Review: The Leveller by Julia Durango

The Leveller
Julia Durango

HarperCollins
Releases June 23, 2015
I received a copy via the Around the World ARC tour to review
256 pages
YA / Sci-Fi / Gaming

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Nixy Bauer is a self-made Leveller. Her job? Dragging kids out of virtual reality and back to their parents in the real world. It’s normally easy cash, but Nixy’s latest mission is fraught with real danger, intrigue, and romance.

Nixy Bauer is used to her classmates being very, very unhappy to see her. After all, she’s a bounty hunter in a virtual reality gaming world. Kids in the MEEP, as they call it, play entirely with their minds, while their bodies languish in a sleeplike state on the couch. Irritated parents, looking to wrench their kids back to reality, hire Nixy to jump into the game and retrieve them.

But when the game’s billionaire developer loses track of his own son in the MEEP, Nixy is in for the biggest challenge of her bounty-hunting career. Wyn Salvador isn’t some lazy kid looking to escape his homework: Wyn does not want to be found. And he’s left behind a suicide note. Nixy takes the job but quickly discovers that Wyn’s not hiding—he’s being held inside the game against his will. But who is holding him captive, and why?

Nixy and Wyn attempt to fight their way out of a mind game unlike any they’ve encountered, and the battle brings them closer than either could have imagined. But when the whole world is virtual, how can Nixy possibly know if her feelings are real?

Gamers and action fans of all types will dive straight into the MEEP, thanks to Julia Durango’s cinematic storytelling. A touch of romance adds some heart to Nixy’s vivid, multidimensional journey through Wyn’s tricked-out virtual city, and constant twists keep readers flying through to the breathtaking end.

The concept of The Leveller should have won me over from the start. It’s an action adventure plot that takes place in a virtual reality simulator. There’s a bit of intrigue and a lot of interesting world building ideas, but something about the characters and the execution kept me from fully embracing this techno-thriller.

Nixy is a leveller. She has special skills that she can use in the MEEP, a virtual realty universe that her parents helped create and gave her beta access to special programs, so that parents pay her to go in after their wayward children who have stayed in the fantasy world for too long. She’s so good at what she does that the creator of the MEEP hires her to find his son, whose been hiding in the MEEP for days after leaving behind a suicide note. She dives into the fantasy world created by Wyn to find him, only to learn that perhaps the MEEP is a more sinister place than it once seemed.

The MEEP is a cool idea, though the science is far from sound. I don’t usually care if my sci-fi is accurate, and The Leveller is no different. In this version of virtual reality, it’s like you go to sleep while your brain is hooked up to a computer that helps you experience any sort of world you want. It’s just like a really elaborate computer-assisted dream. It sounds like the perfect recipe for creating addictions and personality disorders, but that’s not what The Leveller is about.

Instead we have a pretty straight forward techno-thriller that speeds past as Nixy jumps from one thing to another in the 250 page book. Nothing is really lingered on and the plot jumps from one cut scene to another after the initial description of the MEEP is set. Even still, it felt like the book took a good 100 pages to get going before cramming the rest of the story into the remaining pages.

Nixy’s internal monologue grated on me. It was full of witty remarks made in her head and sarcasm that didn’t seem to have much point other than to make her sound clever. As a narrator she left me cold and so overall the story seemed a bit lacking to me. Durango tries to steer away from Mary Sue levels of perfect at all things while still making her heroine the best at what she does. She has irrational fears even within the false realty of the MEEP, but she lacks the emotional depth to make her character truly three dimensional. Perhaps if the book was longer and her internal monologue wasn’t so shallow, Nixy would have been a much more fun character to follow around on adventures. Instead I was incapable of fully immersing myself in the story.

There’s a forced romance that’s pretty close to insta-love between Nixy and Wyn that makes little to no sense with Nixy’s standoff-ish personality. Then again, Wyn is the best part of the book, so I suppose I can forgive Nixy for falling for him if only the falling had been a little better described instead of suddenly, hey look, they’re making out. Wyn is a charismatic character that might have been a better choice at carrying the bulk of the story. Just the glimpses of his back story, personality and emotional depth from things he says and the MEEP world he’s build made him way more likeable and interesting than Nixy.

I was generally pretty meh about The Leveller. It just felt lacking, perhaps due to being so short and feeling rushed after a protracted set up. Or maybe the “too cool for everyone” Nixy leaving me cold kept me from embracing the better parts of the story enough to truly enjoy it. The quick wrap up made it feel like this could be the beginning of a larger story, though it really should have been just a bit longer and filled in. I don’t think this is one gamer story I will be continuing.

