Saturday, November 26, 2011

Review: Birthmarked by Caragh M. O'Brien

Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Publication Date: March 30th, 2010

IN THE ENCLAVE, YOUR SCARS SET YOU APART, and the newly born will change the future.
Sixteen-year-old Gaia Stone and her mother faithfully deliver their quota of three infants every month. But when Gaia’s mother is brutally taken away by the very people she serves, Gaia must question whether the Enclave deserves such loyalty. A stunning adventure brought to life by a memorable heroine, this dystopian debut will have readers racing all the way to the dramatic finish.

(Courtesy of Goodreads)

I have had this book on my TBR for well over a year, but kept putting it aside for something else.  This book's been nominated for a lot of awards, and to be honest, I am usually turned off by that.  I know it sounds backward, but let me explain...  I am more often than not, disappointed by books that have gotten a lot of award attention.  I feel like the judges for these awards are often adults who don't typically read YA, and that they are making their choices based on criteria they would use for Adult Fiction.  Because teachers and librarians (who don't have time to read everything) often rely on award winners for guidance, I feel like kids are often given books to read that that can't relate to or don't really interest them, and that saddens me (I will save the rest of my diatribe on this for another post). That said, Birthmarked kept getting pushed aside despite all the great things I had heard about it.  Recently I got an ARC of Prized, its sequel, and figured that I should get around to reading it so I could read Prized.  Once again, I am kicking myself for waiting so long to read a book.  It really was an excellent read.

I will start by noting the (very) few things I didn't like about it.  First, I have to warn you that I found this book very slow to start.  It took me four days to read this book, and that is quite a long time for me to read a book of under 400 pages.  At the beginning, I just wasn't getting into the story.  I don't know if that had more to do with a flaw in the storyline of the fact that it took me a really long time to warm up to Gaia, the protagonist.  I took me three days to read the first 150 pages, and one day to read the rest.  Second, I found some of the character development lacking.  Gaia was pretty well rendered, as you would expect the protagonist to be, but the rest of the characters lacked depth.  I felt like Leon was getting there, but then the book ended.  Gaia's parents were interesting characters, but I never learned enough about them to really care about their fates.  Also, Gaia had two brothers who were "adavanced"; she learns the identity of one of them, but he runs off to outside the walls when he finds out, and we never get to know more about him- I found that disappointing and rather unbelievable.  He knew his only living family were imprisoned inside the walls, so why did he leave them?  We got glimpses of other characters that played relatively important roles, but again, no depth.  Perhaps we will see more of them in Prized?  Finally, I know this book falls under the Dystopia genre, but as far-fetched as Dystopias can be, I like them to be plausible, and the setting of this one just wasn't; there were some important elements that didn't make sense to me as far as human nature is concerned (I can't really say more to that point without spoilers).  You would think that the things listed would be difficult hurdles to overcome, but that's not the case.  This book has so much going for it, that once you get past these things, it still comes out a winner in the end, and here's why...

Although it took me awhile to warm up to Gaia, by the end of the book, she became one of my all-time favorite kick-ass female heroines ever.  (I even nominated her in the YA Sisterhood Tournament of Heroines- she didn't make the cut, but still.)  She isn't a warm, fuzzy character, but she's had a tough life and she's got a lot of understandable insecurity and bitterness.  Because of her physical scars, she has a great deal of emotional scarring, yet she doesn't let either stand in the way of doing what she believes is right.  She also doesn't let fear stand in her way; she is often terrified, but faces her fear head-on, and overcomes.  She reminds me a lot of my all-time favorite female heroine, Katsa, from Graceling.  If you've read it, you know that's a huge compliment.  I know I'm in the minority here, but I also liked the romantic element between Gaia and Leon.  Yes, it was dry and awkward at times, but neither is the stereotypically romantic type.  Their feelings for each other were slow to build because they weren't based on superficial things, and I find that so much more genuine and believable than the typical love-at-first-sight scenario that is the center of most YA romances.  One of my complaints about this book was its slow start, and I stand by that; the pacing of this book was definitely erratic.  However, when this book was exciting, the excitement was heart-poundingly so.  Gaia had a mission, and she was going to stop at nothing to accomplish it, and sometimes that led to very tense moments.  These moments made up for the slow parts, and then some.

One of the things Caragh O'Brien did best in this book was the world-building.  She describes settings and situations very well.  Although, as I mentioned before, some of the situations didn't seem plausible to me, I could still envision them with an almost HD-like clarity.  When a place was described, I could picture it, and I could reference back to it later in the book, which is often quite difficult.  It was very clear, based on the descriptions, how wide a divide something as simple as a wall can generate.  The lives of the people on either side were so drastically different, despite their close proximity.  I found the plot of this book very interesting and unique.  Although this book could definitely be a stand alone, I'm glad it's a series.  I think the story has a lot of promise, and I am eager to know what the future holds for Gaia and her sister.

My Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★  

Grade Level Recommendation:  This book is pretty clean.  No foul language or gratuitous violence.  Gaia is a midwife, so the reader should probably understand something of how babies are made and born, but there is no sex.  The romance is as innocent as can be.  There are some thought-provoking themes in this book that would be lost on someone  too young, though.  For that reason, I would say this book is best for mature 6th graders and up (ages 12+).


  1. I have had this book recommended to me too and I still haven't read it, even though, like you, I know many people who've loved it. I'll have to move it up on my list!

  2. Nice review. These have Been on my list too. I'm very excited to read them now.


Thanks for visiting my blog! I adore comments since they make me feel special and loved, just please don't spam me. I'm not interested in vacation offers, millions of dollars from Nigeria, or anything not book related!

Also, this is an award-free blog. As flattered as I am, I just don't have time. I'm happy if I have time to post all of my reviews on time, and am a momma of three to boot, but I appreciate the thoughts! XO