Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

Book: A Great and Terrible Beauty
Author: Libba Bray
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Release date: December 9, 2003
Source: Borrowed from local library
Series Gemma Doyle Trilogy #1

Summary: (from Goodreads) A Victorian boarding school story, a Gothic mansion mystery, a gossipy romp about a clique of girlfriends, and a dark other-worldly fantasy–jumble them all together and you have this complicated and unusual first novel.
Sixteen-year-old Gemma has had an unconventional upbringing in India, until the day she foresees her mother’s death in a black, swirling vision that turns out to be true. Sent back to England, she is enrolled at Spence, a girls’ academy with a mysterious burned-out East Wing. There Gemma is snubbed by powerful Felicity, beautiful Pippa, and even her own dumpy roommate Ann, until she blackmails herself and Ann into the treacherous clique. Gemma is distressed to find that she has been followed from India by Kartik, a beautiful young man who warns her to fight off the visions. Nevertheless, they continue, and one night she is led by a child-spirit to find a diary that reveals the secrets of a mystical Order. The clique soon finds a way to accompany Gemma to the other-world realms of her visions “for a bit of fun” and to taste the power they will never have as Victorian wives, but they discover that the delights of the realms are overwhelmed by a menace they cannot control. Gemma is left with the knowledge that her role as the link between worlds leaves her with a mission to seek out the “others” and rebuild the Order. A Great and Terrible Beauty is an impressive first book in what should prove to be a fascinating trilogy.

First impressions: Wow. The first few chapters of this book are gorgeous. Gemma is a feisty 16 British girl living in India with her parents, and witnesses the tragic death of her mother under mysterious circumstances she has a difficult time processing. We don’t know what Gemma saw, but it was scary and strange and compelling.

Lasting impressions: I think the summary says it best. This book is complicated. The friends Gemma makes in her new English boarding school are difficult to like, because we don’t know if we can truly trust them. If nothing else, this book is very suspenseful.

Conflicting impressions: Since the main characters were not that likable, I had a hard time getting into the middle of this book. The story is so dark and strange that for me, I just couldn’t get into it.

Overall impressions: Full disclosure: I skimmed the last third of this book. I couldn’t really stand to read it in-depth because I was discouraged by Gemma’s nasty “friends.” Still, I wanted to know what would happen when Gemma’s visions drew more people into them and how the mysteries would be solved. The ending delivers quite the punch, and I’m sure is terrifically satisfying for readers that connect more with the characters. Though I couldn’t fully engage with the material, I did appreciate the unique and mysterious plot.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Want a different perspective? Check out this review by The Elliott Review.

Writing Wednesday (7) – Animal Violence

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Welcome to Writing Wednesday, my weekly feature where I discuss my works in progress, project ideas, editing struggles, or anything else related to the world of writing. Feel free to grab my button and post your own thoughts on writing! Leave a link to your post in the comments and I’ll stop by.

I don’t know if it’s coincidence or part of a larger trend, but lately I have read a lot of books that feature pretty graphic scenes of violence toward animals. I hesitate to call them “animal cruelty” since none of these scenes involved torture or neglect, but the scenes did disturb me almost as much. Recently Small Review sparked a little conversation about this very topic, and it got me thinking. What is it with animal violence in books?

At first I thought it was a genre thing. Take, for instance, Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater. It’s a book about werewolves, so you kind of expect some wolfish violence. Still, I was quite surprised when the dog fight scene appeared. Sam “trains” on how to kill the neighbor’s guard dogs by watching dog fights and ripping apart fryer chickens. Then later, he gets into a fight with the dogs while trying to protect one of his pack. It was pretty brutal, but then again, violence is a common theme throughout the entire book.

Today I finished Huntress by Malinda Lo, and wolves were the brunt of violence in this one as well. Here, a traveling party is attacked by the wolves before retaliating in kind. Though it’s easier to justify in this scene, the violence was still pretty gruesome. I just kept thinking, “Really? Do we need to read about jaws snapping through flesh and arrows slicing through eyeballs?”

