Category Archive: YA

What We’re Reading: SHADOWSHAPER

Fall Reads

shadowshaper_coverSHADOWSHAPER by Daniel José Older

Paint a mural. Start a battle. Change the world.

This is the author’s first YA book, and it’s urban fantasy at its finest. When I classify this book as an urban fantasy, I mean that the city setting of the novel is almost a secondary character. Brooklyn is alive and critical to this story; I loved the neighborhood descriptions. From an all-age Latin dance club, to the community newspaper offices, to Coney Island, I understood how much the lead character, Sierra, loves her city. And I could relate to the protagonist’s pain as she watched her streets slowly change and become more gentrified. The setting in this book jumped off the page, and wrapped me in the textures and energy of New York.

The book developed a fantastic new magic system called shadowshaping, infusing spirits into artworks to make the art come alive. The author expanded on the history and laws of the magic system gradually, and by the end of the book I believed. It seems perfectly logical for a secret society to be bonding the spirits of their late family and friends into public murals. I think this is some of the best magical realism I’ve read in a long time.

More importantly, this book is packed with outstanding character diversity. Sierra is Afro-Latina and her Hispanic family is realistically depicted. I appreciated how the author remembered to include all the extended family dynamics so common in Hispanic culture. Sierra’s family relationships are complicated, she fights with her aunt who likes to downplay their race, and she worships her godfather who embraces it. She even respects and reveres the local Hispanic business owners who serve as her community elders. All these characters reminded me of people I have encountered in my own life. Sierra’s friends are just as interesting and diverse, including two of her best friends who are involved in a same-sex relationship with each other.

I gave this book 4 stars on Goodreads and honestly I wanted to give it more, but there were a few murky plot issues that kept me from giving that last star. It’s a perfect pick for even younger teens. There are some scary moments and one make-out session between Sierra and her boyfriend, but it’s not extreme. For a reading group looking for a good book to start a discussion about writing inclusive characters and for weaving strong, but non-preachy messages into young adult fiction, this book is a great fit. And it’s perfect if you’re craving a slightly spooky read for a cold night.

Story Blurb:
Sierra Santiago planned the perfect summer vacation. She would paint a huge mural next to the junkyard near her Brooklyn home. She would hang out with her friends. She would finally talk to the new cute guy from school, a fellow artist named Robbie. But the murals in her neighborhood begin to move, and weep tears. Later a reanimated corpse crashes the first big high school party of the summer, and he seems to be looking for Sierra and Robbie. Sierra’s in trouble and Robbie knows more than he’s saying. Everyone is leaving Sierra in the dark about a troubling family secret, and that could get her killed.

Sierra and Robbie are shadowshapers, people who can infuse ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. And someone is systematically killing off all the shadowshapers to gain their powers. It’s up to Sierra to stop the killer. To do that, she must decipher her grandfather’s riddle and defeat an army of reanimated dead. If she fails, it might mean the end of all the shadowshapers and the enslavement of the spirit realm under the power of a madman.

 

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Book Review: One of the Guys

oneoftheguysONE OF THE GUYS by Lisa Aldin

Publication date: February 10, 2015. It’s out just in time for Valentine’s Day.

The Story: Tomboy, Toni Valentine, would take horror movies, monster hunts and burping contests with her three male best friends, Lock, Cowboy and Ollie, over high heels and makeup any day. But when a summer prank goes wrong, Toni is sent to the Winston Academy for Girls, and it turns out Hell looks a lot like a place where you wear a plaid skirt, and learn to be ladylike.

At her new school Toni meets Emma, a girl with boyfriend troubles. Trying to bond with her first female friend, Toni volunteers one of her male BFFs as a pretend date to make Emma’s boyfriend jealous. When word spreads across the school about Toni’s access to good-looking guys, Toni and Emma form a Rent-A-Gent service. It’s a plan that can’t end well, not when Toni is secretly in love with Lock, the company’s most sought-after escort.

The good: This book didn’t make the mistake of focusing all the attention on the crush. Yes, Toni wants to understand her first brush with teen love, but she’s also mindful of losing her best friend by changing the terms of their relationship. Toni worries about school, her friends problems and her uncertain relationship with her new stepfather. I appreciated the author’s efforts to round out Toni’s character, and to create a history for all three boys. Also, this book looks like a standalone, something that makes me happy. I’m getting sick of books that don’t have a resolution at the end.

The bad: The characters are all seniors in high school, immersed in the big rush to get admitted into a prestigious university, yet everyone in the story reads younger. A lot younger! I would have found these characters more believable as sixteen-year-olds. The story gets slow in the last third, but by then I was firmly invested and wanted to see it to the end.

I enjoyed this book, which says a lot since contemporary YA romance is not my first choice as a genre. It earned four stars on Goodreads from me. It was a quick, lighthearted read, with interesting supporting characters and a solid, if predictable, plot. If you’re looking for a contemporary YA romance, this is a good pick. Frankly, I liked it better than Isla and the Happily Ever After and just as much as This Is What Happy Looks Like. Although there is a small amount of underage drinking, and the mention (no descriptions) of sex, I would still give this book a PG13 rating, making it suitable for younger teen readers.

Disclaimer: NetGalley provided me with a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/book-reviews/one-guys-book-review/

Incarceron: A Mother/Son Book Review

IncarceronINCARCERON by Catherine Fisher

This fantasy novel was recommended to my son (just turned 13) and since I’d never read it, we decided to do a Mother/Son review.

