Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Taken: The Role Switch Edition

So when I say this book is like Taken, with roles switched, you should know I've never seen the movie Taken.  You know why?  Because I'm so sure it's not for me.  So you can probably guess where this review is headed...
  • This was one of my sampler review copies.  I didn't opt in.  It's important to understand that, because when I do raise my hand for a book, it's because I find the jacket copy appealing and think I'll enjoy reading it.  I don't read books for the sake of knowing what's inside every new-to-market title.  So when I picked this up, I wasn't enthused.  I decided I'd read it anyway -- to expand my horizons -- for the sake of coverage...  I did not enjoy it.  The good news here, is that this has no bearing on how you'll feel about the book if you're a Taken / Girl with a Dragon Tattoo fan; if the post title enticed you here, there's a good chance you're exactly who this book is meant for. 
  • I was open to the possibility of surprise.  The protagonist knew a bunch of languages and was clearly haunted.  I was moderately interested in her.  Then there was a slap-fight between her and a rich girl at school.  I can push past some tropes, but they just. kept. coming.  Insta-like, check.  Mentor fight-trainer who gets you world-ready in a few sessions, check.  Freshly-trained-teenager who is able to outsmart criminal masterminds for whom crime has been their business for decades, check.  Heroine *must* dress up in an evening gown for one of the missions/operations/heists, checkety check check.  I could have swallowed any one of this things.   The quick succession of trope-punches made for my head turning into a speed ball.  
  • It didn't help that I had so recently read Whose Afraid Too which was similarly afflicted with a case of Hypertropeosis.  When I found myself on the sparring mat in yet another new city with another new mentor I had a mental double-take.  When protag hits the mat and shares an exchange, breathless, with her trainer, it felt like 100 movies and other books.  I'm not in the mood right now.  Maybe you're craving that?  You're in luck.  I wasn't...and I needed a lot more spunk to make it work, but sadly...
  • I found protag Gwen unlikable. I found her selfish, assuming and cocky.  Have I liked selfish, assuming and cocky characters before?  Yes, I have (Let's see; Ronan Lynch, Manon, Kaz Brekker, Caldenia, Kvothe...need I go on?).  What those characters had that Gwen lacked was spunk.  Gwendolyn wasn't smart, funny or quirky.  She wasn't generous, charismatic, or compelling.  She was flat.
  • When I try to think of examples of YA male authors who have respectfully or beautifully-written a strong female lead, few come to mind; Markus Zusak leaps out as a phenomenal exception.  It's possible.  But more often than not, I cringe through men writing lead women.  Am I reading Bergstrom's novel through a gendered, skeptic's lens? I don't think so.  I think what I read unfortunately (and I hope unintentionally) revealed a denigrating sexist tone.  When Gwen receives wolf-whistles on the street she thinks "they love this," meaning her school uniform and legs.  She also attributes the wolf-whistling to her recent weight-loss (she had to become a mean, lean, warrior machine, right?  I mean, she wasn't overweight before, but she really deserves wolf whistles now she is thinner).  In Bergstrom's defence, this is his first book...John Grisham's written wheelbarrow-loads in the adult fic realm and I haven't found a single female lead I've enjoyed there either.  It's hard to sell your way into YA's female-dominated genre, but I'd say it's harder when your female protags fall terribly short. 
  • She wasn't the only character I didn't enjoy.  I didn't care for anybody.  It felt like the book was more focused on spotlighting the shady underbelly of the criminal world than building relationships or characters.  I read for relationships and characters.  Crime?  Small doses, please.
  • I found numerous narrative devices were used in a way I found lazy or clumsy.  Characters foreshadow action explicitly in speech (e.g. ~"You will be betrayed and you will betray others").  Hmmmm.  Unless there's a jedi, magic, or some supernatural element involved, I don't want my characters to spout the future like that.  It was weird, and it happened more than once.  There's frequent and ugly swearing which didn't add anything to characters or action -- this isn't to my taste.  It was often at its worst with those who weren't criminals (I would think the latter might more reasonably be typed to be uncouth).  Gwen is given a clunky inner monologue to explain how she metamorphs from quiet, educated and well-travelled to bold, daring assassin extraordinaire suggesting this sleeping giant was inside her all along.  Except...without such a metaphor or real explanation at all.  I didn't appreciate, understand or believe her change.  Instead I found her inner-workings were grasping after something innate yet a book free of magic or science fiction.  This hobbled along lame, for me.
  • The plotting felt forced and foreseeable.  So many conveniences were wince-worthy.  There were big leaps in belief suspension regularly.  The end is a second book set-up (*gag*). 
  • And yet...there is an extreme level of accuracy in setting details.  We are always told the exact restaurant that is on which road after riding which subway line.  The juxtaposition and inconsistency in the details for setting versus plot, character and relationships only made what was missing from the essential parts more apparent.  I wish these kind of details filled in the glaring blanks with Gwen's change, her relationships, and plot leaps.
 There's a very strong chance Bergstrom's new series will find its mark with people other than me.  Sadly, I don't have a lot of good things to say about this book -- but bear in mind, I didn't think I would, but gave it a go anyway.  Overall?  Cruelty reads like a conscious attempt to cash-in on the female-dominated YA market through a smashing mash-up of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo and Bourne Identity...which is sadly carried by a half-baked heroine.  Based on Bergstrom's dig, in-text, he doesn't even think cracking into the market is hard to do (yup, he insults YA dystopian lit in-story).   Yup, YA is a diverse field with quite a quality spectrum -- ranging from high literary art to simple's okay to poke some fun...buuuut....I think Cruelty has verged a little on the arrogant side* and sadly falls short of being at all better (or even equal) to most of the contemporaries.   So it's clear, I'm not a fan.  But I doubt I'll dent book sales much (this comes out next week), considering this is only the beginning of a six-book deal and Paramount's applauding!  If you've been reading this post and thinking, "That sounds like all the things I like!" you'll be so happy!  YAY!

I cannot resist sharing these two excellent tweets:
Don't just take my word for it!  Or the words of my stranger-pals, carefully selected from today's echo chamber... see what another devoted YA fan has to say about Cruelty; Stella read advanced copy too.  You can check out what she thinks here.

*Bergstrom's interview did little to support any contrary opinion on this verdict...see Tweet 2, above.

Review copy received from Walker
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