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.
Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys
It's 1950, and as the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer. She devises a plan get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street.
Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test.
New Orleans is pretty high up on my list of places to travel to, despite the stories of dirt and crime in the city. Josie's New Orleans isn't without dirt and crime of its own, but it has a charming side, too - surprisingly found in a brothel. Sepetys describes the setting well, but the book's real strength lies in its characters.
The characters in this book are downright brilliant. First off, you have the prostitutes. Sepetys doesn't write them as simple, sex-minded women; they're funny, loving, and most definitely not cookie-cutter. The brothel madam, Willie, is just as uniquely imagined. Instead of fitting the stereotype of a cruel and unfeeling boss, Willie is both tough as nails and sweet as pie, acting as a mother figure to Josie. The cast of colorful characters continues, from Sadie, the mute maid, to Cokie, the lovable cab driver, to Josie herself. Josie is my favorite part of this whole book. She's realistically flawed and absolutely lovely, the perfect heroine for a book like Out of the Easy.
The book doesn't have one central plot line, instead, it has a jumble of stories that make up Josie's life. Because of that, it feels much more realistic than a lot of books that focus on just one thing, but it also isn't what a lot of readers would be expecting. From Josie's longing to go to college and escape the Big Easy, to her horrendous mother's troubles with the mob, and a few other plot lines, there's a lot going on in Out of the Easy. Sepetys does a great job of keeping the numerous plots from overwhelming readers. Usual a book with as many plot lines as this would be too all-over-the-place, but in Out of the Easy, it takes the attention of the events and puts it on the characters. More than anything, Out of the Easy is about Josie, and because she's such a great character, it works really well.
The moment I saw that Ruta Sepetys was the author of this book, I knew it was going to be good. The same raw emotion and subtle but powerful prose from Between Shades of Gray is part of Out of the Easy, and although the two books are about very different subjects, they both leave a lasting impression on readers. Those who love historical fiction will devour Sepetys' books, and anyone on the fence about the genre will love it after reading her work.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to destroy the most illegal of commodities, the printed book, along with the houses in which they are hidden. Montag never questions the destruction and ruin his actions produce, returning each day to his bland life and wife, Mildred, who spends all day with her television "family." But when he meets an eccentric young neighbor, Clarisse, who introduces him to a past where people didn't live in fear and to a present where one sees the world through the ideas of books instead of the mindless chatter of television, Montag begins to question everything he has ever known.
It's really hard to sum up my feelings about this book. I loved it, but I can also see why some people would hate it. Also, I hate typing the word "Fahrenheit."
Fahrenheit 451 is a cautionary tale, and one that's relevant even sixty years after its publication. As people take sides on the e-book/printed book debate and declare that the printed word is on its way out, Fahrenheit 451 asks, what if there weren't any books at all? Written around the time TV was becoming popular, Bradbury predicted a world where television replaced books and complacency replaced curiosity. However, despite the growth of technology, good old-fashioned books aren't going anywhere, and our world isn't about to end.
So while the ideas in Fahrenheit 451 are still relevant, they're exaggerated a whole lot. Technology isn't all bad, and not all TV is "mindless chatter." For some people, the amount of exaggeration in the book is just too much. Reading it as the cautionary tale it's meant to be, that's completely understandable. I chose to read it as a story about the importance of books and the ideas they contain. On that front, Fahrenheit 451 hits every mark. Like the expression "You don't know what you have until you lose it," Bradbury emphasizes the importance of books and critical thinking by creating a world without them.
For me, the exaggeration in the book is part of what makes it so good. Occasionally Bradbury goes off on a tangent, some of which are very lengthy, that sound more paranoid than philosophical, but most of them had a few good quotes. One the whole, the book was extremely good, and one I will probably read again.