The synopsis: Trapped without any memories of how he got there, Finn is stuck inside a vast, living prison called Incarceron. Plagued by fragmented visions of his old life, Finn struggles to survive in the harsh, lawless environment Incarceron fosters. Claudia is the only daughter of the warden. He’s a ruthless and ambitious man. In a bid to increase his own power, the warden arranges for Claudia to marry the next heir to the throne, a boy she detests. Finn and Claudia find their paths converging in unexpected ways when they stumble upon a pair of magical keys. Soon it’s clear they will need each others’ help to escape the horrible fate life dealt them.

Son: The story featured lots of twists and turns that kept me guessing. Additionally, the characters felt real. Their desires and regrets are incredibly realistic, and as a reader, I could actually care about them as if they were alive.

Mother: I was less enraptured by the main characters. However I found several of the supporting characters engaging and I wanted to know more about them. Finn’s blood brother, Keiro, struck me as someone with a secret from the earliest part of the story, and I wasn’t wrong. Claudia’s determination to save herself, Finn, and the Kingdom she loves is admirable, but I never connected with her. She always seemed a bit cold and impersonal to me.

Son: There was one thing I did not like about this book: the violence. I know that the author wanted to make it clear that Incarceron was a dangerous and vicious place, but in the beginning, there was just too much of it, and it seemed mostly like unnecessary violence, such as kidnappings, betrayals, and one killing.

Mother: There are about half a dozen killings before the one my son noticed. I’m not sure what that says about the book. Did the author downplay the early killings too much? Did they mean less because they happened to characters we didn’t know that well? Also, the killing that bothered my son the most, while the most gruesome in terms of description, was a bad guy. The earlier killings were all innocents, just people in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Son: Mom said when she started reading the book, she was unsure whether Finn and his friends were good guys or bad guys, a feeling I had too. I’m still not sure as many of the characters have both good and bad traits.

Mother: Absolutely true. These are not black and white characters. We see the seeds of good and evil in each one. This is something I tend to love in books. I don’t like my characters too squeaky clean. I’m also a fan of books with lots of characters, and on that score, the book didn’t disappoint.

Son: Besides that, everything else was very good, and I am now reading the sequel, Sapphique. I love it.

Mother: My son flew through this book and the sequel in a few days, whereas I struggled to stay interested and to finish the book. While I usually enjoy books told in dual viewpoints, this one didn’t mesh well. It often picked up a bit too far along in the story, and I spent the first few pages of the new chapter thinking I’d missed something and I should go back and reread. Although my son didn’t catch it, I guessed the big dramatic mid-book development of the plot just a few chapters in. So I felt let down rather than excited when my theory proved correct.

Mother & Son: We understand this book has been slated for a movie adaptation, and we both can understand why. The world building of the different prison wings is truly noteworthy. The book would make for some amazing cinema, and the fact that the characters read a bit distant (in Mom’s option) would be mitigated by casting some charismatic actors.

Mother: I think the book is best suited to hardcore middle grade or younger YA readers that don’t mind some violence in their stories. It’s also best for those who, like my son, are pretty easygoing about their fantasy books and don’t look too closely at the little plot holes.

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/book-reviews/mother-son/

What We’re Reading: Friday Reads Bonus Edition

Starting in 2015 the WriteOnSisters will be doing their best to add more book reviews to the the blog. Today we jump-start that commitment with this bonus Friday Reads review of two Young Adult books.

Robin’s Pick: THIS IS WHAT HAPPY LOOKS LIKE by Jennifer E. Smith

I’m no15790873t traditionally a big fan of love stories, but this one got to me. This is a smart funny book that opened with a clever hook and just kept right on delivering.

When Ellie O’Neill gets a misdirected email asking her to walk a pet pig, she quickly responds back to clear up the mistake. What follows is an exchange of emails that soon has Ellie confiding her biggest dreams and aspirations in a total stranger. Over time an online relationship evolves and Ellie counts on her mystery friend for moral support and guidance.
When the summer brings a movie company to Ellie’s small Maine town, she and every other teenage girl is talking about the film’s star, Graham Larkin. What Ellie doesn’t know is Graham is her longtime pen pal. He’s come all the way from California to arrange a meeting with the witty, charming, “real” girl he’s fallen for. Of course Ellie has secrets of her own and being thrust into the spotlight of a teen hottie’s paparazzi-filled lifestyle is the last thing she needs.

This book has all the feels, solid friendships, loving parents and even a pig named Wilbur. Ellie is everything a teen girl should be: smart, funny and self-assured. She is never willing to change who she is or what she wants for Graham’s sake. Graham is a nice guy who respects Ellie and wants what’s best for her. Together they make a few mistakes and show some poor judgment but overall these are kids any parent would be proud of.

As I said, I’m not a huge romance fan, but I wanted these two to work things out and get their happy-ever-after. This book is sweet and well-suited to even younger teen readers.

 

Heather’s Pick: RED RISING by Pierce Brown

BookCover-RedRisingLike Robin blogged about here, I too have had a string of disappointing reads. Even “Best Of” lists don’t guarantee I’ll love – or even like – the book. But with fingers crossed, I selected RED RISING from Goodreads Best Of YA Fantasy list.

I was not disappointed. This book is a tour de force, a mix of HUNGER GAMES and DIVERGENT, but with a world so unique and a story so well crafted that it can’t be shelved under “just another YA dystopia”. Nope. This novel is epic.

It takes place hundreds of years in the future on Mars. The main character, Darrow, is the lowest caste of human – a Red. He lives and works miles underground in the mines preparing Mars for human inhabitation, until he discovers that Mars has been inhabited for decades, maybe centuries, and the Reds aren’t preparing it for civilization, they’re simply slaves. Thus begins the journey of turning Darrow, a powerless Red, into an impressive Gold (top caste) so that he can infiltrate and take them down.

