Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly EverythingWelcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn't easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize. 

"In Bryson's biggest book, he confronts his greatest challenge: to understand -- and, if possible, answer -- the oldest, biggest questions we have posed about the universe and ourselves. Taking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. To that end, he has attached himself to a host of the world’s most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the record of this quest, and it is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it. Science has never been more involving or entertaining."

Of course, this book isn't really a history of "nearly everything", but it sure is an entertaining and absorbing account of the universe's beginnings, and how we as humans have come to partly understand the unfathomably large and wondrous world around us. A Short History of Nearly Everything is such a fascinating book, mainly because the universe is such a fascinating place. There are so many statistics, so many facts, that are nearly impossible for the human brain to comprehend. The universe's age, for example, and how it got to be that way. In the very beginning of the book, Bryson discusses the fact that what became the universe was once smaller than a proton. But to us it seems obvious that there must have been something around that little space. There couldn't just be nothing. But of course there was nothing. It's paradoxes like these that intrigue me and many others and that Bryson attempts to explain to the layman in this book.

As he points out, there are a lot of questions that we feel like we ought to know the answer to, and feel ashamed of actually asking. There are so many things that I use and take for granted that I know very little about; it's scary how unknowledgeable I am about computers, the Internet, and cars, to name a few examples. Of course, that's not what Bryson delves into here, but it's scientific things like that. His questions are more like how scientists "figure things does anybody know how much the Earth weighs or how old its rocks are or what really is way down there in the center? How can they know how and when the universe started and what it was like when it did? How do they know what goes on inside an atom? And how, come to that - or perhaps above all - can scientists so often seem to know nearly everything but then still can't predict an earthquake or even tell you whether we should take an umbrella with us to the races next Wednesday?" That's from the introduction; I normally skip introductions but this one just drew me in with Bryson's signature humor.

That said, one does get tired of Bryson's humor after a little while; he can be rather smug, and you can tell that he knows he's funny. The problem, I think, is that the style never varies throughout the book, which is what sometimes frustrates me about some nonfiction books. In fiction, the style changes as the story does, but that doesn't really happen here. I realize that it's a science book, but I would still like a bit more variation. After all, Bryson is telling a story of sorts - the story of the universe. Bryson thinks he's so amusing, and that's a drawback that I've found in many of his books (although I haven't read any in a while). Still, it must be said that he is very funny, and he knows how to draw one in very well, whether he's writing about the Big Bang or a hike on the Appalachian trail.

Another unfortunate drawback to this book is that although it was published in 2004, it's already very outdated. There may be many instances of this, but the one that I noticed was that Bryson still referred to Pluto as a planet, when it has since been declared not one. I found it kind of ironic that after 9 years the book's information is a bit out of date, but the earth is billions of years old and 9 years is just an unimaginably small fraction of that. It just shows you how fast scientific research is progressing. I also think that despite the fact that if the history of the universe was squeezed into one year humans would not emerge until late in December 31, it is a mistake to completely devalue our existence. After all, humans have been around for a couple million years, and that's a lot, even if it's nothing compared to the whole timespan. And you know what? We've accomplished a lot of great and a lot of terrible things in the time we've been here. That said, it's important to remember that we're not as important as we'd like to believe: laughably insignificant, in fact. Still, viewed on a smaller scale, we're a lot of lives.

In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson certainly does cover a lot of different sciences and their histories. He talks about the world's beginnings, about other solar systems, biology, astronomy, paleontology, physics, chemistry, and all of the other disciplines that led people to begin to piece together the history of the world. All of it is fascinating; I simply can't understand those people who aren't interested in the universe, and in the planet we have the good fortune to live on. Really, the fact that any of us are alive at all is miraculous, and we ought to be sensible of that. First of all, if not for just the right combinations, life would have never started on Earth at all. Then, we had to evolve into a human species, and all the genetic combinations had to be just right. It's flabbergasting if you really think about it.

Bryson discusses the entirely likely probability that there might be life somewhere in the vast universe, but that we'll probably never make contact with them because we're just too far away. He talks about the murky area in the 18th and 19th centuries between chemistry and alchemy, and about the sometimes vicious rivalries and enmities between scientists of the time, in their race to discover new things, be it dinosaur bones or certain theories. Bryson also states that by the end of the 19th century "many wise people believed that there was nothing much left for science to do", which is very interesting and kind of funny because obviously there was a lot more for science to do. This is also good to keep in mind because now in the 21st century, it's easy to assume that we've "discovered" everything, when of course that's not true in the slightest.

All in all, this is a thoroughly fascinating and humorous account of how the universe came to be the way it is. The humor may get old after a while, but I was never bored by this book.

478 pages.

Rating: ****

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Unremarried Widow, Artis Henderson

Unremarried WidowMy husband Miles dreamed of his death in the fall of 2005, nine months before he deployed to Iraq. He was twenty-three years old. 

"A world traveler, Artis Henderson dreamed of living abroad after college and one day becoming a writer. Marrying a conservative Texan soldier and being an Army wife was never in her plan. Nor was the devastating helicopter crash that took his life soon after their marriage. On November 6, 2006, the Apache helicopter carrying Artis’s husband Miles crashed in Iraq, leaving her—in official military terms—an “unremarried widow.” She was twenty-six years old. In Unremarried Widow, Artis gracefully and fearlessly traces the arduous process of rebuilding her life after this loss, from the dark hours following the military notification to the first fumbling attempts at new love. She recounts the bond that led her and Miles to start a life together, even in the face of unexpected challenges, and offers a compassionate critique of the difficulties of military life. In one of the book's most unexpected elements, Artis reveals how Miles’s death mirrored her own father’s—in a plane crash that she survived when she was five. In her journey through devastation and heartbreak, Artis is able to reach a new understanding with her widowed mother and together they find solace in their shared loss."

I certainly wasn't expecting anything great from Unremarried Widow, and it wasn't, despite the bold claims on the back of the ARC, which I won via Goodreads. However, it was surprisingly good in its way, though nothing earth-shattering. I enjoyed the understated writing style and the way the author didn't try to make the book into much more than her rather moving story. I mean, there's plenty of reflection, but she's not trying to say anything about Life or Death, instead focusing on a smaller scale. She connected both the death of her father in a plane accident and the death of her husband very well, alternating between the two, although I would have liked a bit more of that as the book progressed. The only real scene that talks mainly about her father is towards the beginning. There's a lot of narration before Miles actually dies while in Iraq, and we know what's coming, so that was actually used really effectively to build sympathy as this man is introduced and characterized, all the while knowing that he's going to die, that in fact that death is the whole premise of the memoir. I actually found Miles to be kind of selfish at times, but the narrator clearly loved him very much. The thing was, she had to sacrifice a lot of what she wanted to do when she became his partner/wife, and that annoyed me. 

I did enjoy the way that Artis Henderson used little anecdotes and snippets of life to recount her story and illustrate her points, rather than going more chronologically through the events of her life with Miles. As she puts it writing about something else, the book is composed of "just stories, brief peeks into the experience, like peering through a window..." Although that's not what she was referring to, I thought it fit the narrative style pretty well. It was also quite straightforward, and I liked that aspect. 

What I didn't like was the vaguely religious aspect, the psychic that Artis goes to several times who seems to know everything about her life and what's going to happen in it. There's also this talk of spiritual connection or whatever, and I certainly don't buy into that. Sorry. I have a feeling that here the narration isn't quite accurate. Especially the letter from Miles before he died seemed somewhat constructed, although it's certainly possible. At any rate, what Artis Henderson has crafted is pretty moving in its own way, although I certainly didn't cry and cry as the editor says she did on the back of the ARC. It's not really that kind of book; I was totally dry-eyed. Admittedly, I'm not the crying type in books, but I didn't even feel the temptation to cry as I sometimes do.

There are some sexist elements to the book to, such as when Artis visits Mile's parents' ranch, where "he rode horses and worked the ranch with his father while I stayed inside with Terry." Who gives Artis a bunch of recipes (sigh). That was just me being nit-picky though, because obviously there's nothing wrong with baking.

Anyway, Unremarried Widow wasn't great or anything, but it certainly was interesting enough, and provided some insights into the army way of life. It also shows you just what a waste the Iraq war was, costing the lives of countless young men like Miles Henderson. Anyway, the book doesn't come out until early January, but keep your eyes out for it until then. I would recommend the library.

