Friday, June 29, 2012

Masque of the Red Death

From Goodreads:
Everything is in ruins.

A devastating plague has decimated the population. And those who are left live in fear of catching it as the city crumbles to pieces around them.

So what does Araby Worth have to live for?

Nights in the Debauchery Club, beautiful dresses, glittery make-up . . . and tantalizing ways to forget it all.

But in the depths of the club—in the depths of her own despair—Araby will find more than oblivion. She will find Will, the terribly handsome proprietor of the club. And Elliott, the wickedly smart aristocrat. Neither boy is what he seems. Both have secrets. Everyone does.

And Araby may find something not just to live for, but to fight for—no matter what it costs her.

My rating: ***

Confession: I sort of love Poe. I don't know why, but his creepy and atmospheric writing fascinates me. He's so genuine too. He doesn't write fake horror; he writes from his heart (not a happy place). I think that's what makes it so scary. Anyway, so when I first heard about this YA book, a retelling of his short story "Masque of the Red Death" I knew I'd want to read it. You can read the short story online here. It's brilliant. So symbolic, so much tension.

The best part about this retelling? The setting. Bethany Griffin really captures the essence of Poe's terrifying world and fleshes it out with so much vivid detail. It's a fascinating world, part dystopian (thanks to the plague), part steampunk (with technologies that are way beyond the Victorian world), and part gothic romance. It's the little details that stand out too, the descriptions of velvet dresses, porcelain face masks (to protect against the plague), disease-infested bats, and man-eating crocodiles.

It's all a little weird and scary and definitely not my usual. But I really liked Araby. What a tormented character. Daughter of an important scientist, living with guilt for surviving her twin brother, she's searching for something to help her forget it all, but instead finds meaning and purpose. She shows incredible bravery.

This story has action, betrayal, romance (in the form of a love triangle - which I didn't hate too much), some sweet children, science, politics, rebellion, and little bit of classic Poe morbidity. Content-wise, I was worried about the Debauchery Club, but we don't actually see any debauchery (thank heavens). There are a couple instances of recreational drug use at the beginning, though. Aside from that this is surprisingly clean.

This book didn't actually get very far in the Masque of the Red Death story, so I believe there will definitely be a sequel. Maybe two. I'll be checking them out.

Recommended for fans of Poe (and maybe Tim Burton - don't you think they would have been friends? Maybe? Maybe not), and dystopian fiction.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Breath of Eyre

From Goodreads:
Emma Townsend has always believed in stories—the ones she reads voraciously, and the ones she creates in her head. Perhaps it’s because she feels like an outsider at her exclusive prep school, or because her stepmother doesn’t come close to filling the void left by her mother’s death. And her only romantic prospect—apart from a crush on her English teacher—is Gray Newman, a long-time friend who just adds to Emma’s confusion. But escape soon arrives in an old leather-bound copy of Jane Eyre…

Reading of Jane’s isolation sparks a deep sense of kinship. Then fate takes things a leap further when a lightning storm catapults Emma right into Jane’s body and her nineteenth-century world. As governess at Thornfield, Emma has a sense of belonging she’s never known—and an attraction to the brooding Mr. Rochester. Now, moving between her two realities and uncovering secrets in both, Emma must decide whether her destiny lies in the pages of Jane’s story, or in the unwritten chapters of her own...

My rating: ***

I went into this with pretty low expectations (because of reading several negative reviews) but I love Jane Eyre, so I really wanted to try it. I ended up liking it more than I thought I would! But I still had  a few issues with it. Let's start with the bad.

Content. Just going to say straight up for those of you who are sensitive (like I am) that there's drinking, swearing, and casual drug use by teenagers in this book, and while there's no sexual content there's plenty of innuendo. I don't like it when YA books treat these things like they're normal teenage behavior. I know tons of teens that don't drink, smoke, do drugs, or have sex. Just saying. Oh, and can I say that it always creeps me out when teen girls have crushes on their teachers and flirt with them? This is WRONG!!! There are so many horror stories out there these days that anytime YA lit portrays a student/teacher crush it makes me nauseous.

Aside from that, I thought some of the parts where Emma lives inside Jane's story were very unoriginal. Emma becomes Jane, forgets that she's Emma and all of a sudden a large chunk of this book is just a retelling of Jane Eyre. Same dialogue, same everything. Weird. It did get better towards the end, especially because Emma finally remembers who she is (the second time she enters the story) and changes it. That's when I started getting excited, and in fact, the whole story picked up at that point. The second half of this book is definitely better than the first.