It’s a classic underdog-takes-on-the-world story.

A lot of people die in this book. There’s violence and cruelty. But there’s also redeeming transformation when our hero figures out how to overcome instead of surrender to the Golds’ worst characteristics. In my opinion, this is what makes the book great. It’s not just exciting plot twists, duplicitous characters and clever reveals, though I enjoyed all that too, it’s that the hero grows. This makes Darrow a hero worth rooting for!

If you love epic fantasy or political intrigue or action thrillers or all three, this book is for you. I’m actually going to read it again so I can study the expert plotting of the story. Yep, it was that good.

Update: RED RISING was voted Goodreads Best YA Debut! Yay! I’m not the only one who loved this book.

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What We’re Reading: Goodreads Best of 2014

Like most writers, we at WriteOnSisters are all big readers. The end of the year brings reflection and a sense of accomplishment; we have navigated another fun and rewarding year of books and blogging. To do something a bit different this month, we decided to pick books off the Goodreads Best Books of 2014 list.

Robin’s Pick: ISLA AND THE HAPPILY EVER AFTER by Stephanie Perkins

isla-and-the-happily-ever-after for webThis is the third (and reportedly last) companion book in the Anna and the French Kiss series. This time we follow high school senior Isla. Super smart, but socially awkward, the shy little Isla finally attracts the attentions of Josh, the slacker, bad boy artist she’s adored from afar since freshman year.

Although opposites, the pair fall madly in love and the book is really about their rocky path to a Happy Ever After ending. On the plus side the book is set in a host of wonderful locations: Paris, New York, and Barcelona. I found the few chapters set in Barcelona represented the best of the book’s settings, and I really enjoyed that section. Also all the lead characters from the first two books make cameos for a handful of pages at the end of this book, which I’m sure delights fan of the series.

I had high hopes for this book, but sadly it lacked enough action or conflict to keep me interested. Granted any book that tells me up front it ends in a HEA isn’t aiming to keep me on the edge of my seat, but I do expect a bit more than I got in the way of plot. I’m willing to concede lots of other readers found Josh very crush worthy and Isla adorable, so if you’re already a fan of the series, my bet is you will want to see it to the end. However, don’t expect to be as entertained by Isla’s journey as you were by Anna’s.

Heather’s Pick: RED RISING by Pierce Brown

BookCover-RedRisingLike Robin blogged about here, I too have had a string of disappointing reads. Even “Best Of” lists don’t guarantee I’ll love – or even like – the book. But with fingers crossed, I selected RED RISING from Goodreads Best Of YA Fantasy list.

I was not disappointed. This book is a tour de force, a mix of HUNGER GAMES and DIVERGENT, but with a world so unique and a story so well crafted that it can’t be shelved under “just another YA dystopia”. Nope. This novel is epic.

It takes place hundreds of years in the future on Mars. The main character, Darrow, is the lowest caste of human – a Red. He lives and works miles underground in the mines preparing Mars for human inhabitation, until he discovers that Mars has been inhabited for decades, maybe centuries, and the Reds aren’t preparing it for civilization, they’re simply slaves. Thus begins the journey of turning Darrow, a powerless Red, into an impressive Gold (top caste) so that he can infiltrate and take them down.

It’s a classic underdog-takes-on-the-world story.

A lot of people die in this book. There’s violence and cruelty. But there’s also redeeming transformation when our hero figures out how to overcome instead of surrender to the Golds’ worst characteristics. In my opinion, this is what makes the book great. It’s not just exciting plot twists, duplicitous characters and clever reveals, though I enjoyed all that too, it’s that the hero grows. This makes Darrow a hero worth rooting for!

If you love epic fantasy or political intrigue or action thrillers or all three, this book is for you. I’m actually going to read it again so I can study the expert plotting of the story. Yep, it was that good.

Caryn’s Pick:  SKIN GAME by Jim Butcher

BookCover-SkinGameI adore Harry Dresden. He’s my favorite type of male protagonist: smart-mouthed, sarcastic, irreverent, flawed… and hot. Oh! And he just happens to be a wizard!

Jim Butcher’s newest installment is number 15 in the well known urban fantasy series: The Dresden Files. I haven’t read them all, mostly I’ve bookended the series, a few at the beginning and now this last one.

The story begins on a mysterious island where Harry has been ordained as the warden of a frozen prison for some of the Underworld’s most notorious creatures. Butcher paints a vivid world to wander through, not over-doing description, but bringing you into his fantasy world with skill and aplomb.

Harry is also saddled with the dubious job of being the Winter Knight to Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness. Mab trades Harry’s skill to pay off one of her debts and forces him to help a group of supernatural villains break into a high-security vault. The one in Nevernever. It’s a smash and grab job to recover an important artifact in the vault that just happens to belong to Hades, Lord of the Underworld. But Harry suspects that there is another game afoot that no one is talking about. And he’s dead certain that he and his crew will not survive the experience.

I’ll admit a lot has happened to Harry since the first few books, when he was a struggling private eye type, not a semi-supernatural string-puller who hangs out with deities on a regular basis. It seems that Butcher is now writing something more like… epic urban fantasy, rather than paranormal investigation.

I didn’t find the antagonist terribly threatening or scary, more like a mobster than a supernatural creature, but the other monsters? Definitely. Butcher has the uncanny ability to dream up creepy beasts who do terrible things to humans, and wizards too. The kind that will give you nightmares.

Butcher had me intrigued, wondering what the valued commodity hidden in that vault was and why they are so desperate to steal it. The ending has an interesting twist, and the book definitely kept me hooked until the very end.

