Sunday, February 7, 2016

Review: Birthmarked Trilogy

Birthmarked Trilogy
Caragh M. O'Brien
Series:
1 - Birthmarked (ISBN: 9781429922654)
1.5 - Tortured (ASIN: B00633W62I)
2 - Prized (ISBN: 9781596435704)
2.5 - Ruled (ISBN: 9781466828933)
3 - Promised (ISBN: 9781596435711)

Summaries via: Goodreads
Birthmarked
In the future, in a world baked dry by the harsh sun, there are those who live inside the walled Enclave and those, like sixteen-year-old Gaia Stone, who live outside. Following in her mother's footsteps Gaia has become a midwife, delivering babies in the world outside the wall and handing a quota over to be "advanced" into the privileged society of the Enclave. Gaia has always believed this is her duty, until the night her mother and father are arrested by the very people they so loyally serve. Now Gaia is forced to question everything she has been taught, but her choice is simple: enter the world of the Enclave to rescue her parents, or die trying.

Tortured
"But what about Leon?" Now, in this new story that bridges the gap between Birthmarked and Prized, Caragh M. O'Brien answers her readers' most common question with a tale of suffering and determination from Leon's perspective. Be warned. The story is a spoiler for the first book in the award-winning trilogy. This promotional e-book includes this exclusive bridge story, as well as a teaser chapter for Prized, book two in the Birthmarked trilogy, available wherever e-books are sold November 2011.
Currently Available for FREE on

Prized
Striking out into the wasteland with nothing but her baby sister, a handful of supplies, and a rumor to guide her, sixteen-year-old midwife Gaia Stone survives, only to be captured by the people of Sylum, a dystopian society where women rule the men who drastically outnumber them, and a kiss is a crime. In order to see her sister again, Gaia must submit to their strict social code and the oppressive rules of Matrarc Olivia. Meanwhile, two brothers claim her attention as they attempt to understand the environmental trap that keeps the people of Sylum captive, and suddenly Gaia must contend with the exciting, uncomfortable, and altogether new feeling of being desired.

But when someone from her past shows up, Gaia discovers that survival alone is not enough and that justice requires sacrifice.

Ruled
The bracelet sits in his pocket, patiently waiting to be slipped around Gaia’s wrist. Leon needs to see her again. He finds out that Gaia is delivering a baby in the village, and he makes the trip to visit the sixteen-year-old midwife—only to find that the birth is not going too well. The bracelet—and what it means to the both of them—will have to wait.

This short story takes place during the time between the second book in the Birthmarked trilogy (Prized) and the final book (Promised) and offers a rare glimpse into the mind and heart of Leon Grey.

Promised
After defying the ruthless Enclave, surviving the wasteland, and overthrowing Sylum, Gaia Stone now faces her greatest challenge yet--to lead the people of Sylum back to the Enclave and persuade the Protectorat to grant them refuge. But in Gaia's absence, the Enclave has become even more ruthless, picking girls from outside the wall to serve in an experimental baby factory. Babies with the right genes are now a priceless commodity with the potential to reshape life inside the wall and redefine humanity. The key to it all comes back to one fearless, young midwife. When negotiations devolve into terrorist threats, Gaia finds herself at the crux of an insupportable decision.

As a leader, a woman, and an idealist in love, Gaia must decide if she can sacrifice what--or whom--she values most.

Review:
I went into this series expecting the same old drivel we have come to know as YA dystopian fiction, happily I was surprised. The themes in this story are quite on point when we speak about people's rights bridging this topic across gender rights, to parental rights to caste systems. These are the themes that really gripped me. They were extremely well developed, much more so than one would expect in YA fiction.

The first part of the trilogy, we are focused on a patriarchal society with strict caste systems. The elite exist in the Enclave and the serfs exist outside the Wall. The main character is a teen-aged midwife whom according to their society must take the first three babies from the mothers she assists and "advance" them to the Enclave. Do not worry this isn't Soylent Green. They are "advanced" to join the elite families. We see how this theme comes into play when Gaia must "advance" her first baby. This scene was emotional and heart wrenching but almost fell flat for me. As a new mother, you would have to kill me before taking my child. And while the mother was sufficiently upset, I felt like Gaia got away too easily. I suppose that goes to show just how downtrodden these women were. 

