A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry
Everyone knows the legends about the cursed girl--Isabel, the one the señoras whisper about. They say she has green skin and grass for hair, and she feeds on the poisonous plants that fill her family’s Caribbean island garden. Some say she can grant wishes; some say her touch can kill.
Seventeen-year-old Lucas lives on the mainland most of the year but spends summers with his hotel-developer father in Puerto Rico. He’s grown up hearing stories about the cursed girl, and he wants to believe in Isabel and her magic. When letters from Isabel begin mysteriously appearing in his room the same day his new girlfriend disappears, Lucas turns to Isabel for answers--and finds himself lured into her strange and enchanted world. But time is running out for the girl filled with poison, and the more entangled Lucas becomes with Isabel, the less certain he is of escaping with his own life.
I was so excited to read this book, so intrigued by the premise, and I'm equally disappointed that it didn't live up to my hopes. The plot was clumsy and the pacing was erratic, so that it was difficult to really get caught up in the story. The characters were only minimally developed and not always easy to relate to.
Some parts of the book, like the inclusion of Puerto Rican folklore, were really enjoyable, and like I said, the premise was really cool. Which I suppose is why I'm so disappointed by this book - it had so much potential, and I think if it had been told differently, it would have been an amazing novel. If Isabel had been the narrator, the mystery aspect of the story would have had so much more impact (honestly I'm so sad that instead of being narrated by a cursed, half-native girl in the heart of a mystery the novel is narrated by a rich white boy from the mainland). If the author had spent more time developing and exploring the characters, it might have been a truly moving story. If the pacing had been smoother and the plot less clunky, I might have been swept away by this book.
But I wasn't. For me, this book was just an entertaining read for a boring Saturday.
Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Emily Bird was raised not to ask questions. She has perfect hair, the perfect boyfriend, and a perfect Ivy-League future. But a chance meeting with Roosevelt David, a homeland security agent, at a party for Washington DC's elite leads to Bird waking up in a hospital, days later, with no memory of the end of the night.
Meanwhile, the world has fallen apart: A deadly flu virus is sweeping the nation, forcing quarantines, curfews, even martial law. And Roosevelt is certain that Bird knows something. Something about the virus--something about her parents' top secret scientific work--something she shouldn't know.
The only one Bird can trust is Coffee, a quiet, outsider genius who deals drugs to their classmates and is a firm believer in conspiracy theories. And he believes in Bird. But as Bird and Coffee dig deeper into what really happened that night, Bird finds that she might know more than she remembers. And what she knows could unleash the biggest government scandal in US history.
I am so disappointed! Government scandal, martial law, and epidemic disease are all great ingredients for a book, but they just didn't work this time. The general idea of Love is the Drug is fantastic, but the details are more flawed. Most of the plot of was made up of vague impressions, which got very confusing very fast. If you asked for a detailed synopsis of the book, I honestly wouldn't be able to give it to you. In a nutshell, the government did something very scandalous but not very surprising and a bad guy tried to keep it hidden but failed. Of course, the only reason he failed is because he scared Bird into uncovering the scandal, but that's a discussion for another time.
The bad guy is Roosevelt David, who is supposedly a very dangerous rogue homeland security officer. Only problem is, he's not that scary. Most of what he does is speak cryptically and act like a poorly-scripted character in a low-budget Bond knockoff. If you're going to cast a character as terrifying, you have to give readers some reason to fear them, and there wasn't really any reason to fear Roosevelt until the end of the book (you can argue that he should be feared in the beginning, too, but at that point there's no concrete evidence, so I hold my ground).
The other characters - especially Bird - are what saved this book. They represent a range of personalities, and they are almost all people of color, which is great to see with so many white characters in YA books. Bird herself was the best character, in my opinion. I admired her rebelliousness, and her bravery, especially during her final few confrontations with Roosevelt. However, I lost a bit of respect for her when she fell victim to typical YA-romance stupidity.
Speaking of the romance, not all of it was stupidity. Johnson did an excellent job of building Bird and Coffee's relationship, and I have to admit the two of them were pretty cute together. The only fault I can really find with Bird and Coffee's romance is that they treat it like it's true love. Not to say that you can't fall in love when you're seventeen, but the idea of finding the one and only person you could possibly be happy with is an overused cliche - and not just in YA. The otherwise sweet romance suffered a bit because of that.
