Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

Goodreads Description: "A foundling, an old book of dark fairy tales, a secret garden, an aristocratic family, a love denied, and a mystery. The Forgotten Garden is a captivating, atmospheric and compulsively readable story of the past, secrets, family and memory from the international best-selling author Kate Morton. 

Cassandra is lost, alone and grieving. Her much loved grandmother, Nell, has just died and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she has lost everything dear to her. But an unexpected and mysterious bequest from Nell turns Cassandra's life upside down and ends up challenging everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. 

Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace - the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century - Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself."

My Review: This book took me a while to read---longer than it normally takes to read a book---because the beginning was a bit slow (though, to be fair, I also started it during the school semester...and when college is in full swing, I can barely afford to read a page per day, if even that). However, once I got into the book, I thoroughly enjoyed it and finished it very quickly, even staying up late some nights when I really should have been studying for finals to finish it (I did well on my finals, if it's any excuse!). 

The book is quite straightforward, despite several different narratives and plots (which eventually tie together, of course) and doesn't require much thought---only a keen sense of curiosity. I would never have called it a mystery novel---more like a historical and contemporary drama---but yeah, at heart, it's basically a mystery novel which tries to solve the basic question: Who was Nell and what circumstances led her to being abandoned alone on a ship with only a book of fairy tales in tow? 

It's not a book that requires much thought nor does it provide any groundbreaking writing, emotions, or ideas---but it does give some delicious entertainment with a slightly dark twist at times. It definitely keeps you reading. Family drama (mostly issues between mothers and daughters...this was definitely a generational novel, in the sense where it showed how multiple generations of women managed to screw up or damage their children somehow), small village secrets, a creepy Gothic manor with an even weirder rich family inside that no one is too fond of, orphans spirited away to different lives, young girls running off to find new lives... It was very dramatic and, yes, sometimes stereotypically so---I managed to figure it a few of the "twists" fairly early on---but that's not to say I guessed everything or that the novel ever became supremely boring. It was still entertaining throughout. 

One thing that did make me pause was the weird similarities between this book and The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. The Thirteenth Tale was published first but that doesn't matter, because I'm not claiming that Kate Morton copied her. After all, these books have themes which are quite common in stories. One only needs to recall Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier to remember that these themes and tropes are nothing new. And yet...both The Forgotten Garden and The Thirteenth Tale had a strange amount of similarities: tales about young women searching the life of elder women who wrote stories and told tales; strange and unlikable rich families somewhere in the far corners of remote England; old mansions, family secrets, repairmen coming to fix up broken down homes, pairs of twins and young girls, incest (and the very same type of incest, which is weird), mysterious gardens...and even people named Adeline in both books.

Again---not saying Kate Morton copied, since this type of book seems to be her forte. But the similarities were enough that I got a sense of deja vu while reading The Forgotten Garden. There was also an amazing little wink to the The Secret Garden fans in the book that made me literally squeak when I read it. I had JUST been thinking, Wow, some aspects of this book are quite similar to The Secret Garden, when...! Oh, but I won't spoil that bit of fun. 

Basically, if you want an entertaining and slightly longer read to lose yourself in at night or during long flights or something, this is a great one to pick up. Nothing so heartbreaking you'll spend hours weeping, nothing so complex your brain will hurt, but also nothing so fluffy that you won't spare it a second thought after it's done. 

Cover: It's kind of the typical Here's a mysterious/cute cottage in the woods type of cover that's so typical of adult books (kind of like how Here's a random pretty girl in a ball gown is so typical of YA books). Nice, but nothing special.

My Review: B+

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Goodreads Description: "A BIG NOVEL ABOUT A SMALL TOWN ...

When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock.

Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty fa├žade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils ... Pagford is not what it first seems.

And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?"

My Review: THIS IS NOT HARRY POTTER. This is the first thing I absolutely must stress. I know a lot of people disliked this book because they were expecting something enchanting, fun, adventurous from the author of our beloved Harry Potter series---and that's definitely not what they got. If you walk into this book expecting anything...especially anything Harry Potter-ish...then you will be sorely disappointed. However, if you read this book with an open mind and a penchant for good story-telling...I think you'll be quite pleasantly surprised. 

The thing is, it's a bit hard to review this book, in terms of plot. There isn't much of a plot and yet there are many small plots that intersect and tie into each other in various ways. I will say that the book seems boring at first: Rowling sets up a small town and introduces a multitude of characters---most of them unlikable, a few of them despicable, and only a small handful seemingly sympathetic---who immediately confuse you because there's so many of them and you don't understand how they all connect and why you even care about them.

Ah, but here's the thing---you're not supposed to care about them. If the Harry Potter series showed me that J.K. Rowling is a wizard (pardon my pun) story-teller, then The Casual Vacancy showed me that she's a masterful writer who can definitely go beyond the genre she's famous for and is brilliant at writing human nature. The people in this book are not largely likable or sympathetic---they're just real. Their personalities, their families, their struggles, their thoughts...are just so real. No one is a cliche stereotype, no one is a trope. Teenage boys and girls, middle-aged men and women, elderly people... Mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends, crushes, in-laws, bullies... Every type of person and relationship is in this book and some of them ring so true of reality that it's amazing. Even the characters I loathed, I could still see how utterly human they were---because I know people like them! And some of the characters in the book, while different from me, would have thoughts or ideas that were similar to my own! 

That was what made this book so good. With a larger plot about class warfare and the stigma that comes with those born and bred in poverty, J.K. Rowling spun a web of characters so flawed and real and human that it wasn't until the end---when you realized everyone had had a role to play in leading to the conclusion, no matter how small or large of a role---that you realized this book was incredible. It showed the complexities of a small town community, of close minds and old prejudices and stereotypes, and how the smallest of actions and relationships can lead to the most curious of connections and consequences.