Don't Even Think About It by Sarah Mlynowski
(Available March 11 2014)
We weren't always like this. We used to be average New York City high school sophomores. Until our homeroom went for flu shots. We were prepared for some side effects. Maybe a headache. Maybe a sore arm. We definitely didn't expect to get telepathic powers. But suddenly we could hear what everyone was thinking. Our friends. Our parents. Our crushes. Now we all know that Tess is in love with her best friend, Teddy. That Mackenzie cheated on Cooper. That, um, Nurse Carmichael used to be a stripper.
Since we've kept our freakish skill a secret, we can sit next to the class brainiac and ace our tests. We can dump our boyfriends right before they dump us. We know what our friends really think of our jeans, our breath, our new bangs. We always know what's coming. Some of us will thrive. Some of us will crack. None of us will ever be the same.
So stop obsessing about your ex. We're always listening.
Everyone's wondered what it would be like if they suddenly developed ESP. We've all thought about what we'd use it for, and most people would probably just snoop on their friends and family. In Don't Even Think About It, twenty-two New York highschoolers get that chance.
Don't Even Think About It has the all the makings of a great YA: a healthy dose of humor, strong characters, and a little bit of drama. All of the characters were engaging and had their own personalities, and they played off each other well. Their personal struggles kept me just as interested in the plot as the ESP element did. Plus, the romance in the book was fairly well done and wasn't forced, nor were any of the other relationships.
I liked that Mlynowski's characters weren't very stereotypical, and that their ESP powers were original. The side effects of the powers, their limits, and their capabilities went beyond the cut-and-dry definition of ESP. I'm not inclined to believe there's any scientifically realistic way to get ESP, but the book's explanation with the flu shots was thought out and at least didn't involve gamma rays.
If it hadn't been for the drama in each character's personal life, the plot would probably have been a little boring. As it was, the book was somewhat anticlimactic. Little hints about danger and new abilities to come were dropped throughout the book, but they never really came to fruition. It felt like a tease, but if that means there's a sequel on the horizon, I would be very tempted to read it.
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
Holden Caulfield narrates the story of a couple of days in his sixteen-year-old life, just after he's been expelled from prep school.
To be completely honest, I hated Catcher in the Rye. It's about as interesting as the summary suggests, and if we hadn't been reading it for school, I would happily have passed this one by. The writing deserves one star at best, but I'm not feeling that generous towards Catcher in the Rye. It gets one star only because of Holden himself.
I spent most of the book wanting to slap some sense into Holden, and he was definitely not likable for me. He was whiny, judgmental, and one of the most annoying narrators I've ever read. Holden is obviously pretty messed up, and the only part of the book I found interesting at all is his internal conflict. I understand that Holden's internal conflict is what the book is all about, but it's shrouded in so much junk it's not worth more than one extra star.
The writing is repetitive, to the point that I wanted to tear my hair out every time I saw the phrases "that killed me" or "I really did." There was little to no plot or character development. Holden isn't writing about anything important, just a basic three days in which he talks constantly about how phony and depressing everything is. Holden is almost exactly the same at the end of the novel as at the beginning. In the words of a friend, "Take a novel, erase the plot, bring it down to a fourth grade reading level, sprinkle it with expletives, and you've got The Catcher in the Rye."
Skin and Bones by Sherry Shahan
(Available March 1)
Sixteen-year-old Jack, nicknamed "Bones," won't eat. His roommate in the eating disorder ward has the opposite problem and proudly goes by the nickname "Lard." They become friends despite Bones's initial reluctance. When Bones meets Alice, a dangerously thin dancer who loves to break the rules, he lets his guard down even more. Soon Bones is so obsessed with Alice that he's willing to risk everything–even his recovery.
What sets Skin and Bones apart from other books featuring anorexic characters is twofold. First, Jack is a boy, one of a minority of anorexia patients and often overlooked. Second, his story is hilarious. Most books about eating disorders are sorrowful and poignant, and while those elements are more than present in Bones' story, there are plenty of funny moments. I caught myself chuckling at the character's witty banter in between worrying for them. The members of the EDU are interesting, funny, and defined by more than their disorders. Their stories are piercing and through-provoking.
