Friday, May 31, 2013

Review: Flyaway

Flyaway, by Lucy Christopher. The GoodReads summary:
In a heartbeat, in a wingbeat, it happens. Isla and her father are racing across the fields, following the migrating swans, when everything goes wrong. The birds collide with power lines, and her dad suffers a heart attack.

At the hospital, upset and scared, Isla meets Harry, with his wild red hair and firefly eyes. He doesn't laugh when she tells him about her love of birds. He listens. But Harry is ill, too: He has leukemia.

As Isla tries to deal with her father's frailty and the new feelings she has for Harry, she's determined to help the only way she knows how. Outside the hospital windows, Isla watches a lone swan struggling to fly. If she could just save the lost bird, would that magically make everything good again?
I’d heard absolutely nothing about this book when I got it. I just knew it was by Lucy Christopher, and since I LOVED her book “Stolen,” I decided to pick up this one with no questions asked. And what I found was a book quite different from “Stolen.” Not different in a bad way, just different. What I remember most about “Stolen” is the intensity of both the emotion and the writing, but here, both those aspects were handled in a much quieter way. The back of the book has this blurb by Booklist calling it “Quiet but compelling. Sensitive.” And that’s pretty much how I’d describe it too.

The scope of this book is rather narrow—just Isla, her family, Harry, and the swans, with the predominant settings of just the grandfather’s house, the hospital, and the lake. And there aren’t any sweeping or dramatic plot lines either—it’s simply the story of Isla dealing with her father’s illness and her interactions with the swans. But as small as the world of this book is, I didn’t find myself missing the world outside its narrow bounds at all. With some books, I can’t help racing to the end to find out what happens, but with “Flyaway” it was all about taking my sweet time. I didn’t care so much about how it ended as much as I did about Isla’s struggle to get there. I mean, I was happy with the ending and all that, but the story could have finished off completely differently and I wouldn’t have minded—for me, the book was all about enjoying Isla’s journey.

Overall, a lovely gem of a book. I don’t have much to say because I feel like everything about it is so wonderfully subtle that I’m having a hard time pinning it down. So I’ll just fall back to those Booklist adjectives: quiet, compelling, sensitive.

Rating: 4 / 5

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: The Year of Secret Assignments

The Year of Secret Assignments (Ashbury/Brookfield #2), by Jaclyn Moriarty. The GoodReads summary:
The Ashbury-Brookfield pen pal program was designed to bring together the "lowlife Brooker kids" (as they're known to the Ashburyites) and the "rich Ashbury snobs" (as they're called by the Brookfielders) in a spirit of harmony and the Joy of the Envelope. But things don't go quite as planned. Lydia and Sebastian trade challenges, like setting off the fire alarm at Brookfield. Emily tutors Charlie in How to Go On a Date with a Girl. But it's Cassie and Matthew who both reveal and conceal the most about themselves -- and it's their secrets and lies that set off a war between the two schools.
I didn’t actually realize this was the second book in a series until I got home from checking it out at the library. But I decided to read it anyway, despite not having read the first book, and as it turns out, reading the first book was completely unnecessary to understanding this one. Luckily.

I had a lot of fun with this book. It’s written mostly in letters and journal entries, which I know isn’t everyone’s cup of tea in terms of book formats (and I’ll admit it doesn’t always work for me either), but in the case of this book, I thought it kept the story light and funny and unpredictable. The downside to this format was that since there are six characters writing back and forth, it took me a third of the way into the book to be able to keep track of who was who. And even then, I sometimes had to flip back to remind myself which storyline went with which character. But despite this, I enjoyed the characters and their story too much to really get annoyed with the hassle.

Speaking of enjoying the characters, I thought the whole gang was pretty great. I’d be reading along and think, yep, Lydia’s my favorite, but then I’d hit Emily’s chapter and be like, actually maybe I like Emily better. And then I’d get to Cassie’s chapter, and I bet you can guess what happened there. Even now that I’ve finished the book, I still can’t decide on which of the three I like best. And Seb and Charlie? Both golden. And since I’m on the topic of characters, can I just say how much I loved the parents in this book? They’re kind of really super awesome.