I have a confession to make: I always thought this was a YA series. Maybe it’s because it’s written in first person like so many YA novels and the tone is similar too. So when I read an explicit sex scene (which turns out to be a dream…I hate that!), I took pause. The early books seemed safe for a YA reader but now that I’ve done a little research I understand it is an adult fantasy series…more of an adult Harry Potter.

Overall, I recommend this book, and the entire series. One of these days I might just snuggle in and catch up on Harry’s escapades over the last few years. Did I tell you how much I love Harry? Oh yeah. I did.

 

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What We’re Reading for October: Fairy Tales

I love scary stories. Armed with a flashlight and nerves of spaghetti, I would spend hours reading R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike. But the first scary stories I ever read were… fairy tales. Seriously. Poisoned apples, witches, deadly candy houses, big bad wolves, giants on beanstocks, evil stepsisters – fairy tales are scary stuff! The Brothers Grimm were the Stephen King of their day. So this month we’re reading new twists on the original spooky story…

Heather’s Pick: DUST CITY by Robert Paul Weston

BookCover-DustCity“When your dad is the wolf who killed Little Red Riding Hood, life is no fairytale.”

This book turns fairytales into film noir. Bloody brilliant. It’s set in a gritty fairytale metropolis in a time after all the fairies have left. Without fairies, there’s no magic – no wishes granted, so to speak. And the fairytale creatures that remain (dwarves, giants, wolves, foxes, ravens, elves, goblins and hominids) have to make due with pharmaceutical grade dust – leftover magic mined from the earth that is a poor substitute for real fairy dust. Some of these dust operations are legal (like our pharmaceutical companies); some are not (like our society’s drug cartels).

The story follows Henry, the son of the notorious big bad wolf, as he delves into Dust City’s seedy underbelly to find the truth about what happened to the fairies and whether or not his dad was set up. Henry’s best pal is a kleptomaniac hominid named Jack (of Beanstock fame), the detective is a kickass Snow White, and the villain has the King Midas touch.

This book is filled with amazing creatures, creative twists on fairytale lore, tons of mystery, and heart-stopping action. It also manages to be a commentary on racism (lots of inter-species tension in Dust City), drug addiction and underground crime. Scary stuff indeed. And in the end, we learn the shocking truth about fairydust!

 

Caryn’s Pick: THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL by Soman Chainani

SchoolforGood-pb-cThe premise for this book intrigued me and as I’m a huge fan of fairy tales I was looking forward to a great read.

Written for the tween crowd, the story begins as best friends Sophie and Agatha get kidnapped and dumped into the School for Good and Evil. Rumors have long abounded in the tiny village that every four years, at the 11th hour on the last day of the 11th month, two children are taken, one deposited in the School for Good, who will then become a princess in a new fairy tale, while the other will land in the School for Evil and end up as a witch or some other evil nemesis.

With her glass slippers and devotion to good deeds, Sophie knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and join the ranks of past students like Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Snow White. Meanwhile, Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks and wicked black cat, seems a natural fit for the villains in the School for Evil.

But the two girls soon find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School for Good, among handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication. When they both decide they want to go home they are challenged by the School Master to solve a riddle that will allow them escape. If they remain they will become imprisoned in a fairy tale for all eternity.

Sounds great! Right? Well, no. First, it’s 512 pages! Which would be fine if it was a great read. The author bogs us down with entirely too much meaningless description, which unfortunately buries the plot. The story is somewhat imaginative but it really drags and I found it downright painful to read. That’s not the worst of it either. A story for this population should set forth good examples of morality, body image, peer relationships, minorities, but alas, it does just the opposite. These characters are so shallow that I never really embraced any of them. And the ending (spoiler alert) uncovers an evil overseer orchestrated the whole thing to take advantage of a young, innocent girl and marry her! Ugh!

I say skip this and stick to authentic fairy tales. They can be scary and violent at times, but at least there’s usually a good lesson to be learned. Not here.

 

Robin’s Pick: CRUEL BEAUTY by Rosamund Hodge

Cruel Beauty Cover for web

In keeping with the fairy tale theme, I picked this book which is billed as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. I sort of see the similarities, but I also see a number of other story elements at play.

Nyx is the daughter of a rich nobleman who makes a bargain with the demon who rules their kingdom. The Gentle Lord, as the demon calls himself, is your basic trickster. He always grants his subject’s wishes, but with an evil twist. The couple has the children they asked him for, two healthy daughters, but in exchange they must give the demon one of their daughters for a bride. As a secondary kick in the teeth, the mom dies. The father raises the two girls with the help of his mistress, his wife’s sister. One daughter is showered with affection, and the other daughter, Nyx, is trained to be a human sacrifice. This training includes instructing the young girl on how to submit to sex in order to gain the Gentle Lord’s favor and perhaps find a way to kill him. Nyx tells herself she wants to marry the demon, in part because she’s never felt loved at home and in part to avenge her mother’s death and to end the Gentle Lord’s rule.

What I liked about the book was the foreboding atmosphere. The home of the Gentle Lord is filled with thousands of rooms and dark twisted elements. At one point Nyx is locked in a room with all the former dead brides of the Gentle Lord. Creepy! While there were some admirable twists in the nature of the beauty and the beast fairy tale, the story just didn’t quite work for me. The book delivered a massive case of instalove, and a love triangle. While I can take one or the other (if written well) both hitting me in the same book are just too much.

The second book is coming out soon, so if you’re looking for a new series with a heavy dose of dark moody setting and you don’t mind the romance tropes, this might be the perfect book for you.

