24.12.14

Announcement: Sarcasm and Lemons returns!

Announcement 



Hey, everyone!  So, I know I've been away a while.  School got rough and I really needed a break.  But I miss blogging and all of you and I have so many reviews to share with you!  

So, look out for 2015, because S&L will be back with bells on!

Except for the bells. 

Cheers, 
C.J. 

P.S.  If you've sent me an email, I will get to it as soon as I can.  I've been afraid to open my inbox... 


7.11.14

Judge a Book by Its Cover: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

judge a book
                by its cover

*

In this feature, C.J. asks her friends, coworkers, and random strangers a simple question: 

What do you think this book is about?  

But you can only look at the cover.  


*

today's book



the guesses 

It's about kids at summer camp who discover their (homo)sexuality. 


It looks like young adults celebrating a start to their futures . In spite of their pasts .


My first impression is that this book is about young adult friends, and one of them drowns and the remaining pretend like it didn't happen/learn how to go on with their lives, minus the drowned friend.


Story about fledgling teens (filled with teen angst) or young adults specifically in the emerging adulthood developmental period who are on a study abroad trip and are strangers first, but then "people stop being polite...and start being real...REAL WORLD"....and there is lots of incest and cheating among the real world friends.... 


A precocious group of cosmonauts tasked with exploring the far-reaches of the galaxy are unexpectedly space-wrecked on Europa (is capitalism to blame? Probably). As oxygen and other essentials start to dwindle our intrepid explorers begin to hallucinate that they are back on their home planet. Although this case of folie a deux was originally a comforting way to cope with impending doom, things take a troubling turn when crewmembers' DARK SECRETS and PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTURBANCES begin to pervert the shared fantasy. How twisted will the world of these young comrades get before they are swallowed by the unforgiving maw of space? A psychological/homoerotic thriller that provides endless insight into the human condition - 4 stars.


A family of pathological liars tries to confront their checkered past but run into difficulties when they find they cannot deny the existence of their own family. The story is told from the perspective of a variety of the family members, and each narrator is unreliable in different ways. A central concern in the book is the recollection of a horrific family vacation experience, and a repressed secret.


the truth 

E. Lockhart’s novel, We Were Liars, is clever, alluring, and wildly addictive. Each summer the wealthy, seemingly perfect, members of the Sinclair family gather on their private island. We Were Liars is the story of those annual reunions; in particular what happened during a summer that protagonist Cadence is unable to remember. Prejudice, greed, and shifting patriarchal favoritism among the three adult sisters contrasts with the camaraderie and worldview of the teenage cousins and their dear friend Gat. Lazy days of sticky lemonades on the roof and marathon Scrabble games give way to twisty suspense, true love, and good intentions gone horribly wrong. We Were Liars is a story that begs to be read in one sitting.






suggest the next book in the comments! 




28.10.14

Musing: Halloween week 2014!

happy halloween week!







brought to you by
c.j. 
and
google+ halloweenify 


9.10.14

Musing: I suck at being a blogger right now

musing 





My posts have been eaten by grad school.  

Things just got real.  

I have reviews in my head, they're just not making it to paper right now.  Sorry for the wait on contest winners too.  I will force myself to do those this weekend. 


Cheers
CJ 


8.10.14

Mini Review: Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer


review
                 book












title:  Belzhar

author:  Meg Wolitzer

pages: 608

format: Paperback

isbn/asin: 978-1481422345

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 3/5 [in the genre] or 6/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  People who enjoyed Anatomy of a Misfit by Andrea Porter, The Breakfast Club, or boarding schools.  

will i read this author again?:  Yes.  
will i continue the series?:  N/A 
My Ratings Explained

If life were fair, Jam Gallahue would still be at home in New Jersey with her sweet British boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield. She’d be watching old comedy sketches with him. She’d be kissing him in the library stacks.

She certainly wouldn’t be at The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school in rural Vermont, living with a weird roommate, and signed up for an exclusive, mysterious class called Special Topics in English.

But life isn’t fair, and Reeve Maxfield is dead.

Until a journal-writing assignment leads Jam to Belzhar, where the untainted past is restored, and Jam can feel Reeve’s arms around her once again. But there are hidden truths on Jam’s path to reclaim her loss.

From New York Times bestselling author Meg Wolitzer comes a breathtaking and surprising story about first love, deep sorrow, and the power of acceptance.






the basics
I found that I loved this book less than I had expected; then by the end, I appreciated it more than I had been.  It's a divisive book.  I loved the twist and found it absolutely believable in the context of mental health.  But I know that same twist will make it difficult for some readers to empathize with Jam.  In my mind, Jam was very relatable.  She's an extreme, but an extreme of something that we've all felt.  Really, I thought the plot was well paced and clever.  The characters and writing disappointed me.  The writing was simplistic and often overly straightforward or overly repetitive.  The side characters didn't have distinguishable voices and, for the most part, received very little substantive attention.  It was like The Breakfast Club without the deep connections I felt to those characters.  In Belzhar, I felt like Jam was real and the others were sort of types.  So for most of the book, I found my interest flagging.  Then the twist happened, and I appreciated everything so much more.  But it's unfortunate that the specialness of the book hinges on the twist, because it was relatively average until then.  Still, if you enjoy boarding school reads, it's a quick and enjoyable book.  



