Book Review: Spies and Prejudice by Talia Vance

Spies and PrejudiceSpies and Prejudice
Talia Vance
Egmont USA, June 2013
ISBN 978-1-60684-260-7
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Berry Fields is not looking for a boyfriend. She’s busy trailing cheaters and liars in her job as a private investigator, collecting evidence of the affairs she’s sure all men commit. And thanks to a pepper spray incident during an eighth grade game of spin the bottle, the guys at her school are not exactly lining up to date her, either.

So when arrogant—and gorgeous—Tanner Halston rolls into town and calls her “nothing amazing,” it’s no loss for Berry. She’ll forget him in no time. She’s more concerned with the questions surfacing about her mother’s death.
 
But why does Tanner seem to pop up everywhere in her investigation, always getting in her way? Is he trying to stop her from discovering the truth, or protecting her from an unknown threat? And why can’t Berry remember to hate him when he looks into her eyes?

 

Talia Vance just may be a genius of sorts. There were all kinds of things in Spies and Prejudice that niggled at me but, when it came down to it, I had a blast reading this and that’s why I think the author might qualify as a genius. So, let me get the negatives out of the way first and then I’ll tell you why I still loved this book.

I couldn’t figure out why Mr. Moss would get so upset just because he catches Berry and Tanner kissing. It’s unbelievable that Mary Chris and Jason set Berry up on a date with Tanner when they know she’s not comfortable with him. I don’t get why toppling stacks of soft drink crates would stop anyone from selling them since the bottles are plastic and unbroken. Berry is driven by the need to find out the truth about her mother’s death but, when she does find out, she sort of dusts off her hands and moves on. The resolution to the mystery is pretty lame.

There, that’s it. On the surface, one or more of my objections would seem to be pretty significant but—and here’s where Ms. Vance’s ability to write comes in—none of them matter a whit because I fell in love with Berry and her friends and their approach to solving her mom’s death. Even the romance didn’t get under my skin as it usually does because it was entertaining and nobody was unduly obsessed. I like that Berry works for her dad as a private investigator and is quite successful at it.

Berry Fields is smart and pretty (but the pretty part never takes precedence) and has a silly name and the adorable Mary Chris is a wonderful best friend, the kind every girl should have. They hang out with a pretty cool collection of guys, too, Jason being my favorite even though he’s not the heartthrob.

The mystery and how the teens go about investigating is fun if entirely improbable and the spy tactics and gizmos are amusing. That said, this is not all happy endings. Berry learns some harsh lessons, primarily that you what you wish for is not always what you really want. Still, this mashup of Veronica Mars and Pride and Prejudice is perfect for any reader looking for an entertaining mystery, niggles or not.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2014.

Book Review: Quarantine #2: The Saints by Lex Thomas

Quarantine The SaintsQuarantine #2: The Saints
Lex Thomas
Egmont USA,
ISBN 978-1-60684-336-9
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Nothing was worse than being locked in–until they opened the door…
McKinley High has been a battle ground for eighteen months since a virus outbreak led to a military quarantine of the school. When the doors finally open, Will and Lucy will think their nightmare is finished. But they are gravely mistaken.

As a new group of teens enters the school and gains popularity, Will and Lucy join new gangs. An epic party on the quad full of real food and drinks, where kids hookup and actually interact with members of other gangs seemed to signal a new, easier existence. Soon after though, the world inside McKinley takes a startling turn for the worse, and Will and Lucy will have to fight harder than ever to survive.

Whoa.

This is, without a doubt, a very difficult book to read.  If you have any squeamishness at all about violence, teen sex, sheer brutality for no reason other than pleasure, you should not pick up this book. As for the target audience, yes, it is Young Adult in the sense that it’s entirely about high school kids but I really think it’s inappropriate for younger teens. If it were a movie (and, apparently, it will be if things pan out), it should be rated R. That’s unlikely, of course, since it would be difficult to market with such a rating but I don’t know how they’re going to soften this story for a PG-13 rating when it revolves so aggressively around those elements that make this R-worthy.