This book made me smile so many times, but it’s not only fun and games. It manages to tackle some heavier issues as well, like the repercussions of Cassie’s dad’s death. But while the book touches on some more serious topics, it’s generally a lighthearted, humorous read filled with plenty of hijinks and secret assignments.

Overall, prepare to be charmed. While I did think the book erred a bit on the ridiculous/unbelievable side for the last 50 pages or so, the moments of hilarity and awesomeness of the previous pages made up for it.  

Rating: 4 / 5

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review: Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell. The GoodReads summary:
"Bono met his wife in high school," Park says.
"So did Jerry Lee Lewis," Eleanor answers.
"I’m not kidding," he says.
"You should be," she says, "we’re sixteen."
"What about Romeo and Juliet?"
"Shallow, confused, then dead."
''I love you," Park says.
"Wherefore art thou," Eleanor answers.
"I’m not kidding," he says.
"You should be."

Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.
Don’t get me wrong—this was a good book. Really. It’s just that it was kind of depressing. And by “kind of,” I mean “totally.” Not depressing in the “people die” kind of way, but depressing in the “wow, her life really, really sucks and the author doesn’t try to let you down easy” kind of way. In the Sara Zarr kind of way. And I didn’t realize that going in, and I wasn’t exactly in the mood for it either. So I’ll just admit up front that I didn’t totally love this book, but I’ll also acknowledge that it was an “it’s not you, it’s me” situation. Because, it was really well-written. Truly. I just wanted something happier at that particular moment.

Anyway, contrary to what you may expect from my explanations above, I actually had a hard time putting this book down. I ended up staying up waaay longer than planned because I HAD to keep reading. Part of it was because I wanted to know what was going to happen next. Part of it was because I admired the way the author told the story. But mostly it was because I couldn’t bear to leave Eleanor alone. Her life is SO hard, and I didn’t want Eleanor to have to bear it on her own, you know? I wanted to be there for her in the only way I could.

Speaking of Eleanor, she wasn’t what I expected. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it wasn’t her strange clothes, crazy hair, prickly attitude, or insecurities. But neither was it her ability to endure, her lack of complaints about her horrible situation, or her tentative joy at falling in love. And really, watching Eleanor fall in love was one of the best things about this book. She’s not used to happiness, and when she finds it, she wears it like an ill-fitting coat at first. Well, more than just at first. She never even gets close to comfortable with finally getting something good. She struggles to not feel as happy and in love as she is because she’s confident it won’t last. But she can’t help herself. And I loved that.

Park is the opposite of Eleanor. After a bumpy start, he jumps head first into loving her. He has his own issues, but he’s not worn down by life like Eleanor, so he’s able to approach their relationship with enough openness and eagerness for them both. And while his belief that nothing can ever come between them is naive, it's a naivete I wanted to protect. I didn't want him to have to grow out that beautifully optimistic conviction the hard way.

You see? Plenty of things to like about this book. I just wasn’t really in the mood for it, especially since I was expecting something different. But now you’ve been forewarned and forearmed, and you can read it and appreciate it more than I did.

Rating: Um . . . no idea. I guess 4 in terms of quality, but 3.5 in terms of how much I enjoyed it.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: Sabriel

Sabriel, by Garth Nix. The GoodReads summary:
Sent to a boarding school in Ancelstierre as a young child, Sabriel has had little experience with the random power of Free Magic or the Dead who refuse to stay dead in the Old Kingdom. But during her final semester, her father, the Abhorsen, goes missing, and Sabriel knows she must enter the Old Kingdom to find him. She soon finds companions in Mogget, a cat whose aloof manner barely conceals its malevolent spirit, and Touchstone, a young Charter Mage long imprisoned by magic, now free in body but still trapped by painful memories. As the three travel deep into the Old Kingdom, threats mount on all sides. And every step brings them closer to a battle that will pit them against the true forces of life and death—and bring Sabriel face-to-face with her own destiny.
This book has sat on the bookshelf at my parents’ house for I don’t know how long, and I always thought about picking it up, but the cover inevitably turned me off. So when “Sabriel” came up as the book club selection for this month, I was pretty excited since it gave me a reason to finally buckle down and read it. And now I’ve been reminded for roughly the thousandth time that I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

One of the first things that drew me into the story was the world building. It’s just really well done. See, the country’s divided into two parts: Ancelstierre, which in my mind is like a 1930s England, and the Old Kingdom, which is across the Wall and has the typical fantasy Middle Ages-y feel. So the combination of those two places already had me fascinated, and when you add to that dead creatures that don't stay dead and a necromancer who puts the dead to rest rather than bringing them back to life, I was hooked. And really, those things are just the tip of the iceberg of the world building the author does. Because there are also all these other aspects, like Charter Magic and Free Magic and the world of the dead, that I just don’t have time to go into.