Is it a book I'd read again? Probably not. Maybe in a few years, to remind myself what good writing really is. Is it a book I enjoyed? Not really; there wasn't much to make you smile. There was quite a lot of disturbing stuff in it, actually, in subtle ways. But it did surprise me with how good it was, and how simply she managed to make it happen, so yeah, I'd say that anyone who enjoys good characterization and details about small town life and its even smaller people would like this book. 

Cover: I know there are multiple covers. The American cover tends to be that bright red and yellow cartoonish cover, yet my library had this cover. I like this cover better, actually, it subtly hints to the small town debacle you're about to get yourself into quite well.

Overall Grade: A+

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

Goodreads Description: "When a white servant girl violates the order of plantation society, she unleashes a tragedy that exposes the worst and best in the people she has come to call her family. Orphaned while onboard ship from Ireland, seven-year-old Lavinia arrives on the steps of a tobacco plantation where she is to live and work with the slaves of the kitchen house. Under the care of Belle, the master's illegitimate daughter, Lavinia becomes deeply bonded to her adopted family, though she is set apart from them by her white skin. 

Eventually, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles opium addiction. Lavinia finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds. When she is forced to make a choice, loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are laid bare, and lives are put at risk."

My Review: I initially was very hesitant to begin this book. The premise seemed interesting---if a bit vague---but I was afraid the book would fall quickly into White Savior territory. You know, like The Help. No matter how "good" the protagonist is, it rubs me the wrong way when we see a white person as the main character in a novel about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement era...simply because there are SO many important stories you could tell featuring a black main character. Why on Earth resort to white, especially when people of color rarely get the chance to be main characters? 

But then I thought, Fine, why not. Irish slaves did exist---though they were obviously FAR fewer in number than African slaves---so their stories deserve to be told as well. Let's give it a try. 

What I liked throughout the whole book was that it was engaging and it definitely showed several emotional journeys. It started off a bit slow but picked up pace as it went on and I began to really feel for Lavinia and understand her attachment to, and love for, the slaves in the kitchen house. The book took us from Lavinia's childhood on the plantation through the years till when she was a mother to a young child herself and along with seeing Lavinia's growth and journey, we witnessed several other characters age, marry, have children, and generally go through different life stages. I really liked this because it cemented that as real people to care for. They didn't just exist in the here and now of a book---they had whole lives. 

What I didn't like was how melodramatic it became. It almost veered into soap opera territory at some times. I'm not saying slaves' lives were easy; they weren't, they were horrifically cruel and filled with unimaginable hardships. But Kathleen Grissom added almost every traumatic event one can imagine---slavery, murder, rape, incest, abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, lynching, even houses burning down---in the book and it added an air of unrealistic-ness because it was just one bad thing after another in a very dramatic fashion and you weren't sure what the point was, except to make the characters' lives miserable. The book could have done without a few of the traumatic events; if she'd just focused on a few and made some interesting points about them or had them affect her characters in unique ways, that might have been better. 

A lot of people complained that the characters in the book were too trope-y and based on stereotypes. I disagree. Sure, it seemed a bit unrealistic that every character was neatly grouped into either The Good Guys or The Bad Guys but you know what? I managed to ignore all that simply because of the emotion and heart Kathleen Grissom managed to put into her characters. The book was well-written, not the most amazing writing ever, but she really managed to create characters full of simple emotion that tugged at your heart. 

All in all, I liked it. I never felt that Lavinia's character became White Savior-ish (I would have put the book down if she had) and the book was an emotional, kind of sappy read. Not full of particularly brilliant social commentary, not full of any deep themes or discussion---just a book that was really all about the power of family and love in the face of incredible hardship. And sometimes, that's nice to read about. 

Cover: It's...alright. I'm not sure I like how the cover is sectioned off into almost-blurry photos (perhaps it would have been better with just one photo? Like of the plantation mansion? The blue photo takes up way too much space and doesn't show much) but the color theme does jump out at you a bit. The orange was a good choice. 

Overall Grade: B+

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Merciless by Danielle Vega

Goodreads Description: "Forgive us, Father, for we have sinned.

Brooklyn Stevens sits in a pool of her own blood, tied up and gagged. No one outside of these dank basement walls knows she’s here. No one can hear her scream.

Sofia Flores knows she shouldn’t have gotten involved. When she befriended Riley, Grace, and Alexis on her first day at school, she admired them, with their perfect hair and their good-girl ways. They said they wanted to save Brooklyn. They wanted to help her. Sofia didn’t realize they believed Brooklyn was possessed.
Now, Riley and the girls are performing an exorcism on Brooklyn—but their idea of an exorcism is closer to torture than salvation. All Sofia wants is to get out of this house. But there is no way out. Sofia can’t go against the other girls . . . unless she wants to be next. . . .
In this chilling debut, Danielle Vega delivers blood-curdling suspense and terror on every page. By the shockingly twisted end, readers will be faced with the most haunting question of all: Is there evil in all of us?"

My Review: This book is one roller coaster of Crazy Freaky Thrills. It reads very much like an action movie. The majority of the book takes place in one night---leading into the next morning---and it actually leaps into the action quite quickly, which surprised me. 

I will admit: the characters themselves are not that great. They're interesting enough but they're not very well fleshed out. Their back stories are not explained very well (or at all, in some cases). Sofia is kind of an empty main character; you don't really feel much for her, she's that bland. I guess you kind of just have to step into her shoes and imagine yourself in that situation. She's not unique or interesting. She's Everyperson, a fact that annoyed me but perhaps made it easier to step into her shoes. Riley and the girls are way more interesting---especially when things get downright nasty---but again, their motivations and back stories and how they got to this point is never really explained. At the end I realized that this is the first book in a series, but I get the funny feeling that Riley and the girls' motivations won't be explained even in the next book because of...reasons. (Spoiler-y reasons.) 