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What We’re Reading for September: YA Thrillers

Everyone loves a thrill, be it pleasurable or terrifying; that tremor that excites you and makes you gasp. You realize you’re holding your breath. It’s probably my favorite story to read, one where you’re on the edge of your seat, you can’t turn the pages fast enough, your eyes dart to the bottom of the page when a chapter is ending because you can’t wait to see what the author is going to reveal, leaving your pulse thrumming and your heart pounding to start the next chapter.

Here are our picks for YA thrillers:

Caryn’s Pick: THE MAZE RUNNER by James Dashner

The_Maze_Runner_coverIt seems as if we’re in Dystopia heaven lately, okay, an oxymoron, I know. But we can’t deny the flood of stories hitting the silver screen lately: The Ender’s Game, The Hunger Games, Divergent, they even dug up that twenty-something-year-old classic, The Giver. Teens running around trying to reverse the horrible world the elders have made, brutal violence, trials of courage and morality, it’s exhausting, really. But it’s also good to force teens to think about such serious topics and so in that regard I applaud these authors.

The Maze Runner certainly lives up to the hype. Written in 2009, for more of a MG audience, it has just reached movie theaters. I’d categorize it as Lord of the Flies meets The Ender’s Game. It’s the story of a group of teens in a place called “The Glade”, a village-type area surrounded by a giant unsolvable maze lurking with mysterious lethal creatures, the Grievers. All the inhabitants of the Glade have no recollection of their previous lives. The story begins with the arrival of the newest resident, Thomas—one drops in through a metal box each month. Things begin to change after Thomas comes on the scene. The limitless, ever-changing maze is the only way out—and no one’s ever made it through alive. Then a girl arrives. The first girl ever. And the message she delivers is terrifying: Remember. Survive. Run.

The author uses substitute words for curses like shuck, which we all know replaces that oft-heard four-letter word that rhymes with it, thus making it appropriate for a PG audience. The writing is above par and an easy read. I almost thought the author to be a Brit because he uses the words “bloody” and “arses”, but now I think he just used them as another way to avoid the usual curse words.

I’ll admit it was a real page-turner and I read it in about a day. The Maze Runner is also the first book in a trilogy, and I’m sufficiently intrigued to move on to book two. I liked it as much as I did the first book of the Hunger Games, but unfortunately found myself sorely disappointed in the next two books in that series. I’m hoping this goes better.

Postscript: Saw the movie and now I realize Newt is a Brit and the character who utters the terms “bloody” and “arse.” Didn’t pick that up while reading. I thought the movie great, although it did substantially differ from the book.

Heather’s Pick: HOW TO LEAD A LIFE OF CRIME by Kirsten Miller

BookCover-LifeOfCrimeLately I’ve been fascinated with the psychopaths in our midst, those people who are just born bad and lack empathy. And this book asks the question: “What if there’s a school that trains psychopaths and releases them into the world as super criminals?” Then takes it one step further with: “What if the school also attempted to create sociopaths?” Crazy though it may sound, I think the state of our world makes it easy to buy into this concept and imagine this really happens, and that makes the book even more terrifyingly thrilling.

The Good: Well, everything! There’s a seriously damaged main character with a good soul and a tragic life who needs to work out his sh*t and keeps getting it wrong, even though at first you think he’s got it right. The evolution this guy goes through is one hell of an accomplishment, writing-wise. The secondary characters are also gritty gems, but there are too many to list here. The twists and turns all hinge on characters surprising us, but in ways that are true to their personalities. There’s even a little bit of magic, if you believe in that. If you don’t, then you can write it off as hallucinations.

The Bad: Some readers may find this book long. My boyfriend did. He thought the first half was boring, and was more interested in the character of Joi than the main character Flick. He thought it was really Joi’s story. I disagree with him. It’s definitely Flick’s story because he’s the one who had issues to resolve and had to change. Joi knew what she was doing and was in control all along. No demons to wrestle for her. As for boredom, I wasn’t bored once, but perhaps that’s because I loved watching the psychological mind f*ck unfold as Flick gets his bearings at the Mandel Academy.

Note: The book jacket gives away a major plot point that doesn’t happen until halfway through the book (page 273 to be exact). Don’t look if you don’t want a spoiler. Then again, the summary on Goodreads gives it away too. Seriously, marketing people, you thought the only hook of this book was the romance angle? Which is just a small part of the book but happens to be a huge spoiler? Shame on you guys!

In Conclusion: Read this book anyway, even if you know the spoiler. It’ll thrill you, horrify you, and then reassure you that while there is powerful evil in the world, there’s good in most of us.

 

 

 

 

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What We’re Reading: July is for Mysteries

Mysteries were my first love. As a kid, I read every single Nancy Drew book in the library. Then I moved on to supernatural mysteries by Lois Duncan. I read and read and read – murder mysteries, romance mysteries, fantasy mysteries, sci-fi mysteries, action adventure mysteries – any story that was a puzzle for me to figure out. Not surprisingly, the first stories I wrote as a child were mysteries, and I still write mysteries now.

My recent favorites all have a strong emotional arc on top of the whodunit plot (SHINE, I HUNT KILLERS, ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD), and the book I picked to read this month (FAR FROM YOU) does as well. Caryn went old-school and dug up the childhood favorite, NANCY DREW. And Robin takes on current twist darling, WE WERE LIARS.

Without further ado, our YA Mystery reviews!

