Under Their Skin by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Under Their Skin by Margaret Peterson Haddix was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster.

Nick and Eryn’s mom is getting remarried, and the twelve-year-old twins are skeptical when she tells them their lives won’t change much. Well, yes, she says they will have to move. And they will have a new stepfather, stepbrother, and stepsister. But don’t worry, Mom assures the kids. They won’t ever have to meet their stepsiblings….For Nick and Eryn, this news begins a quest to find out who these other kids are—and why they’re being kept hidden.

Rating: 1/5

I used to love Margaret Peterson Haddix, but I’ve found her most recent novels to be underwhelming. Under Their Skin is a mess from start to finish. It felt rushed and incomplete, and it breaks absolutely no new ground in any genre, let alone science fiction.

My main problem with Under Their Skin was not just the incomprehensibility of the plot, but the whole idea behind it. Recently, there’s been a trend to try and justify the treatment of non-humans as human, which means you get a lot of “but robots are people too!” arguments that tend to fall flat on their faces once you look past the surface. Under Their Skin tries to tackle this idea in the same way and fails spectacularly. I understand if Nick and Eryn are hesitant about destroying something that’s close to them, but don’t say that it’s “vile and cruel and inhuman” to destroy a machine. It’s not. Maybe wasteful, maybe a poor idea considering the circumstances, but certainly not “cruel.”

I think, however, that even if that idea was not present in this novel, I would not have enjoyed it anyway. The whole book feels rushed, as if it was written in a very short amount of time, and it’s hardly high quality middle grade caliber. It wasn’t interesting, it wasn’t exciting. It was odd and stilted and annoying and boring. Under Their Skin makes me not want to pick up anything written by Haddix, which is a shame because I used to quite like her older books.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Science Fiction, Middle Grade

“At least now we’ve seen pictures of Ava and Jackson,” Nick said.

“Yeah…,” Eryn said. She thought for a moment. “But didn’t something about those pictures seem kind of weird?”

“They looked like normal kids to me,” Nick said, finally turning around to look at her.

“That’s the problem,” Eryn said. “Didn’t they look maybe too normal? Like those pictures you see in frames at stories where it’s just some actors or models trying too hard to look like normal people?”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2dQtZI1

Calamity by Brandon Sanderson

Calamity, by Brandon Sanderson, was published in 2016 by Delacorte Press. It is the sequel to Firefight.

Spoilers for Steelheart & Firefight.

When Calamity lit up the sky, the Epics were born. David’s fate has been tied to their villainy ever since that historic night. Steelheart killed his father. Firefight stole his heart. And now Regalia has turned his closest ally into a dangerous enemy. David knew Prof’s secret, and kept it even when the Reckoners’ leader struggled to control the effects of his Epic powers. But facing Obliteration in Babilar was too much. Prof has now embraced his Epic destiny. He’s disappeared into those murky shadows of menace Epics are infamous for the world over, and everyone knows there’s no turning back….But everyone is wrong. Redemption is possible for Epics—Megan prove it. They’re not lost. Not completely. And David is just about crazy enough to face down the most powerful High Epic of all to get his friend back. Or die trying.

Calamity was, honestly…a little disappointing. Maybe “disappointing” isn’t the correct word. “At times annoying,” maybe, or even “confusing.” There were several times throughout the book when I either 1.) expected more from a scene, 2.) became confused at the plot developments or 3.) grew irritated with the way Sanderson was taking the whole Epic powers idea. I’m not sure if I liked what Sanderson said about corruption and goodness and the choices people make, and I especially didn’t like it delivered in such a “This Is The Moral Of The Story” way. And the whole parallel worlds thing was confusing as all-get-out.

But—David is still a great protagonist, even if his similes are annoying, and I’ve grown to like Megan more and more with each book. Sanderson can still weave a plot very well, even if this time I felt slightly less satisfied at the end than I normally do with his books. And even though a certain part of David’s development in this book was shouted from the very beginning—seriously, it’s so obvious that the book might as well be screaming at you—I still enjoyed the culmination of that development. I also enjoy that it wasn’t used as some sort of excuse to have a huge final battle—you know, the kind where the protagonist gets initially defeated by the villain and then fully realizes his powers and defeats the villain. Instead, David simply does a lot of talking. The powers part comes later, and in true David fashion, doesn’t work out quite as well as he hopes.

