August 31, 2012

Review: This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers

This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers
Published: 2012, St. Martin's Griffin
Genre: Young Adult Post-Apocalyptic, Contemporary
Source: Library book

Waiting around to be saved is like waiting to die and I have done more of both than anyone else in the room.

I have an announcement to make: I have read my first ever zombie novel! And I've found an issues-driven book that I actually enjoyed. Two awesome firsts that I was able to get from this amazing book, This is Not a Test.

According to Sloane Price, she's been dead for the past six months. Ever since her older sister Lily went away without her, leaving Sloane home alone with their abusive father. All that's left for Sloane to do is kill herself so that her body can be as dead as her mind and emotions are. But then something completely unexpected happens: her town is overrun by a zombie invasion. Sloane wonders if she's already dead and simply experiencing a bizarre dream. By the time she's realized that everything happening is real, she's already found herself to be part of a small group that's barricaded itself in the local high school while the zombies continue to kill outside. Paired with teenagers intent on survival, Sloane realizes that her death will not be an easy thing to accomplish after all.

The main conflict of our protagonist Sloane is not how to survive amidst a zombie invasion, but whether there is anything left to live for anymore. She's been contemplating this dilemma for months now and has come to the conclusion that she no longer wants to live. Although she clearly has a lot of issues, Sloane is a great protagonist. I feel like most zombie novels focus on the protagonist's struggle for survival against the undead. While there are instances of Sloane physically fighting or running away from the zombies, her struggle is fundamentally different at the core. The zombie invasion could have been an easy way for her to die, but things become much more complicated than she first imagines. Sloane's not strong and tries to distance herself from the others who are not willing to die without a fight. Yet some of their mentality cannot help but rubbing off on her, and she's forced to feel guilt as she sees the pain that the others endure. She may be suicidal, but Sloane is very compassionate and really considers and values everyone else's life. Sloane's initial detachment does not work very well, and by considering the well-being of everyone else, she is forced to come to terms with her own issues and beliefs. I love how Sloane is a peripheral character. It would have been so easy to focus on the "leader" in this story, but from her place in the group to her painful internal struggle, Sloane definitely offers an interesting perspective.

While I didn't necessarily like all of the characters trapped in close quarters with her, I appreciated the fact that I was able to develop a pretty good understanding of each of them. All of the characters can fall into stereotypes: Cary, the troubled leader, Rhys, the rebel hiding a serious secret, Trace, the strong and argumentative almost-antagonist, Grace, the sweet girl, and Harrison, the obligatory helpless character (and can I say I am so happy that he is not a girl?). But the characters are so, so much more than the simple sum of their parts. They're all so incredibly real and mutual-faceted and I got a distinct character portrait of each one.

Considering that this is a book about a zombie apocalypse, this book does not feature much action and is very much internalized. This book is very much about human dynamics, and it was so fascinating to read how their dire situation affects six very different characters. The live-or-die situation causes some characters to act out, others to become involved in romantic interactions, and all to question each other and their motives. Despite being placed in a very high-stakes situation, I found all the characters to exhibit very believable teen characteristics.

I actually think that the guise of a zombie apocalypse is the perfect way to induce issues-wary readers to give a more heavy contemporary read a try. I generally do not read issues books simply because I have no interest in that sort of thing. I think the only book I've read this year that could be considered an issues-driven book is Sarah Dessen's Just Listen. And that didn't work out so well for me. This is Not a Test is incredibly issues-driven: Sloane is a product of parental abuse and suicidal, and the entire group of students faces mistrust and despair as each tries to survive. For the most part I enjoyed reading about all of these issues, but I think that the zombie aspect provided some much-needed distance for me. I know that there are tons of readers out there who wouldn't need that additional context to enjoy a novel discussing these issues, but I am not one of them.

This is Not a Test is a disconcerting and dark novel. It forces the readers to reflect upon some very heavy topics, and does not spare the bits of pain and discomfort necessary in such a novel. For those readers looking for a darker read with an intense character study that makes you experience so many feelings, this may just be the book you need.
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August 29, 2012

Persuasion Read Along #3

END (chapters 19-end)

Here we go, the final part! Once again, this read along is part of Austen in August, hosted by The Book Rat.

What was your initial reaction to Persuasion as a whole? Did you connect with Anne as a heroine, and Wentworth as a hero? 

I felt very satisfied as I finished reading the book. It took me a while, but I do feel like I connected with both Anne and Wentworth. I think both of them had built up such high walls that it was difficult even for me as the reader to connect with them. But their actions were very much redeemed in the end.

Has your perception of Persuasion changed since reading it, especially if you've read it more than once?  

I have read Persuasion before, but I don't really remember it all that well. I can say, however, that I continued to enjoy the novel more and more as I kept reading during this read along. The novel starts out very slowly with so many details and back-story, but then it really builds upon that knowledge as the story continues.

The characters are constantly on the move in Persuasion (from Kellynch to Uppercross to Lyme to Bath, etc), so the reader gets to see a variety of scenes; did you like the constant changes of scenery? Did you have a favorite? Do you think the different locations bring out different aspects of the characters?

I didn't mind the change of scenery from a reader's perspective. I don't think Austen is a very image-oriented writer, so the different locations really didn't matter to my visualization of anything. But I think the movement is essential to the characters and their development. Without movement between locations, the characters wouldn't have had so many different ways and opportunities to interact with one another and grow through it. I suppose I liked Lyme the best of all the places simply because it is there where Anne really starts to gain self-assurance and recognize her own worth.

Discuss one of the biggest fangirl-inducing moments in Austen: "The Letter;" did you know the ending was originally written without "The Letter" in it? Do you think your overall perception of the story would change without "The Letter"?