Ready for the good? My inner English nerd loved this, especially because Emma dives into literature and writes a fantastic essay that I wish I had thought of when I was in college. Bertha Mason? So much potential there. There is also a little discussion of Frankenstein, one of my other faves. It all made me miss my literature classes. And I liked that in the second half of the book, there's a lot of symbolism in Emma's real life as well as loads of allusions to Jane's story. Loved that. I thought the posh boarding school setting was done well with some interesting side stories, particularly Emma's roommate Michelle. (Though speaking of Michelle, I thought the Haitian voodoo bit was a little hokey). The bad rich girl was a little too stock character-y for me, but she wasn't too distracting either.

Overall, I read this quickly and enjoyed it. I think fans of Jane Eyre will love some parts and dislike others - kind of like I did. It was a fun way to dive into one of my favorite novels and made me want to read Jane Eyre again - not that I haven't read it a million times.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom

From Goodreads:
Prince Liam. Prince Frederic. Prince Duncan. Prince Gustav. You've never heard of them, have you? These are the princes who saved Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel, respectively, and yet, thanks to those lousy bards who wrote the tales, you likely know them only as Prince Charming. But all of this is about to change. Rejected by their princesses and cast out of their castles, Liam, Frederic, Duncan, and Gustav stumble upon an evil plot that could endanger each of their kingdoms. Now it's up to them to triumph over their various shortcomings, take on trolls, bandits, dragons, witches, and other assorted terrors, and become the heroes no one ever thought they could be.

Debut author Christopher Healy takes us on a journey with four imperfect princes and their four improbable princesses, all of whom are trying to become perfect heroes--a fast-paced, funny, and fresh introduction to a world where everything, even our classic fairy tales, is not at all what it seems.

My rating: *****

5+, really. This is absolutely one of the funniest, the most clever, and the most enjoyable fairy tale retellings I have ever read. Ready for some gushing?

Let's talk about voice. Not only are all these characters easy to tell apart because of their unique voices, but the narrative voice is just delightful. There's a little bit of that narrator-talks-directly-to-the-reader thing going on that when done right (like in The Tale of Despereaux) is one of my favorite things to find in a children's or MG book. I wasn't one page into this before I knew it was going to be a hilarious read. I laughed out loud so many times and so loudly it was embarrassing. I've already started reading it to my 7 year-old daughter and 5 year-old son because they had to know what was so funny. Was some of the comedy a little silly and juvenile? Probably. But it's all good clean fun, the kind that there's not nearly enough of in the world. And guess what? There's grammar humor. Can I tell you how happy that made me? Ridiculously happy.

And the characters! The story is so well paced that I got to know each of the princes individually (and the princesses) and I knew them so well that I really felt it when they faced up to their flaws and insecurities and overcame them. And the group dynamics when the four princes are working together? Spectacular! It takes a few hilarious messed-up battles for them to get into their groove, but when it clicked it was awesome.

The story and its conflicts are perfect. There's an evil witch, but she's not a stock evil witch. There are dwarves and trolls and bandits, but none of them were what I expected from those kinds of characters. Particularly the bandit king. :D Just wait till you read it! The whole story was very well crafted and ingeniously executed.

Bottom line? This is a new all-time favorite. The kind of book I have to immediately buy so I can lend it out to all my friends. I've also heard the audiobook is spectacular (like best audiobook since Harry Potter). I plan on checking it out soon. Also, there's going to be a sequel! I can't wait. No official news on when it will be released, but since the book spine says "BOOK 1" on it, I'm hoping this will be a series. I can't wait for more from Christopher Healy.

HIGHLY recommended if you like clean, funny children's literature, fairytale retellings, physical and situational comedy, Disney's Tangled (did Prince Liam remind anyone else of Flynn Rider?), and The Princess Bride.

Monday, June 11, 2012

More Minis

Catch up time!  

Summary (highlight to read): One choice can transform you—or it can destroy you. But every choice has consequences, and as unrest surges in the factions all around her, Tris Prior must continue trying to save those she loves—and herself—while grappling with haunting questions of grief and forgiveness, identity and loyalty, politics and love.

Tris's initiation day should have been marked by celebration and victory with her chosen faction; instead, the day ended with unspeakable horrors. War now looms as conflict between the factions and their ideologies grows. And in times of war, sides must be chosen, secrets will emerge, and choices will become even more irrevocable—and even more powerful. Transformed by her own decisions but also by haunting grief and guilt, radical new discoveries, and shifting relationships, Tris must fully embrace her Divergence, even if she does not know what she may lose by doing so.