I don’t think Calamity is as good or as gripping as Steelheart, and maybe not even Firefight, but it is, at least, a mostly satisfying end. The moralizing bit at the end made me roll my eyes and wonder what Sanderson was trying to say, but I think if you liked the first two books you will probably enjoy this one, too. All my complaints aside, I know I did.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

“Why do I get the feeling there’s something they aren’t telling us?” Megan said. “That girl was looking at these cupcakes like they were scorpions.”

“Yeah,” I said, nodding. “Right. Scorpions.”

Megan eyed me.”

“Or tiny nuclear warheads,” I said. “That works too, right? Of course, you could strap a scorpion to a nuclear warhead, and that would make it even more dangerous. You’d have to try to disarm the thing, but wow—scorpion.”

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/1UevKen

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

Passenger, by Alexandra Bracken, was published in 2016 by Hyperion.

alexandra-bracken-passengerIn one devastating night, violin prodigy Etta Spencer loses everything she knows and loves. Thrust into an unfamiliar world by a stranger with a dangerous agenda, Etta is certain of only one thing: she has traveled not just miles but years from home. And she’s inherited a legacy she knows nothing about from a family whose existence she’s never heard of. Until now. Nicholas Carter is content with his life at sea, free from the Ironwoods—a powerful family in the colonies—and the servitude he’s known at their hands. But with the arrival of an unusual passenger on his ship comes the insistent pull of the past that he can’t escape and the family that won’t let him go so easily. Now the Ironwoods are searching for a stolen object of untold value, one they believe only Etta, Nicholas’s passenger, can find. In order to protect her, he must ensure she brings it back to them—whether she wants to or not. Together, Etta and Nicholas embark on a perilous journey across centuries and continents, piecing together clues left behind by the travel who will do anything to keep the object out of the Ironwoods’ grasp. But as they get closer to the truth of their search, and the deadly game the Ironwoods are playing, treacherous forces threaten to separate Etta not only from Nicholas but from her path home…forever.

Passenger has an interesting world, one that reminds me a little bit of D. J. McHale’s Pendragon series if only because of the passages. The travelers travel through passages between different years, arriving on the same day of that year as the one they left. Bracken neatly avoids the “running into yourself” time-traveling problem by simply having travelers incapable of traveling to times they’ve already been to, although I think they could get around that by going to an earlier year and then waiting it out normally. She also avoids the “erasing” problem by having the traveler be thrown somewhere in time, before the timeline got messed up, rather than erased completely.

So, I did like that aspect of it. I thought it was mostly well-explained and woven into the world nicely. The worldbuilding and writing were great; Bracken has really improved on that score since Brightly Woven.

But what ruined the book for me was the romance, which was boring and completely like every other YA romance written. Not only is there insta-love, but Etta and Nicholas follow the usual patterns: Boy and girl secretly like each other. Girl wants to get with boy, but boy resists because of reasons. Boy finally gives in (usually in some sort of dangerous situation where they’re forced in close proximity to each other). Boy and girl fight after getting together. Something happens to boy or girl, boy and girl are separated, boy and girl vow to get back together No Matter What Happens.

I hated the romance the instant it appeared and hated it more and more the longer time was wasted with Etta thinking about the warmth of Nicholas’s skin and the ripple of his muscles. The romance dragged the plot into the ground and made the middle of the book incredibly slow-moving and tedious. I had to skim by the last quarter of the book because I was so irritated. It does get slightly better at the end, but despite my love for Bracken, Passenger is not a win for me. I doubt I’ll pick up the sequel.

Rating: 2/5

Recommended Age Range: 16+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Looking from face to face—the knit caps, a crooked and fraying wig, a few wet eyes discreetly wiped against shoulders—her mind began the work of piecing it all together as if she were sight-reading a new piece of music. The notes became measures, and the measures phrases, until finally the whole melody drifted through her.

