Thursday, June 14, 2012

“The difficult thing isn't living with other people, it's understanding them.”

Blindness – Jose Saramago
326 pages
Genre:  Dystopia; Classic; Portugese

Summary:  On a seemingly ordinary day, a random person is suddenly afflicted with blindness.  Things only get stranger when more and more people become blind as the days go on, and said people are put into quarantine while researchers try to figure out what’s going on.  The afflicted band together in their new home, while unbeknownst to them, panic engulfs the city they left behind.  Will order and sight ever be returned?

Review:  Blindness was a thoroughly absorbing read that left me eagerly turning the pages from start to finish.

The unnamed society that Saramgo imagines in this effort could really be any society in the modern world, and perhaps that’s what makes Blindness so terrifying and memorable.  The characters within were just going about their normal lives when the disease set in, and it really makes one think that it could happen anywhere.  The fact that those afflicted were quarantined for something they couldn’t control was also very scary, and when the circumstances are taken into consideration, it’s not difficult to imagine that any society would probably act in a similar fashion if something like this were to occur.

The most powerful aspect of Blindness was definitely the characters.  None of them were named, and instead, the reader got to know them through their actions.  Much like the characters, the reader was, in a sense, blind, as said characters could’ve been anyone, sort of like an “everyman.”

The overarching theme for the book was the concept of blindness and how important it is to open one’s eyes and really see things for how they are.  Many people live in their own little world of ignorance or blindness, and Blindness stresses how important it is not to do so, as catastrophe could occur.

Blindness was a haunting, powerful, universal book that portrays what could happen if one doesn’t remove their blinders.  If you’re a fan of dystopias or allegory, give this one a try.  There are a few very graphic scenes that will probably haunt my memory for awhile, though, so be mindful that that’s present if you can’t stomach those kinds of things.

Rating:  4/5

“I laugh maniacally, then take a deep breath and touch my chest- expecting a heart to be thumping quickly, impatiently, but there's nothing there, not even a beat.”

American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis
399 pages
Genre:  Horror; Contemporary; Classic

Summary:  On the outside, Patrick Bateman, a young, successful businessman, seems to be a well-adjusted person.  As we all know, however, appearances can be deceiving, and in Bateman's case that theory is definitely true, as he is actually a cold, calculating killer.  Will the atrocities he commits ever be stopped?

Review:  My immediate thought after finishing this book:  “What the actual eff did I just read?!  Sweet mother of humanity, I need a drink.”

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be in the mind of a killer, let me introduce you to American Psycho’s narrator, Patrick Bateman.  When he’s not thinking about his image, what everyone else is wearing, how much money he has, or where he’s going for dinner and drinks, he’s letting the reader see the horrible atrocities that he commits exactly as he sees them.  The scenes within this book were graphic and disturbing, and I’m sure I’ll remember many of them for years to come, not because I want to, but because they were just that messed up.

While I understood very well why American Psycho focused so much on image and I thought it was a very effective strategy, it just wasn’t really my cup of tea.  Image was everything to Bateman, but for the reader, well, it just kind of drove me crazy, probably because I really don’t care about what the characters were wearing or eating or listening to.   It really did highlight just how neurotic Bateman was, though, hence the effectiveness.

American Psycho wasn’t for me, but if you enjoy shocking stories with detailed, gory, grisly murders, you might enjoy this book.

Rating:  2/5

Monday, June 11, 2012

“Why do girls always feel like they have to apologize for giving an opinion or taking up space in the world? Have you ever noticed that? You go on websites and some girl leaves a post and if it's longer than three sentences or she's expressing her thoughts about some topic, she usually ends with, 'Sorry for the rant' or 'That may be dumb, but that's what I think.”

Beauty Queens – Libba Bray
396 pages
Genre:  YA; Humor; Adventure; Chick Lit

Summary:  Miss Teen Dream, a prestigious pageant that features fifty contestants, is upon us.  The contestants are on a plane to the pageant when disaster strikes:  the plane crashes on a remote island, and many of the girls die.  Will the survivors band together in order to survive?  Will they ever return to civilization?

Review:  I’ve only read a few books by Libba Bray, and my overall experience has been rather mixed.  Fortunately for me, I found Beauty Queens to be a thoroughly fun romp through the pageant jungle (see what I did there?)

The standout feature of this book was, of course, the humor.  I firmly believe that any book written about pageants shouldn’t take itself too seriously, and Bray certainly didn’t fail to entertain me.  All of the subject matter certainly wasn’t warm, fuzzy, and happy (I mean, they got in a plane crash, for goodness sakes), but even at its more serious moments, Beauty Queens had me laughing out loud.  The scene that sticks out the most in this regard is definitely how some of the contestants wanted to continue practicing for the pageant, even though they were castaways on an island and there was no real possibility that they would be leaving anytime soon.  I also loved that one of the teams decided to choose “Sparkle Ponies” as their team name; I may or may not have spit out my coffee when I read that because I was laughing so hard.

While humor abounds, Beauty Queens also tackles serious issues.  On the whole, the book was a tongue-in-cheek attempt to poke fun at American culture, and it worked really well.  The bits with commercials from the Corporation were especially compelling, and even though I was reading, it almost felt like I was watching television. 