240 pages.

Rating: 3.5 stars.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Amaranth Enchantment, Julie Berry

The Amaranth EnchantmentI was sweeping the shop when a glimmer between two floorboards caught my eye. A penny? I knelt for a closer look.

"Lucinda Chapdelaine was orphaned as a young child when her parents left for a royal ball and never returned. Ever since, she has toiled away in her uncle's lonely jewelry shop under the cruel hand of her step-aunt. But now, all at once, Lucinda's lot is about to change. A mysterious woman, a handsome young gentleman, and an unusual gem all enter the shop on the very same day. The woman is none other than the dreaded Amaranth Witch, and she has a daring task to offer. If Lucinda succeeds, she will not only reclaim all that is rightfully hers, but she will a discover a true friend...and perhaps a true love. Family secret, magical surprises, and another royal ball will test her, but Lucinda is determined to find her own happily ever after."

The Amaranth Enchantment is an unremarkable but fun and entertaining fairy tale. I picked it up at my school library, and it's worth a read if you're a fan of fairy tale-esque stories, which I am. It was very reminiscent at least in some respects of other middle grade fairy tale/fantasy novels such as The Runaway Princess and one other one I've read but whose name I'm blanking on.

In this case, the beginning of the book was much better than the ending. At first, the novel felt really atmospheric, and I was thoroughly enjoying it. The Amaranth Enchantment is set in the real world, historically, except that it also has magic, and there are other worlds that can be reached through wells (that was kind of weird). I feel like the adding of countless other worlds just made the book way more complex, and it wasn't fleshed out properly. I did enjoy the main character though, and some of the secondary characters too. The plot itself isn't that interesting, but follows the same mold as many fairy tale retellings; it's vaguely like Cinderella. Lucinda is from a wealthy family and she's taken in by her cruel aunt who abuses her horribly. Then she meets a prince, completes a get the idea. All very well and good, but nothing special.

I found the book entertaining, breezy, and quick, and I did like it; it just wasn't structured very well. There was never really a climax, and what could have passed for a climax was just quick and rushed. Overall if you were to draw out the book's progression it would just be a bunch of small waves, rather confusing actually. The book's not action-packed, that's for sure.

Beryl or the amaranth witch was a really odd character, at least to me. She kind of randomly appeared, and so did the prince for that matter, coincidentally showing up at the shop on the same day and turning Lucinda's life upside down. This stretched belief just a little bit; "Beryl" as a name also wasn't very good. It was hardly fitting for someone from a different world with intense magical powers.

Overall the book was very predictable except for one twist at the end that I was totally not expecting. It was good as a fantasy novel, but the world didn't particularly interest me, nor would I ever see myself rereading this book or reading a sequel. I would skip it, although there's nothing particularly bad about The Amaranth Enchantment; it just had some issues in terms of plotting and wasn't very suspenseful or memorable. In other words, it was rather bland.

320 pages.

Rating: ***

Thursday, November 21, 2013

More Than This, Patrick Ness

More Than ThisHere is the boy, drowning. In these last moments, it's not the water that's finally done for him; it's the cold. 

"A boy named Seth drowns, desperate and alone in his final moments, losing his life as the pounding sea claims him. But then he wakes. He is naked, thirsty, starving. But alive. How is that possible? He remembers dying, his bones breaking, his skull dashed upon the rocks. So how is he here? And where is this place? It looks like the suburban English town where he lived as a child, before an unthinkable tragedy happened and his family moved to America. But the neighborhood around his old house is overgrown, covered in dust, and completely abandoned. What’s going on? And why is it that whenever he closes his eyes, he falls prey to vivid, agonizing memories that seem more real than the world around him? Seth begins a search for answers, hoping that he might not be alone, that this might not be the hell he fears it to be, that there might be more than just this. . ."

The only other Patrick Ness book I've read is A Monster Calls, and I did like it (although I didn't love it). More Than This, however, was simply mindblowing. To be honest, I'm still not quite sure what to make of it, and have a feeling that this review will be rather discombobulated. It did not help that Blogger deleted half of my review as I was typing it.

Anyway, I really was sucked into this terrifying and disturbing novel as soon as I began to read. It feels so real and immediate, and the pace is so fast-paced, making for a really intense novel. One can almost feel the characters' pain, whether it's physical or emotional. The very first scene, that of the drowning, is one example of the physical pain; it was quite difficult to read, as was the subsequent awakening, and Seth discovering that he's still alive, albeit in a really strange world. 

Those who think young adult fiction is all junky should read this book. I'm not saying it's great or that it'll be remembered necessarily (although you know never know), but More Than This is still really intelligent, and it certainly purports to be something more than mindless entertainment. It's edgy and provocative, and it left me pondering when I wasn't reading it and after I'd finished it. Just when you think you know what's going on, everything changes, the world is turned upside down again. Patrick Ness plays with certain genres of apocalyptic fiction and dystopia that are way overused in YA and tweaks them, tries to do something new. The result is a scary, absorbing, and brilliant novel.

As I said, More Than This was really frightening, at least to me. I don't particularly enjoy reading scary books, and this was borderline, but I enjoyed nonetheless. It just sucked me in. The scary part is really how unknown everything is to Seth, this strange place that he wakes up in. Also, almost every section brings new revelations, spine-tingling ones. Both the physical and the emotional are frightening in this book, from the opening with Seth drowning to all the terrible things that happened to him.

More Than This is also really strange and hard to comprehend. There are like two different worlds, but you're never sure which one is "real" or if any of them are real at all. Ness takes the typical apocalyptic-dystopia set-up, with humans relying more and more on technology, and the real world a doomed wasteland, and turns it sideways, changing little things here and there. 

The book is also really grim; both Seth's recollections and the place he's in now are pretty bleak. There are flashes of dark humor now and then, but that's about it. 

I didn't love the ending; it felt a little too ambiguous, and although it was clever, I would have liked something more. Overall, though, I ended up really enjoying this creepy and absorbing novel. I wasn't expecting it to be so intense, that's for sure. I received a review copy from Candlewick, and I'm so glad that I requested it. 

472 pages.

Rating: ****

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Rereading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears's house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead.

"Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. And he detests the color yellow. Although gifted with a superbly logical brain, fifteen-year-old Christopher is autistic and everyday interactions and admonishments have little meaning for him. He lives on patterns, rules, and a diagram kept in his pocket. Then one day, a neighbor's dog, Wellington, is killed and his carefully constructive universe is threatened. Christopher sets out to solve the murder in the style of his favorite (logical) detective, Sherlock Holmes."

I read The Curious Incident... quite a while ago, and remembered enjoying it, though also thinking it was really weird and not loving it. I reread it again for a book club, and was glad that I did so, although I still think that it's a pretty odd book and not necessarily my cup of tea, at least in general. However, it is thought-provoking enough, and is one of those books that challenges your assumptions about people and about life. I don't have that much to say about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but here goes nothing. 

Christopher is certainly a fascinating character, a mix of contradictions. He is so, so intelligent, with extensive math and science knowledge, yet he is completely nonplussed when it comes to anything social. He doesn't know how to chat with people, he can't really process emotions and expressions very well, he doesn't know when to, you know, not say things, and he talks rather brazenly about certain taboo subjects in polite conversations.

The most interesting thing about this book is the portrayal of how Christopher views the world so differently from everyone else. He cannot stand the color yellow, and yellow cars lined up in a row means that it will be a bad day. Red cars, however, are good; the more the better. This was particularly interesting because it seems pretty irrational, but when someone says that to Christopher, he points out that generally people will be in a better mood when it's sunny as opposed to if it's rainy, even if they work inside an office where weather has no effect on how their day goes. That made me stop and think for a moment; Christopher's cars and the weather affecting mood are both, I suppose, kind of just overall omens or talismans. We need to make sense of the world somehow and form patterns.

My main problem with the book is that it's rather simplistic at times, and the way of narrating is slightly annoying. Like, the vast majority of the sentences start with "and", as in: "And he said...And I said...and then I..." The whole book isn't like that, but there are some sections that are, and I wasn't fond of it. I appreciate what Haddon was trying to do there, but it got monotonous after a while. I'm also not sure how well this actually portrays an autistic person's experience. I realize there are many forms of autism, on many ends of the spectrum, so this is probably not much like most autistic kids (although some perhaps). The author did work with autistic children, so he probably has experience.

