Monday, May 20, 2013

“I think honesty is important, like you said. But what I actually think is that the key to a good relationship is forgiveness, because without it we're all completely screwed. ...we're all human, and we all make mistakes. Without forgiveness, we'd all be walking this Earth angry and alone, and I think that would really suck.”

Notes from the Blender – Trish Cook, Brendan Halpin
240 pages
Genre: YA, Realistic Fiction

Summary: Declan, a rebellious teenage boy who doesn’t really fit in anywhere in his high school, lives with his dad after his parents’ divorce. Neilly, a beautiful, popular girl in the in crowd of her high school, dates popular boys and lives with her mom. While these two teens seem to have nothing in common, their worlds collide when their parents announce that they’re going to get married. Will they all be one big, happy family?

Review: Notes from the Blender was a quick, engaging read that kept me entertained from start to finish.

One of the truly outstanding parts of this book was definitely the characters. Declan seemed like such an authentic teenage boy, as he was constantly thinking about girls. He also loved death metal and didn’t really relate well to his peers, which immediately made me sympathetic to his character. I really appreciated his “devil may care” attitude, and his reactions to everything going on his life were genuine. This was especially apparent as it related to the impending marriage between his father and Neilly’s mother. His life was changing rapidly, and as much as he tried to maintain his stony fa├žade, it began to crumble when he was by himself.

Much like Declan, Neilly was also a wonderful narrator. Declan assumed she was perfect, and he actually had a huge crush on her. As time went on, however, and the duo began to talk more, Neilly revealed that there was much more to her than meets the eye, which isn’t a surprise as impressions are often deceiving.

Friendship was one of the primary aspects of this book, and watching Declan and Neilly’s relationship evolve was wonderful. The more they talked, the more they realized they had in common, which, in turn, developed into a genuine bond over time. If one was basing everything on outside appearances, these characters couldn’t have been more different, yet when the superficial layers were removed, everything changed.

Family was also of upmost importance in the book. Both Neilly and Declan’s parents were actively involved in their lives, and it was a delight to see them turn to their parents in times of trouble. If one of their family members were attacked, each character would step in to defend them. This doesn't always happen in a lot of books, but I'm very glad it happened here, as it is pretty true to life.

In addition to all of these great aspects, Notes from the Blender also brought a ton of issues to the table. Of everything presented, the ones that stuck with me the most were LGBT, the pitfalls that occur with divorce and remarriage, what being a high schooler is actually like, alcohol and drug use, and veganism. I especially enjoyed the portions dedicated to LGBT and veganism, even though the authors did get a bit preachy at times.

If you like realistic YA fiction, check out Notes from the Blender!

Rating: 4/5

Read-alikes: Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You - Peter Cameron, Eleanor and Park - Rainbow Rowell

Sunday, May 19, 2013

“Most of what I say is complete truth. My edit button is broken.”

Hourglass – Myra McEntire (Hourglass, Book 1)
390 pages
Genre: YA, Paranormal

Summary: Emerson is your average 17-year-old girl, with one huge exception: she can see ghosts. If that isn’t strange enough, things take an even more bizarre turn when she starts seeing whole scenes from the past. At approximately the same time, she meets a guy named Michael, who was hired by Emerson’s brother to try and help her get rid of these visions. Will these efforts work?

Review: Like many of my YA reads, the cover was what initially drew me to Hourglass. I absolutely love the color combination, and her hair blowing around crazily in front of her face intrigued me further. While I had no expectations going into this, I’m glad I decided to read it, as it was pretty fun.

The biggest aspect of this book centered around paranormal abilities. I’m really drawn to books that have paranormal plot devices, and Hourglass certainly delivered. Emerson had the ability to see ghosts and impressions from the past, and it was fun to see everything through her eyes as she was seeing things. When her visions became more intense, she began to worry a bit, which seemed like a believable reaction if one was faced with these circumstances.

