Tuesday, December 31, 2013


126. Insomnia, Jenn Johanssen

 (I actually read this a couple of months ago but just realized I never posted my review.)

I was probably predisposed to like this one since I've met the author and she's awesome (and a redhead, so naturally we're kindred spirits . . . ). And while I'm not usually big on thrillers, I did quite enjoy this one. The story line is quite original: Parker is a Watcher, which means he's forced to inhabit the dreams of the last person he makes eye contact with each day.

Insomnia (The Night Walkers, #1)What this mostly means is that Parker doesn't sleep. Ever. And the sleeplessness is slowly killing him. When he meets a new girl at school, Mia, whose dreams are strangely restful (and the first time Parker has been able to really sleep in months), he becomes obsessed. Not romantically obsessed--just desperate to find ways for her to be the last one he sees each night. Not surprisingly, it doesn't take long for Mia to be completely creeped out by his behavior and to try to avoid him. Even his friends think he's finally lost it.

But when strange things begin happening in his own dreams and Mia is threatened--Parker doesn't know if he can trust himself anymore.

What I liked about this book (and what, apparently, some reviewers hate about it) was that Parker was an unreliable narrator. He genuinely doesn't know if he's capable of doing some of the horrible things he's afraid he's actually done. Sometimes the writing style was fragmented and a bit disjointed, but I think that perfectly reflected Parker's state of mind. And yes, sometimes (frequently), Parker is a jerk. But he doesn't want to be that person, and he works toward changing it.

The story has some surprising twists and tense moments--a good example of a YA thriller. 

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Wishing Well

125. The Wishing Well, Holly Zitting

The Wishing Well (Paradan Tales, #1)I got this book free on my Kindle--and I struggled to get through parts of it. The basic story premise is interesting: a girl (Aurora) who's been bullied hides herself in an abandoned well to get away from her tormenters and finds herself in a high fantasy world, a kingdom ruled by a wicked king. Aurora's immediately taken to the castle and forced to serve with other enslaved creatures (fairies, trolls, etc.) But after making friends with the castle staff, she finds her new security threatened when the king decides to cement his power in the kingdom by taking a pretty young wife and getting an heir--and Aurora is his choice. Since Aurora has already fallen hard for the king's stable boy, this isn't a future she wants for herself. At the same time, her personal struggles are mirrored by a rebellion growing in the kingdom, led by her boyfriend, Cassius.

Some concerns I had: not all of the plot made sense to me. For instance, if King Tommit needs a wife to help win the support of the people, why would he choose someone who wasn't even from his kingdom--no matter how lovely she is? While the story pacing was good, the story could have benefited from tighter editing: there were a number of distracting errors in the kindle version, and the descriptions sometimes tended to rely on cliches. Additionally, there were odd shifts in POV--after the first forty or so pages from Aurora's first person point of view, it was a little jarring to abruptly go to a third person POV--especially since some of the third person stories were from minor characters that we didn't meet until well into the story.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Power Revealed

124. Power Revealed, Leah Berry
Power Revealed (The Elementers, #1)

Justin Wilder's life is a mess: he's just lost his best friend (his grandfather) and moved to a new school hundreds of miles away. Now he's just heard a tree talk to him--and he thinks he might be going crazy. Luckily for him, he soon discovers that he's not crazy, just a member of an elite group of elementers who can control the elements. Only Justin's more powerful than any of them have seen, and his reluctance to bow to rules has already brought him unwelcome attention from the Council which monitors the elementers. When Justin discovers that his grandfather's death may not have been accidental, his struggle to discover what may have gone wrong leads him into grave danger.