Then there’s scenes like the one Small Review reminded me about in Delirium by Lauren Oliver. I can guarantee you that the reason I couldn’t remember this scene from the book is that I had blocked it from my memory. Lena hears a guard next door beat a dog, and later she finds the bludgeoned and dying animal lying in the street next to the garbage. She ends up watching the dog die while trying to decide what to do. It’s horrifying.

I think what disturbs me the most about scenes of animal violence is that they tend to include so much more detail than your average human fight scene. Perhaps it’s natural in that animals have teeth and claws to fight with, which can get a bit messier than swords or guns. That was my thinking with Shiver anyway. I mean, it’s wolves versus dogs, so things are bound to get ugly and ferocious.

I know that the scene in Delirium was telling us about Lena. It was a moment of clarity for her, when she had to come to terms with the underlying brutality of her society that had been out of sight/out of mind. She was forced to recognize that things were not as great as everyone pretended they were, and no one cared enough to help a defenseless animal, because that empathy was taken away when they were denied the ability to feel love. I’m not saying that difficult scenes shouldn’t be written, particularly when they serve a purpose.

As a huge animal softie, however, these types of scenes really pull me out of the world of the book. They make me disengage with the material, however briefly, and the author really has to work hard to win me back. Scenes like these are a real challenge. How do we, as writers, address difficult scenarios without losing our readers? Many readers will check out of the scene entirely, skim it, or worse yet, put the book down and never pick it back up.

You can never please everyone, and we don’t all have the same comfort level with violence. I just wonder if this same level of violence would be tolerated with human characters. Sometimes it seems like writers can “get away” with heightened violence if it’s happening to animals, and that’s not something that sits well with me. I don’t want to get into a whole animal rights argument here, but suffice it to say that I don’t find violence any less offensive when it’s perpetrated against animals. This makes it hard for me as a writer to find appropriate levels of violence, particularly if what is expected is something outside of my personal comfort zone.

How do you feel about animal violence in books? Does it bother you more or less than human violence? Am I seeing a pattern where there is none? Do you writers find it hard to write scenes that make you uncomfortable? Leave me a comment with your thoughts.

Review: Marked by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast

Book: Marked
Author: P.C. Cast + Kristin Cast
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Release date: May 1, 2007
Source: Bought for Kindle
Series: House of Night #1

Summary: (from Goodreads) The House of Night series is set in a world very much like our own, except in 16-year-old Zoey Redbird’s world, vampyres have always existed. In this first book in the series, Zoey enters the House of Night, a school where, after having undergone the Change, she will train to become an adult vampire–that is, if she makes it through the Change. Not all of those who are chosen do. Itâ??s tough to begin a new life, away from her parents and friends, and on top of that, Zoey finds she is no average fledgling. She has been Marked as special by the vampyre Goddess, Nyx. But she is not the only fledgling at the House of Night with special powers. When she discovers that the leader of the Dark Daughters, the school’s most elite club, is misusing her Goddess-given gifts, Zoey must look deep within herself for the courage to embrace her destiny–with a little help from her new vampyre friends.

First impressions: I have to admit, I must have picked up this book and flipped through it 5 or 6 times at the bookstore over the years. It seemed like something I would like, but when I read blurbs while standing at the store, it just didn’t grab me. I know tons of people go crazy for the series, though, so when it went on sale at the Amazon Kindle store, I decided to spend the $2.99 and try it out.

Lasting impressions: Holy cow! I’m so glad I did! This book is amazing. Zoey has such a distinctive voice that immediately pulled me in to her world. I can’t believe I waited this long to start this series. I can’t wait to read the next ones.

Conflicting impressions: I was a little surprised at the sex talk. I don’t have a problem with that kind of thing in adult books, but for a teen book, it made me raise my eyebrows a bit. Zoey meets her love interest for the first time when his ex-girlfriend is trying to go down on him. O-kay.