Personally, I was not very fond of the characters. I found them flat and wanting of a metaphorical burger. The only character who gained any depth was the main character, Gaia. The other characters went through various hardships which increased their interest for me but they just didn't do anything that made them special to me. I presume this was to keep the story focused around Gaia Stone and the issues she becomes aware of. To name a few of the issues that you see in this first book and carried through to the end:
  • Genetic diversity
  • Parental rights
  • Medical care
  • Societal responsibility
  • Resource management
  • Environmentalism
  • Caste Systems
  • Government Corruption
  • Big Brother/Eye in the Sky

While she started out trying to save her parents (like so many stories of this ilk), it becomes about these issues. Her soul purpose I feel is to humanize the issues for us by coming into contact with the various, yet plain characters in situations where these issues rule their lives.

To conclude the first installment of this trilogy, Gaia ends up in the Wasteland on a veritable suicide mission. Do not fret this is not really a spoiler as we all knew this was going to happen. What I really appreciated is that this book can stand alone! The additional books are great but if you found out you didn't really like this trilogy you don't feel like you HAVE to read it to the end. I found it incredibly satisfying.

Tortured picks up where we left off in Birthmarked but from a different point of view, Leon's.I feel like this bridge story was good except that it was exceptionally short. The one thing I really didn't like is that the other promotional material after this story was larger than the story itself! Story-wise, I really did enjoy getting the perspective of Leon. Personally, I feel like we missed out learning more about the Protectorat, his staff and his family. Granted torture is really horrible but I would have liked to see if his Stepmother/Mother, Genevieve came to him before finally helping him. Whether his siblings ever tried to help. I also eventually would love to see more from Myrna Silk. She has such potential to be an amazing character. Overall, very enjoyable and currently available for free on Amazon!

In the second part of this trilogy, Prized, leads us into a matriarchal society! I was really excited about this because so often we hear of patriarchal societies in fiction going bad it was interesting to see the flip side. There are many parallels to the society of the Enclave, probably because that is our judgement point. Just like in the first story we have a leader that is out of control. Gaia, of course, can't help herself and blows up their society through her lack of integration. This is a double edged sword as far as I am concerned because it is through her lack of respecting their society she causes many incidents. While many of these incidents were good in that they had to happen for the story not only to progress but also to discuss the various issues, they didn't have to happen that way. If she had even a slight respect for the new society, she would have been less careless, and caused less harm. This book in particular shows how while most YA fiction has a coming of age story, this one doesn't. Although Gaia does become older and goes on to take on responsible roles. I do not feel as if she has really grown. It's more of a by accident or happen stance that she progresses at all. There are a few exceptions to this thought, such as the baby she saves in the first book, but there aren't many. There are many more parts of this story that show she is the same from beginning to end, such as her interactions with Leon and her other beaus.

The second bridge story really brings the romance in this trilogy to the front. I loved how Leon came to love Gaia in a more complete adult way. However this also shows Gaia's immaturity when you view her actions in their relationship. I feel like her most adult action in their relationship is to not agree to marry him right away. She shows she isn't ready over and over again. This story though shows that Leon definitely is getting there. This story was much more enjoyable than the other bridge story. However this one has the same problem, the promotional materials are longer than the story. I like this story more for the fact that it feels more complete. 

To conclude this trilogy we have the matriarchal society joining the patriarchal society which are both dying out from lack of genetic diversity. For the patriarchal society, this is due to the age old problem of the pigs being more equal than the other farm animals (See Animal Farm). The Enclave sees themselves as high above those outside the wall and backed themselves into a genetic oubliette. Their answer is to increase the children coming in from outside the Wall. For the matriarchal society, this comes from environmental contamination and strict social roles that require "perfect" families. They backed themselves into dying out through fear of change and the accepting that they were just going to die out. After many, many more confrontations and conflicts they do merge as a complete society and our enemies get their comeuppance which is great. There was one particularly dreadful part of this book just before the end that will haunt me forever. As you get to the end you will immediately know to that which I speak. For the person going into reading this, be prepared and don't eat anything while reading the very end. I frequently had to put the book down to deal with my own reaction. Once that scene was over we finally get our happily ever after/beginning.

