Saturday, April 30, 2011

Review: If I Stay

Title: If I Stay
Author: Gayle Forman
Publisher: Speak
Release Date: April 6, 2010

The last normal moment that Mia, a talented cellist, can remember is being in the car with her family. Then she is standing outside her body beside their mangled Buick and her parents' corpses, watching herself and her little brother being tended by paramedics...

The happy opening scene of If I Stay - filled with pancakes and banter and a lovingly flawed family - is made even more poignant by the sense of foreboding that shadows it. It seems strange to say I liked this book; as with The Lovely Bones, I was affected and touched by the emotional story, but to say I liked it feels inadequate somehow.

Mia, “fragile and tough, quiet and kick-ass," narrates the book in a present-tense style that interweaves flashbacks with current-day scenes. Flashbacks are tricky creatures, prone to tedium; here, they not only expand readers' understanding of the characters, but also feel integral to the plot, such as it is. The complexities of Mia's family members - both blood-related and chosen - are explored with a compassion that inevitably evokes tears and, occasionally, laughter. Mia’s soft-spoken grandfather and her best friend Kim, who is as quietly tough as Mia, will break your heart. I guarantee it. And Adam. Mia's boyfriend should be a cliché - the good-looking, effortlessly cool rocker-musician who goes for the shy cellist - but their relationship feels earnest, mature, and sometimes challenging.

The side-themes of finding one’s identity and growing up, explored through Mia's parents, are as thought-provoking as the core story. Life and death, love and loss, rock and classical music - these dichotomies are touched on through Mia's flashbacks in a way that emphasizes the choice she must make between two un-choosable alternatives: to stay or go. If I Stay epitomizes the phrase “a life in the balance.” With raw emotion, Mia equally weighs both of her options before the scales are tipped in one direction.

The most profound books make readers consider their own lives, and Mia's journey can't help but incite questions about one's choices, both tiny and potentially life-changing. If I Stay is not a book to be read halfheartedly. It is a consuming and haunting story that warrants all the tears readers have no doubt shed over its pages.

Rating: 4.5/5

If you liked If I Stay, you may enjoy reading:

The Book Thief, The Lovely Bones

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review: Defiance

Title: Defiance (Strange Angels, Book 4)
Author: Lili St. Crow
Publisher: Razorbill
Release Date: April 19, 2011

Now that sixteen-year-old Dru's worst fears have come true and Sergej has kidnapped her best friend Graves, she'll have to go on a suicidal rescue mission to bring him back in one piece. That is, if she can put all of Christophe's training to good use, defeat her mother's traitor, Anna, once and for all, and manage to survive another day. . .
The aptly-named Defiance finds Dru taking control of her actions to a greater extent, though still dealing with the emotional fallout of past events. Her narrative is imbued with all the honesty, toughness and attitude that make Dru such a kickass character. I just wish she wasn’t so easily deceived. The twists in Defiance and this series as a whole – most notably Anna’s defection in the previous book – are pretty predictable given the traitorous characters’ personalities. Nathalie is a welcome addition to the cast; Dru’s somewhat bumbling attempts at female friendship are fun and thankfully lack any undertones of backstabbing, betrayal, or bitchery.

Lili St. Crow has a unique writing style that works more often than not. For example, the oft-repeated phrase “danger candy” grated on my senses, but the crisp, gritty diction also kept me consistently interested.

The love triangle is one of the most well-crafted I’ve read in ages: both Christophe and Graves are appealing (to Dru and the reader) in different ways. Christophe is more heavily featured in Defiance – it’s about time! – but it’s impossible to ignore the connection Dru feels with Graves despite his physical absence. If/when he does appear, Graves is at his best when he’s his nerdy, Goth-boy self, rather than an uber-dominant loup-garou. Christophe also seems more typical of the vampiric love interests popularized by the YA urban fantasy genre: hot, mysterious, old and tortured by the past. I appreciate that St. Crow has developed their respective relationships to the extent that the End Pairing – assuming there is one – isn’t a foregone conclusion in the second-to-last book, as is the case with so many love triangles.

And the ending of Defiance is made of win. Fight scenes, the return of monster-whopping Dru, and more “blooming” svetocha development. However, like its predecessors, Defiance feels more like an appetizer than a main course. A sharp, tangy-delicious appetizer, but why does the meal have to end just when it’s getting good? Okay, eye roll-worthy food metaphor over.

Overall, Defiance is a fast-paced read with a strong main character, endearing love triangle, and plenty of action. It suffers from predictable plot twists and a short length that just whets readers’ appetites, but I still eagerly await the sixth and final book, Reckoning, out in November!

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Review: City of Fallen Angels

Title: City of Fallen Angels
Author: Cassandra Clare
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry
Release Date: April 5, 2011

The Mortal War is over, and sixteen-year-old Clary Fray is back home in New York, excited about all the possibilities before her. She's training to become a Shadowhunter and to use her unique power. Her mother is getting married to the love of her life. Downworlders and Shadowhunters are at peace at last. And—most importantly of all—she can finally call Jace her boyfriend.

But nothing comes without a price. Someone is murdering Shadowhunters, provoking tensions between Downworlders and Shadowhunters that could lead to a second, bloody war. Clary's best friend, Simon, can't help her. His mother just found out that he's a vampire and now he's homeless. Everywhere he turns, someone wants him on their side—along with the power of the curse that's wrecking his life. And they're willing to do anything to get what they want. Not to mention that he's dating two beautiful, dangerous girls—neither of whom knows about the other one.

Unplanned sequels are always apprehension-inducing: What about the characters’ HEA? Will new conflicts break up favourite pairings? And, most importantly, will they live up to the originals? In the case of City of Fallen Angels, the answer to the last question is YES. Sort of.

Fluid descriptive passages and witty dialogue ensure that Fallen Angels is a clever, addictive read. Simon’s misunderstood pop-culture references make for some particularly amusing scenes. However, the middle of the book is slow, perhaps as a result of the main villain’s anonymity and physical absence. The plot is also patchy in places, but I like how this present-day series is beginning to connect with the Victorian-era Infernal Devices books. Cassandra Clare has a way of sneaking her characters, with their banter and distinct idiosyncrasies – Simon’s t-shirt catchphrases, Magnus’ glitter, Isabel’s weapon-jewellery – into readers’ hearts, so regardless of the book’s pacing, I was hooked.

Clary is a strong and resourceful protagonist in the first three books; by her own admission, she seems less driven in Fallen Angels, as her focus is mainly on her relationship. The result is some great passionate moments with Jace – yay! – but also a fair bit of pining while they’re apart. Still tormented by his inner demons, Jace also lacks some of his usual bravado, and his actions add some (perhaps unnecessary) angst to his relationship with Clary.

Isabelle is just as much a whip-wielding, dress-wearing badass, but she also reveals more layers of her personality. Simon is a true hero in this book. He undergoes more personal struggles than the entire cast combined, and still maintains his endearing nerdy-ness. Perhaps my single "issue" with Simon is that he’s so unerringly good that even in his most conflicted moments there’s no sense of uncertainty: he will always do what is right, even when he doesn’t. This makes him an admirable and sympathetic character, but not quite as interesting as one might hope.

That being said, City of Fallen Angels is a worthy sequel, not as fast-paced as the original trilogy, but just as compulsively readable and full of so-real-they-jump-off-the-page characters

Rating: 4/5