Thursday, February 27, 2014

Book Review: In The Path of Falling Objects

Book Review: In The Path of Falling Objects by Andrew Smith 

Goodreads Description: Jonah and his younger brother, Simon, are on their own. They set out to find what’s left of their family, carrying between them ten dollars, a backpack full of dirty clothes, a notebook, and a stack of letters from their brother, who is serving a tour in Vietnam. And soon into their journey, they have a ride. With a man and a beautiful girl who may be in love with Jonah. Or Simon. Or both of them.

The man is crazy. The girl is desperate. This violent ride is only just beginning. And it will leave the brothers taking cover from hard truths about loyalty, love, and survival that crash into their lives.

One more thing: The brothers have a gun. They’re going to need it.

My Review: This review will have spoilers, which is something I don't normally do, but I feel it's necessary to explain my thoughts about this book, so warning's ahoy.

I'm kind of conflicted about this book. The truth is I wanted to give it a higher rating. It was a book I thought I would be too forgiving of, or too generous with when it came to my stars. The reason for this is that I absolutely love Andrew Smith's style of writing. I like the light touch, the way he peppers his work with onomatopoeia and these threads of ideas that blend together. I loved the heart of this story, which is two brothers try to get somewhere and hitching a ride with a pair of mysterious folks that turn out to be much more than they bargained for. But I feel like the threads that were begun didn't come together in time, or at all, and the characters had been set up like fireworks but weren't ever lit.

I'll start by saying that I think the light touch was a little too light for this book. The heart of this story is majorly character driven, and so I feel like we needed to see more of what was going on in each character's head and heart to ultimately see the whole picture. For example, the beginning of the book was quickly building tension between Jonah, our main character, and Mitch, our antagonist. The two characters butt heads over Lily, as well as Simon, but there's no heat under their words. I feel like we got to bare minimum for what they were feeling, when really that emotion and heat should have been fueling the story. In some places, the emotions and motivations for the characters were drawn out beautifully. For example, Mitch's hatred towards the brothers wasn't random, and it became achingly apparent that it was fueled by jealousy, since the brothers got so close to Lily. But on the other hand, I felt like I didn't know enough of what drove Simon, and made him so fully embrace Mitch and his ways.

Which brings me to a big reason as to why the rating sunk so low, and that was Lily. I really liked her and the dynamic that she introduced. She caused a lot of tension between Simon and Jonah, poked and prodded at Mitch and kept things interesting, but at the the end of the day she was nothing more than an object. I was excited by her and what her character could bring about (for example, I was surprised at the suddenness of which she crawled into bed with Jonah, and loved the sudden shake up of it all). She was the reason why the boys got into the car with Mitch, she was the main reason Mitch hated and even wanted to kill the brothers, in a way, she was the one who began the road trip with Mitch, since it was revealed she was asking him for a ride to California before Jonah and Simon came into the picture. She was the reason and the cause of all these plot points, but she was SUCH a passive character. She didn't so anything, barely made her own decisions, and even when she did, we were kept in the dark about a lot of her history to make her more 'mysterious' but it only left her motivations seriously lacking. I wanted to learn more about this character. The brothers were convinced she was "messing" with them, but I saw no evidence of this, nor any clarification as to what she was actually doing.

Now, I knew Lily was going to die. It became pretty apparent by mid book, but even still I wasn't upset by this. I expected her to take action before the finale, perhaps take a bullet for Jonah, but I was sorely mistaken. Lily grows weaker and weaker after she and Simon escape from Mitch until, wait for it, SHE DIES. That's it. They put her to bed, she's sweating and obviously ill, and the boys decide she needs help. They run out to the truck, (avoiding Mitch who is hiding outside somewhere hunting them). They make it to the truck, get the gun, and then RUN BACK TO THE HOUSE. You see my confusion here? They didn't even bother to drive the truck back to the house and grab her so they could actually get her help. And why didn't the author bother with this? Because when they run back to the house, Lily has already "stopped breathing" due to some mysterious pregnancy illness. I literally balked at the page. I couldn't believe how Andrew Smith had so blatantly disregarded a character, used her as an object and then tossed her away without so much as an explanation to her death. I was absolutely flabbergasted. She started this book as Mitch's possession, made little to no effort to establish herself as her own character outside of things pushed on her by the brothers (running away wasn't even her idea, nor did she express much want for it), we learned next to nothing about her history or her motivations, and then she died to make the antagonist a little more angry and to drive tension up a notch. I was thoroughly unimpressed.