23.9.14

ARC Review: Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld


review
                 book












title:  Afterworlds

author:  Scott Westerfeld

pages: 608

format: Paperback

isbn/asin: 978-1481422345

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 4/5 [in the genre] or 7/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  People who love experimental literature.  Fans of John Green and Rainbow Rowell.  

will i read this author again?:  Yes.  Duh.  
will i continue the series?:  N/A 
My Ratings Explained

Darcy Patel has put college and everything else on hold to publish her teen novel, Afterworlds. Arriving in New York with no apartment or friends she wonders whether she's made the right decision until she falls in with a crowd of other seasoned and fledgling writers who take her under their wings…

Told in alternating chapters is Darcy's novel, a suspenseful thriller about Lizzie, a teen who slips into the 'Afterworld' to survive a terrorist attack. But the Afterworld is a place between the living and the dead and as Lizzie drifts between our world and that of the Afterworld, she discovers that many unsolved - and terrifying - stories need to be reconciled. And when a new threat resurfaces, Lizzie learns her special gifts may not be enough to protect those she loves and cares about most.






the basics
I never thought I'd be writing a review on what is essentially a postmodern, metafictional young adult book.  I'm going to let that sink in.  Seriously, the English Major in me had chills the whole time.  Afterworlds is a stark deviation from Westerfeld's previous sci-fi epics, but in content, not quality.  The hefty book contains two full stories: that of Darcy Patel, lucky writer debutante, and that of Lizzie, Darcy's main character.  A book within a book.  Take your time sifting through all the meta; it blew my mind in ever more powerful ways as I began to recognize all the layers of reference as well as Westerfeld's subtle (loving) satire of both his own work and his industry.  As a wannabe writer, Darcy's story titillated and terrified me.  What differed here is that I wasn't enthralled in Darcy's novel (also Afterworlds) in the same way that I would if it were a standalone.  I don't even know if I'd have picked up Darcy's novel.  But set within Darcy's world, it became something larger and more meaningful than its parts alone.  While I don't think Afterworlds will ever replace Uglies in my heart, and there were certainly missteps, I admire Westerfeld for taking a literary risk and nailing it.  This has proved a divisive book already in the review world; I'm firmly team Afterworlds.  Will it prove as fascinating for non-writers?  I don't know, but I hope avid readers will appreciate its merits. 



plot . 4/5
I'm not even sure how to construct this.  I'll start with Darcy.  We begin as she's jet setting to New York.  She's received her offer and advance; she's deferring college so she can immerse herself in the writing world, revise Afterworlds, and make a start on Untitled Patel.  Her story is full of awkward meetings, neophyte missteps, and budding romance.  Some call it instalove; I think Darcy and her romantic interest spend quite a lot of time fumbling through friendship before they couple up, and their subsequent flings and fights feel authentic.  Throughout, Darcy is navigating accelerated adulthood in the clumsiest way.  She's burning money, forgetting deadlines, procrastinating, and eating too much ramen.  I can imagine myself into her shoes as an 18-year-old suddenly given power and prestige--and her sometimes poignant, sometimes hysterical bumbling makes for an entertaining read.  

Then there's Lizzie.  We meet her in the midst of a terrorist attack in the airport, when she's sucked out of her body into one of many Afterworlds, thin spaces between life and death.  Lizzie learns from the sexy Indian death spirit Yamaraj that she too is a psychopomp, a herder of spirits who can walk both worlds.  Back home, she's suddenly besties with her mother's murdered childhood friend, now a skittish eleven-year-old ghost called Mindy.  She's drawn into an insta-romance (but I'd contend, not love) with her dashing savior.  She becomes drawn into Mindy's murder and bent on revenge--with help from some unsavory characters that unwittingly leads to some underworldly drama.  It's an exciting plot, but probably not one I'd love if it weren't fenced by Darcy's narrative.  Which, to me, is exactly the point.  Afterworlds (the fictional fiction) has all the missteps of a debut novel and so it makes sense.  It also serves to bolster Darcy's narrative--which we'll get to.  What I can is that I loved the interplay between the narratives, but my lack of fervor for Lizzie's narrative was the main reason I didn't give this book a five.           

concept . 5/5
I'm such a fan of metafiction.  I learned to love it in short story classes in college and of course through my hero, Kurt Vonnegut, who often inserted himself, as a character, into his novels.  Westerfeld takes it to its logical conclusion: a story in a story, with each commenting on the other.  I was a little put off by the dual story narrative at first.  Why do I need this, I thought.  Why am I reading two parallel stories that seem to have nothing to do with each other, except that one was written by the character in the other?  I think I was expecting a fantasy tale in which writer met character.  As I read on, my mind was completely reversed.  Having Darcy's story paired with her story was a fabulous way for Westerfeld to comment on the process of writing, to peer into Darcy's mind in a different way, to show concretely how art mirrors life.  I'll talk more in a second, but Westerfeld nailed the concept with several metalevels.  There was the real Afterworlds, the book in my hands about Darcy.  Inside was fictional Afterworlds.  Then of course, every time Darcy or another character discussed fake-Afterworlds, they were really talking about Westerfeld-as-writer, the overarching meta-writer.  Interested yet?  

