Sunday, October 9, 2011

"From every bitter thing, after all, something hardy will surely grow. From every difficulty, the seed that’s sewn is that much stronger."

Blackbird House – Alice Hoffman

238 pages

Genre:  Magical Realism; Historical Fiction; Contemporary

Summary:  Told in a series of short stories, Blackbird House chronicles the lives of families and individuals who lived in a small farmhouse on Cape Cod over the course of many years.

Review:  This book didn’t grab my attention from the very beginning, so I ended up setting it aside for quite a few weeks.  Today I decided to give it another go, was completely hooked, and eagerly devoured the rest of it in one sitting.

Blackbird House is a wonderful tale that combines magic, romance, grief, and heartache into one beautiful, literary package.  The language throughout is quite lyrical, and the stories within will stick with me for quite some time. 

I don’t normally enjoy reading short stories all that much, but with this book, it worked perfectly and wouldn’t have been as good had it been told in a different way.  The reader wasn’t able to follow the characters throughout the course of their lives, but rather, just when they were connected to the house, and that was enough.  The white blackbird’s constant reappearance, as well as the repetition of the number 24, left the reader with the ominous knowledge that bad things were to come, and even though one knew they were coming, one still wanted to see what would happen next.

The characters themselves were incredibly well done, which is quite a feat since the reader didn’t have much time to get to know them.  Hoffman got right to the character inner cores and exposed it to the readers, and it was, in turn, rather heartbreaking when things ended badly for them.

While it was a rather short book, Blackbird House packed a punch and was an exceptionally worthy effort.  If you enjoy literary fiction that looks at the same place over an extended period of time, definitely give this book a try.  I can’t wait to read more by Alice Hoffman.

Rating: 4/5

Read-alikes:  Garden Spells – Sarah Addison Allen; The Mercy of Thin Air – Ronlyn Domingue

“They can't expect anyone to actually pay for a shirt that says, 'I (picture of an elephant) the San Diego Zoo.' What does that even mean?”

Fat Vampire – Adam Rex

324 pages

Genre:  YA; Paranormal; Humor

Summary:  On the whole, Doug is a pretty average teenager:  he struggles with weight issues, doesn’t have the highest self-esteem, and gets picked on by his peers.  There is one big exception to this, though:  he’s also a vampire.  As if dealing with bloodlust isn’t bad enough, Doug didn’t even get the perks that usually go along with vampire lore, namely being indescribably attractive and incredibly strong.  Things begin to change in Doug’s life, however, when he receives a mysterious invitation to join someone he’s never met for dinner.  At around the same time, strange things begin to happen in Doug’s life that may expose who he truly is.  Will Doug be able to keep his secret, or will he be forced to deal with torment from a society that doesn’t understand him?

Review:  I had high hopes for Fat Vampire.  Since the paranormal genre is so popular in YA literature at the moment, having a hero who wasn’t perfect sounded absolutely fabulous.   Unfortunately, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

Fat Vampire started out quite well, and the beginning of the book was incredibly funny and authentically captured the teenage voice.  As the book progressed, however, Doug seemed to become more of an afterthought in his own story, and other characters melodramas were brought to the forefront.  There also wasn’t a whole lot of explanation in regards to some of the events, and in many instances, these events seemed a bit contrived.

I wasn’t particularly fond of any of the characters, and I found Doug’s personality to be especially repellant.  Sejal had potential, but she was so focused on “the Google” that it made it difficult to feel attached to her.  None of the character seemed very believable to me, and ultimately, they all fell flat.

While I didn’t particularly care for Fat Vampire, the pacing worked really well and the plot moved along nicely.  The humor within would appeal to teenagers, especially reluctant readers, and fans of the paranormal genre may enjoy this book.

Rating:  2/5

Read-alikes:  Eighth Grade Bites – Heather Brewer, City of Bones – Cassandra Clare, The Last Apprentice – Joseph Delaney, Cirque du Freak series – Darren Shan

"A real life doesn’t mean getting what you want; the achievement, the privilege, too, is knowing what you love. But getting what you love? Having what you love, love you back? Oh, my friend, it’s a miracle: your one tiny life’s head-on collision with divinity.”

Love Walked In – Marisa de los Santos

307 pages

Genre:  Contemporary; Romance; Literature

Summary:  Love Walked In is a dual narrative told from the perspective of Cornelia, a twenty-something barista who isn’t quite sure what she wants to do with her life, and Clare, an eleven-year-old whose familial situation forces her to grow up fast.  On a seemingly average day, Cornelia is toiling away at the coffee shop when Martin, a handsome man a few years her senior, wanders in and turns her world upside-down.  Meanwhile, Clare, neglected and eventually abandoned by her unstable mother, is searching for her absentee father, wanders into an unassuming coffee shop, and gets much more than she bargained for.  Will Clare and Cornelia find what they’re looking for, or will they find that they want something different altogether?

Review:  Love Walked In was a charming, sweet tale that was full of twists and turns.

