Friday, April 18, 2014

Book Review: Croak by Gina Damico


Title: Croak
Author: Gina Damico
Publisher: Graphia Books
Publication Date: March 20, 2012
Source: personal purchase

Summary from Goodreads

Fed up with her wild behavior, sixteen-year-old Lex's parents ship her off to upstate New York to live with her Uncle Mort for the summer, hoping that a few months of dirty farm work will whip her back into shape.

But Uncle Mort's true occupation is much dirtier than shoveling manure. He's a Grim Reaper. And he's going to teach Lex the family business.

She quickly assimilates into the peculiar world of Croak, a town populated by reapers who deliver souls from this life to the next. But Lex can't stop her desire for justice - or is it vengeance? - whenever she encounters a murder victim, craving to stop the attackers before they can strike again.

Will she ditch Croak and go rogue with her reaper skills?


My Review:

Yet another great young adult read in preparation for the Rochester Teen Book Festival!  So far I have really lucked out with the awesome authors I've been introduced to as I work my way through books for the event.

I saw Croak doing the blog rounds back when I started my little webspace here in 2012.  I remember seeing a lot of good reviews, but at the time I wasn't in much of a YA mood, so I skipped it.  However, when I saw that Gina Damico was going to be at TBF, I figured it was time to give this book a try.  Admittedly, I was a little skeptical at first...this is borderline with the YA paranormal genre, which I have been HIGHLY leery of since Twilight.  But I'm happy to report that my reservations were unfounded.

Croak gave me so much to love.  First you have Lex, your highly volatile, rude, humorous, and smart protagonist.  She has a harder core than most other teenage main characters, which is probably why I liked her so much.  Plus, she does have a love interest in this novel, but thankfully it's not all schmoopy-doopy, which I cannot stand in YA books (OMG, Bella and Edward, give me a BREAK).

But the very best thing about Croak is the world-building.  Damico has come up with one of the most interesting interpretations of the afterlife that I've ever encountered.  It does make me laugh a little--the idea of a tiny town in the Adirondacks where Grim Reapers live, quietly storing the souls of all the dead as unassuming hikers and tourists live around them.  But Damico gives it such a clear backstory that it's hard not to find it believable.

The only bummer about this book?  I had no idea (until the end) that it's part of a TRILOGY!  GAHHHHH.  Here I was, expecting a nice wrapped-up ending, and instead I earned myself a cliffhanger and two more books on my TBR list.  Ah well.  Given how much I liked Croak, I'm definitely going to have to track down Scorch and Rogue (books 2 and 3) ASAP.

Don't fear the reaper, readers!  Have you read any books that have interesting interpretations of the afterlife?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Book Review: Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke


Title: Mind of Winter
Author: Laura Kasischke
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: March 25, 2014
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

On a snowy Christmas morning, Holly Judge awakens, the fragments of a nightmare-something she must write down-floating on the edge of her consciousness.

Something followed them from Russia.

On another Christmas morning thirteen years ago, she and her husband Eric were in Siberia to meet the sweet, dark-haired Rapunzel they desperately wanted. How they laughed at the nurses of Pokrovka Orphanage #2 with their garlic and their superstitions, and ignored their gentle warnings. After all, their fairy princess Tatiana-baby Tatty-was perfect.

As the snow falls, enveloping the world in its white silence, Holly senses that something is not right, has not been right in the years since they brought their daughter-now a dangerously beautiful, petulant, sometimes erratic teenager-home. There is something evil inside this house. Inside themselves. How else to explain the accidents, the seemingly random and banal misfortunes. Trixie, the cat. The growth on Eric's hand. Sally the hen, their favorite, how the other chickens turned on her. The housekeeper, that ice, a bad fall. The CDs scratched, every one.

But Holly must not think of these things. She and Tatiana are all alone. Eric is stuck on the roads and none of their guests will be able to make it through the snow. With each passing hour, the blizzard rages and Tatiana's mood darkens, her behavior becoming increasingly disturbing and frightening. Until, in every mother's worst nightmare, Holly finds she no longer recognizes her daughter.


My Review:

I can't say too much about Mind of Winter without giving away all the good stuff.  What I can say is that this is a novel that will creep up on you.  Emphasis on "creep" (in all its various forms).

Honestly, when the novel opened, I was more annoyed with Holly's character than anything.  It's Christmas morning, she overslept, and she had a nightmare.  She keeps thinking that "something followed them home from Russia" when she adopted her daughter Tatiana 13 years ago.  She's haunted by this idea, and feels that she needs to write it down.  But she keeps repeating it over and over...and never writing it down.  So yes, I was annoyed, and wondering when we were going to move from repetitive to something more compelling.