Overall impressions: There wasn’t anything that overpowered my enjoyment of this book, however. One of my favorite things about Zoey is that she’s written to show us her inner monologue. It feels like we’re reading her diary or like we are actually inside her head, which is wonderful. It made me, as a reader, connect to Zoey right away and I just loved her personality.

Zoey’s grandmother is a great character, and I hope we see more of her. I love the Native American heritage that mixes so well with the paranormal elements of the story. The House of Night is a great concept, and I’ll be curious to see if in future books we see more interaction between this boarding school and the outside world. It would be great to see more of Zoey with her grandmother and friends instead of focusing solely on what’s happening at the House.

This book made me giddy with anticipation about Zoey’s new school, new friends, and new powers as a vampyre. I highly recommend this book to all paranormal fans, and I can’t say enough good things about it.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Want a different perspective? Check out this review by A Cover Lover.

In My Mailbox (5)

In My Mailbox is a weekly meme devoted to sharing the new books we’ve received, borrowed, or bought. For more information, visit IMM’s fantastic host, The Story Siren. You can visit other blogs that are participating in this week’s IMM here.

Borrowed from the library:

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Blue Bloods by Melissa de la Cruz
Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr
Lord of the Silent by Elizabeth Peters
Cold Hit by Linda Fairstein

Received for I Read Banned Books ARC Tour:

Huntress by Malinda Lo

Borrowed from Tabitha at Writer Musings:

Waterfall by Lisa T. Bergren

Silly Sunday (6) – The World’s Smallest Horse

I love animals. Especially the cute ones. I particularly love dogs, ponies, and manatees, so when I saw a news piece about a horse the size of a puppy, my heart melted.

This is Thumbelina, who was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s smallest horse at 17″ tall. The piece I saw was in April 2010 when 14″ Einstein came along.

I seriously cannot handle the cuteness of these two animals.

Follow Friday (5) and Weekly Recap

It’s Follow Friday! Hosted by the always amazing Parajunkee’s View, this is a chance to meet new blogger friends and grow our networks.

This week’s question is “What is your favorite romance hero-type? Do you like the strong silent type or the brute macho man?”

I have to say that in literature I am very drawn to the macho type, though in real life I’m definitely more of a strong and silent kinda gal. If you knew my husband you would be nodding emphatically right now. Guys like the suave, single dad pack leader Adam Hauptman in Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series or the rugged, red-headed Highlander Jamie Fraser in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series are more my style when reading. It’s the perfect fantasy. If I’m already in a make believe world of shifters or time travel, you may as well include a guy who is devastatingly attractive, handy with his fists, and so in love with you that he would do anything to protect your honor/well-being. Ahem. *fans self*

Be sure to check out this week’s featured blogger Ruby’s Reads and the rest of the participants!

I’m trying something new this week. If you’re a first time visitor, or just didn’t get the chance to stop by this week, here’s what you missed:

Silly Sunday – The Great Chicago Blizzard!
Watch some crazy clips of the storm that blew through my city last week.

Writing Wednesday – To Review or Not To Review?
I weigh in on the debate over whether aspiring authors should be writing negative reviews.

The Minister’s Daughter by Julie Hearn
4/5 stars
YA Historical Fiction Challenge
The Ultimate Reviewer’s Challenge

Wonderland by Joanna Nadin
5/5 stars
The Ultimate Reviewer’s Challenge
I Heart Banned Books ARC Tour

City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare
4/5 stars
YA Series Challenge
The Ultimate Reviewer’s Challenge

Review: City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare

Book: City of Ashes
Author: Cassandra Clare
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry
Release date: March 25, 2008
Source: Borrowed from local library
Series: The Mortal Instruments #2

Summary: (from Goodreads) As readers of series starter City of Bones already know, teenager Clary Fray is a Shadowhunter, a demon slayer who has the gift of spotting Downworlder werewolves, vampires, and faeries. She is also an adolescent in an abnormally dysfunctional family: Her mom is in a magically induced coma and her father is probably insane and undoubtedly evil. All of which places Clary in situations that would challenge even the most talented average American girl.