Something I did find interesting was how both of Christopher's parents struggle with raising him and with their lives. They fight, and they threaten, and they swear, but still manage to be for the most part sympathetic characters. Still, there were definitely times when I disliked them. I do like how they're realistic people; it must be so, so hard to raise an autistic yet highly gifted child like Christopher, and they struggle to do so. Christopher's parents are two great characters.

I wasn't overall fond of the ending; it was rather inconclusive, and didn't tie the story up very well. I'm fine with ambiguous endings, but this was more just...sudden, and it didn't fit the type of book that this is. I liked The Curious Incident okay, but it's certainly not one of my favorite books or on that I'll be rereading anytime soon. The story itself is very interesting, but the writing, at least for me, left much to be desired.

221 pages.

Rating: ***

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Rereading Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Of Mice and MenA few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool.

"They are an unlikely pair: George is "small and quick and dark of face"; Lennie, a man of tremendous size, has the mind of a young child. Yet they have formed a "family," clinging together in the face of loneliness and alienation. Laborers in California's dusty vegetable fields, they hustle work when they can, living a hand-to-mouth existence. For George and Lennie have a plan: to own an acre of land and a shack they can call their own. When they land jobs on a ranch in the Salinas Valley, the fulfillment of their dream seems to be within their grasp. But even George cannot guard Lennie from the provocations of a flirtatious woman, nor predict the consequences of Lennie's unswerving obedience to the things George taught him."

I first read Of Mice and Men a while ago when I was eight or nine, and I remembered liking it but not much else. Rereading it now, for school, I once again rediscovered its brilliance, its beauty, and its deep sadness. I wish I'd reread it sooner, because of Of Mice and Men is a great, great book. Who says short books can't be just as expressive and meaningful? Not I. There are so many brilliant aspects of this book, aspects that I probably didn't catch on to the first time I read it, and aspects that I still probably haven't fully realized that will be explored in the class I'm taking. The constant refrains, for example: "livin' on the fatta the lan'." And the rabbits, the rabbits that Lennie wants so desperately to tend, that he dreams of tending. Right from the start, you know it's doomed; the novel takes place south of Soledad, south of solitude, south of loneliness.

Lennie and George are two very interesting characters, almost opposites, really. Lennie is described in animal like terms quite often, as "dabbling a big paw" while drinking. He has the power to crush a man's hand in his fist, he breaks mice by petting them. Yet he never means any harm; all the bad things that he does are by accident, because he didn't know what else to do. George, on the other hand, is small and dark and very, very sharp; he knows how to survive, and often tells Lennie that if not for him, he would be doing much better. You know, however, that George doesn't really mean it, that there's such a strong bond between the two of them, even if George does get cross at Lennie sometimes because of all the bad things that he does.

You can tell from reading his work that Steinbeck fiercely loves both California's landscape and its people, its wanderers and dreamers. At the beginning of several of the chapters, there are long, detailed descriptions of the woods and the brush, and the creatures living in them. The style here is very accurate, in sharp contrast to the way the characters speak, which is quite ungrammatical, to say the least. The descriptions are beautiful, and they at least partially serve to contrast the beauty of the landscape and the ugliness of what occurs in it, on both the human and animal scale, with their similarities and differences.

Of Mice and Men is both a highly absorbing and really, really fast read. I probably finished it in about forty-five minutes worth of time, and I seem to recall reading it that quickly the first time I read it too. Of course, in this case, I'm going to go back over it again and again, but initially the pages fly by really quickly. It's also not one of those books you feel like you have to rush through, because it's quick anyway, and you can glean a lot from the novel even reading it in a short span of time. I certainly felt like I did.

Steinbeck builds dread so, so well. There are many scenes in which which the tension builds and builds (Lennie is, of course, oblivious to it all), until I could hardly bear it. Many of these scenes are with Curley, but some are with other characters as well (like Crooks). And of course, there's the scene with Lennie and Curley's wife, which just kills you (and others). I find it rather interesting that she's never given a name, just "Curley's wife", a possession described rather cheaply. There's lots of foreshadowing of the terrible, final event what with Lennie's fondness for soft things and how he often "breaks" them. Also dread-inducing.

The friendship between George and Lennie is portrayed so well, written both with fierceness and tenderness. It endures until the heartbreaking end, when George realizes what he must do, in a scene that is both powerful and deeply moving. Despite Of Mice and Men's short length, Steinbeck manages to convey so, so much about friendship and human nature and the characters' desire, their yearning, for roots, for their own little patch of land to care for and call their own. This is really at the heart of the novel. I would highly recommend Of Mice and Men. I may add to this review later once it is discussed in my English class; we'll see.

118 pages.

Rating: ***** 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Until It Hurts to Stop, Jennifer R. Hubbard

Until It Hurts to StopMy friend Nick reaches across the cafeteria table and drops a knife into my hand. "Happy birthday, Maggie."

"In seventh grade, Maggie Camden was the class outcast. Every day, the other girls tripped her, pinched her, trapped her in the bathroom, told her she would be better off dead. Four years have passed since then, and Maggie’s tormentors seem to have moved on. The ringleader of them all, Raleigh Barringer, even moved out of town. But Maggie has never stopped watching for attacks, and every laugh still sounds like it’s at her expense. The only time Maggie feels at peace is when she’s hiking up in the mountains with her best friend, Nick. Lately, though, there’s a new sort of tension between the two of them—a tension both dangerous and delicious. But how can Maggie expect anything more out of Nick when all she’s ever been told is that she’s ugly, she’s pathetic, she’s unworthy of love? And how can she ever feel safe, now that Raleigh Barringer is suddenly—terrifyingly—back in town?"

Until It Hurts to Stop is a pretty good young adult novel; it came out in September. The book is slim but powerful, boasting a quiet, small-scale story that has ramifications beyond its borders, and cuts more deeply for its smallness. I must admit that I can't really imagine people being that cruel in seventh grade, as my middle school experience was quite different. Really, is any middle school like that, with such senseless cruelty, people just lashing out at others? But that is, of course, what Until It Hurts to Stop is about - senseless, vicious cruelty, and about how to heal from it, confront the perpetrators, and break out of your shell. Despite the four years that have passed, Maggie still kind half believes the taunts that Raleigh and others flung at her - telling her that she's ugly, that no one would ever like her. 

It's easy to imagine how a book like Until It Hurts to Stop would stray into cliches or perhaps romanticizing things, but it doesn't. For example, on their hike to the top of a mountain, Maggie kind of starts to romanticize the woods: "Now I'm not, with the ferns and moss, with the scabbed bark of trees, the dank smell of mud, the sweet aroma of dead leaves. Here, with the stream bubbling alongside us, soothing, gabbling in a language that I both understand and don't understand. Here, with a rattlesnake that I almost step on." That was a great and somewhat startling passage, even though it doesn't really relate to the main story. Or maybe it does, if you think about it; just when Maggie is lured into complacency and a sense of security, the girl who tortured her suddenly is once again in her path. I'm probably just over-analyzing it.

I didn't love Until It Hurts to Stop, but it certainly grew even more on me as it progressed. As I said, the plot doesn't seem to boast much, but it was a really moving story not only about senseless cruelty and how to overcome it, but also about strong friendships. Obviously, the core of the story is about bullying, but the novel takes it on rather differently.

I enjoyed Maggie as a character, and really empathized with her as all her old fears and worries start coming back with the return of Raleigh. Even I've never experienced outright bullying on this scale, I can certainly relate to the snide remarks of many people. That said, I didn't connect with Maggie super, super deeply, but just enough. She was also a pretty well portrayed character.

The writing isn't great or anything, but it certainly is easy to get into, and very fast once you do. That's, I think, the power of first person present tense, and also its limitation. Sometimes it's too easy to just do that to draw the reader in, which is why it annoys me that so much young adult fiction is written this way. What, the authors think we can't handle past tense? Still, in this case it actually worked, and it makes the novel more relatable.

As you all know if you actually read this blog, most of the time, I'm not a fan of the romance aspects of books, but in this case I liked the slow progression, although it still annoys me that from reading most YA fiction you'd think a guy and a girl could never be just friends. Anyway, it is very slow and angst-ridden and agonizing, and actually quite nice.