There were a lot of things to like here: the writing style was clean and didn't get in the way of the story; the magic world was well-thought out and consistent, and the story moved at a fast pace. Justin drove me crazy, though, with his insistence on questioning rules just for the sake of questioning them--and I'm getting a little tired of the fantasy motif where the main character is able to save the world because they are so unusually powerful. Aside from that, I think a lot of young fantasy readers would enjoy this.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Eleanor and Park

123. Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park I really loved this book. 
On some levels, it's a quiet book: most of the scenes focus on the unfolding relationship between Eleanor and Park. But Rowell develops this relationship so beautifully, I found myself rereading scenes just to try and figure out how she maintained the pacing in a novel where (in some scenes) not much actually happens. I think what I loved best was the characters: Rowell makes you fall in love with both characters--not in spite of their imperfections, but in part because of those imperfections--so it seems perfectly natural that Eleanor and Park should love each other as well.

Park is a pretty average kid: he falls short of his father's expectations, but he's a good kid, his parents love each other (maybe too much), he gets by in school and he's not at the bottom of the social totem pole. When he first sees Eleanor, he recognizes immediately that she is precisely the kind of person who draws the wrong kind of attention in school. But when no one else will let Eleanor sit with them on the bus (and she clearly has to sit somewhere), Park reluctantly--even angrily--gives her a place to sit by him. This simple act leads to an improbable friendship and a smart, funny, heart-breaking romance.

All Eleanor seems to want is to be invisible, to get through the day without drawing any attention. But she's all wrong, from her out of control curly red hair to her over-sized body, to the clothes she wears (mostly men's clothes because her mom can't afford to buy her anything new). At home, Eleanor struggles to find her place after being gone for a year (where and why is one of the early mysteries of the book). She looks out for her four younger siblings and tries, at all costs, to avoid her stepfather, who's a real piece of work.

And then she meets Park, and everything changes. Because he sees her. He gets her. And he likes her--loves her--anyway.

I wish a book like this had been around when I was in high school: it would have made a big difference to the gawky, overweight red-head I was then to believe that someone could think I was beautiful. Rowell gets so convincingly inside of Park's head that we realize that it doesn't even matter to him that Eleanor is what some people would call "fat"--to him, she's beautiful. Period. And through his eyes we see all the ways that she's luminous (a word Rowell uses frequently to refer to Eleanor). I loved, too, how well the book captured the immediacy and all-consuming nature of one's first real romance.

Really, the only thing I didn't like was that there wasn't enough of it. Also, there was some language--but in context, it worked (the coarseness of Eleanor's language is largely a reflection of the coarseness of her home life).

Sunday, December 22, 2013

122. The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by  Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  I really enjoyed this book, which tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a young black woman with cervical cancer whose cancerous cell tissue provided the now famous HeLa cells that have been so widely used in scientific research. The cells were taken from Lacks without her permission or awareness, something that was common practice in the 1950s. As Skloot investigates the story, she becomes increasingly drawn into her relationship with Lacks' family, who continue to struggle with poverty even as HeLa cells are sold worldwide.

The story is part history (piecing together what is known of Henrietta's story), part family drama (the current lives of Lacks' children), part historiography (Skloot's account of her research process reveals a lot about the ways we tell history and the sources we go to for history) and part scientific ethics (as Skloot raises some interesting questions about ownership of human cells).

The different story lines weren't always perfectly woven together, but the material was fascinating and very accessible. I was also very impressed with Skloot as a researcher--she possessed a tenacity in following the material over a several-year period, even after an initial rebuff from Lacks' family, that suggests her real passion for the subject.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Friends and Traitors

121. Friends and Traitors (Slayers #2), CJ Hill.

Friends and Traitors (Slayers, #2)I'm a long-time fan of C.J. Hill (aka Janette Rallison). While her Slayers books are very different from her (very funny) YA novels, there's still a lot of humor and relationship drama in these books. And while this book is the second in a series, it doesn't seem to suffer from the second book syndrome--partly, I think, because the characters still have some compelling arcs.

In this book, Tori is just beginning to come into her own as a Slayer when she has to put all her training aside to return home from "summer camp" for the school year and a high-profile life as a senator's daughter. Because of the danger of associating outside of camp, Jesse breaks things off with her. And while Tori is heartbroken, she finds some solace in her friendship with Dirk, who isn't afraid to break a few rules to see Tori outside of camp. Of course, that might be because Dirk is struggling with a few dangerous secrets of his own.

