Thursday, March 27, 2014

Review: Ask Again Later by Liz Czukas

Books where characters get to live out two different realities and then face the consequences after seeing the results are something I find very interesting. Who hasn't wanted to go back in time and see how something would be if we had chosen a second option? Hindsight really is 20 / 20. Plus, as a hopeless romantic, prom is something that can easily draw me to a book. Both my senior prom and the spring formal I went to during university were 'blah' to say the least, so I guess it would be fair to admit that I enjoy living through these things vicariously when book characters experience them.

Ask Again Later had lots of prom goodness, but did it give me my cute fluffy romance fix? Read on and find out. :)
(Summary from GoodReads)
Despite what her name might suggest, Heart has zero interest in complicated romance. So when her brilliant plan to go to prom with a group of friends is disrupted by two surprise invites, Heart knows there's only one drama-free solution: flip a coin.

Heads: The jock. He might spend all night staring at his ex or throw up in the limo, but how bad can her brother's best friend really be?

Tails: The theater geek...with a secret. What could be better than a guy who shares all Heart's interests--even if he wants to share all his feelings?

Heart's simple coin flip has somehow given her the chance to live out both dates. But where her prom night ends up might be the most surprising thing of all..
Premise vs. execution. I know we've had this discussion before. When they are equal, we get a book that is great. When they aren't, we get a book that is okay, mediocre, or worse. For what it's worth, Ask Again Later isn't a terrible book. At no point did I want to DNF while reading it. In the moment, it was entertaining. But at the same time, I feel that it ultimately failed because when I set my Kindle down and started thinking about what I'd say in this review, it dawned on me that I didn't care.

About the plot. About the characters. About the motivation that was a huge part of Heart's overall conflict. The story did not win our heroine my sympathy and I actually kinda felt she brought on her own misery. Maybe it's because I actually had a friend somewhat like her during my high school days (the general disinterest in dating--not Heart's exact motivations for it) and I could never totally grasp that / my 16-year-old self was probably very confused / frustrated by it. 

Okay. Let's tackle each of these issues...

This was a small book with an absolutely monster cast. This was 'helped' by the fact that there were two dates going back and forth, and by the fact that both Heart and her brother Phil had large groups of friends. The problem this posed for me is that I never really felt any kind of connection to any of the secondary characters. Even the 'love interest' (whom I won't name, even though it gets REALLY obvious about 5 pages after the Amazon sample ends) really didn't wow me. I could never really, totally grasp what he saw in Heart or what she saw in him. 

Which leads me to say that I could not identify with our leading lady here. Heart had some interesting quirks and didn't seem like a terrible character. But she threw her teenager cred' away for me when she pretty much told us that any decision made at 18 is probably a stupid choice we will ultimately regret. Is this "true"? Is it something we might think or say later--often to someone who is currently 18? Perhaps. But in literature it makes me think of a villain coming on stage and going, "Hey, look! I'm evil!" ...Just doesn't fly, in my opinion. 

Which leads to motivation, heading full circle back to my issue with the plot. The real conflict of this book revolved around the reason that Heart would not date, why this lead to her actual love interest not inviting her to prom, and why she was so incapable of rejecting the two guys who did. I can somewhat understand the motivation given. But the extreme to which it was given, and the lack of background about it--how did she come up with it? when did it actually occur to her that it was necessary? if her situation with her mom effected her this much why is she emulating her mother's love of vintage clothes?--kept me at arm's length. I didn't really buy into the idea that a teen girl would think in this way, and that kept me from getting more invested in the story. 
I didn't hate Ask Again Later, and I'm sure I'll check Liz Czukas books in the future because I did like her writing style. She did a great job with Heart's voice and, while I didn't 'click' with Heart, I recognize that she was unique and distinct. With that said, I don't think I've ever been so glad to have bought a book on my Kindle, because this would be on a one-way trip to the Value Village bin otherwise. (My room is tiny! I don't have space for books that I don't mad-love.) If you can get this book from the library or you totally LOVE the Kindle sample go ahead and read it. But ultimately, this would be something I'd suggest borrowing or skipping over buying, if I'm being really honest. A shame--it had potential. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Review: A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier

It can be a real challenge to talk about a book like A Death-Struck Year. Why? Because if you love a book like this, there's bound to be some nutbar who mistakes you for some kind of disease-loving ghoul. While if you hate it, there'll be someone who might accuse you of being insensitive to things that happened in the past. Your damned if you do, damned if you don't.