Until It Hurts to Stop wasn't an overdone book; it wasn't long, but that was okay, because it managed to say a lot with a little. The book is a bit depressing, but the ending is really, really lovely, and it certainly left me thinking about both the characters and my own life. I would definitely recommend it if it sounds interesting; sadly, this book hasn't gotten much publicity at all (at least not in the sources I read).

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the author; thank you so much!

246 pages.

Rating: ****

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Allegiant, Veronica Roth

Allegiant (Divergent, #3)I pace our cell in Erudite headquarters, her words echoing in my mind: My name will be Edith Prior, and there is much I am happy to forget.

"The faction-based society that Tris Prior once believed in is shattered—fractured by violence and power struggles and scarred by loss and betrayal. So when offered a chance to explore the world past the limits she’s known, Tris is ready. Perhaps beyond the fence, she and Tobias will find a simple new life together, free from complicated lies, tangled loyalties, and painful memories. But Tris’s new reality is even more alarming than the one she left behind. Old discoveries are quickly rendered meaningless. Explosive new truths change the hearts of those she loves. And once again, Tris must battle to comprehend the complexities of human nature—and of herself—while facing impossible choices about courage, allegiance, sacrifice, and love."

I've been eagerly awaiting the release of Allegiant for many months now, so it was something of a letdown when I read a whole bunch of negative reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I became very apprehensive that the book would be awful. Unfortunately, the ending got spoiled for me, which sucked, but I still really enjoyed the book despite my initial reservations. Because Allegiant is still absorbing, fierce, and very, very intense. The intensity level was raised in Insurgent; it's even higher in this final book, where the world as the characters know it has been completely shattered by violence and revelations and must be rebuilt.  The only problem is, everyone has a different idea about how to do that. Evelyn, Tobias's mother and the leader of the factionless, has an uneasy hold over the city, and she wants to eliminate the factions and not go into the outside world, unlike Tris and many others - those others who call themselves the allegiant.

There were many shocking developments in Allegiant, many characters who have been with us from the very first book and die. There's also, of course, the exploration of a whole new world, completely unknown, that the city once known as Chicago has been isolated from for so long. I was eager to see how Roth would portray the outside society; there were many ways she could have gone about doing it. I kind of like the angle that she took; it was unique, and once the group reaches the outside, there was a rather huge, overwhelming flood of information. But I liked that because it explained a whole lot about the society inside the wall.

Although Divergent is still by far the best book in the series, I still really enjoyed many aspects of Allegiant, from the complex political interplay to the development of Tris and Four's relationship. I've always been aware that both Tris and Tobias are not the most likable of characters, and that's highlighted even more here. Tobias is no longer afraid of his father Marcus; he's afraid of being like him. And really, there are moments when Tobias seems scarily like Marcus, for example when he helps Caleb escape and the way that he treats him. Still, Tris and Tobias are sympathetic enough, and quite multifaceted. That said, I was not fond of the dual narration that Veronica Roth chose to use in the book. It was an unnecessary shift from the narrative style of the first two books, and I feel like it was also an easy way out, in terms of being able to view scenes without Tris. I can see why Roth chose to do it, considering the ending, but the main reason for my dislike though was that the two perspectives were so, so similar; I sometimes couldn't tell the differences because both Tris and Tobias's voices were in the same general vein. Several times, I had to look back at the beginning of the chapter to remind myself who was narrating. The reason Roth chose to do this becomes transparently obvious once you think about it.

Allegiant's end was quite heartbreaking, and it's not what I was expecting. I think Ms. Roth will be getting quite a lot of flak from other angry fans. It is, however, her story, and so she got to choose the way she ended it. It was kind of beautiful too, and so, so sad. And the epilogue, which many people hated, was about moving on and getting past intense grief, while at the same time never forgetting.

Although there were some aspects of Allegiant that I certainly didn't like, it was overall an amazing conclusion to the trilogy, with so much new information and so many shocking revelations. Basically, the world that the first two books take place in is all designed by those outside. I don't want to give too much away, but it's quite ingenious, and Allegiant certainly raises the question of whether our genes determine who we are. This is rather typical, but there is also the added construct of morals, of whether the things that Tris and Tobias and the others have been taught to believe are good are actually desirable. All this combines to create an intriguing, unpredictable, and highly suspenseful read.

576 pages.

Rating: *****

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Chaos of Stars, Kiersten White

The Chaos of StarsWhen I was a little girl, I still believed I was part of the world's secret magic. 

"Isadora’s family is seriously screwed up. Of course, as the human daughter of Egyptian gods, that pretty much comes with the territory. She’s also stuck with parents who barely notice her, and a house full of relatives who can’t be bothered to remember her name. After all, they are going to be around forever—and she’s a mere mortal. Isadora’s sick of living a life where she’s only worthy of a passing glance, and when she has the chance to move to San Diego with her brother, she jumps on it. But Isadora’s quickly finding that a “normal” life comes with plenty of its own epic complications—and that there’s no such thing as a clean break when it comes to family. Much as she wants to leave her past behind, she can’t shake the ominous dreams that foretell destruction for her entire family. When it turns out there may be truth in her nightmares, Isadora has to decide whether she can abandon her divine heritage after all."

Meh. This book was a weird mash-up of stuff, and really disappointing in some respects. I mean, I wasn't expecting it to be great (which was I got it from the library), but I was hoping for something more than this fast, easy to swallow...mush. The cover is the best thing about The Chaos of's simply gorgeous. What is inside isn't as lovely. First of all, the Egyptian world wasn't developed nearly enough. Okay, so, apparently Isis has to keep having children every twenty years in order to help the gods survive off the prayers??? That didn't make a whole lot of sense, and neither did Isadora. She's lived in Egypt all her life, yet she still narrates like a typical American teenager. But when she arrives in San Diego, there are all these things that are totally foreign to her, like fist-bumping. Despite this, she calls people "lame" and things "peachy". Also, she uses a lot of really stupid expressions like "floods" and "by the idiot gods" that totally don't fit with the rest of her jargon. Isadora felt 100% American to me. Lack of authenticity and creativeness: check. 

The plot itself was also weakly constructed; basically nothing happens throughout the book until the very end. The story is basically this: Isadora goes to San Diego. Isadora makes some new friends/has new ideas about things. Isadora has a strange feeling of being watched and there are two burglaries. Nothing...and then Isadora figures out what's really going on. Admittedly, the book is short but a good part of it is nothing action-wise, and the talking itself isn't very substantial. Then, when there's actually a teensy bit of action, it's all resolved seemingly within 5 pages, and there are very convenient things that get Isadora where she wants to go.

Ry (or Orion) also annoyed me a bit. Isadora must talk about his incredibly blue eyes at least twenty times throughout the book. Okay, I get it, he's attractive, and he has nice eyes. Let's move on, shall we? I don't need to hear the same, uninteresting descriptions over and over and over and over again. That said, I did like other elements of their relationship, such as their discussions; it just seemed like too substantial a part of the book. That's all that happened for much of the middle section. The mythology part seemed almost extraneous; if you took it out, you'd have a very typical and boring contemporary story. None of the mythology was woven in well, and the several paragraphs of explanation at the beginning of each chapter didn't help. 

Another thing that ticked me off was the random addition of Greek mythology at the end. Kiersten White had enough trouble attempting to add Egyptian; she should have just stuck to her mediocre rendition of it, rather than adding a whole other element probably too complicated for her to handle. The book was so simplistic, and not in a good way. I was expecting the Greek mythology add in, but it was still so off, and I hated the way it was woven in.

Isadora is also one of the whiniest characters you'll ever meet. Seriously, she complains all the freaking time, and the way she goes about her life, never allowing herself pleasure because hey, it's only temporary also annoyed me. Just like Ry's blue eyes, it was hammered in over and over that she's mortal and her parents aren't and she thinks they don't love her enough to really care for her. And I get it; her childhood, once she realized she was going to die, was probably pretty awful. But a couple times was enough. And she was completely juvenile.

