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.

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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.

All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

Gabrielle Zevin All These Things I've DoneAll These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan

It’s sixty years in the future and lots has changed. Coffee and chocolate are illegal, water is rationed, and conveniences taken for granted in 2012 (such as the ability to read a paper book) are almost completely unheard of. Anya Balanchine is living in this era, in New York City, and as the sixteen-year-old daughter of a very notorious deceased crime boss, she lives a surprisingly normal life. She lives with her sick grandmother, autistic older brother Leo, and younger sister Natalie and has the regular teenage concerns of falling in love with the wrong person (in her case, the assistant D.A.’s son). But when someone close to Anya is poisoned by the chocolate her family manufactures, police turn their suspicions to her first and suddenly she can kiss her carefully constructed “normal” life goodbye.

This was a totally unexpected gem for me! I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up All These Things I’ve Done, just that I’d vaguely heard good things, but it surprised me in a really great way. First of all, the future that Zevin created, while being somewhat scary, wasn’t all that out-there. In other words, it was completely believable. I can see that in the future we will need to be rationing water, we will eventually run out of trees with which to make paper, and the kinds of crime make sense for what the characters of that time are up against. The only thing was that I didn’t completely understand why coffee and chocolate were illegal – it was explained but I felt that Zevin could have gone more into that. Also, I wanted to know how was life in other countries? Some of the illegal stuff was legal in other parts of the world, so I would have liked for Zevin to maybe explore/explain that more. But not to worry, this is a series, so perhaps we’ll get more world-building later on.

Anya! I loved her. Such a kick-ass, but normal, girl. I admired her for her ambition in keeping her family together against all odds, for her maturity in dealing with her relationships, and for her ability to maneuver very adult situations skillfully and with wisdom well beyond her years. I’m excited because it seems as though she’s just getting on the cusp of being involved in the family business, so I’m hoping that in the next book she will fully immerse herself in that world – which would entail even more mature, but kick-ass decisions and actions from her.

The love story was really well done here. I loved that Zevin wasn’t afraid to have her character take a stance on something and stick to it, that Anya wasn’t completely taken over by her emotions that she never forgot what was truly important in her life – her family. The love story was sweet but not anywhere close to the main focus of the book, and I appreciated that a lot.

I listened to All These Things I’ve Done on audio and the narrator, Ilyana Kadushin did an excellent job. She truly embodied the character of Anya for me. She had a youngish voice, but not too young, if that makes sense. Perfect for a teenage character who is required to make adult decisions.

I liked this one so much! Definitely looking forward to the second in the series.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

From the Unabridged Compact Disc editionReady Player One by Ernest Cline
Published by Random House Audio

The world is a difficult place in the year 2044. Wade Watts spends most of his time in the OASIS, the virtual world where most of the population goes to escape the harshness and ugliness of the real world. James Halliday, creator of the OASIS, has hidden inside its many thousands of planets a puzzle that holds the ultimate power to whoever can solve its many elements and get to the end. Millions of people have worked towards finding these puzzles, with the knowledge that much of what Halliday based them on was his love of 1980’s pop culture, and Wade is just one of those many people. Since he is just a regular person without any real money or means of super powers inside the OASIS, he is happy learning as much about Halliday as possible while knowing, deep down, that he has no chance of being the winner of Halliday’s prize … until he finds the first puzzle.

What a fun and exciting novel Ready Player One is! Let me tell you that even though everyone recommended this book and said I would love it, I went into it with quite a bit of trepidation. You see, even though I was born in the 80’s (1983), I don’t have a lot of memories from the actual 80’s – I’m more of a 90’s generation kid – so I was nervous that I wouldn’t get a lot of the pop culture references. Fear not, fellow twenty-somethings, the 1980’s references were not lost on me a bit and I enjoyed the book all the more for them!

There was so much I truly enjoyed about this novel. Wade is the kind of character that you love and root for instantly – it’s that underdog thing I think, plus he’s such a truly good and nice person you just want good things to come his way. I loved the way he developed a friendship/romance with Artemis, a relationship that was completely based on their OASIS personas but which grew into something real over the course of the novel. I loved all of the adventures it took to get to the final prize from James Halliday.

And oh my gosh, H! For those of you who have read the book, I have to say, I LOVED what Cline did with Wade’s best friend, H. That is all.