However, after a while I realized that this was not your typical thriller.  Once I was about 60% into the book, it dawned on me that something was just...wrong.  At this point, Holly and her daughter are housebound alone on Christmas day because of a blizzard that has descended on their town.  Something about Holly is off-kilter.  Straight-up odd, in some cases.  For example, she never, in the last 13 years, has brought her daughter to a doctor for anything.  No well visits, vaccinations, etc.  And she alternates so quickly between being a happy, doting mother, and being freakishly angry with Tatiana.

Little things like this continue to build, until before you know it, you are thoroughly unsettled by the entire situation.  What starts as an ordinary Christmas day slowly becomes downright horrifying.  And the transition is so gradual, you'll never see the ending coming--which is the best part.  It's one of those endings that makes you want to go back and re-read the entire book, because it changes EVERYTHING.

Mind of Winter is sneaky, y'all.  Don't let the seemingly bland beginning fool you, because this is a Christmas celebration that will haunt you for a looooong time.

As always, much thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Laura Kasischke on her website.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir


Title: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Publisher: Crown
Publication Date: February 11, 2014
Source: ARC received from the publisher via NetGalley for an honest review

Summary from Goodreads

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first man to die there.

It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead. Now he's stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he's alive--and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission could arrive. Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to get him first.

But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills--and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit--he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?


My Review:

Did you ever read a book and think, "This would make a great movie"?  Well, move over Apollo 13, because The Martian could totally be the next space-based blockbuster.  Is Kevin Bacon still available?

I have to admit it: at first, I was NOT understanding all the hype around this book.  I'd seen so many excellent reviews, but the first 13% or so nearly had me asleep at the wheel.  Our friendly astronaut Mark realizes on page 1 that he's been stranded on Mars.  Thought dead by the rest of his crew, they took off for Earth without him.  Not cool, right?  So Mark jumps into action, coming up with a plan for survival.  Mark is a botanist-slash-mechanical engineer, so he's got lots of knowledge that can help him fix his equipment and grow food.  That's great for him, but as a reader, it wasn't always great for me.  He descriptions of his survival plans are SO technical that unless chemistry is your forte, it's hard to follow along and keep interest.

However, after that initial section made me feel like I was going to drown in soil bacteria and atmospheric pressurization, the story suddenly switched perspectives, which jazzed things up quite a bit.  From then on, the book jumps between Mark's POV and that of a few other characters.  This fleshes out the plot a bit more, and when the technical knowledge starts making an appearance again, it blends into the narrative much more seamlessly.  Obviously, this is a book about NASA and space travel, so science-based knowledge is key--I'm not saying the author should have done without it.  But the book kept my interest a lot better when the science-y stuff was woven into the rest of the plot action a bit more, rather than taking center stage (as it does so much in the beginning).  By the end, I was left feeling extremely impressed by the immense amount of research that Andy Weir must have done to make this into a believable, science-based fiction novel.

There are two key features of The Martian that make it great: its ability to keep you guessing, and Mark Watney himself.  Because of the way the author switches POV throughout the novel, you're never sure if Mark is going to survive (and if he is, how he will manage to do it).  The closer I got to the ending, the less I wanted to put it down.  And Mark is pretty hilarious.  At first I thought his sense of humor was a little cheesy, but as you get to know him more, you see that his joking manner is completely fitting.

I read a few reviews that showed frustration at the fact that Mark never seems to grow/progress in the novel--his sense of humor is always the same, no matter how many obstacles he faces or how much time he spends on desolate Mars.  But honestly, this book NEEDS some humor.  Mark's situation is so inherently depressing that without his ability to take things lightly, this book would have been way too heavy.  Plus, you've got to be at least a little impressed by his tenacity.  Because I mean, hello?  If I was stranded on Mars, I'm pretty sure I'd be less inclined to start going all Survivorman, and more inclined to curl up in a ball of weepy, sobbing dismay.  So rock on with your bad self, Mark.

Overall: despite the slow start, The Martian picked up the pace and ended as an excellent, thrilling read.  Don't let the technical stuff scare you off, because it all comes together to make a fast-paced story and a heart-pounding conclusion.

So what do you think, readers?  Would you ever visit Mars if given the chance?  Or will you be leaving that to more adventurous types?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

March 2014 in Review...

Hello, lovely reader friends!  Time for my monthly wrap-up already.  2014 is already 25% over and totally FLYING by.