But the flat, two-dimensional characters don't even matter that much because HOLY mother of pearl, the horror and action aspect gets gruesome and intense. There's some really disgusting extreme violence, some very freaky scenes where body parts are cut off (or bitten off), and generally a lot of madness. People trying to perform exorcisms, mental deterioration, physical fights, torture, emotional abuse, self-harm, addiction to drugs... All of these topics are covered and they're covered at breakneck speed which makes the book seem even more frantic and thrilling. The escalation of the violence and madness and the quick deterioration of these girls' mental states makes this book all the more scary because it starts to feel like a never-ending nightmare. 

Reading it is like taking an icy plunge because pretty early on in the book you see some extreme violence and then you realize, Dear God, I have like MORE than half the book left to go---how much more violence and torture could there be left?! Lots, my friends. The answer is lots. This book takes the idea of the bitchy teenage mean girl and puts it on steroids. Imagine combining Mean Girls with Heathers with American Psycho and you get this dirty cocktail filled with a lot of blood and a little glitter. 

The ending is definitely a plot twist that makes your jaw drop. I admit---I guessed half of the plot-twist ending. But the plot-twist that the book ends on with the last few sentences...that one came completely out of left field and I'm not sure how I feel about it. On one hand, it kind of feels forced and random with absolutely no build-up...but on the other hand, it's a concept I've never seen done in YA so far (at least this way) and it makes me excited to read the next book in the series. So all in all, Danielle Vega could have done a better job fleshing her characters out and perhaps building up to the motivations and plot a little more---but I'll forgive her because the book was a short and gruesome ride that definitely kept me frantically flipping the pages. 

Cover: GORGEOUS. I love it. It popped out from the shelf right away. To clarify: it is a hardback but there is no slip cover. It's simply a hardback with the title and the symbol and author's name stamped on it in gold. So I found that really cool. (Slip covers can be so annoying to deal with.) And then the shocking hot pink color is really nice. I'm not a huge fan of pink being overused on YA book covers because it can make them seem juvenile but the effect here was cool because the hot pink + the pentagram immediately sent a message: This is a girly book that's going to get seriously dark. Be prepared. 

Overall Grade: A-

Past Perfect by Leila Sales

Goodreads Description: "All Chelsea wants to do this summer is hang out with her best friend, hone her talents as an ice cream connoisseur, and finally get over Ezra, the boy who broke her heart. But when Chelsea shows up for her summer job at Essex Historical Colonial Village (yes, really), it turns out Ezra’s working there too. Which makes moving on and forgetting Ezra a lot more complicated…even when Chelsea starts falling for someone new. 

Maybe Chelsea should have known better than to think that a historical reenactment village could help her escape her past. But with Ezra all too present, and her new crush seeming all too off limits, all Chelsea knows is that she’s got a lot to figure out about love. Because those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it…"

My Review: Don't read this book for the romance. I'm not kidding. Don't do it. The romance is not particularly cute or inspired. When you meet the new guy who Chelsea's going to fall for, it's obvious in about .03 seconds that he's going to be the new love interest. And he's a nice fellow, he actually has a bit of an interesting back story regarding his own family and struggles, but all in all he's just a Boring Average Nice Guy. I don't really know what he sees in Chelsea and I don't know what she sees in him. They like each other, but why? You never really know. They just think each other is cute and they flirt and then they're in love. Very nondescript and not very special or exciting. 

Read this book for everything else. The plot is actually quite quirky. You don't often see reenactment villages in YA books. As a history nerd, I kind of secretly really loved that aspect. I also love New England with every fiber of my being, so the setting of the book made it even better (even though she never really described anything New England-y about the setting...but the Colonial village kind of clues you in). So the concept of two different reenactment villages having an all-out battle was pretty fun. I always love if when teenagers team up in battles---or fake battles---in books and this book was no different. Waging war? Sneaking around and pulling pranks? Fun! Of course...the amount of actual pranks they pulled wasn't that many. More of the book focused on Chelsea moping around about Ezra and then liking the new guy. So yeah, I wish the book had focused more on the War. 

The cast of secondary characters was really fun, in my opinion. I wish the whole book had focused on them more. Tawny Nelson, Fiona, Nat, even toady Brian (Chelsea's thoughts about him constantly made me laugh; I like a little bit of snark in my heroines). Her parents, especially her dad, stood out as well. I really liked that her dad was kind of obnoxious and crazy and she didn't get along too well with him---but they both still loved each other. It was a departure from the typical extremes we get: either the a-hole jerk dad who hates the kid...or the loving, TV sitcom-y dad who's way too understanding and perfect. Chelsea's dad got on her nerves a lot and was overbearing and she disappointed him a lot...but deep down you knew she loved him and he her. I liked that a lot. I guess I can relate! Not all of us have The Perfect Dad but that doesn't mean our dads are all huge jerks who we hate. Her mom was a bit more lackluster, she didn't play as much of a role. 

I guess what made me not like the book so much was the hyperfocus on the romance---which was pretty plain, as I already stated---and Chelsea herself. Don't get me wrong, she was kind of sassy and I liked that a lot. Like I said, I like female characters who have a bit of bite to them. But Chelsea seemed kind of...over-dramatic and whiny. Like, listen: I understand that you loved Ezra. I really do. But you went out with him for five months when you were sixteen. Get over it. He wasn't a great character anyway (he was clueless and self-centered). Even at the end, when she had her magical epiphany (which also bothered me), she was still like, "No. Ezra was perfect. The only not perfect thing about him was that we fell apart. I don't hate the guy. He's still a good guy." NO, HE'S NOT. He's a creep. So yeah, did not like. Also did not like how Chelsea spent basically the whole book complaining and moaning and groaning about Ezra, her dad, and her life---which was annoying because she's a middle-class girl with nice parents, a summer job, and a good best friend, so why is she so angsty?!---and then all of a sudden at the end she had this strange revelation that totally changed her views on everything. Except the revelation was way too sudden to feel realistic. 