In the same vein, I loved the fact sheets and different voices throughout.  Even though many of the contestants may have seemed flighty and perfect on the outside, on the inside, there was usually a lot going on.  Many issues are tackled, including sexuality, gender identity, losing a parent, feeling insecure, and feeling like an outcast because of ethnicity, and they were addressed exceptionally well. I’m sure many teens could relate to the experiences detailed therein.

The cast of characters was absolutely phenomenal.  Adina was probably my favorite of the contestants because she was so complex.  I also found the scenes with Lady Bird to be rather compelling, even though I predicted the plot twist with her character.

All in all, Beauty Queens was a really fun read that was hilarious and tackled important issues.  If you need a laugh, definitely check it out.

Rating:  4/5

“It's the intent, not the word, that makes something harsh.”

Cryer’s Cross – Lisa McMann
233 pages
Genre:  YA; Mystery

Summary:  Something strange is happening in the normally quiet, little town of Cryer’s Cross, Montana:  a student has vanished without a trace.  The search is on, and things only get weirder when another student goes missing.  The town is obviously shaken up by these tragic events, especially Kendall, a sixteen-year-old student who lives there.  Will they catch the perpetrator of the crimes?  Will Kendall be the next victim?

Review:  My commute from work to home tends to take forever, so I decided that audiobooks would be a better idea than flipping through radio stations for 40 or so minutes.  Even though it’s received mixed reviews, I really enjoyed McMann’s Wake trilogy, so I thought Cryer’s Cross would be a good audiobook for me try.  Unfortunately, I didn’t care for this book at all.

The premise, students going missing in a small town and the impact it had on said town, was a rather intriguing one, but along the way, it failed in execution.  There wasn’t a ton of action in the middle of the book, and it left me feeling rather bored until things began to pick up at the end.  A lot of the dialogue seemed rather forced and cheesy, and I laughed at things that weren’t meant to be funny numerous times.  Perhaps I had this experience because I listened to the audiobook instead of reading the actual book, but I’m not quite sure.

As for the characters, the standout for me was definitely Jacien.  He was complex, interesting, and brooding, and I liked that he was out of the norm in the small town.  Kendall was okay as a narrator, but she made a lot of really stupid decisions, especially near the story’s conclusion, and I didn’t like her all that much.

Things started picking up a bit at the end, and I liked discovering how the disappearances occurred.  The method that made the voices occur, however, was really cheesy, and I may or may not have laughed out loud when that was revealed.

Cryer’s Cross definitely wasn’t for me, but reluctant readers may enjoy this one.

Rating:  1/5

Other Books by Lisa McMann:  Wake, Fade, Gone

“How dare she be anything he was annoyed with her for not being!"

I’m Starved for You – Margaret Atwood
62 pages
Genre:  Dystopia

Summary:  In the not-so-distant future, a town called Consilience emerges in the United States.  The world outside of the community has gone crazy, so people have voluntarily elected to join the community in order to serve their “voluntary incarceration” time on alternating months, switching off with other people accordingly.  Everything is going along quite swimmingly, until Stan, one of the volunteers, discovers a note left in his house by the people that live there when he’s not there.  Will he be able to return to his life of normalcy in the community?

Review:  Margaret Atwood is one of my all-time favorite writers, so when I found out about this one, I downloaded it immediately.  As always, Atwood delivered in I’m Starved For You, and the only thing that would’ve made it better is if it were novel length.

Consilience, the community Atwood imagined, is completely eerie, and like most dystopias, doesn’t seem completely out of the realm of possibility.  Basically, the world had gone to hell in a hand basket and the prisons were overrun, so people are voluntarily going to prison to serve out their terms.  I really liked that this system wasn’t even questioned, but rather, just accepted by the people within the community.  They honestly felt like they were getting a better deal by living here, which might be the creepiest part of all.

The characters were rather dry at first, which fit perfectly with the world they were living in, and I really liked how Stan started evolving when he found the note.  Maybe this insularly world isn’t as perfect as it seems.  I also thought it was interesting that the characters never really gave much thought to the other people living in the house.  I know I would wonder about the other occupants, but I can see why they wouldn’t; why would you need to wonder when everything is being taken care of and left just as it was when you left?

I’m Starved for You was a really great short story that will definitely make you think.  If you enjoy dystopias, especially those that Atwood writes, give it a try.

Rating:  4/5

Saturday, June 9, 2012

“What do you think my chances might be of finding a soul mate in the group of you? I'll be lucky if I can just find someone who'll be able to stand me for the rest of our lives. What if I've already sent her home because I was relying on some sort of spark I didn't feel? What if she's waiting to leave me at the first sign of adversity? What if I don't find anyone at all? What do I do then, America?”

The Selection – Kiera Cass
327 pages
Genre:  YA; Fantasy; Chick Lit

Summary:  In the aftermath of a world torn apart by war, a ruling body has established itself as the leader of the people.  Prince Maxon, the son of the current monarchs and heir to the throne, has arrived at a respectable marital age, and because of this, a selection will take place to determine who his wife will be.  Any eligible girl of marital age in the realm is entered into the event if she so chooses, and from that pool, thirty-five girls are chosen.  America, our narrator, is one such girl, and quite frankly, she’s not very happy about being chosen at all.  When she meets Prince Maxon, will she change her mind about the whole thing, or will she continue to sulk and hate her new-found fame?

