Young at Heart Blog Tour, Giveaway and Review: First by Chanda Stafford

First Book Cover First
Chanda Stafford

Seventeen-year-old Mira works on a farm in the ruins of Texas, along with all of the other descendants of the defeated rebels. Though she’s given her heart to Tanner, their lives are not their own.

When Socrates, a powerful First, chooses Mira as his Second, she is thrust into the bewildering world of the rich and influential. Will, a servant assigned to assist her, whispers of rebellion, love, and of a darker fate than she’s ever imagined.

With time running out, Mira must decide whether to run to the boy she left behind, to the boy who wants her to live, or to the man who wants her dead.

Review

(Actual rating: 2.5 stars)

Have you ever thought about where society would be if Mother Theresa had had another 80 years to continue her humanitarian work and minister to the needs of the poor? If Leonardo da Vinci had had more time to study and invent and create? If Albert Einstein had had another lifetime in which to contribute to the field of theoretical physics?

In First, humanity has figured out “a way for a select few to live forever so that their talents [won’t] die when they [do].” The work of these “select few,” known as Firsts, is not limited by a short lifespan. Instead, the Firsts are immortal, able to carry on with their duties as ambassadors, humanitarians, inventors, etc. with no interruptions by death.

It is tradition for each First to choose a young boy or girl to serve as his or her Second. Being chosen is a great honor, as Seconds are granted Absolution of their ancestors’ crimes. What are these crimes, you ask? Well, 200 years ago, Texas rebelled against the rest of the United States, leading to a bitter war and the eventual subjugation of all of Texas. Even though the war took place two centuries ago, modern-day Texans are still forced to labor as slaves as punishment for the sins of their forefathers.

The only escape from this life of servitude is to be chosen as a Second, which comes at a price: a Second must leave his or her home and go to live with their First, never to see their family or friends again. Despite this stipulation and the fact that most children have no understanding of what being a Second entails, most jump at the chance to be Absolved.

First is told from the alternating points of view of Socrates, a First, and Mira, the 17-year-old girl he chooses as his Second. Socrates is hands down what I loved most about the book. As the first of the Firsts, he’s over 500 years old and has great insight about the history of Project ReGenesis and the motivations of the people who started it. I found this fascinating, as I really, really like the idea that influential people can live on and contribute to the world without their efforts being abbreviated by mortality.

It’s not just Socrates’ insight that I appreciated – I liked his personality as well. He’s gruff, kind, and nostalgic about the old days when “antiques” such as ballpoint pens and motorcycles were still in use. His health is failing and his memory is slipping, but he clings fiercely to his independence despite his reliance on a service dog and cane. He’s got a sense of humor, as shown by the lovely banter between him and his partner Ellie, who is also a First. The relationship between these two is something else I really enjoyed. There’s an abiding fondness and familiarity between Socrates and Ellie that comes from centuries of companionship, and it warmed my heart.

As much as I liked Socrates, I wasn’t crazy about the sections of the book narrated by Mira. It’s not that she’s an unlikable character, just an inconsistent one. In fact, this was a problem not only with Mira, but with the novel as a whole.

Several of the characters seemed to change moods and beliefs frequently, swinging from furious to flirtatious to depressed to passionate. This left my head spinning, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether all of the characters were suffering from bipolar disorder. On one page, for example, Mira calls Socrates a monster, but just a few pages later she’s helping him and insisting that she doesn’t consider him a monster. Likewise, there’s a scene in which we get this quote: “Anger smolders to life, but I squash it down. This is no place to get into an argument. I jump to my feet. If Will and the others think I’m going to just sit back for this, they’re the idiots.” She contradicts herself in the space of a single paragraph – she says she isn’t going to argue, and yet she jumps out of her seat to do that very thing.

The inconsistencies extend to the plot as well. Sometimes the key to the Firsts’ immortality is treated like a closely guarded secret, and other times it is appears to be common knowledge. Likewise, Mira’s status as a Second leads to her being alternately pampered and treated like trash, which left me confused.

Another problem I had with First is that I really struggled with the whole Texas / rebellion / Absolution concept. I have a hard time believing that the entire state of Texas would still be enslaved for crimes that their forefathers had committed 200 years ago. So much of the plot hinges on this construct that the lack of believability made it really difficult for me to get into the story.

In spite of all this, I still have to say that I love the basic premise of First. This, plus a superb ending to the book (it’s a powerful, moving, and fitting conclusion), means that I will most likely be checking out the next book in this Live Once trilogy.

A free copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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First is available for purchase at: AmazonBarnes & NobleGoogle Play, and iBooks.

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Review: Dualed by Elsie Chapman

Dualed Book Cover Dualed
Elsie Chapman

The city of Kersh is a haven, but the price of safety is high. Everyone has a genetic Alternate, a twin raised by another family, and teens must prove their worth by eliminating their Alts before their twentieth birthday. Survival means advanced schooling, a good job, marriage – life.

