Sunday, December 29, 2013

Favorites: 2013 Edition

It's time. As I start this post, 2013 has approximately three days left. I need to choose.
This list will be like my list last year: all YA, ranked from last to first, with my favorite book of the year being number 1. That one is easy. The rest... well, we'll see how many I end up with this year. Last year it was 16, but this year I read literally twice as many books. So, yeah.

[update: I ended up with 19 20. Tee... hee.]
[update #2: Also, they're all by female authors, accidentally. I tried to find books by male authors to add, but it turns out I didn't read very many of those this year. Which is something I should/might work on next year, but probably I'll just keep reading what I want to read, regardless of authorial gender.]

20. Unravel Me by Tahereh Mafi
Okay, so here's the thing about the Shatter Me series: the prose of the first book is purposefully awful-- the key word here being purposefully. Tahereh Mafi has known her main character's development since the beginning, and she's been writing it into the very way the character speaks to the reader. So if you're thinking about checking out this series, DO NOT LISTEN to the reviewers on Goodreads who complain excessively about the prose. It gets better-- by which I mean it sounds less like you're in the head of a mental patient having an existential crisis-- in the second book. And it will get even better than that in the third. And Juliette's not the only one who gets character development in this book; in fact, I'm pretty sure Tahereh was just walking around inside her own head, swinging a giant "character development" club. No one was spared. (Well, except Adam. Who was apparently hit on the head with something harder and less useful than a Character Development Club.)

19. Altered by Jennifer Rush
This is a breath of fresh air in the dystopian genre, if you could even say it falls into that category. There's weird stuff going on and it's definitely not the world we live in, but it's a lot like it. It's our world, but with a secret pocket of sciencey people who are up to no good. And the characters are capital G Great.

18. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve Tucholke
So if you remember my review of this book, you'll remember that I felt like it was written for me. I mean, gothic-ish cliffside town? Moral ambiguity? Easily
paired with a specific song by the Civil Wars? Sign me up. Honestly the fact that this only made it to number 18 is more a comment on the other books than it is on this one. Just you wait.

17. This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith
I'm a sucker for Jennifer E. Smith, what can I say. Third-person contemporary romances are hard to come by, and I eat hers up like my morning cereal (which is to say, fast. I inhale food in the morning).

16. Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund
I mean, the main character is a socialite-slash-disguised-hero with a pet sea otter named Slipstream. You do the math.

15. Golden by Jessi Kirby
I think this book came to me at the exact time when I would most identify with
its main character, Parker. It's a heart-stealing combination of love, mystery and poetry, that shows us the choices to be made when ambition doesn't meet up with expectation, when you're stuck between childhood and adulthood, or even when you just don't know where to go from here. From what I can tell, this book has been special to everyone who has read it.

14. The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider
A perfect book for a year with no new John Green novels, and what is quite possibly the YA book that most successfully balanced humor and tragedy this year. I wasn't even bitter that it gave me a sunburn.

13. These Broken Stars by Amy Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
Again, the word that immediately comes to mind is "sparkly." I don't know what's wrong with my brain, that it can't come up with a better word for this fantastic book. There are starships and strange planets and invisible creatures and a good, solid romance and a female character who sees our societal demand for Strong Female Characters and raises us the acknowledgment that "Strong" and "Weak" are not mutually exclusive, as well as a male character who sees the Tough Soldier trope and raises us a happy-- not painful-- backstory and a whole lot of caring. Competence abounds, in both the characters and the authors.

12. Just One Day / Just One Year by Gayle Forman
Yeah, yeah, yeah, they're two books. But they both came out this year, and they're about the same characters, so get over it. Just One Day is my favorite of the two, but they're both the thoughtful, romantic, character-driven books we've come to expect from Gayle Forman. And trust me, there's never going to be a year when Gayle has a new book out and I don't put her on this list.

11. Night of Cake & Puppets by Laini Taylor
Okay, so I know Laini had an ~actual book~ out this year and that this is just a novella, but CONFESSION: I haven't gotten around to reading Days of Blood and Starlight yet, though I had Laini sign my copy at LeakyCon. You see, I could confidently have her sign and personalize it for me because I know I'll love it and will therefore keep it. But I did read Night of Cake & Puppets, and let me tell you, it's adorable. Zuzana is one of my favorite characters in the history of ever, and the magic sprinkled throughout the story is just delicious, as is Laini's writing. Just perfect.

10. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
Usually a Holly Black book would be way up there on my list, but CONFESSION #2: I grow weary of new takes on vampire mythology. Luckily for me, the originality of this one outweighs the ennui I'm feeling with the genre. Holly is a plot wizard who dallies in compelling characters and fascinating worlds. The end.

9. Never Fade by Alexandra Bracken
If I had had half a brain last year, I would have read The Darkest Minds before the year was up and included it in my Best of 2012 List. But alas, I did not read it until I'd secured an eARC of this, book 2 in the series. Double whammy. One of the best dystopian series out there-- yes, better than Divergent; no, not as good as The Hunger Games are you crazy-- Never Fade is nonstop action, drama and character development throughout. Psychological thriller, dystopia, romance, paranormal, action, this series has ALL THE FACETS.

8. Eleanor & Park / Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
I cannot choose, and you cannot make me. If you haven't read Eleanor & Park yet, I don't know what the heck you are waiting for. My coworker recommends it to everyone who likes John Green, but I would like to add everyone who likes Gayle Forman, Stephanie Perkins and/or David Levithan to that list. The same goes for Fangirl, but more specifically for those who have ever been... well, fangirls.

7. The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson
I'm still not over it.
[Read this series right now because misery loves company and also because it's great ok bye]

6. Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo
The fact that this series provides a villain who is so endlessly fascinating that people mistake him for a love interest, and yet who REMAINS A VILLAIN, just basically shows you what an excellent writer Leigh Bardugo is. I mean, you've got Alina, the female main character who comes into this intense and consuming power but who is also the main source of comic relief; you've got Mal, the adorable, competent, puppydog friend [slash ACTUAL love interest], who may be unflinchingly loyal but at the same time he's not willing to sit around and wait while Alina makes her decisions; and you've got the Darkling, who I mentioned before. And in this installment, we get Sturmhond the Magnificent (or, that's what I call him in my head. Starting now)! Add in this Russian-inspired fantasy world and it's just a win-win-win for everyone and there's no pain or feelings and you definitely won't cry or throw things or feel like you want to take over a country.
Oh, wait.

5. How to Love by Katie Cotugno
This is not a great book for a debut novel. It's a great book, period. This is how contemporary romances with heavy subject matters should be done. Sawyer and Reena are characters whose lives mattered to me in a very short amount of time, and I didn't want to leave them by the time the book was over. My Harper rep at work said it was recommended to her but she was afraid to read it because she had it in her head that it would be another beachy summer romance to be housed in the YA/Pop Culture section. No. No, no, no. It's not depressing; it's emotional. It's not light; it's entertaining. It's both, and it's wonderful.

