Sunday, May 29, 2011

Review: The Summer I turned Pretty

Title: The Summer I Turned Pretty
Author: Jenny Han
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Release Date: April 6, 2010
Belly measures her life in summers. Everything good, everything magical happens between the months of June and August. Winters are simply a time to count the weeks until the next summer, a place away from the beach house, away from Susannah, and most importantly, away from Jeremiah and Conrad. They are the boys that Belly has known since her very first summer -- they have been her brother figures, her crushes, and everything in between. But one summer, one wonderful and terrible summer, the more everything changes, the more it all ends up just the way it should have been all along.

The perfect hot-sun-cool-water-sand-between-your-toes beach read, The Summer I Turned Pretty features a romance- and character-driven story with some surprisingly emotional moments. I thought it would be a light, fluffy read - and it is, for the most part - but I was surprised at how quickly Jenny Han's quietly compelling writing drew me in.

Belly – whose nickname is ridiculous, even if there is a cute story attached to it – is an ‘every girl’ type of narrator. Her frustration at forever being the overlooked kid sister is juxtaposed with the uncertainty of growing out of that role. It's easy to relate to her feelings, though she sometimes seems a little selfish, a little too preoccupied with the boys in her lives. Nevertheless, Han perfectly captures the growing up stage between adolescence and adulthood, which as Belly discovers, isn't always 'pretty'.

The flashbacks to past summers are a bit jarring at first, but become more well-timed as the book progresses. The reader really gets a sense for how these characters’ relationships have been shaped by their time at Cousins Beach; Belly’s history and back-and-forth exchanges with Jeremiah and Conrad are very real-seeming, and the boys themselves are both likable in different ways. All the characters are nuanced and well-developed, teenagers and adults alike. Sibling, best friend, and mother-daughter relationships are also touched on in a way that adds to the depth of the main romantic plot(s).

Overall, The Summer I Turned Pretty is a simple but surprisingly poignant coming-of-age story best enjoyed against a backdrop of ocean water and sunny skies.

Rating: 3.5/5

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Review: The Iron Daughter

Title: The Iron Daughter (The Iron Fey, bk. 2)
Author: Julie Kagawa
Publisher: Harlequin
Release Date: July 27, 2010
Other Titles in Series: The Iron King (bk. 1), The Iron Queen (bk. 3)
Half Summer faery princess, half human, Meghan has never fit in anywhere. Deserted by the Winter prince she thought loved her, she is prisoner to the Winter faery queen. As war looms between Summer and Winter, Meghan knows that the real danger comes from the Iron fey—ironbound faeries that only she and her absent prince have seen. But no one believes her. Worse, Meghan's own fey powers have been cut off. She's stuck in Faery with only her wits for help. Trusting anyone would be foolish. Trusting a seeming traitor could be deadly. But even as she grows a backbone of iron, Meghan can't help but hear the whispers of longing in her all-too-human heart.

There’s a reason I only managed to finish The Iron Daughter almost a year after its release, despite having bought the book as soon as it appeared, pretty and purple and new, on the shelves of my local Indigo. I loved the first book for so many reasons: the pacing was perfect; the characters were lovable and distinct; even the setting was described with the perfect amount of scintillating detail.

So I began The Iron Daughter with little doubt that this would be a fun, engrossing book. And then, not a quarter into it, I found myself gritting my teeth at the main character’s inability to do anything but cry and think about throwing up in response to her circumstances and romantic woes. Really, Meghan? This was especially disappointing since I thought she was determined and brave in The Iron King, if at times insecure.

Nevertheless, I finally picked The Iron Daughter back up a few days ago. And it was great! The first few chapters are slow-going and a bit melodramatic, but once the book settles into the familiar pattern that made The Iron King so readable – non-stop adventuring blended with witty dialogue – it is everything I’d hoped it would be.

Julie Kagawa’s writing, characters, and ability to convey setting are all excellent. I had some issues with Meghan at first, but by the end of The Iron Daughter she’s assertive enough to once again be likable. (I do wish she would cry less though.) Every other character is portrayed with distinct speech patterns and little idiosyncrasies that make them seem so real. Their interactions are alternately hilarious and deep/dramatic, and they really stand out as memorable in a genre overflowing with angsty, gorgeous male love interests and over-the-top villains.