If you read Divergent (which I loved), then you'll know exactly what you're getting into with Insurgent. Lots of action, plot twists and turns, a dash of romance, an incredibly strong and brave heroine, and a terrifying dystopian setting. This series borders right on the edge of my violence tolerance in literature. It can be kind of graphic at times!

That said, Insurgent is very much a middle book. Despite all the action scenes, it still felt slow to me, almost like it was trying to stretch out its plot material so Veronica Roth can fill out her trilogy. At 525 pages I definitely thought it could have been shorter. But at the same time, because of its pace I still read it very quickly. So - I definitely liked it, but not quite love like the first book.

My rating: ****

Summary: Eight years after Graceling, Bitterblue is now queen of Monsea. But the influence of her father, a violent psychopath with mind-altering abilities, lives on. Her advisers, who have run things since Leck died, believe in a forward-thinking plan: Pardon all who committed terrible acts under Leck’s reign, and forget anything bad ever happened. But when Bitterblue begins sneaking outside the castle—disguised and alone—to walk the streets of her own city, she starts realizing that the kingdom has been under the thirty-five-year spell of a madman, and the only way to move forward is to revisit the past.

Two thieves, who only steal what has already been stolen, change her life forever. They hold a key to the truth of Leck’s reign. And one of them, with an extreme skill called a Grace that he hasn’t yet identified, holds a key to her heart.

I've been looking forward to Bitterblue for ages! Fire and Graceling were both amazing reads (though I liked Fire best - oh, and so you know you don't have to have read either to enjoy Bitterblue; they're companion novels, not strict sequels) and Kristin Cashore writes my favorite kind of fantasy - magical, deeply layered, and completely transporting. I ended up really loving Bitterblue. There was so much more mystery than I was expecting! Hidden passageways in the castle and codes and all sorts of complex secrets. Leck is dead, but his presence is everywhere in Bitterblue. The mental wreck he left behind is extensive and I loved watching Bitterblue fight it and come into her own as a leader. There are so many fascinating characters in this book and I have to admit... my favorite was the librarian (maybe my favorite literary librarian ever). His name is Death (pronounced "Deeth") and his grace is to read super fast and recall everything he's ever read. Ummm.... yes please? He was snarky and grumpy, but turned out to be a fabulous ally and friend to Bitterblue.

Anyway, a couple negative points I want to mention really quickly. The romance was less than satisfying (spoiler: They just part ways at the end? That's it???) and sometimes I feel like Kristin Cashore is trying too hard to inject her opinions on modern social issues into her books. In Graceling it was all about a woman's right to not marry and have any kind of relationship she wants with anyone, in Fire it was all about birth control and abortion, and here in Bitterblue there are several gay couples (who of course feel like they should be allowed to marry and have the same rights as others). In my opinion it just mars the whole fantasy world I'm trying to immerse myself in when I'm reading. Kristin Cashore can have whatever opinions she wants, but I wish she wouldn't try to hit her readers over the head with them. So, overall Bitterblue was great, but with a couple reservations.

My rating: ****



Becoming immortal wasn't supposed to be the easy part. Though Kate is about to be crowned Queen of the Underworld, she's as isolated as ever. And despite her growing love for Henry, ruler of the Underworld, he's becoming ever more distant and secretive. Then, in the midst of Kate's coronation, Henry is abducted by the only being powerful enough to kill him: the King of the Titans.

As the other gods prepare for a war that could end them all, it is up to Kate to save Henry from the depths of Tartarus. But in order to navigate the endless caverns of the Underworld, Kate must enlist the help of the one person who is the greatest threat to her future.

Henry's first wife, Persephone.

This is the sequel to The Goddess Test which I found less than satisfying. Why is it I feel like I always need to read sequels? I guess I was hoping (being the HUGE greek mythology fan that I am) that we'd get more mythology and coolness in this book than the first had and that perhaps Henry would stop being the most boring God of the Underworld I've ever encountered. Didn't happen. In fact, Henry was even more boring and practically made no appearances in this book until the end. And as for mythology. Well. I don't know what Ms. Carter was thinking, but when I realized this book centered around the tired old the-gods-must-unite-even-though-they-hate-each-other-against-their-only-enemy----KRONOS!!!! plot I was so disappointed. And you know, I've read lots of books that took overused plotlines and made them awesome, but it didn't happen here. It felt recycled and unoriginal. There were a couple good moments, but they came too late. And you know the worst part??? I feel compelled to read the third book when it comes out because this one ended on such a cliffhanger. Mean.