Overall, I liked the originality of the War and reenactment plot, the setting, and most of the side characters. That was the stuff that made the book funny and fun. But the romance and angsty aspect kind of made the book confusing and a bit of a boring downer. So I'd say the book was about average, an entertaining YA read that could have been better. 

Cover: Gotta admit that it's really cute! It's actually stood out to me multiple times at the bookstore and library, I just never got the chance to pick it up till much later. But I really like the color scheme and the simplicity of the girl smiling with the flower in her hair. It's cheerful and cute. 

Overall Grade: B-

Friday, August 15, 2014

Never Sit Down in a Hoopskirt and Other Things I Learned in Southern Belle Hell by Crickett Rumley

Goodreads Description: "Expelled from thirteen boarding schools in the past five years, seventeen-year-old Jane Fontaine Ventouras is returning to her Southern roots, and the small town of Bienville, Alabama, where ladies always wear pearls, nothing says hospitality like sweet tea
and pimento cheese sandwiches, and competing in the annual Magnolia Maid Pageant is every girl’s dream.

But Jane is what you might call an anti-belle—more fishnets and tattoos than sugar and spice. The last thing on her mind is joining the Magnolia Maid brigade and parading around town in
a dress so big she can’t even fi t through doors. So when she finds herself up to her ears in ruffl es and etiquette lessons, she’s got one mission:Escape.

What’s a hipster to do? Will Jane survive Bienville boot camp intact or will they—gasp!—make a Southern belle out of her yet?"

My Review: I have a weakness for the East Coast. New England is my favorite place in the whole U.S. and I secretly (even though it's not really a secret to anyone who knows me) adore the idea of the typical, romantic, Gone-with-the-Wind South. You know, the kind that has huge beautiful plantation homes (with their terrible history), sweet tea, and magnolia trees. Kind of like the show Hart of Dixie. Of course, in reality, the South has some truly ugly history and still has very ugly aspects to it: slavery, racism, and very antiquated and bigoted mentalities (not held by all people there, of course---but held by enough). But again, like I said, the charmed and false notion of the romantic South? Love it. 

So when it comes to books set up and down the East Coast (possibly excluding's not New England, nor does it have the Southern feel of South Carolina or parts of Georgia), I'm kind of a sucker. There are very high chances I will read a book that is set in these regions. And a lot of these books tend to revolve around the debutante life (which is why I, a Midwesterner, know way too much about debutantes and Southern belles and other such things). 

Initially, the book kind of annoyed me. Jane was a funny narrator, don't get me wrong---but the way she talked and some of the slang she used sounded a bit childish and...well, fake. I've never known a teenager who speaks that way. Very "Like, no way! He did not just say that! But oh yes, he totally did!" Honestly, who speaks that way? No one. So that made her seem a little more immature, even though she was like 17-years-old. I've never been a fan of too much fake teenager slang/speak in books because in my experience, teenagers talk more maturely than that. But moving on... Another thing that annoyed me deeply about Jane was simply how she looked. It kind of seemed like the author thought, "Oh, Jane's kind of a rebel and she doesn't conform to normal standards---let's make her wear all black and have piercings and smoke!" That just screams Typical Nonconformist. Come on...this idea of the teenage rebellious Goth NEEDS to die. Piercings and tattoos, yes, teens have those. And yes, people wear all black (I myself wear mostly black, though in more of a fashion-y way). But I just have always hated the idea that Oh, a character is rebellious? Let's just make them wear black lipstick and be a Goth or something! Not that Jane wore black lipstick...but you get my point. It would have been funnier, in my opinion, if she dressed like a girly-girl but was still just as sassy and sharp. It would have broken through some stereotypes. 

But those are minor squabbles. Over all, the book was entertaining. There was the typical girl-on-girl hate and catty fighting that I expected (any book about pageants is going to have that) but I liked how the author eventually progressed into the girls getting along. I really hate girl-on-girl hate. We need to get along and support each other, ladies. No need---or time---to fight each other over silly things. So girls becoming actual friends = big yes. 

There were a few mentions of darker topics. There were a few uncomfortable mentions of racism. I say uncomfortable not because I don't want those topics addressed---I do; I think more books need to address racism---but because they were addressed in only a few random sentences and then suddenly dropped and never touched upon again and that just seems...weird. And not very well-thought-out. Why have one of your characters begin a racist thought if they're not going to continue with it and we're never going to hear about it or see it dealt with? Very strange. The book also dealt a lot with Jane's mother's death. I really liked these parts because I think they were done very well. Jane didn't seem very willing to open up and talk about it but she thought about her mother enough that it was apparent she missed her and was a lonely kid. 

The plot about the pageant was funny and pretty interesting in a girly sort of way. The romance was alright, kind of just meh to me. It wasn't very exciting or interesting or even particularly cute so I wouldn't read this book for the romance aspect. The deeper, more emotional parts were pretty good as well. But the book went down a few notches in my head simply because it ended very abruptly---almost as if the author forgot to finish the book---and you don't get much closure at all. With a serious book like Gone Girl, I can see why an author would choose to end with little-to-no closure. Sometimes it's needed. But for a quick chick-lit read? No, it just didn't work. This book needed a little bit of closure and it's random, sudden ending was kind of bewildering. 

Overall, a decent entertaining read for a boring day. Nothing too special, nothing too awful. Heavy on the stereotypes and tropes. 