 

I received a copy of this book through the Around the World ARC tour and will be passing it on to the next person in line. All thoughts are my own.

Mini Review: Free to Fall by Lauren Miller

Free to Fall
Lauren Miller

HarperTeen
I received an ARC through the Around the World ARC tour.
Releases May 13, 2014
469 pages
YA / SciFi / Thriller

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What if there was an app that told you what song to listen to, what coffee to order, who to date, even what to do with your life—an app that could ensure your complete and utter happiness? What if you never had to fail or make a wrong choice?

What if you never had to fall?

Fast-forward to a time when Apple and Google have been replaced by Gnosis, a monolith corporation that has developed the most life-changing technology to ever hit the market: Lux, an app that flawlessly optimizes decision making for the best personal results. Just like everyone else, sixteen-year-old Rory Vaughn knows the key to a happy, healthy life is following what Lux recommends. When she’s accepted to the elite boarding school Theden Academy, her future happiness seems all the more assured. But once on campus, something feels wrong beneath the polished surface of her prestigious dream school. Then she meets North, a handsome townie who doesn’t use Lux, and begins to fall for him and his outsider way of life. Soon, Rory is going against Lux’s recommendations, listening instead to the inner voice that everyone has been taught to ignore — a choice that leads her to uncover a truth neither she nor the world ever saw coming.

I really wish I kept notes while reading books. That way, when some huge life event pulls me away from writing reviews and completely overtakes my day-to-day existence for a chunk of time, I don’t come back to my queue of review books and have nothing much to say about a book I read a month ago. The problem is that I don’t have specifics for Free to Fall, mostly I just remember the way it made me feel.

I remember being leery of the cover, which makes it looked like a non-descript fluffy contemporary romance. I remember being stupid giddy multiple times as pieces fell into place in just the perfect way. I remember heaving a huge sign of complete satisfaction when I came to the end and a sudden overwhelming desire to read Miller’s other book Parallel, which has been sitting on my bookshelf with its similar fluffy contemporary romance cover since before it came out last year. I remember thinking it was amazing that, after a dull 2013 reading, I’d managed to read enough amazing books, including Free to Fall, to possibly make up my top 10 for 2014 in the first two months of the year.

What I do remember about Free to Fall is the science fiction world of the future that was only just out of reach of current technology. Everyone uses Lux to make their decisions for them, which makes life easier and society is just a bunch of sheep following the decisions of some tech geek masterminds who programed Lux in the first place. When Rory goes off to an elite boarding school, she meets a slacker townie, who refuses to follow everyone else and avoids Lux. Together they fall down a rabbit hole of conspiracies and everything gets progressively more sci-fi thriller and exciting. There are secret societies, creepy faculty members and mysterious disappearances.

I loved this book and had I written this review a month ago, it would be all sorts of babbling about how brilliant it is. Rory is smart and intuitive, forced to discover difficult truths and essentially shatter her life to find truth. North is the adorable rebel punk with a Mohawk and an attitude towards authority figures, but is really just a super softy. Free to Fall had everything I could want in a book hidden beneath a generic and unappealing-to-me cover. It’s a standalone that is so completely satisfying from beginning to end that I immediately wanted to go back and read it again. Highly recommend.

 

I received an ARC through the Around the World ARC tour in return for an honest review. The book has long since left my possession.

Review: Expiration Day by William Campbell Powell

Expiration Day
William Campbell Powell

Tor Teen
I received an advance copy of this book through the Around the World ARC tour.
Releases on April 22, 2014
336 pages
YA / SciFi / Robots

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What happens when you turn eighteen and there are no more tomorrows?

It is the year 2049, and humanity is on the brink of extinction….

Tania Deeley has always been told that she’s a rarity: a human child in a world where most children are sophisticated androids manufactured by Oxted Corporation. When a decline in global fertility ensued, it was the creation of these near-perfect human copies called teknoids that helped to prevent the utter collapse of society.

Though she has always been aware of the existence of teknoids, it is not until her first day at The Lady Maud High School for Girls that Tania realizes that her best friend, Siân, may be one. Returning home from the summer holiday, she is shocked by how much Siân has changed. Is it possible that these changes were engineered by Oxted? And if Siân could be a teknoid, how many others in Tania’s life are not real?