Overall, The Chaos of Stars was not cohesive or seemingly planned at all. Nothing happened for most of this short book, and then the whole plot was resolved super quickly. Really, I don't know how this thing could have been published, because as soon as you think about the structure for half a second, it completely falls apart. The Egyptian gods and goddesses are just stick figures in the background. Frankly, I'm not sure how anyone can have enjoyed this book, although people have. I suppose you just have to shut off all of your brain cells, or just not have any to begin with. I didn't loathe it with a fierce hatred, but it was pretty bad. I only finished it because it was so short, and the pages flew by. And, God, just look at that cover. But really: skip The Chaos of Stars. Do it for your own sanity and intelligence, and do not waste your valuable time on this piece of juvenile trash. (OK, maybe I do loathe it with fierce hatred. I'm doubly mad because I was fooled by the beautiful cover and marketing). If you're not convinced, read more negative (and some positive) reviews on The Chaos of Stars Goodreads page.

277 pages.

Rating: *

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The House of Hades, Rick Riordan

The House of Hades (The Heroes of Olympus, #4)During the third attack, Hazel almost ate a boulder. She was peering into the fog, wondering how it could be so difficult to fly across one stupid mountain range, when the ship's alarm bells sounded.

"At the conclusion of The Mark of Athena, Annabeth and Percy tumble into a pit leading straight to the Underworld. The other five demigods have to put aside their grief and follow Percy’s instructions to find the mortal side of the Doors of Death. If they can fight their way through the Gaea’s forces, and Percy and Annabeth can survive the House of Hades, then the Seven will be able to seal the Doors both sides and prevent the giants from raising Gaea. But, Leo wonders, if the Doors are sealed, how will Percy and Annabeth be able to escape? They have no choice. If the demigods don’t succeed, Gaea’s armies will never die. They have no time. In about a month, the Romans will march on Camp Half-Blood. The stakes are higher than ever in this adventure that dives into the depths of Tartarus."

I probably wouldn't have read this one, except it showed up at my school library. And I did enjoy The Mark of Athena after all; it's just that Riordan's novels are really, really predictable and sometimes way too dense (as in this case). On their own, they're entertaining enough, but then you start to realize that each one is so similar to the last in terms of plot and set-up. We usually have some evil force trying to destroy or take over the world, and a group of unlikely heroes trying to stop them from doing it by traveling through the world, usually with a time limit. The demigods all have really disturbing and cryptic dreams and mysterious ways that they have to prove themselves, tests that they have to pass without even really knowing it. There are always many scenarios where just when the demigods' deaths seems imminent, help arrives from an unexpected quarter. I got more and more annoyed as this long book went on, because I felt like I'd read the same stuff already in prior Riordan novels. Talk about mass media.

Still, I have to admit that it is entertaining, and I do really like the characters and how they're developed. Percy and Annabeth are having their own adventures, and meanwhile the rest of the crew are trying to get to save them and the world (of course). However, I'm not sure if I'll be reading future books in this series or this world; I think I've kind of outgrown them. I can definitely see how younger readers will just swallow up this latest installment though, so in terms of appealing to his target audience, Riordan succeeded.

Let's talk about the good: despite the whole bit about the world as we know it ending on August 1st, there's still a lot of trademark Riordan humor in the book, absurd situations, for example. At one point, Nico gets briefly turned into a corn stalk by the god of farming, which is hilarious given who Nico is and what he's like. That particular scene in Venice was one of the funniest in its absurdities. Rick Riordan certainly is good at creating strange scenarios; in this case, Frank Zhang ends up killing several hundred weird cow creatures in order to find a python in order to convince the god of farming to heal Hazel and restore Nico to his usual non-corn state. Yeah, it's pretty ridiculous, but even to me it was entertaining, and to younger people it would probably be more so. That whole sequence is pages 133-157, and it's pretty hard to forget.  Riordan also does some punning in the book as well as other kinds of jokes.

The descriptions of Tartarus were rather chilling; the whole landscape is really just one giant body. The ground is squishy and permeable, like skin. The air is sulphorous, there are lots of monsters constantly reforming, and the only water is a spicy, bad-tasting fire that's purpose is to keep you alive to endure more torments.

Despite all this and Gaea's whole scheme of taking over the world, The House of Hades still is for the most part a light book, although some of the dream sequences are disturbing as well. There's a lot of humor, and you know everything's going to work out all right in the end (at least, at the end of the series). The book is really dense though; I suppose Riordan could have cut out some of the mini-quests or a bit of the extra padding. It didn't need to be nearly 600 pages. Still, The House of Hades was pretty good considering everything.

583 pages.

Rating: ****

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Rereading Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier (translated by Anthea Bell)

Ruby Red (Precious Stone Trilogy, #1)I first felt it in the school canteen on Monday morning. For a moment it was like being on a rollercoaster when you're racing down from the very top. It lasted only two seconds, but that was long enough for me to dump a plateful of mashed potatoes and gravy all over my school uniform. I managed to catch the plate just in time, as my knife and fork clattered to the floor.

"Gwyneth Shepherd's sophisticated, beautiful cousin Charlotte has been prepared her entire life for traveling through time. But unexpectedly, it is Gwyneth, who in the middle of class takes a sudden spin to a different era! Gwyneth must now unearth the mystery of why her mother would lie about her birth date to ward off suspicion about her ability, brush up on her history, and work with Gideon--the time traveler from a similarly gifted family that passes the gene through its male line, and whose presence becomes, in time, less insufferable and more essential. Together, Gwyneth and Gideon journey through time to discover who, in the 18th century and in contemporary London, they can trust."

I read this one a while ago and enjoyed it, but for whatever reason I traded it in, so I had to order another copy. Ruby Red is an immensely popular book in Germany, and I can see why. The main character is kind of funny, and although the book is light, it's really entertaining and a great combination of things: of time travel, mystery, and romance. The mystery element is very strong, as Gwyneth doesn't have much idea of what's going on; it just suddenly turns out that she's the carrier of the time travelling gene, upending everyone's lives. I do think the book could have focused a bit more on Charlotte's reaction. It must be awful to have been groomed and prepared for something for your whole life, only to find out that you don't get to do it, that there's been a mistake and it's your cousin who's the time travelling one.

Gwyneth's narration though is very chipper, cheery and matter-of-fact even when she's down. Despite the author's being German, the tone of the book is very, very British, although I can't really say whether that's because of the style of the original German or the translation. Probably a bit of both.

 The whole plot idea is quite good, although for such a short book there's a fair amount of information dumping and almost too many different plot-lines. There are several great supporting characters, and many lovely settings in the present and in the past. As the book progresses, there's more adventure and action as well, with the annoying Gideon de Villiers. That is, of course, my least favorite element, although he's okay as a character. I have a feeling that Gideon gets more annoying (if such a thing is possible) in Sapphire Blue.

Gywneth is another teen with a chronic case of being unable to tell the adults in her life anything. When she first travels back in time, rather than telling her mum immediately she puts it off and puts it off. Whereas right after it happens she calls her best friend Lesley, who is slightly more sensible and wants Gwyneth to tell her mum right away. Of course, Gwyneth does not follow this very good advice.

There are a whole bunch of really weird parts in the book, such as Gwyneth's third time travelling back, and what happens there. Time travel itself is just a very odd paradox. It seems all right on the surface, but then you start thinking about the circles going round and round and it gets rather disorienting and confusing. Basically, don't overthink it. I think humans in general find the concept really fascinating though; it appeals to something in us.

Much of the book's events started coming back to me as I read, but not all of the specifics. I remembered the beginning sections of Ruby Red very well though. It's not a great book or anything, but engaging enough and pretty fresh.  The whole book is cloaked in mystery and historical detail (including period clothing), and there are plenty of secrets, betrayals, and action-packed sequences. I would highly recommend it to fans of many genres: historical fiction, mystery, science fiction, and time travel novels. I have a copy of the final book, Emerald Green, but have yet to acquire one of Sapphire Blue. Soon, hopefully.

322 pages.

Rating: ****

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Counting by 7s, Holly Goldberg Sloan

Counting by 7sWe sit together outside the Fosters Freeze at a sea-green, metal picnic table. All four of us. We eat soft ice cream, which has been plunged into a vat of liquid chocolate (that then hardens into a crispy shell). I don't tell anyone that what makes this work is wax. Or to be more accurate: edible, food-grade paraffin wax.

"Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and diagnosing medical conditions, who finds it comforting to count by 7s. It has never been easy for her to connect with anyone other than her adoptive parents, but that hasn’t kept her from leading a quietly happy life . . . until now. Suddenly Willow’s world is tragically changed when her parents both die in a car crash, leaving her alone in a baffling world. The triumph of this book is that it is not a tragedy. This extraordinarily odd, but extraordinarily endearing, girl manages to push through her grief. Her journey to find a fascinatingly diverse and fully believable surrogate family is a joy and a revelation to read."