Review:  One magical day, I was at my friend, Christina’s, house looking through her bookshelves, because that is what all of the cool people do when they hang out with their friends.  The Selection caught my eye right away because of the fancy dress on the cover, and being the thoughtful, benevolent soul that she is, my friend let me borrow it (and I really need to return it.  My b!). 

I went into this with an open mind because it’s definitely out of the realm of literature I normally read (I tend to prefer dark, heavy subject matter), but I thought this one would be a good bit of fun.  Fortunately, The Selection was a really fun read, and I’m looking forward to reading more in, what I’m assuming will be, this series.

If you’re looking for an intellectual read, put The Selection back on the shelf and walk away.  If, however, you’d like a fluffy piece of joy that you’ll eat up like delicious cotton candy, turn around, pick the book back up, and skip off into the sunset because you’ve found what you’re looking for.  This book isn’t serious literature, nor does it pretend to be, but it’s seriously fun.  There is a special place in my heart for cheesy reality shows, and when I read that this book was a lot like The Bachelor, I was so excited to read it.  What could be more fun than watching aspiring princesses try to claim the love of a prince? 

I was expecting drama amongst the contestants in this book, and it definitely delivered.  I loved reading about all of the backstabbing, plotting, and scheming, and I also loved watching the relationship progress between Maxon and America.  The role America played was an interesting one, indeed, and it added an attention-grabbing dynamic to the book.

While America was definitely not my favorite heroine of all time, it was interesting to see the book from her point of view.  She made it perfectly clear to the reader that she didn’t really want to be in the contest, so watching her go through it without a ton of princess fantasies was pretty fun.  Some of the things she did got on my nerves a bit, but it didn’t really detract from my overall enjoyment of the story.

If you like chick lit, reality tv, or if you’re looking for something that’s just entertaining and doesn’t require a ton of thought, give The Selection a try.

Rating:  3/5

“We believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another.”

Divergent – Veronica Roth
487 pages
Genre:  YA; Dystopia

Summary:  After an apocalyptic event has occurred, Chicago portioned itself off into five groups in an attempt to thwart off any more violence.  These very distinct groups, Dauntless, Erudite, Amity, Abnegation, and Candor, live out their lives in very different fashions, and at the age of sixteen, everyone is required to choose which group he or she would like to be a part of.  Born into the group Abnegation, or those who are selfless, sixteen-year-old Beatrice is forced to choose between remaining loyal to her group and her family, or striking out on her own and joining a completely different group.  What decision will she make, and will it ultimately prove to be the right one?

Review:  Divergent came highly recommended to me from some well-trusted and respected sources.  I was really excited to read this book, as I’ve heard such great things about it, but I tried not to set the bar too high for fear of disappointment.  While I did mostly enjoy this book, I also had several problems with it that has left me with an overwhelming feeling that can best be described as ‘meh.’ 

First, the good:  I really liked the world that Roth has imagined in this effort.  It was interesting to see how the world was divided.  The divisions reminded me very much of the sorting hat in Harry Potter, which is a good thing because that series will always be one of my favorites.  The characters were also really compelling, and I thought Tris was a great narrator.

Now, the questionable:  While I did think the division of this world was creative, the explanation behind it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.  I read this book a month or two ago so my memory is a bit fuzzy, but I believe it was explained that the world was separated in order to avoid more violence and conflict.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but historically, hasn’t separating people based on things that don’t really matter much in the grand scheme of things been the root cause of violence and dissension?  Despite its best intentions, since separation is oftentimes not equal, especially when there’s a ruling class involved, wouldn’t this plan just cause more chaos?  In the same vein, wouldn’t Erudite have been the actual ruling body, and not Abnegation?  I understand why Abnegation was chosen for this job (they were selfless, so they’d make unbiased decisions), but wouldn’t you want the most intelligent people (Erudite) to be the ruling body?

Another thing that I found questionable was Tris’ decision as it relates to the community she chose.  I don’t want to reveal which community she chose just in case you haven’t read the book yet, but I suppose I feel this way because, personality wise, I felt she could’ve fit in better with a different group.  While the path she chose was interesting, it didn’t quite make sense when her personality was factored into the equation.

Despite my problems with Divergent, I still consider it a worthwhile read.  The book raised plenty of questions, and I’m looking forward to hopefully finding the answers I seek in Insurgent. 
Action abounds in this book, so if you’re a fan of dystopias, give it a try.  Even though the main point-of-view is Tris’, I think both boys and girls would enjoy this book because of its pacing, characters, and action sequences.

Other Books in this Series:  Insurgent (Book 2)

Read-alikes:  The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Legend, Enclave

If you lived in this society and had to choose a faction, which would you pick?

“She knows that whispers can be useful. Sometimes they contain real information. But usually they're fairy tales and lies. This is the worst kind of whisper, the kind that draws you in, gives you hope.”