Love is the Drug had so much potential, and I really wish it had lived up to it. Had Roosevelt been a better villian, or the plot been easier to follow, or the romance not so cliched, I might have given it one or two more stars. As it is, I wouldn't recommend it to readers looking for stories about government scandals or epidemics; I might recommend it to romance readers who want something a little more exciting than boy-meets-girl.
Welcome to the Dark House by Laurie Faria Stolarz
What’s your worst nightmare?
For Ivy Jensen, it’s the eyes of a killer that haunt her nights. For Parker Bradley, it’s bloodthirsty sea serpents that slither in his dreams.
And for seven essay contestants, it’s their worst nightmares that win them an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at director Justin Blake’s latest, confidential project. Ivy doesn’t even like scary movies, but she’s ready to face her real-world fears. Parker’s sympathetic words and perfect smile help keep her spirits up. . . at least for now.
Not everyone is so charming, though. Horror-film fanatic Garth Vader wants to stir up trouble. It’s bad enough he has to stay in the middle of nowhere with this group—the girl who locks herself in her room; the know-it-all roommate; “Mister Sensitive”; and the one who’s too cheery for her own good. Someone has to make things interesting.
Except, things are already a little weird. The hostess is a serial-killer look-alike, the dream-stealing Nightmare Elf is lurking about, and the seventh member of the group is missing.
By the time Ivy and Parker realize what’s really at stake, it’s too late to wake up and run.
This is probably the wimpiest horror book I've ever read - and I have been reading wimpy horror books for years (ever since Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark traumatized toddler-me). Now that I've come to appreciate the horror genre, I want to be scared. Afraid to keep reading but unable to put the book down, sleeping-with-the-light-on, shaky-handed scared. I was utterly disappointed by this book.
At one point I put on horror movie sound tracks as background noise to try and make up for the complete lack of creep factor. Sure, there were a few moments were I was undoubtedly uneasy, and I can certainly understand why the characters were terrified, but I did not share in their fear. Some parts of the plot (the serial-killer lookalike hostess, for example) were completely pointless, thrown in as if Stolarz pulled random ideas out of a B-List Horror Movie Grab Bag. Maybe I should have seen that coming - after all, the (fictional) Nightmare Elf film franchise that the story revolves around is undeniably B-list horror.
This type of book definitely has a place on the bookshelves of readers who are looking for less frightening horror books. Welcome to the Dark House is perfect for younger readers just graduating from the Goosebumps series, although some of R.L. Stein's stories completely trump Stolarz' in terror.
The characters were only marginally better than the plotline. All of them exhibit classic horror-movie stupidity at some point, unfortunately. They have a little bit of complexity to them, but only Ivy is really developed - and all of the girls are described mainly in terms of how cute/hot they are. Petty, insta-love relationships spring up (quite literally) in the middle of life-or-death situations. My only response to this is a massive eye-roll.
I don't mean to offend anyone who did enjoy this book - up until last year, this is probably the extent of horror that I would have been willing to read. However, if this book scares the pants of you, my advice is to at least try sleeping without the night-light.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
After Huckleberry Finn's drunken father returns to town, demanding Huck's money, the young boy and an escaped slave named Jim set off on a raft down the Mississippi River. They run into storms, schemes, a king, a duke, and numerous other adventures as they make their way south.
My thoughts on this book are tangled in more knots than headphones that've been in your pocket. I liked it a lot more than I thought I would, but I can't say that I really enjoyed it, either.
For one thing, it was a struggle just to read the book, what with the improper grammar and spelling. After a while I got used to Huck's misspellings and could understand him a lot better, but some of the other characters were just hopeless. Twain notes that he studied the dialects of the characters extensively, and took great care to show the differences in their pronunciation. Although this added a lot of realism, it also made it impossible for me to understand what some of the characters were saying. I found myself skimming over most of Jim's dialogue without comprehending most of it.
Anybody who had read this book for English class or Banned Books Week knows about the controversy surrounding it. Twain (or rather, Twain's characters) uses racial slurs rather liberally, and his descriptions of black characters aren't exactly politically correct. Jim is portrayed as dim-witted but loyal, and even though Huck befriends him and comes to care about him he often talks about that friendship damning him to hell. I'm not going to discuss whether the novel is racist or not at length (I'm sure your English teacher would be more than happy to), so I'll let you make up your own mind about it.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was entertaining enough that it wasn't torture to read it, but there are certainly more compelling books out there. Even during the numerous scrapes Huck and Jim found themselves in, I didn't get particularly excited. Some of the scenes were funny - especially with the king and the duke - but not hilarious, and some of them were exasperating (I'm looking at you, Tom Sawyer).