This book was a little bit disjointed for me.  At Love Walked In’s onset, I was absolutely hooked and loathe to put it down.  I loved Cornelia’s quirks and temperament, and could relate to her right away.  Additionally, many of the instances in the beginning of the book were quite funny, and I truly enjoyed reading about them.  Clare was also easy to love, and I spent the entirety of the book hoping things would work out the way in which she wanted them to.  Her situation absolutely broke my heart.

Towards the latter third of Love Walked In, however, my feelings began to change a little bit.  The beginning was mostly spent getting to know the characters, so I was a bit surprised at how rushed the events felt towards the end.  Yes, there was quite a bit of ground to cover, but everything happened so quickly that it was hard to keep up.

Nonetheless, Love Walked In was quite enjoyable and moved along at a nice pace.  All of the characters were really well-developed, and the fact that they had flaws made them very believable.  I was never a big fan of Martin, but still enjoyed reading about him (he just seemed too perfect), so when his flaws began to present themselves as Cornelia’s blinders were taken off, it made me feel kind of vindicated.  I also really liked Teo, who was an incredibly sweet character, and I was hoping things would work out exactly how they did by the book’s end in regard to his circumstances.

Love Walked In was a fun romp that will take you on an emotional journey through the lives of various characters.  If you’re looking for a well-written book packed with romance and friendship, I definitely recommend it.

Rating:  3/5

Read-AlikeThe Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

“Ben wished the world was organized by the Dewey decimal system. That way you'd be able to find whatever you were looking for.”

Wonderstruck – Brian Selznick

639 pages

Genre:  Juvenile; Historical Fiction; Mystery; Sequential Art

Summary:  Wonderstruck unfolds through the eyes of two distinct characters:  Ben, a young boy growing up in 1970s Minnesota, whose story is told in words; and Rose, a young girl living in New Jersey during the 1920s, whose story is told in pictures. 

Ben’s mom has just passed away in a tragic accident, and Ben has to come to terms with life without her.  After her death, he begins to wonder about the father he has never met and works to piece together clues to figure out who he is.  Meanwhile, Rose is obsessed with an actress who lives in New York City, and at the onset of the story, it is easy to see how much she longs to escape into a world that she believes is better suited for her.  Will Ben and Rose ever find what they’re looking for?

Review:  Wonderstruck was my first foray into Selznick’s body of work, and it definitely won’t be my last.

One of the things I loved most about this book was the fact that it was a dual narrative.  While this form doesn’t work for every book, it worked exceptionally well in Wonderstruck.  I loved piecing together the clues about Ben’s life through words, and it was equally enjoyable to learn more about Rose through pictures.  The text was quite well-written, the pictures were absolutely breathtaking, and I found myself completely absorbed in both.  Throughout the story, I wondered when and if the texts were ever going to coincide, and when they did, it really surprised me in a wonderful way.  This book engaged me and kept me guessing until the very last page.

As I just mentioned, the pictures are fabulous.  The images Selznick created were extremely lifelike and beautiful, and I found myself lingering over them for quite some time to ensure that I absorbed all of the nuances.  Rose’s story really didn’t need any written explanation because of the sequential art, and I really liked that none was included.

Another interesting facet of this book centered around deafness.  I haven’t often encountered deaf characters in my literary wanderings, and to have two deaf main characters was really interesting.

Ultimately, if you’re looking for a book that combines mystery, adventure, beautiful artwork, and historical fiction, definitely give Wonderstruck a try.

Rating:  4.5/5

Other Books by Brian Selznick:  The Invention of Hugo Cabret, The Houdini Box, The Boy of a Thousand Faces, The Robot King

Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Is there any chance I'll turn from plastic back to flesh?” - Nico Rathburn

Jane – April Lindner

373 pages

Genre:  Updated Classic; Realistic Fiction; Romance

Summary:  Jane is a modern-day retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s classic, Jane Eyre.  In this adaptation, Jane Moore is a shy, college girl who is forced to drop out of school because of a family tragedy that has made her unable to finance her education anymore.  She decides to pursue becoming a nanny in order to keep herself afloat for the foreseeable future, and because of her discreet nature, she is paired up with a rock star named Nico Rathburn.  After spending time with Nico and his daughter, Maddy, Jane finds that her feelings for Nico are changing; somewhere along the way, she began to fall in love with him.  Nico, however, has a terrible secret that few people know about, and practical Jane’s emotions become even more conflicted.  Will her feelings be reciprocated, and will she ever discover what Nico is hiding?

Review:  Most people that know me well know about my love for Jane EyreJane Eyre is definitely my favorite classic, and in all honesty, it may be my favorite book…ever.  I’ve always been drawn to Jane’s inner strength and how she easily puts Rochester in his place, and every time I read the book, it’s like I’m reading it for the first time. When I saw Jane sitting on the shelf, it beckoned to me like a siren’s call; I knew I had to have it.  Since I do love Jane Eyre so much, however, I wasn’t sure how much I was going to like Lindner’s updated version, but much to my delight, I really enjoyed it.

Turning the brooding Rochester into internationally recognized rock star Nico Rathburn was a really clever way to update the character, and it truly highlighted just how different Jane and Nico really were.  Nico was rather complex, mysterious, and kept secrets hidden from most everyone, which made him incredibly compelling to read about.  I also loved the addition of Maddy to the story, as she was extremely likeable, and in some ways, reminded me of Jane. 