I did hear that the ending originally did not include the letter. In fact, the version of the book that I own (The Modern Library Classics) does include the original ending. I'll be honest, however, and say that I didn't read it. The original two final chapters looked like two letters with no paragraphs and tons of dashes. In other words, a headache I didn't feel like taking the time to read right then and there. I'll probably read the original ending eventually just for comparison's sake. But I can't see that ending being even close to as good - I loved the letter! It was such a swoon-worthy way that Wentworth declared his undying love and affection for her. It reminds me a little of Pride and Prejudice there, but that doesn't diminish how appropriate and enjoyable reading about Anne reading the letter and the immediate aftermath was. Romantic that I am, I like it when characters I love end up loving each other and being happy.

What do you anticipate for the futures of any of the characters, but particularly Anne? Will her family ever come to accept Wentworth, or is she essentially disowning herself by marrying him?

I think that Austen hints at how Anne's family will now accept Wentworth. Wentworth is far better off than any of them currently are. Anne's father even adds Anne's marriage to Wentworth in the family history book. I do think it was necessary for Anne to start asserting her own independence in smaller ways first, which she does through her visits to Mrs. Smith and general attitude while in Bath. She's not rude to her family, but her self-confidence forces them to look at her in a new way. And her family is now getting to know Wentworth as a man of quality, which of course makes her own family look better. So I don't imagine any problems there. I am not convinced that life will ever really improve for Anne's family, but I do believe that Anne and Wentworth can live a life of enjoyment together.

On reflection, are you ever bothered by the fact that Anne is essentially put in the same position - to give up the life she knows and loves for Wentworth, and that the same is never expected of him? Does this bother your modern sensibilities, or do you think the right decision is made regardless?

I never really considered that. It doesn't really bother me, however. Anne doesn't have much to lose. She doesn't have a career or passion or anything really in life (which is sad). Plus her family is not the most supportive system. Wentworth is established in life and thus can provide for her. I'd clarify the changes in Anne's life as her gaining a husband, a better station, and the potential for happiness, rather than her actually losing anything here.

What were your favorite parts of the novel? Your least favorite? Things you wish were different?

My favorite parts were all those interactions between Anne and Wentworth. I would love to be able to take those scenes out of the book and just put them together so I could see uninterrupted just how their relationship is able to be rekindled after these eight years. After reading through the entire book and seeing that Anne and Wentworth manage to stay together despite the odds, I do think that Mary's role in the story is rather amusing. Whenever I was reading a scene that featured her prominently I was torn between wanting to bang my head against a wall and laughing. I think that from now on I can favor the desire to laugh, because she really is a ridiculous character and probably on par with Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice.

Any last thoughts on the book?

I found it extremely difficult to read Persuasion while also reading so many "lighter fare" books. But I do love it! I love how through this novel Jane Austen really examines love and loss, and yet ultimately makes the message that true love will wait for those who deserve it. Maybe it's not the most realistic message ever, but it makes the romantic in me happy. And I thoroughly enjoyed watching Anne's transformation over the course of the book from a passive young woman who feels far older than her age to someone who learns to be guided by her own desires and is able to gain self-confidence.

This read along was fun! I'll definitely sign up for more in the future!
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August 28, 2012

Top Ten Bookish Confessions

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by the bloggers of The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is supposed to be my top ten bookish confessions. And it is, but it also kind of turned into a list of confessions about my bookish annoyances. 

I absolutely hate it when the spine breaks on paperback books. For me, books have a greater value when they don't look all worn and used. All of my trade/pocket-size paperbacks tend to look brand new even if they've been read more than once simply because I refuse to open them up all the way when I read.

With that being said, I love recommending books to people but am reluctant to actually hand out books for others to borrow. All of my paperbacks with broken spines are the result of them them being borrowed and read by someone who doesn't have the same OCD tendency as me.

It bothers me immensely when publishers decide to change a series' cover art halfway through the series. The Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner is one of my favorite series ever and all of my covers look different and are different sizes. I like it when my series match - this kind of thing drives me insane!

I also will not annotate in books. I will use post-its to mark important passages or, even better, write my notes in a notebook. Once again, this goes back to my desire for my books to look pristine and perfect. The only book I ever annotated was John Milton's Paradise Lost (which definitely needed those annotations).

It annoys me to no end when I see or hear about people using their e-reader devices primarily for non-reading related purposes. I'm not speaking of devices like the iPad, but Kindles, Nooks, Kobos, and other devices that are specifically being marketed as e-readers (with extras). Not internet tablets (with the added potential to read books). See the difference?

I always have to read before I go to sleep, even if it's only ten pages. It's just part of my routine that calms me down and allows me to clear my mind of any real-life worries for the night.

I wrote a research paper on reinterpretations and retellings of the "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale over the years. Now it's become a mission of mine to continue reading all different retellings of it because I adore this fairy tale and would like to see how many different ways people can interpret it. (My favorite so far is definitely Robin McKinley's Beauty).

I hate how it's become so common these days for books to be written in first-person and present tense. Although first person narration can make it easier to understand the protagonist, the combined use of present tense makes the book feel super informal (and just not as well-written in general) to me. I like my books to feel a little distant for me - not enough that I can't relate, but enough for me to be able to step back and examine and analyze the story. And a more formal writing style makes me more confident in the author's ability to write well and write a good story. 

I read Gone with the Wind years ago and I really enjoyed the story, but by the time I got to the last twenty pages, I just put the book down. I knew how it ended and I didn't want to actually read how it panned out (maybe there was some denial there). I actually did the same thing for my first reading of Pride and Prejudice.
I'm a bit of a book purist so I have a difficult time appreciating the fact that books and their movie adaptations are different mediums and inevitably going to interpret things a little differently. (I'm mainly referring to the Harry Potter movies here and my complete abhorrence of them. The few that I have seen were not worth it.) My one notable exception is The Lord of the Rings, in which case I actually prefer the movies to the books.
So know that you know many of my strange bookish confessions, let me know what some of yours are!
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August 26, 2012

In My Mailbox #5

In My Mailbox is a weekly meme hosted by The Story Siren. It's a great way for book bloggers to showcase books and other literary things they've received over the past week.