I can't recommend this book based on plot or characters or overall message, but I am recommending it. You should read this book simply because it's become such an important part of American literature - but I suggest you get it from the library and keep your ten bucks.
Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley
In the remarkable, bizarre, and heart-wrenching summer before Cullen Witter's senior year of high school, he is forced to examine everything he thinks he understands about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town. His cousin overdoses; his town becomes absurdly obsessed with the alleged reappearance of an extinct woodpecker; and most troubling of all, his sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother, Gabriel, suddenly and inexplicably disappears.
Meanwhile, a young, disillusioned missionary in Africa searches for meaning wherever he can find it. When those two stories collide, a surprising and harrowing climax emerges that is tinged with melancholy and regret, comedy and absurdity, and above all, hope.
Normally, I wouldn't pick up a book that made so much of itself just in its blurb. Either it raises my expectations too high or it seems like the book is making too much of itself. Some poorly-blurbed books rise above their adjective-filled summaries, but Where Things Come Back does not.
I do agree that the story had a generous helping of absurdity. Religious zeal, prophetic visions, and weird imaginings of zombies fill the chapters. Cullen also repeatedly talks about himself in the third person (When one does this, he often...) which got old fast. Beside the absurdity, though, Where Things Come Back doesn't really live up to its descriptors.
I've heard a lot of good things about this book, and to be fair, some of them are true. The characters are likable and interesting; and Cullen makes some good points in his rambling. The chain reaction that begins with Benton Sage and spans the length of the book was pretty clever, but Cullen's chapters were duller.
If you've read more than one of my reviews, you've probably caught onto the fact that I dislike most YA romances. Where Things Come Back was happily instalove-free, but the romance still fell flat. (This may contain spoilers) It starts with Cullen's obsession over the girl, Ada, who is incidentally the hottest girl in town. Of course, Cullen gets the girl - but more because she pities him and he idolizes her than because they actually love each other. I hesistate to call it a "love story," actually; there wasn't much love. Alma Ember's love stories were a bit more realistic.
Whaley did a great job of combining the stories of Benton Sage, Cullen Witter, and everyone connected with them. They wove together seamlessly, which is no small feat. The writing of Where Things Come Back was by no means subpar, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I'd hoped to.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
Willy Loman, the protagonist of Death of a Salesman, has spent his life following the American way, living out his belief in salesmanship as a way to reinvent himself. But somehow the riches and respect he covets have eluded him. At age 63, he searches for the moment his life took a wrong turn, the moment of betrayal that undermined his relationship with his wife and destroyed his relationship with Biff, the son in whom he invested his faith. Willy lives in a fragile world of elaborate excuses and daydreams, conflating past and present in a desperate attempt to make sense of himself and of a world that once promised so much.
This play has been hailed as an "epitaph for the American dream" and "one of the finest dramas in the whole range of American theatre." Frankly, I don't agree. The story wasn't all that bad; a father trying to reconnect with his sons, a man whose life's work has come to nothing - a story most people can sympathize with. But I couldn't sympathize with the characters; there was no character development and I found Willy to be rather annoying.
The characters' conversations swing wildly from subject to subject and from yelling to crying to celebration. There were no scene breaks and few segues between topics, so the action felt very disjointed and patched together. In a play, dialogue is the most important part, and Miller didn't really hit the mark with it.
The play is written with a lot of flashbacks, which happen at the same time as the present action. Willy speaks to the people in his flashbacks while carrying on a conversation in the present, which is somewhat confusing. It's also rather clever, showing Willy's mental state pretty plainly, and is probably a lot less confusing on stage. The whole play is most likely much better on stage, but I can't really testify to that since I haven't seen it.
Death of a Salesman had a few good points - the ending, a couple of Biff's lines, and the portrayal of Willy's confusion and disillusion - but I doubt I'll read it again.
Thorn Abbey by Nancy Ohlin
Becca was the perfect girlfriend: smart, gorgeous, and loved by everyone at New England’s premier boarding school, Thorn Abbey. But Becca’s dead. And her boyfriend, Max, can’t get over his loss.
