This is a Five Star Review: The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley

Carnival at BrayThe Carnival At Bray by Jessie Ann Foley
Released:
January 2014
Publisher: Elephant Rock Productions, Inc.
Age Group: Young Adult
★★★★★
Synopsis: It’s 1993, and Generation X pulses to the beat of Kurt Cobain and the grunge movement. Sixteen-year-old Maggie Lynch is uprooted from big-city Chicago to a windswept town on the Irish Sea. Surviving on care packages of Spin magazine and Twizzlers from her rocker uncle Kevin, she wonders if she’ll ever find her place in this new world. When first love and sudden death simultaneously strike, a naive but determined Maggie embarks on a forbidden pilgrimage that will take her to a seedy part of Dublin and on to a life- altering night in Rome to fulfill a dying wish. Through it all, Maggie discovers an untapped inner strength to do the most difficult but rewarding thing of all, live.

My Thoughts

I finished reading the Carnival at Bray by Jessie Anne Foley last week, and I forced myself to not write a review immediately or even think too hard about star ratings because this book, my friends, was teetering on the fence between four stars and five stars. Let me be clear, this almost NEVER happens, so I needed the decision to be organic instead of one fueled by a book high. A week later, I find myself thinking that this book, without a doubt, is a five-star book. However, when I sat down to write the review, I was at a loss for words.

I can tell you that you should read this book because it takes place in Ireland, and all books that take place in Ireland are instantly on my wish list. I can tell you that this book rocks a pretty great playlist because 90’s alternative music was boss. I can tell you this book tackles some pretty heavy issues like mental illness and divorce and sex and totally uprooting a family and flying it clear across an ocean for a fleeting moment of love. I can tell you that the prose is poetic without slipping into the realm of “purple prose”, that the author made a good choice by writing it in third person because it would probably become too melodramatic otherwise, that the narration seems stoic sometimes understated, which somehow only plays up the gravity of the conflicts Maggie, our main character, faces. I can tell you that every character is wonderfully developed and charming and utterly flawed. And…did I mention it takes place in Ireland?

But, what I’m truly struggling with is verbalizing all of the abstract feelings I have about this book. I can’t adequately explain the light I felt emanating from me every night Maggie visited Dan Sean, an elderly Irishman, who somehow understood Maggie better than anyone else. Or when Maggie tasted freedom when chasing after Italy or Nirvana tickets or a boy she loved. Nor can I adequately explain how heavy my heart-felt when she was uprooted and transplanted in this foreign country where she was always the outsider. Or every time she was with that skeevy fellow, Paul. Or as she watched her uncle disintegrate. The Carnival at Bray is a fairly short novel at only 230 pages, yet it took me nearly two weeks to read because it was such an emotional novel; it’s like it knocked the wind right out of me every day I read the book.

I only wish this book was around when I was 17 and not 27. It’s a coming of age novel I would have carried with me always like Stephan Chbosky’s the Perks of Being a Wallflower or Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned or Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love.

Read this book. Read the Carnival at Bray because it’s real and it’s raw and Maggie’s story matters.

[On an unrelated matter, I wasn’t really sure how to categorize this book. Is it contemporary fiction? Is it historical fiction? It’s pretty strange to think my childhood happened long enough ago that it could now be considered “historical”.]

Admitting Defeat with Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger

keeper of the lost cities book coverKeeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger (Keeper of the Lost Cities #1)
Released:
October 2012
Publisher: Aladdin
Age Group: Middle Grade
NO RATING, DNF
Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Sophie Foster has a secret. She’s a Telepath—someone who hears the thoughts of everyone around her. It’s a talent she’s never known how to explain.

Everything changes the day she meets Fitz, a mysterious boy who appears out of nowhere and also reads minds. She discovers there’s a place she does belong, and that staying with her family will place her in grave danger. In the blink of an eye, Sophie is forced to leave behind everything and start a new life in a place that is vastly different from anything she has ever known.

Sophie has new rules to learn and new skills to master, and not everyone is thrilled that she has come “home.”
There are secrets buried deep in Sophie’s memory—secrets about who she really is and why she was hidden among humans—that other people desperately want. Would even kill for.