Similarly, time travel was also a crucial element to Hourglass’ plot. This component caused philosophical questions to be raised for both the reader and the characters as they struggled to figure out what they should do. Do they go to the past and alter a tragic event, in hopes that it doesn’t affect anything else, or do they leave it alone and accept what has happened?

As far as the characters go, I felt pretty meh about our narrator, Emerson. While I thought her abilities were really cool, I also thought that many of her decisions were absolutely terrible. This is especially poignant as it relates to her feelings regarding certain characters within the story. It seemed like as soon as one love interest turned his back, she was all over another possible love interest. I understand that it’s possible to be attracted to more than one person at a time, but really? Your feelings are that fleeting?

Ah, the romance. There was a love triangle very similar to the one that can be found in Twilight, and while I know love triangles exist in real life, I wasn’t really buying this one. This could be because crazy things would happen at just the slightest touch with one of Emerson’s love interests, so it didn’t really make any sense to me that she would be going after another guy when said things were happening. Also, what was with best friends going after the same girl? I’m sure that happens, too, but one would hope that when Emerson has clearly showed interest in one of the friends, the other would back off so they don’t ruin their friendship. Why was the best friend always trying to get the girl his friend liked whenever his friend left the room? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

Much like romantic relationships were a crucial component of this book, familial relationships were just as important. Emerson was living with her older brother, Thomas, after their parents’ death. I really liked how Thomas was constantly trying to help Emerson overcome the problems she faced. He even went so far as to hire someone that she could talk to to try to work out what was wrong, and I thought that was awesome. It was easy to see how much they cared for one another

While Hourglass was a bit uneven for me, overall, it was an enjoyable read. If you like paranormal stories, give it a try!

Rating: 3/5

Other books in the Hourglass Series: Timepiece, Infinity Glass

Read-alikes: The Summoning – Kelly Armstrong, The Splendor Falls – Rosemary Clement-Moore, The Blue Girl – Charles de Lint

Friday, May 17, 2013

“Is it possible for home to be a person and not a place?”

Anna and the French Kiss – Stephanie Perkins 
372 pages 
Genre: YA, Contemporary 

Summary: Senior year is almost upon Atlanta-native Anna, and she cannot be more excited about the upcoming school year. She has an awesome best friend that she loves hanging out with, and best of all, she met a boy and is eager to discover how everything will turn out with him. All of her excitement comes to a screeching halt, however, when Anna’s father sends her to a boarding school in Paris. As expected, Anna is crushed. Can she find a way to cope with her new situation? 

Review: D’aww, Anna and the French Kiss gave me all of the warm and fuzzy feels. ALL OF THEM! I made the mistake of starting this one before I went to bed, and two hours later, I was still reading it with no intention of putting it down, which is a problem when you need to be a functioning adult in the morning. Oh well, I am perfectly fine with the fact that I lost sleep because I was reading Anna and the French Kiss, as it was awesome! 

I’m not entirely sure why, but one of my all-time favorite YA plot elements involves kids being sent to boarding school. To me, boarding school has this wonderful mystique about it, where young people can go and live dazzling, exotic lives, but I’m sure this is just my projection of what I think going away as a teenager is like, as I always wanted to go to summer camp and never got to. Having the book take place in Paris was especially exciting, and watching Anna trying to fit in with a new culture and the customs therein was wholly believable. This was particularly well done as it related to Anna’s language acquisition and the progress she made with it throughout the book. When she first moved to France, she knew very little of the language, and the plot definitely touched upon the pitfalls of this particular dilemma, often in rather hilarious ways. 

Even though Anna was dropped into an unknown land, she had a relatively easy time making friends, which, in turn, made her transition a bit smoother than it would’ve been had she been forced to navigate everything alone. All of the interactions between the teenagers seemed authentic, especially as it related to everyday situations. Some of the characters were a bit more standoffish than others, while others accepted Anna right away, which provided a magnificent contrast and would be akin to what one would experience in high school. 