She was not in the museum. So, obviously, the rescue workers must have carried her out into the street, away from that strange explosion of noise and light. Her skin, hair, and dress were drenched through and through, because—because of the building’s sprinklers, right?

And the costumes…maybe there had been some kind of play going on in a nearby building and they’d rushed out to help? Etta wasn’t sure—what did firemen actually wear under their uniforms? No, Etta, she thought, they don’t wear loose white shirts, or buckle shoes, or hats straight out of Masterpiece Theatre.

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/21FDknb

Firefight by Brandon Sanderson

Firefight, by Brandon Sanderson, was published in 2015 by Delacorte Press. It is the sequel to Steelheart.

Spoilers for Steelheart.

Newcago is free. They told David it was impossible—that even the Reckoners had never killed a High Epic. Yet Steelheart—invincible, immortal, unconquerable—is dead. And he died by David’s hand. Eliminating Steelheart was supposed to make life simpler. Instead, it only made David realize he has questions. Big ones. And no one in Newcago can give him answers. Babylon Restored, the city formerly known as the borough of Manhattan, has possibilities, though. Ruled by the mysterious High Epic Regalia, Babylon Restored is flooded and miserable, but David is sure it’s the path that will lead him to what he needs to find. Entering a city oppressed by a High Epic despot is risky, but David’s willing to take the gamble. Because killing Steelheart left a hole in David’s heart. A hole where his thirst for vengeance once lived. Somehow, he filled that hole with another Epic—Firefight. And he’s willing to go on a quest darker and even more dangerous than the fight against Steelheart to find her, and to get his answers.

Firefight improved on a lot of things that I wasn’t all that fond of in Steelheart, such as tuning down David’s ridiculous analogies (and, by the way, thank you, Megan, for pointing out that they’re not metaphors, as he’s been calling them, but similes. You have no idea how much that bothered me. Technically, even my use of “analogies” is incorrect) and fleshing out the nature of Epic powers and weaknesses. It’s an incredibly solid second book overall, and it has less of a “second book in a trilogy” flavor to it than most.

David becomes even more awesome in this book, which I love to see in protagonists—and Sanderson manages to balance keeping David the same character while also building on that and changing him in certain ways. I loved the part where he had to face his fear of the water, which led him to both resist what Regalia tried to do to him as well as inspire the same bravery in Megan (technically, that happened earlier). David is a great character because he inspires other characters to be more than they were before. He inspires Megan to face her own fears and sees things in other people that they can’t see themselves. I’m looking forward to how the third book will play out in regards to David, Prof, and Obliteration (and even Calamity).

I am a bit disappointed that most of the new Reckoner team were basically Red Shirts (expendable crew, basically), though. Both Val and Exel have pretty bland personalities and we don’t get as attached to them as we do the stand-out Mizzy or the first book’s Cody and Abraham. So, it’s a little obvious that Val and Exel are set-up to be expendable characters where we won’t care much if they end up dying—a sure sign that they will, at some point, end up dying.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

Once, I’d absolutely hated Epics. I realized I couldn’t feel that way any longer. Not now that I’d known Prof, Megan, and Edmund. Perhaps that was why I rebelled against killing Regalia. It seemed to me she was trying to fight her Epic nature. And maybe that meant we could save her.

All of these questions led me toward dangerous speculation. What would happen if we captured an Epic here, like we’d done with Edmund back in Newcago? What if we tied up someone like Newton or Obliteration, then used their weakness to perpetually negate their powers? How long without using their abilities would it take for them to start acting like a regular person?

If Newton or Obliteration weren’t under the influence of their powers, would they help us like Edmund had? And would that not, in turn, prove that we could do the same for Regalia herself? And after her, Megan?

Overall Review:

Firefight improved on a lot of the things I had difficulty with in Steelheart, although that improvement was slightly mitigated by Firefight’s own problems, such as the blandness of some of the characters that clearly indicates their “This one’s going to die” status. As for the plot and the action, it’s Sanderson quality as usual—which means that it’s good. I’m excited to see where the revelations in this book lead us to in the final book.