Ever since I gave up on Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, I’ve become more open to the idea of not finishing books I’m just not that in to. Last week, I read three pages of Rain, Reign by Ann M. Martin before calling it quits (the style of narration was really overwhelming to me), and today, after reading about a third of the book and the final chapter, I gave up on Keeper of the Lost Cities. I’m kind of devastated too, because I really, really wanted to love this book.

I felt disconnected from the characters, which is automatically a bad start, because if I don’t care about the characters, how can I care about their plight? Too many were introduced in this first novel, so it was hard to keep everyone straight, and I felt like the characters lacked development; even the main character seemed a little bland. Perhaps most disappointing of all though, this story lacked true friendships. This is a middle grade, fantasy novel, so I went in to it expecting Sophie to discover her BFF4Es (her Ron and Hermione) but all Sophie seemed to gain was allies, not true friends.

I felt similarly about the world building. Everything in the fantasy world has the potential to be new and exciting for the reader, but there were too many ideas and products and foods and activities that were introduced. Their existence often seemed arbitrary, and there seemed to be a lot of “hand waving” just to keep the story moving. That was so un-fulfilling because there were so many fun ideas, like strawberry-flavored air, which I think is some kind of snack, or the fact that wooly mammoths still exist in the lost cities, or catching rides on light beams, but they just became lost in the background.

And…is it just me, or does this book seem oddly similar to Harry Potter? Both characters spend childhood feeling out-of-place in the mundane world only to find out as pre-teens that they have magical abilities and really belong at a school that teaches them how to control their abilities. Sophie doesn’t end up at a boarding school like Harry does, but the reader does get to accompany her during all of her exciting magical classes like Multispecies Studes (ie. Muggle Studies), Metaphysics, the Universe, Elementalism, and Alchemy (ie. potions complete with an instructor that is extra harsh on her).  I actually think this has to potential to be exciting for some young readers, but…you have to understand, Harry Potter is “my jam” so I’m unfortunately extra critical when I notice such similarities. Harry Potter trumps all.

There is no star rating for Keeper of the Lost Cities (not to be confused with a zero-star rating). I didn’t finish it, so I don’t think I can rate it fairly.

Getting Cozy with Sleight of Paw by Sofie Kelly

Sleight of Paw book CoverSleight of Paw by Sofie Kelly
Released:
September 2011
Publisher: Penguin Books
★★★☆☆
Synopsis:
Small-town librarian Kathleen Paulson never wanted to be the crazy cat lady. But after Owen and Hercules followed her home, she realized her mind wasn’t playing tricks on her-her cats have magical abilities.When the body of elderly do-gooder Agatha Shepherd is found near Kath’s favorite local café, she knows Owen’s talent for turning invisible and Hercules’s ability to walk through walls will give the felines access to clues Kath couldn’t get without arousing suspicion. Someone is hiding some dark secrets-and it will take a bit of furtive investigating to catch the cold-hearted killer.

I don’t remember who put cozy mystery novels on my radar, but as far as I could tell, they revolved around cats and baked goods and dead people, and since those are a few of my favorite things (with the exception of dead people, of course), I knew I had to read at least one cozy mystery novel. So, when I went to the library two weekends ago, my goal was to check out one cozy mystery novel. Enter Sleight of Paw by Sofie Kelly. I devoured this book in two sittings, and by the end I was positively charmed and certain I had just discovered a new, favorite genre.

This is what I loved:

1. The setting: Mayville Heights. This small town in Minnesota is practically the Stars Hallow of the Midwest– at least, that’s what I imagined. Mayville Heights is the kind of town where it is probable that everyone knows everyone, a sense of community is valued, so there is always an art/food/music festival going on, and once a week (probably more) the main character and her pals meet at Luke’s Diner for amazing food and a cup of coffee. Oops! Did I say Luke’s Diner? I meant to say Eric’s Place.

2. The friendship between Kathleen Paulson and her two pals, Roma and Maggie. I accidentally started on book 2, so I missed out on Kathleen’s debut in the small town. But, it sounds like the trio solidified their friendship by playing Charlie’s Angels to reveal the killer in book one. But, the friendship in book two is satisfying nonetheless. As I read, I kept wishing that I had friends like Kathleen, Roma, and Maggie in my life. They meet up for brunch a few times a week, they volunteer to plan events in the community, and they exchange lines of witty banter.