**SPOILER ALERT** If you haven’t read the series, this review may contain mild spoilers.

First impressions: This book picks up where the first one left off. Clary is trying to navigate a relationship with Simon, Jace is struggling to come to terms with who his parents are, and Clary’s mom is still in a coma. I was so anxious to get back into this world, and I was glad the plot picked up right away.

Lasting impressions: I actually liked this book better than City of Bones. I don’t know if it was that I was already familiar with the characters, but I related to them much more as a reader this time around. I loved the introduction of more Downworlders (especially the werewolf Maia), the Faerie Realm and a deeper relationship between Alec and Magnus.

Conflicting impressions: I still feel a bit squicky when Clary and Jace pine for each other. I just keep hoping they’ll find out they’re not related after all, especially given the steamy shots being released around the upcoming City of Fallen Angels (Book Four in the series).

Overall impressions: The world that Clare created for this series is so well-developed that you can’t help but get totally immersed in it. It’s no wonder her books attract thousands of rabid fans. The writing is seemingly effortless, her plots have the perfect balance of action and character development, and there’s always something unexpected. I am falling hard for this series.

Poor Clary is stuck between Simon, who loves her mightily and who she tries to love back, and Jace, who she loves but just found out is her brother. It’s amazing that Cassandra Clare gets us to root for Clary to love Jace, even though we know she shouldn’t. I love that she doesn’t back down from this tough issue, and she handles the line without it veering into totally icky territory.

In the first book Clary discovers she is a Shadowhunter, and in this book she discovers a special power. This continued growth serves the plot well and advances Clary’s standing among her fellow Shadowhunter and Downworlder friends, which allows me to believe that she is capable of holding her own in a fight. I dislike when a book or movie character learns something about themselves and then automatically has the ability to control that aspect. Here, Clary struggles to balance her innate abilities with the power to control them, making her believable and likable at the same time.

I highly recommend this series to paranormal fans (if you’re one of the few who haven’t read it yet) and am really looking forward to the next installment.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Wondering about my thoughts on the first book in The Mortal Instruments series? Read my review of City of Bones.

Writing Wednesday (6) – To Review or Not to Review?

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Welcome to Writing Wednesday, my weekly feature where I discuss my works in progress, project ideas, editing struggles, or anything else related to the world of writing. Feel free to grab my button and post your own thoughts on writing! Leave a link to your post in the comments and I’ll stop by.

A big kerfuffle hit around the blogosphere the last couple of weeks after a #YALitChat on Twitter developed into some well-written blog posts about whether writers should be reviewing books. Stacia Kane and Susan Dennard put up some great posts about the matter. Stacia also wrote some great follow-up posts. Some bloggers defended the art of writing negative reviews. Tabitha at Writer Musings and Izzy at My Words Ate Me have particularly thoughtful posts.

All of this talk really got me thinking. As a writer, the last thing I want to do is jeopardize my future chances of getting published, but this idea that I shouldn’t post negative reviews is a tough pill to swallow. I’ve really enjoyed setting up this book review blog and sharing my opinions. I feel like I’m doing myself and my readers a disservice by ignoring any books I read that I don’t completely enjoy.

So what’s a girl to do?

Well, I did go through Goodreads and delete books that I hated. Because really, what is the point? If I really despise a book, does that need to be shared? Do I need to go into the reasons I didn’t like it? I mean, if it’s a one-star book for me, that means there are no redeeming factors. I decided that in the interest of respect, I should get rid of those books. I felt bad about those really negative opinions floating around.

The tough area for me is the in-between. What if overall I liked the book, but I had some issues with it (my three-star reviews)? I don’t want this to end up as a blog that only celebrates 4 and 5 star books, because that seems a bit one-sided. I also don’t want to offend authors, agents or editors. Three star books are still books I want to recommend, I just had some reservations about them.

