Books

More Than This, by Patrick Ness

4.5 Stars

A boy drowns, desperate and alone in his final moments. He dies.

Then he wakes, naked and bruised and thirsty, but alive.

How can this be? And what is this strange deserted place?

As he struggles to understand what is happening, the boy dares to hope. Might this not be the end? Might there be more to this life, or perhaps this afterlife?

From multi-award-winning Patrick Ness comes one of the most provocative and moving novels of our time.

Patrick Ness is such a popular name nowadays: his Chaos Walking trilogy is lauded by many, and his A Monster Calls made me, and apparently everyone else cry. Therefore, I picked up More Than This rather on a whim, not realizing what it was about at all (because the copy at the library irritatingly didn’t have an inside cover. Why do back covers have to only contain quotes about the book I don’t care about?). As I read it, though, “pleasantly surprised” became a bit of a misnomer, because this book was engrossing, captivating, deep, and had me questioning my existence on every page.

I will say right off the bat that the writing is phenomenal. The prologue to this book is quite literally one of the best beginnings to a book I have ever read, and I had to put down the other book I was reading so I could finish this one in two sittings. The third person perspective also contributed to the mystery and suspenseful atmosphere of the novel, and I’m starting to wonder if I’m beginning to prefer it to first person narration.

The first third of this book is literally just our main character alone trying to figure out what’s happening to him, and although the plot is slow, it’s punctuated by meaning and character depth, and I was not the least bit bored even when nothing was happening.

I loved Seth’s flawed, struggling character. The circumstances surrounding his death are slowly revealed, and his development was beautifully unrushed. The side characters of Tomasz and Regine were also extremely layered and distinct, and I enjoyed every bit of their page time.

There’s not a ton I can say about this book since it’s one of those books where you’re much better off reading it with very little information, as I did. It’s not like there’s some big reveal at the end, it’s just that it’s easier to get sucked into the book without the impediments of prior expectations. When pointing out flaws, I will say that I wasn’t a huge fan of the explanation for Seth’s situation we were (kind of) given, since the entire thing then felt too easy and slightly undermined the themes of existentialism and knowledge that are interwoven into this book. However, Ness does well to overturn explanations often, so the characters can never figure something out completely before their perceptions are shaken again.

This is the first book in a while that I found completely fresh, beautiful, and without romance. More Then This was an amazing ride the entire time and I find myself now clamoring after Ness’s other works.

-Liz

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Books

Violet Grenade, by Victoria Scott

Two stars. And I’m stretching it, believe me.

Her name is Domino Ray.

But the voice inside her head has a different name.

When the mysterious Ms. Karina finds Domino in an alleyway, she offers her a position at her girls’ home in secluded West Texas. With no alternatives and an agenda of her own, Domino accepts. It isn’t long before she is fighting her way up the ranks to gain the woman’s approval…and falling for Cain, the mysterious boy living in the basement.

But the home has horrible secrets. So do the girls living there. So does Cain.

Escaping is harder than Domino expects, though, because Ms. Karina doesn’t like to lose inventory. But then, she doesn’t know about the danger living inside Domino’s mind.

She doesn’t know about Wilson.

I rarely go for impulse reading these days – I’m more of a “look up every review on Goodreads” kind of person when it comes to deciding what I want to read. However, I decided to temporarily abandon this principle with Violet Grenade because I thought it sounded cool and belonged to a genre I don’t normally read – suspense.

Red flags went up from the start, as soon as I saw how angsty this book was going to become. Domino, the main character, is your standard heavy-backstory-laden tragic character – one with mysterious scars on her arms, “blood on her hands,” secrets, and homelessness. She’s squatting in a house with Dizzy, an equally homeless Iranian kid. When a run-in with the police gets Dizzy arrested, Domino decided to take a mysterious woman’s offer to take a “job” at her “House for Burgeoning Entertainers” so she can pay off his bail. Sounds super sketchy, right? But if you’re hoping for more depth from Dizzy, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed – he’s essentially an intriguing character who’s unfortunately a throwaway since he’s simply used to move the plot along.

