories we read. There is a degree of, shall we say, "life editing" that goes on when writing a story. (No one wants to read about all the meals your character ate or the number of times he/she went to the bathroom, after all.) While this is a perfectly legitimate and understandable narrative practice, it makes it all too easy for us readers to (consciously) forget that storytelling is life edited down to its enticing and relevant bits.

I mean, I get it. I read stories too because I love fiction and want to escape reality. But every once in a while I love the book that makes me aware of the differences between narrating fiction and narrating life, the book that challenges pacing conventions while still triggering a positive emotional response from me. Intriguingly enough, it is this awareness that makes that particular story all the more poignant to me. This year, THE SEA OF TRANQUILITY was that book. And while I don't anticipate rereading it--some stories are like that, you know: you don't feel the necessity of reading them again--I certainly don't regret the (considerable amount of) time I spent with Nastya and Josh.

(This review would've been drastically different had I written it the day after I finished the book. Or am I trying to justify the horrendous fact that I wrote a review six months late?? Hehe.)

Cover discussion: My feelings toward this cover are mixed. It definitely lures you in with the guarantee of romance. On the other hand, beyond the romance aspect, I'm not sure it has any connection to this book in particular--like, this cover could be one for any of the many romances published every year.

Atria / Nov. 13, 2012 / Paperback (reprint) / 450pp. / $15.00

e-galley provided by the publisher and NetGalley.

Monday, January 6, 2014

First Winter Ordeals in Korea: In Which Steph Gets Mysteriously Misdiagnosed With Bird Flu and Receives Her First IV Drip

I had been warned by numerous parties in the months leading up to this: my first winter in Korea would be particularly vicious upon my immune system. I was told stories of perfectly healthy twenty-somethings who, within a month of arriving in Korea, came down with the most serious illnesses of their lives. We're talking hospitalization, everything. Good thing health care in Korea is so affordable!

The weekend before Christmas, I came down with spectacular symptoms. Sore throat, throbbing sinuses, inner ear pain, headaches, full body aches... you name it, I most likely had it. Stupidly I struggled through the weekend, pretending that it was just a temporary dip in my health. But Monday dawned, and it had been over 24 hours since I had slept well and eaten more than a few spoonfuls of stuff, and I decided, fine, I'd go to a local health clinic, get some antibiotics, and beat this illness to the ground.

A dear but unfortunate friend of mine accompanied me to the clinic. It's a good thing she agreed to come with me, too, because in addition to the language barrier, I was totally not myself. Lights looked weird and buildings were kind of wavering in my vision. I decided to conserve my energy and focus on my hot, uneven breaths making their way in, out past my ravaged throat.

The doctor at the clinic announced that I had a high fever, so he couldn't give me any antibiotics until I had first brought the fever down, which would take a day or two. (In retrospect: HAH!) I zombied over to an examination room, where a nurse told me that I'd get a shot that would help decrease my body temperature... a shot in my butt. Yes, I live in a culture where butt shots are commonly prescribed. Something about the shots being more effective sooner.

This is where things go a bit fuzzy.

The nurse told me I'd be getting a butt shot, and the next thing I knew, my world had shrunk to the wall I was clinging to as a wave of dizziness crashed over me and flung me around. I couldn't draw enough breath into my lungs. I didn't know which way was up and which was down. I'm not sure how long I lasted that way, seconds, minutes, hours, but when I finally came back to my head I was lying on the examination table and the shot had been administered. I dimly had felt two people heaving me onto the table, felt someone unbutton my jeans for me. (Afterwards, my friend joked, "I feel bad that I kind of took advantage of you. I feel like I should've wine-and-dined you first.") But the resounding thought that was in my head--indeed, the thought that would haunt my mind for the next few days--was that I just wanted to be left alone so I could cry angry tears over how I hate not being able to control my body, to will away any ill health.

Anyway, stuff continued to happen. My friend informed me that, after hearing that I had been to Taiwan the previous weekend to visit relatives, the doctor said that I might have avian bird flu, and so I should go to the hospital across the river. (In retrospect: WHAT IN THE H---.) In the hospital: hours of bureaucracy and procedures to follow. Leaning against walls or lying down whenever I could. Meanwhile, stumbling wherever my friend led me and thinking, melodramatically, "Is this death? I think death might be preferable to this."

