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book review

It’s been forever since I checked in with YA Highway’s Road Trip Wednesday. This week the topic is simple and perfect for what’s been on my mind:

What are you reading right now?

I’m still reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. At about halfway through, that’s slow reading for me.

I’ve been itching to talk about it, though, because I think Ms. Tartt has a secret. On top of being a best-selling, Pulitzer-winning literary powerhouse, she may secretly be a YA writer in disguise. Let’s start with the premise of The Goldfinch, according to Goodreads:

Buy it here

Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

I realize that in the course of the narrative, Theo will grow up, and I’ll learn how the trials of his youth shaped him and the circumstances he faces as an adult. But for the first half of this book, Tartt creates a raw, honest picture of a teenager’s life in America. Theo deals with tragedy and loss, guilt and confusion. My heart aches for him and for my real-life sons, who are edging too close for comfort to his age.

The “youth” portion of this novel may not form a complete story on it’s own, but even with plot elements aside, it would hold up as a coming of age tale. My question is, then, which defines a book as YA more, the age and circumstances of the main character, or the intention of the author to write for young people? If the answer is the former, then Ms. Tartt is definitely a YA writer in addition to her other talents.

Happy reading and happy Wednesday, everyone!

Music for today: Bad Blood by Bastille

Falling Flat

I recently read a popular book by an award winning author. It was terrible.

I’m choosing not to name the book, because I realize that my opinion is just that. But that experience, the one of having high expectations for a book and having them fall utterly and completely flat, has affected me as both a reader and a writer.

As a reader and book consumer, I feel gipped. The money and time I spent on this book could’ve gone to an awesome debut book, but this one grabbed my attention because of the hype. Sometimes a great concept just isn’t enough. I couldn’t relate to any of the characters, the relationships all felt forced and fake, and every problem was solved easily and unbelievably.

As a writer, I wondered if an author reaches a status of success in which editors hold back the red pens. If this had been the author’s debut novel, would it have been published at all? Or are my feelings just a matter of subjective taste, like so much of the industry seems to be? Goodreads ratings range from mostly four stars to a hand full with one star; the latter nearly all agreed with my assessment. But I’ve also found books that I loved with those outlier one star ratings, too.

As I move forward to the next stage with my work-in-progress, I’m trying to take that to heart. This industry is subjective because of widely varying tastes. If I find a few people who love this one, and are willing to take it on, great! And if not, I’ll just write better next time with the lessons I’ve learned.

Music for today: Out of the Black by Royal Blood

Book Review: Clifton Chase and the Arrow of Light

Today I’m reviewing Clifton Chase and the Arrow of Light by Jaimie Engle, an ebook ARC received through Library Thing. Clifton is already available in paperback through the usual channels, and will release in ebook format on September 1, 2013.
The summary, adapted from Goodreads:
A strange arrow transports young Clifton Chase to Medieval England in 1485. Thrust into adventure, he must evade the king’s army, rescue the two princes from their uncle, King Richard III, escape the fierce fires of a Crestback Dragon, outsmart the Mer King, and get the girl, all the while protecting the Arrow of Light. And when Clifton discovers the arrow’s purpose for choosing him, he must decide if he is willing to risk his life for the lives of others.
The review:
Clifton Chase is a middle grades adventure novel that combines historical fiction and fantasy with a religious twist. My favorite parts were the historical elements, from the descriptions of Medieval England to the political intrigue of the War of the Roses. Engle weaves the history into the story in a way that teaches without dumping facts on the reader, with just enough fantasy to keep things interesting. The pacing in the beginning was a little slow for me, and I would have liked a more concrete connection between the modern-day elements and the fantasy world, but this is still a solid middle grades read.
4 out of 5 stars.
Music for today: Heavy Feet by Local Natives. 

Book Review: The Pirate’s Wish

The Pirate’s Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke is the sequel to The Assassin’s Curse, reviewed here. In the interest of remaining spoiler free, I’ll keep my summary brief. Pirate Ananna and Assassin Naji are bound together by an impossible curse, which can only be broken by completing three impossible tasks. Less a sequel and more the second half of one story too long to be published in its entirety, The Pirate’s Wish follows Ananna and Naji on their journey to break the curse, amidst enemies attacking them on all sides. 