These multiple levels allowed Westerfeld to comment baldly and with gentle satire of the process of writing and being a writer, the publishing industry, and the way art and life interact.  His characters laughed about the clicheness of paranormal romance (Darcy's novel was a paranormal).  They talked about publishing contracts and the process of writing.  Darcy's friend Imogen bemoaned the slow success of her debut, a paranormal with an "edgy" lesbian character--neatly mirroring Imogen as, voila, a lesbian character.  Darcy pulled the hook of Lizzie's mom's murdered best friend from her own mom's murdered best friend.  There were fears of cultural appropriation--Darcy's, and also on a meta-level, Westerfeld's in writing an Indian MC.  Some have called Westerfeld narcissistic for slyly praising his own work every time a character praises Darcy's work, but I read it as absolutely tongue-in-cheek and self aware.  He knows what game he's playing and he's asking the reader to play along.  

characters . 4/5
As with the plot, I liked the characters in Darcy's world more than in Lizzie's.  Darcy is a creative, well-meaning emergent adult with flexible boundaries, stars in her eyes, and poor decision making.  She wastes money.  She shirks deadlines.  She's overcome by insecurity and the sudden need to grow up unexpectedly fast.  She messes up.  A lot.  And I loved her for it, because she feels so authentically like a teenager thrust into a dream and suddenly faced with the reality part.  I will say, her cultural heritage is interesting.  She's Indian but isn't very steeped in her culture.  However, I don't find it as problematic as other readers did.  1. She acts like a lot of my own Indian friends who are laxly religious and basically only celebrate Indian holidays.  While this is not an excuse for character whitening, it felt realistic to me.  2.  Cultural appropriation is a huge topic in the narrative itself.  I'm fairly sure that Westerfeld was aware of his choices and using this as another level of commentary.  

Her sister, Nisha, was my favorite.  She's a mathematical hard-talking high schooler who calls her sister "Patel," charges Darcy for saying "my agent," and sets strict budgets for her sister's advance.  She's funny, precocious, and delightful.  Darcy's high school friends were underutilized, but Imogen was not.  She becomes a force in Darcy's story and her own personality shines through.  She's insecurity mingled with confidence; she's private and a little broken and trying to remake herself.  I bought it.  Mixed in are delightful minor characters like the snarky Standerson (I'd love to know his inspiration) and Darcy's sweet and slightly clueless mother.  

Lizzie's world was just, less.  Lizzie herself feels a little thin.  Yama is a typical brooding fantasy love interest.  Jamie is, as Darcy's editor puts it, "lives with father, has car."  Mindy was one of the best, a mix of bubbly childishness and too-dark fears.  Mr. H (why can't I remember his name!?) was deliciously creepy.  But all in all, they were flat.  And I was okay with that.  Because they were Darcy's creations, amateur author creations, and they read like every amateur paranormal character (*cough* still better than Bella *cough*) in a newfound bestseller.  It worked.     

style . 4/5
Westerfeld's style was different from his sci-fi, less sharp and magical but good in a different way.  It was insanely witty--and if you tell me too witty for an eighteen-year-old, I'll remind you to give eighteen-year-olds more credit.  The dialogue is absolutely spot on.  I could feel myself in those conversations.  I've had some of those conversations.  It was funny, clever, and pretty darn tight.  It was also third person for Darcy and first for Lizzy, which brings us to the contrast between Westerfeld's writing and "Darcy's" writing.  He manages to make Darcy's novel read like it was written by a different person.  It still has its flavor, but it has Darcy's too.  It's not quite as tight.  It plays to paranormal conventions.  It's also full of breath-holding descriptions and clever turns of phrase.  It manages to be good without being overly sophisticated--I mean, it was written by an eighteen-year-old.  Sort of.  

mechanics . 5/5
So how did this double narrative work, you ask?  In alternating chapters, we were given Darcy's story and Darcy's novel.  The two pieces played off of each other splendidly.  Darcy's real life (haha) bled into her fiction in sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious ways, changing as she changed.  Conversations that she had earlier in the book leaked into her writing; I always smiled when I caught a reference.  And her novel always felt artificial--in a good way.  I wasn't invested in Afterworlds (the fictional one) as its own story so much as I was invested in it as Darcy's story.  While she struggled to write a good ending, I read on, realizing that at this point in time (fictional time) there was no ending.  The story could go any way Darcy decided, in the theoretical timeline of the narrative  It's a concept that worked on so many meta-levels that it hurt my brain, and really made me think--which I love in a book.  There were also cheeky extra-meta hints tying false Afterworlds (at both levels) to the real world.  Darcy's Afterworlds was set to debut on September 23rd.  Sound familiar?  



take home message
A mindboggling metafictional tale, both a book and a book-within-book.  Darcy's story and her novel are both interesting on their own; together, they create a funny, cutting commentary on writing, reading, and the process of creation.  




Note: I received this copy in exchange for a review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.



22.9.14

ARC Review: Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper


review
                 book












title:  Salt & Storm

author:  Kendall Kulper

pages: 416

format: Paperback

isbn/asin: B00HQ2N0VG

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 3/5 [in the genre] or 5/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  People who love The Witch of Blackbird Pond or other historical books with a hint of romance.  

will i read this author again?:  Maybe. 
will i continue the series?:  N/A 
My Ratings Explained

A sweeping historical romance about a witch who foresees her own murder--and the one boy who can help change her future.

Sixteen-year-old Avery Roe wants only to take her rightful place as the witch of Prince Island, making the charms that keep the island's whalers safe at sea, but her mother has forced her into a magic-free world of proper manners and respectability. When Avery dreams she's to be murdered, she knows time is running out to unlock her magic and save herself.