(Maybe I’ve been watching too much Game of Thrones lately, but a house for entertainers sounds very much like a brothel to me. Maybe because this is a YA novel, the “entertainment” was weirdly super PG-rated, which just seemed bizarre to me, but whatever. I’m getting off on a tangent. 😉 )

One of my major annoyances with this book was the presence of numerous bitchy mean girls. The girls at this house are technically competing against each other for earnings, but that doesn’t mean that every single one of them had to be nasty little pieces of scum. With the exception of her friend Poppet, every other girl at this house hated Domino just for existing, and went out of their way to make her life miserable. (Some even snuck under her bed before she went to sleep to give her minor cuts. I mean, what?)

Problem number two was that the love interest, Cain, was about as interesting as a brick. The romance was forced and degraded Domino from the supposedly strong girl she was supposed to be. Even his backstory was so cliche I had to put the book down when I found out.

Problem number three (yeah, this list is going on longer than I expected) was the predictability of nearly everything. You know something is amiss with the madam just from the blurb. You know both Domino and Cain had classic angsty backstories. As you read on, the specifics also become really straightforward to figure out, and there was really nothing that surprised me.

My final, biggest issue with this book was the portrayal of mental illness. Domino has an alternate personality, named Wilson, that wants to wreak havoc and was born as a result of past trauma. Wilson in of itself was a pretty interesting character, but it is always abundantly clear that he’s a manifestation of Domino’s mental illness. I can’t claim to be an expert mental illness, but I thought that using Wilson simply as a plot device and companion for Domino oversimplified the complex issue at root (and the fact that she has a mental illness isn’t explicitly acknowledged once). Domino’s ultimate healing and overcoming of Wilson’s destructive power (What? It’s not a spoiler if it’s really freaking obvious that it’s going to happen) happened too easily, with little outside help, and was mostly caused by the power of love. I know that I shouldn’t ask for a realistic portrayal of mental illness from a suspense novel that’s not even about mental illness, but I couldn’t stand this level of simplicity the entire issue was afforded.

As many issues as there were, I did manage to finish this book in a short period of time, which means that something went right, since I have nothing against DNF-ing books I dislike. I can’t point out one specific thing that I liked, per se, but there was a certain entertainment value that encouraged me to keep reading in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. I guess that counts for something?

After writing this review, I’m wondering if this book deserves one start instead of two. I don’t recommend this book to anyone except readers who haven’t had much experience with YA to whom the cliches won’t seem as cliche. Maybe I’ve just seen too many of these tropes in my life, but Violet Grenade was not for me.

-Liz

Books

Alex, Approximately, by Jen Bennett

2.5 Stars

The one guy Bailey Rydell can’t stand is actually the boy of her dreams—she just doesn’t know it yet.

Classic movie fan Bailey “Mink” Rydell has spent months crushing on a witty film geek she only knows online as Alex. Two coasts separate the teens until Bailey moves in with her dad, who lives in the same California surfing town as her online crush.

Faced with doubts (what if he’s a creep in real life—or worse?), Bailey doesn’t tell Alex she’s moved to his hometown. Or that she’s landed a job at the local tourist-trap museum. Or that she’s being heckled daily by the irritatingly hot museum security guard, Porter Roth—a.k.a. her new archnemesis. But life is a whole lot messier than the movies, especially when Bailey discovers that tricky fine line between hate, love, and whatever it is she’s starting to feel for Porter.

And as the summer months go by, Bailey must choose whether to cling to a dreamy online fantasy in Alex or take a risk on an imperfect reality with Porter. The choice is both simpler and more complicated than she realizes, because Porter Roth is hiding a secret of his own: Porter is Alex…Approximately.

This is a book I really wanted to like. And I really mean it when I say that. The blurb sounded cute, the ratings were good, but most of all, Haven thought it was an example of fluff done right. And while I see why people like this book so much, I also think that I’ve read too many almost identical contemporaries to truly enjoy this formulaic type of book anymore. Sorry, Haven. 😦

Alex, Approximately is a retelling of You’ve Got Mail, and the premise is actually very cute. I appreciated that Bennett understood that the fact that Alex being Porter was too obvious to turn into a plot twist, and thus we were told of this in the blurb itself. The book itself started out predictable, but still cute. Bailey is likable, her friend Grace enjoyable, and Porter was the current-asshole-with-a-dark-secret-but-wait-you’re-gonna-love-him kind of guy. After the start, however, I felt there was a pretty significant drop in enjoyability; my irritation was probably increased by the fact that I was on a feminist literature streak, and contemporaries are not known for being amazing in this department.