4. Requiem by Lauren Oliver 
This book was the redemption I was hoping for after Pandemonium. Still flawless, poetic, subtle yet forceful writing, but this time things happened. Also: Lena, Alex (!), Hana. The actual perfect ending to this series, no matter what anyone says (but really, it pains me that this book has such a low rating on Goodreads because some people are spoiled and didn't get exactly what they wanted. Learn the value in telling the right story, people, instead of just the story you think should be told.)

3. Untold by Sarah Rees Brennan
She did it again. I stayed up until 3:30am to finish this book, and then when I did, there was no one around to hear my wails. Sarah has established her Basic Trilogy Outline, which determines that Book 2 is the Make-Out Book. And oh, was it. First, there was a raging sea of angst. Then, finally, my ship found land. It was happy. We bounded, my ship and I, through fields of bliss and magic (not to be confused with evil sorcery, which I will get to in a few seconds). Nothing could stop us now!
And then.
She did.
The thing.
You know, the thing. That she does. With the characters. And the evil. And the torment. And Jared, always Jared. My heart weeps for you, damaged Lynburn boy. Someday, this world will turn your way. (I lie to him to ease his incessant pain.)

2. Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare
Speaking of incessant pain. I waited for this book for so long. It felt longer than it was, just because of how badly I wanted it. What I didn't know was that I didn't want it, not really. I didn't want this story to end, and I definitely didn't want to let go of Will Herondale the way I had to let go of him (read: I actually still haven't). I didn't think I would ever not be bitter about that epilogue, but I've grown to accept it. Cassie truly outdid herself with this book. The writing, the attention to detail, the way every loose end is tied up in a bittersweet bow-- but most of all, the characters. Everything they did, every decision they made in Clockwork Princess was true and believable to me, as someone who feels like I have lived with these characters for a significant portion of my life, even though it's only been the past few years. The obvious takeaway from this book is about the possibility of loving more than one person, but honestly, for me, this series has always been about the importance of stories to people like me. People like Will and Tessa and even Jem, who tells stories with his songs. And though it will hurt, I'll read this one again and again.


1. The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater
Alright, yeah, you all saw this coming. This is, obviously, by far, my favorite series-- I mean, it's so far ahead of any of the others that late at night, when I have a stack of books sitting in front of me, begging to be read, I sense them eyeing me with disdain because oh, what do you know, I've picked up The Raven Boys again. Or The Dream Thieves. And the problem is that I kind of can't even say what about this book is so great, other than the writing in general and every character in particular, because that would require describing what the book is about. Which is something that stands so close to impossible that impossible can only see one of its eyes at a time. So close that the author herself can barely manage it, and instead uses catchwords like "dead Welsh king" and "exploding cars" and "prep school boys" and "psychics behaving badly" before launching into a long explanation of new character Kavinsky-- who's bad news, to put it mildly. Anyway, these books are my favorite because the narration is pitch-perfect and sneaks into your head, turning the characters on paper into actual living people inside your mind, and this fictional place into a place you feel like you could visit in real life. They're my favorite because every character (if you haven't noticed by now that character is the most important thing for me, there is no hope for you) is authentic and three-dimensional and complicated in their own way, and their relationships follow suit. They're my favorite because they're not plot-driven, but there is still a compelling plot. I cannot say enough about these books or their author, so I'm just going to spare you and stop gushing now.

Ah, there you have it. 2013.
Some already confirmed for next year: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart and Panic by Lauren Oliver.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review: Being Sloane Jacobs by Lauren Morrill

Anyone remember my review of Meant to Be? How I gave it 3 stars because I felt pretty strongly that the main character was completely disagreeable? And the plot holes? And the generally unsatisfying nature of the drama?
Well, the strange thing is that I'm giving Lauren Morrill's second book the same rating, but none of those problems existed in this one. It's like she fixed those but left out the things that I actually liked about Meant to Be at the same time.

Being Sloane Jacobs is about two girls with the same name-- Sloane Jacobs, as you probably guessed. Sloane Devon Jacobs is a hockey player with an injured knee and a mom in rehab, and Sloane Emily Jacobs is a figure skater who's been out of competition for a while and has just discovered the stereotypical scandal that could ruin her father's senatorial career. They both have things to run from, so that's what they do. After running into each other at a hotel in Canada-- each of the Sloanes on their way to skating-related summer camp-- they decide to switch places. So it's Sloane Devon who's off to a prestigious figure skating camp, and Sloane Emily who's off to play hockey for the summer.

And that's basically it. There are minor subplots, but not much serves to keep your attention here. It seemed like, with twice as many characters, the details of each character were cut in half. If my problem with Meant to Be was that I felt too strongly against Julia, my problem with Being Sloane Jacobs was that I didn't feel strongly enough about either Sloane. They could have both been the kind of exaggerated characters that I love, but their differences ended up being very on-the-surface, and then even those got whittled down until they were practically the same person. And their love interests were not interesting in the least-- definitely no Jason Lippincott/Logan Echolls equivalent to be found here.

Oh, and yet more phone-related plot holes persist in this one, too! Like, why would it be an issue that Sloane Emily's parents might call Sloane Devon while they were switched? Was there some kind of landline in the BSI room, or...? It was never really explained, and the moment Sloane Devon got that call I was taken out of the story trying to figure out why it happened.

Another reviewer on Goodreads compared this book to a Disney Channel original movie, and I feel like this hits the nail on the head. It's decent entertainment even if the switching-places plot is a little tired, and you don't really *have* to get attached to the characters to enjoy it. But personally, I want to get attached. I'd prefer to keep going because I want the characters to be okay, not just because I know they will be eventually and I want to get there faster.

All of this said, I'm convinced that someday, Lauren Morrill is going to write a book I absolutely love. I can tell she has it in her. I just think it's a matter of finding the right story, the one that no one else can tell better.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Review: The Summer I Found You