3. The cats. Just because they are freaking cats, and I may or may not be on the verge of crazy cat lady-hood. But, Owen and Hercules are not your ordinary house cats. They came from the abandoned house that the community turned in to a feral cat sanctuary. And…they are magical! They can turn invisible and slink through closed doors, which definitely comes in handy during sleuthing.

4. The humor. This book made me literally laugh out loud, which is unheard of because I am usually a very stoic reader. (I didn’t even cry during Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). But, how could I not chuckle at golden moments like this?

Kathleen is talking on the phone with her mom:

“I wasn’t hovering,” were the first words out of her mouth.

“Okay.”

“I was lurking,” she continued.

“What’s the difference?”

“It’s all in how you hold your upper body.”

5. It’s “fluffy”, and that’s a good thing. There is nothing wrong with reading a light, feel-good novel. Dare I say it– sometimes, that’s what the mind needs, especially after an intense week at work. I felt so refreshed after reading Sofie Kelly’s Sleight of Paw.

Things that were just okay:

Instead of “Things I didn’t like” because there was nothing about this novel that I didn’t like.

1. The pacing. While I appreciate all of the exposition about the small town and positive friendships and cats (especially cats), I thought the middle was a little slow. The suspense finally started building in the last 100 pages, but I went into reading the novels expecting to be on the edge of my seat the entire time.

2. I picked out the killer before he was even a suspect. Common’ Kathleen! The motive was so clear! Why didn’t you try looking for the means sooner?

3. There wasn’t as much magical sleuthing as I expected. According to what I’ve read about the series so far, the cat’s abilities are utilized more in book one compared to book two (which just means I really have to track down book one!) Still, it was fun. BECAUSE CATS.

By the end of the novel, I felt giddy. Had I found my new favorite genre? I wanted to rush back to the library to check out more cozy mystery novels. Check out Sleight of Paw if you’re looking for a light-hearted mystery, or check it out if you’re a budding crazy cat lady.

I’ll be checking out another cozy mystery novel during my next library visit. Do you have any recommendations?

Fairy Tales and Girl Powa!

Fables_Book-CoverFables Vol. 1 & 2 by Bill Willingham
Released:
October 2009 (Fables originally released 2002)
Publisher: Vertigo | DC Comics
★★★★☆
Synopsis:
 When a savage creature known only as the Adversary conquered the fabled lands of legends and fairy tales, all of the infamous inhabitants of folklore were forced into exile. Disguised among the normal citizens of modern-day New York, these magical characters created their own secret society-within an exclusive luxury apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side-called Fabletown. But when Snow White’s party-girl sister, Rose Red, is apparently murdered, it is up to Bigby, Fabletown’s sheriff, and a reformed and pardoned Big Bad Wolf, to determine if the culprit is Bluebeard, Rose’s ex-lover and notorious wife killer, or Jack, her current live-in boyfriend and former beanstalk-climber. (from Goodreads)

Aside from the occasional manga I read back in middle school and the handful of Batman comics I’ve read since I’ve been dating Jon, I haven’t read too many graphic novels. But, that doesn’t mean they’ve never been on my radar throughout the years– granted, my wish list has grown significantly longer over the past couple of months as more and more bloggers seem to be featuring graphic novels. The series that has been on my wish list the longest though is Fables by Bill Willingham. I stumbled upon it about ten years ago, and it took me that long before I finally purchased myself the first two books. I was a little reluctant to start reading Fables. First, it’s such a popular series, and how disappointed would I be if I didn’t like it? Second, I had been building it up for nearly ten years, so even if I just thought it was mediocre, Fables would still have a long way to fall. I am happy to report though that what I’ve read of Fables has met my expectations. Whatta relief!