Avery finds an unexpected ally in a tattooed harpoon boy named Tane--a sailor with magic of his own, who moves Avery in ways she never expected. Becoming a witch might stop her murder and save her island from ruin, but Avery discovers her magic requires a sacrifice she never prepared for.






the basics
The premise of Salt & Storm sounded a little too romantic for my taste, but I'm glad I gave it a chance.  This book shines with a unique magic system, spirited main character, and obviously well-researched historical background.  Meet Avery.  She's longed all her life to become a witch, one of many in her lineage, but the return of her wayward mother means imprisonment: no witchcraft, no contact with her grandmother.  A "normal" life.  The premise sets up a mystery--why does Avery's mother fear witchcraft so much?--that sets an unexpected tragedy in motion.  With a few hitches, the plot is exciting and twists in unusual ways.  Avery is feisty and endearing, but the same recklessness that sparks her adventure also precipitates true heartache.  Her relationship with Tane becomes a bit too strong, but avoids insta-love nicely.  Finally, the ending is a shocking deviation from cliche that amped up this book in my regard.  While I don't expect it to stick with me forever, Salt & Storm was an enjoyable read that will appeal to fans of romantic fantasy looking for something fresh.  



plot . 4/5
At it's essential level, the plot has all the makings of an exciting, twisty story.  The Roe witches have been essential to the survival of Prince Island, a whaling town, for centuries.  Now the whaling industry is flagging, the current Roe witch is withering, and the future Roe witch is trapped by her magic-hating mother.  This catastrophe becomes a true race against the clock when Avery, gifted with prophetic dreams, foretells her own murder.  Her only hope for salvation is the legend that a Roe witch cannot be killed--so to save herself, she must become the Roe witch.  But to do that, she must break her mother's spell trapping her in a life of petticoats and petit fours.  Enter Tane, a boy bent on avenging his murdered people, who possesses a magic that just might be able to rival Avery's curse.  

That already pulled me into the story.  Then the complications begin.  There's first love, there's death, and there's the brewing unrest between the people of Prince Island and the witches that culminates in a startling conclusion.  Shot through the good, exciting parts were what felt to me like cop outs.  Why didn't Avery's mother or grandmother just tell her what it took to become a witch?  Why did Avery's encounter with her grandmother go that way?  Why didn't her grandmother bind her as a child?  These all seem thin reasons to achieve the plot Kulper wanted.  It's not the most tightly crafted tale, but ignoring these weak points, it's an enjoyable read.    

concept . 4/5
I love the whole idea of this book.  A line of witches tied to an island, using their magic for the good of the people.  An unknown curse.  Magic built from pain, rope, seawater, and wind.  It's a very old school nature kind of magic that fits in well with the old American setting.  It's the kind of magic you'd expect to see done by Cherokee shaman or Irish druids.  Then there's Tane's magic, South Pacific island magic accomplished with arcane tattooed symbols.  It's believable while still being fantastical.  I also loved the setting in whaling culture.  Kulper obviously did her research.  Her description of the whaling town and whaling life feels utterly authentic.  I only wish that she'd given Avery less modern sensitivities about whaling.  Avery wishes that her magic wouldn't go towards killing animals, but she also recognizes that whaling is the sole livelihood of her islanders.  I just want characters to feel consistent with their times.  

characters . 3/5
Avery is pretty endearing from the start.  She's reckless and a little snotty, but it's obvious she's hurting.  She's been taken away from her grandmother and her birthright to live with her mother and be forced into a genteel life she never wanted.  She has a temper, but shows compassion too.  Tane seemed thinner.  I enjoyed him enough to enjoy the story, but I wanted more from him.  He's kind, tortured, and determined; so much of his characterization hinged on his wish to avenge his family.  Only he felt a little underdone.  Like a cutout of a sweet, loving person instead of a person.  Similarly, Avery's grandmother and mother are relatively enigmatic until later on.  However, I'll grant Kulper that, since we know them only as Avery sees them and so they're types to us until Avery learns their twists and turns.  The rest of the cast served its purpose but wasn't really notable.  I wanted a little more of the townspeople, since they were so important to Avery's decisions.        

style . 3/5
Kulper has an easy, pretty style that translates well to a historical fantasy.  Her prose has a pretty quality to it.  I didn't gush over it, but I found myself suitably drawn in by her language.  What lacked was a clear sense of historical-ness.  I would have liked to see more period-specific language and conventions.  Kulper's style was tight and poetic in the right places, quick in the right places, but it didn't feel firmly fixed into its time period.  

mechanics . 3/5
Overall, the pacing of the book wanes and waxes.  I didn't find myself enthralled right away.  The first part is a little languid and doesn't swoop into the main plot for a bit of time.  I also had issues with the pacing of the romance.  The initial slow burn is actually well done.  Avery and Tane begin as business partners and fall for each other by inches, quite believably.  Yet, they're soon "in love" and talking about marriage and forever and making broad, melodramatic declarations that garnered a few eye rolls.  



take home message
A pretty period fantasy with a feisty main character, beautiful system of magic, and twisty, unexpected plot.  




Note: I received this copy in exchange for a review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.



17.9.14

ARC Review: Sway by Kat Spears


review
                 book












title:  Sway

author:  Kat Spears

pages: 320

format: Paperback

isbn/asin: 978-1250051431

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 3.5/5 [in the genre] or 6/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  People who love 10 Things I Hate About You and really hard-to-like MCs.  The most hopeless of romantics.  

will i read this author again?:  Yes.  
will i continue the series?:  N/A 
My Ratings Explained

In Kat Spears’s hilarious and often poignant debut, high school senior Jesse Alderman, or "Sway," as he’s known, could sell hell to a bishop. He also specializes in getting things people want---term papers, a date with the prom queen, fake IDs. He has few close friends and he never EVER lets emotions get in the way. For Jesse, life is simply a series of business transactions.

