Friday, December 31, 2010

Wither by Lauren DeStefano

Wither by Lauren DeStefano

Rating: PG-13; 4 ½

Summary: Rhine lives in a world devastated by a genetic virus: females only live to be 20, males to 25. At 16, Rhine is kidnapped and sold to be one of three new brides for wealthy architect whose father is desperately trying to find a cure for this virus. Although she is treated well by her new husband, and forms fledgling friendships with the other girls around her, Rhine is desperate to find a way home to her twin brother. She becomes even more desperate when she finds out that all isn't as it seems in her new home, and that the seemingly harmless may be surprisingly sinister.

Opinions: To start off, I had the impression, based on the formatting of the excerpt on Simon and Schuster's website, that this would be a novel in verse. Now let me tell you, dystopian fiction is my favorite genre, and verse novels are my favorite format, so I was pretty excited about that. Well, it isn't. However, that shouldn't be a huge deterrent for anyone, because there are many times throughout the course of the novel that DeStefano's prose definitely feels like poetry; her writing can be truly beautiful. I've been obsessing over this novel since I stumbled upon it, and because of that I have read some of the short fiction that DeStefano has on her website. It all has this dreamy, poetic feel to it that sticks with you.

I really enjoyed this book. It's about a medium-length book, not too long, not too short. Still, I could have breezed through it in about a day and a half, if I had wanted to. I chose to savor it instead—wondering what would happen to Rhine and her sister-wives. It was worth it. The characters are very life-like and consistent. They all have their personalities, and when they do change, it feels real. Occasionally, Rhine's sister-wife, Cecily, can be the exception to that, but the reader can go along with it because she is significantly younger than the other characters. There were times when Rhine's determination to escape to find her brother irritated me, but I realized halfway through the novel that this was because I knew I would never be brave enough to do the same. The world is realistic too—you can feel the hopelessness of a society that never ages, and the descriptions of everything, from desolate Manhattan to glitzy parties, makes it all seem real. Between the characters and the world, this book really draws you in.

Now for the ratings: this book is definitely PG-13. Part of the plot has to do with controversial genetic experiments, etc. There is also some violence, particularly in the first chapter, as sort of an initiation of the reader into DeStefano's world. There is some sexual content, but most of it is brief, and none of it is graphic. Some readers may have an issue with the ages of the characters having sex, but because society dies so soon, it is a necessity and not merely to shock the reader. I am unsure as to whether 4 ½ stars is the right rating for this book. I absolutely loved it, but part of me thinks that something was missing. I worry that I am biased because it turned out to not be in verse, when I thought it would be. Rest assured that it is an excellent book, and if it isn't 4 ½ stars, then it is certainly worth five stars.

Overall, this was a fantastic book. The ending seemed a little bit rushed (mainly the final chapter), but this is a trilogy, and assuming the next book picks up right, the ending shouldn't be that much of an issue at all. I certainly am looking forward to the next book in this series, and I hope that DeStefano keeps writing, because I will keep reading her work (on a side note—according to Goodreads her influences include Francesca Lia Block and Vladimir Nabokov, two of my favorite authors. No wonder I like her writing so much!)

Disclaimer: ARC was provided by the publisher. The release date is currently set for March of 2011.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Matched by Ally Condie

Matched by Ally Condie

Rating: PG-13; 4 ½ stars

Summary: Cassia lives in the future, in a time when people live relatively pain-free lives, but there are no choices. On her seventeenth birthday, Cassia is Matched with Xander, the boy she will marry one day. However, there's a hitch. When Cassia gets home and reviews her Matching materials, it isn't Xander's face she sees. It's that of her friend Ky. Although she is assured that it is merely a glitch, and that she is, indeed, matched with Xander, Cassia can't get Ky off her mind. The more she gets to know him, the more it seems that perhaps her society isn't as perfect as it seemed.