Pure – Julianna Baggott
Book 1 in the Pure series
448 pages
Genre:  Dystopia

Summary:  A cataclysmic event known as the Detonations occurred, and the world has been forever changed.  Survivors of this apocalypse were fused with items they were holding at the time, and some people were even fused with other people.  Pressia, the protagonist, doesn’t remember much about the Detonations, but does have a souvenir from them:  a doll that was affixed to her hand by the blast.  As Pressia nears the age where she is to be turned into a soldier, she leaves her home and lives a life on the run, meeting up with many different people.  One person in particular, Partridge, is a Pure, or a person that has no abnormalities from the blast. Can the two work together, even though they’re from vastly different backgrounds?

Review:  I really love dystopias, so when I saw that Pure was one of the new titles at my library, I screamed with delight and checked it out.  I also may have clapped like a seal while I screamed with delight, but that’s neither here nor there.  Anyway, I found Pure to be a rather compelling read, and I’m anxious to read the next book in the series.

Before I get into my review, I feel like I need to comment on the YA distinction for Pure that I first noticed on GoodReads.  I was quite surprised to see it advertised as such, as I felt the tone and writing style were much better-suited for adult readers.  Would teens like these, too?  I would say yes, probably so, but I’m not quite sure if that was the original intended audience.  This is, of course, my opinion, and I’m really interested to hear your opinion on this if you’ve read the book.  Okay, onward!

I really liked the premise of Pure, and I especially enjoyed that it was told mostly through the eyes of the survivors who were outside of the Dome when the blast occurred.  While I’m not sure that I completely buy the explanation regarding people’s fusion with objects and how they survived, it was still rather interesting to read about.  The objects themselves were almost characters of their own, and the way in which they inserted themselves into people was really creative.  For me, two in particular really stood out:  the doll head on Pressia’s arm, and the fan that lodged itself into her grandfather’s throat.  Creepy, but definitely unique.

I enjoyed most of the characters, and I definitely liked that the majority of the novel was told from Pressia’s point of view.  Pressia was quite brave and strong, and I liked seeing things from her perspective, as she was one of the people who were left behind.  Partridge was also great, and it was enjoyable to contrast the two, as their lives were so vastly different.  While he wasn’t featured in the majority of the story, I also really liked Pressia’s grandfather, as he was smart and interesting.

The contrast of life in the Dome to life outside was also rather fascinating.  It was interesting to read about how history had been distorted, along with the things that those both inside and outside of the Dome were taught to believe.  It definitely provided a great foil when the two worlds collided in the form of Partridge and Pressia.

Pure left me with a lot of questions at its end, and I’m really looking forward to getting some answers in the next book.  If you enjoy dystopias, especially those dealing with detonations, give it a try.

Rating:  3/5

Other Books in this Series:  Book 2:  Fuse (expected publication:  2013); Book 3:  Burn

“Just because you don't say much doesn't mean people don't notice you. It's actually the quiet ones who often draw the most attention. There's this constant whirlwind of motion and sound all around, and then there's the quiet one, the eye of the storm.”

After – Amy Efaw

350 pages

Genre:  YA; Realistic Fiction

Summary:  Devon, a straight-A student and star athlete, is rarely inclined to do anything wrong, until one fateful day when a single decision changes her life forever.  Devon discovers she’s pregnant, and instead of keeping the baby when it arrives, she opts to throw it in a trash can and leave it for dead.  This plan seems to be going off without a hitch, until detectives arrive and discover she is the perpetrator of the crime.  Can Devon get herself out of this mess?

Review:  First, a confession:  I’m really drawn to shows and books that are about teen pregnancy, especially the MTV hit Teen Mom (I honestly have no idea why).  I’m not proud (but apparently not so ashamed that I can’t admit to this on a public forum), but it is what it is.  Because of this, it will probably come as no surprise that I was really excited to read After, as it was vastly different than what I’m used to reading about teen pregnancy.  Much to my chagrin, however, I didn’t really care for this book all that much, which was a shame since I really wanted to like it.

The main problem I had centered around Devon herself.  Yes, she was smart and capable, but it did not excuse the poor decision she made regarding her child’s birth.  I’m 100% pro-choice, so it’s not the fact that she didn’t want the baby that bothers me; what bothers me is the fact that she tried to kill it after it was born.  Since she decided not to terminate her pregnancy in its early stages, she could have given the child up for adoption instead of putting it in a dumpster shortly after its birth.  There were other options available, and she just didn’t take them.  I understand that she was scared and acted without thinking, but she never really seemed all that remorseful about her actions; rather, she just seemed upset that she got caught.  Perhaps if she would’ve shown an iota of repentance and thought for just a second that maybe she made the wrong choice, I would’ve cared about her more.  Because of this, along with the fact that she never revealed too much of herself to the reader, I had a really hard time relating to her at all, and if she would’ve stopped trying to shift the blame and pretend like it wasn’t happening, perhaps I would’ve liked her more.

I had heard of ‘dumpster babies’ before I read this, and I was hoping After would shed some insight on why someone would make this decision.  We all know it would be an act of desperation, but Devon’s complete refusal to accept reality did nothing to help her case.  I really wish this could’ve been more than it was.