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/1XLiArB

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Steelheart, by Brandon Sanderson, was published in 2013 by Delacorte Press.

Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary people extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics. Epics are no friends of man. With incredible gifts came the desire to rule. And to rule man, you must crush his will. Now, in what was once Chicago, an astonishingly powerful Epic named Steelheart has installed himself as emperor. Steelheart possesses the strength of ten men and can control the elements. It is said that no bullet can harm him, no sword can split his skin, and no fire can burn him. He is invincible. Nobody fights back…nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans, the Reckoners spend their lives studying Epics, finding their weaknesses, and then assassinating them. And David wants in. When Steelheart came to Chicago, he killed David’s father. For years, like the Reckoners, David has been studying, and planning, and he has something they need. Not an object, but an experience. He has seen Steelheart bleed. And he wants revenge.

I have to admit, Brandon Sanderson has never failed to disappoint me. Not only is he an incredibly prolific writer, churning out what feels like a book a year, but he is a consistently good crafter. His plots are tight and surprising, the action is awesome, and there is always an edge of humor to take away from the tension. I started reading Steelheart and I could not put it down.

Despite the fact that I guessed a few of the plot reveals, it was the sort of anticipatory guessing that I see as more positive than the guessing that leads to boredom; the sort of guessing where you can’t wait for the reveal just so you can squeal “I knew it!” in delight. And a few things that I guessed weren’t correct at all, so I was suitably surprised as much as I was wiggling in anticipation (I did actually wiggle while reading this book).

David’s nerdiness/awkwardness (there are not enough nerdy heroes) was a delight. I love it when heroes stave off bad guys using their wits, which is pretty much what David does the entire time (with moments of stupidity interspersed). The action scenes involving the take-down of the Epics were gripping, and pretty much exactly what I want to read when I read action.

I am glad that Megan got more dimensionality towards the end because for a while I was a bit worried that she was just the Hot Action Girl Love Interest and nothing else. But since Sanderson is awesome, and knows his stuff, she gets better, and more intriguing, and feels more like a character rather than a cardboard cutout.

I did think, though, that “Newcago” was a bit of a twee name, and the running gag of David’s terrible metaphors, while humorous, just went slightly over the edge into “too much” territory. I also spent way too long wondering how in the world Curveball’s powers worked. Does he spontaneously generate bullets so that he never runs out? Does he take them from somewhere else? Is there a giant warehouse stuffed full of ammunition just so Curveball can never run out of bullets? The characters mention at the end how incomprehensible some of the powers the Epics have are, which I was glad for since Curveball’s, above all the others, pretty much just boggled my mind.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

“Yeah, caber toss….It’s this sport we had back in the homeland. Involved throwing trees.”

“Little sapling? Like javelins?”

“No, no. The cabers had to be so wide that your fingers couldn’t touch on the other side when you reached your arms around them. We’d rip ‘em out of the ground, then hurl them as far as we could.”

I raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“Bonus points if you could hit a bird out of the air,” he added.

“Cody,” Tia said, walking by with a sheaf of papers, “do you even know what a caber is?”

“A tree,” he said. “We used them to build show houses. It’s where the word cabaret came from, lass.” He said it with such a straight face that I had trouble determining if he was sincere or not.

“You’re a buffoon,” Tia said.

Overall Review:

I had a few slight issues with Steelheart, but the book is amazing in suspense, action, imagination, and fun. I couldn’t put it down and I enjoyed wiggling and saying “I knew it!” at plot threads I guessed correctly and saying “Oh my gosh, what?” at plot threads I didn’t guess correctly (or didn’t guess at all). Sanderson is one of the most consistently good writers out there at the moment, and Steelheart is another win from him.

You can buy this here: Steelheart

Winter by Marissa Meyer

Winter, by Marissa Meyer, was published in 2015 by Feiwel and Friends. It is the sequel to Cress.

Spoilers for the Lunar Chronicles.