There are some middle grade novels that are still very lovely to read even if you're older than the intended age group, like The Tale of Despereaux, which is just gorgeous. Counting by 7s isn't as good as that, and it's a very different type of book, but I nonetheless enjoyed it a lot. I haven't read Mockingbird, but I will say that this book seems very, very similar in terms of both books having a different and highly intelligent young narrator who has many quirks (counting by 7s, etc) who has to cope with a terrible tragedy. Out of My Mind also sounds somewhat similar; I might read both of those books when I get the chance. They seem amazing too, if somewhat unoriginal. 

Still, I loved the narration in Counting by 7s which was, I think, distinctive. There were also so many great characters, each getting their turn narrating, although of course the book's mostly from Willow's point of view. Willow herself was a great character; she's highly intelligent, but still kind of young and unable to contextualize things sometimes. She also sometimes doesn't realize when it's best to keep her intelligence hidden in certain settings. Obsessed by all things medical, Willow also keeps an extensive garden behind her house, carefully, meticulously ordering her world which centers around 7s. Of course, the accident changes everything, and she can't just line up her life again. Willow is quite odd, and probably would be difficult to get along with. I imagine one would always feel sort of intellectually inferior, at least in certain areas. Some of Willow's observations were spot-on though, without her even seeming to realize it. Some of the parts were a bit over-the-top, such as the whole story-line with the taxi driver, but it was kind of sweet. Willow inadvertently helps a lot of people get their lives back on track, and so when she needs some help, they're ready to come to her aid.

Despite the tragedy in the book, it's remarkably hopeful. It's not a tearful read at all, even though Willow's predicament is pretty awful, and one does feel for her deeply. I thought Counting by 7s might be a bit depressing, but it's really not. And the new Vietnamese family that Willow starts to join is very different from her previous one, but still great. This aspect was interesting, because Willow herself is black, but her adopted parents were white. And now she's sort of moving in with this Vietnamese family whose daughter she just moved in with. There's also the odd counselor, Dell Duke, assigned to deal with Willow's "behavioral" problems which consist of a false accusation of cheating. I actually didn't like him as a character; he was weird and probably the most unlikable, but still another important piece to the story. It is with Dell Duke, Mai, and Quang-ha that she first finds out the news about the accident, and that was certainly very purposeful on the author's part.

The premise of the book is kind of cliche, but I felt that Holly Sloan executed it pretty well, and it had just enough unique elements to make it interesting, entertaining, and thoughtful. It cannot be argued that Counting by 7s is an odd little book, and I'm not sure if its intended younger readers will like it much; Holly Sloan turns the cliche upside down so much that the story is kind of hard to get into; it goes a bit slowly and is a rather introverted novel. I, however, liked it a lot. It's a quick but beautiful read, even though some parts had me (inwardly) rolling my eyes just a bit.

378 pages.

Rating: ****

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Bitter Kingdom, Rae Carson

The Bitter Kingdom (Fire and Thorns, #3)We run. My heels crunch sandy shale as my legs pound a steady rhythm. With every fourth step, I suck a lungful of dry air. My chest burns, my thighs ache, and the little toe of my left foot stings with the agony of a ripped blister.

"The epic conclusion to Rae Carson's Fire and Thorns trilogy. The seventeen-year-old sorcerer-queen will travel into the unknown realm of the enemy to win back her true love, save her country, and uncover the final secrets of her destiny. Elisa is a fugitive in her own country. Her enemies have stolen the man she loves in order to lure her to the gate of darkness. As she and her daring companions take one last quest into unknown enemy territory to save Hector, Elisa will face hardships she's never imagined. And she will discover secrets about herself and her world that could change the course of history. She must rise up as champion-a champion to those who have hated her most."

I don't love this trilogy nearly as much as many other people, but I still really enjoyed the final book in the series, which has many great elements and is really good fantasy. However, the first book still remains my favorite in terms of how absorbing it was and how it set the foundation for the following books to build upon. Still, the following books are very interesting in terms of their portrayal of relationships and the complex politics of a complex world, a feat which I certainly applaud Rae Carson for. Elisa's battling land is portrayed very well, and it's well rounded. In terms of the whole trilogy, there are sections of whirlwind action and sections that are more introspective and thoughtful. Overall though, this series is more of a fast-paced, action-oriented read. It's fairly mindless for the most part, at least in my opinion (I know others would disagree). Still, Elisa's growth is amazing to read about, how she gains confidence (and loses weight) and must hone her decision making skills.

About The Bitter Kingdom specifically: it really wrapped up the trilogy nicely, and I'm glad that I finally got a copy. Certain sections of it were perhaps a bit slow, but Elisa and company are embarking on an epic journey to rescue Hector and (presumably) save the world while they're at it. I really love all the supporting characters, especially Storm, who's quite interesting. There's also a new character: Mula, a slave girl who Elisa rescues, and I loved her too.Of course, Elisa is the best; she's still somewhat unsure of herself, but really brave and fiercely defensive of those she cares about. And Hector is awesome. They have a really good relationship of equality; he doesn't want to do everything for her and he's not too overprotective. In The Bitter Kingdom, some of the chapters are from his point of view, which was a nice touch. Also, I love how there isn't a love triangle, and that Carson points out that your first love (in this case, Humberto from the first book) isn't always who you're meant to be with. I was rather shocked when he was killed, but eventually realized it was a good move on Rae Carson's part, and an important aspect of Elisa's character development.

The series is of course narrated in first person present tense, but although that's typical YA, it actually works pretty well, as it makes the characters' experiences much more immediate. There are certainly some great evocations of the desert that Elisa and her friends much travel through, and eventually, the bitter cold of the north (Bitter Kingdom, you see? Yes). The cover also gorgeously conveys the freezing, killing nature of the place where Inviernos live. It's also interesting because Elisa's Godstone turns icy cold when there's mortal danger around.

There was a lot of violence in The Bitter Kingdom, and that made me uneasy. Several times, Elisa has to kill possibly innocent people simply because they're inconvenient. If I recall correctly, something similar to this happened in Crown of Embers, and I didn't like it there either. Defense is one thing, but actually killing people in cold blood is another, and that's one element of the series that I really dislike; it also makes me dislike the characters more.

Still, that's a fairly minor criticism, and overall I really like this trilogy, and am sad that it's over despite Rae Carson's excellent concluding book. I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next, and I would definitely recommend this one to those who have read and enjoyed the first two books.

433 pages.

Rating: ****

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Impossible, Nancy Werlin (with Some Spoilers)

Impossible (Impossible, #1)On the evening of Lucy Scarborough's seventh birthday, after the biggest party the neighborhood had seen since, well, Lucy's sixth birthday, Lucy got one last unexpected gift. 

"Lucy is seventeen when she discovers that she is the latest recipient of a generations-old family curse that requires her to complete three seemingly impossible tasks or risk falling into madness and passing the curse on to the next generation. Unlike her ancestors, though, Lucy has family, friends, and other modern resources to help her out. But will it be enough to conquer this age-old evil? beautifully wrought modern fairy tale from master storyteller and award-winning author Nancy Werlin. Inspired by the classic folk ballad "Scarborough Fair," this is a wonderfully riveting and haunting novel of suspense, romance, and fantasy."

Impossible wasn't great, and it had an odd balance of fantasy and realistic elements, but I did enjoy some parts of the book, and the story did keep me reading. Perhaps one of the main problems with the book is that the reader knows way too much about the plot from the very beginning, whereas Lucy doesn't find out about the curse and all of that until after page 150. There probably could have been a lot of things cut out of the book, or maybe the plot just could have been changed a bit in terms of sequence. In any case, I'm too lazy to rewrite the summary. ;) And obviously the author intended for the reader to know about a lot of things before Lucy does. 