I'll put it out there right now: I feel the same way about plagues that many people do about zombies. I find them freaking scary. And the thing is--and I mean this as nicely as possible--you're far more likely to be facing a disease then a half rotting corpse who wants your brains in this world of ours. (That's not to discredit genres like fantasy, which I actually write, but...) Fantasy, horror, etc. don't scare me. But a book like this? I'm still thinking about it and reeling from it almost a week after reading it. That's not easy when I'm going through a phase where I'm reading a lot.
(Summary from GoodReads)
A deadly pandemic, a budding romance, and the heartache of loss make for a stunning coming-of-age teen debut about the struggle to survive during the 1918 flu.

For Cleo Berry, the people dying of the Spanish Influenza in cities like New York and Philadelphia may as well be in another country--that's how far away they feel from the safety of Portland, Oregon. And then cases start being reported in the Pacific Northwest. Schools, churches, and theaters shut down. The entire city is thrust into survival mode--and into a panic. Headstrong and foolish, seventeen-year-old Cleo is determined to ride out the pandemic in the comfort of her own home, rather than in her quarantined boarding school dorms. But when the Red Cross pleads for volunteers, she can't ignore the call. As Cleo struggles to navigate the world around her, she is surprised by how much she finds herself caring about near-strangers. Strangers like Edmund, a handsome medical student and war vet. Strangers who could be gone tomorrow. And as the bodies begin to pile up, Cleo can't help but wonder: when will her own luck run out?

Riveting and well-researched, A Death-Struck Year is based on the real-life pandemic considered the most devastating in recorded world history. Readers will be captured by the suspenseful storytelling and the lingering questions of: what would I do for a neighbor? At what risk to myself?

An afterword explains the Spanish flu phenomenon, placing it within the historical context of the early 20th century. Source notes are extensive and interesting.
I think that A Death Struck Year was totally spot on. It's clear that Makiia Lucier has done her research and that she put a lot of effort into getting the details of the time period and the fear that people were experiencing then right. The idea that this book would have taken place before my grandparents were born is really something. Yet despite this, the writing style stayed contemporary enough that I was able to zip through the book with ease. This is something people will either love or hate, but personally it worked for me. We're in first person here and making Cleo's thoughts clear was important, especially with all the chaos surrounding her. 

Cleo was a well developed character who had moments when I wanted to hug her and moments when I wanted to hit her. She straddled the gap between teenage girl and young woman well, presenting a front that I felt was believable for the time and relatable for modern readers. I've seen a few complaining that the novel starts slow. I feel that it had to. If we had been tossed directly into the Flu from page one we would not be able to appreciate the full depth of Cleo's growth in the novel or just how deeply the Flu impacts her life. 

I liked the reason that Makiia gave for Cleo's decision to join the Red Cross as a volunteer. I also think it's interesting--and that it speaks to her motivation's credability--that there are people torn over whether her choice made sense. But really think of it... Would you be willing to risk your own life to save others? Could you really be sure if the answer was yes or no? Or about what might change that answer? Cleo's motive was actually stronger than what I would expect in real life, yet it met with the fictional need for a choice to 'make sense' in a way that (I feel) fabulously enriched her character. 

The connection between friendship and the spread of the Flu is something that is touched on in A Death-Struck Year and I think it is handled well. It would have been all too easy to have Cleo remain untouched by the effects of what is happening, to be in the midst of this storm without ever being effected by it, but thankfully (in relation to *fiction*) Makiaa Lucier had the courage to go beyond that. There is loss in this novel, and there was one part in particular that did produce tears from me. That's no small feat. I think that this added to the realness of the story and drove the point home about just how bad the whole situation could be--and that Cleo was able to keep going despite this. Although I will say I noticed a similarity between this book and In The Shadow of Blackbirds that made me go, "Really?". It was just too much of a coincidence. 

The last thing I want to say is that I did enjoy the romance between Cleo and Edmund, and I was glad that it didn't get in the way. It could have gone all kinds of wrong in the midst of a story like this, but it was balanced in such a way that I never felt like it acted as some kind of magical balm that made what was going on around these characters somehow 'okay'. (That would have irritated me.) I also feel that in this story the open nature of the ending for the book and romance was appropriate. I think there was likely a split on those who felt Cleo and Edmund might continue any type of correspondence or connection after the Flu, and this ending allows for the reader to make up their own mind. This wouldn't work for me in every book, but here it was a satisfying solution. 
I totally loved A Death-Struck Year and would gladly recommend it to those who enjoy historical fiction and / or those who are as fascinated / horrified with tragedies of the past as I am. I feel that Makiia Lucier did a fabulous job of bringing 1918 Portland to life, and in humanizing a time in history that must have been terrifying for those who lived it. This is a book where I knew what I wanted going in, and I had received it by the time I hit the home button on my Kindle. I cannot ask for more. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Review: If Only We by Jessica Sankiewicz

I've said it before and I'll say it again: it's always tough to review a book when I have any inkling at all who the author is. I don't know Jessica as well as I know Marie (Landry) or Krystle (Jones), but it's still a tough position to be in. All the moreso because while I did really like If Only We, I can't just give this five hearts and call it a day. Which truthfully kinda kills me.