I don’t want to make this entire review about the bad, since I did enjoy this to a certain extent, but I can’t help it. My first problem with it is how long it took Bailey to figure out the Alex-Porter connection. I don’t generally do well with dramatic devices that involve the audience knowing something the characters don’t, and I quickly lost patience with Bailey. The moment we’re waiting for really only happens in the last 10 pages of the book after huge amounts of stalling, and while I understood why it was written that way, Bailey came off as pretty dense to me.

My second problem is the “villain.” Fluff contemporaries generally have bad guys who are zero-dimensional (typically in a “mean girl” form) and this book was no exception. Because it’s a facet of the genre, I don’t mind this type of villain, but I thought the character of Davy was grossly abused in the writing. He’s portrayed as Porter’s old friend who’s now an all-around idiot and asshole, but he has a chronic injury, is addicted to narcotics as a result, and his parents don’t care about him enough to address it. That sounds like a character who’s desperately in need of reconciliation and help, but he’s just the “bad” guy in this book and is dismissed as such. I think this book would have been stronger if there was less victim blaming, or even if Davy just stayed zero-dimensional without all these cries for help.

My final problem is the incredible amount of guys doing things for girls because females are incapable creatures. Maybe I’ve been on a feminism streak lately (as I mentioned earlier), but I was waiting for Bailey to finally stick up for herself, and was relatively disappointed. Bailey is initially a “serial avoider” (a pushover), and the growth potential was enormous. Although she does come out of her shell and make out with Porter, this book is still filled with: Porter punching people to “defend her honor”, Bailey nursing his wounds and swooning, Bailey obsessing over Porter when he’s mad at her and begging him to stop being mad (even though she knows she did nothing wrong), and much more. Porter’s sister could potentially have been a strong female addition to this book, but we didn’t really get enough of her. I will admit, however, that Grace is a wonderful character and fun to read about.

Despite this in depth analysis of flaws, I did truly enjoy this book – it’s a fluff novel that succeeds in doing its job. Perhaps I wasn’t in the mood for fluff when I read this. Perhaps I was in the mood of something deeper, and this overly harsh review is evidence of that. Regardless, if you’re looking for a fun rainy day read, this review shouldn’t stop you from picking it up.

(Click here to read Haven’s review, which is more positive and does more justice to the genre)
-Aliza

Books, Reviews, YA Fiction

I’ll Meet You There, by Heather Demetrios

3.5 Stars

If Skylar Evans were a typical Creek View girl, her future would involve a double-wide trailer, a baby on her hip, and the graveyard shift at Taco Bell. But after graduation, the only thing separating Skylar from art school is three months of summer…until Skylar’s mother loses her job, and Skylar realizes her dreams may be slipping out of reach.

Josh had a different escape route: the Marines. But after losing his leg in Afghanistan, he returns home, a shell of the cocksure boy he used to be.

What brings Skylar and Josh together is working at the Paradise—a quirky motel off California’s Highway 99. Despite their differences, their shared isolation turns into an unexpected friendship and, soon, something deeper.

Compelling and ultimately hopeful, this is a powerful examination of love, loss, and resilience.

Today was my first day of school, so I’m glad to blow off some steam with a riveting discussion about books! Particularly I’ll Meet You There, of which I own a copy courtesy of my local library’s summer reading program. I went into this book with very little expectations, but came out of it pleased.

This book is about Skylar, a teenager aching to get out of her small trailer-park town. It’s also about Josh, a teenager back from a stint in the Marines, minus one leg. From the start, these characters were intriguing – they’re colorful and three-dimensional and stay that way throughout the entire book. They had wonderful separate storylines, and Skylar’s opinions and strong personality particularly attracted me (Josh was a douchebag to begin with, but Skylar quickly corrects his more offensive speech patterns.) I loved both these characters individually… but couldn’t really enjoy the forced romantic plot.