Fables takes all of our favorite fairy tales and turns them in to reality. Kind of like the Sisters Grimm or the TV show, Once Upon a Time, but seedy because it takes place in New York City, and it’s meant for mature readers. Beware, there is violence, foul language, and sexual situations amongst the pages. Vol. 1, Legends in Exile, is a twisting, turning whodunnit story complete with a parlor room scene that took me by surprise, and Vol. 2, Animal Farm, is a suspenseful tale of revolution. The cover artwork is stunning, but the artwork frame-to-frame is just good (and that’s absolutely just a personal aesthetic  taste). And sure, the banter between characters is a little silly at times, but that doesn’t detract from how fun and magical the story is. Perhaps most satisfying of all is (so far) women take charge in this series. Snow White is a Director of Operations of Fabletown. Goldilocks is a radical revolutionary leader. Cinderella goes toe-to-toe with Bluebeard in a fencing match. Girl power!

As a graphic novel newbie, there was a lot to take in while reading Fables. The artwork is rich with detail, the world is wonderfully complex, and a diverse cast of characters have their own unique story arcs. It was a rewarding read, and I look forward to picking up Vol. 3, Storybook Love.

Admitting Defeat with Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Delirium by Lauren OliverDelirium by Lauren Oliver
Released:
January 2011
Publisher: HarperCollins
NO RATING, DNF
Synopsis: Ninety-five days, and then I’ll be safe. I wonder whether the procedure will hurt. I want to get it over with. It’s hard to be patient. It’s hard not to be afraid while I’m still uncured, though so far the deliria hasn’t touched me yet. Still, I worry. They say that in the old days, love drove people to madness. The deadliest of all deadly things: It kills you both when you have it and when you don’t.

Lauren Oliver’s writing style is incredible. It’s beautiful. It’s poetic. I want to read it out loud so I can hear it. It leaves a hole in my chest, but in a good way. I remember thinking that when I read Before I Fall, and if you haven’t read that book, I definitely recommend it. So, when I picked up a copy of Delirium, I couldn’t wait to read it. It started out promising. I devoured the first eight chapters. And then, everything came to a screeching stop. Don’t get me wrong– Lauren Oliver’s writing style is still impeccable in this book. It was just…boring.

The last time I felt this bored reading a book was when I read the Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare. That was another book that started out promising but then bored me to tears a few chapters in. I kept reading because so many people praised Cassandra Claire, and I wanted to find out why for myself. Yes, there was a chapter or two at the end that piqued my interest, but upon finishing the novel I just resented the whole experience. I wasn’t prepared to let that happen again.

Not to mention, I couldn’t buy in to the premise of love as the demise of a society. Or the scapegoat, at least. It made as much sense to me as the idea that different personality types lead to the demise of a society. Just no. With the exception of the Hunger Games, I haven’t read a dystopian novel and loved it, so I’m starting to think the dystopian genre really isn’t a good niche for me after all.

I don’t often admit defeat. Especially when it comes to books that I own! I typically see not reading or not finishing books I own as a waste of money, but today I’ve decided that my time is more valuable than my money.

There is no start rating for Delirium (not to be confused with a zero-star rating). I didn’t finish it, so I don’t think I can rate it fairly.

These Broken Stars is Outta This World!

these broken starsThese Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner
Released:
December 2013
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
★★★★☆
Synopsis: Luxury spaceliner Icarus suddenly plummets from hyperspace into the nearest planet. Lilac LaRoux and Tarver Merendsen survive — alone. Lilac is the daughter of the richest man in the universe. Tarver comes from nothing, a cynical war hero. Both journey across the eerie deserted terrain for help. Everything changes when they uncover the truth.The Starbound Trilogy: Three worlds. Three love stories. One enemy.

This is what I loved about These Broken Stars:

1. Lilac LaRoux. So often are female characters written into un-flexible molds. They are princesses and tomboys and bookworms and the girl next door, but rarely do they cross over. That is not the case for Lilac LaRoux, who has an appreciation for jewel-toned dressed and designer shoes, but can also navigate around printed circuit boards and electrical wiring. Heart-throb Tarver Merendsen may be a hero in the headlines, but Lilac LaRoux is the true hero in this story, driven by her brilliance and bravery.

2. Soft Science Fiction. I love science fiction movies, and I love science fiction video games, but I do not often read science fiction books. It seems silly, but I’m intimidated by science fiction books because I’m afraid that the ideas will fly right over my head. Soft science fiction makes the genre more approachable though. Even though the ideas may be a little more fantasy than fact, the backdrop is fascinating nonetheless.

