Monday, March 25, 2013

Review: This Is Not a Test

This Is Not a Test, by Courtney Summers. The GoodReads summary:
It’s the end of the world. Six students have taken cover in Cortege High but shelter is little comfort when the dead outside won’t stop pounding on the doors. One bite is all it takes to kill a person and bring them back as a monstrous version of their former self. To Sloane Price, that doesn’t sound so bad. Six months ago, her world collapsed and since then, she’s failed to find a reason to keep going. Now seems like the perfect time to give up. As Sloane eagerly waits for the barricades to fall, she’s forced to witness the apocalypse through the eyes of five people who actually wantto live. But as the days crawl by, the motivations for survival change in startling ways and soon the group’s fate is determined less and less by what’s happening outside and more and more by the unpredictable and violent bids for life—and death—inside. When everything is gone, what do you hold on to?
Um, wow. Seriously. Wow. I wasn’t a fan of the one other Courtney Summer’s book that I read, but this one is kinda ridiculously well done. I feel like I’m totally going to fail to do this book justice, so just keep that in mind if the book doesn’t sound as awesome as I’m trying to convey.

I’ve only read one other zombie book, “Ashes,” and I enjoyed it, but “This Is Not a Test” totally blew that one out of the water. Unlike “Ashes” (and I assume most other zombie apocalypse books), “This Is Not a Test” isn’t based on physical action. In fact, for the majority of the book, the characters are hiding out inside the high school, relatively safe. But oh man does Courtney Summers have the tension and claustrophobia and paranoia DOWN. And somehow that made the book feel more brutal than a bunch of endless fight scenes would have. I was glued to the page, and when I finished it before bed, I just laid there, eyes wide open, because I was too keyed up to sleep.

Sloane is a complicated and fascinating character. She’s prickly and standoffish, and the psychological repercussions of the terrible things that happened to her before the story begins make her hard to get close to. But somehow, despite all that, Sloane is an intrinsically charismatic main character, and I cared so much not only about her physical safety but about her emotional well-being as well. Her character was such a brilliant exploration of what you do at the end of the world when the world has already been over for you for quite some time.

The writing of the book is pitch perfect. I. Can’t. Even. The tone and the style create this mood that combines with the pacing of the plot to make this book not only beautiful but impossible to put down. And the ending . . . so good. It’s messy and not much is resolved, but somehow it’s exactly how the book needs to end. Last I heard, Summers is planning on this being a standalone, and I really hope it stays that way. Because while there is plenty of material for a sequel, I don’t want anything to ruin the perfection of this ending.

Overall, such a strong book. Don’t go into it expecting lots of zombie fight scenes, because it’s not usually that kind of book. It’s more subtle and powerful than that. This book makes me want to go back and read Courtney Summers’s other books just so I can get another taste of her talent.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Review: Friends with Boys

Friends with Boys, by Faith Erin Hicks. The GoodReads summary:
Maggie McKay hardly knows what to do with herself. After an idyllic childhood of homeschooling with her mother and rough-housing with her older brothers, it’s time for Maggie to face the outside world, all on her own. But that means facing high school first. And it also means solving the mystery of the melancholy ghost who has silently followed Maggie throughout her entire life. Maybe it even means making a new friend—one who isn’t one of her brothers.
This is the first graphic novel I’ve read, and it was actually a really good experience. It took me a couple pages to get used to the storytelling method, but once I did, I enjoyed it a lot. It was a bit like watching a movie, I thought: all dialog and images. But I was really impressed at how much emotion and subtext the author/artist was able to convey with a few words and some drawings.

The story itself was a lot of fun. I loved all the characters and especially enjoyed the sibling relationships. I adored Lucy and her eagerness to make friends with Maggie, and Alastair was a total hottie, mohawk and all. I was a little confused about the role the ghost was supposed to play in the story, but the lack of explanation didn’t bother me over much because I was too busy having a good time.