Especially poignant was how the relationship between Anna’s home friends evolved after she left. When she returned home for Christmas break, things were much different than when she had left. While it was sad to see that things had changed, it was also really realistic. Much like Anna was creating a new life for herself, her friends from home were doing the same thing. It’s always hard when your friends seem to be moving on without you, but it is a part of growing up, especially if one moves away. Perkins handled this concept in a rather exceptional way. 

The romance within the book was sweet and frustrating at times, which is exactly how it tends to play out in real life. Often little hints are mentioned, but the person to which they are directed at is never quite sure whether they’re reading too much into it, especially when said person is in high school. This is exactly how it was depicted in Anna and the French Kiss

In the same vein, the betrayals and misunderstandings were often rather hard to take, but much like the authenticity of the romance, elements of truth shined through. Who hasn’t gotten upset with a friend over something, especially a boy, and didn’t talk to them for awhile? 

Of all of the characters, my favorite was definitely Etienne. Etienne was complex and interesting, and my heart ached for him as things went wrong in his life. He tried to be a great friend to everyone, and his multi-faceted emotions and effort to put on a brave face made him extremely likeable. 

If you’re looking for a realistic book about being sent away to boarding school, definitely give Anna and The French Kiss a try. I can’t wait to read more of Stephanie Perkins’ books! 

Rating: 4.5/5 

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

Thursday, May 16, 2013

“My imagination is something of a badass.”

The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To – D.C. Pierson 
226 pages 
Genre: YA, Fantasy 

Summary: Darren Bennett is a social outcast who doesn’t really have any friends, until he meets Eric Lederer. The duo have a ton in common, especially as it relates to a shared love of science fiction and drawing, and facing high school seems much easier than it ever was before they met. There is, of course, a secret that Eric has been harboring: he doesn’t sleep at all. Will this secret remain between the two of them, or is something so odd bound to become public knowledge? 

Review: Going into this, I hadn’t heard very much about this book, but I found the title really intriguing and decided to give it a try. Even though I had zero expectations for The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To, I was still left feeling disappointed at the conclusion of the book. 

Perhaps it’s because I’m out of the target age bracket for this book, but I didn’t find it very funny at all, which is a shame because the synopsis on Goodreads indicated that it would be “hilarious.” While it didn’t do anything for me, I do, however, think that 11 to 14 year old boys would find this quite comical. 

For me, both Darren and Eric were pretty flat characters, and I wish that more development was done in both cases. I really felt as if I should feel more sympathetic to both characters, especially as crazy things began to happen to them, but because I wasn’t given the chance to get inside their heads, I didn’t really care about their fates. This is especially true as it related to the love triangle between Darren, Eric, and Christine. While I knew I should feel compassion towards a certain character, especially because the other was being an unbelievably horrible friend, I didn’t feel much of anything at all. 

Though there were elements of the book that I definitely didn’t like, there were also things that I really did. For one, the concept was incredibly cool and unique. Having battled with bouts of insomnia myself, I was curious to see where the author would take the plot, and it definitely went to some interesting places. 

Eric didn’t have insomnia, though, which is what I had originally assumed; in fact, he couldn’t sleep at all. On the one hand, it seems like it would be pretty awesome to not need any sleep ever, as you’d have more hours in the day to do the things you want to do; however, there would always be that wish to feel “normal.” I don’t want to give too much away, but seeing how never being able to sleep affected Eric was definitely interesting, and when symptoms of what sleep deprivation can do to someone were taken into consideration, it made a lot of sense. 

There were also some wonderful fantasy elements within the book that added to its uniqueness. The way fiction turned into reality was quite exciting, and I especially liked how this was handled with the drawings the characters created. I haven’t really read anything quite like this before, and it was nice to see such a fresh concept. 

While this book didn’t quite work for me, fantasy fans, especially 11 to 14 year old boys, may really enjoy The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To.

 Rating: 2/5

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

“... all this talking, this rather liquid confessing, was something I didn't think I could ever bring myself to do. It seemed foolhardy to me, like an uncooked egg deciding to to come out of its shell: there would be a risk of spreading out too far, turning into a formless puddle.”