3. Of all the beautiful descriptions about stars and space, this line about Lilac LaRoux’s father is my favorite: “But who names a starship the Icarus? What kind of man possesses that much hubris, that he dares it to fall?” It’s brief. It’s simple. It’s powerful.

4. This book is equal parts science fiction and romance, but there are no traces of insta-love here. Lilac LaRoux and Tarver Merendsen come from two different worlds and both are influenced by their pride. They are forced into showing each other their vulnerabilities after the Icarus has fallen, and they only have each other to rely on for survival. Watching the pair grow up and grow together revealed more about the two characters than any cliché love triangle.

5. The mysterious visions. Is it trauma? Is it fantasy? Is it an alien life form? I needed to know what caused Lilac and Tarver to hear voices and see impossible visions. The revelation at the end did not leave me feeling disappointed at all.

This is what I did not like about These Broken Stars:

1. The pacing was slow during parts of the book. I suspected that might be the case with These Broken Stars since a majority of the story takes place on a deserted planet. With the exception of the elements and one wildcat, there are very few external conflicts in this book. This can be okay, but their fight for survival became mundane after a few chapters. What kept my drive to read to the end alive was my love for the characters, the mystery of the abandoned terraformed planet, and the strange visions.

2. I was left with so many unanswered questions about humanity’s role in the universe. They’ve colonized a handful of planets, and wars and rebellions were briefly mentioned, but the authors seemed to gloss over the causes. I wanted to know more, especially what was causing the rebellions.

Overall:

Despite the pacing and the unanswered questions, I really enjoyed These Broken Stars. Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner crafted a beautifully written book with intriguing characters and mystery. The end of These Broken Stars filled me with so much wonder that I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy of This Shattered World. Even more exciting is the next installment follows two new characters and dives into wars and the rebellions that plague humanity. It’s rare that I want to read beyond book one in a series, which is why I have to give These Broken Stars four stars!

I received These Broken Stars as a gift from the splendid Kate @ Literary Kate

Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn’t Have) by Sarah Mlynowski

Ten Things We Did and Probably Shouldn't Have by Sara Mlynowski Book CoverTen Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn’t Have) by Sarah Mlynowski
Released:
June 2011
Publisher: Harper Teen
★★☆☆☆
Synopsis: When April’s dad relocates to Cleveland, April begs to move in with her friend Vi instead of leave behind everything that is comfortable to her, especially her boyfriend Noah. April’s dad agrees to this arrangement without knowing Vi’s mom won’t be present (she’s traveling the U.S. in an off-Broadway production). The girls provide April’s dad with a fake e-mail address, and Vi responds to every e-mail as if she were her mom. Let the bad decisions begin!

The plot is fast-paced but not hilarious like the book’s blurb promises. Perhaps it is a sign of my old age (is 26 old?) that I found the characters’ decisions to be unrealistic and obnoxious. When does buying a several thousand dollar hot tub with grocery allowance sound like a reasonable way to pay someone back? The characters in Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn’t Have) are kind of equally annoying. With the exception of Dean, Vi’s boytoy, I didn’t like any of the characters. Vi is bossy and rude (and Dean can do a whole heck of a lot better). Marissa, as it turns out, is a crappy friend. Noah is just gross. And April is…inept; what sixteen year old doesn’t know how to do basic chores– like washing the dishes or laundering their clothes? What kind of sheltered life does she live, and why didn’t her parents teach her this? Ultimately, I found it really hard to root for anyone or sympathize with anyone in this novel.

Amid preposterous decisions, this novel tried to break out of the contemporary fluff model by trying to explore difficult issues like divorce, feeling abandoned by family, adoption, and eating disorders. Unfortunately, there was too much to address in such a short novel (with sooooo much going on), that discussion of these topics lacked consistency– kind of like If I Tell by Janet Gurtler. The only topic that was explored fairly substantially in this novel was April and her relationship with Noah. The couple has been together for two years, and April feels confident that she wants to take their relationship to the next level. There is no beating around the bush here– we’re talking about sex. Initially, I appreciated how the author handled the subject. Both Vi and April look into and discuss birth control options– perhaps the only good decision made in this entire novel. Additionally, I liked how the author navigated April’s feelings toward sex. It explores the behavioral script of what losing one’s virginity should be like– reality rarely meets expectations, and her insecurities are also explored; she notices that Noah is distant, and she feels having sex will make their relationship more stable. Alas, sex does not equal love– a hard lesson learned, yet that kind of thought process is a very real one regardless of age, experience, and gender. Unfortunately, the outcome of this decision is awful, and I don’t think it really added anything to the story. It just made me feel uncomfortable and disappointed that the experience was portrayed in such a negative light. A very grey topic was painted black and white.

Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn’t Have) by Sarah Mlynowski was a quick read. I devoured it in one sitting, but readability does not make a book great. Honestly, I think the real reason I couldn’t put this book down was because the characters made some train wreck decisions, and I was rubbernecking. Overall, the book was okay even if there were a handful of parts that left me feeling disappointed, which is why I give this book two out of five stars.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell Book Review

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell book coverFangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Released: September 2013
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
★★★★☆
Synopsis: Cath is a Simon Snow fan. Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan…But for Cath, being a fan is her life—and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving. Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fan fiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to. Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words… And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.

For Cath, the question is: Can she do this?

So rare is it that I love a book that has been hyped. Usually, the higher the pedestal, the farther a book has to fall– such was the case with Divergent by Veronica Roth or An Abundance of Katherines by John Green for which there is no link here because I couldn’t make it past page 50. However, I recently read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, and the only thing I’m disappointed about is not reading the book sooner so I could fangirl along side the rest of the book blogosphere.

Freshman year of college is a test for all 18 and 19-year-olds, and it’s no different for Cath, who is a new student at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska*. At least she can rely on her twin sister, Wren, also a freshman at the University of Nebraska, to help her navigate the microcosm that is a university campus and being away from home for the first time…right? But, when Wren chooses to embrace the college life that includes the drinking and the boys and the rowdy parties, Cather slips into the fan fiction world of Simon Snow (read: Harry Potter) that’s safe and comfortable and already accepting of her. Unexpectedly, her sassy roommate, Reagan, and her sassy roommate’s attachment/unattachment, Levi, draw Cath out of her shell.

I think Cath is going to be one of those rare female characters who empowers her readers. Like the way Hermione Granger made being intelligent and a bookworm totally awesome, Cath will make reading and writing and being snarky and being nerdy totally awesome. Plus, she’s easy to relate to. She’s cynical and insecure and scared, but she’s also introverted and witty and passionate, and as I kept flipping pages, I kept thinking, “That’s me. Cath is me!”

Then, we’re finally given a love interest that isn’t a “bad boy with a heart of gold” because those don’t actually exist. Trust me, the bad boy will always be a jerk (especially in college), and you’re just being blinded by his manly sideburns and five o’clock shadow. Levi is a nice guy— the kind that offers to walk with you at night even though it’s cold outside because he wants to make sure you feel safe, the kind that will drive you home no matter the distance or the road conditions, the kind that will encourage you to embrace and ramble on about your (nerdy) passions. He’s not compared to Adonis; in fact, he’s got lines in his forehead and a bit of a receding hairline, and he probably has a farmer’s tan too from working hard out in the sun! He’s still handsome and he’s charming (of course, he’s from the midwest), but more importantly, he’s the kind of you guy you cannot wait to see or talk to over the phone because he just sort of makes awful days melt away or he makes you feel like the most important person in the room or he makes you feel like yourself again. I know someone kind of like Levi, and perhaps that is why the relationship that develops between Cath and Levi gives me butterflies in my stomach. Plus, the romance happened organically, which is refreshing in a world of love triangles that don’t make sense and instant, unfettering “love” amongst teenagers.

As much as I loved Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, I have to admit that I did actually skips parts of this book, which I don’t often do. Each chapter starts with an excerpt from the Simon Snow novel, or Cath’s fan fiction, or newspaper clippings discussing the pop culture phenomenon. Then, there were several pages where Cath was reading her fan fiction out loud, and I pretty much skipped all of that. The integration of Cath’s Simon Snow fan fiction was cool at first, but after a while I became bored by it, and I felt it was distracting from the story that I truly wanted to read– Cath’s college experience.

Still, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell earns a solid four stars from me for multifaceted, perfectly imperfect characters, a charming romance, and a realistic portrayal of college and falling in love for the first time. Thank you Rainbow Rowell for giving the world Cather Avery.