The Iron Daughter does suffer a bit from Second Book Syndrome. As the middle of a trilogy (the third book of which has already been released), the plot is limited in how much it can develop. However, Kagawa packs in enough fun new characters and creatures to keep this sequel feeling fresh. There's also plenty of romantic drama amid the adventuring, although much of it is in the form of pining and meaningful looks. And, of course, the Alice in Wonderland-esque faery world continues to be captivating and imaginative.

Though not quite as wow-worthy as the first book in the Iron fey series, The Iron Daughter features a similarly lovable combination of romance, magic, and funny characters.

Rating: 4/5

Cover Thoughts: Pretty and shiny. I like the icy colour scheme and all the curly vines.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Teaser Tuesday (2)

I skipped TT last week due to being in Europe (such a hardship!), but now I'm back on track. Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading (a wonderful blog that I have quietly stalked for some time). Bloggers share two random sentences from their current reads without including anything too spoilery.

My Tantalizing Teaser:

"Already the familiar sensation settled over her, the uneasiness she'd grown so accustomed to when a body was desperate to be laid to rest.

The dead didn't always want to be forgotten."

~ p.29, Desires of the Dead by Kimberly Derting

I just started Desires of the Dead - sequel to The Body Finder - and I'm liking the mystery/romance elements. Some of the characters are less-than-memorable, but the main couple is really sweet and endearing. (I still think this series' covers are random; are those supposed to be flower petals? Random colour 'echoes'? Pink bed sheets?)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Review: Matched by Ally Condie

Title: Matched
Author: Ally Condie
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Release Date: November 30, 2010

For Cassia, nothing is left to chance--not what she will eat, the job she will have, or the man she will marry. In Matched, the Society Officials have determined optimal outcomes for all aspects of daily life, thereby removing the "burden" of choice. When Cassia's best friend is identified as her ideal marriage Match it confirms her belief that Society knows best, until she plugs in her Match microchip and a different boy’s face flashes on the screen. This improbable mistake sets Cassia on a dangerous path to the unthinkable--rebelling against the predetermined life Society has in store for her. As author Ally Condie’s unique dystopian Society takes chilling measures to maintain the status quo, Matched reminds readers that freedom of choice is precious, and not without sacrifice.

Matched is written with a catchy, often pseudo-poetic style. The main character, Cassia, is soft-spoken, obedient, and polite, at least until an innocuous-seeming event causes her to question her society and eventually rebel against it in quiet, secret ways. I liked that Cassia grows throughout the book, becoming more than the smart but complacent teenager to whom readers are first introduced.

The pace is slow for the most part. Much of the book is dominated by Cassia’s internal struggles and the frustration she feels at having her every action predicted by Society Officials, which gets a bit trite at times. Nevertheless, although the main characters face little physical peril, a general sense of unease keeps the plot moving. And thankfully, toward the end of the book things finally start happening. The revelations in the last few chapters validate prior events and alleviated most of the plot concerns I’d had up to that point.

The political leaders in Matched monitor and dictate everything from love to diet to language. Even a person’s date of death is predetermined. As in 1984, the government in Matched restricts citizens’ ability to imagine any other way of life by limiting their creative potential. All but a select few pieces of poetry, music, and art have been destroyed, and writing or drawing by hand is an obsolete concept. Ally Condie conveys this convincingly, and I’m intrigued enough to anticipate seeing more of the Matched world in sequels. Also, I loved the mentions of Dylan Thomas. All the poetic references differentiate Matched from other dystopian novels and are integrated into the story with meaning and thoughtfulness.

Cassia’s budding connection with Ky creates a very sweet romance. Ky himself is probably the most compelling character in Matched, and his personality and past are revealed in emotional bits and pieces. Initially, I was ready to pass Xander off as the typical ‘best friend and underdog’ love interest whose sole purpose is to facilitate the requisite love triangle. I’m not completely convinced otherwise, but his actions in the book and his understated competition with Ky elevate his character above the level of a rote stereotype.

Although slow-building, Matched features romance and conflicted characters, and ultimately reaffirms the importance of intellectual, creative, and romantic freedom.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Review: Switched by Amanda Hocking

Title: Switched (Trylle Trilogy, Book 1)
Author: Amanda Hocking
Publisher: CreateSpace
Release Date: July 5, 2010

When Wendy Everly was six-years-old, her mother was convinced she was a monster and tried to kill her. It isn't until eleven years later that Wendy finds out her mother might've been telling the truth. With the help of Finn Holmes, Wendy finds herself in a world she never knew existed - and it's one she's not sure if she wants to be a part of.