As you probably noticed, I really only posted book reviews this month, and not too much else.  I have come to the conclusion that time management will just not be my forte for a LONG time...because even though Tater Tot is getting into more of a routine (helpful!), he is getting busy busy busy.  Which is a lot of fun, but you know, busy.  And Small Fry continues to happily run circles around  me (even managed to dislocate an elbow this month...oh THAT was fun!  Slow down, child!!).
Holding up his arm in triumph after the doc popped his elbow back into place.  Trust me, there had not been smiles for MANY HOURS before this!  Oy.
What it really comes down to is this: most days, I have time to read OR blog.  Not both.  And reading generally wins.

So my plan for now is to mostly focus on book reviews.  I AM still reading, and I love to share my reviews (that's the reason I got into this in the first place, right??).  So at a minimum, I will keep up with that.  When I can do more, I will.  I have a long-term goal of *hopefully* participating in the fall Bloggiesta in September, and perhaps I can make that my turning point.  :)

Anyway, to recap: In March I read/reviewed 5 books:
Above by Isla Morley
Sous Chef by Michael Gibney
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
Two Sisters by Mary Hogan
Ask the Passengers by A.S. King

And, I talked about my brief bookstore side-trip to Strand in NYC (heaven!).

Last month, I focused way-heavy on ARCs...how did I end up with so many after saying I was taking a break from them??  Part of this is because, as you may remember, my next TBR book baggie pick was Gone With the Wind, and truth be told...I am intimidated.  So many pages!  So much hype!  My challenge for April is to at least start it.  I CAN DO EEEET!

Oh, and in other news, I am leaving for sunny Florida for a few days, as my stepbrother is getting married this weekend.  WOOHOO!!  Looking forward to our first plane trip with the boys.  Very excited to celebrate with family...and experience weather above 50 degrees!!  Probably not much reading to be done on this trip, but who knows...maybe traveling will tire out my two little buggers?  Extra nap time?  :)

How was your March, reader friends?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Review: Ask The Passengers by A.S. King


Title: Ask The Passengers
Author: A.S. King
Publisher: Little, Brown
Publication Date: October 23, 2012
Source: personal purchase

Summary from Goodreads

Astrid Jones desperately wants to confide in someone, but her mother's pushiness and her father's lack of interest tell her they're the last people she can trust. Instead, Astrid spends hours lying on the backyard picnic table watching airplanes fly overhead. She doesn't know the passengers inside, but they're the only people who won't judge her when she asks them her most personal questions . . . like what it means that she's falling in love with a girl.

My Review:

Oh man, I forgot how much I enjoy a really good, fo' serious YA novel.  I read a few in the last year or two, and they were okay, but many are so focused on angsty boy-meets-girl plotlines that they felt more like fluff reads than anything else.  But then I got my socks knocked off by Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls, so I decided to follow that up with Ask The Passengers.  GREAT CHOICE.  This is the first time I've read anything by A.S. King, but it certainly won't be the last!  And I'm now very excited to meet her at the Rochester Teen Book Festival in May.

I hereby declare that this book should be required reading for adolescents.  Not just those that are questioning their sexuality, but ALL teens.  Because Astrid goes through some pretty awful bullying as her sexual identity becomes more public.  I sometimes lose sight of the fact that not everyone grows up in an area like mine, where views on the LGBTQ lifestyle are generally accepting.  (I say generally because...as we all know, there are haters everywhere.  Unfortunately.)  I had friends that came out in high school, and it didn't create nearly the ripples (more like tidal waves) that Astrid has to face in the close-minded community of Unity Valley.  This book is great for any teenager in the midst of their sexual-identity journey, as well as those who want to understand how to better support their friends and family members going through such an exploration.

What makes this stand out in YA LGBTQ literature?  Number one is Astrid.  She is such a great character.  She's often snarky and sarcastic, despite the difficult issues she's constantly facing.  Plus, her frank discussions about sexuality are refreshing (and the primary reason why I think all teens should read this).  I love her habit of "sending love" to the passengers of airplanes that she sees flying above her.  At first, I didn't know what to make of that ritual, but I like how King uses it as a way to explore the relationship problems that many of the passengers themselves are facing (she often segues to little side-stories about the passengers that Astrid has "sent her love" to).  This whole idea gives the book a unique premise, something more than your average YA novel.

GAH, you guys!!  Are all the Rochester TBF authors going to be this good?  Ask The Passengers was an awesome read, and has made me want to be all BFF-like with the YA genre again...for a little while, at least.  :)

Readers: have you read any other books that tackle teen LGBTQ issues in a powerful way?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Book Review: Two Sisters by Mary Hogan


Title: Two Sisters
Author: Mary Hogan
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: March 4, 2014
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

One family, two sisters, a lifetime of secrets . . .