Jane Moore was definitely similar to the Jane Eyre I’ve come to know and love, but they also differed quite a bit, too.  While both were strong and serious, Jane Moore was a bit more emotional than Jane Eyre, but I didn’t think that was necessarily a bad thing; they were just different.  There were also a couple of instances in which I questioned some of Jane Moore’s decisions, as they seemed a bit out of character, especially as it relates to things that happened with Nico (I don’t want to be too specific, just in case you aren’t familiar with the story), but it didn’t detract too much from my enjoyment of the book.

In my opinion, the treatment of the Bertha character in Jane (Bibi) didn’t work quite as well as it did in Jane Eyre, mostly because that situation didn’t really translate well to the present day.  The author did a great job in capturing the deranged personality, however, and the scenes with Bibi were definitely interesting.

Ultimately, this was a rather great re-telling of Jane Eyre that kept me interested from beginning to end.  If you’re interested in classics, or are looking for a book with tons of twists, turns, and romance, definitely give Jane a try.  Jane has inspired me to read Jane Eyre again, and I can’t wait to read more by April Lindner.

*There is a little bit of sexual content in this book, so if that makes you uncomfortable, proceed with caution.

Rating:  4/5

Read-alikes:  Jane Eyre- Charlotte Bronte, Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys, The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

For another perspective, check out Nori's review:  Jane

Sunday, September 11, 2011

"Whoever had decided that school should start so early in the morning and last all day long needed to be hunted down and forced to watch hours of educational televison without the aid of caffine." - Vlad

Eighth Grade Bites (The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod #1) – Heather Brewer

182 pages

Genre:  YA; Paranormal; Urban Fantasy

Summary:  Middle school is the stuff that nightmares are made of for pretty much everyone, and thirteen-year-old Vladimir Tod is no exception.  Not only does he have to deal with the normal trials and tribulations of being a teenager, but he also has a secret he’s trying to hide from everyone he knows:  he’s half vampire.  As Vlad tries his best to fly under the radar, strange things begin to happen around town, people begin to go missing, and a bizarre new substitute teacher takes control of his English class…and takes a special interest in Vlad.  Will Vlad be exposed for what he truly is, or will he be able to continue hiding his identity from the world?

Review:  Eighth Grade Bites was a decent story that moved along at a nice pace.

The story itself was a bit predictable for me, and I was hoping that things would take a different, surprising turn because the events therein seemed so obvious.  Perhaps there is more to the story than meets the eye, however, as I’m sure other avenues are explored in the subsequent books, and appearances may prove to be deceiving.

I didn’t feel particularly attached to any of the characters, with the exception of Otis.  Otis was rather intriguing and whimsical, and I enjoyed that I could never quite figure out what his true intentions were.  In a way, he kind of reminded me of Sirius Black from Harry Potter (who was one of my favorite characters in the series), but unlike Sirius, I’m left to wonder if he really is who he says he is.  The other characters, including Vlad, didn’t seem real enough to me, and I had a hard time sympathizing with any of them.  I’m sure more character development happens in later books, but in Eighth Grade Bites, the characters fell a bit flat.

One thing that kind of drove me crazy was the focus on food throughout.  I thought it was funny the first time Vlad’s diet was mentioned, but after being beaten over the head with it 3435 times, the joke started to get a bit boring and didn’t really seem relevant to the story.  He drinks blood; we get it!

Despite its flaws, Eighth Grade Bites did have some really great things, too.  Although I didn’t sympathize with the characters, I thought the author did a great job of capturing the middle school experience.  Vlad dealt with bullies, crushes, friendships, and other things that go hand-in-hand with being a teenager, and many people can definitely relate to that.  This book was also laced with humor, and I often found myself laughing as I read some of the dialogue or descriptions.

While it isn’t perfect, Eighth Grade Bites would be a great read for middle or high school students, especially boys or reluctant readers, as they could probably relate to many of the situations within the book (well, not being a vampire, of course, but the experiences of Vlad as a student).  This would also be worth looking into if you enjoy YA urban fantasies.

Rating:  3/5

Other Books in this Series:  Ninth Grade Slays (Book 2), Tenth Grade Bleeds (Book 3), Eleventh Grade Burns (Book 4), Twelfth Grade Kills (Book 5)

Read-alikesCirque du Freak series – Darren Shan, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J.K. Rowling, City of Bones– Cassandra Clare

Saturday, September 10, 2011

"Who was I before I existed? Who am I now that I no longer do?" - Maddy Stanton

The Everafter – Amy Huntley

248 pages

Genre:  YA; Paranormal; Romance

Summary:  Maddy Stanton knows she’s dead, but no matter how hard she tries, she cannot remember the circumstances surrounding her death.  While her physical body no longer exists, her soul lives on in a place called “Is,” an in-between space that isn’t the Everafter (the place people go after they’ve accepted their deaths), nor is it life.  While Maddy does seem stuck between a rock and a hard place, Is does offer one very unique thing:  all of the objects she has lost over the years are with her, and by thinking of the situation along with the object, she’s able to visit the memory of when the item was lost.  Will Maddy ever discover the circumstances surrounding her death through these lost objects, or will she be stuck in Is forever?

