September Girls by Bennett Madison
When Sam's dad whisks him off to the beach for the summer, it doesn't take him long to realize this sleepy vacation town isn't what it seems. Time slows down around here, cell phones don't work, and everywhere Sam looks, he sees strange, beautiful girls. Girls who are inexplicably drawn to him.
As Sam begins to unravel the mystery of the Girls and their beach, he's forced to question everything he thought he knew about love, growing up, and becoming a man.
September Girls was a bit of a roller coaster ride - not emotionally, but in terms of how much I liked it. Some parts of the book were written almost lyrically, while other parts were more of a ramble. There were a few parts where Madison was clearly shooting for philosophical but didn't quite get there. Other parts were a bit more crude (there is a lot of talk about dicks/boobs/asses, and a lot of importance is placed on sex). Sam is especially guilty of that; case in point being this quote: "The moral of the story is that if you're ever offered anything that seems like it might lead to sex, there is no turning back. You just have to take it as it comes or you will remain a virgin for life." (page 123).
I have really mixed feelings about the Girls. They were mysterious and lovely and intricate, but they were also incredibly confusing. Madison didn't include much of a backstory for them; just enough for readers to gain a basic understanding. The Girls were an original twist on mermaids/sirens and they were fascinating, so I'm a little disappointed their history wasn't explained more.
The love stories had a lot of good points. Madison took the time to develop both of them, and they were both pretty sweet. I think the romance was my favorite part of the book, actually, except for maybe the end. That bit was very good. The characters, especially the main ones, but a few side ones too, were solid. They surprised me a couple times and were pretty realistic (barring the supernatural aspects of the Girls).
I enjoyed September Girls, especially the romance and mermaids, but I didn't find it all that amazing. A good beach book, but not the best read of the summer.
Conversion by Katherine Howe
(Available July 1, 2014)
It’s senior year at St. Joan’s Academy, and school is a pressure cooker. College applications, the battle for valedictorian, deciphering boys’ texts: Through it all, Colleen Rowley and her friends are expected to keep it together. Until they can’t.
First it’s the school’s queen bee, Clara Rutherford, who suddenly falls into uncontrollable tics in the middle of class. Her mystery illness quickly spreads to her closest clique of friends, then more students and symptoms follow: seizures, hair loss, violent coughing fits. St. Joan’s buzzes with rumor; rumor blossoms into full-blown panic.
Soon the media descends on Danvers, Massachusetts, as everyone scrambles to find something, or someone, to blame. Pollution? Stress? Or are the girls faking? Only Colleen—who’s been reading The Crucible for extra credit—comes to realize what nobody else has: Danvers was once Salem Village, where another group of girls suffered from a similarly bizarre epidemic three centuries ago . . .
I read Conversion with three black cats on my lap, feeling very witchy (even though cats don't really have anything to do with witches traditionally), reluctant to put it down for more than five minutes at a time. I was completely and totally absorbed in Howe's book. What first piqued my interest was the Mystery Illness, and Howe delivered all the tension, unease, and fear you'd expect to find in a book about an epidemic. But Howe also incorporated Ann Putnam's account of the events at Salem in 1692, with the same elements. Colleen's place in the middle of an epidemic and Ann Putnam's place of power in the Salem Witch Trials paralleled each other in a lot of ways, so that even when they weren't directly related to each other, they were connected. There was a great deal of subtlety in Conversion, from the implied causes of the outbreak and the way the girls' relationships progressed to the way Howe incorporated a piece of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. (I grinned like an idiot when Connie showed up. No shame).
Even though the Salem Witch Trials happened over 300 years ago and a mystery illness like the one that befalls St. Joan's seems too strange to be true, Howe writes them realistically. I can't begin to imagine the hours of research it must have taken to get Ann's story down, or to follow the progression of the Le Roy Mystery Illness of 2012 (which Colleen's story is based off of). My hat is off to Howe for that. She even managed to create a fairly accurate portrait of high school, which is damn near impossible. To be fair, not every little detail was spot-on realistic - Howe definitely added some flair to Colleen's story to make it even creepier - but even the more outlandish bits felt plausible.
The atmosphere of Conversion practically earns a star all on its own. I got shivers up my spine reading it. Colleen's story freaked me out because an unknown "illness" was infecting a bunch of people with no known cause and that's just a bit scary. Ann's story was creepy more because there wasn't any illness, just a whole load of lies that led to hysteria and paranoia and 20 deaths. A lot of stories about the Salem Witch Trials are told from the point of view of an outsider or an accused woman; it was interesting and a little freaky to hear Ann Putnam's version of events. I was hoping Conversion would be a little eerie, and it was.
I loved the diversity of the characters in Conversion, from their personalities to their backgrounds. Both the modern and historical casts were developed (some more than others, of course) and helped to drive the story. A few times their interactions became a bit cheesy, but to be honest high school is pretty cheesy, and I'm no holding it against anyone.
Definitely, definitely read Conversion if you like creepy-but-not-scary books or have any interest in either the Salem Witch Trials or the Le Roy Mystery Illness. It would also make a great book club read; there's plenty of things to discuss. Conversion was a very well put-together book, and it's made me a fan of Katherine Howe's. I want to see what else she can do.
Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman
In Smoke and Mirrors, Gaiman transforms a mundane world into a place of terrible wonders—where an old woman can purchase the Holy Grail at a thrift store, where assassins advertise their services in the Yellow Pages under "Pest Control," and where a frightened young boy must barter for his life with a mean-spirited troll living beneath a bridge by the railroad tracks. Explore a new reality, obscured by smoke and darkness yet brilliantly tangible, in this collection of short works by a master prestidigitator.
I was first introduced to this book when my friend made me read the short story Babycakes, in which the animals disappear and babies - yes, babies - take their place as lab subjects, leather suppliers, and a food source.
Babycakes and stories like it fill the pages of Smoke and Mirrors, a collection of Gaiman's short stories written over the years and all compiled into one place. Some of them, like Babycakes, are terrifying and disgusting. Others are silly but fantastic, while still more are serious. A few are sexually explicit and even pornographic. They all contain elements of fantasy, ranging from creepy to entertaining.
Every story is of a high caliber, since it's Gaiman writing them, but as usual a few rise above the rest. They're the creepiest or weirdest ones. Some of them even make me afraid to turn out my light. That would be because they all seem very, very real, like if you were to be observant enough, you might find a troll under your nearest train bridge or a fictional H.P. Lovecraft town off the highway. Fantasy lovers will be thrilled with this anthology, as will any Gaiman fans who haven't read it yet.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
A beautiful and distinguished family. A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret. Lies upon lies. True love.
This book was a birthday present, and it is probably the best present I got this year. I finished it, sobbing, close to midnight, and it now holds a place of honor on my shelf.
We Were Liars starts off as a story of a girl recovering from a traumatic incident she can't remember, and it becomes a story about love, privilege, and tragedy. I was almost afraid, after reading the summary, that it was going to be a story about rich kids on their private island with problems that don't really matter, but the book proved itself to be so much more from the first page.
The romance was spot-on. Cadence never sounded whiny, and the love story never felt forced. The characters were all gorgeous and drove the plot well. Written in Cadence's clear, almost lyric voice, the story unfolds with perfect pacing. I wasn't bored for a minute.
And then the plot twist hit. Seriously, honestly, the best plot twist I have read in YA. I wasn't expecting it at all, but I could see all the little hints Lockhart had left throughout the story. It was done so well I had to pause and re-read the paragraph three times before I convinced myself that I hadn't read it wrong. And then I dissolved into a puddle of tears.
There's a good amount of suspense and mystery throughout the whole book, which starts to subside a little towards the end, after the climax of the novel. After that point, I was nothing but a mess of shock and awe for Lockhart's talent. This book ripped my heart out, but it made me happy about it.
Read it. Weep. And then come back for more.
Unnatural Creatures by Various
A collection of short stories about the fantastical things that exist only in our minds—collected and introduced by Neil Gaiman. The sixteen stories gathered by Gaiman range from the whimsical to the terrifying. The magical creatures range from werewolves to sunbirds to beings never before classified. E. Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones, Gahan Wilson, and other literary luminaries contribute to the anthology.
It's incredibly difficult to write a review for an anthology. There are so many different stories and styles that just can't be lumped together. And of course some of the stories are better than others. Gaiman did a pretty good job selecting stories with monsters that haven't been seen a thousand times, and even the stories featuring werewolves and such were rather inventive.
Some of the stories were more silly than anything, while others sent a chill down my spine. They were all written simply but entertainingly, so both middle grade and high school readers could enjoy Unnatural Creatures. On the whole, the anthology is an interesting and quick read, but it didn't quite live up to expectations for me.
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
Foolish love appears to be the Roux family birthright, an ominous forecast for its most recent progeny, Ava Lavender. Ava—in all other ways a normal girl—is born with the wings of a bird.
In a quest to understand her peculiar disposition and a growing desire to fit in with her peers, sixteen-year old Ava ventures into the wider world, ill-prepared for what she might discover and naïve to the twisted motives of others. Others like the pious Nathaniel Sorrows, who mistakes Ava for an angel and whose obsession with her grows until the night of the Summer Solstice celebration.
That night, the skies open up, rain and feathers fill the air, and Ava’s quest and her family’s saga build to a devastating crescendo.
I'm having a very difficult time putting my feelings for this book into words. Not because I'm conflicted about them, but because there just aren't any words to accurately describe how much I love The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. This books is potentially the most beautifully written I have read since The Fault in Our Stars - and maybe even more so.
The story Walton tells is about love, loss, tragedy, hope, and so many other things that are acutely human. It's impossible to stick this book into a single category. Even though it has its fair share of the fantastical, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender contains a story more real than most realistic fiction books. Walton's lyrical prose is bittersweet and heart-wrenching. Ava narrates her story, and her family's story, with a clear voice, mixing whimsy and heartbreak in a way only true stories can. The story begins slowly, with Ava's grandmother, and works its way through the generations to Ava and her twin, Henry. And although the beginning isn't fast-paced, it's captivating. The pace of the story slowly gathers speed, leaving readers breathless with tears and joy by the last page.