This is the third time I've sat down and tried to read If Only We, and once I got going I am happy to share that I ended up reading it within a couple days. But the fact that it took me multiple attempts probably makes it clear there was an issue or two.

So, what's the deal with If Only We? What worked for me--and what didn't? Read on and find out.
(Summary from GoodReads) 
They say all it takes is one wrong move and you lose the game. One false step and you’re trapped. One slip-up in your choice of words and you ruin a friendship forever. That is what they say. They say I lost.

I do not believe them.

At the end of the summer after graduation, Adrienne wonders what happened to cause her life to be in ruins. She isn’t getting along with her mom, her stepsister isn’t talking to her, and, to top it off, the boy she’s been in love with doesn’t want anything to do with her. She believes the turning point was a choice she made at graduation. When she wakes up the next day, she has been transported back three months to that moment, the one where everything started to fall apart.

Adrienne realizes she has been given a second chance—and this time she doesn’t want to mess anything up. Reliving the entire summer, though, turns out to be a lot harder than she thought. As the same days and weeks go by, she starts to see how simple decisions can make a huge impact on the world around her. Despite knowing some of what lies ahead, there are some things she didn’t anticipate. She thought she knew what mistake led her to where she ended up the first time. She was wrong.

And by the time summer is over, she discovers what was really at stake.
I wanted to read If Only We from the moment that I first read the summary. To me it sounded like someone was going to take time travel and blend it with a contemporary novel, which I thought was really genius. And in essence, this was what I feel I got. 

I like how many different things we got to see Adrienne juggling as she went through her second chance summer. (Sorry, I had to do that.) Her friendship with Lindsay, her relationship with her mom, her bond with her little stepsister, Kaitlin, and of course, her growing feelings for Chevy. I really liked the cast of characters I got to meet in this book, and I came to care for several of them (especially Kaitlin and Chevy) deeply. 

I found Adrienne to be a likable heroine and I enjoyed seeing her grow during the course of the book. I also like how the whole time travel thing was used. It wasn't a spoon full of sugar to magically fix everything. It was clever, allowing opportunities to resolve some issues, while causing others to again rear their ugly heads in ways Adrienne could not have predicted. 

In some ways Adrienne's mom comes across (in Adrienne's mind) as sort of the "villain". I liked how we get a real, tangible feeling of the guilt and dread that clashing with / disappointing her mom causes Adrienne. I also like how, by book's end, we do come to learn that Adrienne's mother, while stuck in her ways and pushy, does actually love her daughter. 

So, what were those issues I brought up? Well, for starts I had a bit of trouble with the opening. There was far too much thinking and not enough doing for a beginning, though I did like how this came intto focus as we found Chevy at the cemetery. 

The problem is that this lulling tactic does not contain itself to the beginning of the book. There were multiple places where summary was used while I sat here wondering why we were getting summary rather than a scene. Some of these were gray areas where either method could have worked and I question whether it was done due to any risk of repetition on the time travel aspect. Others were actually disappointing to me since I feel that they missed opportunities to get to know the people in Adrienne's life better. To put it another way: I would have gladly read the 'more' that some things would have added as scenes rather than summary, since I was interested enough in the characters to be sorry I missed getting their actual views about certain situations. 
If Only We has a terrific premise, memorable characters and a powerful message. While I didn't connect with the book as deeply as I had hoped, I did end up very wrapped up in Adrienne's world and I look forward to reading whatever Jessica chooses to write next. Definitely worth checking out. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Review: Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens

There are three things I'm usually looking for when I read a contemporary novel: to jump into a situation I've never experienced (or sometimes one I *pray* I'll never experience), to hopefully watch a character / cast of characters grow and (hopefully) succeed, and to be given either insight or understanding about something I might not have known about before. In regard to these things, Faking Normal had several different levels of appeal. The idea of having someone come to live in my home is something I think I'd find very strange. The trauma that we know Bodee has witnessed had hairs on my arms standing on end. And I had to know whether, and how, Alexi would find the strength to acknowledge and deal with what happened to her.

Was Faking Normal able to do justice to the story of these two brave, wounded souls? Was it too dark, too light, too "romance-y" for its subject matter? Or did it manage to hit just the right notes? Read on and find out.
(Summary from GoodReads)
An edgy, realistic, and utterly captivating novel from an exciting new voice in teen fiction.