I did enjoy reading the drama regarding whether she would be tried in juvenile or adult court.  If found guilty, adult court would, of course, make her sentence much stiffer than juvenile court, and it was interesting to see the evidence and arguments presented on both sides of the case.  After also raised many moral dilemmas for the reader to postulate on:  should a person be defined for their entire life by something they did as a teenager?  Should people be given a second chance?  What would you do in this situation?

While After wasn’t for me, people who enjoy realistic fiction and courtroom dramas may like it.  I would recommend it for older readers, though, as the subject matter and some of the scenes therein are rather graphic indeed.

Rating:  2/5

Friday, March 30, 2012

“Anyone can grow into something beautiful.”

The Language of Flowers – Vanessa Diffenbaugh
322 pages
Genre:  Contemporary; Coming of Age
Summary:  Eighteen-year-old Victoria Jones has just aged out of the foster-care system.  Having neither money nor friends to speak of, Victoria is forced to become self-reliant as she tries to establish a life for herself.  While she doesn’t have any work experience, Victoria has one very unique skill:  she has memorized the meaning of every flower in existence.  After she meets a florist who is willing to give her a job, Victoria helps customers determine what kind of bouquets they would like based on what the various flowers symbolize.  Even though life has been hard so far, can Victoria finally settle into a normal routine?
Review:  Oooh look, I’m behind on reviews again.  While sitting in my shame corner, I decided that this business will be stopped right now…and by right now, I mean over the course of the upcoming week because I am easily distracted by the interwebz, food, and shiny things.  Wah wah.
Anyway, here is my review:
The concept of this book, a young woman’s quest to extract meaning from flowers and establish a life completely on her own, was a rather fascinating one and is what initially drew me to The Language of Flowers.  In the past, I remember reading somewhere that all flowers have meaning, and when combined with a coming-of-age tale, The Language of Flowers promised to be incredibly interesting.  On the whole, I really enjoyed this book and found it to be a rather absorbing read.
The greatest strength of The Language of Flowers was definitely the writing itself.  Diffenbaugh is an incredibly skilled writer, and it was easy to become engrossed in the novel while reading such smooth, effortless sentences.  The descriptions therein were really well done, and I could easily imagine the scenes she was describing.  I also loved that Diffenbaugh included the meanings of different flowers both in the text and as a glossary near the back of the book; it was fun to discover what each one meant, especially those that have always been favorites.
As far as characters go, I’m still not sure how I feel about Victoria.  It was hard to get to know her because she was so closed off and distant, even in her own story.  I oftentimes felt a lot of sympathy for her lot in life, though, and I could completely understand where her coldness came from.  Some of her actions, however, were inexcusable to me, especially towards the latter part of the book, and my sympathy really started to wane. 
As for other characters, Renata was a standout for me, and I really liked her no-nonsense attitude.  I thought it was great that she gave Victoria a chance, even though she didn’t really have to.  I also really liked Grant, and found him to be incredibly sweet and sincere.  A lot of the events he was forced to endure at the hands of a certain other character really made me sad for him.
Warning:  this little section is going to be a bit of a spoiler, so avert your eyes if you haven’t read the book yet:  I hate posting spoilers, but I feel like I have to mention this.  The portion of this book dedicated to breast feeding really made me squeamish.  Perhaps it’s because I’m not a mother and can’t really relate to it at all, but I thought it was just a bit overdone.  This part is what actually dropped my initial rating of 4 stars to 3.5 because I just didn’t enjoy it at all.  While I do understand that it was a deciding factor in Victoria’s decision about the baby, I just didn’t think it needed to be as prolonged as it was.  End of spoiler.
The Language of Flowers moved along at a nice pace, and was a rather absorbing read.  If you enjoy contemporary literature that’s a bit on the sadder side, you may enjoy this book, too.
Rating:  3.5/5 (I oscillated between 3 and 4 for awhile, so I thought 3.5 would be the best choice).

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"Because I was a child myself when I began to take care of other children, I saw them from the start as only a part of my realm, and saw my ascendance as a simple matter of hierarchy-- I was the oldest (if only by a year or two) among them, and as such, I would naturally be worshiped and glorified. I really thought no more of it than that. And when they clung to me and petted me, when the boys, lovesick, put their heads in my lap and the girls begged to wear my rings or comb my hair, I simply took it as my due. I was Titania among her fairies."

Child of My Heart – Alice McDermott

256 pages

Genre: Coming of Age; Friendship

Summary:  Fifteen-year-old Theresa is the most requested babysitter among the wealthy families in her town.  When her younger cousin, Daisy, comes to town to spend the summer with her, Theresa and Daisy form a solid bond as they make their way through the events that the season has to offer.  While the journey is sometimes tumultuous, especially when dealing with growing, feisty children, Theresa does some growing of her own as she transitions into adulthood.

Review:  My friend, Christina, recommended this book to me when I was going through a serious reading slump a year or two ago.  I started reading Child of My Heart sometime last year, put it down for some inexplicable reason, finally remembered that I had been reading this book a few days ago, and polished it off quickly.  See, everybody?  This is why you should only read one book at a time instead of ten.  As soon as I picked this book back up, I remembered the plot and was drawn back in immediately, which doesn’t always happen when I set something aside for awhile.  Child of My Heart was an absorbing, well-written book with a cast of characters that I’m sure will stick with me for quite some time.