Princess Winter is admired by the Lunar people for her grace and kindness, and despite the scars that mar her face, her beauty is said to be even more breathtaking than that of her stepmother, Queen Levana. Winter despises her stepmother, and knows Levana won’t approve of her feelings for her childhood friend, the handsome palace guard, Jacin. But Winter isn’t as weak as Levana believes her to be and she’s been undermining her stepmother’s wishes for years. Together with the cyborg mechanic, Cinder, and her allies, Winter might even have the power to launch a revolution and win a war that’s been raging for far too long.

I loved the first three Lunar Chronicle books and I could hardly wait to start reading Winter. Unfortunately, though, Winter was a huge disappointment. The thing I enjoyed most about the first three Lunar Chronicle books was the devotion to and adaptation of the respective fairy tale without neglecting or skimping on original plot. Yet in Winter, the fairy tale was almost non-existent and hardly imaginative. Winter felt like a side character in her own novel due to the amount of time devoted to Cinder & Friends and their takeover of Luna. A better idea, in my opinion, would have been, if not to leave Winter out entirely, at least not make her Snow White and try to dedicate an entire book to her.

There were far too many viewpoint characters and far too much jumping around, and poor Winter’s plot really suffered because of it. Jacin had no personality and I could not have cared less about his romance with Winter. Again, it would have been far better not to have tied Winter with Snow White—a lot could have been cut out of the book that would have given it a needed trim and then there wouldn’t have been such a sad little Snow White retelling.

Other problems I had with Winter: I loved Cress and Thorne in Cress, but it bothered me to no end that he basically admitted he was just the type of guy who flirted with other girls and that Cress would have to deal with it. He didn’t say that, exactly, but it was very much implied. I’m sorry, but no.

Another problem I had was the tediousness of the plot as a whole. Winter is a whopping 800+ pages long, and boy, does the plot drag in places—especially the parts where one of the team gets caught again and then escapes again and then someone else gets manipulated by a Lunar again and then Cinder has to try to snatch them back/kill the thaumaturge again. After about the third iteration I was sick and tired of the characters committing the same mistakes and repeating the same process over and over.

The last problem I’ll talk about here is the whole Levana reveal as a whole. I didn’t actually read Fairest, the prequel that reveals some of Levana’s backstory, and maybe I missed out on something, but it really bothered me that at the end of it all, the thing that was revealed to be the crowning piece of evil on top of her evil head was that Levana had been using her glamour to hide her burn scars. The whole “she’s not just evil, she’s also UGLY AND SCARRED” vibe is just wrong on so many levels. Then Cinder has a “aw, poor thing” moment and out of everything that she could have felt pity about—such as Levana’s terrible childhood or the fact that the reason Levana is so sociopathic is because she’s never had a healthy relationship in her life and doesn’t understand how to do anything except manipulate people—it’s because Levana is burned. And it wasn’t a “what a traumatic thing that happened to you that was caused by your own family, I’m so sorry” pity thought, it was a “aw, poor thing, you’re so ugly” pity thought, which made Cinder seem more like the 30% machine she is and not the 70% human.

Also, I really don’t like the “machines are just like humans!” plot lines of science fiction.

There’s much more I could say about what disappointed me about Winter—sloppy plot reveals, dangling plot threads, and the deflated tension of Wolf’s transformation when you realize it didn’t even affect him at all and was used mainly as some sort of “I don’t care what you look like, Wolf, I still love you” plot—but I think my disappointment in the book is already clear. There were some things I enjoyed about it, but overall, Winter was a too-long, tedious, all-over-the-place finale and my enjoyment of the series as a whole has decreased because of it.

Rating: 2/5

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence, death.

Genre: Science Fiction, Fairy Tale, Young Adult

Winter gasped delightedly and laced her fingers beneath her chin. Everyone spun to her, startled at her presence, which was not uncommon. “Do you think the Earthens brought us gifts, Stepmother?”

Without waiting for a response, she lifted her skirts and trotted toward the cargo, climbing over the uneven stacks of crates and bins until she reached the lower level.

“Winter,” Levana snapped. “What are you doing?”

“Looking for presents!” she called back, giggling.

You can buy this here: Winter (The Lunar Chronicles)

These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

These Broken Stars, by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, was published in 2013 by Hyperion.