My rating: **


Summary: Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 13, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs... for now.

Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too; post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means), Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault.

Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind.

I knew from the summary that I was going to sob my way through this book. What I was not expecting was that I would also laugh my guts out. John Green. Good grief. I definitely need to read more of his books. I really didn't think I would like this - I generally don't do sad contemporary. But the fact is, we're all going to die (did anyone else just think of that kid in What About Bob? - "You are going to die. We're all going to die!") and this book was a reminder to me of how precious life is and how humor has helped me get through the little bits of tragedy in my own life.

Hazel and August are fantastic characters. Though let's be honest, and if you've read this you know what I mean - I've never met real life teenagers with that kind of vocabulary or that kind of in-depth understanding and interest in poetry and literature. I hardly had conversations like that in my senior-level English classes in college! Anyway, so they're kind of literary nerds (which I loved), but they were also very down-to earth and lovable.

Overall, there's no way to come out of reading this without feeling you've been through the emotional wringer - but in a good way. It reminds of that quote I keep seeing floating around pinterest: "A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” ― William Styron. It's a beautiful book - highly recommended.

My rating: ****
(More like 4 and 1/2, - knocked down a half star because, frankly, there is quite a bit of swearing. There's also some talk about sex and a little off-page activity in that area...)

Monday, June 4, 2012

Take a Bow by Elizabeth Eulberg

Emme, Sophie, Ethan, and Carter are seniors at a performing arts school, getting ready for their Senior Showcase recital, where the pressure is on to appeal to colleges, dance academies, and professionals in show business. For Sophie, a singer, it's been great to be friends with Emme, who composes songs for her, and to date Carter, soap opera heartthrob who gets plenty of press coverage. Emme and Ethan have been in a band together through all four years of school, but wonder if they could be more than just friends and bandmates. Carter has been acting since he was a baby, and isn't sure how to admit that he'd rather paint than perform. The Senior Showcase is going to make or break each of the four, in a funny, touching, spectacular finale that only Elizabeth Eulberg could perform.

My rating: ****
That's a pretty high four stars too. I really loved this book. Part of that has a lot to do with my background. I was seriously into music all throughout high school and college. I've been in bands, I play the guitar, piano, and flute, I've written songs, I've performed a ton. I've been really looking forward to reading Take a Bow, to see if it accurately portrayed the pressures of auditions, the self-consciousness of performing a song you've written, the joy of being onstage and in the spotlight, and all the backstage drama that goes with being in the performing arts.

Take a Bow delivers it all. It really captures that performance atmosphere. I especially loved Emme (even though in real life I'm a combo of Emme and Sophie - I write the songs but am not terrified of the spotlight). Emme is so sweet (she's almost too good of a person to be believable - I can't believe she put up with Sophie for so long without realizing she was being used) and I really enjoyed her dynamics with her bandmates. Jack and Ben cracked me up constantly and Ethan was the brooding genius type to a "T". The Sophie/Carter storylines were less interesting to me. There wasn't much of Carter and I pretty much hated Sophie (forget that I compared myself to her back there). She was a nice foil to Emme, though, and really shows exactly how your life will be if all you care about is fame and money. In fact, this whole book has a wonderful message about doing what you love and following your dreams. I think it'd be a great book for teenagers (especially performing teenagers) to read.

My only complaint? Sometimes the characters didn't sound real to me. I mentioned before that Emme almost seems too good. It's the same thing throughout the book. Sophie is almost too evil to be real. Jack and Ben are too goofy and don't have enough other character traits to turn them into well-rounded 'real' people. And then there's Ethan. Real people don't talk like Ethan. Even songwriter/poet types. Nobody is that eloquent when they express their feelings, especially when they're telling the girl they've always loved that they love her. Real people stumble and trip all over themselves when expressing something so personal, so repressed. They don't deliver several paragraph-long perfect speeches. I had the same problem with Prom and Prejudice and I thought it was Elizabeth Eulberg trying too hard to channel Jane Austen. Now I think it's just an Elizabeth Eulberg problem.

Anyway, it's a minor thing that got on my nerves a few times. I still really loved this.

Recommended for fans of music, performing, and contemporary romance. (I also think you'll like it if you like the High School Musical movies or Glee.)

Destined by Aprilynne Pike

Tamani looked at her gravely, and reached up to tuck her hair behind her ear.

He hesitated for an instant, then his hands found the sides of her face, pulling her to him. He didn't kiss her, just held her face close to his, their foreheads resting together, their noses almost touching.