West Grayer has trained as a fighter, preparing for the day when her assignment arrives and she will have one month to hunt down and kill her Alt. But a tragic misstep shakes West’s confidence. Stricken with grief and guilt, she’s no longer certain that she’s the best version of herself, the version worthy of a future. If she is to have any chance of winning, she must stop running not only from her Alt, but also from love…though both have the power to destroy her.

Review:

I’m amazed. I had no idea that a book containing as many life-or-death situations as Dualed could be so incredibly boring.

I was completely underwhelmed by this book, which is disappointing – the idea behind it had so much promise.  As mentioned in the blurb, Kersh, the futuristic city in which the story takes place, is a walled stronghold in North America. It was built to protect those who live there from the war and violence that dominates the rest of the world. In exchange for safety, the citizens of Kersh must prove themselves worthy of the city’s hospitality. They do so by fighting against their genetic Alternate until only the smarter, tougher twin is left standing, thus ensuring that Kersh has an army of capable soldiers available to fight in case of an outside attack. It’s Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” concept taken to the extreme.

A story idea like this one has tremendous potential, but that potential is undermined by the fact that almost nothing that happens in this book makes any sense. I found myself questioning just about every move and decision the characters make, as these moves seem to be completely counterintuitive.

I try very hard not to include spoilers in my reviews, but in this case I’m making an exception. If you plan to read this book, you shouldn’t read anything below this point.

Early in the book, West, the protagonist, discovers that there is a group of assassins, called Strikers, who can be hired to illegally kill a person’s Alternate for a large fee. The leader of the Strikers justifies his occupation by stating that it’s wrong for the government to use the Alternate rivalry to decide which person is worthy of survival; just because someone is willing and able to murder his/her genetic twin doesn’t mean they’re the better of the pair.

I agree with that sentiment, but what I don’t understand is how the Strikers assassinating Alternates makes for a fairer system. Accepting money to act as hitmen serves only to ensure that wealthier Alternates survive rather than Alternates who are better fighters, which doesn’t seem to be much of an improvement over the current system. It’d be different if the Strikers secretly followed Alternates around to determine which is the kinder, more decent human being, and then killed the lesser of the two, but that isn’t the case here. It’s all for profit, nothing more and nothing less.

Despite the Strikers’ lack of proper reasoning, West decides to join their ranks, thinking that killing other people’s Alternates will give her enough practice to increase her chances of killing her own. Again, this seems illogical to me. If West is afraid she’s not skilled enough to kill her Alternate without practice, how on Earth does she expect to murder dozens of other people? Also, doesn’t it seem counterintuitive to put herself in dangerous situations multiple times in order to “make it safer” when she and her Alternate ultimately fight their final battle?

Another thing that bothers me is West’s determination to push away Chord, a childhood friend and the closest thing she has left to family. She’s afraid that his affection for her will put him in danger, that he’ll want to be by her side when it’s time for her to fight her Alternate. This makes her do everything in her power to distance herself from Chord in order to keep him safe. I can understand why she might wish to do so, but she never seems to realize that attempting to separate herself from Chord just makes him more persistent in his efforts to stick by her. Because West refuses to keep in contact with him and update him on her safety, Chord must resort to tailing her all across town to make sure that she’s okay, thereby putting himself in more danger than if West had just allowed him to tag along in the first place. West sees that this is happening but still insists on pushing Chord away regardless of how ineffective it is to do so.

These are only a few examples of the many illogical situations and decisions in Dualed, so numerous that I just couldn’t get past them. It didn’t help that there are jarring sections in the novel where weeks pass from the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next, making the story jump around in a way that is confusing. I gave up trying to make sense of this story and instead focused on getting to the end as quickly as possible.

Review: Eve by Anna Carey

Eve Book Cover Eve
Anna Carey

Sixteen years after a deadly virus wiped out most of Earth’s population, the world is a perilous place. Eighteen-year-old Eve has never been beyond the heavily guarded perimeter of her school , where she and two hundred other orphaned girls have been promised a future as the teachers and artists of the New America. But the night before graduation, Eve learns the shocking truth about her school’s real purpose – and the horrifying fate that awaits her. 

Fleeing the only home she’s ever known, Eve sets off on a long, treacherous journey, searching for a place she can survive. Along the way she encounters Arden, her former rival from school, and Caleb, a rough, rebellious boy living in the wild. Separated from men her whole life, Eve has been taught to fear them, but Caleb slowly wins her trust…and her heart. He promised to protect her, but when soldiers begin hunting them, Eve must choose between true love and her life.

Review:

I didn’t actually finish Eve, but I read enough to know that it’s basically a watered down, young adult version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Both stories are set in a future where the population has dropped so low that the authorities have resorted to drastic measures, reducing women to nothing more than breeding machines to ensure that humanity does not become extinct.

Though the two books deal with a similar theme, the tone and mood of the stories are vastly different. A Handmaid’s Tale is emotionally draining, as many of the events in the story are ugly and painful. It’s a difficult book to read, and the experience will make you feel as raw as if someone’s scoured you with sandpaper. Still, the emotional power of The Handmaid’s Tale makes it one of the most unforgettable stories I’ve ever read.