It’s a night like any other on board the Icarus. Then, catastrophe strikes: the massive luxury spaceliner is yanked out of hyperspace and plummets into the nearest planet. Lilac LaRoux and Tarver Merendsen survive. And they seem to be alone. Lilac is the daughter of the richest man in the universe. Tarver comes from nothing, a young war hero who learned long ago that girls like Lilac are more trouble than they’re worth. But with only each other to rely on, Lilac and Tarver must work together, making a tortuous journey across the eerie, deserted terrain to seek help. Then, against all odds, Lilac and Tarver find a strange blessing in the tragedy that has thrown them into each other’s arms. Without the hope of a future together in their own world, they begin to wonder—would they be better off staying here forever? Everything changes when they uncover the truth behind the chilling whispers that haunt their every step. Lilac and Tarver may find a way off this planet. But they won’t be the same people who landed on it.

These Broken Stars is quite a good science-fiction novel. I’m not as familiar with SF as I am with fantasy, so I couldn’t say for sure whether any of what Spooner and Kaufman use is “cliché” or not, but for someone who doesn’t like SF normally, I thought they presented it really well in a way that made me like it. I especially love the moment when Lilac and Tarver first land on the planet and there’s that glorious image of the Icarus falling from the sky. I could see it happening like a giant panorama was placed in front of me.

For having such a lack of action, I also thought that Kaufman and Spooner did a decent job of pacing the mystery to sort of disguise the fact that the book was 80% romance and only 5% action. I didn’t really notice that there hadn’t been much action until the very end when I started getting more disgruntled with the book. A sort of good and bad together, really: not enough action but a good pacing to disguise that fact.

I did become more dissatisfied once Tarver and Lilac reached the shack, which is where the plot started falling apart a bit, I thought. For one, what happens to Lilac after they explode the shack was very abrupt and didn’t make any sense, and I also saw no point to the whole thing except to add some angst to again disguise the lack of action. The dimensional rift was poorly explained, and also poorly explained was why the Icarus crashed in the first place.

I also thought the book was overly long and tedious in places, especially in the romance parts.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Implied sex, some graphic imagery.

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

Before us, pieces of debris are streaming down from the sky in long, slow arcs, burning as they fall like a meteor shower or incoming missiles. They’re only a sideshow, though.

The Icarus is falling. She’s like a great beast up in the sky, and I imagine her groaning as she wallows and turns, some part of her still fighting, engines still firing in an attempt to escape gravity. For a few moments she seems to hange there, eclipsing one of the planet’s moons, pale in the afternoon sky. But what comes next is inevitable, and I find myself reaching out to put an arm around the girl beside me as the ship dies, pieces still peeling away as she makes her final descent.

Overall Review:

These Broken Stars starts out fairly strong but ends messily, in my opinion. The plot begins to fall apart, the lack of action begins to show through the seams of the pacing and romance, and frankly, I thought a majority of the ending didn’t make any sense. It’s good, soft SF and fairly original, even if the “crash land on a planet (sub: island) and now we must survive” trope is overused.

You can buy this here: These Broken Stars

Masterminds by Gordon Korman

Masterminds, by Gordon Korman, was published in 2015 by Balzer + Bray.

Eli Frieden lives in the most perfect town in the world: Serenity, New Mexico. In this idyllic place, every lawn is perfectly manicured and everyone has a pool and a tree house. Honesty and integrity are valued above all else. The thirty kids who live there never lie—they know it’s a short leap from that to the awful problems of other, less fortunate places. Eli has never left Serenity…why would he ever want to? Then one day he bikes to the edge of the city limits and something so crazy and unexpected happens, it changes everything. Eli convinces his friends to help him investigate further, and soon it becomes clear that nothing is as it seems in Serenity. The clues mount to reveal a shocking discovery, connecting their ideal crime-free community to some of the greatest criminal masterminds ever known. The kids realize they can trust no one—least of all their own parents…

I read Gordon Korman a lot as a teenager and loved him. However, I found Masterminds more disappointing than some of his other works—or perhaps I’ve just outgrown him.