She hated how much it felt like good-bye.

Laurel now knows the truth: Yuki is a rare Winter faerie, the most powerful—and deadly—of all, and Klea plans to use her to help conquer and destroy Avalon. But Klea's reach extends far beyond one wild Winter faerie. With Tamani, David, and Chelsea by her side, Laurel prepares to face what may be Avalon's final days, in the stunning conclusion to the Wings series.

My rating: ***

Finally! An end to Aprilynne's Wings series! I have sort of a love/hate thing going on with this series. I love the fantasy and all the fairy stuff. I love the whole world she's created. I'm not such a big fan of the execution. In general, the focus has been on romance (especially the love triangle), when I've wanted to see more of Laurel's powers and more magic. I've plodded through, hoping for that magic and also partially because I hate stringing along a love triangle. I have to see what happens.

This final book is my least favorite of the four. It takes place in a short period of time, just 24 hours and is so action-drive it's nauseating. The action scenes are constant, pausing for breath only just long enough for Laurel to make out with either David or Tamani for a little while. I'd say it's about 200 pages too long and that somehow there had to have been a way to combine the third and fourth books into one. Good news is, the book got a lot better by the time I was 3/4 of the way through. Laurel FINALLY uses her powers in a cool way. Pretty soon even that wretched triangle was resolved! (And in a way I highly approved of.) There were some pretty cool scenes involving a certain sword called Excalibur and mythology-wise, some beautiful, magical things happened. Finally. But not soon enough for me to rave about this series.

So, if you love fairies, you may enjoy the Wings series, but in general I'd say there are much better books to spend your time reading.

The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot

My rating: ***
This is one of those rare times when the movie is better than the book, I think. But maybe it's because I saw the movie (multiple times) first? I picked this up at a library book sale and I did enjoy it, but maybe not quite as much as I hoped I would. It's all written in first person (this is a diary after all), and I just couldn't quite get into Mia's voice. Didn't help that early on she states how much she despises Anne Shirley. Pretty sure anybody who doesn't like Anne will never be my bosom friend. :D This book was published in 2001, about a year after I graduated from high school, and is chock-full of pop culture references. I kind of enjoyed that part, actually. It was a little weird, like taking a time machine back to my high school years (which weren't that long ago, but long enough that there's a palpable culture difference).

Overall (like I mentioned above about Mia), the characters were not as lovable as they are in the movie. Especially Mia's grandma. I know you just pictured Julie Andrews, but in the book, Mia's grandma smokes, cusses, and has tattooed-on eye liner. Seriously. My favorite characters were the bodyguards, both Mia's and the bodyguard of an uber-rich friend at her school. They sit and discuss weapons and crowd control and assassination methods in the cafeteria together and are so hilarious, like little boys.

Timeline-wise, this book only goes about a third of the way through the movie too, which is a little strange. No wonder there are ten of these books! I'm not in a hurry to read the rest, but it was kind of fun, though not as good as I expected.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Serpent's Shadow by Rick Riordan

Summary (some spoilers so highlight to read):
He's b-a-a-ack! Despite their best efforts, Carter and Sade Kane can’t seem to keep Apophis, the chaos snake, down. Now Apophis is threatening to plunge the world into eternal darkness, and the Kanes are faced with the impossible task of having to destroy him once and for all. Unfortunately, the magicians of the House of Life are on the brink of civil war, the gods are divided, and the young initiates of Brooklyn House stand almost alone against the forces of chaos.

To find the answer they need, the Kanes must rely on the murderous ghost of a powerful magician who might be able to lead them to the serpent’s shadow... or might lead them to their deaths in the depths of the underworld...

My rating: *****
It was a very satisfying ending. Sure, it was a bit predictable with it's big final battle and several storylines played out how I thought the would (and should), but there were still a lot of surprises. Carter and Sadie really came into their leadership roles and their powers. I adore Sadie. She is so tough and hilarious! I was dying to find out how the whole Walt/Sadie/Anubis love triangle would play out and I have to admit - that was a solution that I've never seen before. (Spoiler: Turn Walt and Anubis into the same person! Definitely original, but I'm still not sure how I feel about it. Feels kinda creepy and weird to me. :D) Rick Riordan does it again, and even leaves it just a pinch open for when he wants to come back to this world for another series. He is turning into a bit of a book factory, but he keeps delivering on quality so I'm not going to complain. Even though I am starting to run out of room on my Rick Riodan shelf.

Highly recommended for fans of mythology and if you've enjoyed other books by Rick Riordan.