Review:  The Everafter ensnared me from the very first pages, and even though I was pretty tired when I started reading it, I had absolutely no desire to put it down.  This is a quick read that will leave you turning the pages feverishly as you try to puzzle together the events surrounding Maddy’s death right along with her.

One of the biggest strengths of this book centered around the philosophical questions throughout.  Huntley didn’t shy away from discussing the question of whether or not a supreme being existed, and if one did, why was Maddy in this state of limbo?  In the same vein, The Everafter also touched on the experience of being in two places at once, as Maddy and other characters were both alive and dead simultaneously.  Can we exist on two different planes?  I’ve often thought about this myself, and if nothing else, The Everafter will definitely get other readers thinking about life and death in these terms, too.

I thought it was really interesting that Huntley chose to use objects as memory attachments for Maddy.  Many people really do get attached to their possessions, and allowing Maddy to return to different times and places by associating the lost object with a memory was a really neat idea.

Maddy was a very authentic teenager, full of doubt and questions, which made her extremely relatable.  At one point, I think she even remarked that everyone else who was dead understood both life and death better than her, and she couldn’t believe that she still didn’t understand it all, even after her own death.   The romance between Gabe and Maddy was incredibly sweet and genuine, and I found myself smiling whenever the pair were together.

While this isn’t the happiest of novels, it is an interesting one and definitely worth reading if you’re into questions about life and death or paranormal books.  The pacing of The Everafter would also make this a great choice for reluctant readers, as it moves quickly and there is very rarely a dull moment.  I can’t wait to read more from this author.

Rating:  4/5

Read-alikes:  Everlost – Neil Shusterman, A Certain Slant of Light – Laura Whitcomb, The Adoration of Jenna Fox – Mary E. Pearson, If I Stay – Gayle Forman

Friday, September 2, 2011

"He looked as though I'd just run over his pet puppy (though no actual puppies were harmed in the formation of that metaphor)." - Cammie Morgan

I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You – Ally Carter

284 pages

Genre:  YA; Action; Humor; Romance

Summary:  The Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women isn’t your average school.  The name alone may bring to mind images of extremely smart girls buried in a mound of books in the library…and that’s exactly what they want you to think.  While the girls that attend the Academy are brilliant, they’re actually learning skills that one cannot learn in an ordinary school:  how to become spies.  Cammie, the daughter of the headmistress of the school and a future spy herself, is a particularly exceptional student who is well on her way to achieving her family’s legacy.  When things begin to happen in her life, however, will she continue to pursue the life that she is destined to live, or will it completely throw her off?

Review: What first drew me to I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You was definitely the title.  When I saw the title, it made me laugh and I knew it was something that would probably be a fun read, so I ended up buying it.  Fortunately, it was quite an entertaining, quick, absorbing book, and I’m really looking forward to reading more in this series.

For me, one of the best parts of this book was the fact that it took place in an all-girls spy school.  These girls weren’t damsels in distress; quite the contrary, actually.  Not only could they take a grown man down with the self-defense moves that they were taught, but they were also extremely bright, observant, and mentally strong.  I really loved all of the technology that was used throughout, and the secret passages were great!  For most of the book, I couldn’t help but wish that I went to that school.

The characters were really well done, especially Cammie and Macey.  While Cammie was incredibly smart, she was absolutely clueless when it came to boys, had a lot of flaws, and all in all, was a really believable, teenage character.  She did wear her heart on her sleeve a little bit too much and it didn’t quite fit with her spy persona, but nonetheless, I did grow attached to her.  Macey was probably my favorite character in the book, and I loved that there was more to her than what the persona she cultivated was giving off.

As a whole, I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You was a fun read with strong female characters.  If you enjoy books packed with action, humor, and non-cookie cutter girls, definitely give it a try. 

Rating:  3.5/5

Other Books in the Gallagher Girl series:  Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy (Book 2), Don’t Judge a Girl by Her Cover (Book 3), Only the Good Spy Young (Book 4), Out of Sight, Out of Time (Book 5; will be released in 2012).

Thursday, July 7, 2011

"Most of the time I look up at the sky pretending I’m somewhere else. I’m definitely not tangled up in a net in my underwear with forty-nine sophomores watching me. I’m not practically naked in front of the girl I want to impress most in the world." - Andrew Zansky

Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have – Allen Zadoff

320 pages

Genre:  YA; Realistic Fiction; Sports

Summary:  Andrew Zansky, an overweight teenager who is sometimes bullied, but mostly ignored in the halls of his high school, wishes he could be someone else.  While he does enjoy spending time with a handful of friends, Andy tends to turn to food for comfort and has become a bit complacent with his lot in life.  All that begins to change, however, when he spots a beautiful girl named April at an event, blurts out that he’s a jock, and begins to wonder if he can really turn himself into another person.  Will Andy be able to change his life, or will everything blow up in his face?

Review:  Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have was a humorous, touching book, and while it was a solid 320 pages, I read through it quite quickly.