The Edible Woman – Margaret Atwood
310 pages 
Genre: Literature; Feminism 

Summary: Marian McAlpin, an ordinary twenty-something woman, is about to get married. While she should be elated about the prospect, she finds herself unable to eat. First, it’s only meat, but gradually, she can no longer eat vegetables, eggs, or even cake! Can she find out what is going on before it’s too late? 

Review: First, a quick story: I have made it no secret that Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors. Anytime I see one of her books at a book sale, my hands act upon their own volition and grab said book, and I eagerly carry it around like it’s a pot of gold. I acquired my copy of The Edible Woman from a used book sale, and though the copy was old and worn, I decided to go ahead and buy it anyway. When I went to read it the other day, I noticed that it was signed by the author, and I definitely squealed with delight. Thank you, random person who got rid of her old book, for completely making my day! 

Wait, what was I doing, aside from contemplating the wonder that is Margaret Atwood? Oh yeah, writing a review!

I have read a good amount of Atwood’s body of work, and each time, I marvel at what a wonderful writer she is. Atwood has an amazing ability to make profound statements and draw realistic characters that make the reader feel as if she is part of the story, too. The Edible Woman, Atwood’s first published novel, was exactly what I’ve come to expect from this author, and like the title suggests, I absolutely ate this up. 

One of the primary ideological concepts of this book was feminism. Throughout the course of the book, the characters made philosophical statements on parenthood, marriage, and other social mores that still resonate today. Oftentimes, it was hard for me to remember that this book was written in the 1960s, as so much of what was being discussed is also part of society’s current discourse. For example, one of the characters was reflecting upon being a parent, and noted that she sometimes regretted her choice. While this is quite a controversial way to feel, even in this day and age, she was being honest, and it was refreshing to see that represented in literature.

Single parenthood and promiscuity were also addressed, and it was interesting to see how the characters handled both issues, as varying viewpoints were represented throughout the text. Marriage as an institution was also called into question, and the way in which it affected everyone, especially the main character, was quite compelling indeed. 

Marian, our narrator, is a character that, while rather unremarkable, is someone that many women can relate to. When the subject of marriage came up, something she thought she really wanted, her appetite and countenance began to change, which directly correlated to the dilemma she was having internally. She didn’t want to lose herself, but by not eating, she was wasting away to nothing. 

In the same vein, I could really identify with Marian when she stopped eating meat. The way in which she was visualizing it is exactly how I see it, and while she didn’t relish in the feeling and referred to vegetarians as “cranks,” it was interesting to see my internal thoughts echoed in a piece of writing. 

Duncan was also a fascinating character, and as more was revealed about him throughout the course of the text, I grew to like him even more. At times, Duncan reminded me a bit of Holden Caulfield, just because of all of his eccentricities, and finding out what drove him was quite a ride. 

As is the case with all of Atwood’s novels, the writing in The Edible Woman was absolutely exquisite. I often found myself lingering over certain passages to grasp what was being said, and then re-reading them a bit later on. 

If you like magnificent prose with a feminist edge, give The Edible Woman a try. 

Rating: 4/5 

Read-alikes: The Awakening – Kate Chopin, The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Monday, May 6, 2013

“Surely He does not give us hearts so we may spend our lives ignoring them.”

Grave Mercy – R. L. LaFevers
549 Pages
Genre: YA; Historical Fiction

Summary: In 15th century Brittany, 17-year-old Ismae seeks solace within the confines of the walls of St. Mortain’s convent. This isn’t your average, everyday abbey, though: in fact, these nuns are highly trained assassins who will do whatever it takes to carry out St. Mortain’s orders, especially when it comes to guarding Brittany’s independence. When Ismae goes to court to protect the duchess, will she be able to carry out her divinely inspired orders?