A $0.99 e-book with an intriguing if not earth-shattering premise and many positive reviews, Switched seemed like the perfect traveling book while I was in Europe last week. It opens with promise: a prologue involving a murderous mother and her troubled but resilient daughter. Unfortunately, the main story quickly degenerates into cliché high school, paranormal boy-meets-girl scenes and the narration of an insipid heroine.

Wendy. Gah. Her sole objective in the book, apart from protecting her human family, appears to be getting Finn to admit and act on his love for her. She is, by her own admission, lacking in ambition and purpose, which could have been a relatable flaw, but instead resulted in a rather boring protagonist. And despite her apparent beauty, which is commented on by multiple characters, Wendy refuses to see that there is anything special about herself. Yawn. She even has some cool powers, but instead of developing them, she spends her time pining for too-perfect-to-be-real Finn and bemoaning her fate. And Finn, the dedicated, handsome, uber-talented love interest who pushes Wendy away for her own good, well…he’s okay, but simply too wonderful in every way to be a truly sympathetic character.

Certain moments of Wendy and Finn’s interactions are endearing, but these are few and far between. For the most part, I found their connection – near-instantaneous and rife with forced-seeming conflict – eye roll-inducing. There are hints of a love triangle but little uncertainty since Wendy appears to have definitive feelings for one boy. The dialogue is mostly well-done, but why, why, did different characters use the word ‘foxy’ to describe a hot guy? Is this some modern teen slang I’m unaware of? Anyway, not a big deal, but the descriptor struck me as a bit silly while I was reading.

On the other hand, I really liked some of the side characters, many of whom are quirky and cute. The paranormal aspects also highlighted a species I haven’t seen in any other urban fantasy book, and their societal norms were fairly well-developed and fun. I’m a sucker for books with elemental and psychic powers, so I enjoyed the magic-focused parts of the story.

Switched is riddled with editing mistakes (slightly understandable considering this is an indie-published book) that kept throwing me out of the story. ‘Lightening’ rather than ‘lightning’ (both yellow and fiery, yes, but one is a destructive bolt that shoots down from the sky and the other…isn’t) is one example that I found particularly annoying-amusing. The ending left me thinking, Really? That’s it? and I doubt I’ll be reading the sequel.

Switched is worth a read if, like me, you're going on vacation and need an inexpensive, easy-to-read paranormal e-book to divert your attention during long flights. Otherwise, I'd skip it.

Rating: 2/5

Friday, May 13, 2011

Review: Enclave

Title: Enclave
Author: Ann Aguirre
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Release Date: April 12, 2011

WELCOME TO THE APOCALYPSE. In Deuce's world, people earn the right to a name only if they survive their first fifteen years. By that point, each unnamed 'brat' has trained into one of three groups-Breeders, Builders, or Hunters, identifiable by the number of scars they bear on their arms. Deuce has wanted to be a Huntress for as long as she can remember. As a Huntress, her purpose is clear--to brave the dangerous tunnels outside the enclave and bring back meat to feed the group while evading ferocious monsters known as Freaks. She's worked toward this goal her whole life, and nothing's going to stop her, not even a beautiful, brooding Hunter named Fade. When the mysterious boy becomes her partner, Deuce's troubles are just beginning.

At first, the society described in Enclave seems very primitive, with the members of Deuce’s enclave subsisting on meat and mushrooms and using clubs as their weapon-of-choice. But as with any good dystopian novel, no society is as simple as it seems.

Trained as a Huntress, Deuce is a tough-gritty heroine with a conscience; she alternately laments her hesitance to subscribe to a “survival of the fittest” mentality and wishes that comforting others came more naturally to her. Her struggles between blind obedience to a flawed society and facing the uncertainty – and danger – of the unknown are never dull. Deuce’s partnership with Fade is carefully and compellingly developed. They’re two very strong characters – both mentally and physically – that complement each other well, and I can’t wait to see more of them in the sequel(s).

I love when books are unpredictable, when the introduction of a character or plot twist is not expected from the beginning. Enclave kept surprising me, especially once Deuce is exposed to the world outside her enclave. The side characters are also distinct in a flawed-but-likable way, and even those that are introduced in the latter half of the book ended up being some of my favourites.