But when Ken Foster, captain of the football team, leading candidate for homecoming king, and all-around jerk, hires Jesse to help him win the heart of the angelic Bridget Smalley, Jesse finds himself feeling all sorts of things. While following Bridget and learning the intimate details of her life, he falls helplessly in love for the very first time. He also finds himself in an accidental friendship with Bridget’s belligerent and self-pitying younger brother who has cerebral palsy. Suddenly, Jesse is visiting old folks at a nursing home in order to run into Bridget, and offering his time to help the less fortunate, all the while developing a bond with this young man who idolizes him. Could the tin man really have a heart after all?

A Cyrano de Bergerac story with a modern twist, Sway is told from Jesse’s point of view with unapologetic truth and biting humor, his observations about the world around him untempered by empathy or compassion---until Bridget’s presence in his life forces him to confront his quiet devastation over a life-changing event a year earlier and maybe, just maybe, feel something again.






the basics
Sway is a wickedly funny, irreverent story of the boy with no heart and the girl who's all heart.  This is not your typical meet-cute romantic comedy.  Try: Boy purposefully bumps into girl in order to vet her interests.  Boy aids other boy in seducing girl.  Boy accidentally feels feelings.  Despite the synopsis, most of the book does not focus on the romance, but rather Jesse "Sway" 's transformation from callous high school mafia lord to less callous high school mafia lord who feels compelled to help disabled children and make nice, overweight, overlooked girls into prom queens.  Another reviewer likened Jesse to John Cusack's "asshole" characters; the comparison explains so much why I loved Jesse's story.  Some readers will balk at his bluntness bordering cruelty.  I enjoyed it.  He's anti-hero extraordinaire, and while he's not an angel by the end, it's clear that he's grown past his personal tragedy into someone worth loving.  While somewhat predictable, certainly a candy book, Sway is a thoroughly enjoyable read.  



plot . 4/5
Liking this book requires the acceptance of a certain conceit: that is, that a high school boy has power and status at slightly unbelievable levels.  It's a little ridiculous.  Jesse deals drugs, hobnobs with club owners who let him drink underage, and even has the principal blackmailed and compliant.  It's a little unbelievable.  But accept the concept, and you're left with an exciting plot.  Spears actually starts you midway through, when Jesse's concern for Bridget smacks him in the face--almost literally--then backtracks to the beginning.  Ken's request is simple: figure out how to get Bridget to date me.  Jesse embarks on a fact-finding mission that's more than he expected.  In pursuit of Bridget, he strikes up a deal with Hiram, a nursing home resident with a dirty mind and suitable cynical outlook.  He befriends disabled children.  He also accidentally becomes the best friend and hero of Pete, Bridget's brother with cerebral palsy.  

Seducing Bridget for Ken actually comes quickly.  It's Jesse's transformation that packs a punch.  Bridget's sheer goodness touches a hidden chord in him, a selflessness that he can't deny no matter how he pretends.  Sway follows Jesse's escapades with Pete and Hiram, his transformation from drug dealer to savior of the trapped, and his poignant confrontation with the tragedy that left him broken.  The ending is a touch too happy, given Jesse's sordid past, but the hopeless romantic in me went a little giddy over it.  And you certainly don't need to believe in everlasting romance to believe that at the end, Jesse is not the same Sway from page 1.  

concept . 4/5
I love modern retellings that are more than just reiterations of the same plot.  Cyrano is also such a compelling story to do it with.  Who doesn't love the idea of a guy helping out another guy with a girl, only to fall in love himself?  Except Sway twists it.  In Cyrano, it's sort of endearing.  His friend is wretched with words and begs Cyrano to help him win his love with his superior writing.  It's sort of noble.  Here, Jesse is basically selling Bridget for money and favors, even though he knows that Ken isn't a great guy.  It's despicable, but Spears avoids writing a dangerously unlikable character by giving Jesse dimensions.  Sure, he manipulates people, but he also befriends outcasts.  I couldn't help but admire his brutal honesty, even when it was cruel, even offensive.  (C.f. conversations with Pete.)  Spears takes a risk with a character that some readers are definitely going to hate, then softens him up without changing who he is.  I admire that.  

characters . 4/5
I was reminded of John Green when it came to characters.  Spears' darlings are less obviously quirky, but they each pack a lot of personality.  I actually loved Jesse.  He's the cynical anti-hero who just doesn't give a crap.  There's very little brooding, because he's managed to distance himself so perfectly from his emotions that when he does have a feeling, it's a slap in the face.  He acknowledges his tragedy but doesn't angst over it; it also clearly defines him in subtle ways that he doesn't even realize.  He just felt real to me, the perfect deeply flawed character who manages to win your affections.  And though he grows by the end of the story, he's certainly no angel.  Bridget was a great foil.  She's almost saintly (a fact that Spears lampshades) with her see-the-good-in-all and charity, but she's far from naive.  She's got a sharp tongue, a quick wit, and a keen BS-detector.  Her determination to befriend Jesse and her recognition that he doesn't want her to makes her incredibly interesting.  