Alexi Littrell hasn't told anyone what happened to her over the summer. Ashamed and embarrassed, she hides in her closet and compulsively scratches the back of her neck, trying to make the outside hurt more than the inside does.

When Bodee Lennox, the quiet and awkward boy next door, comes to live with the Littrells, Alexi discovers an unlikely friend in "the Kool-Aid Kid," who has secrets of his own. As they lean on each other for support, Alexi gives him the strength to deal with his past, and Bodee helps her find the courage to finally face the truth.

A searing, poignant book, Faking Normal is the extraordinary debut novel from an exciting new author-Courtney C. Stevens.
For some reason I'll never fully understand, I am drawn to contemporary novels where the characters are facing things that are real, and yet seem so bizarre within my own context of living that they almost seem otherworldly. It is this sense of "How does this *happen*?!" that first grabbed me about Faking Normal and put it on my must read list. How would YOU react if your father killed your mother? That is the agonizing reality that now makes up the minutes, days and hours of Bodee Lennox's existence. And I must say, when all is said and done, this was the first of many ways he amazed me.

But I'm jumping ahead. Bodee was by far my favorite character, and he is definitely important. But lets not discredit Alexi Littrell, our main character and narrator. Alexi is definitely facing demons of her own, and I feel that Faking Normal portrayed her struggle, and gave me ways to understand and relate to her situation that I don't think a book has ever presented me with before.

Let's get real honest: Alexi has been raped. I am pretty sure most people will figure this out very quickly. What won't be discovered as fast, and what is put to brilliant use, is how we discover "whodunit". It's not, from what I pieced together, that Alexi doesn't *remember*. Rather, as with most cases in real life, this happened because of someone close. The horror of such a betrayal, and the fear of the ramifications that exposing this individual would have, both succeed (for lack of a better word) in keeping her silent for a large majority of the novel--even to herself, and therefore to the reader. Considering the culture we live in, the prevalence of blaming victims for crimes committed against them, and the things we learn about Alexi's past, I found this extremely believable.

I've gone to town blasting books for this kind of narrative manipulation in other reviews. So, why do I not only condone but also praise it here? Because it allowed me to actually experience the fear of others that Alexi must have been dealing with each day (and which she will likely struggle with long after I closed the book). Every male character (except Bodee, whom if we're going to parallel solving the mystery / naming the villain as a metaphor becomes our 'detective' and therefore an illogical suspect) is a giant question mark. A potential threat to be cautiously observed, thoroughly analyzed and always, on some intuitive inner level, either mistrusted or outright feared. I probably switched my theory on who was responsible three times during the course of the book. What's more, my own mood began to echo Alexi's own highs and lows as she attempted to keep "faking normal". A character who initially seemed lightyears different then me in her circumstances became someone within fiction that I feel I've had one of the most tangible experiences of not just sharing, but in some strange small way living, a story as. Incredible.

Okay. Now we can talk about Bodee. :)

Let me start with this: Bodee may be my favorite love interest in any YA novel I've ever read. Period. Hands down. No competition. And here's the kicker: he's a good guy. (Shocking, I know. I have that whole 'I love villains tendency and I'm still telling you this.) Why? Because as much as I love the 'bad boys' of literature, I can tell all of you that in real life, I'd want (and am actually fortunate to have) a guy like Bodee. Bodee is not a magical pill that makes Alexi better. Bodee is not perfect--we've already established he's going through his own hell during this book and while I found him strong, please don't confuse that with him traipsing through the tulips like nothing is happening. Bodee is genuine--his honesty was extremely refreshing and oh so needed in this book. And Bodee is the kind of guy who is there when he is needed.

I also think that there may have been some clever symbolism that I quite liked. There were some Christian tones to this novel (which may be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your reading tastes) and I think that was put to good use. I'm wondering if Bodee's hair is suppose to be an allusion to God granting us the rainbow, which is a symbol of hope. I also wonder whether the bird that Alexi sees later in the novel is a throwback to the Dove which brought back proof of land after the flood, since the bird in Faking Normal is in part connected to Alexi finally facing the "flood" of her emotions regarding her situation and finally finding the courage to actually face it. Okay--analysis over, people. I promise. :)