More so, what dropped this rating even lower was some of the style choices the author used. The story was written in first person through Jonah's POV, but we continued to jump from POV to POV, while keeping Jonah in first person. This was ridiculous, in my opinion. The story called for third person with multiple POVs, and it felt like the author was clinging to first person for whatever reason. It dragged the story down and, in my opinion, came across as highly amateurish. First person can be a great way to tell your story, if it's used properly.

The second style choice that made me see red was the choice to switch between present and past tense, often between Mitch's POV scenes and the rest of the story. I understand why some authors choose to do this, but there should be a damn good reason to mix tenses like that. It should be apparent, so when a reader starts on a passage that has switches tenses/POVs, they understand the reason for it. It felt like the tenses and POVs were chosen and thrown out at random, again really making this feel like a teenager's first book. Which is such a bummer, because I mean it when I say I really like Andrew Smith's style and the overall story here.

TL;DR: 2/5 stars. A real bummer. 

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Book Review: The Archived

Book Review: The Archived by Victoria Schwab 

Goodreads Description: Imagine a place where the dead rest on shelves like books.

Each body has a story to tell, a life seen in pictures that only Librarians can read. The dead are called Histories, and the vast realm in which they rest is the Archive.

Da first brought Mackenzie Bishop here four years ago, when she was twelve years old, frightened but determined to prove herself. Now Da is dead, and Mac has grown into what he once was, a ruthless Keeper, tasked with stopping often—violent Histories from waking up and getting out. Because of her job, she lies to the people she loves, and she knows fear for what it is: a useful tool for staying alive.

Being a Keeper isn’t just dangerous—it’s a constant reminder of those Mac has lost. Da’s death was hard enough, but now her little brother is gone too. Mac starts to wonder about the boundary between living and dying, sleeping and waking. In the Archive, the dead must never be disturbed. And yet, someone is deliberately altering Histories, erasing essential chapters. Unless Mac can piece together what remains, the Archive itself might crumble and fall.

My Review: If you could stroll through a library of the dead, whose memories would you want to read? 

It's the question that came to me after I finished THE ARCHIVED. Honestly, going in I wasn't expecting this book to be as amazing as it was. The book begins with a back and forth in time that serves to not only reveal more of the world-building, the Archived, and all its components, but also establishes a strong emotional bond with the Archived. Because the information was relayed through Mac's grandfather, it allowed the reader to associate the Archive with the warm memories of Mac's childhood. I was sceptical of the back and forth at first, but not only did it beautifully open up the world without dumping info, but the tone and tension of each shortened scene actually made me ache for the next flashback, even if there was no overarching action taking place within them. 

Mackenzie's character opened up rather nicely. I was worried because in the beginning she came off as a tad bland, and I worried that would be a constant. Nothing worse than cardboard when you're looking for meat. But Mac proved me wrong. The way the character opened up, both with the flashbacks and then later with her actions and admissions, it made me almost feel as if I was getting to know her one on one, and the more I discovered about her passion for the Archive, for closure, and as the pieces of her character came together, the more I grew to like her. 

The rest of her characters shone through beautifully, including the antagonists of the story. Though throughout the book, the antagonists remain a mystery, I had my suspicions and was proved right in some cases, however I was surprised that at certain points I didn't want them to be the villains. They were well done characters with wonderful motivation, but more than that, the glimpses into their humanity really sealed the book for me. 

Besides the characters, I absolutely adored the world-building. The Archive itself is a wonderful idea, where history is at your fingertips. The vast, gleaming world of the Archived coupled with the dark and craggy Narrows made for great atmosphere and a fascinating backdrop. I found the use of keys and doors and locks fit so nicely with the secrecy and deceit that makes up the Archive. And just as the writing would have you believe you were looping through the Narrows, pursued by Histories, the plot is as thick and creamy as clam chowder. (Is that an expression? It is now.) As I writer, it was an absolute joy to read, because it was as though I could see each plotline spread out like threads across the pages. I couldn't always guess what was coming, but I was given enough information to guess and ponder, which I love when you've got a mystery on your hands. 