Opinions: I thought the premise of this book was really interesting. It seems to me that the current trend for YA dystopian fiction is that world has gone to pot and everyone is miserable (examples include Unwind by Neal Schusterman, The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, and the as-yet unreleased Wither by Lauren DeStefano). Matched however, seems to go back to the trend of society seems perfect until the protagonist takes a closer look at it (the best example of which is The Giver by Lois Lowry).

As it turns out, Matched has a lot in common with The Giver. Looking at other reviews online, it seems that many readers looked at this negatively. I view it differently. The Giver is my favorite book of all time. Although there were many similarities between Matched's Society and The Giver's Community, the focus of the novels were completely different. And as far as this type of dystopian lit goes (where life seems perfect, but really isn't), there are only so many different options. Choice has to be taken away from people; emotions must be suppressed. Had the focus of the novels been the same, I might accuse Condie of plaigarism. However, the focus of Matched was entirely different from that of The Giver, both plot-wise and in what they tell the reader about so-called utopia.

I really enjoyed Matched. As I mentioned before, I thought that the premise was a good one. It is rare in a dystopian novel to find a character who does not seek to change their entire society at some point in the novel. And although that goal may come later on in the series (I believe this is set to be a trilogy), it hasn't shown up yet. Everything that Cassia does is motivated by her own interests and her love for the family and friends around her. This makes the novel feel a lot more personal. She's doing the same things that an ordinary teenager might do if placed in her world.

I liked the way the plot unfolded, too. Information was revealed bit by bit, so that the reader could sense something was wrong at the same time that Cassia realized it. There was only one point in the novel when I figured something out before Cassia did, and at the time I didn't think it was a big deal (I was later proven wrong, but that just means that I didn't get it all right). In general, the pacing was good. As it got towards the end, the book definitely reached “unputdownable” level, which was a problem because I was at the dentist at the time. I will say that the very end (meaning the last two chapters or so) was a bit disappointing, but I understand that Condie had to sort of let things down a bit for the next book.

I almost rating this book a PG. There is very little violence and no swearing or sexual content, but I feel like some of the concepts and ideas can be difficult, both to understand and to accept (meaning that they were cruel, not poorly explained). This novel was very good, hence the 4 ½ stars, but it was missing that final oomph that would push it into the 5 star range. However, I have a prediction that the series as a whole could be 5 star material. In general this was a very good book, and I can't wait for the next installment.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Bottle in The Gaza Sea by Valerie Zenatti

A Bottle in the Gaza Sea

By Valerie Zenatti

Rating: PG; 4 ½ stars

Summary: Tal lives in Jerusalem. When her brother is sent by the Israeli army to Gaza, she sends him with a request: to put a message in a bottle in the Gaza Sea. She desperately wants to communicate with a Palestinian girl like her, to see if Israelis and Palestinians really are all that different. However, when she receives the first email from her Palestinian pen-pal, she finds that they are not a girl her age, but a boy, Naim. Thus begins a most interesting friendship. Though at first their emails are fraught with cultural misunderstandings (mostly on the part of the sometimes overoptimistic Tal), they soon become close friends. Their friendship is put to the test when Tal's love of film making causes her to witness something terrible.

Opinions: This book was a very quick read, but the story lingers with you afterward, making it seem longer than it actually is. Naim and Tal are ordinary teenagers with ordinary lives, they just happen to live in an area of conflict. Had they lives elsewhere, where distance was the only thing that separated them, I don't think there would have been a story. The stumblings and fumblings of Tal and Naim's initial contact are very realistic; they are both quick to be defensive, despite wanting to prove that Israelis and Palestinians can get along. I read this pretty much in one afternoon, and was crying by the end of it. It is a very powerful story that stays with you long after it ends.

Aside from the actual story, I loved the writing. I hate to remark on it, since this is a translation, but I really thought the writing was wonderful. It was simple and eloquent, and it really spoke to me.