One of the things that Zadoff did best in this work was authentically capturing the teenage experience through his characters.  Andrew was an incredibly believable character who was full of insecurities, but through his streaks of self-deprecation, he was also able to keep his sense of humor alive.  He knew he wasn’t perfect, and was basically just your average kid trying to make his way through high school; the fact that he had flaws made him quite relatable.  O was another standout character in my mind, and much like the rest of the school, I really grew to like him as I got to know him more, which surprised me because I don’t often like archetype jock characters.  April was also rather compelling, and while I didn’t particularly like her, the insecurities that she exhibited also made her a believable character.  She desperately wanted to be popular and would sometimes put her own interests aside in her quest to be liked, which is probably something many teenage girls can relate to.

In all honesty, I wasn’t sure how much I was going to like this book at first because it kind of spelled out everything about Andy on the first page, but I am extremely glad I stuck with it. The plot moved along quite quickly without any slow parts, and just when I thought things were finally going to get easier for Andy, they tended to take a turn for the worse.

If you’re looking for a quirky, fun, realistic read with an unexpected hero, definitely give Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have a try.

Rating:  3.5/5

Other Books by this Allen Zadoff:  My Life, The Theater, and Other Tragedies, Hungry:  Lessons Learned on the Journey from Fat to Thin

Read-alikes:  The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things – Carolyn Macker, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging – Louise Rennison, The DUFF – Kody Klepplinger

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

"People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl. I wonder if it wouldn't be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd."

The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

325 pages

Genre:  Contemporary; Literature; French

Summary:  The Elegance of the Hedgehog unfolds through the eyes of two Parisian narrators who live in the same building:  an aging concierge named Renee; and a suicidal twelve-year-old named Paloma.  Throughout the course of the novel, each narrator reflects upon their lives, and in the process, make discoveries about themselves.

Review:  If forced to summarize this novel in one word, I would definitely have to choose “fantastic.”  The Elegance of the Hedgehog hooked me from the very beginning and didn’t let up until the last page.

Both Paloma and Renee were believable, well-rounded characters, and I loved being able to get a glimpse into what their lives were like.  Paloma was such a smart kid, and her observations about life were incredibly illuminating, especially when her age was taken into consideration.  Her “profound thoughts” were quite interesting to read, and I looked forward to them whenever I saw the font change.  I thought it was really interesting that Renee tried to hide her true intellectual side in order to play the role of the stereotypical concierge.  It was quite heartbreaking that she felt she had to do this, yet I understood why it was necessary.  Both characters grew tremendously throughout the book, and it was quite an adventure to watch them do so.

Aside from being psychological observations about life, The Elegance of the Hedgehog also provided social commentary on the classes in modern-day Paris.  People had their airs and pretentions throughout, but as one could see when examining the two main characters, appearances could often be deceiving.  The way in which the book was written was lyrical and thought-provoking, and I read each page eagerly, taking breaks every once in awhile to really reflect upon what I had just read.

If you’re looking for a well-written book that focuses on the interior life of two distinct characters, definitely give The Elegance of the Hedgehog a try.

Rating:  5/5

Author read-alike:  Margaret Atwood

Other Books by Muriel Barbery:  Gourmet Rhapsody

“People need reasons. Explanations. If they aren’t given them, they create them.”

Songs for a Teenage Nomad – Kim Culbertson

204 pages

Genre:  YA; realistic fiction

Summary:  Calle Smith is just your average 14-year-old girl, with one big exception:  as soon as she starts to get comfortable somewhere, her mom picks up both of their lives and moves them somewhere else.  This typically happens when one of Calle’s mom’s romantic relationships comes to an end, as she feels that leaving everything behind will give them a fresh start and erase bad memories.  Instead of forgetting, moving causes Calle to cling on to every memory she has, associate them with a song, and write down into a journal.  When the duo reaches their newest destination, Calle doesn’t realize that she will come face to face with her past in a much greater way than ever before.

Review:  Songs for a Teenage Nomad was an incredibly fun read, and I read through the entire book in one sitting.

The story itself moved along at a nice clip, and I really enjoyed how Calle chronicled her life through journal entries and song titles.  I tend to associate memories with songs, too, so it was easy to relate to Calle in that regard, and it also made me want to keep a song journal of my own.  It was interesting to see Calle adjust to her new environment as she tried not to get too comfortable, but craved normalcy all the same.  There was plenty of plot twists and action throughout, and the twist at the end was particularly poignant; I definitely didn’t see it coming.

The characters were quite well-drawn, and all of the teenagers were believable.  I especially enjoyed Calle and Sam’s relationship as it seemed incredibly realistic for high school students, and watching it develop was quite a rollercoaster.  It was also interesting to look at the home lives of both Calle and Sam, as they both didn’t have the average family and their lives were far from perfect.

If you’re looking for a realistic YA book that focuses on relationships and what it’s like to be a teenager, definitely check out Songs for a Teenage Nomad.

Rating:  3.5/5

Another Book by Kim Culbertson:  Instructions for a Broken Heart

Sunday, June 19, 2011

"What you don't necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you're really selling is your life."