Caryn’s Pick: THE SECRET OF THE OLD CLOCK by Carolyn Keene

Nancy DrewA few weeks back, Sharon got me thinking about Nancy Drew. I thought I remembered reading her in my teen years, but now I realize I was much younger. When I first thought about re-reading the nostalgic series, Heather suggested that maybe this was more kid-lit than YA, and she was absolutely correct. The series is dated; there are no cell phones or computers and her mode of dress still includes white gloves. The writing is old-fashioned and words like gay and queer have no connection to the LGBT community. But in contrast, Nancy is a woman to be reckoned with, as a rich, headstrong, and distinctly reckless teenager who sometimes carries a pistol and who isn’t above breaking the law when it suits her purposes. She’s smart, brave and defies convention. Her belief in the goodness of humanity and the desire to help the downtrodden is inspiring. A cultural icon, Nancy Drew has been cited as a formative influence by a number of powerful women, from Supreme Court justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Sonia Sotomayor, to Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush.

THE SECRET OF THE OLD CLOCK, written by Mildred Wirt Benson, was originally published in 1930 but was significantly rewritten in 1959, and is the only version currently in print. This particular story finds Nancy involved in a search for a missing will. She is assisted in this by her father, a noted attorney, and by her older friend Helen Corning.

I wouldn’t consider this great literature, however the story held up rather well in terms of plot and character. A young child of seven or eight can learn a great deal from Nancy’s ethics and morals and I consider her a great role model for children. I felt an immediate connection to Nancy, as if I was visiting with an old treasured friend. If I had a young daughter I would encourage her to read the series, and as I recall, some of the other books are much more exciting.

And I can’t wait to tell you what I learned about how the series was actually written and published. I had no clue! But you’re just going to have to wait until Thursday…I’ll reveal the secret then.

Heather’s Pick: FAR FROM YOU by Tess Sharpe

BookCover-Far From YouThis book made me cry my eyes out, and though there’s a mystery that drives the plot forward, the most memorable part of the story is the tragic love triangle.

Normally I hate love triangles. Why? Because they’re melodramatic and unrealistic. Two guys love you and are fighting over you? Oh please, as if! I know it’s a common fantasy, which explains why love triangles are so popular, but I feel that by this point in literary history, this plot device is a lazy gimmick.

Not in this novel.

I can’t get into details without spoilers, but suffice to say if you’re craving to read about raw, honest relationships, you won’t be disappointed.

As for the mystery, it is decent but not mind-blowing. It moves along at a good pace, and Sophie’s investigation is realistically what a teenager could pull off (none of this super sleuth, as-if-a-teen-could-do-that clue getting), but I did suspect who did it. However, take that with a grain of salt, because after reading hundreds of mysteries, it’s pretty near impossible to surprise me. I will say that I still found the ending exciting and didn’t suspect exactly why the murderer had killed Mina.

So if you like your heart-wrenching contemporary YA with a little mystery, give FAR FROM YOU a read!

Robin’s Pick: WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart

we were liarsWhen a book is overly heralded as brilliant, I can’t help but wonder if the book will fall short simply because my expectations are so elevated. I fear this is one of those times. I found this book fine once it got rolling, but I didn’t love it and I ended up being a tad confused by all the reviewer fuss.

This is the story of Cadence, a young girl who suffers a tragic accident on her family’s island the summer she turns fifteen. The circumstances surrounding her injury are shrouded in secrecy, she has amnesia and her doctors advise the family to allow her to remember what happened on her own terms. Cadence is a privileged person, heir to a huge fortune from her maternal grandfather as the first born grandchild. Her family is dysfunctional and bitter, miming the patterns of a happy extended family without feeling any of the affection. I never bonded with Cadence or with her family, but I don’t think I was supposed to.

What I liked about the book was the ending, something everyone raves about and I think rightly so because it took me by surprise. I pulled together some of the clues, but I shaped them into a different conclusion. However, the problem with this ending twist is once you know it, the story is over. You’re left with a book that exists exclusively for the sake of getting the reader to the big twist. If you want to read this book, do it today, because catching even a hint of a spoiler will destroy any chance you have of enjoying it. I have to wonder how long this book will stay popular, because I don’t see how the ending twist can stay under wraps for much longer. The other thing I appreciated about this book is it appears to be a stand alone book. Lately I’ve been feeling a touch underwhelmed with series books, so I found this a refreshing change.

The story is unusual and the story telling style is fresh and sprinkled with strong metaphors. Plus it has the ending plot twist that may surprise you, so if you are looking for a quick summer read with a hint of mystery and a whole lot of teen emotions: first love, crushing parental failures, and Kennedyesque family riches with all of the traditional vices, this is your book.

 

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What We’re Reading: Summer Romance

As summer sweeps in with its balmy breezes and hot temperatures what’s more wonderful than a steamy summer romance? Heather and Robin initially cringed when I suggested this theme, neither of whom would be considered a fan of the romance genre in general. And I’d have to agree to some extent. Many romance books embody female protagonists falling prey to misogynistic males who overpower them with their unbelievable good looks and bulging muscles. So our challenge was to find a story or author who doesn’t characterize women as femme fatales, one-dimensional and powerless to control their destiny; objectified, and even denigrated by an irresistible sexy guy. Stories that challenge sexual prejudice and the oppression of females in our male-dominated society; that embrace a healthy image of the female body and credit women as the amazing people we are. So here’s to teenage love. That first crush, that overwhelming feeling that awakens a sleeping tigress—one who isn’t afraid to chart her own destiny, who sees men as equal partners in life, in spite of her raging hormones.

Caryn’s Pick: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsYes, I went there. I don’t consider myself a fan of this author, but I decided to revisit my assessment in response to the current craze for THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. I rushed to read it before venturing into the theater in an attempt to immerse myself in the full experience. And I’m glad. The story is profound and philosophical and not typical YA fodder, but death will do that to you.