The review:

I loved the first book in this duology. I reviewed it, tweeted about it, and recommended it to dozens of reader friends. I’d been eager for the conclusion ever since I put down the ARC. Clarke builds an amazing relationship between Ananna and Naji, and the first half of this sequel didn’t disappoint. She sucked me right back in to their subtle affection and bickering while keeping true to the unique voice and style of her writing. 

But the nature of the story was to slowly reveal how these three impossible tasks were in fact possible, and this is where I had issues with the plotting and pacing. The fantasy genre gives a writer endless possibilities of imagining solutions to problems. But just because an event is plausible inside the rules of the fantasy realm, that doesn’t always make it acceptable or satisfying to me as a reader. I have a fine line between wow, that was unexpected but cool and whoa, things just got too crazy for me. Without giving anything away, The Pirate’s Wish crossed that line.

Even though the conclusion wasn’t quite what I’d hoped, I’ll always be a sucker for awesome characters and a steamy romance.

4 out of 5 stars.

Music for today: Love is Blindness by Jack White. 

Book Review: A Tale Dark & Grimm

I have Son 1 to thank again for today’s review. We went to the bookstore together, and this is the first time he’s chosen a book to read completely on his own. (Meaning not influenced by me, a teacher, or a friend.) The cover and the title attracted him, and it turned out to be a great read.

A Tale Dark & Grimm (A Tale Dark & Grimm, #1)

The summary, adapted from Goodreads:
Hansel and Gretel walk out of their own story and into eight other classic Grimm-inspired tales. On their journey through a forest brimming with menacing foes, the true story behind (and beyond) the bread crumbs, edible houses, and outwitted witches is revealed. Fairy tales have never been more irreverent or subversive as Hansel and Gretel learn to take charge of their destinies and become the clever architects of their own happily ever after.
The review:
In a book with many classic elements, my favorite in Grimm is the narrator. The narrator opens by warning the reader in a quirky, engaging voice, and he continues with a colorful commentary throughout. The warnings are warranted; like the original tales, these stories are violent. Again and again, Hansel and Gretel are let down in the worst ways by the adults in their lives. But my son and I both learned from the siblings’ journey to understand independence, sacrifice, and forgiveness. With a well-woven plot and a cast of characters more often grey than simply good or evil, A Tale Dark & Grimm is likely to become a classic on its own merits.
4 out of 5 stars.
Music for today: If So by Atlas Genius 

Book Review: Darth Paper Strikes Back

I while back, I read a YA reviewer’s blog who named Tom Angleberger’s The Strange Case of Origami Yoda as her favorite book of the year. This really struck me, since she’d read and reviewed most of my favorite YA titles. I was excited to finally read the series with Son #1, and we just finished the second book, Darth Paper Strikes Back. Son #1 is busy creating a new cereal to promote the book for a book report, and I couldn’t let him have all the fun.

The summary, adapted from Goodreads:   NOT SUCH A LONG TIME AGO, IN A MIDDLE SCHOOL NOT SO FAR, FAR AWAY…

Something amazing happened. A weird kid named Dwight made an origami finger puppet of Yoda that gave great advice. He could predict the date of a pop quiz, tell a guy if a girl likes him or not, and keep kids from embarrassing themselves in a dozen different ways. Most of the sixth graders were convinced he was using the Force.

But a year later, Dwight has been suspended and may be expelled, which means no more Origami Yoda. Even worse, Darth Paper, a puppet created by Dwight’s nemesis, Harvey, has taken Yoda’s place. He spews insults and evil and just may be responsible for getting Dwight kicked out in the first place. Now the kids of McQuarrie are building a case to save Dwight. This is their case file.

The review:

Something amazing DID happen. This book, even more than the first, managed to get Son #1 reading when he didn’t HAVE to read. He laughed out loud. (And so did I.) He read chapter after chapter for fun. (And so did I!). Angleberger has an easy, distinctive voice that keeps the pages turning. Perfect for the 8-12 age range, the series is both multi-media and interactive, with illustrations and origami instructions. Those things alone would have made me recommend Darth Paper, but this sequel has so much more.