Cover: I think it's pretty cute, the drawing and layering of colors and prints gives it a nice, whimsical effect. 

Overall Grade: B-

The Chaos of Stars by Kiersten White

Goodreads Description: "Kiersten White, New York Times bestselling author of Paranormalcy, is back with The Chaos of Stars—an enchanting novel set in Egypt and San Diego that captures the magic of first love and the eternally complicated truth about family.

Isadora's family is seriously screwed up—which comes with the territory when you're the human daughter of the ancient Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris. Isadora is tired of living with crazy relatives who think she's only worthy of a passing glance—so when she gets the chance to move to California with her brother, she jumps on it. But her new life comes with plenty of its own dramatic—and dangerous—complications . . . and Isadora quickly learns there's no such thing as a clean break from family.

Blending Ally Carter's humor and the romance of Cynthia Hand's Unearthly, The Chaos of Stars takes readers on an unforgettable journey halfway across the world and back, and proves there's no place like home."

My Review: This is not the cover section but I have to start off by talking about the cover because how beautiful is it?! It's gorgeous and the name of the book is pretty intriguing as well. So naturally I gravitated towards this and when I realized it was about Egyptian mythology, I was sold. I love mythology and I love modern-day books (whether YA or adult) that weave mythology into the narrative. It's one of the reasons that the Percy Jackson series will always be one of my favorite book series ever, no matter how old I get. So I assumed this book would be pretty good.

And I was right. It was pretty good. I really liked it. It doesn't take a lot for me to like a book but at the same time, there are certain things in books that can absolutely ruin the whole reading experience for me (like insta-love) and unfortunately, these things happen pretty often in a lot of books. So more often than not, I'm left feeling a bit disappointed, especially when it comes to YA. But The Chaos of Stars didn't really let me down in any way and I found it quite fun, actually.

I was surprised to see that the majority of the reviews online for this book were negative. It kind of seemed like a big problem a lot of people had was with the main character, Isadora. People thought she was bitchy, whiny, aggressive, obnoxious, etc. I admit: Isadora was aggressive and a bit of a character. Not exactly the sweetest, nicest person you'd ever meet. But I really liked that about her. I think I've always gravitated towards the slightly-meaner characters in media---perhaps because I'm kind of sharp myself---such as the Blair Waldorfs and the Astrid Kriegers. Sure, she acted bratty and obnoxious at times, and she was also sort of dense at times (she claimed multiple times that her family didn't love her because they refused to make her immortal...when it was quite clear to us, the readers, why her parents not making her immortal actually proved how much they loved her; immortality isn't actually all that great, when you think about it). But I liked that because guess what? Real teenagers are going to be bratty and rude and have their ungrateful moments. There's no denying this. There are probably very few perfect people in the world who never had bratty, obnoxious, or ungrateful moments growing up. I liked Isadora a lot. She was sharp, didn't take nonsense from anyone, and was full of attitude. She was a breath of fresh air compared to all these typical YA heroines who are the nice girls-next-door and literally never show anyone any attitude (except in their own internal narrative). 

I also really liked how Isadora loved interior decorating. Maybe it's just because I personally love interior decorating (HGTV is my guilty pleasure and I love buying furniture and decorations for my home) but I thought it was a really fun aspect of her personality that was kind of different. Normally YA heroines like reading or writing or even fashion---which are all things I like as well but are also kind of typical to teenage girls. Liking interior design/decorating isn't something that's so common. 

Also, I just really liked how she wasn't interested in relationships or guys. She wasn't super into the whole cheesy flowers-and-hand-holding romance stuff. It was obvious that she wanted to connect with someone but she didn't need a Hallmark romance moment to make it real, which I found nice because I kind of feel nauseous when I think about stereotypical "romantic" moves and moments in books and movies. They seem cute on the page or screen...but when you really think about it... No. I'd probably just start laughing. They just seem to awkward. She was kind of like that too---she didn't need roses and poems. She'd probably have laughed if some guy tried that on her. So her relationship with Ry was nice because it was actually pretty slow (I have no idea why some people are claiming it was insta-love...) and normal. She didn't seem like she was pressured to do anything she didn't want to. And Ry seemed nice too, very gentle and not too arrogant or in-your-face. 

The mythology was woven in with the side plot of Isadora working at a local museum in San Francisco and I really liked how Kiersten White wove it in. I was kind of wondering how it would happen---since people obviously don't worship these gods anymore---but she managed to integrate them into the story pretty realistically. The gods live pretty low-key lives these days, hiding in solitude in human cities, basically clinging to any last humans who still worship them (I assume worship is needed to keep a god alive, so they don't fade into dust). Very low-brow and not too grand or obnoxious. No obvious magic or anything, a la Percy Jackson. It worked for Percy Jackson but it wouldn't have worked here so I'm glad Kiersten White didn't even try. We just had some charms and subtle potions and prayers and they seemed very natural to the story. 

The actual plot of the book was pretty low-key and simple as well. Isadora volunteers at the local museum, she works to set up displays, she has bad dreams and is experiencing a bit of creepiness because someone is breaking into her house and stalking her, it seems. This aspect of the book took a backseat to the relationship plots and I kind of wish Kiersten White had focused on the museum/mystery plot a little more because it was interesting. But I still think it was pretty well-done. And lastly, I loved reading about Isadora's relationship with her mom---how bitter it was before, how much miscommunication they had, and how it was at the end. Mother-daughter relationships aren't always perfect and they've always been an area of interest for me, so I love whenever a book has that element. I thought it was quite nicely done here, regarding their miscommunication and misunderstandings. 

All in all, I liked it. A lot of people hated it but... *shrug* Who knows? I thought it was a fun, neat little book with a snarky heroine and a nice mix of mythology, relationship issues, and actual plot. And I'm hoping Kiersten White writes a sequel!