Hazel Grace Lancaster is clinically depressed, and why shouldn’t she be? Diagnosed with end-stage cancer she struggles to breathe, drowning in her own bodily fluids, shackled to an oxygen tank. She attends a weekly support group where she meets Augustus Waters and the two fall in love. When Hazel shares her fascination with a novel called An Imperial Affliction, she draws Augustus into a quirky mission to track down the author, seeking answers, after the book abruptly ends in a cloud of ambiguity.

I wanted more romance, more passion. Greene, through countless TV interviews, claims the book is a love story and not about cancer or death, but I’d strongly disagree. I’d hoped that I’d finally get past all the cancer-talk and just enjoy the love story, but I couldn’t manage it. In truth, the word cancer is used 100 times, and death/dying/dead…103 times! Some critics have claimed that Green’s dialogue and interactions are atypical of teenagers, and honestly, I’ve thought so in his other works. But another insightful critic, herself a cancer survivor, claims that facing death at an early age makes one grow up fast, tending to deal with life in a more adult fashion. I bow to her on that point. The teens speak intelligently and honestly, painfully so.There’s no doubt that it’s a major tear-jerker, and I liken it to this generation’s Love Story. That book hit me hard. I intimately identified with the characters, being a college student at the time and my boyfriend (who I eventually married) played on the college hockey team.

Overall, I found this story unique. The author artfully examines life, death, and love, with sensitivity, intelligence and honesty, and most importantly, integrity. Hazel and Augustus are good people and they didn’t deserve the terrible hand the universe dealt them. So grab the tissue box and settle in for a sad, yet profound, read.

Heather’s Pick: THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS by Ann Brashares

BookCover-SisterhoodAs Caryn stated above, romance is not my genre. There are only two novels on my bookshelves I’d consider teen romance – SLOPPY FIRSTS by Megan McCafferty and THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS by Ann Brashares. But really, those aren’t even straight-up romances, they’re coming-of-age stories with love interests. Nevertheless, they reflect the type of teenage reader I was – one who wanted realism in love stories, not that love-at-first sight BS. Even in high school I’d seen enough crash-and-burn lust fests to know they don’t usually work out. I wanted to read about relationships that would help me navigate the murky waters of real love. And I wanted to relate to the characters, and insta-love just wasn’t how I rolled. Both of these books fit the bill. I read them well over a decade ago, but recently reread the SISTERHOOD so that’s the one I’ll talk about…

This book is the perfect summer read because it’s literally about summertime, specifically the first summer four best friends spend their school-free months apart. Two of the four (Lena and Bridget) have romantic subplots.

Lena goes to Greece to visit her grandparents. She has absolutely no interest in meeting boys, yet her grandma tries to set her up with a family friend, Kostos. But… “Lena knew boys: They never looked beyond your looks. They pretended to be your friend to get you to trust them, and as soon as you trusted them, they went in for the grope.” (pg. 60) No way was Lena getting involved with Kostos. And she doesn’t. In fact, they have an awkward encounter and she alienates him. But slowly Lena sees that the boy she pushed away is a genuine guy, and that she likes him. Now it’s up to shy Lena to make a move.

I love this romance because it’s not the cliché impossibly-hot-guy-pursues-girl-who-plays-hard-to-get or impossibly-hot-guy-wants-girl-but-it’s-forbidden. It’s the more realistic girl-likes-guy-but-is-scared-to-tell-him. We’ve all been there! At least I have.

Bridget, on the other hand, falls instantly for her college-age soccer coach and pursues him with joyous abandon. And it pays off – even though coach-player relationships are forbidden, he gives in to her seductions one night. It’s implied but not explicitly stated that she loses her virginity to him. She didn’t expect the experience to be so emotional, but it is. And when he states it can never happen again, Bridget is broken.

This was the most real thing my young self had ever read. Such a painful yet common experience.

So if you want a summertime story full of realistic romance and true love in the form of friendship, read THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS. It still makes me swoon and cry – in a good way.

Robin’s Pick: THE SELECTION by Kiera Cass

the selection cover for webI picked my book due to the overwhelming popularity of the series, book three is already out. The Selection centered on America Singer, a young woman from a caste based society. She’s a five, part of the artist class, and she is a singer. Sorry, but names are an issue in The Selection. As a five America is far removed from the ones and twos of the upper class, but not as bad off as a eight the lowest class. When the government holds a lottery to pick 35 women to win a chance of marrying the national prince, America wants no part of the reality show inspired contest. She has no desire to become the nation’s future queen, because America is secretly in love with Aspen, a boy from the servant class (a six) who is someone her family would never approve of. Since the lottery would help her family financially, she enters and is horrified when she’s selected. She must give up everything, Aspen, her family and even her job as an artist. She travels to the palace where she meets the other 34 contestants and Prince Maxon. While she should be able to enjoy all the privileges of the palace, like having enough food to eat for the first time in her life, America just can’t just forget Aspen.

What I liked about this book was it managed to avoid insta-love, something I despise. America is already in love with Aspen when the book opens, and her affection for Maxon is slow growing and believable. It also managed to show marriage as something challenging and filled with comprises, even the happy couples are far from perfect. I also liked that America managed to hold on to her own identity and moral code while being thrust into her new lavish surroundings. It also provided a valid reason for why America avoided having sex with Aspen: it’s against the law to have sex before marriage.

What I didn’t like about the book is the love triangle. It felt stale even thought it was handled in a plausible way. Also, most of the secondary characters, including Aspen felt a bit flat to me. Maybe this is a hallmark of romance fiction, but I knew much more about America and the prince, and very little about America’s best friends or Aspen. Frankly Aspen was not very interesting to me, and I couldn’t wrap my head around why America was so crazy about him. Also, I would have liked more on the political subplot and to know more about the way the classes were set up. The book reads quickly, I read it cover to cover in a few hours and found myself needing more plot. And the ending made me feel a bit cheated. I think the author held back too much for book two. If you want a quick, light romance that you don’t have to think much about, this might be the perfect summer read for you.