I thought the setting of Creek View was beautifully written, and Skylar and Josh fit wonderfully into it – I could feel the effect Creek View had on both of their goals and personalities. I could easily have bought a coming-of-age novel about their individual struggles and their friendship, but thought the romance escalated too quickly and Skylar’s thoughts quickly devolved into typical YA romantic girl mush when she was around him. I did like that they didn’t get together too quickly, but I think the characters were most true to themselves when not thinking about how kissable the other person was.

The side characters, especially Skylar’s friends, were super enjoyable and fun. I would have loved a lot more of Skylar’s interactions and camaraderie with these guys. I also loved how non-stereotypical they were about most everything, and enjoyed the awareness of teenage pregnancy, racism and homophobia.

Although most of the conflict was romantic in nature, other conflicts such as the family/financial struggles of teens living in underprivileged circumstances and PTSD were well written. Although I will forever wonder how teens in YA novels have such complete reign over and access to alcohol and drugs, even these topics were handled with care and an understanding of the gravitas of drug-related decisions.

Overall, this book is a sweet contemporary novel that has well-written characters and settings, but ultimately fails to be extremely memorable due to the forced, cliche romance. It’s a read I definitely still recommend, though!

~Aliza

Books, Reviews, YA Fiction

Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell | A super cute Harry Potter “fanfic.” Nuff said.

4.5 Stars

Simon Snow is the worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen.

That’s what his roommate, Baz, says. And Baz might be evil and a vampire and a complete git, but he’s probably right.

Half the time, Simon can’t even make his wand work, and the other half, he starts something on fire. His mentor’s avoiding him, his girlfriend broke up with him, and there’s a magic-eating monster running around, wearing Simon’s face. Baz would be having a field day with all this, if he were here — it’s their last year at the Watford School of Magicks, and Simon’s infuriating nemesis didn’t even bother to show up.

Carry On – The Rise and Fall of Simon Snow is a ghost story, a love story and a mystery. It has just as much kissing and talking as you’d expect from a Rainbow Rowell story – but far, far more monsters.

Carry On is one of those rare books where I read over 90% of this 500+ page book in a day. I have to say, I didn’t expect to like this book nearly as much as I did. I haven’t read Fangirl, but knew that this was essentially a book within a book that became its own book, which hardly attracted me. In addition, it was reviewed widely as basically  a Harry Potter fanfic, which worried me. I’m as obsessed with HP as any reader, but a spin-off written by a contemporary author? Seriously? Well, Carry On was all of those things: romancy, a spin-off, and a copy of Harry Potter from start to finish. And I loved every bit of it.

So I’m going to talk about Carry On as its own book, and not as a Fangirl related one, probably because I haven’t read the latter (I know, sue me). This book is about Simon Snow, a super powerful orphan mage referred to as “The Chosen One,” prophesied to defeat an evil connected to him in some way. Currently, he attends the Watford School of Magicks, where he studies with his two best friends and enemy/rival, who Simon initially suspects is up to no good. Sound familiar?

The comparisons to HP were overwhelming at first, and I definitely wasn’t sold on Simon’s obsession with his rival Baz’s disappearance. However, as I read on (and once Baz finally showed up), I began to enjoy the book much more and note the differences between this and Harry Potter. There are no school houses, for one. The spells are also common English phrases, and wands are not the only way of harnessing power. The world and class differences/tension are similar, but developed in a different way.

But what truly sold me were the characters. Simon is very adorable, and his best friend Penelope is all kinds of awesome. Baz, as well, is (secretly) super cute and his interactions with Simon had me squealing on the floor. The character relationships were surprisingly layered and very enjoyable to read. I also liked Simon’s relationships with the adults in his life, particularly the Mage.

The romance between Baz and Simon somehow wasn’t forced, either. My initial worry (knowing Rowell’s standard style of writing) was that there’d be more kissing than actual substance, but that wasn’t really the case. Although Baz’s love for Simon was a bit bluntly stated in the beginning, they don’t actually kiss until page 343-ish, which I was very happy about. Overall, the romance and characters were so much fun that I was more than happy to overlook the obvious flaws of this book.