Overall, a really good first-time experience with a YA graphic novel. I’d totally read another one, so if you’ve got any suggestions let me know.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Ghost Writes Back

Did anyone else love the Sweet Valley High books growing up? They were the staple of my local library's tiny YA section, and I DEVOURED them. I have no idea how many I read, but it was a lot. So I was quite excited to see an essay entitled "The Ghost Writes Back" by one of the principle ghostwriters of the series, Amy Boesky. She reflects on why she started ghostwriting for the series, why she continued for so long, and what made her stop. It's fascinating stuff and extremely well-written too.

Review: The Golden Lily

The Golden Lily (Bloodlines #2), by Richelle Mead. The GoodReads summary:
Sydney Sage is an Alchemist, one of a group of humans who dabble in magic and serve to bridge the worlds of humans and vampires. They protect vampire secrets—and human lives.

Sydney would love to go to college, but instead, she’s been sent into hiding at a posh boarding school in Palm Springs, California–tasked with protecting Moroi princess Jill Dragomir from assassins who want to throw the Moroi court into civil war. Formerly in disgrace, Sydney is now praised for her loyalty and obedience, and held up as the model of an exemplary Alchemist.

But the closer she grows to Jill, Eddie, and especially Adrian, the more she finds herself questioning her age–old Alchemist beliefs, her idea of family, and the sense of what it means to truly belong. Her world becomes even more complicated when magical experiments show Sydney may hold the key to prevent becoming Strigoi—the fiercest vampires, the ones who don’t die. But it’s her fear of being just that—special, magical, powerful—that scares her more than anything. Equally daunting is her new romance with Brayden, a cute, brainy guy who seems to be her match in every way. Yet, as perfect as he seems, Sydney finds herself being drawn to someone else—someone forbidden to her.

When a shocking secret threatens to tear the vampire world apart, Sydney’s loyalties are suddenly tested more than ever before. She wonders how she's supposed to strike a balance between the principles and dogmas she's been taught, and what her instincts are now telling her.

Should she trust the Alchemists—or her heart?
Hallelujah that by the time I finally got around to reading this book, book 3 was already out. Because THE ENDING! Not exactly a cliff hanger, but, man oh man, does it have me beyond excited to see what’s going to happen next. Which I was a little surprised (happy, but surprised) about, considering this book got off to a rather slow and lackluster start. The first 100 pages or so just feel like review: the author is trying to catch the reader up on what happened in “Bloodlines” plus some of what happened in the Vampire Academy series. So that, combined with the fact that not much happens in the beginning, makes it all a bit tedious. BUT. After the first third or so, Mead finds her pace and the book gains momentum and becomes quite hard to put down.

Sydney and Adrian are a work of genius, I think. In the first book, they both managed to get on my nerves, and in this one, they still did, though they were a little better, but, oh the possibilities! Both characters have so much potential, and I can’t wait to see how Mead develops their characters over the course of the series. Because, hello, this is Richelle Mead and you know she’s capable of writing awesome character development.

And even with their lingering annoyingness, Sydney and Adrian have got some really great chemistry. And I don’t necessarily mean romantic chemistry (although, let me say once more: THE ENDING!)—I just mean that their friendship is so well-written and believable and anticipation-building. I love the way they understand each other and each other’s struggles in a way that no one else does and that through their friendship you can see them each growing and becoming better people. (And what Adrian says to Sydney at the end about her skinniness obsession . . . that’s where I finally fell in love with Adrian as a protagonist.)

The story is obviously much less action-based than the Vampire Academy series, although there are some brief moments of fighting. I still find myself occasionally missing Rose and her kick-A take-‘em-down style, but Sydney and her logical, methodical style is growing on me more and more as Sydney herself grows on me.

Overall, while it was off to a slow start, once the “The Golden Lily” got going, it totally redeemed itself. I’m SO excited for the rest of this series, because I think the characters and plot have a truly great potential for awesomeness.