So, I've spent the last four hours reading this entire book and wondering a few things: 
  1. Is it Aidan or Aiden? (Seriously? This is so obvious it's not even Writing 101. It's like Common Sense 101: You should know how to spell your own character's name.)
  2. Did this book not have betas? Because it has legitimately the worst grammar and punctuation I've seen in any book, ever. Someone teach Jolene Perry how to use a comma... and apostrophes... and question marks... and proper sentence structure (e.g. "I'm one of the girls who roll her eyes every day they wear their cute little uniforms." This sentence should be either referring to the speaker herself: "I'm one of the girls who rolls her eyes..." or referring to 'the girls' as a group: "I'm one of the girls who roll their eyes..." And I'm not just being picky here; there were so many sentences with such poor wording that I had to read them twice or three times just to figure out what they were trying to say). I realize that what I read was a galley and all of this could be fixed by the time the final version is published, but I sincerely doubt it. Galleys should not have even been sent out with the book in this condition. You know that feeling that you used to get in high school when you had to critique someone else's paper, and all you wanted to do was rewrite every other sentence to make it flow better and actually, you know, follow the rules of the English language? That was how I felt throughout this whole book. 
  3. What is with that cover? It's not relevant to the book at all. Neither, for that matter, is the title. The book does not even take place in the summer. It takes place during the school year, because how else would we have been forced to sit through the *totally* traumatic experience of seeing Kate's ex-boyfriend with his stereotypical new cheerleader girlfriend, or the actually traumatic experience of visualizing Kate lying on the disgusting school bathroom floor, poking herself with a needle? (For a girl who complains about feeling "gross" because she has a disease, she sure didn't seem that horrified to be basically guaranteeing herself an infection of some kind by getting the needle that close to all the bacteria that's definitely partying down there).
These things aside-- though it really is difficult for me to brush off the grammar thing-- the book was okay. The story was not bad, but the execution was. Kate and Aidan/Aiden were both self-absorbed, but what bothers me the most is that Aidan is self-absorbed in a way that makes it seem like he is that way because of how much he ~cares for someone else~ and Kate is self-absorbed in a way that makes you want to slap her. We're supposed to believe that Aidan/Aiden won't go see his sergeant's wife because of how much he thinks he failed him, or her, but in reality he won't go see her because he doesn't want to be reminded of it. Or at least that's what I got out of it. I just-- why attempt to give the male character an excuse for his selfishness, but not the female character? This way it just gives people a reason to blame the girl for the book's failures. People now get to say that she was annoying and whiny and narcissistic (God, what kind of person avoids her problems to the point where she ends up in the hospital? How shallow that she won't consider an insulin tube because of the way it looks! Kate, stop being so horrible and tell him the truth! Stop doing this to your family!), while he was caring and gentle and suffering from his traumatic past (Well, he does think about other people once in a while, so that makes it okay that he doesn't consider that maybe he's not the only person with problems...).

I'm also not entirely sure why this was classified as New Adult, as there wasn't anything any more mature than, say, Twenty Boy Summer or Saving June. Is it because the love interest is-- le gasp-- nineteen? The fragile young readers of YA lit certainly can't handle a nineteen-year-old love interest! He's practically middle-aged!

Sorry, I'm getting into snark territory. I'm just kind of annoyed because this had the potential to be a good novel that brought some diversity to contemporary YA lit (a heroine with diabetes and a hero missing an arm? Two people who aren't physically perfect falling in love? Sure, sign me up), but it was just so poorly executed. I wish the story had been written differently, is all. Disappointing. And usually I would be able to say, "Maybe next time, Author Whose Book Didn't Impress Me This Time," but I can't. I probably will not read Jolene Perry again, after spending four hours wanting to encourage her to take an introductory writing class, or even just teach her the difference between "Let's eat, Grandma!" and "Let's eat Grandma!"
It could have done wonders.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Character consistency vs. character development

This is not a review, but something I thought was important enough to put on here I guess.
I posted this gifset on Tumblr last week after the new TV spot for Catching Fire aired for the first time, because her expression in the bottom gif really struck me. But the responses to it have seemed to indicate that it struck other people for a different reason, and it's not really a reason I agree with. I think that saying this represents "character development" disregards Katniss's circumstances as well as her actual character development. So I wrote this long post about it.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Review: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

At least it has the best cover of the series.
When I wrote the title of this review just now, in my head I heard the "dun dun" that they play at the beginning of court scenes in every Law & Order episode. You know the one? The one that makes you feel like, okay, this is going to be tense. Because that's how I feel right now. I've been putting off this review-- I wasn't really even sure I was going to write one-- because it's going to be tense. 

Warning: I cannot write this review without major spoilers. I just can't. So if you haven't read Allegiant yet, abort Mission Read-Paige's-Blog until the appropriate mission prep has been accomplished.


Let me say this now before I get wildly ahead of myself talking about the ending. The ending is not the reason I'm giving this book 2/5 stars. It's part of the reason, yes, but ultimately I was disappointed with the whole book.

The end of Insurgent promised some explosive conflict. We found out that the people in Chicago had been locked in there on purpose, and people started shouting. The outside world was beckoning and we were finally going to find out what's been going on out there. I was prepared to have to hold on to my figurative hat, if you catch my drift.

But we did find out what was going on out there, and anticlimactically, the answer was "not much." Some people doing crazy genetic experiments that created more plot issues than they solved (if they could manipulate DNA to create the "genetically damaged" people, why couldn't they manipulate it in the reverse and create "genetically pure" people?), some people eschewing government and living exactly like the factionless were before Evelyn came along, and a few other experiment cities. Where is the rest of it? And more importantly, where is the conflict? For the little conflict that does exist between the people outside the fence and the leaders inside, it seems like Tris is the only person with any idea of how to handle it correctly. And she is sixteen years old. It bothered me that every single leader in Allegiant turned into a villain at some point. Marcus, Evelyn, Zoe, David, and even Johanna. When did Tris become the all-knowing wise girl who didn't make mistakes, while every powerful person around her was tunnel-visioned into doing everything wrong?

And the science. I'm not an expert, but I didn't like the science. Aside from the terms "genetically damaged" and "genetically pure," which made me cringe every single time-- a lot, considering how overused they were-- I don't think this book benefited (the way Reached did, for example) from going the sci-fi route. It took the focus away from the Bureau/Fringe/Chicago tension and slowed the pace so much that at the end of its 526 pages, it still didn't feel like half of the book Divergent was in 487 pages.

The character stuff was... there. Barely. Tris's development pretty much happened at the end of Insurgent, so in Allegiant it was actually pretty great to see her more confident in what she believes and taking control and valuing her life. I even enjoyed seeing Four make a mistake and have to pay for it, showing Tris once again that he is not perfect and everyone is broken in their own ways. But their scenes together made me uncomfortable in two completely different ways: either they were throwing themselves at each other for no reason other than the fact that they were both there, or they were fighting. I hate it when they fight, but a part of me likes it too. Real couples fight and make it through, which is what Four and Tris have always done, but I could have used some more in-between scenes, where they're neither fighting nor kissing. I wanted to see them supporting each other emotionally-- healing each other, rather than Tris healing herself and Four kind of wandering, waiting for her to realize he needed her help. (The alternating viewpoints were also occasionally confusing to me. I would be reading a chapter thinking it was one person narrating, and then he/she would refer to herself/himself in third person and I'd have to go back and read whose name was at the beginning of the chapter. Which means the voices weren't distinct enough.)
Also, she couldn't have waited to put Uriah into a coma later? He was the comic relief! And also I don't care what anyone says, he did not have to die.
I can't skip over Peter, either. I absolutely love Peter. He is my favorite character in the series. I find him simply fascinating-- which is why it is so extremely upsetting to me that he's left as a blank slate. But it makes sense that an awful person such as Peter is going to choose the awful person's way out: instead of developing into a less awful person, he uses his "damaged" genes as an excuse for the way he is, and wipes his memory clean to get away from himself. But that creates another plot hole, doesn't it? If his penchant for violence is in his genes, wiping his memory won't fix him. And if he's really such an awful person, why does he feel so badly about it that he doesn't want to remember the things he's done? I can't decide anymore what's consistent with his character and what's not.