The third child in a family that wanted only two, Muriel Sullivant has always been an outsider. Short, dark-haired and round, she worships her beautiful blonde sister, Pia, and envies the close bond she shares with their mother, Lidia. Growing up in their shadow, Muriel believes that if she keeps all their secrets—and she knows plenty, outsiders always do—they will love her, too.

But that was a long time ago. Now an adult, Muriel has accepted the disappointments in her life. With her fourth-floor walk-up apartment and entry-level New York City job, she never will measure up to Pia and her wealthy husband, their daughter, and their suburban Connecticut dream home. Muriel would like nothing better than to avoid her judgmental family altogether. One thing she does quite well.

Until the day Pia shows up to visit and share devastating news that Muriel knows she cannot tell—a secret that will force her to come to terms with the past and help her see her life and her family in unexpected new ways.


My Review:

This novel is so good, but so inherently sad.  I just wanted to give Muriel a big, giant hug the entire time I was reading.  In the beginning, she seems to be a fairly self-assured, early-20's city dweller.  She has her own place in New York City, a decent job, and is finally living away from her family, who always treated her as a bit of a fifth wheel.  She's even come to terms with a lot of the body issues that plagued her as an adolescent.  (Opening scene features her luxuriantly eating caramel popcorn during a Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives marathon--YOU GO, WOMAN!)

However, as the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that Muriel still has plenty of insecurities and doubts to overcome.  As more of her family's secretive history is revealed, she has to continually rework her vision of herself among her parents and siblings.  Even though the end result is rather empowering, still...I was sad.  Not sure I've ever seen a female character more emotionally beat down by her family than poor Muriel.

I don't mean to scare you off by putting that nice dark cloud over Muriel's life.  Actually, as her interactions with her family became continually more heart-wrenching, I found myself reading faster and faster.  It's hard not to be sucked into her story.  You want Muriel to triumph in the end, and there's always another little family mystery to uncover, so to call this a page-turner is entirely accurate (if admittedly cliched).

In my experience, family dramas can sometimes move a bit too slowly, primarily because the author spends extra time on minute details of the family background.  However, in Two Sisters, every detail is compelling.  Every chapter gives you something new to mull over.  And if you ever thought your family was kinda messed up, I invite you to sample Muriel's world...she might have you beat.

As always, much thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Mary Hogan on her websiteTwitter, and Facebook.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Book Review: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson


Title: Wintergirls
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher: Viking Juvenile
Publication Date: March 19, 2009
Source: personal purchase

Summary from Goodreads

“Dead girl walking,” the boys say in the halls.
“Tell us your secret,” the girls whisper, one toilet to another.
I am that girl.
I am the space between my thighs, daylight shining through.
I am the bones they want, wired on a porcelain frame.


Lia and Cassie are best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies, competitors in a deadly contest to see who can be the skinniest. But what comes after size zero and size double-zero? When Cassie succumbs to the demons within, Lia feels she is being haunted by her friend’s restless spirit.

In her most emotionally wrenching, lyrically written book since the multiple-award-winning Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson explores Lia’s descent into the powerful vortex of anorexia, and her painful path toward recovery.


My Review:

I was going to start off by telling you that this novel is "heavy" reading, then realized that could be seen as inappropriately punny.  So please trust me and take it in a completely no-pun-intended way when I tell you this is HEAVY STUFF.

I read Anderson's Speak many years ago, and I remember thinking that it was especially hard-hitting compared to other YA novels I had read.  I get really turned off by young adult novels that are too fluffy or romance-based, probably because I know that when I was a teen, that didn't feel reflective of my age bracket.  Adolescence seemed to carry more importance, and as an adult, I like it when YA authors have an appreciation for that feeling.

Anderson is one of the authors at the Rochester Teen Book Festival this year, so I decided to delve into another one of her books before the event.  Wintergirls gets fantastic reviews, and now I know that it's for a very good reason.  Anderson certainly has a talent for shining the light on difficult teenage issues, in a way that provides good reading for both YA and adult readers.

What stands out here?  Tops would have to be the imagery in Anderson's writing.  Her use of metaphors/similes is impressive, because done the wrong way, they could make the novel seem like it's trying too hard.  Instead, the way they are inserted in Lia's internal dialogue makes her words feel more...true, in a way.  They illustrate exactly how much her anorexia is making life crumble at her feet.

But the core of Anderson's success here is simply the clarity with which she is able to write about anorexia and bulimia.  This is, without question, the best fictional account of eating disorders that I've ever read, the one that has the truest understanding of those conditions.  When I say that this book could be life-changing for teenagers struggling with body image issues, I am not being grandiose.  That's a fact.

Wintergirls is easily one of most outstanding YA novels I've read in a very, very long time.  Get on it!

Readers: have you read any other books that tackle eating disorders in a powerful way?
 
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