The last thing that I want to say before I wrap this up is that despite the dark issues the characters are facing, this novel is absolutely not a downer. There are genuine moments of humor and warmth and the story is moreso about these characters finding peace and healing than it ever is about them wallowing in the tragedies that have befallen them. I was sucked in from page one and as the story drew to a fitting close the world that Alexi and Bodee inhabit is one which I was sorry to have to leave. I am confident that these two characters and Faking Normal, as a whole, will have a place in my heart for a long, long time.
I can usually answer this really easily, but when it comes to a story with issues as heavy and potentially personal as those found here, I must first advise people to look within themselves. You know what will help or hinder you. Again: I feel that Faking Normal was honest but extremely positive. I absolutely loved it. I think it was beautiful. As a book, without worrying about any other concerns, I would recommend Faking Normal without any hesitation. The slow, beautiful growth of trust, friendship and affection between Alexi and Bodee was of a quality where upon finishing Faking Normal, part of me was tempted to go back to the beginning and read it again. I can give no higher praise.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Review: In The Shadow Of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

Something I've always been interested in, and which I read shockingly little about in fiction, is history. I've had a great interest in not only what happened in the past, but how people truly *lived* it--what it was really like--since I was in my teens. While browsing a Fresh Batch post I came across another novel, A Death-Struck Year, which grabbed my interest. And as I did my research about reading *that*, I discovered this book.

I wasn't sure what I would think of In The Shadow Of Blackbirds going in. I didn't have any real expectations, outside of being interested in examining the Spiritualism craze, the paranoia and fear during the Spanish Influenza, and the effects of WW1. On all three of these accounts, the book made great use of clearly well done research and took strands of history an ocean apart and yet intricately related, weaving them into a tapestry of a novel that I could not put down.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me try to explain things a little better...
(Summary from GoodReads)
In 1918, the world seems on the verge of apocalypse. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, and the government ships young men to the front lines of a brutal war, creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to séances and spirit photographers for comfort, but she herself has never believed in ghosts. During her bleakest moment, however, she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love—a boy who died in battle—returns in spirit form. But what does he want from her?

Featuring haunting archival early-twentieth-century photographs, this is a tense, romantic story set in a past that is eerily like our own time.
First up, I will say this: going into a book without a clear and defined expectation--a detailed and specific "promise" that I expect the author to fulfill--was both terrifying and refreshing. As a reader of fantasy and romance (mostly) my expectations are usually very straight forward: I want a happy ending for whatever couple I'm shipping, and I want the bad guys to get stomped. In The Shadow Of Blackbirds, being something outside of my normal reading scope, did not present such a clear and definitive expectation. I ended up deciding, and then needing to re-evaluate, what I wanted from and for the characters, and that is part of what I think made it so brilliant and refreshing.

I genuinely enjoyed Mary Shelley as a heroine. Something I have noticed in fiction is that we often tell the reader that a character is smart, yet we generally fail to actually carry through on showing their intellect in action. Much of the time we seem to prize bravery and / or physical strength instead, or we give a character intellect as a side note to these things. Mary Shelley is a fairly average sixteen year old girl who happens to be very bright and curious. It is her keen mind that makes Mary stand out, and it is that mind which she uses to solve the majority of what is thrown at her in this novel. She does develop and grow as the story progresses, but that growth always stems from things which were true to her character from the beginning.

On top of this, I feel that the side characters all play into Mary's central strength well. I felt that their reactions to her wits and eccentricities were believable for the time period and that in combining the two, Cat Winters made good use of opportunities for character growth, conflict, and an enrichment of the time period she was writing about. ("Brains" were not on the list of qualities that a 1918 gentlemen sought in a potential wife. Let's leave it at that.)

I wasn't sure how I would feel about having a paranormal element enter this story. Between seeing the effects of the Spanish Flu, the damage done to young men sent home by the war, and the effects of patriotism--and paranoia--on peoples' lives, the book was already pretty scary just using what was real. However, I do think that the way the paranormal aspect of the book was handled, and how it lead to an intriguing mystery which required Mary to delve into the parts of the story I had come to read about, was clever and well thought out.

The last thing that I must speak about is how powerful the combination of things happening in this time period were in creating a setting and set of circumstances which I actually found more terrifying than I found the paranormal aspect. There are things you will learn in this book which are not for the faint of heart. It's not violently graphic or gruesome, but it also does not shy away from the realities of the world these characters were living in. If your imagination is anything like mine, the reality of what's going on will still be effective. I had the "pleasure" of reading this during the wee small hours of the morning. I'm not totally sure I'd do it that way if I were reading the book for the first time again. I'll admit it: I'm a wuss and I had trouble getting to sleep!
A satisfying and believable ending acts as the cherry on top of a story which hooked me from start to finish. I read the enter book in one day and not once did I want to put it down. If you haven't read In The Shadow Of Blackbirds yet, I would highly recommend that you check it out.

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