Rating: 4 / 5

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Book Light Confessional: "Specimen Days"

One of the things I do for work is write articles about American military history. This means I do a lot of research both on the internet and in non-fiction books. Right now, I’m reading through Walt Whitman’s book “Specimen Days,” the first 40 percent or so of which deals with his life in Washington DC during the Civil War. I’ve never written about any of the books I’ve read for work on this blog before, just because this is a YA book blog generally, and I figure most people aren’t as fascinated by American military history as I am. But “Specimen Days” has proved to be something special, and I wanted to share it with you. So this is less a review, I guess, than a reflection.

I’ve researched dozens of articles on various Civil War topics since I started working this job, and over the course of writing them, I’ve come to view the war with an impartiality courtesy of the long lens of history. Battles and their casualties are facts and figures, the armies a faceless mass of blue or gray, and even amusing anecdotes don’t always seem to be about real people rather than characters in a book. But Whitman’s “Specimen Days” changed that for me. If in the past I looked at the war telescopically, trying to see the big picture, Whitman’s book has been like a magnifying glass, focusing my gaze on small, quiet moments that gently urge me to feel something about the war rather than just know something.

Much of “Speciman Days” recounts Whitman’s visits to the many military hospitals in Washington, where he did his best to distract injured and sick soldiers from the pain and monotony of hospital life. He wrote letters for them to their loved ones, distributed fruit and sweets, and most of all, spent countless hours simply talking with them. And while Whitman never goes into extensive detail about his experiences, somehow his brief observations manage to show me the war in a way I’ve never seen it before. Like this short passage, for instance, which describes a young hospitalized Wisconsin soldier who is near death due to a hemorrhage: “The poor young man is struggling painfully for breath, his great dark eyes with a glaze already upon them, and the choking faint but audible in his throat. An attendant sits by him, and will not leave him till the last; yet little or nothing can be done. He will die here in an hour or two, without the presence of kith or kin. Meantime the ordinary chat and business of the ward a little way off goes on indifferently. Some of the inmates are laughing and joking, others are playing checkers or cards, others are reading, &c.”

Something about that image of one man dying virtually unnoticed while life goes on for the others around him struck me in a way that knowing the vast numbers of battlefield deaths never has. It’s in scenes like this that Whitman manages to make the war personal instead of just an interesting chapter in a history book. I look at the Civil War with 150 years of perspective, and from that vantage point, one dying soldier from Wisconsin doesn’t seem significant when viewed against the backdrop of an estimated 620,000–750,000 total war deaths. He’s just one drop in a rather depressing bucket. But Whitman, writing at the time of the soldier’s death or a few years after doesn’t have the benefit (or perhaps detriment) of that century and a half to consider whose deaths are relevant in the grand scheme of the war. Where I see the dying man as a statistic from a bygone era, Whitman sees an individual whose imminent death is still a raw reality to be grappled with. To Whitman, the death of this solitary unnamed lieutenant is significant, and seeing his death through Whitman’s eyes has shown me that the impartiality of my telescopic view isn’t the only—or even necessarily the best—way to view the war.

Sorry if I’ve gone on too long about this, but “Specimen Days” really made an impact on me. Obviously. If you are interested in the book, it can be found here. Or if you’re not up for the whole book, one of my favorite passages is this one.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Know any good books?

I'm officially in a book slump. I just have not been able to get into any book that I've tried to read this week. My most recent DNF was "The Diviners," by Libba Bray, which was beautifully written, but the main character got on my nerves, the 1920s slang got old fast, and the bad guy totally creeped me out. So after 100 pages, I put it down and couldn't find the motivation to pick it up again. Now I'm working my way through a non-fiction called "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History," by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, but since I'm not a big non-fiction fan, it is slow, slow going.

I just want a good book, you know? One of those books that I can't put down. One of those books that when I do have to put it down, I want to keep it right next to me just in case I get an unexpected moment to read it. One of those books that makes my breath catch because it's quietly, unexpectedly perfect. I want a book to fall in love with, in other words.

I have some books on request at the library that should be coming in soon, but in the meantime, got any recommendations for me? Any all-time favorites or recent finds of any genre? Help a sister out, would you? I'm desperate here.  