Theresa was an exceptional narrator, and I loved watching her mature and grow throughout the book.  The observations she made were often very poignant, and it was a pleasure to accompany her on her journey.  It was easy to see the affection she held for the children in her care, and I thought her relationship with Daisy was especially sweet.  While I didn’t agree with all of Theresa’s decisions, especially as it related to Daisy, she had an incredibly authentic, distinct voice and was an excellent storyteller.

While this book was really well-written, it was also heartbreaking in a number of ways.  It was very hard to read about the abuse and neglect that some of the children experienced from their parents, but it was nice to see that at least Theresa was able to give them some of the love they sought.   
Additionally, because of the creep factor, the scenes with the aging painter are etched in my memory.  Even though Theresa was grown up in a lot of ways, these scenes emphasized how vulnerable and na├»ve she still was.

Child of My Heart is not a happy book by any means, but it’s definitely a good read.  If you enjoy well-written coming of age novels, give this book a try.  Just keep in mind that there is an ick factor with the aging painter, so if you’re uncomfortable reading things of that nature, you might want to skip this one.

Rating:  4/5

“I think insomnia is a sign that a person is interesting.”

Notes to Self – Avery Sawyer

Genre:  YA; Realistic Fiction
Summary:  Teenage best friends Robin and Emily decide to sneak into an amusement park after closing time, and climb up on a tall ride to get a great view of the city.  Unfortunately, the platform they’re on isn’t sturdy, they tumble from the ride, and are rushed to the hospital.  While Robin regains consciousness, Emily remains in a coma, and it’s unlikely that she’s going to get better.  Robin is devastated, but maintains hope that her friend will wake up, and since she can’t recall why they were even on the ride in the first place, she does her best to piece together what happened that night.  Can she figure it out, and will Emily ever wake up?
Review:  For some reason, I’m really drawn to depressing books, so when Notes to Self came up as a limited time freebie on my Kindle, I decided to give it a try.  What did I have to lose?  I wasn’t sure what to expect because I’ve been disappointed by freebie downloads before, but I like to give new authors a chance, and fortunately, this book hooked me from the very beginning and didn’t let up until the last page.
The story itself was incredibly thought provoking and sad, and I loved that it was told from Robin’s perspective as she struggled to figure out what happened.  Since Robin didn’t have all of the details herself, the reader could really sense her emotions, frustrations, and little moments of triumph throughout, and it made for a compelling reading experience.  I really enjoyed piecing together the clues along with Robin, and I was so happy for her when she finally figured it all out, even though the reasons why it all happened made me sad.
I also thought that what Sawyer did with Emily was also pretty great.  Emily could have been more of an afterthought in the story, but she was constantly brought to the front of the reader’s mind through Robin’s recollections an insights.  It was very easy to see the kind of person she was, and while she wasn’t perfect, she was definitely real.
Aside from a few small editing errors, Notes to Self was really well-written and the sentences flowed nicely.  I particularly liked the wit conveyed in the chapter titles, especially “I Went to Fun Towne and all I Got Was this Brain Injury.”  Sawyer was able to evoke all kinds of different emotions through her words, and it was truly a joy to read this book.
If you like any of the titles listed below, or if you’re looking for something really well-written and thought provoking, give Notes to Self a try.
Rating:  3.5/5
Read-alikes:  If I Stay – Gayle Forman, The Adoration of Jenna Fox – Mary Pearson

“That's what being crazy was, wasn't it? You thought you were fine. Everyone else knew better.”

The Summoning – Kelley Armstrong (Darkest Powers Trilogy, Book 1)

390 pages

Genre: YA; Paranormal; Urban Fantasy

Summary: Chloe, a fifteen-year-old girl, seems like your typical high school student. As we all know, however, appearances can be deceiving. Even though she just wants to make it through high school in one piece, Chloe develops an interesting skill: she can see and communicate with ghosts. Those around her think she’s crazy, send her to a psychiatric treatment center to get counseling, and she’s quickly labeled as a schizophrenic. Chloe resigns herself to the fact that she has schizophrenia and just wants to get better…but what if she really can see ghosts? Will she figure out what’s really going on?

Review: If you’ve been keeping up with my recent reviews, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been reading quite a bit of mediocre YA that I haven’t been all that enthused about. It’s been quite frustrating, as I’m sure you can imagine, so it was with a mixture of hope and worry that I picked up The Summoning. It sounded good, but obviously I’ve been wrong before because I thought the other books would be ones  I’d enjoy, too. This one has to be good, right? Universe, throw me a bone! Much to my delight, I thoroughly enjoyed The Summoning, and I was absorbed in the tale from start to finish.

The best thing about this book for me was the plot. I thought that the core concept of the book, Chloe’s ability to see and converse with ghosts, was a really interesting one, and Armstrong did not disappoint in her delivery. There were tons of twists and turns that kept me interested throughout, and I had a very hard time putting the book down so I could take care of the pesky responsibilities that go hand in hand with adulthood. The writing itself was really fluid, and I don’t remember reading many awkward passages at all, which is always a plus. I thought sending Chloe to get psychiatric help was really believable, too, as I’m sure this is exactly what would happen if someone claimed to see ghosts, even if they were telling the truth.