Now that I've established that I do have other reasons for my 2-star rating, I can move on to the ending.

So, the majority of reactions to Allegiant that I have seen have been in two camps:

  1. People who are angry or upset about the book for one main reason, but possibly also a variety of reasons.
  2. People who are defending an author's right to end her characters' story the way she felt it had to end. These people are largely assuming that the negative reactions to the book are based solely on the end, rather than the other 450 or so pages.
But you see, the majority of readers of this book are in both camps-- like, say, me. My main emotion for the past week or so has been anger. Anger that this book was not what I thought I had been looking forward to for the past year and a half. Anger that this, the final book in the trilogy, seemed to render it all utterly pointless to me. Anger-- and this is the biggest one of all-- that Tris's death has in fact only made me angry. When a main character dies, I want to feel sad. I want to expel that sadness through tears while listening to sad songs that remind me of the people left behind; I want to cry it out so that later I can look at it and think, "Wow, what a way to go." The main character dying at the end has the potential to turn something into a great story (especially for masochists like me).

And don't get me wrong, I really appreciate Veronica Roth's explanation of why Tris died. And I really appreciate that she acknowledges my right to still think she didn't quite do it justice. I understand now that for her, the series was about Tris's journey from beginning to end-- but for me, the end didn't have to be her death, because her journey was finished before that. She made it through; she defined for herself what selflessness and bravery were, and she was fine.

And then she got shot.

If finishing the story were like trying to choose a meal to get rid of your hunger, this felt like the fastfood option. It seemed like a cheap and ultimately unsatisfying way out and because of it, the story never truly got finished. The hunger just gets replaced by all those undesirable things that come with choosing the fastfood option. Though she was only in the position to get shot because of a sacrifice she decided to chance to show her brother she loved him, getting shot was not the sacrifice. She survived the part where Caleb would have died, and then she died because she was what? Unarmed? Yes, it was very Tris of her to take that risk in her brother's place, but when I read it, the part where she actually died didn't sit right. Not for Tris. It felt extra. One last way to throw a wrench in the works.

As a fan of bittersweet, semi-ambiguous endings, especially for series like this, I was overwhelmingly disappointed. There was no sweetness. There was no ambiguity. Tris died, and now Four-- who Tris has literally just learned is as broken as she was before Allegiant-- not only has to live with guilt over Uriah's death, but with the death of the one person who's ever made him feel like he mattered. The one person who ever told him he was whole.

And this, my friends, is my biggest gripe: we don't get to see him become whole again. We don't get to see him deal with his grief. We don't get to see how the communities inside and outside the fence change and heal themselves, which is something that unquestionably should have been included in the primary plot of the book. All we get is an epilogue, two and a half years later, where we find out that Four and Christina have become friends, and he basically gives us a roster of everyone's jobs, like some kind of "Where Are They Now" special.

I recently had a friend point out to me that the Divergent series as a whole contains a lot of gratuitous death. Characters die left and right, quickly and unceremoniously, and it's accepted as a fact of life. While Tris's death was a bigger deal to everyone than most of the others, Allegiant did feel like more of the same on this issue. I remember texting my sister: "200 pages in and three people have already died." It starts to feel superfluous and lessens the impact when, oops, down goes our main character too.

So it's easy to say I did not enjoy Allegiant. But with an average of 4 stars, it's also easy to say that I enjoyed the series as a whole. And even though I'm stuck on the Anger stage of grief, I thank Veronica Roth. I thank her for bringing me to the Dauntless compound, for showing me true selflessness, for the wonders of ferris wheels and zip lines, for Peter, the actual anti-hero, for the word "pansycake," for a boy who grew up broken and hid himself away until he finally, finally allowed himself to be changed by a bright-eyed Stiff he respected so much that he sometimes forgot she was vulnerable too. But most of all I thank her for Tris, the first jumper, the girl who gave her life for her brother after he betrayed her. She did so well.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Review: Pawn by Aimee Carter

Cool, simple cover. I hope they stick with this design for the whole series.
So, it's no secret that dystopias are a dime a dozen in young adult fiction these days. Everyone's got to get their two cents in about how they think the world will fall, or at least what they think would be the worst way for the world to fall. And it's no secret that a lot of people are sick of it.
Me? I'm not one of those people. I have a six-foot-tall bookcase dedicated to YA dystopias and I would love to fill it up. If I could be the person with the widest knowledge and possession of quality YA dystopias in the world, I would gladly have business cards made up for myself. Maybe someday I will tire of suspending my disbelief when a dystopia seems unlikely, or worrying what if when it doesn't, but today is not that day. So, disclaimer: I write this review from the perspective of someone who is not yet weary of dismal futuristic worlds.

Pawn is about a girl named Kitty, who lives in the United States of the late 21st century, where seventeen-year-olds must take a test on their birthday to determine what kind of jobs they are eligible for and how much they can contribute to society. They are ranked from I to VI based on their test scores, and anyone with a score of I is sent "Elsewhere," never to be seen again. IIs are given the lowliest of jobs, and VIs the most respectable. When Kitty earns a III because she didn't have enough time on her test, she knows that her options are limited-- and none of them are good. But then she's approached by the president, Daxton Hart, whose family "saved" the country from disaster and has been ruling with an iron fist ever since, and he offers her a VII-- the rank that only the Harts themselves have. And all she has to do is change her whole appearance and step in for Daxton's niece, Lila, who was killed for speaking out against her family's objectives.

I have to say, I was not entirely convinced by the premise of this particular dystopia, so I did what was required of me: I suspended my disbelief. I did not ask why or how or what is the rest of the world up to-- though obviously I'm asking those questions now. It's much easier to get into this story if you accept that things are they way they are and move on. Once you do that, you'll find that the story itself is actually pretty interesting. There's political intrigue, action, some science, and a few key relationships* that set Pawn apart from the crowd. Not to mention the whole concept of the pawn's neglected importance in the game? Watch out.

*particularly, the complicated relationships between all members of the Hart family, and the real Lila's relationships with both Greyson and Knox.

Now, if you're familiar with my reviews, you know that I usually pay special attention to characters. Characters are what make or break a story for me, so let me start with Kitty. Superficially her name is what bothers me the most about her, but that might be only because I have no other strong feelings about her. She didn't have much of a personality, which is what made her such a good pawn for the Harts' twisted political game. Moments of spunk and insistence upon risking her life for the lives of people she a) loves or b) barely knows were not enough to give her a permanent place in my heart. In fact, by the time the second book comes out, I'm sure I'll have to re-learn anything I might have learned about her in book one. And if Kitty was unmemorable, you can imagine how I feel about the rest of the cast. The main character should be the one that demands the most attention, but I often found that I was more intrigued by Knox, whose motivations were mysterious but his intentions always seemed honorable. I trusted him and then questioned why I trusted him, and thought maybe I shouldn't trust him. In other words, I spent more time trying to figure Knox out than forcing myself to care about the other characters. Benjy was flat-- I was told more about him than I was shown; Nina and Tabs were plot devices; Daxton was your typical scheevy villain; Celia was the requisite morally ambiguous female almost-villain who thinks she's doing the right thing; Greyson could have been interesting if he had more screen time; and so on.