Review: My original interest in Grave Mercy can be summed up in two words: assassin nuns. How awesome is that concept? I’m used to nuns being docile and kind, so when there’s an extra dash of danger thrown in, I am completely hooked. Fortunately, Grave Mercy turned out to be just as awesome as I expected it to be, and though it weighed in at a respectable 549 pages, I read through it incredibly quickly.

The first thing I need to comment on is the tag line: “Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf?” Tag lines often make me roll my eyes pretty hard because they tend to be dripping with cheesiness, but this line sums up Grave Mercy perfectly. During the period of time in which this book took place, women were viewed as docile creatures who needed men to help them in all situations, but LaFevers totally turned that notion on its head and made all of her women strong and capable. If anything, they were “wolves in sheep clothing” as they learned the art of seduction right along with the best way to fight and poison people. They weren’t passive sheep, but rather, these women took everything into their own capable hands and acted accordingly.

Ismae, the protagonist of our story, is a prime example of this. From the time she was born, Ismae didn’t really seem to belong to any portion of this world, as her mother tried to abort her and was unsuccessful. Because of this, she carried a deep, red stain on her back reminding her of how unwanted she was every day of her life. What’s truly remarkable about Ismae is she didn’t let this stop her; rather, she became more involved in her training and used her pain to her advantage. Ismae is a total and complete badass that doesn’t need help from anyone and is perfectly capable of saving herself, in addition to the men around her, and I absolutely loved reading about what was occurring in her life.

Duval was also an interesting character, and as soon as he was introduced, I had a feeling that he was going to be very important to the story, especially as it related to Ismae’s fate. I won’t go into detail all that much, but the way in which he was worked into the plot was extraordinarily interesting, and as more and more was revealed about him, it was easy to see how significant he was. I also liked that the reader could never be quite sure of his motives, as new information was being presented all of the time, and just when you thought you had him figured out, something else would transpire that would completely throw everything you thought you knew into chaos. Similarly, Ismae’s relationship with Duval was quite realistic, and I rather enjoyed watching things progress between the two of them.

As if the plot and awesome characters weren’t enough, the writing and story itself were super compelling. There wasn’t a single moment where I was bored with this text, and as each new plot twist was revealed, my attention was rapt to the pages. Sometimes when one reads historical fiction, one can get a bit bogged down in the details, but fortunately, that was not the case here. As I flipped the last page of the book, I think I yelled “That’s it?! …but, but, but I want more!,” which doesn’t always happen for me, so it probably goes without saying that I’ll be reading the sequel soon.

If you like historical fiction with badass females, Grave Mercy is a must read!

Rating: 4.5/5

Read-alikes: Gilt – Katherine Longshore; The Book of Blood and Shadows – Robin Wasserman

Sunday, May 5, 2013

“Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”

My Antonia – Willa Cather
232 pages
Genre: Classics

Summary: Set on the backdrop of 19th century Nebraska, My Antonia chronicles the life of Antonia Shimerda, an immigrant girl trying her best to get acclimated to her new home, through the eyes of one of her childhood friends, Jim Burden.

Review: I’m not entirely sure how I made it through my formal education without having Willa Cather as required reading, but alas, it happened. I have, however, owned My Antonia for a number of years, but I haven’t picked it up until now because, in all honesty, a book set in Nebraska during this time period didn’t really seem all that interesting to me. Why did I buy it, then? I’ve read really great reviews, and I feel like it’s my duty to give every classic the old college try. As I’m sure you can imagine, I went into this with a great deal of trepidation, but much to my delight, I enjoyed it quite thoroughly, and I’m glad that I got off of my throne of judgment long enough to read My Antonia.

My Antonia was more than just a story set in an American prairie; it was also a glimpse into immigrant life in the early 19th century, and a story of love and loss. While reading Antonia’s tale, I couldn’t help but think of my ancestors who made the trip to America, and what it must have been like to be completely absorbed in a culture that you didn’t know very much about. It wasn’t always easy for Antonia’s family, but fortunately, they found very good friends in the Burden family who helped them with their assimilation. It was interesting to see Antonia’s immersion into the culture combined with her nostalgia for her homeland, as I’m sure that is an accurate indicator of how one would feel when one is faced with these conditions.