Then Tess transfers to Thorn Abbey. She’s shy, insecure, and ordinary—everything that Becca wasn’t. And despite her roommate’s warnings, she falls for brooding Max.
Now Max finally has a reason to move on. Except it won’t be easy. Because Becca may be gone, but she’s not quite ready to let him go…
The young adult genre - especially YA romance - gets a pretty bad rap. And while not all books fall into the crappy, instalove category, Thorn Abbey definitely does. Ohlin managed to take a creepy plot idea with a lot of potential and turn it into a giant YA stereotype.
Which makes sense, I guess, since most of Thorn Abbey's characters were basically walking, talking stereotypes. There's the perfect girl with the dirty secrets, the bad girl and her weight-obsessed fashionista posse, the dark, handsome, and brooding love interest, and, let's not forget, the awkward and lovesick narrator. Blech. The only character who wasn't completely 2D and boring was Tess. But any good that little bit of character development did her was overpowered by the constant reminder that she's just "not like other girls." Not only that, but Tess is yet another example of social anxiety being portrayed as cute and quirky.
Tess also has an annoying habit of over-clarifying everything that happens. She'd read or hear something about Becca and then say "What? So-and-so did this with what's-his-name!?" Or, after uncovering information on Becca, she'd immediately say "What? What does it mean!?" even though whatever she'd just uncovered was glaringly and blatantly obvious. Instead of creating suspense, it made Tess come off as a bit dumb, which she obviously isn't.
The most annoying thing about Thorn Abbey was the romance. The love story between Tess and Max was almost cringe-worthy at times. Reading it was like running down a checklist of bad YA cliches. Instalove? Check. Super-hot boy falls for completely ordinary and nerdy girl? Check. Jealous ex the boy can't seem to get over? Check, again. Okay, yes, this time, the jealous ex was dead, but Tess' constant insistence that she could "so help him get over Becca" canceled that out. Romances like this one give YA a bad name - but hey, at least this time there wasn't a badly-executed love triangle!
Thorn Abbey wasn't a total flop. The book got creepy fast and stayed creepy. It wasn't actually thrilling or scary, but it was a little freaky. And it definitely built up to a chilling climax. Stephen King fans would be extremely disappointed by this book, but those who don't like true horror might find it more their speed. The "twist" ending was another pretty good thing about Thorn Abbey, even if it was still pretty predictable. Thorn Abbey didn't really satisfy me, but readers who don't mind books with a little less substance might like the creepy, slow-build ghost story aspect of it.
The Hit by Melvin Burgess
(Available February 25)
A new drug is on the street. Everyone's buzzing about it. Take the hit. Live the most intense week of your life. Then die. It's the ultimate high at the ultimate price. Adam thinks it over. He's poor, and doesn't see that changing. Lizzie, his girlfriend, can't make up her mind about sleeping with him, so he can't get laid. His brother Jess is missing. And Manchester is in chaos, controlled by drug dealers and besieged by a group of homegrown terrorists who call themselves the Zealots. Wouldn't one amazing week be better than this endless, penniless misery? After Adam downs one of the Death pills, he's about to find out.
I was honored and excited to be able to read an ARC of The Hit. It posed an interesting question - would you rather live a long, boring life, or pack as much life as you could into a single week?
The plot moved quickly and kept me interested, while also making me wonder what would happen if Death were real. Despite a few minor worldbuilding issues (we never find out too much about how the government got so corrupt, or shown too many examples of its corruption), I was caught up in Adam and Lizzie's world. The Zealots, a group of revolutionaries, were cast as the good guys - and as good as their cause was, their use of self-immolation and suicide bombing was way too glorified. The incident that gave rise to the riots didn't really have any connection to the government and its corruption, which made it hard to believe as a cause for revolution.
The Hit had all the makings of a great book, and I probably would have given it three or four stars if it weren't for Adam himself. He's the kind of person I would try very, very hard to avoid in real life, and there were a bunch of times I'd have been happy to punch him in the face. Although Lizzie insists over and over again that he's really a sweet and kind boy, and it's just Death making him into such an ass, Adam was just as much of an ass before he took the drug. He talks about wanting Lizzie to love him so that he'll have access to her money, and even goes so far as to sabotage a condom in the hopes of getting her pregnant and tying her to him. Adam consistently expects others to fix what he's done wrong, when he won't do it himself.