All in all, the Archived was pleasantly surprising. I didn't expect to fall as in love with it as I did, but it has left me pondering death and legacies and with a wonderful book hangover. This is a book that sinks into your skin and stays there, quiet but insistent.

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. This one's a Keeper. 

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Monday, February 10, 2014

Book Review: Annexed

Book Review: Annexed by Sharon Dogar

Goodreads Description: Everyone knows about Anne Frank and her life hidden in the secret annex – but what about the boy who was also trapped there with her?

In this powerful and gripping novel, Sharon Dogar explores what this might have been like from Peter’s point of view. What was it like to be forced into hiding with Anne Frank, first to hate her and then to find yourself falling in love with her? Especially with your parents and her parents all watching almost everything you do together. To know you’re being written about in Anne’s diary, day after day? What’s it like to start questioning your religion, wondering why simply being Jewish inspires such hatred and persecution? Or to just sit and wait and watch while others die, and wish you were fighting.

As Peter and Anne become closer and closer in their confined quarters, how can they make sense of what they see happening around them?

Anne’s diary ends on August 4, 1944, but Peter’s story takes us on, beyond their betrayal and into the Nazi death camps. He details with accuracy, clarity and compassion the reality of day to day survival in Auschwitz – and ultimately the horrific fates of the Annex’s occupants.

My Review: After finishing Anne Frank's diary, I was stunk in a Frank funk, so I immediately reached for ANNEXED. Right from the beginning, I was a little off-put by the relationship between Peter and his mother. After all, hadn't he said they didn't get along well in Anne's diary? I liked the relationship between Peter and his parents, for sure, but I felt like the author missed out on a golden opportunity. A famous quote that came from Otto Frank after reading Anne's diary was "Most parents don't really know their children." And since this is a YA novel, it would've been a great chance to expand on that idea and show how Peter's parents, though their relationship with their son was good, they didn't know all of him. It felt kind of one-dimensional at times because we didn't see much or any conflict between Peter and his parents. 

Expanding on that, I think part one in the Annex was really lacking. This is historical fiction. You get to dip your fingers into the past and expand. Where was the development between the others in the attic? What about all the fights Anne talks about, the discussions, the grievances with each other? These people were trapped together for two years! There was tension between them! Anne mentions things briefly (like the arguments), and I'm really disappointed that the author didn't expand on them, show what got on each other's nerves! The entire first part of the book consisted of Peter moping around (and do you really think that wouldn't get old after two years, trapped inside or not? The people in the Annex kept busy!) and even when Anne enters his life, there was no real spark or excitement. Yes, Anne and Peter's romance wasn't of the ages, but the feelings could've been touched on, explore more of why they are clinging to each other, and it could've been much more poignant. 

A scene near the beginning of the book, when they are in the attic and Peter shouts, I found absolutely ridiculous. I could handle it when he whistled. I could deal with him shouting. But when his father shouted back, and then they all go after Peter and he's "screaming"? I know it was meant to be a representation of his emotions and the feelings of entrapment, but come on, these people were in hiding. Like I said, I could understand the shout, but when his father shouted back? You really think the adults would be so stupid as to add to any noise? 

The end was very nicely done. I enjoyed the camps and the way it was presented. I felt like the "light touch" writing style that the author had really worked well here. The ending really brought it up for me, but ultimately I was disappointed. ANNEXED could have pushed the boundaries a bit more, got into the details a bit more, and explored the Annex enough to bring it alive.

TL;DR: 2/5. A pretty bland retelling. 

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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Book Review: Diary of a Young Girl

Book Review: Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank 

Goodreads Description: Discovered in the attic in which she spent the last years of her life, Anne Frank's remarkable diary has since become a world classic—a powerful reminder of the horrors of war and an eloquent testament to the human spirit.

In 1942, with Nazis occupying Holland, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl and her family fled their home in Amsterdam and went into hiding. For the next two years, until their whereabouts were betrayed to the Gestapo, they and another family lived cloistered in the "Secret Annexe" of an old office building. Cut off from the outside world, they faced hunger, boredom, the constant cruelties of living in confined quarters, and the ever-present threat of discovery and death.

In her diary Anne Frank recorded vivid impressions of her experiences during this period. By turns thoughtful, moving, and amusing, her account offers a fascinating commentary on human courage and frailty and a compelling self-portrait of a sensitive and spirited young woman whose promise was tragically cut short.