The story of the Roux family is complicated and crowded with a multitude of characters, each more intricately written than the last. And yet, the story is told simply and beautifully. Each of the characters contributes something, and even those characters I hated, I understood. Not a single one of them is flat or boring, and almost all of them are intensely relatable. Walton's strange and beautiful characters tell an equally strange and beautiful story, permeated by love and all its imperfections. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is an achingly lovely book. I want to scream from the rooftops how good this book is - and to stop myself from gushing any more, that's all I'll say.
The Eternity Cure by Julie Kagawa (Blood of Eden #2)
In Allison Sekemoto's world, there is one rule left: Blood calls to blood.
She has done the unthinkable: died so that she might continue to live. Cast out of Eden and separated from the boy she dared to love, Allie will follow the call of blood to save her creator, Kanin, from the psychotic vampire Sarren. But when the trail leads to Allie's birthplace in New Covington, what Allie finds there will change the world forever—and possibly end human and vampire existence.
There's a new plague on the rise, a strain of the Red Lung virus that wiped out most of humanity generations ago—and this strain is deadly to humans and vampires alike. The only hope for a cure lies in the secrets Kanin carries, if Allie can get to him in time.
Allison thought that immortality was forever. But now, with eternity itself hanging in the balance, the lines between human and monster will blur even further, and Allie must face another choice she could never have imagined having to make.
As far as sequels go, this book is decent. As far as vampire books go, this book is fantastic. Even though it's technically classified as Paranormal Romance, The Eternity Cure, and the entire Blood of Eden series, has more fantasy elements than swoon-worthy monsters.
I really like that the series is from Allison's point of view; Paranormal Romance books are almost always from the perspective of whoever's falling in love with the paranormal. Telling the story from the monster's point of view, and showing just how much she struggles to contain that nature, make the romance that much more believable. Showing Allison's fight to stay at least somewhat human also gave her a lot more depth as a character. Almost all the characters were better in The Eternity Cure than they were in The Immortal Rules, actually.
Kagawa's vampires are exciting and interesting to read about, and the taste of vampire politics readers see in this book adds to that. The new plague threatening New Covington is a creative plot twist, just another aspect of The Eternity Cure that sets it apart from the crowd. Kagawa artfully combines elements of the paranormal, fantasy, and dystopian genres in The Eternity Cure without sticking to too many cliches. Readers who love the paranormal genre but are dissatisfied with the Paranormal Romance craze will savor Kagawa's Blood of Eden series. The second installment in Allison's story is as well-paced and intriguing as the first, and I can't wait to get my hands on the third.
City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare (The Mortal Instruments #4)
The Mortal War is over, and Clary Fray is back home in New York. She’s training to become a Shadowhunter and to use her unique power. Her mother is getting married to the love of her life. Downworlders and Shadowhunters are at peace at last. And she can finally call Jace her boyfriend. But nothing comes without a price.
Someone is murdering Shadowhunters, provoking tensions between Downworlders and Shadowhunters that could lead to a second, bloody war. Clary’s best friend, Simon, can’t help her. Everywhere he turns, someone wants him on their side - along with the power of the curse that's wrecking his life. When Jace begins to pull away from her without explaining why, Clary is forced to delve into the heart of a mystery whose solution reveals her worst nightmare: she herself has set in motion a terrible chain of events that could lead to her losing everything she loves. Even Jace.
By now, I've read seven of Cassandra Clare's books, and I have no doubt in her talents as an author. City of Fallen Angels doesn't do those talents justice. All the things that made her other books so good were there, but there was a lot I didn't like about City of Fallen Angels, too.
One of the best things about Clare's books is her world-building. The world of Shadowhunters, Downworlders, mundanes, and demons Clare has created is intricately detailed and fascinating. No part of it is sloppy, and it draws on just enough reality to allow readers to believe. Clare is also extremely talented at writing action scenes and villains. Her monsters are frightening and usually not just one-sided. So when Clare leads the Shadowhunters into battle, it's thrilling. City of Fallen Angels was missing a lot of that action, though. A few exciting scenes were scattered here and there, but the plot didn't really get going until the last 150 pages or so. Those last hundred pages were action-packed and suspenseful, but the entire book was over 400 pages long.
The majority of the book was taken up with either Simon's story or romance scenes. I actually really liked Simon's parts and was glad he played such a central role. The romance scenes weren't nearly as interesting, and there were a lot of them. I admit, I ship Malec and Clary/Jace as much as the next fangirl - but reading about their constant makeout sessions and deep, romantic conversations got a little tedious after a while. If the romance scenes weren't filled with so many cliches, it might have been a little more bearable, but there's still the issue of how much description Clare used for those scenes. Some of the more lovey-dovey scenes between Clary and Jace read more like smutty fanfiction than an actual novel.
I wasn't exactly disappointed by City of Fallen Angels as much as frustrated by it. This book definitely isn't Clare's best. I'm still dying to know what happens next, and I won't be abandoning the series anytime soon, but I'm hoping the next one will be better.
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.
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.
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.