There were occasional plot twists in the book that had me itching to read more, now, but it did take me longer to get through Pawn than it would have if I had been thoroughly hooked. It's an intriguing and original addition to the dystopian genre, but if you're looking to connect with the characters on any level deeper than the surface (and by 'surface' I mean "I'm reading about these characters and therefore I connect with them"), stick with Legend-- or even Shatter Me, which has characters you'll probably hate but at least you'll feel strongly about them.

P.S. The series is called The Blackcoat Rebellion! I love this series title. Not only because I fancy any series title that isn't based on the title of the first book, but because it tells you where the series itself is going.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Double Review: Ten Tiny Breaths/One Tiny Lie

Oh, the mixed feelings I have about this book. There were some things I found extremely problematic, and some moments that made me wish I could forget the problematic things because they made me want to love the entire book as much as I loved those moments.
Let's start with Kacey. First off, I just hate the spelling of her name. It's a dumb thing to focus on, I know, but it bothered me throughout the whole book. There's an unattractive red underline under it as I write this, and I feel like I was seeing that red underline every time I read the name in my physical copy of the book. But anyway, Kacey herself was a decent character. I loved her snark, and I understood her desire to push people away. I've never had a problem with a prickly character before. For some reason, though, I never felt that emotional attachment to her-- maybe in her attempts to push everyone else away, she made me feel pushed away too. Obviously this book was about her personal journey into someone who actually lets herself care about other people (I don't think this is a spoiler; it was always fairly predictable that that was where it was going), which was a moving journey to witness. But I felt like that's all I did: witness it. I never felt like I was experiencing anything with Kacey.
Then there was Trent, whose entire purpose in the book seemed to be "stand there, look pretty, and wait for Kacey to fall in love." I mean, they barely had one conversation before she was thinking about him constantly. He somehow found out where she worked and came to watch her every night. He watched her, in true stalker fashion. Of course, he wasn't doing it to be creepy, but nobody ever is, are they? He knew that she was attracted to him, and he used it to help both of them. My problem is that as characters, they didn't seem like a key and a lock that were made for each other. There weren't facets of Trent's personality that were perfect for Kacey's, or vice versa. He stalked her, he found her, they "fell in love," and then his secrets were revealed. The only convincing part of their relationship was the lack of immediate reparations when things went wrong. Their time apart made everything more realistic and kind of quelled the ragey fire in me that is only ever lit by insta-love.
The secondary characters-- namely Storm, Mia, Livie and Cain-- were possibly my favorite thing about this book. Storm and Cain smashed stereotypes left and right; Mia was that requisite adorable little kid who says just the right things; and Livie was the perfect little sister who probably had more going on than she let on.
So basically, I liked Ten Tiny Breaths. I didn't love it. I felt there were one too many of those scenes without the heart to back them up, and the romance was a little flat, but the plot moved along and I barely predicted the twist toward the end (though I did kind of feel like I had just read Hopeless for the third time-- once for Hopeless, twice for Losing Hope, and three times for Ten Tiny Breaths). And I enjoyed the way the epilogue wrapped things up for Kacey while setting things up for...


*I received a copy of One Tiny Lie from Atria Books in exchange for an honest review.
To simplify my reaction to this book after Ten Tiny Breaths: That's more like it. I know a lot of people absolutely adored Ten Tiny Breaths, but One Tiny Lie worked so much better for me on so many levels, I don't even know where to begin.
I guess I'll start with Livie. Her problems seemed so much more accessible to me, not just because I identified with them, but because they seemed like a much more natural reaction to her situation than Kacey's problems did. The last thing her father said to her before the accident that killed her parents was "Make me proud." Of course she's going to dedicate her life to getting good grades and going to Princeton, and not letting herself get distracted by the things everyone else her age is doing. Of course she'll feel it's her duty to do well so Kacey doesn't have to worry about her, because Kacey herself is broken and Livie doesn't want to add any stress to her sister's life.
But all of this sensibility has put a lot of pressure on Livie. She's had tunnel vision for so long with exactly one end point in mind, that she hasn't looked around to see what other options she has. She hasn't asked herself if the promises she made her parents, her sister, and herself so long ago are still the ones she wants to keep.
Enter: Ashton. He's got that bad-boy-with-something-deeper thing going on, and he turns out to be exactly what Livie needs. They just met, got to know each other, and fell in love. It was forbidden, yes, because they were both seeing other people, but it never felt wrong the way Kacey and Trent did to me. Ashton is good for Livie because he helps her think about what she really wants for herself instead of what everyone else wants for her, and she's good for him because she is the only person who's ever tried with him. Everyone else wrote him off as a thoughtless party boy who sleeps around, and while that was what Livie thought of him at first, she gave him a chance to show her otherwise. Someone told Livie that you know if a guy loves you not by what he says, but what he does-- especially the things he does quietly-- and there are so many small moments in this book where Ashton proves this to her. He doesn't ask for anything in return; he doesn't even ask to be recognized for any of it. He helps her because he cares about her.
Also: those scenes had the heart to back them up. They didn't just happen because two characters were in a room together; they happened because two characters had an emotional connection in the scene first.
I love the new cast of characters in this one, too. They all have that friendship chemistry that I love so much: in addition to being fleshed-out individually, their relationships were three-dimensional as well. And it was nice to see Kacey and Trent again, having worked out all their heavy issues and finally moving on with their lives. Acting, for once, as a steady support system for someone else.
Overall I just think One Tiny Lie was a more subtly moving novel, and all the better for it.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Review: These Broken Stars

A cover that is actually 100% true to an actual scene in the book! Le gasp!
*I received a copy of These Broken Stars from Disney Book Group in exchange for an honest review.

Summary: Lilac is an heiress, a socialite, the privileged daughter of the protective founder of a company that explores and develops space. Tarver is a war-hero soldier from a modest but close-knit family, who is all but unaware of the ramifications of smiling at the pretty redhead across the room. When the spaceship in which they're hurtling through space suddenly breaks down and everyone aboard must flee to their lifeboats ("pods") a la Titanic, Lilac and Tarver end up in the same pod, crash-landing on a seemingly abandoned but strangely developed planet. They're the only humans in the entire world, but strange things begin to happen and secrets about Lilac's father's company are slowly revealed while the two of them struggle to survive.