*I think it’s really cool that this story takes place in Nebraska, one of the most underrated states in the US. Who writes about Nebraska?

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick #Review

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick book coverNever Fall Down by Patricia McCormick
Released: May, 2012
Publisher:
Balzer + Bray
★★★☆☆
Synopsis:
Based on the true story of Cambodian advocate Arn Chorn-Pond, and authentically told from his point of view as a young boy, this is an achingly raw and powerful historical novel about a child of war who becomes a man of peace. When soldiers arrive in his hometown, Arn is just a normal little boy. But after the soldiers march the entire population into the countryside, his life is changed forever.Arn is separated from his family and assigned to a labor camp: working in the rice paddies under a blazing sun, he sees the other children dying before his eyes. One day, the soldiers ask if any of the kids can play an instrument. Arn’s never played a note in his life, but he volunteers.This decision will save his life, but it will pull him into the very center of what we know today as the Killing Fields. And just as the country is about to be liberated, Arn is handed a gun and forced to become a soldier.

I read Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick for very superficial reasons: 1. it was on sale the day I purchased it and 2. it was the shortest novel I owned, and I wanted a “quick read” to get myself out of my reading slump. I don’t think I even paid much attention to the blurb the day that I bought it other than it took place in Cambodia and something about the “main character”, Arn, dancing to Elvis Presley and hustling adults to bring home extra coin to his family. I mistakenly thought this was going to be a coming-of-age novel. Perhaps my obliviousness was a blessing because had I realized this book took place in Cambodia during the 1970s, I might not have picked it up on New Year’s Eve.

I only vaguely knew about Cambodia during the 1970s– the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. It’s not something that I ever learned about in school though. All of my world history classes– high school and college– were western centric, so if America or the UK or the Soviet Union were not involved, we didn’t touch the subject– not even when 25% of a country’s population was annihilated by corrupt leaders.

Never Fall Down is based on the (true) story of Arn Chorn-Pond, who, during 1975 and 1979, survived the genocide of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge labor camps, and the Cambodian-Vietnamese War. This book is listed as “young adult”, but every page is filled with sights, scents, and sounds of death. Everyday, the Khmer Rouge kill people who are too educated, too rich, or too supportive of the old ways. The labor camps turn into killing fields and mass graves for over two million Cambodians, but Arn Chorn-Pond survives the fields because he volunteers to learn an instrument to play the patriotic songs of the new government and he learns to manipulate the members of the new regime. On the eve of Cambodian liberation, Arn Chorn-Pond is handed a gun and made to not only fight for the Khmer Rouge but for his own life as well.

I have one reservation about Never Fall Down though, and it’s not the grim content– it’s the narration. Patricia McCormick spent two years interviewing Arn Chorn-Pond and surviving family members to learn their story, and in an attempt to capture Arn’s “authentic” voice, McCormick decided to write the entire story in broken English. Unfortunately, not only did it make this story difficult to read, I found the voice to be more like a caricature than authentic. It just seems…tacky, and perhaps I am putting that lightly. It was so unappealing and unnecessary that it turned a four-star book into a three-star book.

Still, a book like Never Fall Down needs to be read. It’s a powerful story about a time in history that I think many of us are unfamiliar with. And that’s the thing about history– we read about it or experience it first hand and (hopefully) we learn and (hopefully) we don’t let history repeat itself.

The Exiled Queen by Cinda Williams Chima Review

Book Cover for The Exiled Queen by Cinda Williams ChimaThe Exiled Queen by Cinda Williams Chima (Seven Realms #2)
Released:
September 2010
Publisher: Hyperion Books
★★★★☆
Synopsis: Haunted by the loss of his mother and sister, Han Alister journeys south to begin his schooling at Mystwerk House in Oden’s Ford. But leaving the Fells doesn’t mean that danger isn’t far behind. Han is hunted every step of the way by the Bayars, a powerful wizarding family set on reclaiming the amulet Han stole from them. And Mystwerk House has dangers of its own. There, Han meets Crow, a mysterious wizard who agrees to tutor Han in the darker parts of sorcery—but the bargain they make is one Han may regret.