When Tori realizes that she can hear noises from the dragon hatchlings, she worries that the eggs might already be hatched. Along with the other slayers, she launches a search to find Ryker Davis, a missing Slayer whose participation might make all the difference in the upcoming showdown with Overdrake.

I have to say that I really loved the interplay between Tori and Dirk. While I don't agree with all of Dirk's choices, I found his position to be a complicated and compelling one. I didn't love Tori's relationship with Jesse as much--he winds up coming across as a bit of a prig. Still, it's hard not to love a book that has the heroine zooming across the sky in a Wonder Woman costume (and fully aware of the ironic humor in her appearance). And the dragons are beautiful and dangerous and heartbreaking all at once.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Blud and Magick

 Blüd and Magick 120. Blud and Magick by Preston Norton.

This book read a bit like a mash-up of Harry Potter and Hex Hall: 14-year-old Darla Summer is a re-incarnation (of sorts) of the Shadow Lord Alrad Remmus--but she thinks she's a perfectly average teenage girl until the day she discovers that someone has stolen the body of her English teacher and that the two boys she's been assigned to work with are a warlock and a vampire. The discoveries multiply at this point, including her discovery that her beloved Uncle Edwin is really a Sage for the kingdom of Trivaesia and he is being summoned home--along with Darla, who is to attend the Alrad Academy of Blud and Magick, a school for paranormals of all sorts.

The story was fun: the writing style was light and fast and the teenagers had some pretty good back-and-forth exchanges. The high fantasy style of the first chapter threw me a little, because it was quite different from the style of the rest of the book. Darla herself also seemed a bit passive: lots of things happened to her, but she didn't really start acting until the end of the book.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Feudlings in Flames

119. Feudlings in Flames, by Wendy Knight
Feudlings in Flames (Fate on Fire, #2)
I really wanted to like this book more than I actually did. I think Knight has a great writing style: clear, interesting, good action sequences. But for some reason, I'm not connecting to this series. The first one bothered me because it was quite violent and the main character seemed indifferent to the violence (that is, she was powerful enough to casually kill lots of people when the occasion demanded--as it frequently did, since she had been raised as a weapon for her people). At least, until she isn't indifferent. There's an odd sort of vacillation in Ari where she doesn't seem to hesitate or think about blasting people out of the way in her quest to rescue her good friend Charity (or on other occasions), but then she thinks of herself as a monster. I'd like to see the two aspects integrated more in her character: more struggle with killing, less self-loathing after the fact.

There's less killing in this second book, but Ari still has that sometimes odd callousness about killing that I find disturbing. I suppose most of it can be explained by her background--but still. In this book she faces off against the family that raised her, and it doesn't seem to bother her as much as it would bother most people. The relationships here were a little odd, too--they didn't have the nice arc of the previous book, because most of the relationships were established. But her relationship with Shane seemed artificially strained, to me. Shane seemed jealous of things without even talking to Ari about them, and Ari wasn't as forthcoming as she could have been. The ending, too, was a little disappointing. After a great build-up, the actual end was a little flat. (I wonder if Ms. Knight herself knew that, because at one point she has Ari quote T.S. Eliot: "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.")

Okay, now this review sounds mostly like griping. There were some great things here. I liked watching Charity struggle to be strong, and her story arc was one of the strongest in the book. Some of the secrets revealed here were interesting, and, as mentioned above, the action sequences are all fast-paced.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Dream Thieves

The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle, #2)118. Dream Thieves, by Maggie Stiefvater

Confession: at this point, I would probably read just about anything written by Ms. Stiefvater because I love her writing style so much. (Further confession: I bought my son the first book in the Spirit Animals series mostly because I saw that Ms. Stiefvater was writing one of them . . .)