Overall this story gains a four rating not for its characters, but for its story telling and gripping themes. The style, themes, and feel remind me directly of The Handmaiden's Tale by Margaret Atwood. In fact, I would treat this trilogy as a companion to Ms. Atwood's book as many of the themes were similar in both. I found that this trilogy focused on so many issues in complex ways was fantastic, but I fear I am noticing a new trend in YA fiction. I fear YA fiction may be moving away from dense multi-dimensional characters with great plots and themes to a series of transparent characters that are disposable stand-ins for displaying themes and opening a discussion of issues. The lack of depth in the characters really made the last book of this trilogy a struggle to complete. Not because it wasn't good, it just wasn't emotionally rich enough to keep me wanting more. Even that scene to which I spoke, wasn't as emotional for the character as I feel it should have been. Looking back, I can say that I certainly felt enough for both the character and myself for that scene! All together this trilogy is definitely worth reading and even more so if you are part of a book club or have an interest in human rights. These themes will give you ideas and you will want to talk/debate them out. Happy reading!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Review: The Door In The Hedge & Other Stories

The Door In The Hedge & Other Stories
Robin McKinley
ASIN: B00OGWASDM

Summary via Amazon:
Ensorcelled princesses . . . a frog that speaks . . . a magical hind—Newbery Medal winner Robin McKinley opens a door into an enchanted world in this collection of original and retold fairy tales

The last mortal kingdom before the unmeasured sweep of Faerieland begins has at best held an uneasy truce with its unpredictable neighbor. There is nothing to show a boundary, at least on the mortal side of it; and if any ordinary human creature ever saw a faerie—or at any rate recognized one—it was never mentioned; but the existence of the boundary and of faeries beyond it is never in doubt either.

So begins “The Stolen Princess,” the first story of this collection, about the meeting between the human princess Linadel and the faerie prince Donathor. “The Princess and the Frog” concerns Rana and her unexpected alliance with a small, green, flipper-footed denizen of a pond in the palace gardens. “The Hunting of the Hind” tells of a princess who has bewitched her beloved brother, hoping to beg some magic of cure, for her brother is dying, and the last tale is a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses in which an old soldier discovers, with a little help from a lavender-eyed witch, the surprising truth about where the princesses dance their shoes to tatters every night.

Review:
"The Stolen Princess"
I adored this tale. Out of the four it is easily the best. The best part of this particular story is that it is actually two stories! Robin McKinley weaves together the story of the mother, Alora and her daughter, Linadel.

In the first part of the story we are told about the land they come from and the Faerieland just beyond and how they coexist. This part is a little long but it is worth it once you get to Alora and her sister Ellian. As in all tales, tragedy befalls the human kingdom but as in all things time moves on. Alora finds her prince, Gilvan and they become king and queen. They are then blessed with their own child, Linadel.

The second part of this tale has everything to do with Linadel. Now this princess has quite the surprising journey! On this journey, she sees the beauty of Faerieland and meets the faerie prince, Donathor. While one would think this is the happy ending, it isn't! There is so much more!

The best part of this particular tale is that not only does Linadel find her happy ending so does her mother! The lessons one learns in this dual tale are really good ones and definitely universal (I can't say because then this would have spoilers and I hate those!). This story is definitely a 4! I love how seamless the melding of the story was. The simple yet complex nature of it was truly at the heart of every fairy tale. Well done!

"The Princess & The Frog"
This was a nice retelling of a common story. While this story was told well, it came after "The Stolen Princess" and thus was kind of a let down. In this story, a princess stands for herself and her country against a bully of a prince. I love how the princess was a strong character even though she ended up getting aid from The Frog. In the beginning of this story, she is one of the few that stand against the evil prince. Even her father was forced to concede to him at times. If she hadn't kept herself strong, she never would have met The Frog. Obviously, The Frog saves the day but for more on that you will have to read it! The morals of the story were good even though fairly common. I would say this story is a 2. I could have made this a 3 if it had been more unique.

"The Hunting Of The Hind"
This story was nice because the savior is the forgotten princess! This perhaps was the best part of this story. This particular kind of fairy tale is always a favorite of mine, when the forgotten or least likely person becomes the hero or heroine. Aside from this fact, the story fell flat for me. In fact, when I came to write this review, I had almost entirely forgotten it! I then reread it and discovered why. I feel like this story was almost an afterthought. The story takes sometime to reach its climax and then its over in a snap. And as for its fit within the collection, I feel it is also the odd man out. The others all speak of romantic love and this one it is merely an after thought. I do appreciate the continuation of the familial love. However, I could only give this story a 2.