Sabriel as a main character is truly awesome. She’s not sure what’s going on half the time, but she soldiers on anyway and faces challenges and freaky dead creatures with a courage, determination, and levelheadedness not often found in YA. And I loved that even after she meets Touchstone, a royal guard with a secret, Sabriel remains focused and clear-headed. She doesn’t get sappy or dreamy or whatnot—she keeps her eye on her goal.

Actually, in retrospect, I’m not sure if I’m convinced Touchstone is a strong enough character to be Sabriel’s match. I understand why he’s a bit unsure of himself, but I definitely felt like Sabriel was his superior rather than him being her equal. Plus, I didn’t feel like there was enough emotion written into the book for me to really understand Sabriel and Touchstone’s relationship. I kinda want to just blame that on the fact that the book’s written by a male author, but that’s probably not entirely fair. Either way, though, I could've done with a few more feelings to go along with all the action. Though I guess the way its written makes it a more bracing story than it would've been with teenage emotions and hormones tempering the action.

Besides the whole Touchstone issue, my only other problem with the book is the ending. There was absolutely no post-climax resolution. There wasn’t any time for me to catch my breath. It just went from a super suspenseful scene directly into a short epilogue. And I could understand that method if it was supposed to be a cliffhanger for the next book, but I’m under the impression that the second book changes main characters and has a different focus than “Sabriel.” So I was left feeling like the resolution was a bit lacking.

And before I finish up this review, I just have to say, MOGGET. I’m a cat person, so maybe I’m a little biased, but he’s seriously the best.

Overall, a well-written fantasy that kept me turning the pages. There were a few things I wish were done differently, but generally I liked it a lot and will most likely be reading the rest of the series.

Rating: 4 / 5

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: The Indigo Spell

The Indigo Spell (Bloodlines #3), by Richelle Mead. The GoodReads summary:
In the aftermath of a forbidden moment that rocked Sydney to her core, she finds herself struggling to draw the line between her Alchemist teachings and what her heart is urging her to do. Then she meets alluring, rebellious Marcus Finch--a former Alchemist who escaped against all odds, and is now on the run. Marcus wants to teach Sydney the secrets he claims the Alchemists are hiding from her. But as he pushes her to rebel against the people who raised her, Sydney finds that breaking free is harder than she thought. There is an old and mysterious magic rooted deeply within her. And as she searches for an evil magic user targeting powerful young witches, she realizes that her only hope is to embrace her magical blood--or else she might be next.
I’m sure you’ve heard me say this before, but I’m not very good at reviewing subsequent books in a series. I always feel like I’ve already said everything I have to say about the series in the previous reviews, and unless the newest installment is either much better or much worse than the others, I always struggle to find anything different to say. So I’m going to do my best, but no promises.

Basically, yep, I still like this series. I still like the characters, and I appreciate how Sydney and Adrian both continue to develop, though Sydney has to struggle more to make her strides than Adrian does in this book. I felt like Adrian was actually rather un-Adrian-like this time around—no tantrums, no spirit-user craziness, not much drinking or smoking—and that’s a good thing, but at the same time, I feel a little like, “When did that happen?” I don’t remember him being quite so mature at the end of the last book, so I wasn’t quite sure where this new and improved Adrian came from. Still, I admired his patience and unselfishness (two words I never thought I’d use to describe him) with Sydney, and how they both support and understand each other.