In those terms, this book did not disappoint. The writing is haunting, lyrical, dream-like--and funny. And I love her attention to detail, including the bits of Old English that the Gray Man translates (I took an OE course in graduate school and remember just enough to truly geek-out at stuff like this).

The plot in this particular one was a little more meandering: Gansey is still searching for Glendower (buried Welsh king), but the search has stalled out because Cabeswater is behaving capriciously, disappearing and reappearing at odd intervals. Ronan is even more out-of-control, egged on by newcomer Kavinsky, and his dreams are peopled with nightmares. An oddly unassuming, Anglo-Saxon loving hit man shows up in town, looking for something called the Graywaren. Blue is still trying to avoid her fate of killing her true love if she kisses him, and Adam is trying to figure out what, exactly, he promised to Cabeswater. It's not until the end of the book that all these odd threads come together (and they come together nicely), but unless you're along for the ride of the language and the characters (I was), the plot might be a bit disappointing.

Also, like Blue, I'm kinda in love with Gansey. I don't know what makes him so appealing: his willingness to believe in people and things? His loyalty?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Awakener

117. The Awakener, by Amanda Strong

Fifteen-year-old Eden has a gift for awakening talents in others--but she has no idea of this. After encountering her childhood friend Micah again for the first time in years, she feels compelled to hug him. When she does so, she changes him, making him aware of a world of demons and Guardian angels and his own unique gifts. With demons threatening to break lose and destroy the world, Eden, Micah, and their friends will need all of their powers to hold back this threat.

The AwakenerSo the basic story here--of a group of teens who need to save the world--isn't exactly unique. But Strong throws a unique spin on things by drawing heavily from the apocryphal story of Enoch and his legendary city. And honestly, the detailed research she put into this was one of the most compelling parts of the story. The rest of it I liked, but just couldn't quite connect to the characters. I also struggle sometimes understanding why a group of teens, conveniently located in the same town, are the ones meant to save the world. (This is a critique about a certain genre of YA fantasy--not just this story). Here, at least, Eden's talent for awakening talents in others does explain the geographic coincidence. But why is the world always at the mercy of teenagers? While there are a few secondary characters who are older, it's mostly the teens who figure in here.

The characters and voice also weren't quite as distinct as I would have liked. I had a hard time keeping the secondary characters straight here and some of them seemed single-dimensional. Of course--this is all just my opinion, and going by the reviews on Goodreads, mine is a minority opinion!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Warrior Beautiful

116. Warrior Beautiful, by Wendy Knight.

Warrior Beautiful (Riders of Paradesos, #1)At the beginning of the novel, Scout is a damaged soul: she's still recovering from an accident that left her unable to dance as she'd like, and she's still recovering from heartbreak (her ex broke things off at the same time as the accident). She throws herself into dance at school and focuses her energy on her relationship with her sister, Lil Bit. (Okay, side note: I really struggled with this nick-name. The kid is eleven and the nickname makes her seem even more juvenile than she actually is). Lil Bit can see things that aren't there: unicorns and nightmare creatures she calls Soul Stealers. Scout isn't quite sure what to think of Lil Bit's visions, but she knows her sister isn't a liar. Then, when a strange disease begins attacking people in town (including Scout's sister) and Scout actually sees a Soul Stealer, she realizes there's a lot going on that she doesn't know.

For starters, she gets recruited to be a unicorn rider. Unicorns fight Soul Stealers, but they are much more powerful with a human rider. Scout is willing to do anything to save her sister--but when her ex is also recruited to ride with the unicorns, Scout isn't sure if her heart is up for it.

There was a lot to like here: the writing is clean and fast-paced, the plot was interesting, and the relationship between Scout and her sister was genuinely touching. I didn't love everything though. (I already mentioned the nickname thing). Sometimes I felt like Scout's drama with her ex was a little over the top. And while I love the idea of powerful battle unicorns, the fact that these ancient, powerful, inhuman creatures sometimes act like human teenagers was just a little hard for me to buy.