Jim Burden was a wonderful narrator for this piece, and calling the novel My Antonia really showed how much she had meant to him. While Jim and Antonia were living separate lives, Jim never really forgot about the girl who stole his heart when he was young, and his longing for the past was heartfelt and believable. Jim was not a perfect person and was well aware of that, but his flaws made him a very real, human character.

The portions of the book featuring Lena were also interesting. Like the other characters in the novel, Lena was far from flawless, but her shortcomings made her interesting and compelling. Her friendships with Jim and Antonia seemed genuine, as they weren’t always perfect, but they tried to be there for one another as much as they could.

Love and loss were also at the very heart of this novel, and Cather did an incredible job of weaving both into the tale. Many of the losses came out of the clear blue, as is often the case with life, and the reactions to everything were quite authentic. Cather also expounded upon love in a very real way, highlighting the complications of being in love and expounding on the fact that, when it comes to relationships, things aren't always clear cut. More than anything, this novel was a wonderful examination of the human condition.

If you enjoy classics, beautiful writing, and complex stories with interesting characters, My Antonia is a must read.

Rating: 4/5

Friday, May 3, 2013

"When you say Matt's name, you have the same look in your eyes that he'd get whenever he'd say yours.”

Twenty Boy Summer – Sarah Ockler
290 Pages
Genre: YA, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction

Summary: While Frankie and Anna are mourning the loss of Frankie’s brother, Matt, a bet is made that Anna can meet twenty boys during their upcoming vacation, and one will undoubtedly be her first real boyfriend. Anna is reluctant to partake in this, however, because she is harboring a painful secret from Frankie: she actually had a relationship with Matt and has no real desire to pursue another. Will Anna’s secret be revealed?

Review: I hadn’t heard much about Twenty Boy Summer before I read it, but I thought the cover was pretty cute, so I decided to give it a try. Ultimately, I’m really glad I did, as this was a wonderful story of love and loss.

At the heart of the novel was, of course, the grief that Anna and Frankie were grappling with over the loss of Matt, and Anna’s big secret. Both of these were handled in a wonderful way, and my heart was breaking for Anna as she struggled not to tell Frankie what had transpired between her and Matt the year before. Feeling loyalty to someone, even if they’re no longer around, is something I completely understand, and it must have been so hard for Anna to not be able to talk about the depth of her grief, as such a huge piece of her story was hidden.

Anna was a realistic character with complex emotions, which effectively made her very relatable. Her thoughts were often in conflict with each other, and when the monkey wrench otherwise known as Sam was thrown in, a whole slew of new issues and feelings emerged that she was forced to deal with. All of her reactions were believable, and it seemed as if anyone in that situation would have reacted in a similar way.

Our other main character, Frankie, couldn’t have been more different than Anna, but she was also rather compelling to read about. Unlike Anna, Frankie’s motives were not evident from the very beginning of the novel, and it was often incredibly difficult to see where she was coming from. At times, her actions were downright frustrating. It wasn’t until the latter part of the book that the reader began to understand why she was acting the way she did, and once it all was revealed, everything made perfect sense.

Even though grief was a huge part of the novel, there were many other themes to keep this book moving. Love was also one of the biggest elements of the book, and finding new love after death was explored in a wonderful, authentic way. Acceptance is such a huge part of the grieving process, and while it isn’t an easy thing to do, it’s a necessary step that one must take. You don’t forget the person you cared for, but rather, you try to find happiness again. Watching the girls come to this conclusion over the course of the novel was incredibly moving.

If you’re looking for a heartfelt story with love, heartache, and friendship at its core, give Twenty Boy Summer a try.

Rating: 3/5

Read-alikes: 13 Little Blue Envelopes – Maureen Johnson, Instructions for a Broken Heart – Kim Culbertson, anything by Sarah Dessen