This week was a good one for me! 

For review:
Audrey's Guide to Witchcraft (Audrey's Guides, #1) by Jody Gehrman
Author Jody Gehrman graciously gave me a copy of her first YA book. Thank you! Last year I read Witch Child by Celia Rees, but apparently I don't read books about witches very often, and this book also features a necromancer and baking!? I am very curious to see what this story is like.

Finnikin of the Rock (The Lumatere Chronicles, #1) by Melina Marchetta
I read Finnikin of the Rock back in January this year at the recommendation of a good friend. It took me a while to get warmed up to, but I ended up loving it. It's still one of my favorite books I've read this year, so I just needed to have my own copy.  
Froi of the Exiles (The Lumatere Chronicles, #2) by Melina Marchetta
I have yet to read Froi of the Exiles, despite having borrowed it from the library months ago. After loving both Jellicoe Road and Finnikin of the Rock, I decided that I needed more Melina Marchetta in my life, even if Froi was not my favorite character from the previous book.

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
Courtney of Courtney Reads a Lot read this book a few months back and recommended that I should read it myself. I adore fairy tale retellings and couldn't resist picking this up from the library. Plus this is a darker retelling that is technically classified as adult fiction. I've been feeling the lack of adult fiction in my life recently.

I haven't participated in this meme for quite a while. I usually find that I don't receive enough books on a weekly basis to justify participating in this meme, or else I will post the book's review very shortly and so I don't feel the need to showcase it only a week or so before a full review comes anyway. But sometimes I do want to display bookish things I've recently acquired that I'm super excited about. Perhaps I'll continue to participate on a biweekly or monthly schedule. We'll see.

Anyway, please let me know what you've received in your mailbox this week!
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August 24, 2012

Review: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
Published: 2010, Dutton Books
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Source: Library book

How many times can our emotions be tied to someone else's - be pulled and stretched and twisted - before they snap? Before they can never be mended again?

So I caved and read Stephanie Perkins' Anna and the French Kiss. I'm not really into all things France (I'm a Spanish culture and language type of girl), and I tend to avoid books where the focus seems to be on romance. But it seems like everyone has read this book and enjoyed it. I have yet to see a review, meme, or something else mentioning this book with even a slight hint of negativity. I was seeking some good books to take on vacation and was curious to see what all the hype was about. And, yes, I agree that the hype is correct.

Anna's plans for the upcoming year involve spending lots of time with her best friend Bridgette, working at the local movie theater, turning her crush into a relationship, and enjoying her final year in Atlanta before college. What she does not anticipate is spending her senior year at the elite boarding school SOAP, the School of America in Paris. But that's where her father, a famous writer, decides to send her. Now Anna is coping with culture shock, finding new friends, and the grief that she's thousands of miles away from her best friend and almost-boyfriend. Enter Meredith, Rashmi, Josh, and Etienne St. Clair. They adopt Anna into their group, and Anna must learn to deal with conflicting feelings for both Toph and Etienne, who already has a girlfriend.

Anna is such an adorable protagonist. I completely emphasized with the range of emotions she endures throughout the novel as she comes to realize that one by one all the plans and expectations she has for her life are falling apart. While I would not consider her to be a super strong character, she's so incredibly relatable. I think that if I was faced with similar situations, my responses would be the exact same. I totally would have been the one to eat lunch in the bathroom if I didn't have anyone to sit with. I also would have been the one to get food from the self-serve menu because I'd be too afraid that I wouldn't be able to actually order food in French. She's not perfect but she's a good person trying to deal with all the unplanned aspects of her life. And I love her passion for films. I'm glad that Anna actually has some definite interests; in lots of books I don't think I could even tell you the protagonist's hobbies.

While not all of the characters are particularly well-defined, I enjoyed everything that I did learn about them. I really wish I could have been part of Anna's friend group; they all seem like great friends. Anna's school "rival" is the completely contrived mean girl. Her best friend Bridgette and crush Toph from home also come off as rather flat. But hey - I'm not going to complain about this. I interpreted this book as a character study that completely revolved around Anna and Etienne, and it painted very successful portraits of both those characters.

Of course I loved the relationship that develops between Anna and Etienne. I'm especially a fan of the fact that in a book like this the relationship could have very easily have been insta-love, but it's not. There's true depth to Anna and Etienne's relationship. I get the feeling that Perkins was really trying to make Etienne a bit of an anomaly: the drop-dead gorgeous boy who has substance. And she does. But honestly if I was to complain, it would be that he doesn't need to be super attractive. That's not what drew me to his character, nor what drew in Anna (after she got to know him better as a person, that is). Both of them have major issues they're dealing with, yet they're able to rely on each other to confront their problems. By being together, they're both able to mature and become more confident in themselves. Not everything is easy for Anna or for Etienne, for that matter but I think this book is a classic example of how through persistence and struggle, things will work out in the end. And who doesn't like to read books like that every once in a while? Reading about relationships like this always makes me happy.

Yes, there are parts of Anna and the French Kiss that could have been better. But I honestly didn't care while reading it. It is light chick-flick fare and doesn't try to be anything other than that. Sometimes that's all I want out of my books. This was a perfect vacation read. From what I've heard, I think that I'd clash with Lola from Lola and the Boy Next Door, but I will definitely read Isla and the Happily Ever After once it's published.
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August 22, 2012

Persuasion Read Along #2

MIDDLE (chapters 8-18)

Here are my Persuasion read along questions for the middle part of the book. Once again, this read along is part of Austen in August, hosted by The Book Rat.

1. Now that we've gotten to know most of them a bit, discuss the side characters: who is your favorite? least favorite? Were there things Austen did with these side characters that you absolutely loved or hated?