First, I found the entire premise a little hard to swallow—and maybe I’m supposed to let go and suspend disbelief, but it’s hard when what I like most in a story is a well-built world. I think Korman is going some interesting places with the whole nature vs. nurture, are you born evil or do you become evil theme, but I still didn’t find any of it very realistic—or even convincing.

Second, Korman falls back on the old tried-and-true-but-dreadfully-boring-and-overused character types: Sporty Athletic Girl, Girl Obsessed With Weight And Grades, Large Aggressive Bully-Type Boy, Scrawny Nerdy Unathletic Boy, Brainy Or Average Boy Who Becomes The Leader Of The Pack. And yes, there are boys and girls exactly like that today, but that doesn’t make the characters any less tiring. I feel like every story about kids going to school and having adventures has those iterations, and I want something that’s a little more developed and original and nuanced and not so trope-y. Maybe have the Sporty Athletic Girl be super shy or something (because in the books I’ve read they never are).

So, Masterminds isn’t really something I would pick up and read again (as I would with other Korman books), and although parts of it were fun, I found most of it rather disappointing. The characters were stale and the premise was too unbelievable for me to really get into and enjoy the book.

Rating: 2/5

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic, Science Fiction

“Tell me what happened to you.”

“You saw Randy’s letter,” he says stiffly. “You didn’t believe it.”

I stare at him. “What does the letter have to do with being sick?”

“I wasn’t sick. I showed the note to my father and he spent the next two weeks feeding me full of pills to make me forget it ever existed.”

You can buy this here: Masterminds

Mila 2.0: Unrealistic Premise Undermines Everything

Mila 2.0 is written by Debra Driza. It was published in 2013 by Katherine Tegen.

Mila was living with her mother in a small Minnesota town when she discovered she was also living a lie. She was never meant to learn the truth about her identity. She was never supposed to remember the past—that she was built in a computer science lab and programmed to do things real people would never do. Now she has no choice but to run—from the dangerous operatives who want her terminated because she knows too much, and from a mysterious group that wants to capture her alive and unlock her advanced technology. Evading her enemies won’t help Mila escape the cruel reality of what she is and cope with everything she has had to leave behind. However, what she’s becoming is beyond anyone’s imagination, including her own, and that just might save her life.

I had two main problems with Mila 2.0. The first is that Driza’s writing style, at least at the beginning of the novel, is a style I dislike. It’s overly descriptive; not in a “purple prose” type of way, but in a just “this is useless information” way. Example: Driza has Hunter pick up a “red North Face backpack,” when really all we need to know is that it’s a red backpack. Brand names don’t do nearly as much to describe as people think they do. You don’t need to give readers specific brands unless you’re trying to make some sort of point. Doing it just to establish description is just overkill. Luckily, Driza backs away from this as she gets further into the book.

The second problem I had is the entire premise of the book. I just don’t buy it. I don’t buy Mila and I don’t buy her situation (you don’t go into supposed hiding from the government and then continue to use the same name for the thing you’re hiding. Why Nicole called her Mila and everyone knew her as Mila while they were in hiding, when the project, and thus her name, is Mila, thus making it even easier for her to be found, is beyond me). And I certainly don’t buy whatever it is that Driza is trying to imply about what makes people human. I’m sorry, but what makes someone human is not the fact that they feel emotion. Animals feel emotion, or at least some limited range of it. But they’re not human. Then Mila states further in the book something about pain, “the one thing that had made her more human.” What about those who can’t feel pain? Are they somehow less human because of it? In addition, animals feel pain; it doesn’t make them human and it doesn’t make them “more” human, whatever that means.

Let’s face it, emotion is not what makes us human, and so Mila 2.0’s entire premise crumbles because of it. It simply doesn’t make sense.

Also, love triangles are overdone and I am tired of them. Driza should have kept Hunter on the bus she put him on.

Rating: 2/5

Recommended Age Range: 16+

Warnings: Some really iffy implications about what constitutes a human, swearing, violence.

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

All three of us stared at my arm. And stared. And stared. It was like none of us could believe what we were seeing.