Cover: IT'S SO PRETTY. I'm so glad it doesn't have some girl in a flowing ball gown on the cover---that's been done to death and I hate it (unless it actually makes sense in regards to the plot). The dappled blue colors of the night sky, the golden curling leaves and vines, the twinkling stars in the background... It's amazing. It's a work of art. I'd buy this book just for the cover, to be honest.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Welcome, Caller, This Is Chloe by Shelley Coriell

Goodreads Description: "Big-hearted Chloe Camden is the queen of her universe until her best friend shreds her reputation and her school counselor axes her junior independent study project. Chloe is forced to take on a meaningful project in order to pass, and so she joins her school’s struggling radio station, where the other students don’t find her too queenly. Ostracized by her former BFs and struggling with her beloved Grams’s mental deterioration, lonely Chloe ends up hosting a call-in show that gets the station much-needed publicity and, in the end, trouble. She also befriends radio techie and loner Duncan Moore, a quiet soul with a romantic heart. On and off the air, Chloe faces her loneliness and helps others find the fun and joy in everyday life. Readers will fall in love with Chloe as she falls in love with the radio station and the misfits who call it home."

My Review: I think reviewing this book is fitting after reviewing Paisley Hanover Acts Out because both books are about a quirky, popular, and friendly redhead who encounter friend problems and fall down the popularity totem pole at school---but where Paisley Hanover Acts Out messed everything up, Welcome, Caller, This Is Chloe actually got it mostly right and I enjoyed this book. 

The biggest draw really was Chloe herself. I loved her penchant for fabulous vintage shoes but I liked her cheer, charm, and good nature even more. Even when she was being disrespected and insulted, she usually maintained her cool and tried to stay upbeat. She never crossed the line into Mary Sue hokey territory, however---she did snap and break down a few times, which made her more realistic. But ultimately, she was cheerful and just generally a nice person and I liked how she dealt with the stresses and problems in her life. If more people dealt with struggles the way Chloe did, the world would be a happier place. 

The plot was also fun. I admit, I did find it slightly unbelievable---and weird---that her friends would turn on her so quickly for something so trivial (I mean really, had none of them ever made a mistake before? Because that's all Chloe did, make a mistake for one night and it wasn't anything super harmful either) but I guess sometimes that's all it takes for friends to turn on you, so alright. At least Chloe always tried to remain civil to them, even when they weren't civil back. I kind of like how the book ended with all three of them going their own ways, making their own new friends (well---two of them, anyway), and kind of forging their own new paths. It was kind of sad and a bit strange---a years-old friendship ended so suddenly?---but friends do drift apart in real life, so again, I guess it is realistic if a bit depressing. Chloe's new friends in the radio club, however, more than make up for it because they were such a unique bunch. Clementine especially made a huge impression because she had such a fiery personality. She was the kind of secondary character you love to read about because they have a presence. 

The romance kind of took a backseat to the plot and it was a sweeter, milder romance and I liked that because honestly, both Chloe and Duncan had larger problems in their life to deal with and I liked reading about their family troubles more. They were interesting, if---again---a bit depressing. Chloe's family struggles were really touching and I really liked how Shelley Coriell made her grams and her parents and brothers a strong presence in Chloe's life, a strong anchor, something for her to hold onto. Families don't usually get too much "screen time" in YA books, so it was nice to read about Chloe's family, because as much as they had their own issues, they were a nice family. 

Ultimately, there isn't much to say about this book because it was a touching, cute, and mild YA story to read with a quirky, outgoing, and upbeat protagonist. The book wasn't too harsh and too deep, nor was it too light and glossy. It had an even balance of light and dark and it ended on an positive note so you're kind of left with a lot of feel-good emotions for the rest of the day after reading it. Not a hugely impactful book but one that was just nice to read. And sometimes, isn't that just what you want? 

Cover: Love it! It's so bright and "shiny" and electric. The lettering of the title is so pretty and it's definitely eye-catching and cool. I've seen it multiple times at the bookstore and it's always popped amidst a dull sea of books with girls in goddess gowns on the cover, so yeah, I definitely like this cover. It's quirky and fun and kind of vintage-looking---just like Chloe herself. 