I think that this is a fantastic read for American teenagers; so often we hear about conflict in the Middle East, but we don't often get this sort of glimpse into the lives of people just like us. I will emphasize again: Tal and Naim are ordinary people. They stress over tests; they have little crushes. Yet in addition to worrying about school, money, or family, they also have to worry about bombs.

I gave this book a PG because there really isn't that much violence or language or sexual content, but being a YA book, it is of course not appropriate for all audiences. The 4 ½ stars is because this really is a wonderful book. It is missing that final wow factor that would push it up into the 5 star range, but it really is great. I feel like perhaps if I read it in the original French (if I had that much skill in French), that alone might push it into the 5 star range. I tend to be a bit distrustful of translations, just because a lot can be lost between the limitations of either language. If you are fluent in French, I encourage you to look for this in the original language. Still, this is definitely a fantastic book. I think that it goes really well with In the Name of God, by Paula Jolin, which made my Top Ten list for 2009. They both showcase conflict in the Middle East from a less-than-typical angle.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fire by Kristin Cashore

by Kristin Cashore

Rating: 5 stars; PG-13

Summary: In the Dells, which is not part of the Seven Kingdoms where Graceling takes place, dwell monsters. They look like ordinary animals: a horse, a dog, a bird, but they are brightly colored, very beautiful, can read and influence thoughts, and crave human flesh. Fire is the last of those monsters born looking like a human. While she is growing up, the Dells is falling further and further into ruin, and when the book picks up, it's right on the brink of war. Fire must decide between denying the monster within her, and trying to save the kingdom.

Opinions: Cashore's Graceling was my favorite book of last year (read, not released), and although it's rather early to call it, it looks as though Fire might be this year's top pick. Aside from the intriguing writing, any book that a) makes me cry several times and b) throw the book down in shock, is going to be a good book. Like Graceling, Fire had a good plot and excellent characters. Fire's (the character, not the book) struggle with her humanity (no pun intended) was really moving and had me in tears (or close to it) at least five times during the course of the book.

I have to hand it to Cashore for writing a book about a war that is about so much more than the battles. A lot of the book was the interaction between all the characters, and only a surprisingly small bit focused on actual fighting. That does not mean the book was boring, far from it (of course, you say, I rated it a 5!). Cashore managed to convey all the emotional tension of war even through the perspective of those more behind the scenes. Cashore truly writes believable characters that are completely real and flawed. Not a single character was completely perfect, which made them all the more compelling.

I rated this book a five because I was so completely blow away by it. It had that “wow-factor” that I look for in a book. The kind that has me telling myself I should not cry in front of the small children I babysit because I don't want to scare them. I gave it a PG-13 because there's some violence and some sexual content, but really all of that was very light. I don't recall any profanity, although that doesn't mean there wasn't any. For me, Kristin Cashore is 2 for 2, and I can't wait until her next book comes out.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Dragonfly by Julia Golding

by Julia Golding

Rating: 5 stars, PG-13

Summary: Princess Taoshira, or Tashi, and Prince Ramil, or Ram, are complete opposites. Taoshira, the Fourth Princess of the Blue Crescent Islands lives her life according to rules, rituals, and religions. She has been taught to guard her emotions and never let her own wants and needs overpower the good of her country. Ramil, the crown prince of Gerfal is a wild spirit who lives life to the fullest. These two are brought together when the powers-that-be in their respective countries decide that a marital union between the two lands is in order. Neither are pleased, but after much complaining, they decide to at least try to make the best of it. It all goes downhill from there: kidnapping, war, heresy, slavery, the list goes on and on. Along the way, through all of these trials, the two begin to see more in each other than just cultural differences. And by that, I mean they start to fall in love. The book has a happy ending, but also a lot of suspense to keep the reader wondering how it could be a good ending.