My arm wasn’t bleeding at all. There was a huge, gaping tear in my skin, but no blood. No blood. No blood because instead of blood, a thin film of red had ruptured, allowing some disgusting milky-white liquid to leach form the wound and trickle down my elbow.

And it got worse. Inside the cut, inside me, was this transparent tube with a minuscule jagged fissure shaped like a row of clamped teeth. And inside that? Something that looked like wires. Tiny silver wires, twisted like the double helixes we studied in biology.

Overall Review:

Mila 2.0’s premise is really iffy, and as a result I could not immerse myself in the book. I know science fiction, more often called speculative fiction nowadays, is supposed to be just that, speculative, but I simply cannot get behind the whole “what makes us human is our ability to feel emotions” idea. It seems too problematic, and not at all reflective of actual humanity. Being human is composed of more than just having emotions.

You can buy this here: MILA 2.0

Fairy Tale Friday: Cress

Cress is written by Marissa Meyer. It was published in 2013 by Feiwel and Friends. It is the sequel to Scarlet.


Cinder and Captain Thorne are fugitives on the run, now with Scarlet and Wolf in tow. Together, they’re plotting to overthrow Queen Levana and her army.

Their best hope lies with Cress, a girl imprisoned on a satellite since childhood who’s only ever had her netscreens as company. All that screen time has made Cress an excellent hacker. Unfortunately, she’s just received orders from Levana to track down Cinder and her handsome accomplice.

When a daring rescue of Cress goes awry, the group is separated. Cress finally has her freedom, but it comes at a high price. Meanwhile, Queen Levana will let nothing prevent her marriage to Emperor Kai. Cress, Scarlet, and Cinder may not have signed up to save the world, but they may be the only hope the world has.

What I Liked:

I absolutely loved Meyer’s adaptation of Rapunzel, especially the changing of Rapunzel’s tears to eyedrops. Speaking of Rapunzel, Cress is exactly the sort of character I love and she’s paired with exactly the sort of character I love characters like Cress being paired with, the loveable, capable rogue. So cute. I loved Cress’s timidity and overall shyness, yet deep inner ferocity that allows her to be incredibly collected when she does things she knows how to do, such as hacking. And I love it, did I mention that?

I mentioned in my review of Scarlet that Cinder did a few things that annoyed me. She does a few annoying things, here, too, and then Dr. Erland basically says, “Wow, that’s the stupidest plan I’ve ever heard” and then Cinder suddenly gets awesome and accomplishes things. Also, Dr. Erland + Cinder = a wonderful, wonderful snarkfest.

I loved the glimpse of the fairytale character (Snow White, but not named that) that we’ll be meeting in the final book and will presumably be joining forces with Cinder & Co. We also met her love interest, whose Plot Reveal actually surprised me, but made so much sense after the fact. I’m just sad that I have to wait almost a year until the final book comes out…

I found it hard to put the book down towards the end, when all the different plot points were about to converge and Cinder & Co. were planning, Mission: Impossible-style, their infiltration of the palace.

Rating: 5/5

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence, death.

Genre: Science Fiction, Fairy Tale, Young Adult


This time, she took in an extra deep breath and shut her eyes and grappled for a daydream, any daydream…

“I am an explorer,” she whispered, “setting courageously off into the wild unknown.” It was not a daydream she’d ever had before, but she felt the familiar comfort of her imagination wrapping around her. She was an archaeologist, a scientist, a treasure hunter. She was a master of land and sea. “My life is an adventure,” she said, growing confident as she opened her eyes again. “I will not be shackled to this satellite anymore.”

Thorne tilted his head to one side. He waited for three heartbeats before sliding one hand down into hers. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said. “But we’ll go with it.”

~Meyer 140

Overall Review:

Cress is my favorite book in the Lunar Chronicles so far, since it has my favorite character type, my favorite romantic pairing being adorably cute, Cinder accomplishing things while snarking about it, and actual progress being made by the heroes. I am continuing to love Meyer’s science-fiction and fairy-tale mash-up, and am super excited for Winter next year (and I guess the side story about Levana, Fairest, coming in January).

You can buy this here: Cress (The Lunar Chronicles)