Nickel and Dimed:  On (Not) Getting By in America – Barbara Ehrenreich

230 pages

Genre:  Non-fiction; Sociology

Summary: Barbara Ehrenreich, a well-to-do reporter, decides to go undercover in an effort to ascertain what it’s like to be among America’s working class.   In the course of her investigation, she accepts jobs as a maid, waitress, and Wal-mart employee, respectively, in various parts of the country, and writes about her experiences in Nickel and Dimed.

Review:  When I first saw Nickel and Dimed, I was quite anxious to read it.  Even though it was written 10 years ago, the subject at hand (working Americans inability to make ends meat) is, of course, still pertinent to what the working poor experience today.  Much to my chagrin, however, I didn’t really care for this book.

My biggest annoyance with Nickel and Dimed was the author’s flippant attitude throughout.  Instead of shedding her pretensions to really get into the spirit of the investigation, she remained quite pompous and haughty throughout, never really accepting anything that she deemed “beneath her,” be it a job or sub-standard housing.  If you are truly among the working poor, you tend to take whatever you can get regardless of what it is, as you need money to support yourself and your family.  When you’re really trying to survive, you do whatever it takes. 

There was one instance in particular that really stands out in my mind, where she made a disparaging comment about people in the Midwest.  Apparently, everyone, especially if they can be found at a certain huge, anti-union discount store, is overweight, which is completely false, offensive, and an incredibly pompous generalization to make about an entire community of people.

It was also rather astonishing to me that Ehrenreich was so flabbergasted about her findings related to workers’ rights and lives.  If one has ever worked a minimum wage job, even as a teenager, one can probably relate to several of the findings in this book, if not all of them.  Are people with money really this far removed from reality?

Despite the pretension, this book did bring light to issues that tend to be swept under the rug in national discourse.  Most specifically, workers’ rights, wages, healthcare, access to quality food, and inability to secure decent places to live are important issues that the working poor face everyday.  People can’t just pull themselves up by the bootstraps and make their way out of poverty because it is a vicious, perpetual cycle that oftentimes seems impossible to escape.  By putting these issues on the table, people who were previously unaware of them have no choice but to pay attention. 

Ultimately, if you truly don’t know about what the working poor face on a daily basis, Nickel and Dimed may be worth your time.  If you are aware of what goes on, however, feel free to skip this book.

Rating:  2/5

Other Books by this Author:  Bait and Switched, Bright-sided, This Land is Their Land

Saturday, June 18, 2011

"In the sanctuary of my thoughts, I am a fearless renegade." - Tassie

Ella Minnow Pea – Mark Dunn

208 pages

Summary:  Set on the fictional island of Nollop and founded on the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolary novel that chronicles the correspondences between various inhabitants of the island.  Everything on the island is going quite well until letters from the pangram begin to fall from a statue in town, thereby moving the governing body to put a unilateral ban on each letter, respectively, as they think it’s a sign from Nollop himself.  Will Ella and her cohorts be able to find a solution before every letter is eradicated from existence?

Review:  I am a lover of language, so when I read that Ella Minnow Pea focused on letters, words and censorship, I couldn’t wait to read it.  Fortunately, this book was incredibly well done, and my only wish is that I had read it sooner.

I’m quite sure I’ve mentioned this before, but I absolutely love epistolary novels.  Something about the way in which they are written makes me feel as if I’m getting to know the characters on a deeper level than I would otherwise.  One of the strengths of this book was the varying perspectives to which the reader was given access.  The letters weren’t just between two people; rather, they were addressed to a plethora of different characters, and sometimes, even a formal letter by the council was presented to the reader.  Telling the story in this way worked really well when taking the subject matter into consideration, as it physically showed the ways in which language was forced to change with every declaration of the council.  It was also interesting to see the evolution from incredibly verbose to much shorter and nonsensical in order to fit into the constraints. 

The writing itself was incredibly witty, and when the characters still had access to all of the letters in the first part of the book, the language was absolutely beautiful.  I love that Dunn played with the idea of eliminating letters, and the fact that he had to pay such close attention to what he was saying throughout the book makes his effort even more brilliant.  It even makes me want to try such an endeavor myself, just to see if I can do it.

Ella Minnow Pea was a great read, packed with humor, crazy governmental rules, and painstaking attention to language.  If you’re a lover of words or epistolary novels, definitely give it a try!

Rating: 4/5

Other Books by Mark Dunn:  Ibid, Welcome to Higby, Under the Harrow

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"As a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane - as a means of inciting evil, to borrow the vocabulary of the devout - there may be no more potent force than religion."

Under the Banner of Heaven:  A Story of Violent Faith – Jon Krakauer

400 pages

Genre:  Non-fiction; Religion; History; Mormonism

Summary:  As the title suggests, Under the Banner of Heaven investigates violent acts of faith perpetrated by radical Mormon Fundamentalists.  In his exploration, Krakauer also provides the reader with a history of the Mormon faith, highlighting significant people and events, while also identifying the places in which extremists began to splinter off from the mainstream Mormon faith.

Review:  Overall, I found this book to be extremely interesting and a thorough examination of Mormon history, especially as it relates to the small sect of individuals who take their faith to the extreme and commit acts of violence.