Review: You guys, this book is what Beautiful Creatures should have been. What?, you're saying to me, Beautiful Creatures is not science fiction.
Yes, I know. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the written-by-two-authors-with-two-equally-important-protagonists thing. This book does it right. Why, you ask? Because Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner understand that with two authors and two leads, it makes so much more sense to tell the story from two points of view. I don't know how they broke it down, if one author wrote Tarver and one author wrote Lilac, or if they split it a different way, but I don't care-- because it's obvious that they worked together on this.
The chapters alternate between Tarver's point of view and Lilac's, but you don't have that sense of constantly being jolted between the two, right when you were getting into the flow of one character's narration. It's done cohesively, and the scenes are written such that it makes sense for Tarver to narrate this scene and for Lilac to narrate that scene, or vice versa. There are no chapters where you go, man, I wish I were in the other character's head for this part, the way I did for oh, 95 percent of Beautiful Creatures, wherein every chapter is all-Ethan-all-the-time despite the fact that Lena is by far the more captivating character.
But I digress.
These Broken Stars is not your average science fiction novel. It sparkles. It's sparkly. I don't know how else to describe it. And, boys, if you're reading this, stop making that face. Sparkles do not a girly book make. There are spaceships and aliens and soldiers and vast amounts of sarcasm here, too. The girl in the dress on the cover is just that: a girl in a dress. I've never known a boy to hate girls in dresses in real life, so I'll never understand why they avoid books with girls in dresses.
The characters in this book are few, I will say, but they are vivid and dynamic and they have so many facets that you don't need any more characters. Lilac is privileged and occasionally shallow, yes, but she is also whip-smart and fiercely protective of the people she loves. She knows more about the technology of her world than just about anyone, and she's an equal match for Tarver, the war hero who knows more about survival than just about anyone. Tarver is sarcastic; he doesn't respond well to stupid questions, and his mental quips about Lilac will get you through the first half (maybe less) of the book while the two still mostly dislike each other.
My favorite thing about Lilac is that she could have been entirely selfish, having been raised in a privileged environment where she was coddled by everyone who dared to get to know her, but she isn't. She is, for the most part, selfless-- and not in that Bella way that makes her entirely useless. She has intelligence to back up her selflessness; when she needs to help someone, when for any reason someone is counting on her for their survival, she knows how to handle the situation. Girlfriend gets things done.
My favorite thing about Tarver is that he can be both amusing and serious. After Lilac treats him like he doesn't deserve to breathe the same air as her, he thinks, "Duh, I should have known," but then he thinks about it some more and decides she does not have the right to treat him that way. He's respectful to her, but condescendingly so, which I love. Not knowing her motivations for her cruelty, he has every right to mentally complain and make jokes about being stuck with this girl on a strange planet with nobody else around. But at the same time, he expertly balances the fact that she saved his life before they got here with the fact that now it's up to him to keep her alive too.
As for the plot, well, honestly there's not much of it. It's a subtle thing that creeps along and builds tension and then explodes in your face (it's a contained explosion), but for the most part of the book it's a whisper in your ear. It's something that demands your attention, but you can't really say why. All you know is that you want to keep reading. And the romance? Not really a slow-burn, but not really an insta-love situation either. Tarver and Lilac just work. They're a good team, and once they get past the I-hate-you, I-hate-you-more stage, it's actually endearing that the majority of the book focuses on their relationship.

I don't know where the next book is going from here, but I'm sure it will take me with it. I hope it shines with the same subtle intensity as this one, and I hope we get some more awesome characters like Tarver and Lilac. Sparkle on, Starbound series.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Review: Never Fade by Alexandra Bracken

I received an ebook of Never Fade from Disney
Hyperion in exchange for an honest review.
Let me explain to you why I hate reading on my e-reader. Well, one of the many reasons. The biggest reason right now.
You cannot tell when the book is almost over. Sure, there is a little progress bar. But do you ever look at it? No.
You get to the last sentence, and try to turn the page, and what do you find?
Oops. The book is over. You have to wait another year to find out what happens next-- "next" meaning after you yell "AGCHGHH?!?" eighteen times and forcefully throw your expensive e-reader onto a hopefully cushioned surface.

Never Fade begins six months after the end of The Darkest Minds, and Ruby has been training with the Children's League since then. She's not sure she's on their side yet, but she's doing what she can to make sure they're on her side. Which brings me to my first point: Ruby Daly. You could read this book for her character development alone, and still feel fulfilled. Remember when Ruby was afraid of her power? No more. Remember when Ruby carefully schooled her face into a mask of indifference because she was afraid of being noticed? No more. (Now her indifferent mask is meant to keep people out, because her feelings are none of their goddamn business.) Her nickname around the League is Medusa, and she's earned it. Six months without anyone who loves her, or contrarily anyone who would kill her for being Orange, have produced a Ruby Daly who has no more soft edges.

Next up: Plot. There is so much more action and drama in this book. In The Darkest Minds, we had a plot that was kind of like one of those walking conveyor belts at large airports-- it was a smooth power-walk from one point to the next, without many off-the-charts spikes in action or drama. Never Fade is more like a rollercoaster: so fast and wild that you come out of it with wind-blown hair and a mild headache. But it's... the good kind of headache?

Moving on to... new characters! These two new characters in particular could have been thrown at me, they could have been lifeless nobodies whose sole purpose was to fill the void left by missing characters from Book 1, but they were not. Vida jumped out in front of me, told me we were going to be friends but I better not step on her toes, and then walked me to my car, threatening creepy dudes with profanity and knives. Jude walked up next to me, introduced himself, talked about his fears but tried to make it seem like he wasn't afraid, and followed me to my car like a loyal puppy dog. They're not Chubs and Liam, but neither are they replacement-Chubs-and-Liam*. You can't help but love them.

*No, I will not disclose whether Chubs and/or Liam are in Never Fade. Sit down.

The writing even improves on the first book, with practically genius tension-building and tension-diffusing both. Naturally comedic dialogue at all the right moments and heartfelt or strategic dialogue everywhere in between-- it's part of what keeps this book so consistent with the first one, when so much of the plot and cast are so completely different.

I have to say the only thing I did not like about this book was that there was so much drama that was not character-centric. Certain characters and relationships weren't given nearly as much attention as would have satisfied me, given the setup from Book 1. It was so focused on the action and all the different conflicting groups of people that the more personal touches, which I loved so much about The Darkest Minds, faded into the background. But at the same time, this made it exponentially more effective when the focus was on the personal elements-- when the characters would really step into their roles of who they have to be for each other, rather than who they have to be for everyone else (there was ONE LINE that turned me into a flailing, squealing mess). I just wish it could have happened more often.