Anyway, I can't even make the hospital procedure part sound interesting for this blog post. To make a too-long story short, eventually I was able to see a doctor, who made a funny face at being told that the first doctor thought I had bird flu (at which point the first doctor was promptly nicknamed The Quack Doctor. I mean, bird flu, really? Did he think that Taiwan is all farmland and I was playing with my family's chickens on my ancestral farm?), made an even funnier sound upon looking at my throat (hah hah), and then finally, finally prescribed me an IV. Oh, the relief. Not that I crave IV drips like people often do in China, who, when they feel even the slightest bit under the weather, rush off to the hospital and get hooked up. It's just that at that point I was feeling seriously dehydrated and weak from not eating. I was drinking fluids aplenty, but the moment any swallow passed, with difficulty, past my throat, my tongue shriveled up into a desert again and I was fairly panting with thirst. That, plus the no-appetite thing, actually made me appreciative of Asia's penchant for prescribing IV drips to ill patients.

Here is a random picture of it snowing in Seoul, because. Um, 'tis the season?

I thought it'd be too Generation Me-Me-Me of me to take a selfie while hooked up to the IV, so unfortunately I have no pictures of the now-memorable incident. But there I was, a contraption taped to my arm (I have a thing with needles and fainting so I didn't look too closely), trying to distract myself from the fact that, right before me, some unnatural fluid the yellow of semi-unhealthy piss was flowing into me. Around me were the rattling coughs of octogenarians, the nasally voices of the same octogenarians yapping to the nurses, the darkly funny trill of someone's "Dancing Queen" ringtone going off beyond the plastic curtains around my bed.

Before, I had this conception that an IV drip was a miracle medicine, a legal sort of steroid that would have me bouncing out of the hospital bed, ripping out the needles, and skipping towards the door. Yeah, no. Sure, it brought me from 10% (on blackout's door) to around 30% (limbs have stopped shaking, though still weak), which was good, and got me home, and made ever optimistic me think that I was on the track to recovery... and then the next day I was promptly back on the hospital bed, with IV Drip #2 in my arm.

I'm still on the road to recovery, I think, but at this point I'm closer to the end than the beginning. I never received an official diagnosis (language barriers, y'all), but I'm pretty sure I had a nasty combination of the flu plus a throat infection. Hmm. Sounds about right. My sense of taste still feels a bit off, but I believe I am consuming an acceptable amount of food now.

But enough is enough. The point really isn't anything deep like how punishing Korean winters can be, or how accessible Korean health care is. It's just that I had a story about my life in Seoul that I wanted to share. And that may bode well for the future of my blogging.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

Tags: young adult, contemporary, suicide, murder, bullying

Today is Leonard Peacock's birthday. It is also the day he hides a gun in his backpack. Because today is the day he will kill his former best friend, and then himself, with his grandfather's P-38 pistol.

But first he must say good-bye to the four people who matter most to him: his Humphrey Bogart-obsessed next-door neighbor, Walt; his classmate Baback, a violin virtuoso; Lauren, the Christian homeschooler he has a crush on; and Herr Silverman, who teaches the high school's class on the Holocaust. Speaking to each in turn, Leonard slowly reveals his secrets as the hours tick by and the moment of truth approaches.

In this riveting book, acclaimed author Matthew Quick unflinchingly examines the impossible choices that must be made—and the light in us all that never goes out. [summary from Goodreads]

FORGIVE ME, LEONARD PEACOCK is arguably one of the most explosive and important books of this year, but if you knew nothing about Matthew Quick, most famously the author of Silver Linings Playbook, you probably wouldn't expect it. Which would be a shame on your part.

It was almost that way for me. In the beginning, I was rather unimpressed by Leonard as narrator. He seemed to come off as just another socially awkward teenager trying to hard to be nonchalant. But, like a hypnotist, his reasoning for why he was going to kill himself--his cool-headed explanations for why it was absurd to keep on living just to be just another blank-faced automaton adult in the rat race--snake-charmed its way into my head, until I found myself nodding along and thinking, "Oh man. This guy is absolutely right. What is the big deal about living when most adults are so unhappy? Why haven't I killed myself yet?"

You see, that is the power of this book. Its main character has a goal that we'd never condone, and yet it's not at all difficult for us to understand where he's coming from. Leonard Peacock is a totally convincing potential murder-suicide. That's why I feel like this book is so important: it's one of the most convincing looks inside the mindset of the ones behind the recent troubling trend of teenage killings.

Cover discussion: I normally don't really like text-art covers, but this one.... I mean, there is no way to adequately describe the experience you will get from reading this book, so I don't even care one way or another what's on the outside.

Little, Brown / Aug. 13, 2013 / Hardcover / 278pp. / $18.00

e-galley provided by publisher and NetGalley. Thank you!


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