In contrast, Eve has a much lighter feel – in my opinion, too light. That’s not to say there aren’t horrors in the world in which Eve lives; there’s plenty of nasty stuff that goes on as a result of the population crisis. Little boys are enslaved and forced to perform backbreaking labor 14 hours a day. Wild animals and even wilder men roam the abandoned streets, awaiting defenseless victims. Teenage girls are imprisoned in asylums where they are strapped to tables and forced to gestate and give birth again and again until their bodies give out. And yet, somehow, the emotional punch that the book should pack just isn’t there.

The problem is that the terrors in the book are relegated to the background rather than being made the central story. Much of the novel focuses on silly, inconsequential “conflicts” between Eve and her love interest, or Eve and her former schoolmate. There’s too much lightness and fluff, too many scenes that don’t further the plot and that undermine the seriousness of the book. As a result, the stakes don’t feel very high, and any power the story could have had drains away.

For that reason, I would recommend The Handmaid’s Tale over Eve any day of the week. It’s better written, much more compelling, and guaranteed to change the way you look at the world. That being said, I do want to add a disclaimer – The Handmaid’s Tale has some mature content that might not be suitable for all readers. Those who can’t stomach books that include strong language and graphically portray sexual exploitation may find Eve the better choice for them after all.

Review: Midnight City by J. Barton Mitchell

Midnight City Book Cover Midnight City
J. Barton Mitchell

Earth has been conquered by an alien race known as the Assembly. The human adult population is gone, having succumbed to the Tone – a powerful, telepathic super-signal broadcast across the planet that reduces them to a state of complete subservience. But the Tone has one critical flaw. It only affects the population once they reach their early twenties, which means that there is one group left to resist: children.

Holt Hawkins is a bounty hunter, and his current target is Mira Toombs, an infamous treasure seeker with a price on her head. It’s not long before Holt bags his prey, but their instant connection isn’t something he bargained for. Neither is the Assembly ship that crash lands near them shortly after. Venturing inside, Holt finds a young girl who remembers nothing except her name: Zoey.

As the three make their way to the cavernous metropolis of Midnight City, they encounter young freedom fighters, mutants, otherworldly artifacts, pirates, feuding alien armies, and the amazing powers that Zoey is beginning to exhibit. Powers that suggest she, as impossible as it seems, may just be the key to stopping the Assembly once and for all.

Review:

I expected this novel to be a little edgier than it turned out to be. In most dystopian novels, survivors are, by necessity, rough, tough and a little (or a lot) dangerous. When life as one knows it ends, there is no room for pleasantries, and the harsher sides of humanity are exposed. For this reason, I anticipated a much cruder backdrop for Midnight City.

In my mind, I guess I pictured a world similar to the one in the movie Book of Eli, in which all food and water is controlled by manipulative, sharp-eyed crooks and murder, theft, and sexual iniquity are prominent. I realize this is a young adult novel we’re talking about here, and that Midnight City is run by children and teenagers, but in real life kids are fully capable of committing horrific acts – if you don’t believe me, just turn on the news. While there is some degree of power abuse and foul deeds occurring in Midnight City, it certainly isn’t at the level I would have imagined in a world devoid of adults and law.

That being said, Midnight City is still a decent read, though it took me a while to get into it. With the exception of the first chapter, which opens with our dashing hero fighting off attacks first by hoodlums and then by the aliens that have taken over the planet, the first half of the book drags. Once the three main characters join up and make it to Midnight City, however, the pace picks up and the story is much more engaging.

The plot has a lot of potential that I hope will be realized as this series progresses. There are several plot elements that aren’t sufficiently explained in Midnight City, and I suspect this is because they will be further developed in later books. For example, I’d love to learn more about the alien Assembly and what they’re doing on Earth. I’d also like to get more information on the frequently mentioned but never explored Strange Lands, as well as the magical artifacts that come from them. The existence of magic doesn’t really seem to fit with the rest of the novel, but with additional information I think I could come to terms with it.

As far as characters go, I was quite happy with Holt Hawkins as a hero. He’s kind yet cunning and is all sorts of awesome when it comes to a fight. His relationship with Mira is a little too cliché for my taste, but it could be worse. Zoey was probably my favorite character – there’s much more to this little girl than meets the eye. She possesses special abilities that lead Holt and Mira to suspect that she may be their best weapon against the Assembly, but at the same time she’s still a child – sweet, vulnerable, and refreshingly naïve, able to find joy in something as small as jellybeans or playing fetch with Holt’s dog.

So, in the end, would I recommend this book? The answer is: it depends. I’m sure there are readers out there who will really enjoy Midnight City, especially those who like apocalyptic stories but prefer them on the milder side, without too much sex, violence, ruthlessness, etc. Other readers, those who like a little more darkness and realism in their stories, may want to pass over this book for something grittier. I leave it to you to decide in which of those categories you fall.