Driven by the need to understand what sets teknoids apart from their human counterparts, Tania begins to seek answers. But time is running out. For everyone knows that on their eighteenth “birthdays,” teknoids must be returned to Oxted—never to be heard from again.

It makes me very happy to find great science fiction, especially YA scifi, which can almost follow a pretty formulaic pattern. Toss in robots and I am a happy girl. William Campbell Powell’s Expiration Day is one of those happy surprises that surpasses its premise early on and becomes a genuinely surprising piece of robot science fiction. While the story is built around the scifi elements, the story itself focuses on questions of humanity – what qualities separate human from machines, what makes life worth continuing, where do prejudices begin, the importance of the parent/child bond to the society. These more serious themes are hidden behind the standard story about teenage self-discovery and gaining independence.

Tania lives in a world where human children are rare and a company named Oxted has stepped in to create lifelike humanoid robot children to maintain the illusion of family and the continued survival of the species. There are occasional mentions of riots and disasters after the population found that the specie-wide fertility rate had dropped next to nothing. It’s a bit of a jump to accept that human-like robots could put a stop to the complete denigration of societal norms, but the story was so compelling and Tania is a smart character that I was happy to go along with the conceit.

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Mini Review: Control by Lydia Kang

Control
Lydia Kang

Dial Books for Young Readers
Received an ARC through the Around the World ARC Tour
Releases December 26, 2013
400 pages
YA / Science Fiction / Superpowers

Find it on Goodreads

Preorder it from Amazon 

An un-putdownable thriller for fans of Uglies

When a crash kills their father and leaves them orphaned, Zel knows she needs to protect her sister, Dyl. But before Zel has a plan, Dyl is taken by strangers using bizarre sensory weapons, and Zel finds herself in a safe house for teens who aren’t like any she’s ever seen before—teens who shouldn't even exist. Using broken-down technology, her new friends’ peculiar gifts, and her own grit, Zel must find a way to get her sister back from the kidnappers who think a powerful secret is encoded in Dyl’s DNA.

A spiraling, intense, romantic story set in 2150—in a world of automatic cars, nightclubs with auditory ecstasy drugs, and guys with four arms—this is about the human genetic “mistakes” that society wants to forget, and the way that outcasts can turn out to be heroes.

I can’t imagine having four arms is the best superpower or being green and metabolizing sunlight like a human plant. While not the best superpowers, these odd and very specific mutations made for a really fun science fiction romp through a well-developed mad world. Lydia Kang has taken a somewhat done concept of mutants in the real world and added a unique quality with strange characters and the mystery of a missing sister.

Control opens with a gruesome car wreck that leaves Zel and her younger sister, Dyl, sudden orphans that are unknowingly being followed by the legacy of their scientist father’s secret life. After being separated at the equivalent of a foster home, Zel finds herself in a tower full of locked doors and mysterious mutant inhabitants, but without her sister. The rest of the book finds Zel doing everything in her power to find and retrieve her sister from another group of misfit mutants who have more sinister plans.

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Review: The Dollhouse Asylum by Mary Gray

The Dollhouse Asylum
Mary Gray

Spencer Hill Press
I received a copy of this book through the Around the World ARC tour for review.
Releases October 22, 2013
296 pages
YA / Contemporary / Horror

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Preorder it from Amazon

A virus that had once been contained has returned, and soon no place will be left untouched by its destruction. But when Cheyenne wakes up in Elysian Fields--a subdivision cut off from the world and its monster-creating virus--she is thrilled to have a chance at survival.

At first, Elysian Fields, with its beautiful houses and manicured lawns, is perfect. Teo Richardson, the older man who stole Cheyenne's heart, built it so they could be together. But when Teo tells Cheyenne there are tests that she and seven other couples must pass to be worthy of salvation, Cheyenne begins to question the perfection of his world.

The people they were before are gone. Cheyenne is now "Persephone," and each couple has been re-named to reflect the most tragic romances ever told. Everyone is fighting to pass the test, to remain in Elysian Fields. Teo dresses them up, tells them when to move and how to act, and in order to pass the test, they must play along.

If they play it right, then they'll be safe.

But if they play it wrong, they'll die.

If I were sane, I probably would have stopped reading this book a few chapters in when I started wanting to murder the protagonist myself. But no, I am me and I can’t stop reading a book in the middle unless it’s a rare occasion where I feel like I may die before reaching the conclusion. This book isn’t that bad. This book probably isn’t bad at all, but it hit so many trigger points that I’m really afraid that this review will quickly devolve into a rant of epic proportion.