Ann Aguirre (whose other books I will definitely be checking out) has crafted a fully-realized dystopian world that at times feels both vast and very self-enclosed. Many of the pockets of civilization – if you can call them that – that have survived the apocalypse are brutal, and the book quickly expands on Deuce’s small enclave setting. My single criticism concerns the mentions of an earlier civilization that readers will recognize, such as cans of Spam, which sometimes feel like a contrived way of reinforcing the post-apocalyptic setting. Still, I did appreciate that Aquirre doesn't just arbitrarily throw in objects from the past; the materials and food mentioned could realistically survive an apocalypse, as suggested by the author's blurb at the end of the book.

The zombie-like creatures – “Freaks” – that terrorize the tunnels near Deuce's home are suitably creepy, and their presence ensures some great action scenes. Hints pertaining to the geographical setting of the book are added at a perfect pace, revealing just enough information to pique readers’ interest. The ending leaves plenty of unanswered questions and potential for further plot and character development, but also concludes at a satisfying point.

Enclave is a terrifyingly good read full of tense fight scenes, smidgens of romance, and an unflinching heroine that must struggle to survive in a well-built world fraught with danger.

Rating: 4.5/5

Cover Thoughts: Although I don't mind Enclave's current, gender-neutral cover, I prefer the original version (shown here) from when the book was titled Razorland. Fade and Deuce look pretty awesome in their armor, plus I like that Deuce's scars are visible.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Review: Where She Went

Title: Where She Went
Author: Gayle Forman
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Release Date: April 5, 2011

It's been three years since the devastating accident ... three years since Mia walked out of Adam's life forever.

Now living on opposite coasts, Mia is Julliard's rising star and Adam is LA tabloid fodder, thanks to his new rock star status and celebrity girlfriend. When Adam gets stuck in New York by himself, chance brings the couple together again, for one last night. As they explore the city that has become Mia's home, Adam and Mia revisit the past and open their hearts to the future - and each other.

I was content with the ending of If I Stay; it was haunting and beautiful and far from a Happily Ever After, but I preferred it that way. Of course, this didn't stop me from frantically devouring the sequel as soon as I could get my hands on it! I was surprised - and pleased - to learn that Where She Went is written from Adam’s perspective. Still, I thought as I perused the first chapter, it’ll probably be an alternating narrative type deal. But nope. The story is told entirely from now-21-year-old Adam’s point-of-view, a change that fits perfectly with where the characters - Adam and Mia - are in their lives after the events of If I Stay. Similar to the format of the first book, occasional flashbacks are integrated into the main story, filling in the time-skip blanks and explaining the changes that Adam's previously steady nature has undergone.

Where She Went certainly held my attention and the characters are as well-drawn and fully realized as the first book. Mia and Adam’s feelings – their mutual hurt and love – come across as very genuine. Gayle Forman has a gift for getting into the point-of-view character's head and expressing their emotions in heart-wrenching detail. Her writing is as lyrically beautiful and bold as it was in If I Stay, but this time imbued with all of Adam's anxiety and self-deprecating bitterness. The musical influences, including Adam’s emotionally raw lyrics, are intrinsic to the story and really add depth to his character. One of my favourite aspects of Where She Went is that it examines the grief of a person who is not the most closely related to the deceased, showing the spore effect of death.

Despite being beautifully written, I feel as if Where She Went lacks some of the emotional impact of If I Stay. Perhaps this is partially a result of having read them nearly back-to-back, but Mia's story just seemed so immediate and the uncertainty of whether she would chose to stay or go haunted the story, while parts of the sequel felt somewhat predictable. The fact that Adam is a super-famous, tabloid-fodder rock star, Mia is well-known in the cellist world, and even her best friend Kim is taking photos for National Geographic also lends a sense of surrealism to the story; consequently, it loses some of the realism that, for example, made Mia’s middle-class family so endearing in the first book.

Nevertheless, Where She Went is a must-read for fans of the first book. Though not necessarily lighter than If I Stay, it is more romance-focused and cathartic in its examination of Adam's pent-up emotions and choices.

Rating: 4/5

Cover Thoughts: Although the glassy-blue background behind a pensive-looking Mia complements the cover of the first book, I would've liked to see Adam pictured, since Where She Went is told from his perspective. Some reference to music (an instrument or something) might've suited the story more too. And I could be wrong, but isn't Mia described as having dark hair and eyes? Both covers depict her having what seem like blue-ish eyes, but that's getting pretty nitpicky.