Through the middle part of the book I continued to hate Anne's father and two sisters, although thankfully Mary is Anne's only relation that we really had to read about here. Mary acts like she's entitled, is selfish, petty, and a bad mother who doesn't care about her children. It made me so angry to read how Mary keeps putting Anne down, by refusing to recognize that Anne could actually  be a good caregiver for Louisa, by telling Anne that Benwick really does not like her, by a thousand little snide comments she makes. I kept hoping Mary would actually get sick and leave the story by becoming bedridden or dying. Nice of me, I know.

The majority of the side characters, or at least those in Lyme, I actually ended up liking. Charles Musgrove seems pretty decent, as do Captains Benwick and Harville. And the Crofts and Mrs. Harville are all also pretty good with me. Neither Louisa or Henrietta really gave me a reason to dislike them. And, in that same vein, I didn't really dislike Mrs. Clay, although it's clear that Anne does.

Of course Captain Wentworth is the enigma here for me who doesn't fit into any category very well.

2. As Anne and Wentworth are thrown together more and more, how do you feel about the fact that they never address their shared history? Do you find either to be irrational or unjust in not being open with the other and broaching the topic? Do you find Anne too self-sacrificing?

There is so much tension between Anne and Wentworth! Their actions towards each other, especially how they refuse to address their shared history, infuriated me to no end. While I would not call their inability to broach the topic irrational or unjust, I did find it to be rather immature. I understand it's a sore subject and a point of contention between them. But really they just want to ignore the elephant in the room? Anne is obviously just trying to suppress everything to avoid conflicts, which I realize is a part of her nature. She even makes a comment about how she's hardened herself against being in contact with him so that she no longer notices or is affected by him whenever he enters a room. I just think it's so sad that this is Anne's way of coping. I wanted to shake both of them and tell them to start acting like adults instead of teenagers who dated each other for a little while and can no longer speak or even look at each other.

3. Is there ever a time you dislike Capt. Wentworth? Were you put off by his treatment of Anne?

Yes, definitely. It bothered me to no end how Captain Wentworth allows Henrietta and Louisa to both vie for his affections. From the narration, I believe that he is fully aware of what he's doing here. As for his treatment of Anne, I believe that I kind of answer that above. I understand the situation is awkward between them, but why they both want the awkwardness to stay there and simmer between them makes no sense. 

4. Discuss the incidents at Lyme; consider Louisa's fall from the cob and Wentworth's subsequent praise of Anne, the appearance of Mr Elliot and his reaction to Anne (and Wentworth's reaction to him), etc.

Am I the only one who doesn't really understand what happened to Louisa? I interpreted the accident as Louisa jumping up some steps and then slipping and falling? But I don't understand how it would hurt her to such a degree that she'd suffer a concussion and become bedridden. Except for that part, I really enjoyed the foray into Lyme. It is unfortunate that Mary has to be there, but otherwise there are so many good things that came out of visiting Lyme. I enjoyed basically all of the other characters. It was also nice to read about two additional sailors, Captains Harville and Benwick, and get more of a perspective of the navy. And although things do not work out between them, I was so happy to see a potential romantic interest spark between Anne and Benwick. I feel like this interest is exactly what Anne needed to start feeling better about herself and her self-worth. And also realizing Mr. Elliot finds her to be attractive. And I love that Wentworth is jealous of Mr. Elliot! Not overtly, but he noticed how Mr. Elliot looked at Anne, and then how this gentleman of status and good looks is to be her father's heir. Wentworth's praise of Anne made me happy as well. He acknowledges that Anne is proper and capable and rational. It's like bits of cold front he puts on in front of Anne are crumbling as he sees her more and more. For me the Lyme section of the story was just more enjoyable in general and I read it faster.

5. Discuss Anne's arrival in Bath, considering the continued presence of Mr Elliot, Anne's reaction to her family and the way she begins to distance herself from them and stand up for herself more than she has been known to do.

I am not sure it's fair to say that Mr. Elliot's continued presence in Bath is what causes Anne to distance herself from her family and stand up for herself. I think Anne's stay at Lyme is what really started giving her a sense of self-worth. It was at Lyme that people start to value Anne's presence a little more. Above all the others, it is Anne who is asked to stay and care for Lydia (although Mary cannot allow that to happen). Here in Lyme Captain Wentworth starts to acknowledge Anne's presence a bit more. And Austen describes how being near the sea in Lyme helps to enliven Anne and give her a bloom of second youth. I'm sure Anne's awareness that Captain Benwick and Mr. Elliot find her attractive also helps. I think that the combined factors of Anne's time in Lyme, in addition to being able to spend time away from her toxic family, makes Anne realize that she has some worth and her interests and opinions do matter. I was so happy to read about the Anne who travels to Bath, because this Anne is still the same good and caring person, but she does have a bit more self-assurance and decides to do things like visit old acquaintances instead of being bullied to go where her family expects her to go.

Random observation: Has anyone else noticed how many times Jane Austen is able to add the word persuade into Persuasion? It's ridiculous. It seems like at least once a chapter a character speaks of someone else persuading him or her to do something. It makes me wonder if there's some specific instance that Austen wanted to refer to by choosing this title, or rather if she's making a commentary of how easily people are persuaded and influenced by the thoughts and opinions of others.
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August 21, 2012

Review: Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson

Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson
Published: 2012, HarperTeen
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy, Retelling
Source: Library book

She felt the warmth of Peter’s arm under her neck, and it almost felt like he was an extension of her, and like if they had souls, they lay somewhere snug between their two bodies. Maybe all of her strangeness, her curse, her always feeling like an outsider, had all existed so that she could belong here, with Peter. 

Apparently I'm going against the grain here, but, while I really wanted to love Tiger Lily, it did not work out for me. I feel as though there was so much potential in this book. I'm always game for a fairy tale retelling, especially those that prominently feature previously sidelined characters. Unfortunately Tiger Lily failed to meet my expectations.

Tiger Lily has been a part of the Sky-eaters tribe ever since its Shaman Tik Tok found her under a flower as an infant. But Tiger Lily has always felt distanced from her tribe, and the tribe is hesitant to accept the girl who seems to have a connection with both the crows and ancestors' spirits. Tiger Lily and the tribe exist in an uneasy alliance until she disobeys and puts the tribe at risk by helping out an Englander with the dreaded aging disease, and so it is announced that she will marry Giant, a man of the tribe, to keep her in line. Though she outwardly appears to accept the tribe's decision, Tiger Lily does not quell her rebellious streak. She continues to help the Englander, sees the pirates, travels to parts of Neverland that others are afraid to see, and eventually befriends Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. But time continues to count down to her marriage and the lack of freedom that will come with it.

Although the protagonist of this story is Tiger Lily herself, Tinker Bell is the narrator. This is a risky move on Anderson's part and I applaud her for that decision. This narrative technique is not used very commonly probably because it is very difficult to make the narrator simply an observer of the protagonist. The only book I can think of that's done this sort of thing well is F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. In the case of Tiger Lily, Tinker Bell tells the story in first person and acts like a third person omniscient narrator, divulging the internal thoughts of those she observes. But I had an extremely difficult time connecting to any of the characters through this narrative device, including Tinker Bell herself.

Sometimes a more subtle book without lots of action or characterization appeals to me, but oftentimes it does not. Besides having next to no feelings for the narrator, I also couldn't make myself like Tiger Lily. She's strong and prickly but oh so distant. Tinker Bell's narration was not enough to bridge the gap between the reader and Tiger Lily for me. I found myself struggling to understand Tiger Lily's motivations, her feelings, any sort of drive. As the story continued and the plot got progressively darker, I could not make any sense of Tiger Lily's actions. I will say, however, that she felt the most alive to me when she is with Tik Tok or thinking about Philip and the English outsiders. And she is a fierce protector of what she loves.

I found myself not quite as impressed by the worldbuilding as I would have hoped. The story is set in Neverland, a world of infinite possibilities. I expected the setting to evoke a sense of wonder and magic, but I didn't really feel that way. Sure, there were mermaids, pirates, tribes, fairies, and the Lost Boys. But both Tinker Bell and Tiger Lily took in everything in such a matter-of-fact way that Neverland just didn't seem very magical.

A lot of my issues stem from the book's promotional blurb. I was expecting this great romance. I did enjoy how Peter Pan and Tiger Lily are both broken and scarred (even if neither is willing to admit it), which allows their relationship to really focus on their personal healing. But I just didn't feel invested enough in either of those characters. There's so much unsaid between them, and, even with Tinker Bell's ability to read internal thoughts, there were too many gaps between the characters thoughts and their actions. This didn't seem so much of a star-crossed romance as a friendship that forms out of need. Which is fine but not what I was expecting.

Anderson does a good job with her reimaginings of some other characters and explaining why certain things are the way they are in the original tale. I liked her new interpretations of Captain Hook (which I felt was spot-on and made a whole lot more sense in terms of his character development and his desire for vengeance against Peter Pan) and Smee (though really Smee becomes so incredibly disturbing in this version). I also liked the portrayal of Wendy Darling. I think that most people equate Wendy as a nurturer and so innocent. It was refreshing to read about a Wendy who clearly has some indication of how her arrival so dramatically changes things for the island of Neverland.

I realize that my only basis of comparison here is the Disney film Peter Pan. As with my familiarity of Disney's treatment of other fairy tales like Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Beauty and the Beast, I know that Disney's version should not be my be-all end-all for this tale. But it is. I know that Anderson's Tiger Lily will appeal to many readers out there. Tiger Lily is a fierce female protagonist, there's forbidden love, there's a deep sense of longing and loss throughout the novel, and it forces readers to gain perspective on a familiar story. It just wasn't a great match for me.
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August 19, 2012

Review: Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield
Published: 2012, Dutton Books
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Source: Library book

Something horrible, something that usually stayed safely outside and away from the quiet comfort of Bridgeton, had moved into town and would never, ever leave.  

It's hard to collect my thoughts into a meaningful review of Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone. I read it in almost one sitting, which for me is not conducive to the best recall or understanding of a book. But besides that, there's something so elusive about this book, something that makes it difficult for me to fully formulate my thoughts on this novel. It kept my attention as I read the book, but, like the summer during which this story takes place, what seems so important and lasting at the time eventually gives way to fall, and life moves on.

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone tells the story of two young women at major crossroads in their lives who become irrevocably linked after a catastrophe. On this one night, Becca has become a high school graduate with honors. She has only the summer left before she will move out of her small town and onto bigger and better things. One more summer with her boyfriend James, a high school dropout. But then that night he breaks up with her. And then Becca finds out the next day that only a few hundred feet away from where she was with James an unknown girl has been murdered. As Becca struggles with so many new uncertainties, she comes to a stalemate, no longer sure what she wants out of her life. The untold story of the dead girl haunts both Becca and the rest of the inhabitants of her town as they try to discover what happened.

There are a lot of imaginative aspects of Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone, especially the various narrative voices. In this novel Rosenfield relies on three narrators: Becca, the modern-day recent high school graduate who can't wait to escape her small town for college, Amelia, the young college graduate with so much hope for the future, only to be murdered less than a day later, and the small town where Becca lives and Amelia was murdered. The narrators are all very distinct: Becca's story is told in first person, Amelia's in third person limited, and the town's in third person omniscient. There's a lot that Rosenfield has to juggle with her multiple narrators, and I think she does it pretty well. At times it was frustrating to keep reading these changes in perspective, but it was very satisfying to finally see them start to come together and I did enjoy reading about the climactic day where all of the pieces are linked and the mystery surrounding Amelia's death is solved. I had suspicions about what had happened, but nothing could have prepared me for those revelations.

My main issue stemmed from the fact that I simply couldn't relate to any of the characters. Of course there were aspects of Becca and Amelia that I understood very much the desire to forge your own path, the stifling feeling of having others suggest how to live your life. They're pretty universal themes and those are portrayed well enough. But as characters neither of them truly earned my sympathy or grabbed my interest. I think that Rosenfield concentrates more on linking Becca and Amelia together than on developing each separately to her fullest extent. And of course I'm not able to relate to the town as a character — but then again I wasn't expecting to there. Without feeling a connection to any of the major characters, I could not feel super invested in the book as a whole.

Instead of the intense character focus that I usually want out of my books, Rosenfield writes a very atmospheric and contemplative novel. The novel is much more concerned with the bigger picture and overarching themes of people experiencing a crossroads in their lives, as well as painting a fascinating portrait of small-town life. More so than through character studies, Rosenfield demonstrates the beauty, wonder, despair, and fragility that being at such a place in life can invoke through poetic prose and imagery. I just wish that her beautiful words could have been used to help me better relate to the characters themselves.

If beautiful, evocative, haunting writing is your thing and you like seeing multiple storylines come together to form a bigger picture then you may enjoy reading this book. But if, like me, you care more about strong characterization, then this may not be the book for you.
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August 17, 2012

Review: Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan

Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan
Published: 2012, HarperTeen
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy, Paranormal
Source: Library book

That’s part of what I think makes vampires so boring. Once you’re a vampire, you don’t ever need to be anything else.  

Team Human is so outside my normal book choices that I'm not quite sure what initially drew me to it. First of all, it's written by co-authors. I don't necessarily have anything against co-authors, but I'm just uncertain how something can be written seamlessly with equal participation from two different people. I also ended up hating the one other co-authored book I've read (Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens). This can be classified as a paranormal romance, and I have found myself incredibly jaded by these in the past few months. And this is a parody! I am not a huge fan of humor. I like my stories drama-filled and believe that humor should only be used as a last-effort attempt at comic relief. But despite knowing that Team Human contained all of these potential turn-offs, it was an enjoyable book and I am glad that I took the time to read it.

New Whitby is a New England town that was created by vampires seeking to escape persecution. And while vampires still live there, the town is also home to many humans. The two races coexist mainly by avoiding the others' section of town. And just because Mel has lived there her entire life does not mean that she likes vampires – in her ideal world she'd never have to come in contact with any. But after her friend Anna's father uncharacteristically leaves town with a female vampire, Mel agrees to help Anna uncover the truth. And then Mel's best friend Cathy begins to date teenage vampire Francis. It turns out that Francis' vampire family has raised a human boy that Mel just may like. Mel must struggle with her preconceptions (and misconceptions) as vampires start to have a bigger role in her life that she'd prefer.

It was refreshing to read some new takes on vampires and vampirism. I think that if a human gives up his/her humanity to become a vampire, there does need to be a series of checks. Being beautiful and strong and perfect with the slight problem of sparkling in the sunlight does not do it for me. The vampires imagined by Larbalestier and Rees Brennan just make a lot more sense. Their immortality comes at a cost: they cannot be in direct contact with the sunlight and therefore must wear protective suits whenever they're outside during the day. Every turn into a vampire comes with the chance of immediate death or turning into a zombie and many still deal with issues related to giving up their humanity. Team Human stresses that vampirism isn't perfect, which needed to be said.

Mel is such a fun protagonist. What's not to love about her? She's sarcastic, humorous, determined, and genuinely cares about her friends. And can I just say that I love her true first name? Mel has such strong convictions and morals, but (after a little prodding) she is willing to reconsider and redefine her values. What I loved the most about her is her complete dedication to her friends. For the most part Mel is able to justify the evils of vampires because they seem to be opposed to everything that's good for her friends. And when that's no longer the case, Mel's main concern is still for the well-being of her friends. Mel's investment in her friendships was definitely the most powerful aspect of Team Human.

I did enjoy aspects of the relationship that Mel forms with Kit, a human boy raised by a vampire family. The authors were able to use this relationship as another thing that forces Mel and Kit to reevaluate all of their preconceived notions about vampirism and humanity. Kit is sweet and I loved how he and Mel share their senses of humor. This is a cute relationship, but one that I could not imagine lasting for very long. Besides their differing views of vampires, I just felt that there are too many other issues that stand between the two to make a long-term relationship extremely unlikely.

My feelings about the other supporting characters are mixed. I found myself both annoyed and amused by how completely archetypal Cathy and Francis are. I'm not sure if we as readers are supposed to see Cathy's situations and decisions as anything other than a parody of typical vampire stories, because I certainly could not. For me, Cathy and those who support her decisions are not realistic characters, but that doesn't mean that I didn't like them. I liked Anna and Ty, but both of them definitely assumed the role of supporting characters.

I love the fact that Mel is a fencer. I fenced competitively throughout high school (although I used an épée, as opposed to Mel's sabre). Fencing is such an awesome sport – its history traces back to real sword fights and duels to the death. Plus it is a sport where the strategy is just as important as physical prowess. I just wish that Larbalestier and Rees Brennan actually did more with Mel's fencing and a little more research. Mel fences sabre, yet at one point in the novel she wishes she could go fence and jab someone. Sabre is a slashing weapon - if you do end up jabbing anyone, then that's a sign that you're not very good.

Although I did not find it super thought-provoking or award-winning, Team Human is an entertaining, somewhat clever satire that contains some good messages about the importance of friendships.
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August 15, 2012

Persuasion Read Along #1

I am so excited to participate in my first read along, which happens to coincide with Austen in August, hosted by The Book Rat. I adore Jane Austen's books and jumped at the chance to participate in a read along of Persuasion.

A few questions about me and my history with Jane Austen's works

1. Was Persuasion the first Austen book you read?

No. As I'm sure is the typical answer here, I was first introduced to Jane Austen's work by reading Pride and Prejudice.

2. Is this the first time you've read Persuasion?

Once again, my answer is no. This read along will be my second time reading Persuasion.

3. How many other Austen books have you read?

I've actually read all of Austen's books. I had a class a few years ago that was all about Jane Austen. We read her six major works (Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion), along with a selection of her juvenilia and the unfinished Sandition. We also read Frances Burney's Evelina and Anne Radcliffe's The Italian to look at major works that would have inspired Austen's writing. The class gave me a much better appreciation of Austen and I love all her works (though Pride and Prejudice continues to be my favorite).

4. Will you read more of them/reread them?

I feel very busy and overwhelmed with the amount of books I'd like to read in the nearby future, so I'm not sure when I'll take the time to reread them. But I own five of her major works (I need to buy better versions of Northanger Abbey and her juvenilia and Sandition), so I do plan on rereading them. I think Jane Austen's stories are the kind of stories that need to be savored with multiple rereads over the years.

Now on to the read along questions...

BEGINNING  (Chapters 1-7)  

1. What are your initial impressions of the story? Do you like the set-up for the world and the conflicts? Did you find any of it hard to understand or relate to? 

I find Persuasion to be a very different story from the kind that Austen usually tells. Austen's stories commonly deal with societal criticisms and romance, but those themes are much heavier in Persuasion. There's a sense of nostalgia and also a little foreboding in this novel, but still her characteristic satire. Here Jane Austen looks at the demise of the aristocracy and the breakdown of the current society. I found the beginning to be a little frustrating, however, because the first few chapters felt like purely set-up for later events. Although I cannot say that Austen is known for her action in books, I still felt inundated with backstory here, which made it a little difficult to get into the story.

2. What are your impressions of the characters so far? Especially in regards to Anne, who is considered quite a bit different from other Austen heroines (besides being the oldest, she's had love and let it go, and now has had years to reflect on that).  

Based on the first seven chapters I barely like any of the characters, but I think that was an intentional choice on Austen's part. The Elliots and their extended family are full of issues. Walter Elliot is literally stuck on the past - it seems as though his most prized possession is a family history that details how great the Elliots once were. His daughters Elizabeth and Mary are selfish and unkind. And Anne is so incredibly downtrodden and defeatist. I'll take it easy on her though since I don't see how living with relatives such as hers could leave anyone whole and sound. I do agree that Anne is different from the more popular Austen heroines who tend to be feisty and speak their minds, especially in terms of love. I'm thinking of Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse and Marianne Dashwood. But Austen did write her share of more serious and less confident heroines as well, such as Elinor Dashwood and Fanny Price. In fact, if my memory serves me right, Anne Elliot can be said to have a lot of similarities to Mansfield Park's Fanny, who also allowed herself to get pushed around by others. While reading the first part of the novel I just wanted to tell Anne to fight back and to tell her family that she does have worth.

3. Do you think Anne was right to have yielded to the pressure of those close to her - to have been "persuaded" - not to accept Wentworth's first proposal? 

Yes and no - Of course I like it when romantic relationships work out and I enjoy reading about those where people get and stay together against the odds, but I felt that since Anne was so easily persuaded in the first place to refuse Wentworth, she wasn't mature enough to have married Wentworth right then anyway. Although he did go on to make his fortune, if they had married then Anne would have been left alone with her family when he left again and been tormented endlessly about her bad decision. But it makes me sad that she didn't accept his proposal. Not only has she been unable to get him out of her mind, but her life has literally begun to crumble apart. As Captain Wentworth says upon seeing her again after all this time: "[She was] so altered he should not have known [her] again." Austen makes it sound as though Anne hasn't really found any other reasons to enjoy life since she gave up Wentworth, and that is really depressing.

4. What do you make of Anne's family (and extended family, including Lady Russell), and her place among them? How do the people in Anne's life treat her, and what was your reaction to that?  

Poor Anne! Her family really is just awful to her. I just don't understand it. She's ignored by her father and two sisters unless they have a need for something from her, but I don't entirely understand why that was. It's a little frustrating for me that she's so incredibly passive, almost acting like she simply accepts the idea that she's worthless and no one should like her. Lady Russell is the one good character who actually seems to care about Anne's happiness and well-being.

5. Discuss Anne's first few meetings with Wentworth, or Wentworth's entry into the story in general.

I think that Wentworth's arrival in the story really signals the beginning of everything, acting almost like a catalyst for the upcoming events. To me it seems as though Wentworth has had quite the impact on Anne's life - more so than simply being a lost love. He's obviously still bitter about the way things ended, as evidenced by his biting remarks about how Anne has changed. But I think Anne has been even more affected by it. Except for Lady Russell, Anne seems to have no escape from her cruel family or any indication that others care for her. I've read this story before but I don't remember it too well, so I am anxious to read about future interactions between Anne and Captain Wentworth.
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August 13, 2012

Recommend A... Book with a Blue Cover

Recommend A... is a new weekly feature hosted by Chick Loves Lit, where bloggers recommend a book based on a specific prompt. This week's prompt is to recommend a book with a blue cover.

Harry Potter series, #5

It took me about a minute to come up with a recommendation for this prompt. Harry Potter is one of my favorite series ever and, as an aspiring author myself, J.K. Rowling is one of my greatest inspirations.

I trust that everyone has read the book by this point in time (or *cringe* at least seen the movie version), so I won't spend any time discussing the plot. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the fifth book in the Harry Potter series and my second favorite overall (the seventh is naturally my favorite of them all). I think is it at the beginning of this book/end of the fourth book where the series irrevocably changes from children's literature to YA literature. Here Harry begins to finally understand that good and evil aren't so easily categorized, and that sometimes people would rather believe lies simply because the truth is too painful to acknowledge.

In some ways Harry, Ron, and Hermione are dealing with very typical teenage problems: harder classes, raging hormones, stress, and changing relationships, to name a few. But there are so many more issues they must deal with. In this book Harry is presented with an ever-increasing amount of challenges and obstacles as he tries to attend classes, enjoy life with his friends, and proclaim the truth as most of the wizarding world considers him to be a liar. And the loss and pain experienced in this book is so emotional. I love Harry. I spent a lot of this book just wanting to give him a hug and tell him that things will get better eventually. It takes a special person to have been able to deal with all the trauma and tragedy of this book, but of course Harry is such a special person and probably my favorite male protagonist ever.

I just love this book. If for some reason you haven't read it yet, do so ASAP. Otherwise, let me know whether Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ranks among your favorites in the Harry Potter series.
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August 12, 2012

Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Published: 2012, Random House
Series: Seraphina, #1
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Personal book

Once I had suspended over this vast space, hanging and helpless, at a dragon’s mercy. Once I had feared that telling the truth would be like falling, that love would be like hitting the ground, but here I was, my feet firmly planted, standing on my own. 

We were all monsters and bastards, and we were all beautiful. 

Sometimes people ask me in bemusement why I love the fantasy genre as much as I do. There are tons of arguments I have for the importance of the fantasy genre and I definitely mention those, but sometimes it's just best to let great fantasy books speak for me. The next time anyone asks me how I can really enjoy books that take place in a fantastical world and feature non-human characters, I'm going to recommend that he or she reads Seraphina by Rachel Hartman.

Seraphina Dombegh is the incredibly talented young musician recently chosen as the assistant to the court composer. Her recent appointment coincides with the countdown to the fortieth anniversary of Comonot’s Treaty, which established peace in the realm of Goredd between humans and dragons.

But life in Goredd is not as peaceful as it would seem. Prince Rufus was recently murdered, his missing head leaving humans suspicious of a dragon kill. Although those in the palace of the capital city Lavondaville work tirelessly in preparation for the dragon coalition, there’s a sense of unease in the air. Even after forty years humans and dragons refuse to coexist peacefully. As the court composer becomes ill, Seraphina’s own duties increase, all while she must hide the fact that she is half-dragon herself.

The worldbuilding of the kingdom of Goredd and its surrounding countries is incredibly well-done. Although the book does not have a map, I felt as though Hartman’s descriptions and the appendices in the back really helped give me a good understanding of the world. I treasured every new discovery about Goredd, from the mythology, the religion focused on saints, the history, and the place of dragons in the world. I also loved the role of music within the story. Reading so much about music made me wish that I had some musical talent.

Hartman’s new take on dragons is particularly well-done. Yes, through the book readers can tell that humans dislike dragons because their natural form is not human and because they can “hide” in human form. But the differences between the human and dragon cultures are much deeper than that. Dragons suppress emotions and try to maintain every aspect of their lives in ard. They appear superior as they strive for order and understanding, which gives humans reason to fear and hate them. Yet dragons are inferior when it comes to playing music. It seems like such a little thing, but they cannot properly express their emotions or improvise through music. I loved this flaw – at first it seems so little, but over the course of the novel this one flaw helped me better understand the dragon race.

Seraphina is a wonderful protagonist. She’s sensitive and hurting inside, yet she’s able to show such a strong and prickly exterior to others. My heart cried out for her in one scene where she literally tries to remove physical remnants of her heritage. Her dragon mother left her memories, so Seraphina does indeed have a better understanding of both the human and dragon races. But Seraphina is so alone – she really only has her dragon uncle and tutor Orma for support, and he cannot be there for her constantly. Despite the many difficulties present as she tries to fit in with the other Goreddis, Seraphina never allows her pain to control her or sinks into a depression. This is the kind of strength I love the most.  

All of the other characters are also very realistic and well-crafted. That’s not to say that I liked them all – but I did appreciate how Hartman made all of her character so three-dimensional. So many of them have to struggle between duty and personal beliefs, mirroring Seraphina in a way and yet also showing other aspects of her world. Although I like Kiggs’ character, I am not sure how I feel about the romantic relationship he develops with both Princess Glisselda and Seraphina. Neither felt one hundred percent authentic to me. Of all the characters, I also felt as though the antagonist is the least-developed character. I’m not quite sure if it was even possible to develop the antagonist more, however, and, if I had to pick, I would rather have had more emphasis is put on everyone else’s internal struggles anyway.

Other aspects of the book that I initially found discomfiting – basically everything related to Seraphina’s garden of grotesques and her mother’s memories – begin to tie together nicely as the novel continues. Hartman offers so many little details about this world that, while I wish there would be encyclopedias and histories and spin-offs written, I also feel like I knew enough while reading to be sufficiently content. I am satisfied with the ending and the hinted direction of the next installment of this series.

As I mentioned earlier, books like Seraphina are the reason why I love the fantasy genre so much.  This is such a subtle, well-imagined, and intelligent fantasy. Yes, it features a world of dragons and magic, but those all simply work to assist the bigger message. Seraphina is all about acceptance and the characters learning to overcome stereotypes. Not so much removed from issues we face in our world after all.
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August 8, 2012

Waiting on Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Breaking the Spine that spotlights any upcoming releases that we’re eagerly anticipating.
 Release date: March 12, 2013
A sweeping Gothic thriller based on the spine-chilling "Bluebeard" fairytale.
17-year-old Sophia Petheram has been sheltered by her doting family all her life, until the day her father dies. It's 1855, and with no money and few options, she goes to live with her guardian, the mysterious Bernard de Cressac, at the astonishingly lavish Wyndriven Abbey in Mississippi.

Sophie has always longed for a comfortable life, and she finds herself both attracted to and shocked by the charm and easy manners of her overgenerous guardian. But as she begins to piece together the mystery of his past, it's as if thread by thread, a silken net is woven around her. And when she begins glimpsing the ghosts of his former wives (all with hair as red as her own) in the forgotten corners and dark hallways of the Abbey, Sophie knows she's in de Cressac's trap.

With enchanting romance, chilling suspense, and dashes of the supernatural, Strands of Bronze and Gold is a compulsively-readable debut.
After recently reading Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl, I've come to the realization that I need more fairy-tale retellings in my life. And this is a Bluebeard fairy-tale retelling! Bluebeard is one of those fairy tales that I've read and am vaguely familiar with and all, but its different versions and retellings have never been on my radar. The Goodreads description promises a dark and creepy tale. I hope it lives up to my expectations! 
What are you waiting on?
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