"The Twelve Dancing Princesses"
Now, I really enjoyed this one! Once again the beginning of this tale seems longer than necessary but it seems this is a part of Robin McKinley's writing style. Thankfully, it is worth the wait! The hero of this tale is but a common man turned retired soldier. We come upon him as he is traveling to the capital of his country to see whom he had given his youth to. Along the way he discovers the mystery of The Twelve Dancing Princesses from an ostler he worked for. Along his travels he comes upon an old woman at the edge of the wood. (Always my favorite character in fairy tales). Of course as he is the hero he treats her kindly. Finally, he makes his way to the capital! Once there he takes on the mystery. I like how he uses his skills from being a soldier to figure out the mystery. While the whole tale itself is pretty common, how things play out in the end is well done. I would give this story a 3 if merely for the very end. The end is what tipped the scales from average 2 to a well done 3.

Altogether, this anthology is well done but obviously had its highs and lows. I feel as a collection it deserves a 3. It had a strong start, a flagging middle and a good finish. Out of all of them the only one that I really loved was the first one. "The Stolen Princess" is such a good story I highly recommend that story (even if you skip the others). Its a feel good story for adults (mostly Moms) and a good story for kids (boys and girls as the morals work for both).

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review: In The Shadow Of Blackbirds

In The Shadow Of Blackbirds
By: Cat Winters
ISBN: 978-1419710230

Summary via Amazon:
In 1918, the world seems on the verge of apocalypse. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, and the government ships young men to the front lines of a brutal war, creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to séances and spirit photographers for comfort, but she herself has never believed in ghosts. At her bleakest moment, however, she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love—a boy who died in battle—returns in spirit form. But what does he want from her?

Featuring haunting archival early-20th-century photographs, this is a tense, romantic story set in a past that is eerily like our own time.

Review:
Heartbreakingly tragic and hauntingly beautiful. There are no other words that better describe In The Shadow Of Blackbirds. This novel will stick with you long after you are done reading it. So many of the... themes, for lack of a better term, are so timeless. War. Soldiers, going to and returning. Their families desperate for news, while still fearing it. People being struck down by an illness that no one knows how to prevent or combat effectively. Reaching maturity in a time of great upheaval and disaster. A country fighting within itself to show how patriotic they are, out of fear. Death in its many forms. And most of all, the soul-sucking desperation that is impossible to not feel.

I would describe Cat Winter's writing style in this novel to be visually stark and vividly emotional, a perfect representation of the world as it was in 1918 during World War I. If it were a movie, it would be filmed similarly to Saving Private Ryan (although that story took place in WWII). Where the world is incredibly detailed but almost monotone and the characters stand out in bright relief. The characters themselves also seem to be almost a personification of the hardships the people of this era endured. Mary Shelley is the science vs spiritualism debate. Mary Shelley's father would be the fanatical patriotism. Aunt Eva would be the pandemic as well as women's efforts during the war. Stephen the young soldiers and shell shock/PTSD. Julius, opium and the fake spiritualists. The Red Cross home, the welcome home given to injured soldiers. These are only a few but there are many as you will see.

In no uncertain terms, this isn't a light read. And, once you start reading it, you will have to finish. For although, many of the themes are heavy there is a certain lightness to it as well. You will see a depth of compassion, love, and inquisitiveness that brings this story into a tale of great beauty.

The romance in this story is the driving force behind Mary Shelley and her coming of age story. Through her you see the ups and downs of being in romantic love with Stephen as well as familial love for her mother, father, and Aunt Eva. The emotional roller coaster that is Mary Shelley and Stephen's love is reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. I would say it's worse than Romeo and Juliet because there is more to it than the passing fancy of fourteen year olds. They were childhood friends turned more. However, they were cut off before their love could truly bloom by the upheaval of the times.

The ongoing mystery in this novel is also quite good! While I had inklings as to who was involved, I was only partially correct, and up until the very end I couldn't guess how exactly things had occurred. It has been a good long while since I have been so stumped. Granted, I may have been slightly distracted by the love story, but who could blame me.

In many ways, it was almost painful to read this book. Not because it was a bad book, rather because it was so good. I easily give this book a five! The setting was detailed and made the story come alive. The characters were remarkable and pulled at the heartstrings. And it's timeless. It reverberates with this time period so well it's spooky. While we have many modern conveniences and medicines. These things are merely illusions. We are no better off than they were. They allow us to hide our heads and say we are better, while just as they were, we pray we aren't next. We call each other unpatriotic based on whether you are a democrat or republican. We send our men and women to war but we don't care for them when they return. Disease reigns supreme, with no cures, only symptom relief. We are reliving history instead of learning from our pasts and making the world a better place. So hopefully, like in this book we will see the light at the end of the tunnel, dust ourselves off and strive for better.