Overall Grade: B+

Paisley Hanover Acts Out by Cameron Tuttle

Goodreads Description: "Always one of the popular kids, sophomore Paisley Hanover gets a rude awakening when she’s booted out of yearbook and into the badlands of drama class. Out of her element but only momentarily out of ideas, Paisley takes action—and an unexpected liking to her drama buddies. The result? An undercover crusade that could bring down the popularity pecking order, and Paisley along with it.
This is the story of how Paisley Hanover gets wise, gets bold, and gets into a hilarious mess of trouble. With a package as fresh and clever as Paisley herself— including a cool slipcase, a fabulous novel, and Paisley’s notebook of embarrassingly funny ideas and doodles—it’s the start of a series that embraces the “Un” in UnUsual."
My Review: As much as I love action/adventure books, fantasy, and thriller/suspense novels...I do, and will always, have a soft spot for girly YA books, chick-lit, whatever you want to call them---especially those that are really funny as well. Some of them can be disastrous but some of them can be amazing (Audrey, Wait! comes to mind). And upon seeing the cover and summary of this book, I had a feeling it would be a winner. 
I was wrong. 
I disliked this book immensely. One of the biggest things I hated about this book was the weird "teen slang" Cameron Tuttle tried to interject into the book. The characters used words, phrases, and slang that were not only horrible dorky and awkward but I'm pretty sure don't even actually exist in the real world. No one actually says "OMG" out loud that often un-ironically. And that wasn't even the worst of it---she had all sorts of slang that was cringe-worthy and super fake sounding. I can get behind weird teen slang if the author hints to the fact that the slang is supposed to be kind of exclusive and weird (by showing that other kids don't use it), such as the slang from the Clique series (ah, remember the days of the Clique series? Good times, good times). OR I can totally get behind using teen slang in a book if it' know, real teenage slang. Authors need to keep up with the times. Teenagers aren't saying "Oh my gushers," and "fabulicious" or whatever weird things Paisley was slinging out. They're saying "hella" and "ratchet" and stuff. And teenagers definitely don't walk around calling popular kids "pops" (oh my god, that made me cringe every time I read it). Paisley's slang and the diction for the whole book was jarring because it was so odd and it was supposed to be normal which made it even more obnoxious. I don't think I've ever even meet a TWEEN who talks like that. This was one reason her blog posts made no sense to me (not to mention they were kind of judgmental and one-sided; in her crusade to "be real", she ended up generalizing and demonizing a whole section of the student body so...). 
So that was one huge issue I had. I could barely focus on the story when Paisley's way of talking and the language in general was so obnoxious. 
The plot was weird too. I definitely like quirky and outgoing female characters in YA but this plot was just...all over the place. First Paisley's joining drama, then she's running for student president, then she's focusing on two different guys, then she's a secret blog writer (and honestly, if her ideas are what is considered "radical" at her school, then these kids needs to go out into the real world because her rants kind of sounded like a frustrated 12-year-old on too much caffeine), then she's having major friend drama... It was like the author was trying to fit multiple main plots into one book (which might explain why the book was so big) and kept ping-ponging all over the place. Also, none of it even made sense. None of the characters behaved rationally. One day her friends are being evil jerks to her and doing terrible things, the next they're not even apologizing to her but asking favors of her---and Paisley's just going with it? And then there's this jock who's a huge jerk and tries to run against Paisley for student president...but he---SPOILER---gives up so randomly and easily? What
Paisley herself was very odd. It was almost like the author couldn't decide who she wanted her to be. She was popular and friendly---but then she made fun of a lot of people in her mind and was randomly judgmental and made the silliest decisions and had the weirdest ideas...
I don't know. This book was not my cup of tea. I found it somewhat ridiculous and nonsensical, and not really in the good way. I think it would have been better if the language, plot, and Paisley had all been toned down a bit because reading this book felt like playing with a manic hyperactive puppy for two hours. I walked away feeling a bit like, What did I even just read? Will not be reading the sequel. Sorry, Paisley Hanover, but this was just unFun. 
Cover: Even though her hat is kind of lame, it's bright and fun so I did like it at first. It definitely made me pick the book up. Now I wish I'd put the book back down. 
Overall Grade: D-

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga

Goodreads Description: "What if the world's worst serial killer...was your dad?

Jasper "Jazz" Dent is a likable teenager. A charmer, one might say.

But he's also the son of the world's most infamous serial killer, and for Dear Old Dad, Take Your Son to Work Day was year-round. Jazz has witnessed crime scenes the way cops wish they could—from the criminal's point of view.

And now bodies are piling up in Lobo's Nod.

In an effort to clear his name, Jazz joins the police in a hunt for a new serial killer. But Jazz has a secret—could he be more like his father than anyone knows?"

My Review: I wanted so badly to like this book...but I just couldn't. It wasn't horrible but it wasn't anything amazing for me. 

I like reading about killers, serial killers, and murder. I enjoy watching TV shows about killers, murder, and crimes. It's kind of a dark fascination of mine---one I'd say quite a lot of people share. I love reading books about killers and crime and when they're YA, it's even more interesting and unique. I adore the show Dexter (though let's pretend the finale never happened) and I love other crime/cop shows like Criminal Minds. So I really thought I'd like this book---it seemed like Jazz would be a mini-Dexter, likable and charming and funny...with a vicious, disturbing edge. 

But he wasn't. And that's my MAIN gripe with this book: the main character. Jazz is supposed to be good-looking, charming, funny, etc, while also struggling with inner demons and the rising urge to kill people. But that's not what Jazz was, in my opinion. He actually came off as sort of Gary Stu-ish. I know, I know---the son of a serial killer, wrestling with murderous urges, a GARY STU? But honestly, that's what he seemed like! First of all, in what world is it believable that the son of the country's most notorious serial killer would ever be this well-liked or trusted? I mean, has Barry Lyga actually seen what happens when someone is arrested for murder, serial killing, or other violent crimes? People usually condemn those closest to the criminal. I find it very hard to believe that the towns people were just mildly suspicious of Jazz but still treated him nicely. I find it even harder to believe that women would trust him, no matter how handsome he was. I'm sorry, but that doesn't seem like most women's natural reaction: to trust the son of the serial killer who was famous for hunting young women. People should have been shunning Jazz, spray painting his house when the murders started up again, throwing rocks through his window, high school jocks should have been trying to jump him... But no, everyone treats him relatively nicely and that's just not believable. 

Also, I didn't like how, just because Jazz's dad was a serial killer, he was somehow an authority on everything murder-, crime-, and crime scene-related and managed to almost always hunt down the clues before the police. That just reeks of Gary Stu-ness. It's not believable or realistic; there's really no way Jazz would understand all of the information he somehow knew in the book, even with a serial killer dad. And there's NO way a cop would ever allow Jazz to help with the investigation, especially considering Jazz was a minor as well. It's just...not realistic! At all! And it annoyed me because it seemed like Barry Lyga was trying to make Jazz this all-knowing, handsome, charming authority who was actually accepted by the police in the investigation AND the townspeople. In short, he was way too perfect and unrealistic. 