Ken is probably the dullest of the bunch.  He's a bit flat, the meathead bully who plays nice to get the girl.  It's never abundantly clear why he's so set on Bridget.  I'd even accept his obsession as a game or a trophy-quest, but all we're given is, "She's different."  Okay.  Uh huh.  Some side characters like Theresa and the principal are also given short shrift.  However, we're blessedly given gems like Pete, Bridget's little brother with cerebral palsy--and he won't let you forget it.  He's used to being treated differently, even by his well-meaning family, so connecting with Jesse, who wouldn't know political correctness if it slapped him, allows him to view himself as more than just a defect.  His teenage rage and rebellion are totally believable, his insecurities endearing.  Did I also mention that I love Hiram?  Jesse's fake grandfather is cynical and manipulative in his own way, but in the end he's just looking for a friend.  I really wanted more of Carter, Jesse's surprisingly sensitive football player pal, and Joey, his right-hand woman.  Their relationships are the first signs of softness in Jesse, and could have been developed so much more.            

style . 4/5
Spears is brilliantly funny in ways that will shock you.  This book isn't for the sensitive or tender-hearted.  Jesse isn't afraid to be cruel, offensive, or shocking.  He doesn't beat around the bush or hide behind euphemisms.  Spears' language reflects that.  Her prose isn't remarkable, but it's definitely above average.  She eeks the humor from allegedly humorless situations and shines in the wit and banter department.  Some of the exchanges between Jesse and Bridget were absolutely brilliant.  Did I mention I'm a sucker for witty banter?  

mechanics . 3/5
All in all, it's a well done book.  The pacing is pretty spot-on and Spears' decision to focus more on Jesse's growing relationships with others (i.e. Pete, Hiram) than his attraction to Bridget is surprising and perfect.  The fact that Bridget sneaks up on Jesse turns an obvious cliche into something deeper.  There were loose ends, though, that I found a little irritating.  Where did "Sway" come from and why is Jesse so averse to the nickname?  How did Jesse amass his empire?  How does a teenager connect with a paranoid but lovable drug dealer, anyway?  I wanted more consistent themes.  Spears also takes a chance with a lot of discriminatory slurs and unsavory jokes.  They fit perfectly with Jesse's character, and I've never minded really flawed MCs, but I know they'll be triggers for a lot of readers.  



take home message
An irreverent black comedy that turns romantic tropes sideways. Sway is daring and not for the faint of heart, with plenty of snark, deeply flawed characters, and poignantly human moments.  




Note: I received this copy in exchange for a review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.



16.9.14

ARC Review: I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson


review
                 book












title:  I'll Give You the Sun

author:  Jandy Nelson

pages: 384

format: Paperback

isbn/asin: 978-0803734968

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 5/5 [in the genre] or 9/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  People who love We Were Liars by E. Lockhart or sleepy, meandering reads.  Fans of art and good writing.  Lost souls.  

will i read this author again?:  Already have her first book on my shelf, waiting.  
will i continue the series?:  N/A 
My Ratings Explained

A brilliant, luminous story of first love, family, loss, and betrayal for fans of John Green, David Levithan, and Rainbow Rowell

Jude and her twin brother, Noah, are incredibly close. At thirteen, isolated Noah draws constantly and is falling in love with the charismatic boy next door, while daredevil Jude cliff-dives and wears red-red lipstick and does the talking for both of them. But three years later, Jude and Noah are barely speaking. Something has happened to wreck the twins in different and dramatic ways . . . until Jude meets a cocky, broken, beautiful boy, as well as someone else—an even more unpredictable new force in her life. The early years are Noah's story to tell. The later years are Jude's. What the twins don't realize is that they each have only half the story, and if they could just find their way back to one another, they’d have a chance to remake their world.

This radiant novel from the acclaimed, award-winning author of The Sky Is Everywhere will leave you breathless and teary and laughing—often all at once.



take home message
A tense, artful tale of broken stories and broken people, and the ways they come back together.  With memorable characters and gorgeous prose, this book will be an easy favorite for anyone who struggles to feel magical.  


the basics
After one-more-chapter-ing myself into oblivion, I finished this book at 3am--and immediately bought Jandy's first book with my phone.  That's the brilliance of this novel.  Give it to your friends who scoff at young adult.  Nelson has incontrovertibly proved that books about teenagers can be insightful, gorgeously written, soul-achingly profound, and damn exciting.  With the split narrative, Noah telling the earlier years, Jude the latter, Nelson plays with the way in which we hear and understand stories.  Like her heroes, we never have all the pieces at once.  Common characters and threads weave through both narratives, but not until the twins return to each other can they see the connections.  The quirky, heart-rending plot is bolstered by earnest character, painterly prose, fine art, magic realism, and oranges.  It's the kind of book that will linger, long after the final word.  



plot . 5/5
The book is told in alternating chapters.  Noah narrates the early years, Jude the later years.  Their narratives are gulfed by the death of their mother.  In that time, they've been transformed.  Electric, inspired Noah who fits in only in his painted worlds becomes the tolerably popular cross-country runner who doesn't touch a brush.  Bold Jude with her surfing and flirting learns to fear her own shadow and hide in her hoodies.  Characters crop up in both stories, lending an extra air of mystery to the plot.  How do the threads connect?  What happened that terrible summer?  Together the plots form a stunning whole, but each is interesting on their own.  Noah's is a tale of first love and artistic ambition.  His soul aches for art school, the one place he might fit in, but he fears the natural talent of his sister.  Their mother's favoritism causes a rift that leads both twins to throw horrific stones that ripple.  Jude's story is a tale of boycotting love and broken dreams.  Now in art school, without her brother, she turns to a famous sculptor to help her appease her mother's vengeful ghost.  In Noah's story is an unraveling, in Jude's, a remaking.  Though the end seemed a little too perfect to me, it didn't stop me from holding the book to my chest and basking in its literary perfection.  