Opinions: One of the first things I noticed about Dragonfly was that it avoided a classic fantasy pitfall: basing invented cultures on real ones. I felt like all the different nations in this book had elements pulled from all sorts of real-life cultures, from European, to Asian, to African, but no one culture was more prominently used than another. Likewise, no culture in the book was overly influenced by one real-world country. Speaking from experience, this is harder than it seems, but Julia Golding did an excellent job. She also did an excellent job at crafting both a detailed religion and a very religious culture that, again, had no resemblance to current religions and religion-based cultures. I did get confused on the location of the different countries in relation to where the characters were a couple of times, but there is a map in the front of the book.

The romance in Dragonfly was really subtle and slow to come on, considering it was mentioned in the book jacket, but it did seem really natural. Tashi and Ram squabbled through much of the book, and there was no sudden shift from animosity to love; it was all pretty gradual.

I felt like the book was a really subtle social commentary, especially in the realm of religious tolerance. Tashi grew up in an extremely religious culture (though I still hesitate to call it a theocracy, at least by modern terms), and her beliefs become a pretty significant sub-plot. The book also says quite a bit about giving people chances, as well as what can come of misunderstanding between different cultures.

I gave the book 5 stars because I absolutely loved it! I didn't inhale it like I do a lot of books that I really enjoy, but I think I enjoyed it all the more for not reading it hours on end. I predict that this will be the Graceling of this summer (I read Graceling early last summer, and it ended up being my top book for the year), if not this year. I actually noticed quite a few similarities between the two books, but nothing negative and, in retrospect, they are probably simply a result of genre conventions. I gave the book a PG-13 rating for violence, as the end of the book was really quite violent (though not unnecessarily so), and for very mild sexuality, almost all of which was passing comments and conversation rather than actions. The book is rather long, and it took awhile for the book to grow on me, but I did read the last hundred pages in one sitting.

A warning to those who read fantasy for the magic: this is fantasy only by virtue of taking place in an entirely made-up world. In that way, it's similar to General Winston's Daughter, which I also reviewed. Still, it's a very enjoyable world with a well-developed world and characters, and enough plot variety to capture both the action and the romance fans.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Panama by Shelby Hiatt

By Shelby Hiatt

Rating: PG-13; 3 stars

Summary: A 15-year-old girl is eager to leave her boring life in Dayton, Ohio for one of exoticism and intrigue in Panama. There, she discovers that, unfortunately, life in “the Zone” area of the Canal is pretty much the same as life in Dayton. That is, until she meets Federico, a Spanish canal worker with a secret political agenda. Her obsession with him leads to the start of a friendship then, suddenly, much, much more. She spends the remainder of the book romancing (and sleeping with) Federico. She grows up and learns much about herself as the construction of the canal (and the book) comes to an end.

Opinions: To start off, I actually read a lot of reviews of this book because, for the life of me, I couldn't remember the name of the girl (none of the other reviewers could either, apparently). While reading these reviews, I couldn't help but notice a definite trend among the reviews: most thought it was inappropriate for the intended audience (some even calling it no more than a bodice-ripper) and that it was poorly researched. On the first point, I kind of see their point of view, but at the same time I've read books for teens that were a lot more graphic about sex, even if there was less sex in the story. On the second point, I have no comment. I honestly didn't notice any of the inaccuracies that were pointed out. The only thing that struck me was the fact that the book took place in the early 1900s, and this girl was going and having sex like it wasn't a big deal. Now I'm not naive; I know that teens had sex then, it just came across as odd to me that the whole book was based around that when it took place in such a, well, conservative period.
Other than that, I'll be honest: I enjoyed the book. It was not the best I've read by any means, but it was a nice, light-hearted romance that took my mind off the stresses of school and life. The only thing I can say I didn't like was my issue with the sex that I explained above. Other than that I thought it was an enjoyable read.
Now for the ratings: If this was a movie, it would be a pretty hard PG-13, if they kept the sex like it was in the book. Any more graphic than that and it would definitely be rated R. And I gave it 3 stars because the sex part really bothered me, not in a prude sort of way, just in a no-suspension-of-disbelief way. Still, the book was, overall, enjoyable.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Top Ten Books of 2009