My Review: There's so much I could say about this book, but I can't seem to scramble the words together. To say that this is an amazing study of the human condition would be true, but I feel like it would take away from the people who lived out the days recorded in the diary. We are all products of the human condition, we are all tested and tried, but often we don't realize the magnitude of the trials we face or the successes we've achieved. 

While I read, a strong and steady thought stayed with me: What was the point of all of it? The Frank family did what they could to survive, and yet I continued to ask myself if it was worth it. If they were to die, why waste time locking themselves away, to suffer and wait for death? Will this simply be two years of bitterness and suffering until their misery is ended? It's horribly heartless, I think, because it is a very removed question. It's akin to asking: What's the point of living? And yet I couldn't stop myself from comparing the merits, asking if this little bit of happiness makes all this worth it. 

And yet, another thing I wondered to myself. Every time Anne discussed her dreams to be a journalist, her desire to write a book and even publish a book based on her diary, I asked myself: Have you really accomplished your goal if you aren't even alive to witness it? Or is it simply another coincidence in life, something that would have happened whether or not you desired and worked for it? 

As the diary came to a head in 1944, I found some solace in the joy that she managed to find, the self-discoveries she'd made, and the endless hope and optimism that had me flabbergasted by this point. How could someone who has suffered like that, had to endure such hardship, continually hold out hope and optimism? The way she would casually talk about her future-- leaving the Annexe, going back to school, whether she wanted to be a housewife or a writer-- as if there wasn't the possibility of dying, is heart-breakingly beautiful. It made me wonder why people so readily give up when faced with simple problems, but grow firm and unshakeable when they have nothing left to lose. 

"It amazes me what humans can do, even when streams are flowing down their faces and they stagger on…” - Death, The Book Thief

Figured that summed it up best.

TL;DR: 5/5. A classic, of course. 

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Saturday, February 8, 2014

Book Review: The School of Good and Evil

Book Review: The School of Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

Goodreads Description: “The first kidnappings happened two hundred years before. Some years it was two boys taken, some years two girls, sometimes one of each. But if at first the choices seemed random, soon the pattern became clear. One was always beautiful and good, the child every parent wanted as their own. The other was homely and odd, an outcast from birth. An opposing pair, plucked from youth and spirited away.”

This year, best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to discover where all the lost children go: the fabled School for Good & Evil, where ordinary boys and girls are trained to be fairy tale heroes and villains. As the most beautiful girl in Gavaldon, Sophie has dreamed of being kidnapped into an enchanted world her whole life. With her pink dresses, glass slippers, and devotion to good deeds, she knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and graduate a storybook princess. Meanwhile Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks, wicked pet cat, and dislike of nearly everyone, seems a natural fit for the School for Evil.

But when the two girls are swept into the Endless Woods, they find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School For Good, thrust amongst handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.. But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are…?

My Review: I was first attracted to the SCHOOL OF GOOD AND EVIL by its beautiful cover. I try to avoid judging based on cover, but I loved the artist's rendition of the characters and the schools. I'm a sucker for good artwork. From the first page I was swept off my feet by the lively and loveable characters. Right away I could see that Sophie was not the bleeding heart she said she was, and Agatha was more than a dreary, cemetery-bound spook. I loved that from the moment I met the characters, their truer nature shone through in their actions. Agatha and Sophie are so well constructed-- their motives are clear and fuel their every action. 

The thing that made me really love this book was Sophie. It's so rare that we get to see the evolution of a villain like we would a hero. Though I know I would hate Sophie in real life, her every action is justified in her own mind and she truly believes in what she is doing, which makes her an amazing villain. She is not evil for evil's sake, in her own mind, she isn't even a villain, which makes her one of my favourite characters. 

If you're not swayed by compelling, dynamic characters that evolve through their journey, then you will love this book's fairy tale world. The world is incredible, and each little detail brought the schools to life and made them just as much characters as Agatha or Sophie. Right down to the fairy tale punishments, I couldn't get enough of the world building. 

The book is definitely a stand alone, but at the same time the end leaves you aching for more. I could not recommend this book enough. It's perfect for your little princess or the fairy tale lover who never stopped slaying dragons and saving the world. The writing is complex enough for children and simple enough for adults. A win all across the board.

TL;DR: 5/5 Stars. A must read! 

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