That’s the very reason I am torn about this book. From beginning to end, the savagery that is to be found on nearly every page is almost overwhelming, to the point of making me so uncomfortable I wondered why I kept reading—and, yet, I did. Partly, it’s because of the trainwreck effect when you just can’t look away but, as tough as it was to read, this is an intense look at a society gone completely to ruin and that is what kept me riveted.

Certainly, there are flaws. It was impossible for me to really like anyone but that doesn’t mean I didn’t care about them, just that this second book in the trilogy allows for no remaining vestiges of gentleness, kindness, courtesy or decency, the traits that enable us to get along with one another. A few individuals love others in one fashion or another but, for the most part, it’s every boy—or girl—for himself or herself. That is an element that’s particularly noticeable, that the girls are every bit as ruthlesss and cruel as the boys. We do get to know a few of them better, especially Will and Lucy, but I can’t say that either one has grown on me much since the first book. Lucy has at least learned to be strong for herself, almost foolhardy, but Will is still rather whiny, although with flashes of being more likeable.

After two books, we still know pretty much nothing about what’s happening outside the school, just dribs and drabs, not nearly enough to understand if anyone is trying to find a cure or even how far the virus has spread. I also find it hard to believe that the parents, who are now in charge of keeping the kids alive, make no effort to identify themselves; just knowing that some of them still have families would give these kids hope.

Most of all, the violence in The Saints is nearly unbearable, particularly because something vicious happens constantly, either physically or psychologically. I think the authors’ point is that, when you live surrounded by such violence, it becomes second nature and you lose your humanity. While that is generally true, we have all heard of people who rise above such a life and that’s what is lacking here, the few kids who would stand fast against the violence. In an interesting if pointless diversion from the usual horrific behavior, one scene, which actually does not involve an altercation between kids, is exceptionally stomach-churning and, to me, was truly gratuitous; as an obvious allusion to Lord of the Flies, it is completely unnecessary to the story and only draws comparisons to that earlier book.

All that aside, I did find much to keep me reading in spite of my reservations and I applaud the authors for making a very harsh story eminently engaging in spite of the gore. If I still had a bookstore, I would be extremely careful to whom I would recommend this but it would most likely be those readers who can look beyond the surface to what lies beneath. This is truly a modern-day morality tale and I’m very curious about what is to come in the third book, coming out in Summer 2014.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2013.

Book Review: Shadows by Ilsa J. Bick

ShadowsShadows
Ashes Trilogy #2

Ilsa J. Bick
Egmont USA, September 2012
ISBN 978-1-60684-176-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

The Apocalypse does not end. The Changed will grow in numbers. The Spared may not survive.

Even before the EMPs brought down the world, Alex was on the run from the demons of her past and the monster living in her head. After the world was gone, she believed Rule could be a sanctuary for her and those she’d come to love. But she was wrong.

Now Alex is in the fight of her life against the adults, who would use her, the survivors, who don’t trust her, and the Changed, who would eat her alive.

Welcome to Shadows, the second book in the haunting apocalyptic Ashes Trilogy: where no one is safe and humans may be the worst of the monsters.

This has been such a difficult review to write. How do you express misgivings about a favorite author’s new book but still give it some much-deserved  love?

Following the intense pace of things happening to Alex and Tom is nearly exhausting, certainly unnerving in some parts. The Changed are not really zombies, but have many of their characteristics, so watching them becoming mentally aware and yet still inhuman is downright scary. Add to that the real menace presented by the religious cult as well as the brutal cold and snow and you have to wonder if you, the reader, would have any chance of survival, especially with the torture and other terrible, stomach-churning things going on. It’s a good thing a few of the characters still warrant our love—and love is what it is. Feeling what they go through is as bad as what we might suffer on behalf of our own family and friends in like circumstances, heaven forbid.

The first book, Ashes, was just marvelous and landed in my list of favorite books of 2011, but this one can’t be included in my 2012 list. Ms. Bick is well aware of the issues—she addresses them on her website in a lengthy synopsis/reminder of what happened in the first book and who the characters are. I understand the rationale behind just picking up where Ashes left off but, for me, it doesn’t work. It might have if (1) I had seen her post before reading Shadows and (2) the story had continued to focus on Alex and Tom, at least in the early chapters, but the author chose to throw in a LOT of new or lesser-known characters and geographic settings, plus the story is told from multiple points of view. The end result, for me, was a constant struggle to try to remember who certain people were and where the action was taking place (that’s important because of the efforts of people to get where they need to go). Even something as simple as a cast of characters would have made reading Shadows a lot easier and would have prevented much of the confusion.