In any case, the plot itself was pretty creative, and I loved the use of the song "Scarborough Fair". There's also something about completing three tasks that's really appealing, which is probably why some variant of completing tasks shows up in a lot of fantasy novels. Although the reader knows much of the mystery in Impossible already, there are still some puzzling elements, and the way the story is woven is very interesting. My main problem, I guess, was the book's somewhat slow pace and the way that the realistic and fantastical elements were portrayed. *****SPOILER ALERT******   For example, the characters are living in the modern age, yet when Lucy gets pregnant (at the age of seventeen), the idea of abortion is briefly considered and then completely dropped, even though there's a good chance that she'll go mad when she gives birth. The same thing happened in The Language of Flowers, a realistic fiction novel, and it really annoyed me there too. I mean, I totally understand if someone doesn't make that choice, but the point is that in a book set in the 21st century, it's bound to be considered a little more in-depth. What about those "modern resources" in the plot summary? Hmm? There were also some other odd happenings, such as the marriage, considering the time period and Lucy and Zach's age. That aspect was really awful; I hated it, even if it was practical. It just felt so out of place. *END SPOILER*

Still, the story was super compelling, and once I got into the novel, I just kept reading. I didn't particularly enjoy the romance, but I did love the fantasy element of the book, and how it actually melded with reality pretty well. There were also some deliciously eerie parts and characters, such as the strange, charismatic, magnetic, new social worker at Lucy's (step)mother's organization. He clearly had something to do with the curse, and I immediately suspected that he was the elfin knight himself. That said, it was weird that Lucy and her family didn't catch on that there was something very odd about him, and that he was probably related to the curse. 

Once the novel got going, it was pretty suspenseful; however, the beginning sections were a bit dull and overdrawn. Impossible did have a compelling mystery element to it, despite the reader's foreknowledge of a lot of the plot. I have to say, I got the song stuck in my head for a long time after reading the book, so it was certainly effective in that respect. There is a sequel, but I'm not sure if I'll read it considering that the book wrapped up pretty nicely. 

Impossible was certainly very absorbing, and it was a fast, fairly easy read. 

365 pages. 

Rating: 3.5 stars. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Swimming in the Moon, Pamela Schoenewaldt

Swimming in the Moon: A NovelI spend hours in trains now or shivering in borrowed Model Ts, bouncing down rutted roads between towns strewn like rocks across frozen fields. 

"Lucia D'Angelo's voice is nothing like her mother's. She's no nightingale with the gorgeous tones, tender and passionate, peaking and plummeting as dramatically as her moods. Yet in the rough world she's chosen, Lucia's words may truly change lives. In 1904, fourteen-year-old Lucia and her young mother Teresa are servants in a count's lush villa on the Bay of Naples. Between scrubbing floors and polishing silver, Teresa soothes the unhappy countess with song until one morning's calamity hurls mother and daughter to America, exchanging their gilded cage for icy winds off Lake Erie and Cleveland's taut immigrant neighborhoods. Lucia blossoms and Teresa wins fleeting fame on the tawdry stage of vaudeville until old demons threaten their new life. In factories and workhouses, Lucia finds her own stage, giving voice to those who have given her a home. As roles reverse, mother and daughter reshape their fierce and primal bond."

I really enjoyed Swimming in the Moon, a disturbing and intense but also really sensory historical novel. At first glance, it might seem similar to The Shoemaker's Wife, but even though both stories deal with Italians immigrating to the US in the early twentieth century, the books are quite different: The Shoemaker's Wife tells of a romance, Swimming in the Moon of a strong mother daughter relationship, and how the two protect one another. I enjoyed the latter novel more, because I found the characters more interesting and less annoying. The book felt more realistic too, although some of the villains in the story were almost too evil.

Many parts of Swimming in the Moon were definitely moving though. I've read many books about new immigrants coming to America and struggling to survive, and it's really a very good angle, because you read about these poor people trying to get educated and earn enough money to survive and as in this case learn the language. The basic plot itself is not unique; Lucia, like many heroines is smart and wants to graduate high school if she can. But there are differences, particularly what their lives were like back in Italy. There were some great descriptions of Italy in the first twenty pages or so, which made Lucia's later longing for it really realistic. Despite the initial idyllic scene, the book is filled with hardships, and mother and daughter quickly move to the rather dreary Cleveland, where they find life very different from what they've been used to. It's a shock for both of them, and this is both of their stories, even though Lucia is the main character.

I really enjoyed reading of their struggle to protect one another and their fierce, often confrontational love for each other. Lucia and her mother stick together, even though they fight a lot and have a different moral code. Lucia's mother has bouts of strangeness, and in these very tense, frightening moments, Lucia has to kind of take care of her: "as roles reverse", if you will. Their bond is certainly "fierce and primal", and they argue so much.

Lucia is a character you can and will root for; she's trying to help her mother and get an education too. Perhaps in this respect, she isn't that unique: the young immigrant girl who despite everyone else's lack of understanding struggles to graduate high school, but in other ways she's fully her own character. The way she is both selfish and selfless was interesting to read; she's determined to finish her education, but she offers many times to put it off and go to work to help support the family. Her mother, however, won't hear of it, which is unusual. 

Swimming in the Moon wasn't quite what I was expecting; I just glanced at the plot summary before putting it on hold at the library, but I certainly enjoyed this coming-of-age story. It's tender and fierce by turns, and beautiful and sad as well. I just love lushly described, well-written and well-plotted works of historical fiction, and Swimming in the Moon is one of those, although it is kind of "main-stream". The novel didn't do anything radically new, but I would say that Swimming in the Moon is worth buying, although I didn't. 

337 pages. 

Rating: ****

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Also Known As, Robin Benway

Also Known AsI cracked my first lock when I was three. I know that sounds like I'm bragging, but really, it wasn't that hard.

"Being a 16-year-old safecracker and active-duty daughter of international spies has its moments, good and bad. Pros: Seeing the world one crime-solving adventure at a time. Having parents with super cool jobs. Cons: Never staying in one place long enough to have friends or a boyfriend. But for Maggie Silver, the biggest perk of all has been avoiding high school and the accompanying cliques, bad lunches, and frustratingly simple locker combinations. Then Maggie and her parents are sent to New York for her first solo assignment, and all of that changes. She'll need to attend a private school, avoid the temptation to hack the school's security system, and befriend one aggravatingly cute Jesse Oliver to gain the essential information she needs to crack the case . . . all while trying not to blow her cover."

Also Known As is another one of those books that I have really mixed feelings about. One the hand, it was a fairly fast-paced book with action, but on the other, as soon as you stop to really think about the book, the whole thing kind of falls apart. I mean, the characters are thinly developed, and the mysterious spy organization they work for even less so. The book is also really predictable, and while it seemed to get some of the spy aspects right, others didn't work well at all for me.

That said, AKA is a fun and funny read; it's good entertainment, and the main character can be humorous at times, with her sarcasm and rueful reflection. The teenage characters in the novel are also pretty realistic in terms of their interactions, even if they weren't fleshed quite enough. Maggie's family did not, however, seem like spies; I just couldn't buy it, probably because there was so little information about the organization that they work for that it all felt very forced. Most of the spy details rung true, mainly about real spies being super "beige"; that is, blending in with the crowd, rather than wearing trench coats and dark glasses and all of that. I enjoyed the descriptions of Maggie picking locks, but the password hacking did not seem realistic at all. I seriously doubt that many people use passwords like their kid's names or their date of birth anymore, considering that practically every website ever warns you not to do that. That little detail nagged at me, and it was so annoying. I would've liked some actual info about how to hack accounts rather than Maggie just being able to do it. 

The other children's spy/detective books I've read recently are the two Ruby Redfort books, which are more humorous but way less realistic. Unlike Maggie and her fellow spies, Ruby and the secret agency Spectrum have all sorts of utterly implausible gadgets. Ruby Redfort is kind of fantastical; AKA is grounded in realism. Although I will say that the mission Maggie is assigned hardly seems like a real thing. The book also isn't very thrilling, which you might expect of a spy novel. It's very ordinary, and kind of formulaic.

Of course there had to be romance in the book, and that I didn't like much. I did, however, like the rapport between Jesse and Maggie, and Maggie and her new-found friend Roux. And the book raised interesting questions in terms of Maggie struggling to actually not get attached to the people at the school. 

Basically, Also Known As is good for an afternoon of fun and entertainment. Just try not to analyze it too much. The reading level was a bit lower than I was expecting, but not too bad. And Maggie was a fairly intelligent and interesting character. It's not a book I would recommending buying though; I was glad that I checked it out of the library, as it's not a book I would want to reread.

308 pages. 

Rating: ****

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Recent DNF Books

These are books that I recently (within the past few months) didn't finish, and books that I didn't read enough of to write a review. I did want to mention them on the blog, though.