Going into this book, I only knew the basics about Mormonism, and I had absolutely no idea about all of the violence associated with some of the people in the faith.  It was really interesting to get a glimpse at the history of Mormonism, the important people within the religion, and the ongoing debate with polygamy.  In the same vein, it was also interesting, yet extremely sad, to read about the people on the fringe who took their beliefs to violent extremes in the name of their God.

The stories contained within the book were incredibly compelling, albeit terrifying at times, and the events surrounding the Lafferty brothers were especially poignant.  The way in which they discussed the murders they perpetrated after the fact was incredibly heartrending, indeed, and it was amazing to me that they really felt compelled by a higher power to carry out their atrocious acts.

The writing itself was a bit dry at times, but that tends to happen when one is reading a book presenting historical facts.  The action in the rest of the book more than made up for these few instances, however, and I flipped through the pages eagerly when something in particular sparked my interest.

If you have an interest in radical Mormonism or religious violence, definitely give Under The Banner of Heaven a try. 

Rating:  3/5

Other Books by Jon Krakauer:  Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, Where Men Win Glory 

"Right, good temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant."

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 2:  The Reptile Room – Lemony Snicket

190 pages

Genre:  YA/Juvenile; Adventure; Fantasy

*Spoilers for the first book are in both the summary and the review, as it’s kind of impossible to talk about the second book without revealing crucial plot points from the first.  Proceed with caution if you haven’t read it yet and still wish to maintain an element of surprise.

Summary:  In this second installment of The Series of Unfortunate Events, the Baudelaire orphans are back for their next adventure.  After escaping from the evil clutches of dastardly Count Olaf, the children are sent to live with their distant relative and animal enthusiast, Uncle Monty.  Everything is going along quite swimmingly until Uncle Monty’s new assistant comes to work at the house, effectively turning everything upside down.  Will the Baudelaire children ever get the quiet, happy life that they seek?

Review:  I thoroughly enjoyed The Bad Beginning, the first book in this series, so my expectations were quite high for The Reptile Room.  Much to my delight, I enjoyed The Reptile Room just as much as its predecessor, and read the whole thing in an hour or two.

Lemony Snicket is a great storyteller, and the way he weaves his words really makes the events, characters, and settings come to life.  I love that he talks directly to the reader in various parts of the story; since this is written with a younger audience in mind, it really helps to draw readers in, teach them moral lessons and manners, and also allows them to try to deduce what they would do if they were in any given situation.  The foreshadowing within the book does tend to hit the reader over the head, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing when the intended audience is taken into consideration.  Knowing that something bad is going to happen before it actually occurs may make kids feel as though they can one up the characters, in a sense, while also allowing them to really pay attention to what caused the events to transpire.

The characters are also really great, and I’m sure many readers could see themselves in at least one of the Baudelaire children.  The trio are incredibly smart and logical, and their ability to stick together no matter the situation gets them through everything.  Uncle Monty was incredibly eccentric, and I really liked that he had a room full of reptiles.  Count Olaf was just as terrifying as I’ve come to expect, and I love that he was brought back as the villain in this book, too.

These books are packed with twists and turns and are incredibly fun to read.  Some of the subject matter is a bit dark, so I think this series would be great for a mature 9-12 year old.  I certainly can’t wait to read more!

Rating:  3.5/5

Other Books in this SeriesThe Bad Beginning (Book 1), The Wide Window (Book 3), The Miserable Mill (Book 4), The Austere Academy (Book 5), The Ersatz Elevator (Book 6), The Vile Village (Book 7), The Carnivorous Carnival (Book 8), The Slippery Slope (Book 9), The Hostile Hospital (Book 10), The Grim Grotto (Book 11), The Penultimate Peril (Book 12), The End (Book 13)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"Sometimes I wish I could just be like everyone else my age and not think at all." - Nina

 XVI – Julia Karr

325 pages

Genre:  YA; Dystopia

Summary:  Set approximately 100 years into the future, XVI is told from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old Nina Oberon, an average girl living in Chicago.  Nina has no desire to reach the age of sixteen because girls in this dystopian society are branded with an XVI tattoo on their wrists, and are expected to become sexually active at that time. While her worries are a stark contrast to her best friend, Sandy’s, feelings about reaching the age of “adulthood,” turning sixteen becomes just one of a series of issues that plague Nina’s life after somebody she loves is attacked.   Can she escape her fate, or is she doomed to live the life of a typical sixteen within the society?

Review:  While I thought the concept of XVI was rather interesting, for me, the execution mostly fell flat. 

I love a good dystopia, but there were way too many unanswered questions in this book that made it near impossible for me to suspend disbelief.  How did society get this way?  Why does everyone just go along with it?  From the way XVI ended, I have a feeling that there will be sequels, so perhaps these questions will be fleshed out a little bit more in the next books.  It was also kind of strange that, in some instances, the characters were discussing things that they had been acquainted with all of their lives, and therefore, shouldn’t really have had a need to discuss since it was already part of their collective experience. 