Finally, back to the end. I have to talk about the end. I won't tell you what happens, but I will tell you it ends even more suddenly and torturously than the first book did. But instead of leaving you with that "NO THIS IS NOT OKAY" feeling, it leaves you with a sly grin on your face and the feeling that maybe, just maybe, this time the upper hand is just waiting for your beloved characters to grab it. It's almost theirs.
Four stars for now, but I get the feeling this is going to end up being one of those books that keeps on poking at my thoughts until I give it five stars.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Review: Sia by Josh Grayson

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
So, spoiled rich girl lives a life of selfishness and bullying, putting other people down in order to raise herself up. Girl goes through the trial of a lifetime and realizes the error of her ways, serving penance for the way she has treated those around her. This is not a new story, but it could have at least been interesting. It could have been a story worth telling. Sia could have been a character I grew to care about.
Unfortunately this book is full of near-misses for me. I can get on board with the bully-learns-her-lesson trope, if the bully actually does learn her lesson. Sia does not. Sia didn't need to learn anything; she woke up one day an entirely different person. The only thing that showed her the error of her ways was looking at her previous life through the eyes of a stranger-- eyes that already knew right from wrong.
I could have dealt with this, even, if the book had given New!Sia any glimpses of why she became the horrible person that she apparently had been before, if New!Sia could have said, "Oh, I understand why I acted that way, but really I think I should be a better person anyway." That would have been acceptable character growth. But that didn't happen! Not only was the explanation of Sia's memory loss anticlimactic (it was basically a "Yeah, that happens sometimes" situation), but we did not even get an explanation for what made Old!Sia the supposed worst person, like, ever. There was nothing to connect me to either New!Sia's I-spent-a-couple-weeks-homeless-and-now-I'm-a-champion-for-the-masses attitude or Old!Sia's money-makes-people-superior attitude.
And I've already forgotten the love interest's name, so you can see how much of an impression he left on me. Not only this, but the rest of the characters all around are cliched to the point where I caught myself actually rolling my eyes. The only black character is a wizened homeless woman, the only Latina is Sia's rich family's housekeeper, and every rich person in the book is-- you guessed it-- white. Oh, except for the beautiful Asian supermodel, of course.
Combine all of this with the fact that there is no sustained tension in the story-- every source of potential conflict plays out within a chapter or two-- and a romance that is probably supposed to be cute but hovers dangerously close to annoying teenaged insta-love, and you'll be glad this book is a short one. Had it been about 50 more useless pages, I would have closed this off in the DNF section of my brain halfway through.
Usually when I write a scathing review of a book, I like to leave off with something positive (like, "I hated the characters and the plot, but the writing was beautiful"), but the only positive thing I can say about Sia is that I was able to finish it. The writing was unimpressive and frankly too juvenile for the Young Adult genre, so I can't even use that to soften the blow. But I did finish. It was a breeze of a book, simply because there was so little substance to it.
The takeaway: Don't bother.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell gets it. Whatever it is, she gets it.
With Eleanor & Park, the consensus was clear: Rainbow is a force to be reckoned with, not in just contemporary YA, but YA in general. (And she's super nice, too). Her characters are nothing short of real people living inside your head, kindred spirits in whom you recognize a part of yourself.
I loved Eleanor & Park.
I am in love with Fangirl.
The reason for this, I think, is because I identify so much more with this book, this protagonist, than I ever did with Eleanor, which is set before I was born, in a place nothing like where I grew up. That's not to say that identifying with a character is a necessary step to falling in love with a book, but in this case, I'm pretty sure it is exactly why I was able to choose a favorite. Because it's not just Cath's personality that reflects me back to myself-- it's her life, reflecting mine back to me, showing me my own decisions in a different light.
Cath is a fangirl. A nerd. She would rather sit alone in her room and obsess over fictional characters than go out and be part of a scene where she doesn't think she belongs. Possibly she has social anxiety. Most of her friends are on the Internet. She hates change. She has a twin sister who's more socially involved than she is, but who's always been her built-in best friend. Cath loves to write, and she's good at it, but she has oodles of self-doubt about whether she can go anywhere with it. She doesn't think she can measure up to her favorite author because she can't create her own worlds, so what's the point? She'll stick to fanfiction, thank you very much.
Okay, now take out Cath's name in that last paragraph and replace it with mine. It is all still true. It might still be true if you replace it with your name (except maybe the twin part). Maybe not.
But the best thing about all of this? Fangirl does not talk down to me or tell me that there's anything wrong with the way I am. The way Cath is. Yes, she learns a bit about coming out of her shell and believing in her own abilities, but not once is she ever ashamed of being a fangirl. The only reason she ever keeps it to herself is because other people don't understand, and she doesn't want to have to explain it-- and speaking of explaining it, the book itself does a pretty good job of explaining the fangirl lifestyle. Why it means so much to have characters and stories in our lives that we can escape to, that can help us through when real life just doesn't cut it, that are loved by complete strangers who in turn become some of our best friends because we share something with them that few other people understand. 
The synopsis for the book asks, "Is she ready to start living her own life? And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?" Which is annoying because it suggests that the book argues Cath has to move on from fandom in order to live her own life. But she already is living her own life. She has her own fans, and people who love her because of how passionate she is about her story of choice, Simon Snow. All she really has to do is learn balance (it is the meaning of life, you know. Just ask Barry Lyga).

Anyway, I don't know if people who are not fangirls/fanboys will be this excited about Fangirl (like, maybe if you don't know what the words "canon" or "shipper" mean, you should familiarize yourself first). My coworker gave it to me specifically because she saw me in it, too, and I know that she actually liked Eleanor & Park better. I feel like Rainbow's books are more dependent on personal reactions than a lot of other books, because they're so good at evoking that sense of "Yes, I know exactly what this feels like."
I guess what I'm saying is that I recommend this book to everyone, but I only guarantee you'll love it as much as I did if you're... well, one of my Internet friends.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review: The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

I absolutely love this cover.
Wow. I found this book in the small pile of galleys on the small table in our small kitchen at work, and picking it up was the best impulsive decision I can remember making in a while. I'd been looking at the pile, not really expecting to find anything because of how few books were in it and how few titles I recognized. Strangely, I didn't recognize this one either, but I read the back and gave it a shot.

Sorry, I'm doing that annoying thing where I give you my personal history with a book instead of just diving directly into my review. But you have to understand that I had no preconceived notions about this book when I picked it up, and no idea-- apart from the blurbs on the back-- if anyone else had liked it either. Sometimes I'm afraid that other people's thoughts on a book influence my own, so I can safely tell you that these are my thoughts and mine alone.

First off, I was hooked from the very beginning. Even before the severed head part (apparently the former title of the book was "Severed Heads, Broken Hearts" and honestly I don't know why they decided to go with The Beginning of Everything, but hey. I guess some people don't want to read a book that might be about severed heads?). Ezra's tone was simultaneously satiric and tragic, at once full of scorn and wonder, and I knew I was done for. Or, more specifically, my skin was done for, because I started the book outside by the pool and did not go inside until 233 pages and one sunburn later.