The Bookman's Tale, Charlie Lovett: I had high hopes for this one, but alas I couldn't finish this one; I got to page 50. The story was very interesting, but the writing just wasn't good enough to keep me reading. Ah well. Date put down: August 4th.
The Bookman's Tale by Charlie Lovett

A Conspiracy of Faith, Jussi Adler-Olsen: Dutton sent me a copy of this mystery rather unexpectedly, but for whatever reason I didn't feel like reading it. Date (finally) put down: August 19th.
A Conspiracy of Faith by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins: I don't know...I just couldn't get into these stories. The prose was lifeless and flat. The few stories I read were uninteresting. It's a shame too, because I am interested in Western fiction. Vastly disappointing. I read about 50 pages before putting it down. Maybe I'll try again later. (Another review copy, incidentally).
Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins

The Way of Kings, Brian Sanderson: This wasn't a book I was particularly interested in, but I did happen to win the Goodreads giveaway. Still, not an epic fantasy kind of person. It's only the first book in the series, and it's like 1200 pages long. Meh.
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Just One Day, Gayle Forman: Everyone's raved about this book, but I guess I'm just not a fan of straight-up romance. I also felt like the main character made some pretty stupid choices.

Just One Day by Gayle Forman

Stella Bain, Anita Shreve: "I found myself unable to read much of Stella Bain. Given its subject matter, the book felt kind of cold and detached. I only got to page 40 in the ARC, but the book in total is less than 300 pages, and I didn't particularly feel like continuing."

Stella Bain by Anita Shreve

This was a rather weird post, wasn't it? Anyway, just some recent books that I failed to take an interest in.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Rereading Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Insurgent (Divergent, #2)I wake with his name in my mouth. Will. Before I open my eyes, I watch him crumple to the pavement again. Dead.

 Plot summary from Amazon: "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. New York Times bestselling author Veronica Roth's much-anticipated second book of the dystopian Divergent series is another intoxicating thrill ride of a story, rich with hallmark twists, heartbreaks, romance, and powerful insights about human nature."

*Spoilers for Divergent*

I recently reread Divergent in preparation for Allegiant's release, even though it was really Insurgent I couldn't remember much about. Most people would agree that Insurgent is not quite as good as Divergent, but it's still a very suspenseful and absorbing sequel. It's just slightly less relatable, and perhaps a little less suspenseful, even though there's rapid-fire action, and the ending is one giant cliffhanger. It's also at least one hundred pages longer than Divergent, which might have something to do with it. Still, I really love Insurgent, and as second books go, it's a good one.

As well lots of action and storming of compound scenes, Veronica Roth also focuses on the complexity of human relationships. I really love how Tris and Four have a lot of conflicts and tension with one another throughout the book; they don't always agree with one another's choices, and I feel like that's a much more realistic portrayal of romance and love than we often get in young adult fiction, where it's all happily ever after. Roth also attempts to shade in the various aspects of the characters, and she talks very movingly about Tris's extreme guilt at having killed Will while he was being brainwashed. Another part of the book that I really enjoyed was the way Tris is seriously struggling with all of the violence that's going on around her, and the violence that she's perpetrated. Also, she's just lost both of her parents in one day, and her remaining friends are all in danger, so all in all, she's got a lot of issues and it's totally realistic that she's kind of going through some post traumatic stress disorder. As the summary so succinctly puts it, the book is full of "haunting grief and guilt, radical new discoveries, and shifting relationships".

Insurgent might be a bit intoxicating. It's certainly really, really fast-paced in terms of all the new developments. Roth does develop the characters very well, but somehow less so than in Divergent. Perhaps it's because here it's only the subtleties. But those are the little things that make the characters human and flawed and interesting.

 The action in this book is amazing, and there's certainly a lot more of the storming secure fortresses variety than in Divergent, in which Tris is trying to figure out what the heck Divergence is and her feelings about Abnegation and Dauntless. In Insurgent, she still has a lot of figuring out to do, but about different things. Also, a full-scale conflict has erupted, which ultimately, I think, is what really marks the difference between the two books. Just like Divergent though, Insurgent is really enthralling, and very tense.

There are some great scenes with Tobias and Tris; as I said earlier, their relationship is really developed more in Insurgent, and there are moments both fraught with conflict and swoon-worthy ones. This is one of my favorite secondary but still important aspects of the book, although of course the larger conflict is foremost. Several interesting new characters are introduced, and characters from the first book are more fully fleshed out, such as Peter and Edward.

Fans of books full of action might like Insurgent more than Divergent, but both books are amazing in terms of entertainment and how surprisingly smart they are. Rereading the first two books has gotten me super pumped for Allegiant's release; I can't wait to see how Roth finishes off the trilogy (and what is she going to work on next?). There's also a print edition of the novellas from Four's point of view coming out in February.

525 pages.

Rating: *****

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy by Elizabeth Kiem

Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, SpyNovember dusk slips into Moscow like a spy; you don't know it's there until it has stolen the day and vanished into the dark. But on the night that my mother disappears from my life, I could swear that I see it happen. The arrival of twilight, I mean - not my mother's disappearance. That's something I don't see coming. Not  until it is too late. Not until she's already gone.

"Marina is born of privilege. Her mother, Sveta, is the Soviet Union's prima ballerina: an international star handpicked by the regime. But Sveta is afflicted with a mysterious second sight and becomes obsessed with exposing a horrific state secret. Then she disappears. Fearing for their lives, Marina and her father defect to Brooklyn. Marina struggles to reestablish herself as a dancer at Juilliard. But her enigmatic partner, Sergei, makes concentration almost impossible, as does the fact that Marina shares her mother's “gift,” and has a vision of her father’s murder at the hands of the Russian crooks and con artists she thought they'd left behind. Now Marina must navigate the web of intrigue surrounding her mother's disappearance, her ability, and exactly whom she can—and can't—trust."

I totally can't remember where I first heard about this book, but as soon as I read the plot description, I was hooked. As it turned out, Dancer Daughter Traitor Spy isn't a great book (I didn't really think it would be), but it is somewhat entertaining and a quick read. It's a blend of mystery, historical fiction, spy novel, thriller, and fantasy. Plus a Russian setting, which sounded like it had the potential to be intriguing. I was actually a bit disappointed by the level of the book. It's marketed as young adult, but it's really short (under 300 pages) and the font is super big. With a plot like this one, the book could have been fleshed out more; however, at least it wasn't overwritten or long-drawn. It was just kind of an easier read than I was expecting, and it was disappointingly both simplified.

Still, as I mentioned, there are some good elements in this book, which gives a nod in its title to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the famous John le Carre Cold War spy novel. It's not nearly as suspenseful though, and it also felt kind of simplistic, as if the author didn't fully have a grasp of the political situation and didn't even try to. As I said, this was mainly because of the level of the book, which was not high. Some parts of the narration and the way that Marina talked offhandedly about her family seemed odd too. 

I kept hoping that the book would come together more, but it was very discombobulated. For example, there is a fantasy element to the novel, but for a lot of the book it's not developed or explained much at all, and only really comes in later. This was not a good technique, as thus the different parts of the book didn't mesh well at all. I'm not quite sure what the author was thinking there. Rather than being a blend of historical fiction, spy novel, and fantasy, the book was more like different sections that were more different genres. And it was never very suspenseful. Still, the story had its points; it just wasn't nearly as good as I was expecting it to be. I was expecting it to be a 4 star read, but it was more like 3 stars. The characters also weren't developed enough for my tastes; I didn't find Marina or any of her relatives all that convincing. The fantasy element could have been taken out and not that much would have been missed.

It often happens that books either get better or worse when the setting changes, and such was the case here. The book definitely picked up at least a little bit once Marina and her father arrive in New York. Although the fantasy element still isn't incorporated enough, there are some new characters that Marina meets, and her initial plunge into America was the most interesting part of Dancer Daughter Traitor Spy. She wants to keep dancing, but it's difficult since she's undercover in terms of her identity and she doesn't speak much English.

Dancer Daughter Traitor Spy is a really short book, and it's a pretty fast read. It wasn't great or anything, but it had an interesting premise, and is worth reading if the plot sounds particularly interesting. I am glad that I checked it out of the library though, as I'm certainly not going to be rereading this one.

264 pages.

Rating: ***