The first half of the book romanticizes anorexia a little bit; Bones is desperate to be skinny, and believes the skinnier the more beautiful. What first draws him to Alice is her tiny, fragile body, the epitome of dancer stereotypes. It's instalove for the pair, but Alice refuses to even think about recovery while Bones wonders just how much longer his body can go on like this. Even so, Bones is obsessed with Alice to Shakespearean proportions. I enjoyed the romance more for the questions it raised (how do you save someone from the very thing that's destroying you, especially if they don't want to be saved?) than for the actual relationship between Alice and Bones.
Shahan balanced a heavy topic with levity and humor, from the perspective of an underdog you can't help but cheer for. While Skin and Bones may not be as finely tuned as some others in its genre, it earns its distinction and a place among the best of them.
The Lake and the Library by S. M. Beiko
Wishing for something more than her adventureless life, 16-year-old Ash eagerly awaits the move she and her mother are taking from their dull, drab life in the prairie town of Treade. But as Ash counts the days, she finds her way into a mysterious, condemned building on the outskirts of town—one that has haunted her entire childhood with secrets and questions. What she finds inside is an untouched library, inhabited by an enchanting mute named Li.
Brightened by Li’s charm and his indulgence in her dreams, Ash becomes locked in a world of dusty books and dying memories, with Li becoming the attachment to Treade she never wanted.
This book has a four-star plot with a two-star writing style. The plot and conflict of the book were engaging and interesting, if a little convoluted at times. The wonder of the library and Li's world was tangible through the pages, and Li himself was as promised - enchanting. He was the most complex character in the book, with the most thorough back story. The other characters were pretty generic and flat, even Ash. Li and his library were what made the book so interesting. The constant blurring of reality and fantasy throughout the book was marvelously done and, if not exactly believable, captivating.
Unfortunately, most of the plot was lost in overly-flowery descriptions and an avalanche of metaphors. Some of the language emphasized the whimsical, dream-like atmosphere of the library, but mostly it got in the way of the story. The overabundance of figurative language and ill-fitting adverbs was at its worst in the first few chapters, but it was just present enough to be annoying in the rest of the book.
Despite the awkward, clunky writing style and a few flat characters, reading The Lake and the Library was like falling down the rabbit hole.
Runner by Carl Deuker
The weather-beaten sailboat Chance Taylor and his father call home is thirty years old and hasn’t sailed in years. One step from both homelessness and hunger, Chance worries about things other kids his age never give a thought: Where will the money come for the electricity bill, grocery bill, and moorage fees? So when a new job falls his way, Chance jumps at the opportunity, becoming a runner who picks up strange packages on a daily route and delivers them to a shady man at the marina. He knows how much he will earn; what he doesn’t know is how much he will pay.
Runner was an ingeniously plotted book. It starts off innocent enough, as you'd expect, until the sense of imminent danger creeps in and things very quickly turn deadly. At first, it's just a book about a kid who's had to grow up too fast and the relationship between him and his father. After Chance begins smuggling to make ends meet, the suspense builds until the final, epic conclusion. The story was predictable, but there are only so many ways illegal smuggling can end. Even though I expected it, my heart was racing all through the end of the book. The way Chance got tangled up in smuggling and the events after are realistic and frightening, but the resolution of the book is a bit rushed and not as realistic. For all that's beneath the danger - Chance's financial worries, his father's drinking, and their broken family - there's almost no character development. The characters are well thought-out, but Chance is the same at the beginning of the book as he is at the end. As an action story, Runner is superb, but if you're looking for a book with a little more, look elsewhere.