concept . 5/5
To tell the divided stories of twins would be interesting.  To tell it against the backdrop of artistic expression and subtle magic is brilliant.  Art pervades every piece of the story, from plot to writing to character.  Art reveals the characters' minds.  It drives them apart and stitches them together.  Destiny is another important motif, revealed in unexpected prophecies and ghostly murmurings.  And magic, always magic, the kind that seems mystical and even more so the kind that feels mundane.  Nelson takes the family drama to its most thrilling limit, fully exploring the idea of truth, love, and friendship, and ultimately, what it means to live.  

characters . 5/5
Characters rarely feel so strange and so real at the same time.  Noah was my favorite, an ecstatic impulse, a thread of lightning bouncing across the page--until later, when his spark snuffs out.  He thinks in terms of art and is so awkwardly hysterical that I actually laughed out loud.  He's not innocent either; his spite and insecurity do plenty of damage.  I actually hated Jude at first (as a person, not a character) for her cruelty and vindictiveness, until I came to understand her.  She's a fairy caught in a bell jar, swelling with the impulse to live and create but too fearful to take the step.  Deeply broken by her own childish mistakes, she struggles for redemption.  The whole cast is brilliantly drawn.  Brian is an elfin prince, at ease in the world of humans but harboring a fearful secret.  Guillermo, carver of giants, is gruff and gentle, tortured by heartache into great feats of art.  Oscar is dashingly British in every sense of the term, and wavers from self-destructive to redemptive, for Noah and Jude both.  The twins' parents are the most complex.  Their mother is deliberately enigmatic, with hints of caprice and selfishness.  Their father is deliberately withdrawn, a ghost figure hanging on to an uncertainty.  Then there's Jude's Grandma, the "ghost," a profoundly humorous addition who calls God "Clark Gable."      

style . 5/5
If you hadn't guessed, I love everything about Nelson's style.  She writes with the eye of an artist.  No word is wasted, no phrase tossed aside as fluff.  Her prose is an explosion of adjectives and unexpected details that feels lush instead of purple.  It just fits.  It's also hysterical.  She's a master of the kid of snarky humor that surprises you without trying too hard.  For example:  "'Honey, is there a reason why there's a very large onion in your pocket?'  I look down at my illness deflector yawning open my sweatshirt pocket.  I'd forgotten about it."  I could quote you lines just as pretty and profound for days, but by the end, I'd have reconstructed the whole book.  It's the kind of lilting, atmospheric prose that draws you into itself and holds your mind rapt.  A rare gift, and executed stunningly.  

mechanics . 5/5
When I first read the title, I thought it was dumb.  Yeah, yeah, cliches all around.  Then I read the book and learned that it doesn't mean what you think it means, and what it does mean is so much more thrilling and profound than you could guess.  Just another way in which Nelson shattered my expectations.  The other strokes of genius were Noah and Jude's obsessions.  Noah thinks in paint and portraits.  Where another child might have an angsty inner monologue, he gives us: "(Self-Portrait: All the Glass Boys Shatter)".  These portrait titles are scattered throughout his narrative and beautifully express both his emotions and his way of viewing life.  Then there's Jude, obsessed with microbes and all the ways a person can die.  Also obsessed with her grandmother's book of dubious magic and its teachings: "Soak a mirror in vinegar to deflect unwanted attention.  (Back pocket.)  To change the leanings of the heart, wear a wasp nest on the head (Not this desperate. Yet.)"  As with Noah's portraits, Jude's superstitions are a clever way to reveal her character and her mind simultaneously.  Also they're hysterical.  There are clever motifs too, parrots named Prophet, boys in sketches, devil's dives--the kind of things you'll talk about in English class one day, that become sweetly satisfying as they reveal themselves.  





Note: I received this copy in exchange for a review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.



15.9.14

ARC Review: Vault of Dreamers by Caragh O'Brien


review
                 book












title:  The Vault of Dreamers

author:  Caragh O'Brien

pages: 418

format: Paperback

isbn/asin: 978-1596439382

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 5/5 [in the genre] or 7/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  People who loved Donnie Darko and Shutter Island.  

will i read this author again?:  Yes!
will i continue the series?:  I guess there's a sequel? Not sure how I feel about that, but obviously I'll read it. 

My Ratings Explained

From the author of the Birthmarked trilogy comes a fast-paced, psychologically thrilling novel about what happens when your dreams are not your own.

The Forge School is the most prestigious arts school in the country. The secret to its success: every moment of the students' lives is televised as part of the insanely popular Forge Show, and the students' schedule includes twelve hours of induced sleep meant to enhance creativity. But when first year student Rosie Sinclair skips her sleeping pill, she discovers there is something off about Forge. In fact, she suspects that there are sinister things going on deep below the reaches of the cameras in the school. What's worse is, she starts to notice that the edges of her consciousness do not feel quite right. And soon, she unearths the ghastly secret that the Forge School is hiding—and what it truly means to dream there.



take home message
A shivering thriller that toes the line between reality and madness, brimming with suspense and unexpected twists.  You'll go in thinking you understand, and come out with your mind blown.   