Oh, the flaws. I wish I didn’t have to cover this but I consider it my obligation as a reviewer. I gave this book a very high rating simply on the basis of how much I relished it, but it cannot be ignored that the plot is, well… nonexistent. The “Voldemort” of this book, the Insidious Humdrum, takes a back seat to the Simon-Baz tension and there’s no real effort made on Simon’s part to defeat it. Most of the story revolves around figuring out who murdered Baz’s mom, but progress is excruciatingly slow. While Harry Potter also rarely had Voldemort show up for the majority of the book, the time was spent on world-building, foreshadowing, and attending classes. I don’t think I can name a single class Simon attended (because they were so inconsequential), and there was no growing mystery or a sense of foreboding. There just… wasn’t much of a plot.

This may sound like a game-killer for you, and if you’re considering scrolling away to some other book, think again. Despite everything, if you’re a character-driven reader looking for a cute read, please try Carry On. I hope you don’t regret it, because I certainly didn’t. 🙂

~Liz

Books, Reviews, YA Fiction

Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies | an intriguing premise undercut by a terrible main character

3 Stars

Twin Peaks meets Stars Hollow in this paranormal suspense novel about a boy who can reach inside people and steal their innermost things—fears, memories, scars, even love—and his family’s secret ritual that for centuries has kept the cliff above their small town from collapsing.

Aspen Quick has never really worried about how he’s affecting people when he steals from them. But this summer he’ll discover just how strong the Quick family magic is—and how far they’ll go to keep their secrets safe.

With a smart, arrogant protagonist, a sinister family tradition, and an ending you won’t see coming, this is a fast-paced, twisty story about power, addiction, and deciding what kind of person you want to be, in a family that has the ability to control everything you are.

Hey guys! So I’ve been out of the country for the last month and a half or so (it felt much longer, believe me), but I am more than ecstatic to be back to the world of stable Internet connection. I did get some reading over my vacation (when I wasn’t being bitten by mosquitoes in India, of course) so I am super hyped to talk about them.

Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies has a super gripping title. It’s morbidly humorous, and the blurb sounds interesting. I think the the title is probably the strongest point of this novel, which says quite a lot about the book. This books follows Aspen and his family, who have the power to steal anyone’s personal characteristics, whether it be personality or physical traits. His family has, for as long as anyone can remember, has a ritual where they use this power to steal things from people to stabilize the cliff that looms over the town to avoid mass destruction.

This premise is completely fascinating. The concept of a sentient cliff that requires things to be stolen from people provides a super intriguing air of mystery and magical realism. Clearly, everything is not as it seems when it comes to the ritual, cliff and even Aspen’s family, and the fact that this is apparent to the reader from the beginning sparks interest. Unfortunately, this premise that had so much potential was so wasted on a terrible, terrible main character.

I have one word to describe Aspen Quick: asshole. That’s all he is. He has this amazing power to take anything from anyone, and he abuses it to no end. He’s arrogant, and doesn’t give a second thought to taking whatever the hell he wants from anyone, with no thought to how he may be altering that person. I held out hope that this was the kind of book where he would become aware of his assholery (since his self-realization is the real message of this book) and become a better person, and I think that is what the author intended to do, but I couldn’t buy it. His big realization that his power causes harm happens in the last page of the book, and never felt deep or profound enough to be convincing. A whole book full of being a jerk doesn’t disappear immediately, Aspen.

If you want further proof of him being a terrible person, 80% of the book centers around Aspen forcing the girl he likes to fall in love with him, by taking away her love for his best friend and CONTINUALLY taking away any feelings she continues to develop for the best friend. It’s mentioned in the book that he once took away a club bouncer’s ability to tell a fake ID from a real one, and his cousin took away a security guard’s knowledge that pointy things aren’t allowed at an airport, for their own personal gain. This guy and his family’s selfishness has no end, and I became rather sick of him constantly manipulating people around him to get what he wants, and showing much too little remorse.