As much as I hated Adam, I loved Lizzie. I have no idea what she saw in Adam, or why she continuously risked herself for him. Lizzie was a survivor, and a clever girl, and while I couldn't muster much pity for Adam, I was rooting for her the whole way.
The Hit was a roller coaster ride. The bad guys, the riots, and the Death kept it interesting and unpredictable. I was happy to discover it wasn't just a fast-paced adventure, but a story with a moral. Burgess' lesson about the value of life will stay with me far longer than anything else in this book.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
Greg Gaines is the last master of high school espionage, able to disappear at will into any social environment. He has only one friend, Earl, and together they spend their time making movies, their own incomprehensible versions of Coppola and Herzog cult classics.
Until Greg’s mother forces him to rekindle his childhood friendship with Rachel.
Rachel has been diagnosed with leukemia—-cue extreme adolescent awkwardness—-but a parental mandate has been issued and must be obeyed. When Rachel stops treatment, Greg and Earl decide the thing to do is to make a film for her, which turns into the Worst Film Ever Made and becomes a turning point in each of their lives.
There are numerous “cancer books” and a lot of them focus on the fighting cancer bit and how strong and inspiring that is. I really liked that Andrews didn’t do that. He didn’t turn Rachel into a martyr because of her illness. Actually, I’m hesitant to even call Me and Earl and the Dying Girl a cancer book, because it doesn’t focus on the cancer, which was actually pretty great.
What the book does focus on is Greg’s stupid. There’s quite a lot of stupid. Some of it adds to Greg’s character, like his awkwardness and inability to have a conversation, but a lot of it, like his constant insistence that his book sucks, is just annoying. It’s like when people insist something they’ve made is awful just so people will say it isn’t.
Andrews’ book isn’t bad, and it definitely had some good points. They just got weighed down by the bad. The characters were strong, although a wee bit overdone. A lot of them seemed off to me, actually, especially Greg. I laughed (a little too loudly) a few times, but it didn’t really impress me. For one thing, a lot of the humor is kind of offensive and the jokes that actually were funny were of the variety that makes you question your sense of humor.
The short version: I loved Andrews’ point that shit happens and people die and it sucks but not everybody (actually, most people) don’t take a lesson away from that. But a lot of the humor fell flat with me and a good amount of the story grated on my nerves.
Pawn by Aimee Carter (The Blackcoat Rebellion #1)
(Available December 2013)
You can be a VII - if you give up everything. For Kitty Doe, it seems like an easy choice. She can either spend her life as a III in misery, looked down upon by the higher ranks and forced to leave the people she loves, or she can become a VII and join the most powerful family in the country.
If she says yes, Kitty will be Masked—surgically transformed into Lila Hart, the Prime Minister’s niece, who died under mysterious circumstances. As a member of the Hart family, she will be famous. She will be adored. And for the first time, she will matter.
There’s only one catch. She must also stop the rebellion that Lila secretly fostered, the same one that got her killed …and one Kitty believes in. Faced with threats, conspiracies and a life that’s not her own, she must decide which path to choose—and learn how to become more than a pawn in a twisted game she’s only beginning to understand.
The ideas behind Pawn are the same ones behind almost every dystopian book out there, and it hasn’t got much to make it stick out. The ranking system and government is neatly explained and pretty simple, which is a point in the book’s favor, but its plot circles around itself constantly. It’s very predictable, but it doesn’t entirely lack excitement. The Harts are the perfect dastardly villains, without a shred of good in some of them. Carter succeeded in making me hate them and keeping me guessing at their true intentions. However, most of the excitement leads to a standoff almost identical to one a chapter ago. Kitty’s reaction is always the same, and always centered around her love for her boyfriend and her fear of death; she doesn’t change at all through the course of the book.
The premise of the book, while similar to a lot of others, wasn’t disappointing. The point of dystopia is to point out flaws in our own world by exaggerating them into a fictional one, and Carter hit the nail on the head there. The idea of false equality for everyone in society and the promise that hard work would lead to the life everyone deserves mirrors some of the ideas in our society, and that aspect of the book was fairly interesting.
The symbolism of the ranking system wasn’t enough to earn the book more than two stars, however. There are a lot of books with similar ideas behind them (the most similar would be Starters by Lissa Price) that are much better written, and I’d be more likely to recommend one of those.
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As Simple as Snow