As in the second book, this one started off a little slow as the author tried to catch us up on what had been happening in the previous two books. But again like the second book, once the story got going, I got sucked in. I don’t know what it is about Mead’s books, but something in them makes me inhale them in giant gulps. Anyway, the story in “The Indigo Spell” was more focused on the Alchemists than the previous two books were. In those, obviously the Alchemists played a major part, but the main problems and conflicts of the stories involved the Moroi. Here, there was actually very little about the Moroi—Jill, Eddie, and Angeline barely show up at all, in fact. Rather, it’s all about Sydney discovering additional information about the Alchemists, beginning to seriously explore the world of witch’s magic, and figuring out what to do about Adrian. As a result, the plot isn’t super pulse pounding or anything, but it still manages to be intriguing.

Overall, I’m not sure that these Bloodlines books are quite as addicting as The Vampire Academy series, but still, I like them a lot. So far, each new installment has been consistently good, though “The Indigo Spell” is probably the slowest so far since it centers almost entirely on finding out new information rather than action. Nevertheless, it was totally enjoyable, and I definitely intend to read this series through to the end (however many books that ends up being).

Rating: 4 / 5

Other Bloodlines books:
The Golden Lily

Monday, May 13, 2013

Review: Everneath

Everneath, by Brodi Ashton. The GoodReads summary:
Last spring, Nikki Beckett vanished, sucked into an underworld known as the Everneath. Now she's returned--to her old life, her family, her boyfriend--before she's banished back to the underworld . . . this time forever. She has six months before the Everneath comes to claim her, six months for good-byes she can't find the words for, six months to find redemption, if it exists.

Nikki longs to spend these precious months forgetting the Everneath and trying to reconnect with her boyfriend, Jack, the person most devastated by her disappearance--and the one person she loves more than anything. But there's just one problem: Cole, the smoldering immortal who enticed her to the Everneath in the first place, has followed Nikki home. Cole wants to take over the throne in the underworld and is convinced Nikki is the key to making it happen. And he'll do whatever it takes to bring her back, this time as his queen.

As Nikki's time on the Surface draws to a close and her relationships begin slipping from her grasp, she is forced to make the hardest decision of her life: find a way to cheat fate and remain on the Surface with Jack or return to the Everneath and become Cole's queen.
I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of YA paranormal, but I thought “Everneath” was actually pretty decent. It’s a take on the Greek myth of Persephone, and while I had a few issues with it, I generally enjoyed it.

The thing I thought this book did best was alternating between the past and present. Sometimes that structure doesn’t work in books, as it can get confusing if not done right, but I thought Brodi Ashton did a good job at it. It heightened the tension in the story quite nicely and gave me just enough information at a time to make me want to keep reading.

Nikki was a likeable enough main character. I appreciated how she came back from the Everneath empty and broken but slowly found her footing again. But . . . she didn’t have quite enough depth for me. Like, she goes to the Everneath because she’s in so much emotional pain, but when she comes back, she doesn’t seem to really ever deal with those issues. She does make the decision not to take the easy way out again, but I wanted more from her than that. Like an actual conversation with her father, maybe. Or with her brother. Or with her former best friend. Or with anyone besides Jack and Cole.

I enjoyed Nikki and Jake’s relationship. I thought it had a really good balance of uncertainty and gratification. I especially liked that since they dated before the story starts, they have a history together, so the author could explore other aspects of their relationship rather than the usual YA “meet and fall in love.” Although, I did think Jake was a *little* on the obsessive side regarding Nikki. Not in an abusive way, but in a “you’re 17, why are you so convinced she’s the only person you’ll ever love” kind of way. I appreciated, however, that although the story skated perilously close to having a love triangle, it never actually crossed that line.

Still, I did find the story rather predictable, and I saw the ending coming a mile away. I also got a bit confused and frustrated towards the end because *spoiler* I couldn’t figure out why Nikki and Jake got so fixated on killing Cole. I mean, Nikki already knows that Cole has nothing to do with the tunnels coming for her, so I didn’t understand why they decided that would solve all their problems. *end spoiler*

Overall, there were things I liked and things I didn’t, but generally I enjoyed it. I’m not quite sold on reading the sequel, but never say never, I guess.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Book Light Confessional: Hallelujah, I've had a breakthrough!