The one-dimensionality of the characters also really stood out to me.  The females, especially Wei and Ginnie, were definitely tough, but it was hard to really feel any sympathy for their plights because they all seemed rather generic.  In the same vein, the male characters didn’t seem to have any personality at all, and much like the females, it was quite hard to get to know them.  Additionally, Sal and Nina’s relationship seemed a bit contrived, and I really didn’t find myself caring about what happened with their romance at all.

Taking all of these factors into account, I actually did enjoy this book and read the whole thing in a few hours.  Yes, most of it was rather predictable, but that didn’t really detract from the fun I had reading it; in fact, I’ll probably continue with the series.  Ed was a great villain, and I spent the whole book wishing vengeance would finally come to him.  The technology and dead zones were also rather cool, and I loved that it enabled the characters to talk freely about what was going on around them.

If you enjoy dystopias, especially any of the ones listed below under “read-alikes,” XVI may be a book worth looking into.

Rating:  2.5/5

Read-alikes:  The Adoration of Jenna Fox – Mary E. Pearson, Feed – M.T. Anderson, Uglies trilogy – Scott Westerfeld, Matched – Ally Condie, 1984 – George Orwell

Saturday, June 4, 2011

"Take no heed of her... She reads a lot of books."

The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

374 pages

Genre:  Alternate History; Mystery; Fantasy           

Summary:  Set in various places in England, The Eyre Affair follows Thursday Next, an agent working for a branch of London’s Special Operations known as the LiteraTecs, in 1985.  In this alternate reality, literature is highly valued and incredibly popular, and it is the responsibility of the SpecOps to protect it against any threat.  When a hardened criminal named Hades begins to literally fall into the pages of the books and permanently change the plots, will Thursday and her cohorts be able to stop him?

Review:  I am a huge Jane Eyre fan, so when I heard about this book, I knew I was either going to really love it or throw it forcibly against a wall.  Fortunately for both my sake and the binding of my copy of The Eyre Affair, I absolutely loved it and was drawn in from the very first page.

This book was hilarious from start to finish, and Fforde’s wit was evident on every page (Jack Schitt…well played, Mr. Fforde).  Fforde’s London was incredibly imaginative, and I couldn’t help but wish I lived there; after all, what voracious reader wouldn’t want the opportunity to leap into her favorite poems or books (not to mention work for the SpecOps)?  I loved all of the references to other books throughout, but mentions of Bronte, Shakespeare, Bacon, and Marlowe brought a special kind of giddy joy to my nerdy, English major heart. 

The way in which Jane Eyre was tied into the story was incredibly interesting, and I liked that the ending of that book was different at the beginning of The Eyre Affair.  It was also interesting to see the parallels from Jane Eyre to Thursday’s own life.

The characters themselves were quite well drawn, and I really liked that the story was told through Thursday’s eyes.  Sometimes I get a little worried when I find out that a male author is trying to write a female protagonist, but I thought Fforde did a really great job here.  Thursday was tough, smart, extremely well-read, and sometimes, she made mistakes, which made her quite believable.  Even though he only showed up a few times, Thursday’s father was also a compelling character, and I loved when he popped in to ask if Thursday had ever heard of someone who was supposed to be historically important.  Hades, the villain, was also quite interesting because he was so maniacal, and as I read along, I kept hoping that the SpecOps would finally be able to stop him somehow.

All in all, The Eyre Affair was an excellent start to what I’m sure is a fantastic series.  If you enjoy alternate histories, classic literature, and mysteries, definitely give The Eyre Affair a try.  I certainly can’t wait to read more!

Rating:  4/5

Other Books in the Thursday Next Series:  Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten, First Among Sequels, One of Our Thursdays is Missing

Read-alikes:  Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, Inkheart – Cornelia Funke, Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte, The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

Monday, May 30, 2011

"A proud heart can survive general failure because such a failure does not prick its pride. It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone."

Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

209 pages

Genre:  Literature; Classic; Historical Fiction; Africa

Summary: Things Fall Apart centers around a man named Okonkwo as he goes about his life in a small village in Africa.

Review:  Things Fall Apart definitely didn’t pull me in from the beginning, and for quite some time, I felt as if I was reading it out of a sense of duty more than anything else.  After I got about halfway into it, however, I really began to enjoy the book and found myself thoroughly engrossed in the plot.

Okonkwo, the main character of the novel, was an incredibly angry person, and, at times, it was really difficult to understand where his anger came from.  It was even more alarming to see the ways in which that anger manifested itself, as he was prone to rash, violent actions.  He was extraordinarily difficult to relate to in this respect, but his anger did not detract from the fact that he was quite a compelling character.   In fact, I wanted to read more about him to see if I could understand him better.

This book reminded me very much of a fable, and I thought that style worked exceptionally well here. The most interesting part of this book for me, however, was looking at the culture and religion of the village.  It was quite fascinating, yet often very sad to see how problems were dealt with, people interacted, and women’s roles in society. As things began to transform towards the latter part of the book, I found myself making comparisons to how things were in the beginning of the book, and the drastic changes were often quite sad indeed.

Things Fall Apart definitely wasn’t a happy read, but nonetheless, it was incredibly well written.  If you’re looking for a book that examines African history, definitely give it a try.

Rating: 3/5

Read-alikes:  Aesop’s Fables, Out of Africa – Isak Dinesen, The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver