Independent Study by Joelle Charbonneau

Independent Study (The Testing, #2)Independent Study by Joelle Charbonneau
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

Publisher’s summary:

In the series debut The Testing, sixteen-year-old Cia Vale was chosen by the United Commonwealth government as one of the best and brightest graduates of all the colonies . . . a promising leader in the effort to revitalize postwar civilization. In Independent Study, Cia is a freshman at the University in Tosu City with her hometown sweetheart, Tomas—and though the government has tried to erase her memory of the brutal horrors of The Testing, Cia remembers. Her attempts to expose the ugly truth behind the government’s murderous programs put her—and her loved ones—in a world of danger. But the future of the Commonwealth depends on her.

I really loved the first book in this series so I was anxious to get my hands on this, the second installment in what is a planned trilogy. I have no complaints about Independent Study – it fulfilled all of the hopes I had for the book and I loved it just as much as the first one.

I’m honestly going to pretty much stop there because if you’ve read the first book, I highly recommend you pick up the second one. If you haven’t read the first, there’s no point in me going over what I liked so much about the second one. If you haven’t started this series, you need to. There’s a kick-ass main character, a future world that is beautiful on the outside but is very sinister below the surface, lots of action and intrigue, and good writing. And NO LOVE TRIANGLE! So … what are you waiting for? Read this series! I have nothing further to say. 🙂

Mini-reviews – wrapping up 2013 reading part 2

And here are the final four books I read this year and haven’t reviewed.

The LowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri – I absolutely loved Lahiri’s short story collections and her first novel, The Namesake, so I was beyond excited for this one. The writing is just as gorgeous as I knew it would be, and she sure can tell a story about strained family dynamics. It gave me a glimpse into politics in India in the 1960’s, a place and time I know very little about. As I was reading, I felt deeply connected to the characters, to these two brothers who were so close as children but grew so far apart in adulthood. The novel is brimming with tragedies, but it never felt heavy-handed, it felt like a true family saga in which the family is struck with bad luck, bad choices, and inability to find peace. I loved The Lowland even though it didn’t quite live up to her earlier books for me – I still gave it five stars! That should tell you how much this author can do no wrong in my eyes.

Allegiant (Divergent, #3)Allegiant by Veronica Roth – This was one of my most highly anticipated books of this year and overall I did like it. I found the plot to be a bit meandering at times in the middle but the end was satisfying. A lot of people didn’t like the way Roth chose to end the series but I personally thought it was absolutely perfect. After closing the book, I just can’t imagine another way she could have resolved things for these characters. I’m really looking forward to the movie series now!

The Silent WifeThe Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison – This was a book club pick and one I would have read anyway because I was so compelled by the premise. I was expecting to be taken for a ride and I was not disappointed. The one thing everyone at my book club could agree on was that we hated all of the characters. They are selfish, immature, and have zero redeeming qualities to speak of. But despite that I couldn’t put this book down. I read furiously til the end, desperate to know how things would turn out for these despicable people. And the ending was a complete shock and was kind of genius actually. I really liked this one.

Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow (Marie Antoinette, #2)Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow by Juliet Grey – This is a sequel to a book I really loved (Becoming Marie Antoinette) but I have to admit that this one disappointed me. Marie Antoinette came across as incredibly selfish, spoiled, caring little for the people around her and only seeking out her own pleasure. She was so detached from the realities of life beyond Versailles that truthfully it disgusted me. I gained a bit more interest when she begun having children but overall this book was not what I was hoping for. The final book in the trilogy was recently released and honestly I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to it.

The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau

The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Review copy received at SIBA

Malencia Vale is days away from her high school graduation, and is desperately hoping to be selected for The Testing at graduation day. The Testing accepts only the most intelligent and talented students to compete in a several-weeks long program to determine who among them will be selected to become future leaders of Cia’s society, the United Commonwealth. To her great relief, Cia is chosen for The Testing, and heads off to Tosu City. As her father participated in The Testing years ago, she brings his words of advice with her to what she hopes will be an exciting, although scary, process. What Cia finds is nothing like what she expected, as she embarks on the most dangerous and important journey of her entire life.

I didn’t pay too much attention to this title when it was featured at SIBA, mostly because I hadn’t heard of the author and, let’s face it, there are about a million YA dystopias these days competing for my attention. But I did see Charbonneau on a panel that week, and she was funny and bright and even sang opera for us! I later learned that she’s made a name for herself writing cozy mysteries (not my thing) but I’d heard from other bloggers that her writing is really quite good. So I figured, what the heck, and picked up The Testing just before its release date this week.

And holy shit! This book shocked me. It shocked me with how compelling, how completely unputdownable, how well-written, and how GOOD it was. I fell into the story immediately and felt that I knew Cia incredibly well after just a few chapters. The events that took place during The Testing were shocking, yes, but in just the right way – still almost believable.

This book reminded me a LOT of The Hunger Games, and I think a lot of people will have that reaction to it, which can be a great thing. But it might be seen as a negative, too, so let me tell you that I found the concept of this book to be much more believable than that of Hunger Games. Basically the premise is this: humans caused war and destruction for many years, mostly because the world leaders weren’t strong enough, or smart enough, or creative enough to prevent and/or stop it. So in this new world, the world leaders will be carefully selected and tested in the hopes of avoiding all that war and destruction that plagued the generations of the past. To me, this makes a lot of sense and I can actually see where there is some truth to it.

So, let me give you a quick run-down of why I loved The Testing. Creative concept? Check. Great characters? Check. Fast-paced, incredibly compelling story? Check. PERFECT ending that left me begging for the next book? Check. Basically, this was almost a perfect book to me and one that I won’t stop recommending. I’m super excited for this series and very hopeful that it will continue in its greatness or even (dare I say) get better. I would call this one a must-read.

Mini-reviews: Cinder, Requiem and Anya’s Ghost

Marissa Meyer; Read by Rebecca Soler CinderCinder by Marissa Meyer
Published by Square Fish, an imprint of Macmillan

I have seen several raving reviews for Cinder and while I definitely liked it, I can’t say it was love for me. I definitely loved the concept, and thought that Meyer took the Cinderella story and crafted an incredibly unique re-telling, and I really liked the characters, especially Cinder herself. I listened to the audio and the narrator, Rebecca Soler, did an excellent job. Such a good job, in fact, that I made sure to get the second installment of this series, Scarlet, on audio as well. I’m definitely a fan of this novel and am excited to see what Meyer does with the series. I think dystopian novels are just becoming old hat for me these days. I haven’t fallen in LOVE with one in a long time. But Cinder is good, definitely well-written, thoughtful, great characters. I’d still recommend it for sure.

Requiem By Lauren OliverRequiem by Lauren Oliver
Published by HarperCollins

I FINALLY got Requiem from the library and cracked it open immediately upon returning home. For much of the novel, I must admit to feeling underwhelmed. I was, strangely, more interested in Hana’s story than in Lena’s. I found Lena’s portions of the novel more meandering, with too much happening. There was a revolution, there was a love triangle (sort of), there was the possibility of her mother being back in her life … it was too much, and because of all of that not enough attention was given to any one aspect of Lena’s story. Hana’s, on the other hand, was fascinating because she was living in the world as a Cured, engaged to one of the most prominent men in society, and she was learning major Important Things about this world. Overall, I was kept interested in the book but was disappointed in the ending and almost felt like it could have been four books instead of three.

Written & illustrated by Vera Brosgol Anya's GhostAnya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol
Published by First Second, an imprint of Macmillan

Sometimes a graphic novel is exactly the kind of book I need to entertain me without too much effort on my part. I really liked this one, in which a girl falls into a well, finds the ghost of a girl who fell in that same well many years ago, and befriends the ghost. The illustrations in this one were gorgeous, the story is one of those that has a light lesson within, and I was overall incredibly entertained and interested in this story that Brosgol told. For those of you who enjoy a graphic novel every now and again, like myself, Anya’s Ghost is not to be missed.

Delirium Stories: Hana, Annabel, and Raven by Lauren Oliver

Delirium Stories: Hana, Annabel, and Raven by Lauren Oliver
Published by HarperCollins

While giddily anticipating the conclusion to Lauren Oliver’s Delirium trilogy, Requiem, I figured the perfect thing to tide me over would be to read these three novellas focusing on three minor characters of the trilogy.

The first novella, Hana, tells the story of Lena’s best friend and the time in her life right before she was cured. I found it somewhat interesting to see the events in this story, which were shown from Lena’s perspective in the first novel, from Hana’s perspective instead. It was obvious that while both girls had experienced the same events, they interpreted them in such different ways. While I enjoyed Hana’s novella, other than seeing things from her point of view, it didn’t give me much else to grab onto. I would have liked more from Hana after her cure – but I hear rumors that we get that in Requiem, so I’ll try to remain patient!

Annabel was my favorite of the three novellas because we get to hear from Lena’s mother – we get to see what life was like when the cure was just becoming mandatory, and also we get to see what she lived through during her time in the crypts. The small snippets of information Annabel gives the reader about the time right when the cure was invented were fascinating to me, and I wanted so much more about that than I was given. Also I couldn’t help but admire the strength Annabel’s character possessed to get through so many hellish years in the crypts. This story was definitely the most emotionally affecting of the three and it made me the most excited for the third book.

Raven was one that also made me excited to read the conclusion of the trilogy because it was the one that gave the reader the most in terms of hints about what’s to come. Raven is another damaged, raw, but incredibly tough character (one of many in these books). I liked her in Pandemonium even though she was quite prickly and difficult to get to know at first, so it was nice to read more about her in this novella. This girl has been through a LOT of tough stuff and at a really young age too – so it’s no wonder how she’s mature beyond her years, yet naive in some very significant ways. Reading this story just made me feel closer to a character I didn’t feel that I got to know as well as I would have liked while reading the second book.

I’m definitely glad I read these novellas! I just got an alert today that Requiem is available for pick up at the library, so I’ll be reading that in the next couple of weeks. I’m super excited and these novellas just made that excitement even more intense!

Reached by Ally Condie

Reached by Ally Condie
Published by Dutton Juvenile, an imprint of Penguin

I’ve felt progressively less excited with this trilogy as the books have gone on, and all I can say about this final installment is that I’m glad it’s over. I’m glad I read it, to see how things turned out for Cassia and Ky and Xander, but I’m more glad it’s done. This sounds horrible, I know, but I just grew bored with the whole thing and I found this third book to be much too long for what it accomplished.

One thing I did like about Reached, and I believe I felt this way about the earlier two books as well, is the excellent writing. Condie really does write beautifully, and the book is full of philosophical questions about life, freedom, the inherent right we have to choice as human beings, and all kinds of other important things. The way she infuses poetry and other historically important writings throughout these books is really smart and gives this series a bit more substance than your typical dystopian novel.

I do like how Condie chose to end this series but I just felt that the book was overall too long and I got bored while reading it. The resolution was good, though, so I don’t know. I think if you liked the first two books you should probably finish the thing. I just wasn’t thrilled with the second book and wasn’t overwhelmed with love for Reached, either.

Did you read this series? Thoughts?

Because It Is My Blood by Gabrielle Zevin

Gabrielle Zevin Because It Is My BloodBecause It Is My Blood by Gabrielle Zevin
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The second book in the Birthright trilogy begins with Anya Balanchine being released from Liberty Children’s Facility, ready to get back to her regular life, but sure that she’ll do so by following the rules and especially the law. Unfortunately, she can’t get back into Holy Trinity to finish high school, and no other schools will take her due to her criminal record. Her sister, ex-boyfriend Win, and best friend Scarlet have continued living their lives when Anya was gone, and as a result of that things have changed a lot by the time she gets back. In addition, her ties to her family’s chocolate business have put a huge target on her back, so Anya travels to Mexico, where chocolate is not only legal but plentiful, and begins to develop her own ideas about the family business.

After becoming enamored with the first volume in the Birthright trilogy, All These Things I’ve Done, I knew I’d need to get my hands on this second installment as soon as I could. I’m happy to say that this novel did not fall into the middle-of-trilogy trap that lots of these kinds of books do – it was not at all forgettable, it added necessary elements to the arc of Anya’s story, and was compulsively readable. I may have liked it even more than the first one, in fact.

I think the aspect of this novel I liked the most was the fact that Anya has grown up a lot in the space between the two books and it really shows in the character development that Zevin gives the reader. She’s still the same tough-as-nails girl she was in the first book, and she hasn’t lost her softer side, but somehow she’s gotten smarter, more resourceful, and more realistic about the world she lives in and her part in it. She’s still not interested in getting involved with the family business, but there’s a point at which she realizes she may not have a choice. Instead of bemoaning that fact, she decides to come up with a different, maybe better, way to be involved with the business. I liked where Zevin took Anya’s character and I have high hopes for even further development in the third book.

One of the complaints I had with the first book in this series is that I didn’t feel there was much explanation as to why chocolate and coffee were made illegal. Because It Is My Blood answers that question, and for that I was grateful, although I’m not sure how much I buy the explanation Zevin delivers. It made sense and it cleared some things up for me, but I’m not sure Zevin took these explanations far enough to explain as much of this future world as I would have hoped.

That being said, I really, truly enjoyed Because It Is My Blood and I was hanging on every single word throughout the novel. I like this series because it’s very unique, well-written, and still has the solid characterization that I need in a good novel. If you think this is just another YA dystopia I have to say that you are wrong, as there’s something extra special about this series. I’d definitely recommend giving it a try.