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What We’re Reading: Sci-Fi

May always makes me want a long slow read. A book I can sink my teeth into. Something that pairs nicely with the last lazy days of spring. When I can still enjoy an hour or two by a sunny window, and the kids are still deeply involved with school friends and functions enough to let me. All too soon summer will crash into my house, bringing with it the frantic preparations for backpacking trips, and long car rides for exhilarating and exhausting days beachside. We’ve selected Science Fiction for our monthly read. We hope you find something here to match your mood. Spring only lasts a blink of an eye, so slow down and savor it.

Caryn’s Pick: ONE SECOND AFTER by William R. Forstchen

One Second AfterI love SciFi but don’t seem to read much of it, so I had to go on the hunt for a book this month. I chose One Second After by New York Times bestselling author, William R. Forstchen.

Dr. Forstchen has written over 40 books, many on military history and military technology. Before it even debuted the novel was cited on the floor of Congress as something every citizen in the U.S. should read…“a dire warning of what might be our future…and our end.” Well! That got my attention!

The story takes place in the small North Carolina town of Black Mountain where one man struggles to save his family and his town, after the U.S. loses a war. A war based on EMP­­—Electro Magnetic Pulse…which means setting off a nuclear warhead miles up over land. The electromagnetic field generated destroys every computer…in a single second! Cars, trains and planes crash immediately. Water and electric power grids fail, medical equipment, phones and radios cease to function. The small town in which the story is set reverts to a barter economy and its shops soon run out of food and medicines. America is thrust back into the Dark Ages. This story is a truly realistic look at a weapon that the Wall Street Journal warns could shatter America. And you can’t help but wonder what you would do in such a situation.

Some of the prose ventured into the “corny” in my opinion, as he loves to have his characters sing the National Anthem at any number of turns and often quotes scripture and literature. He frequently cites scenes from movies as a way of showing how his characters can’t believe this is actually happening to them, and that got a bit tiresome. The story starts out slowly and I would have enjoyed a bigger bang when the EMP hits, but I guess his point is that it took a while for people to truly grasp the dire nature of the situation and it’s global impact. The emerging “love story” seemed awkward at times, but I figure that’s not exactly his forte. The second half picked up and the ending was sad, but riveting, appropriately dismal, with just a touch of hope thrown in to keep us from feeling totally depressed. The other major criticism I have is that the writing could have benefited from another edit. Problems like “could of” and “should of” instead of could have and should have; and when did it become okay to use OK, as in “Everything will be OK.”? I can see it in dialogue sometimes, but he used it excessively, and IMO, incorrectly, to the point of distraction. Lots of repeated words occurred on the same page. And two characters have the same name: Jen and Jennifer. But the message is important and well worth the read.

This is a book everyone should read. Sort of like what Edward Snowden is telling us. Our country has a lot more problems and issues to resolve than the average citizen understands. Wake up America! There is more danger lurking out there than you could ever imagine!

 

Robin’s Pick: THE 5th WAVE by Rick Yancey

5th Wave The 5th Wave takes place on present day Earth during an alien invasion. Cassie an average American sixteen-year-old girl, finds herself alone and searching for her family. She has already survived the first four waves of an attack which devastated the world and killed off about 90% of the population. The setting and world building are typical of most dystopian literature. The aliens are unseen, only the passing mention of their ships hovering in the sky creates any sense of atmosphere. To be honest, I was hoping for something with a more traditional sci-fi feel, and with more “science.” This is by no means a new take in alien invasion literature, but it’s not one of my personal favorites. The story opens rather slowly, and I didn’t find it particularly interesting until over a 100 pages in. I found both male leads engaging in different ways. However, Cassie the lead female protagonist, never connected with me. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I will say the book broke one of my reader rules and hurt a lot of young kids. This is something Yancey did in the last book I read by him too. Review here. However both times it was plot related and not gratuitous.

If you’re looking for a book with lots of action, blood, gore, and death, but light on science and world building this might be the perfect book for you. And should you find it highly entertaining, you’ll be happy to hear the second book will be out in a few months.

 

Heather’s Pick: STARTERS by Lissa Price

BookCover-StartersSome would say this novel falls under the dystopia category, but I’m putting it in sci-fi because the concept relies on some pretty crazy future tech.

Sometime in the future, after a biochemical war killed everyone between the ages of 20 and 60, the only people left alive in America are kids (called Starters) and old people (called Enders). Some Starters have Ender grandparents to look after them, but most are orphans who live on the street (like the main character Callie and her brother), or in horrible orphanages that sell kids into slave labor. Meanwhile the Enders work middle-class jobs or live off their retirement riches. Starters aren’t allowed to work, at least not legally. Which leaves Callie, who needs money to pay for her little brother’s medicine and get them off the street, exploring the only option available to her: renting her body to Enders who want to experience being young again. How does that work? They put a Starter’s brain to sleep, and through a neuro-chip allow the Ender’s brain to take over the Starter’s body, essentially living in it for the duration of the rental period. So creepy!

This novel is a fast-paced action adventure that doesn’t hit you over the head with the deep sociological issues at the root of the story, yet never lets you forget them. Some reviewers wanted more “depth” with regard to exploring these issues, but I appreciated how the author allows the reader to experience them as the plot unfolds instead of preaching them. There’s also a romance that thankfully plays into the plot instead of detracting from it.

So if you’re looking for an action-packed YA sci-fi that also makes you think, check out STARTERS by Lissa Price.

 

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