Will this stop me from reading the next book, Monsters? Absolutely not because, in spite of everything that bothered me in Ashes, I still love the concept, the worldbuilding, the characters (yes, even the Changed, at least some of them) and Ms. Bick‘s impressive ability to put words together, not to mention craft images that linger a long, long time. What I’ll do next year is re-read the first two books before tackling the third—re-reads will be no chore, believe me—and hope that Monsters will be less confusing. So, yes, I do recommend this but read Ashes before you read Shadows, or read the author’s post on her website.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2012.

Book Review: Quarantine: The Loners by Lex Thomas

Quarantine The LonersQuarantine: The Loners
Lex Thomas
Egmont USA, July 2012
ISBN 978-1-60684-329-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

It was just another ordinary day at McKinley High—until a massive explosion devastated the school. When loner David Thorpe tried to help his English teacher to safety, the teacher convulsed and died right in front of him. And that was just the beginning.

 

A year later, McKinley has descended into chaos. All the students are infected with a virus that makes them deadly to adults. The school is under military quarantine. The teachers are gone. Violent gangs have formed based on high school social cliques. Without a gang, you’re as good as dead. And David has no gang. It’s just him and his little brother, Will, against the whole school.

I have such mixed feelings about this book that I hardly know where to begin. The truth is, there is a lot wrong with it but I still kept right on reading, couldn’t make myself stop. What’s up with that?

For one thing, for a post-disaster scenario, which is pretty nearly always completely unrealistic, this one is way out there in left field. Here you have a school full of teens that have been cordoned off from the outside world. So far, so good. Why this has happened is at first a mystery to the teens and I can buy that, too. What gives me serious pause is what happens within minutes of the teens first realizing something is wrong. Can you imagine our government quarantining an entire school so fast and so competently? Also, why do the adults on the outside cut off all communication with the kids and why do they fail to provide the necessities of life on a regular basis? Well, I suppose these questions are a large part of why I kept reading—I needed to know why even more than what.

In some ways, Quarantine can be compared to Lord of the Flies and The Hunger Games, especially in the extreme violence and anarchy that develops and yet…it isn’t really anarchy. The gangs that these 1,000 teens form, based largely on their school hierarchy during normal times, rings true because teens tend to want to belong to groups. The violence is to be expected also when you understand just what they’re up against if they want to survive. The gangs are very distinct and this is one of the aspects of the story I really enjoyed. Each gang has a name and distinguishing colors, each has a leader, each has a responsibility for one or more aspects of life under quarantine, each is feared by the other gangs. There are a couple of gangs that are expectedly in the forefront, particularly the Varsity and the Pretty Ones, but the authors do a great job of building the reader’s empathy for all of them in one way or another.

Another thing the authors do well is come up with details that make the reader really understand the perils these kids face and how they react, such as the way they dispose of bodies and the barter system they develop. Protagonists Will and David are much like most brothers, full of love and antagonism, and the obligatory love triangle with Lucy actually comes about more naturally than in many other young adult novels. I did feel, though, that the extreme hatred Sam has for David is a stretch and Will’s self-centeredness and unwillingness to do his part is a bit much but these elements do add a great deal to the premise. Character development outweighs plot and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

I had issues with the way the government/military respond to the situation and with the behavior of the virus, especially how fast it kills and how it is spread, and these are the absurdities that most bothered me in the construction of the story, along with the difficulty I had tracking the passage of time. On the other hand, the pace of the book is breakneck and I can truly say I was never bored. What goes on with the kids is both disturbing and compelling and that is what made me have to finish. Despite its shortcomings, Quarantine is a thriller you don’t want to miss but, because of the violence and sheer darkness, I’d recommend it for older teens and up.

I must admit I also couldn’t resist a story whose first line is “Someone must have bitten off her nose.” Now that’s a grabber if I ever saw one so I guess I’ll have to read the next book, especially if I want to find out where the cliffhanger in this one is going to take us next.  And I most certainly do.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2012.