Top Ten Books of 2009

So I know it's been a looooooooong time since I updated, and I'm trying desperately to get caught up on my reviews. As it is, I'm way behind on my reading for 2010. In the meantime, I thought I'd post a list of my top ten reads of 2009. Not all of these were published last year, but I did read them all last year. I also haven't written reviews for many of them (most of them, actually), but I do intend to. So for now, here's the list. With any luck, I'll get an actual review up with the next week or so. Spring break is next week, so I should have plenty of time for both reading and writing.

All of the top ten are young adult fiction.

10. General Winston's Daughter, by Sharon Shinn. Rating: PG; 3 ½ stars
This book was an excellent social commentary dressed as a fantasy novel. Not what I expected, but quite enjoyable.

9. The Explosionist, by Jenny Davidson. Rating: PG; 3 ½ stars
I didn't realize when I picked up this book that it was an alternate history book. It was a very interesting premise that kept me hooked through to the end. Well-written.

8. Prophecy of the Sisters, by Michelle Zink. Rating: PG-13; 4 stars
As I said in my review, I didn't realize this was historical fiction until I started reading it. This was a very enjoyable, chilling book that cured my fix for more Victorian paranormal fiction (I swear, it'll become a genre some day!)

7. Wondrous Strange, by Lesley Livingston. Rating: PG-13; 4 stars
This book reminded me a lot of Tithe, by Holly Black, and I liked it just as much! The characters and story were lively and intriguing, while still following the traditional legends of fairies.

6. In the Name of God, by Paula Jolin. Rating: PG; 4 ½ stars
This book was really intriguing and thought-provoking, and I loved every page of it! It isn't a light-hearted read, but it gives a balanced view on the other side of religious extremism.

5. A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly. Rating: PG; 4 ½ stars
I loved the characters in this book, and I thought is was really cool that it was written as a sort of companion to An American Tragedy. It made me really want to read Tragedy.

4. The Forest of Hands and Teeth, by Carrie Ryan. Rating: PG-13; 4 ½ stars
This book was so gripping! I read it all in one sitting and spent half of that sitting in tears! It was just an excellent book.

3. The Fattening Hut, but Pat Lowry Collins. Rating: PG-13; 5 stars
The Fattening Hut is one of my favorite books. I generally make a point of reading it once a year. I think the premise is fascinating, and the book draws attention to a terrible practice often considered taboo to talk about.

2. Psyche in a Dress, by Francesca Lia Block. Rating: PG-13; 5 stars
This is another book I read pretty much in one sitting, not that that took much; the book is pretty short. I absolutely loved the sheer poetry of this book. I think Francesca Lia Block is an amazing writer, and this is the book that turned me on to her writing.

1. Graceling, by Kristin Cashore. Rating: PG-13; 5 stars
I'll admit it: part of the reason I picked up this book was because it had my name in the title. That and the sword on the cover really drew me in. Still, I am so glad I picked it up. True, this book isn't as literary as some of my other top ten picks, but it is definitely my favorite book of the past year. I love the characters, love the story, just love everything about it! If you haven't read this, you really need to!

(in no particular order)

The Nature of Monsters, by Clare Clark (MATURE CONTENT)
Castle Waiting, by Linda Medley (graphic novel)
God Went to Beauty School, by Cynthia Rylant (poetry)
Weetzie Bat, by Francesca Lia Block (young adult fiction)
Two Girls of Gettysburg, by Lisa Klein (young adult fiction)
The Amaranth Enchantment, by Julie Berry (young adult fiction)
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov (MATURE CONTENT)
The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss (adult fiction)
Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri (adult fiction/short stories)

And yes, I really could only limit my top books of the year to nineteen. Sorry.