You guys! I've had a breakthrough! Ever since I started reading YA, I've vastly, VASTLY preferred contemporary over paranormal or dystopian. I like some fantasy here and there, and there are the occasional dystopian or paranormal I really enjoy ("Divergent," the Vampire Academy series), but by and large, contemporary is where it's at for me. But I could never quite put my finger on why I like contemporary better than the other genres. When trying to explain this preference to others, I always fumbled for a response and settled for 1) I feel like I can relate to the characters more, and 2) There's less insta-love. Which are both very true for me, but I never felt like I was getting at the heart of the matter.

So flash forward to now. Last night I finished reading a paranormal YA/myth retelling, and as I was mulling over my thoughts on the book, trying to pin down my feelings about it, I finally hit on just what it is I prefer about contemporary YA: They take time to explore the relevant issues.

I'd been getting frustrated with more and more YA dystopians/paranormals recently without quite being able to express why I was dissatisfied. But now I've realized that it's because I feel like they pass up so many chances to more deeply explore the underlying issues or make a character more layered, all in favor of going after the more exciting plot twist. And I realize that not all dystopians/paranormals are this way (why hello, "This Is Not a Test" and "The Scorpio Races") and that there are plenty of contemporary YAs that only skate over the surface. But as a generalization, I find that contemporaries are more often willing to dig deeper in to motivation and character growth and all that jazz, where as dystopians and paranormals are more about being exciting and throwing plot twists at you and having everything be super dramatic and life changing. And that's fine. That's the genre. But it's not what I prefer.

I'm not trying to knock dystopians or paranomals here. Everyone has their opinions and preferences, and they're welcome to them. But when I read, I want to come out of the book with a sense of emotional satisfaction, and I find I get that much more often with contemporaries than I do with the other two genres. I mean, do I need to say anything more than "Jellicoe Road" to prove my point?

Any thoughts about why you prefer one YA genre above the others? Or think I'm totally off base here and have got tons of YA dystopians and paranormals that prove me wrong? 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Review: Seraphina

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman. The GoodReads summary:
Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty's anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen's Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.
So for some reason (the cover, maybe?), I was expecting this book to be more of a middle grade. But it wasn’t. Which admittedly made me happy since I prefer YA to middle grade any day of the week. The reason I bring this up is to illustrate one of the many ways this book was better than I expected. I really have no idea where I got such low expectations of this book from, though I suspect a lot of it came from the fact that the book sounded like something I would really like, so I just went ahead and braced myself for disappointment. Maybe not the best way to approach books, but I’ve found myself doing it more and more often recently. Anyway, back to “Seraphina.”

There are so many things that tag this book as my kind of book. First of all, dragons. I mean, come on, let’s just go ahead and admit that dragons are awesome. I’ve loved them ever since way back in the way back when I read Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. And the dragons in “Seraphina” are fascinating. The book begins at the 40th anniversary of a peace treaty between dragons and humans. These dragons can take human form, but they’re definitely still not accepted by humans despite having representation in the palace. And the dragons in human form are supposed to conform to this philosophy that essentially makes them emotionless, but some of them slip . . . It just makes for some really interesting dynamics is what I’m saying, and I really enjoyed the world that Hartman created.

So we’ve got the dragons, which is a point in the book’s favor, and then on top of that we’ve got palace intrigue, which is another way to guarantee my liking of a book. Seraphina’s just the assistant court composer, but with her special insight into dragons, she quickly gets caught up in the difficult relationship at court between the dragons and the humans, which has been made even shakier since it appears a dragon has killed the prince.

While none of the main characters particularly grabbed me, they were all adequate enough to keep me interested. Though actually, I feel like there were quite a few periphery characters that would’ve grabbed me if I only could’ve gotten to know them a little better, characters like Seraphina’s father and mother, the queen, and Seraphina’s tutor. All these had so much potential, but since the book was about Seraphina and her friends, these older-generation characters didn’t get much page time. So would it be too much to ask for a prequel? Especially about the queen in her younger years?

Although as I reader I tend to be oblivious to plot holes and inconsistencies, upon finishing this book I was left with a slight nagging feeling that some things didn’t quite add up. Like why the prince was really killed. And how exactly some of Seraphina’s powers work. And why, despite living in a world that has sufficient technology to have long distance transmitters, they still use outhouses. I just wasn’t clear on some things.

Overall, a much better book than I was expecting, and one I enjoyed quite a bit. I’m not usually big on series, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be reading this one.

Rating: 4 / 5
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