UnSouled by Neal Shusterman (Unwind #3)
Connor and Lev are on the run after the destruction of the Graveyard, the last safe haven for AWOL Unwinds. But for the first time, they’re not just running away from something. This time, they’re running toward answers, in the form of a woman Proactive Citizenry has tried to erase from history itself. If they can find her, and learn why the shadowy figures behind unwinding are so afraid of her, they may discover the key to bringing down unwinding forever.
Cam, the rewound boy, is plotting to take down the organization that created him. Because he knows that if he can bring Proactive Citizenry to its knees, it will show Risa how he truly feels about her. And without Risa, Cam is having trouble remembering what it feels like to be human.
With the Juvenile Authority and vindictive parts pirates hunting them, the paths of Connor, Lev, Cam, and Risa will converge explosively; and everyone will be changed.
This is a series that restores my faith in the dystopian genre. Shusterman's terrifying vision of the future accomplishes exactly what a dystopia should: unsettling its readers and making them think. Each of the books in the Unwind Dystology have been poignant and engrossing, and UnSouled is no exception. Darkly witty humor, a suspenseful plot, and disturbing "ads" throughout the book made it a book I couldn't put down.
The same complex, realistic characters from the first two books are present and accounted for in UnSouled, while a few new characters are added into the mix. Risa doesn't make a lot of appearances - a lot of the attention is on Cam - which was kind of disappointing, but not major.
The only reason I didn't rate UnSouled five stars is that it's obviously a filler. Although the plot is just as compelling as always, the constant suspense and new discoveries had me expecting something bigger in this book. Instead, it feels like it's just stringing us along until the next book. As a whole, this series is one of my favorites, but UnSouled is definitely not the best book in it. However, I have every faith that Shusterman will bring back the nail-biting tension from the first books for the series' conclusion - and if he does, it'll be a knockout.
Entwined by Heather Dixon
Just when Azalea should feel that everything is before her — beautiful gowns, dashing suitors, balls filled with dancing — it's taken away. All of it. And Azalea is trapped. The Keeper understands. He's trapped, too, held for centuries within the walls of the palace. So he extends an invitation.
Every night, Azalea and her eleven sisters may step through the enchanted passage in their room to dance in his silver forest, but there is a cost. The Keeper likes to keep things. Azalea may not realize how tangled she is in his web until it is too late.
In her reimagining of the Grimm Brothers' The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Dixon introduces a world of magic and romance haunted by evil and loss. The setting, a decrepit old castle with magic - both good and bad - lingering about, is vividly imagined, as is the silver garden tucked away beneath the castle. As the girls dance each night, Keeper sets a centuries-old plan in motion. As a villain, he was delightfully creepy, and I would have liked to see more of him. A good portion of the book occurs away from Keeper, in the girls' daily lives, where they are dealing with their mother's death and struggling to relate to their father. The added subplot of the relationship between the King and his daughters was interesting and sweet, and I was glad it was such a big part of the plot.
While protecting her sisters from Keeper and mending her bond with her father, Azalea is also looking for a husband and future king. The romance of the book was very well done. It was about as far from instalove as possible, and it was refreshing to see an author take so much time to develop a relationship. Although Azalea has many suitors, the romance also stays triangle-free and a side note to the main plot.
The slow build of the story allowed for more suspense and the amount of subplot the book had, but it's also the reason I didn't rate Entwined higher. The plot dragged just a little too much in some places, while in others it rushed on. If it weren't for Dixon's array of characters, I might have been bored to tears. Luckily, the twelve princesses and various other characters were lively enough to keep me interested. Each of them was fully formed and entertaining. Azalea was complex but relatable, and I liked her a lot as a heroine.
Entwine is a masterfully developed story, and if you're willing to take your time with it, is a rewarding read. Fairy-tale lovers will delight in Dixon's beautifully crafted prose.
Once Upon a Time...
As a longtime lover of stories and a believer in the power and magic of books, I've spent my life seeking out the best reads. This blog is dedicated to reviewing the books I read - good, bad, or magnificent - to help other readers find their next favorite books.