The characters have unique quirks and believable motivations. The vignettes in the case file could have easily worked by themselves, but the plotting carefully developed one of those great “Ah-ha!” moments in the end in which everything comes together. And just like the reviewer who spurred me to give these books to my son, I really enjoyed Darth Paper as a reader and not just as a mom.

5 out of 5 stars.

Music for today: My Number by Foals



Book Review: Midnight City

Today I’m reviewing Midnight City by J. Baron Mitchell, another book I read courtesy of the Southern Book Bloggers ARC tours.

The Summary, adapted from Goodreads:

Earth has been conquered by an alien race known as the Assembly. Holt Hawkins is a bounty hunter, and his current target is Mira Toombs, an infamous treasure seeker with a price on her head. It’s not long before Holt bags his prey, but their instant connection isn’t something he bargained for. Neither is the Assembly ship that crash-lands near them shortly after. Venturing inside, Holt finds a young girl who remembers nothing except her name: Zoey.

As the three make their way to the cavernous metropolis of Midnight City, they encounter young freedom fighters, mutants, otherworldly artifacts, pirates, feuding alien armies, and the amazing powers that Zoey is beginning to exhibit. Powers that suggest she may be the key to stopping the Assembly once and for all.

The teaser for this book bills it as War of the Worlds meets Lord of the Flies. I’d take it a step further to say it has the world-building of War of the Worlds meets the theme of Lord of the Flies meets the tone and character development of Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Now I’m a big fan of Joss, so that likely went a long way in fueling my love for this book. (If you’re a fan, too, let me entice you by saying Holt is undeniably a teen version of Captain Mal.) But that’s not the only reason I loved it.

Mitchell has created a post-apocalyptic world so rich and diverse that you’ll forget you’re tired of dystopian. The characters are intensely likable and flawed, with a building attraction that fits the time and space perfectly. I also really appreciated the pacing, tension, and the style of writing, all of which I think would appeal to both reluctant, young male readers and anyone looking for a quirky but expansive story. (I don’t usually recommend my YA reads to my husband, but I’m going to buy this one just so he can read it. That’s how much I loved it.) The only negative? Waiting for part two in the series.

5 out of 5 stars.

Music for today: Well, of course, Midnight City by M83.

Book Review: Beta by Rachel Cohn

Happy December! First for a NaNoWriMo update, in case you were curious: I won! (Sort of.) I wrote eighteen chapters and a little over 50,000 words in the month of November on my YA magical realism manuscript codenamed Serenity. (A little Joss Whedon homage, which has nothing to do with the book at all, but it makes me smile to see that title in my file folder.) I can’t quite say that I’m finished, though. I’ve got about five chapters and about 15,000 words to go, with a goal of finishing before Christmas. Anyhoo…

Today I’m reviewing Beta by Rachel Cohn, which I read through an ARC tour by the Southern Book Bloggers.

The Summary, adapted from Goodreads:

Elysia is a Beta, an experimental model of a teenage clone, created in a laboratory and born as a sixteen-year-old girl. Elysia’s purpose is to serve the inhabitants of Demesne, an island paradise for the wealthiest people on earth. Beneath the island’s flawless exterior, an undercurrent of discontent exists among Demesne’s worker clones. Elysia knows she is soulless and cannot feel and should not care–so why are overpowering sensations clouding Elysia’s mind?

If anyone discovers that Elysia isn’t the unfeeling clone she must pretend to be, she will suffer a fate too terrible to imagine. When her one chance at happiness is ripped away, rage, terror, and desire threaten to overwhelm her. Elysia must find the will to survive before it’s too late. 

Cohn transports the reader to Demesne, a perfect world where clones are slaves and the humans are still not satisfied, even when they have everything. She even does an excellent job of incorporating the outside world and political complications through the supporting characters. Elysia’s voice rings true from the opening chapter, and my connection to her kept me turning the pages, even when I questioned some of the plot development.