Because what follows can turn into a rant, I can’t promise I won’t give plot points away, so SPOILER AHEAD, YO*!

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Review: Erased by Jennifer Rush

Erased
Jennifer Rush

Little, Brown Young Readers
I received an ARC through the Around the World ARC tour in return for a review.
Releases January 7, 2014
275 pages
YA / SciFi / Action

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Preorder it from Amazon

They thought they had escaped. They were wrong.

After fleeing the Branch with Sam, Cas, and Nick, Anna is trying to make sense of the memories resurfacing from her old life. At the same time, she's learning how to survive in hiding, following Sam's rules: Don't draw attention to yourself. Always carry a weapon. Know your surroundings. Watch your back.

Then a figure from Anna's childhood reappears. Is it a Branch setup, or could it be the reunion Anna has hoped for? Uncertain of where her loyalties lie, Anna must fight to learn the truth -- before she is betrayed again. Ultimately, the answers hinge on one question: What was the real reason her memories were erased?

Jennifer Rush delivers a thrilling sequel to Altered in a novel packed with mysteries, lies, and surprises that are sure to keep readers guessing until the last age is turned.

Last year Altered was one of my top 10 reads of the year. It was everything I wanted in a debut book – a story that felt complete while leaving strands of storyline open for future books, a subtly strong female character with viewable growth, a nice if standoffish male love interest who is a little lost in the middle of everyday life, and mysterious adventure. I wasn’t sure how Rush could build on the success of the first book without either rehashing the Altered or losing some of the magic along the way. While Erased is a little more complicated, a little more convoluted, it still has that balance of excitement and adventure with emotionally complex bombshells that made the first book so difficult to put down.

POSSIBLE SPOILERS FOR ALTERED AHEAD

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Review: The Chaos of Stars by Kiersten White

The Chaos of Stars
Kiersten White

HarperTeen
I received an ARC through Around the World ARC Tour in return for an honest review.
Releases September 10, 2013
288 pages
YA / Fantasy / Mythology

Find it on Goodreads

Preorder it on Amazon 

Isadora’s family is seriously screwed up.

Of course, as the human daughter of Egyptian gods, that pretty much comes with the territory. She’s also stuck with parents who barely notice her, and a house full of relatives who can’t be bothered to remember her name. After all, they are going to be around forever—and she’s a mere mortal.

Isadora’s sick of living a life where she’s only worthy of a passing glance, and when she has the chance to move to San Diego with her brother, she jumps on it. But Isadora’s quickly finding that a “normal” life comes with plenty of its own epic complications—and that there’s no such thing as a clean break when it comes to family. Much as she wants to leave her past behind, she can’t shake the ominous dreams that foretell destruction for her entire family. When it turns out there may be truth in her nightmares, Isadora has to decide whether she can abandon her divine heritage after all.

I had no idea what to expect going into The Chaos of Stars, having never read any of Kiersten White’s other books, but the idea of reading about teenage mortal children of ancient immortal gods in present day sounded intriguing. What I got was a seemingly well-researched exciting adventure with a capable leading heroine in a world that was like our own, only with a few unusual elements (like ancient gods living among us and stuff). I thoroughly enjoyed reading what could have been a formulaic YA girl-meets-boy, girl-has-misunderstanding-with-boy, girl-hates-boy, meanwhile-evil-plots-and-threatens-girl story, but had so many interesting and unique elements that it felt unusual and new.

I say seemingly well-researched because I honestly wouldn’t know. My knowledge of ancient Egypt and its religious customs is slim. What White uses to create her world shows off not only a solid knowledge of the subject matter, but also a genuine love of the subject matter that bounces off the pages and made me want to research these customs that still live in pockets of Egyptian culture. The opening chapters with lead character Isadora stuck in the underground home of her immortal god parents Isis and Osiris feels just as claustrophobic and constraining as her life feels to her. It opens at a meal where Isadora sits at a table with her goddess mother, joyfully pregnant ahead of schedule, and her undead father, covered in mummy wrappings that hide his blackened flesh. Her brother, the Egyptian god king Horus and his wife, the goddess of sex and beer, round out the oddest dinner party I’ve seen in recent novels. It’s comedic in its normalcy and a bit horrifying at its oddness.

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