the basics
I absolutely loved this book.  I've said that a lot this September, but it's been a fabulous month for YA.  Vault of Dreamers is an atmospheric thriller, pervaded with a sense of eeriness and of wrongness.  I read tensely the whole time, plagued by the question: has Rosie stumbled upon something terrible?  Is she dreaming?  Is she going mad?  All the hints of medical experimentation and sinister goings-on are layered over a fascinating concept in its own right, a 24/7 reality show where the students are the entertainment.  Nothing is private.  Not even first kisses and breakdowns.  Not even your dreams.  Vault's killer concept is bolstered by a twisty plot that delves into fragile human relationships and an endearing cast of characters.  Rosie herself has taken some flack from the internet, but I enjoyed her tentative spirit and rooted for her until the end.  And that ending . . . just wait.  It's weird, confusing, abstract, and insanely clever.  I closed the final page with chills.  



plot . 5/5
The opening wastes no time.  Rosie skips her sleeping pill one night to find that another girl in her dormitory has been pricked with a needle and then wheeled out to nowhere.  Rosie finds that she, too, has needle marks she can't remember.  This mystery soon takes the back burner, because it's nearly decision day.  The top 50 students with the most viewers will be kept; the bottom 50 will be cut, and Rosie is 96.  I found it a little abrupt that we were introduced on the last day, and that Rosie had never talked to anyone before then and suddenly seemed ready to chat now.  It didn't make sense.  However, Rosie's efforts to increase her blip rank reveal her character beautifully.  She makes a few friends and has a spontaneous romantic encounter with the dashing Linus.  And when she's still too low-ranked and resigns herself to leaving, she goes to find the other low-ranked students, to explore their talents and give them a moment in the sun.  

Cue the drama.  Obviously Rosie isn't cut--it's a 400 page book--and she's thrust into the full Forge experience.  She's a film student, and her first class project gives her a perfect excuse to explore Forge looking for answers: what is happening to the students at night?  With the help of Linus, a worker, and Burnham, a student, she explores the hidden places of Forge.  Only to find a deeper plot brewing.  Her night footage is erased by morning.  She's harangued by voices in her head, dejavu, hallucinations.  Madness or something they're doing to her head?  Most everyone seems to think she's crazy, and her few allies are in just as much danger as she is.  Rosie is assaulted at every turn.  When you think she's gaining traction, something happens to push her back.  At the same time, you're left distrusting your own head as you contend with questions of reality and madness.  This all culminates in a shocking ending that will frustrate some readers, but I found its vagueness and its creepiness perfect.  

The romance.  Eh.  It was cute.  There were no professions of undying love.  It moved a little quickly, but I suppose teenagers do that sometimes.  

concept . 5/5
Science-fiction psychological thriller set in 24/7 reality show boarding school.  Did I grab you, yet?  The two elements of this world fit together seamlessly.  The Forge school is interesting on its own, with its rankings and fans.  It's also the perfect cover for some sinister medical experiments--or are they?  Is it all just Rosie, mentally decompensating?  O'Brien definitely plays with the line between reality and madness throughout the book, messing with your mind in a way that never lets you breathe.  It's exhilarating.  The futuristic element of the book is less well-developed.  We're far in the future and obviously something dreadful has happened to America.  A lot of reviewers hated the lack of development.  I actually didn't much care.  I was satisfied with the school.  The strange sleeping pods and medical procedures hinted enough at future technology for me.  I also cared much less about the world at large, because the world at Forge school was more necessary.  That said, O'Brien could have amped up the technology and language (future slang, for instance) to really sell her setting.  

characters . 4/5
I feel bad for Rosie.  Much of the internet seems to find her bland and samey.  I didn't feel this way at all.  She's definitely on the tentative side, shy and impressionable.  However, I thought O'Brien did a lovely job of making her grow.  Even that first day, there's clearly fire in her.  She skips her pill against orders and seeks refuge in the rain.  She misses her sister.  She sits with a girl having a breakdown, trying to comfort her.  She obsesses over the mystery of the sleeping pods and breaks the rules to investigate.  I found her completely believable, and endearing.  Other characters show varying levels of sophistication.  Linus was instantly charming, snarky, and loyal, but he had a dark backstory that was never fully explored.  I also loved clever Burnham, but he showed hints of emotional depth that were overshadowed by other plot elements.  The girls got the shortest stick.  Janice and Paige were respectively sweet and acidic, and I wanted to know more.  But they were definitely underdrawn.  As for Rosie's family, I found them vibrant enough to serve their purposes, and Dean Berg was the perfect mix of mysterious and sinisterly charming.  

style . 4/5
Plot definitely trumped style here, but style was certainly not ignored.  O'Brien doesn't have the tight diction and soul-crushing phrasing that I love, but she's a solid writer.  She reminds me a bit of Suzanne Collins.  There are moments of tenderness and prettiness, but it's mostly very matter-of-fact.  The dialogue rings true for teenagers, though perhaps not future-teenagers, and the descriptions are compelling without going overboard.  I didn't gush over the writing, but I didn't find anything to complain about, either.  

mechanics . 5/5
O'Brien is a wizard with pacing and suspense.  She set up the whole book very carefully, inserting lulls just long enough for you to get comfortable before she smacks you in the face with a new twist.  The first half of the book lags a little, but I found it appropriate.  You're just learning about the school.  You're not even sure something bad is actually happening.  It also gives you time to explore Rosie's relationships with other characters.  Cue the second half, where something terrible happens and there's suddenly much greater need for answers, quickly.  Vault kept my interest the whole time, and left me gasping.   





Note: I received this copy in exchange for a review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.