The characters were also pretty well-done, and I especially liked Derek. I thought Derek was really interesting, and I appreciated that he was described in such a way that didn’t glamorize him at all. It was also fun to view the novel through Chloe’s eyes, especially as she tried to figure out whether or not she was going crazy.

If you’re looking for a fun, fast paced read that deals with psychology and ghosts, check out The Summoning. I’m looking forward to reading the next two books in this trilogy!

Rating: 4/5

Other Books in the Darkest Powers Trilogy: The Awakening (Book 2), The Reckoning (Book 3)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

“We often marvel at how introverted, geeky kids "blossom" into secure and happy adults. We liken it to a metamorphosis. However, maybe it's not the children who change, but their environments. As adults, they get to select the careers, spouses, and social circles that suit them. They don't have to live in whatever culture they're plunked into.”

Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking – Susan Cain

333 pages

Genre:  Non-fiction; Introversion; Temperament

Summary:  In Quiet, Susan Cain, a self-proclaimed introvert, examines introversion.  Through the course of the text, Cain sheds light on how introverts are often viewed with derision in American society, and throughout the course of the investigation, she explains why this kind of thinking is wrong.

Review:  I have always been a quiet person.  When I was a child, people used to make it apparent that being an introvert was a bad thing, and I should “just come out of my shell” so I could be like everyone else.  Everyone was very well-meaning about this, of course, but because of this, I always felt like something was wrong with me; however, over the past few years, I’ve really embraced what being an introvert means.  Quiet reinforced my positive feelings on introversion, and I truly think both introverts, extroverts, and everyone in between should read it, just so they can understand the introvert mind a bit better.

Throughout the course of this book, there were many “Aha!” moments for me, and I was often nodding along in agreement as I flipped through the pages.  Sometimes I’ve felt bad that I’d rather stay at home with a book than go out and gallivant around town (probably because others say this is how I should live), but this book really made me feel vindicated.  I love that introversion isn’t being demonized for once, and it was great to see the accomplishments that many introverts have made to society highlighted so everyone can see how valuable we can be.

One of the things that really struck a cord with me was the open concept office plan.  While I (thankfully) do not work in that type of environment, I know many people who do and I honestly can’t figure out how they get anything productive done.  Even though some people may work best that way, it definitely doesn’t work for everyone. 

Similarly, the author also spoke of how schools are moving more towards group work and creating pods of three or more people.  I’m so glad that this wasn’t in place when I was in primary school, as I was always the type to reflect upon things on my own and then provide an answer; it’s how I do my best work.  I did, however, notice the emphasis on group work and small discussion groups in grad school, and my anxiety would often go through the roof in said classes as I tried to formulate something intelligent to say because my grade depended on it.  I’ve always been someone who won’t talk unless I actually have something to say, so it was nice to see that other people can relate to that, too.

Another great aspect of this book was the fact that the author highlighted the ways in which introverts and extroverts need each other.  Neither temperament type was vilified, but rather, strengths of both, especially introverts, were explored.  I thought that the inclusion of both was incredibly balanced and fair.

I could ramble on and on about this, but I think I'll stop now.  If you’ve ever wondered about the inner workings of an introvert, or if you, too, are an introvert, it would definitely be worth your time to read Quiet.  For more information on different temperaments, check out anything written about the MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator).

Rating:  4/5

“Now he was staring at Prairie with an intensity you could light fires with. And she stared back. There was something between them, all right, something cracking with tension and danger, something almost ... alive.”

Banished – Sophie Littlefield 
304 pages
Genre:  YA; Fantasy
Summary:  Growing up in Gypsum, Missouri hasn’t quite been what sixteen-year-old Hailey Tarbell wants out of life.  I mean, when the nickname for your town is “Trashtown,” how happy can you be?  Ultimately, Hailey doesn’t really feel as though she fits in with anyone, especially her ailing grandmother who is her guardian, so she mostly keeps to herself and longs to know more about her dead parents.  All that begins to change, however, when a series of events occur that has her running for her life.  Will the information Hailey learns prove to be too much to handle?
Review:  On a scale from one to unicorns, I’d give Banished a solid meh.  
I liked the main character, Hailey, as she really embodied a typical sixteen-year-old.  She wasn’t really a hero one would expect, especially when her background is taken into consideration, but ultimately, I was rooting for her.  There was something about her that was infinitely likeable, and even though I wasn’t particularly fond of the story, Hailey was one of those characters that made me see the book in a more positive light.  In the same vein, the villains, especially Rattler, were easy to hate because they were so repugnant, and it served to make me want to see Hailey removed from that situation even more.
The story itself, however, wasn’t really one I could connect to.  While I thought it was great that the author chose to use a setting that isn’t normally portrayed in books, it just didn’t do anything for me.  I know the reasons for the characters living the way they do were expounded upon, but it didn’t make me like the story any more than the ambivalence I started off with.  Furthermore, even though there was plenty of action, I just wasn’t particularly drawn in.  I’m not sure why, but something about this just didn’t work for me.
If you like books that feature an unlikely hero, supernatural powers, and secrets, you might enjoy Banished.
Rating:  2.5/5
Sequel to Banished:  Unforsaken

“She was afraid of numbers the way some people are of spiders. The sight of them made her want to hide. What I loved about them, their clarity, was for her duplicity. Behind an innocent 2,or 5, or 9, she spied a mass of traps and pitfalls.”

