Friday, October 30, 2015

ARC Review: Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson

Thanks Rae Carson, Greenwillow Books, and BEA for this signed ARC! The shiny gold signature just made it a little more special :)

First, just take a look at this pretty cover. The writing, the gold dust, the sky . . . so beautiful! Normally I don't like covers with people on the front, but it really works with the whole composition and mood here (and it isn't going to put a strange picture in my head!).

So when I was trying to collect my thoughts and describe this book, the first word that came to mind was "refreshing."

 Walk on Earth a Stranger stands out from a YA crowd of dystopians, contemporary fic, and the ever-popular paranormal. And yet, it will still appeal to readers of all those genres.

Lee (Leah) Westfall is a hard-working young woman with a dangerous secret: she can sense even the tiniest speck of gold nearby. And in gold-rush era America, this is a talent that people would kill for. Still, with supportive, loving parents and a lot of hard work to distract her, Lee manages to lead the fairly normal life of a hard working farm girl. Until terrible tragedy strikes, and Lee is forced to flee her Georgia home for gold-promising California.
Did you ever play the computer game Oregon Trail? If you did, you know the dangers of buffalo stampedes and cholera, and just how important picking proper traveling companions can be. But it isn't just a game: all of those things were real dangers and experiences to people headed west in the 19th Century. Hundreds of people and animals died on the journey, but that didn't stop brave souls from packing up everything they owned and pursuing a dream.

This is the real world backdrop for Walk on Earth a Stranger, and Rae Carson does a fabulous job of bringing this earlier America to life. Naturally, Lee's gold sense adds a supernatural twist, but it's too mild to make the book feel like real fantasy. Instead, it just adds layers of peril and thematic elements to the straight-forward travel/adventure plot. Even if historical fiction (or fantasy) isn't your thing, here are 5 reasons you should check out Walk on Earth a Stranger.

5 Reasons You Should Read Walk on Earth a Stranger

1. Rae Carson knows how to write strong, relatable heroines. Like Elisa in Girl of Fire and Thorns, Lee is neither perfect nor invincible. She is human, albeit a gifted one. Hard work and responsibility have made her tough, but in a period authentic way. In other words, she's a well written character who you will root for and empathize with.

2. The Setting. Look at the Oregon Trail mention above. Carson brings the trek west to life, and her evocative writing will grab you. It's different from any YA I've seen in a while, which made it a refreshing read. Also, there's a lot of discussion starters here, which would make it perfect for a teen book club.

3. The girl disguises as a guy - and it makes sense! Don't let the trope turn you off: Lee's disguise is 100% necessary, and Carson uses the disguise to examine and develop Lee's character. Carson skillfully examines gender roles, identity, and even identity complexes, without ever making her author-voice heard. And at the end of the day, Lee just wants to be herself: she's tired of lying about what she can do and who she is, and this played a big role in the story.

4. No tedious romance or melodrama. I know, I know, I'm always praising this. But seriously - I always have to make note of a book that develops ANY relationships with care and logic. Though there is a very slow burn romance hinted at with Lee's best friend, it makes sense and doesn't descend into silliness or a mess. And as for melodrama, a bunch of terrible things happen, but Lee reacts in a logical, period-accurate way, and she's a survivor. I really loved reading about her, and I can't wait to see where her further travels take her.

5. The writing. This ties into all of the above, but Rae Carson's worldbuilding and descriptions really pull you in. I know some readers found the start a bit slow, but I thought that it drew you in and centered you, only to throw you into a whirlwind with Lee. Everything from the pacing to the details about wagons and scenery immersed you in the story.

So there are 5 reasons you should read it, but this wouldn't be a fair and honest review if I didn't at least touch on the two reasons this book didn't get a five star rating from me.

1. The typecast preacher. We've all seen him: a cross between Mr. Collins (Pride and Prejudice) and St. John (Jane Eyre). And sure, there have been people like him. But I get tired of all Christian/pastor characters being portrayed as (often well-meaning) loony bigots who interpret "trusting God" as a lack of participation in their own life, and confuse witnessing to their fellows with forcing themselves on others. Granted, several of the side characters, in consistency with history, were portrayed as Christians, or at least paid lip-service to the "mind of the times" (which is authentic). But it's more the stereotypical character type that bothered me.

2. The minor character development with the multitude of side characters. Overall, this wasn't much of a quibble, as it's Lee's story. But I felt like her Uncle was a little too mustachio-twirling villain (he had his motives), and Jefferson (Lee's best friend) was mild and loyal, with the interesting twist that he was half-Cherokee, but I would have liked to see more reasons to care about him. Anyhow, there were a bunch of characters that we didn't see much of, so it was sometimes surprising (to me) when they'd pop up in the text (I couldn't remember who they were, etc.). The handy cast list at the beginning did help a bit though.

So, those things aside, I really enjoyed Walk on Earth a Stranger, and I am definitely invested in Lee's story. I'm sure Carson will develop the other important characters more fully in the following books, and I can't wait to see where she takes things.

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars. Walk on Earth a Stranger is a solid start to a series I will continue. With a diverse cast, historically accurate details, and just a touch of the supernatural, it's a fun read for both teens and adults.

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