The underlying plot (other than the girlfriend stuff) was related to him figuring out the mystery surrounding his family’s magic. Most of the reveals were highly predictable, and at 20% of the book I could guess exactly what was going to happen, and suffered through 300 pages of Aspen struggling to figure it out.

After all this bashing, you may be wondering about my 3 star rating. Well, all 3 stars had to do with how cool the cliff and the magical realism was. Even though this book definitely could have been executed better, the idea is a good one, and I have to give the author credit for that. I would recommend this book if you’re looking for a quick read and have some time, but not if you’re hoping to be impressed.

~Liz

Books, Reviews

A Conjuring of Light, By Victoria Schwab

5 Amazing, Amazing, Stars

Witness the fate of beloved heroes – and enemies.

THE BALANCE OF POWER HAS FINALLY TIPPED…
The precarious equilibrium among four Londons has reached its breaking point. Once brimming with the red vivacity of magic, darkness casts a shadow over the Maresh Empire, leaving a space for another London to rise.

WHO WILL CRUMBLE?
Kell – once assumed to be the last surviving Antari – begins to waver under the pressure of competing loyalties. And in the wake of tragedy, can Arnes survive?

WHO WILL RISE?
Lila Bard, once a commonplace – but never common – thief, has survived and flourished through a series of magical trials. But now she must learn to control the magic, before it bleeds her dry. Meanwhile, the disgraced Captain Alucard Emery of the Night Spire collects his crew, attempting a race against time to acquire the impossible.

WHO WILL TAKE CONTROL?
And an ancient enemy returns to claim a crown while a fallen hero tries to save a world in decay.

Many of you out there know that last month, for high schoolers, was AP testing season. I personally, had five AP tests to take, and a whole bunch of stress that came with it. So instead of studying, what did I do? I picked up A Darker Shade of Magic for the second time. And then I picked up the next book. And the next one. And my soul (and hopefully not my test grades) cried with the wrenching knowledge that I had just, within the span of a week, finished what is perhaps one of the most expertly crafted YA series of all time.

This isn’t a great book. This is a phenomenal one. For all the filler and buildup of the previous book, this blew away all my expectations for what the final book in this series should be, and I can probably go as far as to say that this third installment is probably the best one out of the three.

A Conjuring of Light picks up immediately after the previous book, and I have to say, the stakes were high. From the very beginning the pace is fast and action-filled, and did not relent until the end. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, and spent a solid five hours (that I personally couldn’t afford to spend) flipping pages faster than I could read them.

Lila and Kell are back, and as awesome as ever, but what I didn’t expect was how much I would yearn for moments with Alucard and Rhy, both of whom I mistakenly assumed were side characters but absolutely are not. They are layered and likable in their own ways and really add depth to the story. Although there is character development, the personalities of all the characters does remain constant throughout, and I adore each and every one of them.

But the one person who stole my heart was Holland. Holland is the epitome of a tragic hero, someone forced into terrible situations that left him more than a little mangled, and I was drawn to him most of all. We get a lot more backstory on Holland’s end in this book, and it added so much to an already extremely layered character. Holland goes from villain to background character to something in between hero and villain in these three books, and in my opinion, that kind of complexity makes for the best kinds of characters. I definitely shed a tear at the end because I love his character so much.

I mentioned this in my review of the previous book, but in addition to the exquisite world building, the Schwab’s style of character romance is on point. Romances in real life don’t take precedence over all other more pressing matters, and it absolutely does not intrude even a bit on the plot here. Romantic endeavors are pushed aside to be pursued in calmer times, and that made me cherish the few ship-worthy moments. Nobody likes it when the main characters finally get together after multiple books of teasing, only to lose their capacity to keep their mouths off each other as soon as their relationship becomes official.

If I had to point out a flaw, I would say that I would have liked some answers with regards to Kell’s past, as well as a bit more dimensionality to the main villain, but these are minor in the grand scheme of the book.

Overall, the Shades of Magic series, and particularly this last installment, are phenomenal by many standards, and if you haven’t read it yet, I would suggest you get your hands in a copy as soon as humanly possible.

~Aliza