In the interest of staying spoiler-free, I’ll just say that one of the major plot propellants shocked me, and not in a good way. This is definitely an upper-YA book, with sexual situations and a violent turn. I read a wide range in MG, YA, and adult fiction, and these kinds of situations don’t bother me when they’re an authentic development of the story. In Beta, though, I felt a disconnect when the tone shifted dramatically in the last quarter of the book. I respect Rachel Cohn immensely as a story-teller, but Beta just wasn’t my cup of tea.

3 out of 5 stars.

Music for today: Bring on the Night by The Police

RTW: Best Book of September

Today YA Highway asks, “What was the best book you read in September?”

This gives me the perfect opportunity to review The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke, which I read through a SBB ARC tour. The Assassin’s Curse debuts October 2, 2012.

The summary:
When teenage pirate Ananna refuses an arranged marriage, the intended groom’s family orders her assassination. Instead of killing the hired assassin Naji when she has the chance, Ananna saves his life, activating a curse that binds them together. Forced into partnership, Ananna and Naji must work together to break the impossible curse and evade enemies coming at them from all sides.
The review:
I really loved The Assassin’s Curse, enough to make it my best book of September. (And I read some great books this month — Throne of Glass, Starters, A Need So Beautiful, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, and Cinder.)
From the opening chapter Clarke displays a powerful voice, complete with slang and dialect that teeters on the line of “over-the-top” without ever crossing it. The intrigue of magical pirates and assassins hooked me, but the characters really captured my heart. Cursing, thieving, and headstrong, Ananna felt more real because of her faults. And Naji was perfect as the brooding, dangerous leading man with a mysterious past. If you like a slow-building romance with plenty of action, The Assassin’s Curse is the book for you.
5 out of 5 stars
Sometimes before I write a review, I visit Goodreads to help with the summary or to see what other readers have to say. The Assassin’s Curse has many great reviews there, with an average over 4 stars, but I came across one that was truly awful. The reviewer trashed the book, and while I know readers can have vastly different reactions to a book, this one really bothered me. The reviewer felt that the romantic element was completely thrown in at the end, and I couldn’t disagree more. Clarke does an excellent job of “showing” Ananna’s feelings for Naji without “telling.” As a writer, I couldn’t help but wonder if the reviewer missed the subtlety, or if she just didn’t connect with the characters like I did. Is it just me? Does it bother you when you read a terrible review of a book that you loved?
Music for today: Help I’m Alive by Metric 

Hello to all of my new followers! Thank you so much for joining in the Awkwardness. I am thrilled to have finally topped the 100 mark. Please stop back by on Monday, when I’ll start sign-ups for my first ever give-away to celebrate! The top prize will be a $25 Amazon gift card. I also have a signed copy of Starters by Lissa Price to give away, and my critique partner Kip Taylor’s book Finn Flanagan and the Fledglings.

If you’re here looking for my GUTGAA post, click here. For my general “about me” page, click here. And now for today’s post, my Southern Book Bloggers ARC tour review of Ten by Gretchen McNeil, scheduled to release on September 18th.

The summary, adapted from Goodreads:

It was supposed to be the weekend of their lives—an exclusive house party on Henry Island. Best friends Meg and Minnie each have their reasons for being there (which involve T.J., the school’s most eligible bachelor) and look forward to three glorious days of boys, booze and fun-filled luxury.

But what they expect is definitely not what they get.

Suddenly people are dying, and with a storm raging, the teens are cut off from the outside world. As the deaths become more violent and the teens turn on each other, can Meg find the killer before more people die? Or is the killer closer to her than she could ever imagine?

The review:

First, I think the cover for Ten is amazing. How could you walk by that cover and not pick it up? Once I dove in, I got exactly what I expected. I haven’t read much teen horror, but this book reminded me of a classic teen scream pic, like I Know What You Did Last Summer.

I accepted the set-up to get the players on the island and cut them off from the outside, and the premise for the mystery unfolded quickly. The supporting cast started dropping like flies just as fast. I enjoyed MC Meg as the quiet, loyal friend, and I cheered for her as she survived the killings and unraveled the clues. But I would have liked to see all of the side characters more thoroughly developed; after the first murder, the shock and emotional connection wore off.

The conclusion was not realistic, but it was still satisfying. If you’re looking for something with a Stephen King-for-teens quality, Ten is the book for you.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Music for today:

Time is Running Out by Muse