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-