And then come his "murderous urges." Again...I just didn't find them believable. It was like he was telling us rather than showing us that he had dark urges. Like if his girlfriend was in the room, he'd be like, "I could kill her so quickly right now." Okay...that's not really convincing. And honestly, if Jazz is so smart, you'd think he'd have figured out that the fact that he is agonizing over his darker urges OBVIOUSLY means he's not evil like his dad. I mean, c'mon, it shows the guy has a clear conscience. Yeah, he was sort of empty and emotionless on the inside at times but there's a lot of people like that. It doesn't automatically mean you're going to become a serial killer...even if your dad was one. 

Anyway. The minor characters were actually a little more interesting. The chief, G. William, was actually quite interesting to read because we don't always get such developed adult characters in YA books. I tried very hard to like Connie, Jazz's girlfriend, and I was very glad that Barry Lyga chose to make her black because interracial relationships are not depicted very often in YA books---but then he chose to use some gross cliches, such as Connie having a Sassy Face stance. And there was this sentence about "You shall not touch thy black girlfriend's hair." And...really? Really? You have a black female character so you have to throw in these gross cliches? Not cool. I also couldn't really see her and Jazz's chemistry, I really couldn't. I had no idea why they liked each other. Connie seemed a little too "trying hard to be the cool, supportive, kick-butt girlfriend," to me and Jazz had these strange thoughts about him not wanting to murder Connie because she was a black girl and... Basically, the whole relationship was very weird. Billy Dent, however, was wildly interesting to read about and I wish he'd been featured in the book more because that was someone I could definitely get behind reading about.

As for the plot...I guess that was pretty interesting. I did wonder who the killer was and it did come as a surprise, so that's always good, when you're reading about a serial killer. But the mystery/murder aspect was just overshadowed by Jazz's unbelievable and unlikable character so I couldn't really enjoy this book or the mystery. Honestly, it really was like a YA spin on Dexter Morgan's tale...but Dexter still does it better. I'll stick to that charming-but-disturbing guy in the future. 

Cover: Not exactly pretty or elegant...but it's to-the-point and startlingly honest (haha) and it did make me immediately pick up the book in interest, so I think it did it's job pretty well.

Overall Grade: C-

Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy

Goodreads Description: "Nikki’s life is far from perfect, but at least she has Dee. Her friends tell her that Dee is no good, but Nikki can’t imagine herself without him. He’s hot, he’s dangerous, he has her initials tattooed over his heart, and she loves him more than anything. There’s nothing Nikki wouldn’t do for Dee. Absolutely nothing.

So when Dee pulls Nikki into a crime—a crime that ends in murder—Nikki tells herself that it’s all for true love. Nothing can break them apart. Not the police. Not the arrest that lands Nikki in jail. Not even the investigators who want her to testify against him.

But what if Dee had motives that Nikki knew nothing about? Nikki’s love for Dee is supposed to be unconditional…but even true love has a limit. And Nikki just might have reached hers."

My Review: I have so many mixed feelings about this book, it's hard to know where to start. I picked it up because of the cover---it's really cool in its simplicity. It's elegant and kind of thrilling. So I read the inside jacket and thought, Hmmm, this looks interesting, despite the fact that the book was pretty slim. wasn't really that interesting. I guess I'll preface by talking about the things I did like about this book: it was honest. It basically told the story of a weak-willed girl who fell in love with a gangbanger and dug herself into a hole she couldn't claw her way out of. It was hard to read through Nikki's POV because she was so...weak. So desperate for Dee (who was a regulation emotionally-manipulative and abusive jerk). So willing to lie for him, ruin good friendships for him, simply because she craved his love and she deluded herself into thinking he actually loved her and was good for her. It made me cringe because it goes against everything you're ever taught regarding female characters. But then I had to stomach my disgust for Nikki (and my obvious disgust for Dee) and appreciate Nikki a little bit because girls like her really DO exist. Girls fall into traps, they get sucked into relationships they can't get out of, they get trapped with unsafe people, they get psychologically and emotionally manipulated and groomed. The tell-tale signs of an abusive relationship. And as much as Nikki's weak will and wishy-washy-ness and willingness to make excuses for Dee grossed me out---I had to set aside my feelings to remember that girls like Nikki really do exist and really do need help. So in that sense, this book was good, because it told a simple and honest story: girl falls for wrong guy, guy manipulates girl, girl ruins life and friendships over guy because she's young and poor and doesn't have much of a bright future. 

The story also spoke subtle messages about what it means to be young and poor, how vulnerable you are to falling in with a bad crowd, so I thought that was very interesting. YA fiction dealing with issues about poverty isn't exactly common. 

I was also pleased to see a woman of color as one of the main characters (Bird, Nikki's closest thing to a friend and somewhat-sister/mother figure). We don't really see POC, and especially WOC, represented in books and I was really glad to see a WOC---a black woman---shown as someone who embodied all the stereotypes about black women ("Oh, they're all poor and live in apartments. The father of the baby doesn't stick around. They do hair and nails for a living.") and rose above those stereotypes to show that even if a WOC does fit all those stereotypes, why does it mean she's a bad person or someone to look down upon? Bird had more morals and common sense than anyone else in the story and that made me love her. 

I guess what I didn't like about the book was the same thing I had to force myself to appreciate: how unsatisfactory the conclusions were. The endings were very open-ended and somewhat random; they weren't exactly sad, nor were they happy, they were mixed and realistic and while I appreciate that, it makes for slightly boring, depressing reading. There wasn't much closure. In that sense, I suppose this book was ultimately a decent way to pass an hour or two. It talked about some tough, realistic subjects (though I think other books have done it better) but wasn't too deep or complex, so that may be a good thing for some people and a bad thing for others. It was a slight turn-off for me, I prefer more discussion in my books, but hey, it is what it is.

Cover: Simple, elegant, and it tells a story. I do love the cover, it's what made me pick up the book in the first place.

Overall Grade: C-