The Flight of Gemma Hardy – Margot Livesey
464 pages
Genre:  Fiction; Updated Classic
Summary:  The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a modern retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s classic, Jane Eyre.  Orphan Gemma is sent to live with her uncle and aunt in Scotland .  While Gemma is the apple of her uncle’s eye, her aunt and cousins hate her, and after her uncle’s death, they treat her very poorly.  Eventually she is shipped off to boarding school, and while she hopes for a better life, she only faces more obstacles.  Will Gemma ever catch a break?
Review:  I know I’ve expounded on my love for Jane Eyre before, so I won’t do that again (Oh, Charlotte Bronte, you and your novel are magnificent!  …what?  I had to say something!).  Whenever I hear about a re-telling of Jane Eyre, I get nervous and excited, but it always end up on my tbr pile.  The Flight of Gemma Hardy was an exceptionally well-done retelling of my favorite book, and I was completely absorbed from start to finish.
In my opinion, one of the best things about this book was the fact that it followed Jane Eyre so closely.  Even though the two novels were set in different times and places, touches of Bronte’s original work could be found on every page, and it absolutely delighted me.  I found it really interesting that Livesey decided to have Gemma move to Scotland from Iceland.  Iceland isn’t really a place I encounter a lot in the literature I read, so it was really fun to get a new setting to explore.  In fact, the part where Gemma was in Iceland may have been my favorite part of the entire book.
In addition to being interesting, this book also had beautiful, lyrical language.  The sentences flowed together effortlessly, and it was truly a joy to read The Flight of Gemma Hardy.  Of particular note were the wonderful descriptions of the various landscapes, all of which were really well done.
I also really liked the main character, Gemma.  Like Jane, Gemma was strong and determined, and I enjoyed that she could be really stubborn about things.  It was also great that Gemma wasn’t portrayed as perfect; she made missteps along the way, some much greater than others, and it served to make her relate-able to the reader.
If you’re a Jane Eyre fan, definitely read The Flight of Gemma Hardy.
Rating:  4/5
Read-alikes:  Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte, Jane – April Linder

“We all should do a lot of things,” Tyler said quietly. “But I think, most of the time, we don’t.”

Instructions for a Broken Heart – Kim Culbertson

304 pages

Genre: YA; Romance; Realistic Fiction

Summary: Jessa Gardner’s life is going pretty well…until she finds out her boyfriend is cheating on her three days before a class trip to Italy.  Poor Jessa is heartbroken, but bravely decides to go on the trip anyway, even though her now ex-boyfriend, Sean, will also be there. Jessa’s best friend, Carrissa, isn’t going, but she sends Jessa overseas with handwritten notes to help her get over her heartache. Will Jessa be able to move on once and for all?

Review: I quite enjoyed Culbertson’s other book, Diary of a Teenage Nomad, so I was pretty excited to read this one. Unfortunately, even though I read through the book quickly, I didn’t enjoy Instructions for a Broken Heart all that much.

My primary problem with this book was with the characters. I didn’t like any of them, especially Jessa, so even though I was supposed to feel sorry for her, I just didn’t care what happened to her. Honestly, I found her whiny and annoying, and I couldn’t believe she let her situation ruin a perfectly awesome, once in a lifetime trip to Italy. I found a lot of her behavior to be extremely immature, and because of that, I could not sympathize with her at all. 

Even though Carrissa was only presented to the reader through the notes she wrote Jessa, I really didn’t like her either. Since Jessa and Carrissa were supposed to be best friends, I was absolutely shocked about some of the things Carrissa wanted Jessa to do.  Additionally, I couldn’t believe that both Carrissa and Tyler, Jessa’s other best friend, kept such an important secret from Jessa. I won’t reveal it here because that would be spoilerific, but the fact that they kept something like that hidden from her showed that the friendship couldn’t have been as meaningful as Jessa thought it was.

My other problem was the plot. I liked that the book took place in Italy, but this effort reminded me very much of Maureen Johnson’s 13 Little Blue Envelopes, and I think Johnson did a much better job with the letter writing/risk taking in a foreign country theme. Perhaps my love for 13 Little Blue Envelopes explains why I had such a negative reaction to this book. There is a possibility that I would’ve liked Instructions for a Broken Heart better if I had read it first, but alas, I can’t go back in time. I just wasn’t really drawn into this plot at all, and as I touched on earlier, I found Jessa’s antics really immature.

If you like books about break-ups, heartaches, and scheming in a foreign country, you may enjoy Instructions for a Broken Heart.

Rating: 2.5/5

Read-alikes: 13 Little Blue Envelopes – Maureen Johnson, Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares – Rachel Cohn and David Levithan