I listened to the audio of Ready Player One which was absolutely the right choice. Wil Wheaton narrates it and he does a fantastic job. He truly brought the action, the characters, this entire adventure, to life. I was truly invested in this story and much of that is thanks to Wheaton’s expert narration. I am not sure I would have liked it quite as much had I chose to read the print version.

I loved Ready Player One! Highly recommended.

Insurgent by Veronica Roth

InsurgentInsurgent by Veronica Roth
Published by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins

This review will contain spoilers for the first book in this series, Divergent.

No summary on this one, folks. If you read Divergent you know how it ended, and I was thrilled to find that Insurgent begins exactly where its predecessor left off. This is now a crazy place, with war and factions divided against one another. I loved that the action started right as the book began, it brought me right back into the story and although some details of the first book were a bit fuzzy, the major plot points were brought back to my mind immediately. I remembered what I loved about Tris and Four and my love affair with these characters continued throughout this novel.

Tris really developed as a character over the course of this novel. After the events at the end of the first novel, she’s feeling incredibly conflicted with her emotions – she feels guilty, depressed at the loss of her parents, confused about where her loyalties should lie, and angry about all of it. She remains just as kick-ass a heroine as she was in Divergent, but her character gains a bit more depth as well as she works through all these emotions and grows up even more.

I was extremely relieved to find that Roth did not introduce a love triangle in this story. SO many YA novels have the main character confused over love, but not here. Tris and Four are strong as ever and even though there are obvious issues between the two of them throughout the novel (mostly because of factors outside of their control, like war) they have a mostly solid relationship and I loved them together.

One of the only quibbles I had with Divergent was that I felt the world-building wasn’t as strong as it could have been. Well, at the end of Insurgent there is a HUGE revelation about the world Tris lives in that explains why the reader was left in the dark for so long about the details of why these five factions came to be. This made me so happy, but so anxious at the same time. I’m at the point now where I need the third book, and I’m sure it’ll be quite a while before that happens.

So, yeah. I loved Insurgent too. This series is awesome, you should read it.

Pure by Julianna Baggott

PurePure by Julianna Baggott
Published by Grand Central Publishing, an imprint of Hachette

Pressia survived the Detonations almost unscathed, with nothing to show for them other than the small doll’s head fused to her fist. Many people weren’t so lucky – millions of people died, or fused together, or became part of the earth, or became crippled by the huge items that fused to their bodies. She doesn’t think much about the Before, just spends her time with her grandfather in his small apartment, her grandfather who has cared for her ever since her parents died in the Detonations. Partridge has a much nicer life – he is a Pure. The Pures escaped the catastrophic Detonations by living in the Dome, a secluded world that only the very privileged and important people were sent to just before the world exploded. But Partridge doesn’t have a perfect life in the Dome – his father is emotionally distant, his mother refused to join them and died in the Detonations, and shortly after, his brother killed himself. When he ventures outside the Dome and meets Pressia, both of their lives are turned completely upside-down.

Oh my gosh, I don’t know how to even review Pure. There were so many disturbing things about this book, but ultimately I couldn’t put it down. The world Baggott created in Pure is bleak, no question about that. It might just be the most disturbing post-apocalyptic world I’ve seen in fiction yet. People are fused with nature. People are fused with other people. People are fused with animals, for gosh sakes. It’s incredibly distressing to read but also I had a hard time looking away. I wanted more but I was afraid to want more. I know, that sounds so weird, but I swear if you read the book that will make sense.

What is so redeeming about this novel is how truly fabulous and well-drawn its characters are. Pressia has seen the worst of humanity but still holds out hope for a better life for herself, and has an intense devotion and love for her grandfather, despite the fact that she’s lost everyone else she’s loved. Partridge, who rebels against his father’s teachings and searches high and low to find the mother he knows didn’t abandon him, was a character I didn’t love at first but came to really admire. And Bradwell, sweet, hardened Bradwell, well that guy stole my heart. He’s been through the worst of the worst, with no family or real friends, leading an underground movement to overthrow the Dome, and when the Detonations came a flock of birds fused to his back, so they are forever a part of his body and soul. You wouldn’t think love would be possible in a world this awful but you would be wrong – these three form something of a little family as they fight to stay alive in this insane, terrifying world.

I raced through this book and couldn’t put it down. Ultimately, it has a very hopeful feel to it, as these characters force you to believe that anything is possible, that this world can change and redemption is possible. I found it to be a fresh take on the whole dystopia/post-apocalyptic genre and I believe it to be a welcome addition to the pool of other great books in this vein. Read it!