Monday, March 4, 2013

Review: Perfect Scoundrels

Perfect Scoundrels (Heist Society #3), by Ally Carter. The GoodReads summary:
Katarina Bishop and W.W. Hale the fifth were born to lead completely different lives: Kat comes from a long, proud line of loveable criminal masterminds, while Hale is the scion of one of the most seemingly perfect dynasties in the world. If their families have one thing in common, it's that they both know how to stay under the radar while getting--or stealing--whatever they want. No matter the risk, the Bishops can always be counted on, but in Hale's family, all bets are off when money is on the line. When Hale unexpectedly inherits his grandmother's billion dollar corporation, he quickly learns that there's no place for Kat and their old heists in his new role. But Kat won't let him go that easily, especially after she gets tipped off that his grandmother's will might have been altered in an elaborate con to steal the company's fortune. So instead of being the heir--this time, Hale might be the mark. Forced to keep a level head as she and her crew fight for one of their own, Kat comes up with an ambitious and far-reaching plan that only the Bishop family would dare attempt. To pull it off, Kat is prepared to do the impossible, but first, she has to decide if she's willing to save her boyfriend's company if it means losing the boy.
I love this series. I just really do. Not only is it a lot of fun, but I swear the pages of each book fly by until before I know it, I’m at the end and grinning like crazy.

While I liked this third installment in the series, I didn’t think it was quite as good as the first two, mostly because the con seemed a bit more predictable to me. In the first two books, I felt like I was being conned right along with Kat’s targets, and I was always surprised when I found out what was really going on. But in this book, although there were some things I didn’t guess, the con felt a bit more obvious than the ones in the other two books.

I also felt a bit let down that Hale was so angsty in this one. His grandmother has just died, so understandably he’s upset about it, but the book just didn’t feel the same without Hale’s normal debonair, witty self. I liked that we got to learn more about Hale's past and get deeper insight into his character, but I felt like the darker Hale couldn’t carry the story as well as his former lighter self could—it just wasn’t as much fun without his wise-cracking jokes.

I realize this review is coming off as a bit negative, when, honestly, I did enjoy the book a lot. It’s only when I compare it to the others in the series that it falls a little short. But I love these characters and this world that Ally Carter’s created enough to forgive a multitude of sins, and I’m going to carry on hoping that there will be even more books in this series. Especially since we still don't learn what the W in W.W. Hale stands for . . .

Rating: 4 / 5

The Heist Society series:
-Heist Society
-Uncommon Criminals

Friday, March 1, 2013

Vampire Academy: Blood Sisters

So I realize that I'm not generally with it when it comes to what movies are out or are coming out. But seriously, how did I not know that they're making a Vampire Academy movie?!? Vampire Academy is a series that I never in a million years thought I'd enjoy, but after a somewhat rough time with the first book, I fell headlong in love with all the rest of them. And even though it's been a while since I've finished the series, I've still yet to find another series to fill the void.

According to IMDB, the movie's coming out Valentine's Day 2014, and the three main characters have supposedly been cast. So here's my official evaluation of how who they cast lined up with my expectations:

Zoey Deutch
(This girl seems pretty well cast, actually. She has that striking beauty that I imagined Rose having, but she looks like she could kick some butt too.)

Lucy Fry
(Well, at least she's blonde, but Lucy doesn't quite fit my image of Lissa. Lucy's got a quirky beauty, while I always pictured Lissa as being a more delicate, classical kind of pretty.)

Danila Kozlovskiy
(There were better pictures of him out there, but I picked this one because he had long hair like Dimitri. I think this guy has a brooding, hunky vibe that will work for Dimitri, but while Danila's hot, I always imaginged Dimitri looking a bit more Eastern European.) 

So there you have it. What do you think about the casting/movie? I don't have particularly high expectations for this film, but hey, it could still be fun, right? And if you haven't read the Vampire Academy books yet, get going!

My Vampire Academy reviews:
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