This is definitely a character-driven book, which is how I like them. Don't get me wrong, things do happen, but they might not be the interesting sorts of things to increase the heart rates of plot-concerned people. The three main characters, Ezra, Toby and Cassidy, are the outcasts of the school, but instead of being the outcasts who fall together by default, they have actual relationships with each other. Toby and Ezra were childhood best friends, until Toby's unfortunate encounter with a severed head; Toby and Cassidy know each other from debate team events; and Ezra and Cassidy develop a natural relationship that stems from their having similar outlooks and senses of humor. The Great Gatsby is referenced several times throughout the book, and though Nick Carraway is never mentioned by name, it's obvious that Ezra fancies himself the Nick Carraway of this story. He's telling it as if it's someone else's story, but it's all his. It's a story about him finding himself, and realizing the type of person he does not want to be. He considers himself an onlooker to the reckless behavior of his jock friends, but at the same time can't seem to escape them until he really wants to-- and then he only looks back in the telling of the story, not in the desire to relive it.

Toby is the comedic relief character, but also kind of the heart of the story. He's the one who's there for Ezra, even though Ezra left him behind, and even though Ezra is kind of a jerk sometimes. He shows Ezra how to be a good friend and how to escape the sillage of the past, all while wearing bow ties (he's a Whovian) and making nerdy jokes. Nerdy jokes: the quickest way to my heart.

Cassidy is where the story becomes a little less Great Gatsby and a little more Looking for Alaska. Ezra is convinced he's in love with her, but Cassidy is convinced he's in love with his idea of her. Where Alaska talks about escaping the labyrinth, Cassidy talks about escaping the panopticon. Her tragedy is entwined with Ezra's, just as Alaska's tragedy becomes Pudge's. She's a thinker; she has grand ideas about life, but she has a long way to go before she figures it all out-- Ezra sees her mistakes for what they are, just as Pudge is finally able to answer the question that Alaska was never able to answer, after it's too late for her.

Now, let's talk about the similarities between this book and Looking for Alaska for a moment, because I have the feeling a lot of people are going to lean toward the negative in their reviews because of it. But here's the thing: they are very, very similar, but they are not the same. They're structured similarly, and they both have the beautiful, sad girl (not beautifully sad, mind you. Neither of these books argue that sadness is beautiful, so don't start), and the references to quotes from historical/literary figures, and the questions/answers about grief and forgiveness and life in general. Heck, the last paragraph of Beginning was so reminiscent of the last page of Alaska I almost felt like there has to be some kind of outline that Robyn Schneider and John Green both used*. But the fact that the two books are so similar does not make either of them any less worth reading. Looking for Alaska is one of my favorite books, so why wouldn't I want to read another book like it? I'm not going to take away points in my review because the book reminded me of another book I loved. That's ridiculous, and if you do that, ask yourself if you're holding other books to the same standard.

*and I have no right to comment on the similarities between the authors/vloggers themselves, or whether it means that one is trying to imitate the other, though some people will probably try to do so. Both are brilliant writers and that's all that matters to me.

Other elements that set this one apart-- not just from Alaska, but from all contemporary YA-- are the nerd culture references, the intelligent humor, and the specific brand of tragedy that occurs. I love books that don't underestimate my appreciation for a ridiculous Catcher in the Rye pun or my ability to believe that a character could find meaning and purpose in organic chemistry. The comedy is well-timed and right up my alley, and the tragedy comes at you fast but then builds slowly, until you're not tears-streaming-down-your-face crying, but can't-see-because-they're-clinging-to-your-eyeballs crying.

Cassidy may seem like the manic pixie dream girl, but she's just a girl trying to keep her sadness to herself, letting it eat away at her. I understood why she made the decisions she made; they seemed like a real, valid way to deal with her pain. And I understood Ezra's feelings, too. Just like Nick with Gatsby, Ezra was able to see Cassidy's world from her point of view and accept the way she chose to live, but still not entirely agree with it.

Took away half a star because I was promised I'd fall in love with Ezra Faulkner, and I did not. The way he talked about girls reminded me a bit too much of someone I know in real life-- particularly his views on the girls in his old clique? First of all, he called them all "tennis girlfriends," like their only defining characteristics were the boys they were dating. And secondly, he looked at them like objects of amusement. As if they didn't have thoughts or emotions other than "Let's go shopping!" and "Ohmygod, can I sit on your lap?"
But really, this was such a small part of the book it really is only worth half a star. He is perfectly respectful to both Phoebe and Cassidy.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Combine a run-down mansion by the sea, a family full of secrets, and a morally ambiguous love interest, and what do you get? A book that feels like it was designed specifically for me. And I'm probably not the only one who will feel that way about Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.

I think possibly my favorite thing about this book is the setting, which is completely mind-boggling for me. I'm not a setting person; I'm a character person. I would rather have a vivid picture of the characters-- what they look like as well as who they are-- in my head than an image of the setting, which is why I'm amazed by Tucholke's ability to make me care about the setting here. It's as if Echo and Citizen Kane (the mansion, for those not privy to the lingo just yet) are characters in themselves. You can practically taste the salt in the air and the coffee wafting up from the guest house. You can hear the waves crashing on the rocks and the creaking of the Citizen's decaying floorboards. You can see the overcast skies and the iron gates and the town that does its best to ignore the existence of evil within its borders.

The rest follows naturally. The story is built on the foundation of Violet White's grandmother and her warnings about holding hands with the Devil. "You stop fearing the devil when you're holding his hand." Good luck forgetting that first line when River West comes to town and begins holding Violet's hand almost immediately. No, you'll never completely trust River. You'll wonder why every time Violet goes to confront him about something, she suddenly feels all warm and fuzzy toward him and can't quite think of why it is she thought she had to confront him. You'll think River is controlling and dangerous. But then he'll stand up for her against her sexist brother, or Violet will catch him looking at her with warmth and adoration in his eyes, and you'll stop trying to figure him out. River is a mystery. He's a devil you kind of want to be holding Violet's hand… and so does she.

Mixed in are some vivid secondary characters like Violet's neighbor, Sunshine, and a little boy named Jack and his Town Drunk of a father. They all, in addition to being unique and well-drawn, have stories of their own. Eventually there is one other character who was my personal favorite, but I won't spoil who it is-- I'll just say this character is an interesting and natural addition to the story, and he brings some of River's secrets to light.

I give Devil 4.5 stars because it doesn't quite live up to my 5-star expectations, but keep in mind that my 5-star expectations are very high. The characterizations were a little too on-the-surface for me sometimes, in that they didn't sneak up on me. I didn't find myself halfway through the book and realizing that somehow, without my knowing it, I became attached; my attachment to the characters was never a surprise, which is kind of a bummer for me. But, like I said before, I'm a character person. I have very specific needs.

All in all I can't wait for the next book (what?! I thought this was a standalone when I read it, and then I find out… but no matter. I'm not one of those people who is bothered by finding out a book is not a standalone but the first in a series), and for everyone else to read this gothicgothicGOTHIC cliffside horror mystery romance.