Meanwhile, Princess Raisa ana’Marianna runs from a forced marriage in the Fells, accompanied by her friend Amon and his triple of cadets. Now, the safest place for Raisa is Wein House, the military academy at Oden’s Ford. If Raisa can pass as a regular student, Wein House will offer both sanctuary and the education Raisa needs to succeed as the next Gray Wolf queen.

Everything changes when Han and Raisa’s paths cross, in this epic tale of uncertain friendships, cut-throat politics, and the irresistible power of attraction.

It’s a rare occasion when I read the first book in a series and I enjoyed it enough that I consider reading the second book in a series. It’s an even rarer occasion when I actually pick up book two in a series. Remember when I declared my love for Matched by Ally Condie, The Candidates by Inara Scott, and Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel? I never actually continued those series, and I probably never will now. Then, there are these anomalous events where I find myself not just reading book two but then scrambling to get my hands on book three and four. There is the Harry Potter series (duh!) and the Twilight series (I can’t explain this one), and now there is the Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima. I reviewed the first book, The Demon King, two years ago, and believe it or not, I just finished the second book in the series. OH. MY. GOSH.

P.S. Spoilers?

In The Exiled Queen, we find our two heroes, Han and Raisa, separated once more. Yet as the tides of war lap at the Seven Realms, both are traveling to boarding school, Oden’s Ford, to seek refuge and to perfect skills that may aid them in the battles to come. I don’t know why, but if a story involves a boarding school, there is a 97% chance I’m going to love the book. I am such a nerd that I’m excited to learn about my favorite characters’ school day (please ignore the notes on how to travel to Aediion that I’ve jotted down in my own composition notebook). I just get really absorbed into the surroundings. Plus, there are so many unsupervised opportunities to mingle with one’s peers, and in such close quarters, there are so many opportunities to bump into love interests. Despite taking place in a fantasy setting, the romantic elements seem more realistic in this novel than in most other YA novels I’ve read. The passion without obsession. The mind’s hesitation to start a relationship, when the heart wants nothing more than to jump in with abandon. The crushing force of seeing the person you’re falling in love with doting on another.  There were moments when my heart was screaming for two characters to kiss, but instead they were both stuck inside their own heads filled with doubt, too afraid to make the first move. Won’t we all experience this at least once in our own lives? And kudos to the author, who wasn’t afraid to write about hormonal teenagers and birth control (ie. maidenweed).

The characters continue to grow and develop in The Exiled Queen. Just when I thought I understood a characters motives, they are thrown into situations that challenge their values. I was always eager to turn the page so I could discover what caused the change of heart. Raisa continues to be my favorite character because she’s learning to become a warrior without sacrificing her femininity, and characters like that seem so rare. There are also a handful of new characters, who I don’t quite trust. Dean Abelard is introduced as the head of Mystwerk House. She holds dinners during the school year that are reminiscent of the Slug Club from the Harry Potter series– only the most gifted students are invited, and they take turns teaching each other valuable lessons. I sense Dean Abelard is loyal only to herself, and she has a few tricks up her sleeve to ensure she comes out on top (a true Slytherin!). Then there is the mysterious mage, Crow, who is a master of illusions, and I’m dying to know his true identity.

My only issue with the Exiled Queen is the pacing, and that may be more of a result of preference than anything. During the first half of the book, both Han’s and Raisa’s parties were traveling through the realms. Of course they ran into trouble and excitement along the way, but I found myself wanting to fast forward to their adventures in boarding school instead. For someone who claims she loves traveling, I’m definitely not a huge fan of it in fantasy novels. Mostly, I just view it as an opportunity for retrospection and world building, but book one was full of that and I wanted more of the plot to be revealed. This does begin to happen near the end of the book, and I found myself staying up way past my bedtime…during the work week. The Exiled Queen ended with a cliffhanger, and it left me asking a million questions that I just know will be answered in the next installment of this series.

So far, the Seven Realms series is incredible, and if it’s not on your reading list, you should definitely add it– especially if you’re reluctant to read high fantasy books. I was too, but this series made the genre more approachable because Cinda Williams Chima created the perfect balance of world building and character development.

I won this book in a giveaway hosted by Proud Book Nerd