This is the very crux of the debate. At some point, you have to decide if you want to be a reader or a writer. Reviews are for readers, not for writers. A great analogy that one of the above posts mentioned was that Roger Ebert reviews movies because he is a movie reviewer and consumer – it’s his job. Nicole Kidman does not review movies, she makes them. It’s not appropriate for her to publicly judge the quality of other films or performances because that is not professional. That argument really resonates with me.

At this point in my life, I’m more of a reader. I’m reading and reviewing books not just as a consumer, but as a tool to help me learn more about YA writing. I want to pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, so I can learn. So I’m considering changing my “negative impressions” section of my review template to focus more on learning opportunities or what things in the book worked for me as a writer.

But is that even more negative or pretentious? Do those thoughts even need to be shared?

If I can’t write reviews for fear of damaging my future career, I don’t know what to do with this blog. I’m still in the early stages of writing, I don’t have an agent, I’m not seeking an agent, and I don’t even have a finished manuscript close to being ready to query. Like I said, I’m still more of a reader at this point. I don’t have enough writer knowledge or tips to fill a blog right now.

For now, I’m going to continue reviewing. I’m going to be more cognizant of my tone and what I say. I’m going to try to lean as positive as I can. When I get to a place where I’m ready to even think about querying, I will address this issue again. Yes, the internet lives on forever, but I’m not likely to be the same person in a year or two as I am now, and at that point, I can change my perspective. I can stick to the positive recommendations and write more about the querying process.

The point of the whole debate, really, is to be professional. I can be a reviewer while I’m a reader and still be professional. When I’m ready to start moving forward as a writer, I can temper my online presence to suit the level of professionalism required then. And if I ever get so lucky as to get an agent and a published book, that online presence will have to adapt again.

Until then, I’m going to carry on and hope for the best. What do you think? Should aspiring authors avoid reviewing books? Does it matter if they are actively querying or submitting?

Weigh in with your thoughts!

Review: Wonderland by Joanna Nadin

Book: Wonderland
Author: Joanna Nadin
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release date: February 22, 2011
Source: ARC Tour run by I Read Banned Books

Summary: (from Goodreads) Sixteen-year-old Jude has to get out of tiny Churchtown. She has to escape her outcast status and her pathetic dad, who hasnâ??t gotten past her motherâ??s death. The one bright light is drama, her way out, if only she can get into the Lab, a prestigious program in London. Then Stella, Judeâ??s childhood best friend, swaggers in after years away. With bold and magnetic Stella by her side, Jude knows sheâ??s capable of anything. But Stellaâ??s influence extends well beyond the theater. Soon Stellaâ??s wild and dangerous streak begins to cause trouble for Jude — yet Jude canâ??t bring herself to abandon Stella and the attention sheâ??s always craved. And besides, now that Stellaâ??s back, thereâ??s no stopping her. In Judeâ??s dark and tangled story, British author Joanna Nadin plumbs the aftermath of loss and the consequences of becoming the person you always wished you were.

First impressions: Jude and Stella open the book in a Thelma and Louise situation: cigarettes, lipstick, and a car at the edge of a cliff. Can you say “Grab on and don’t let go?” I read this book in one sitting, because I just had to know how these girls got there.

Lasting impressions: This book is so well-crafted that although I had my suspicions as to where the story was going, I still couldn’t quite believe it when I got my answer. This is one of those books where you have to flip back and read scenes again to see if you really missed it the first time.

Negative impressions: The ending is a bit trite and overplayed, but the story was so captivating and well done that I got over it. I mean, there are only so many plots in the world, and if I discarded every new book for having an element done before, I wouldn’t be reading very long.

Overall impressions: This book had real heart. I loved Jude and her complicated relationships with her dead mother and distraught father. She feels trapped in her small town, but scared to pursue her acting dream for fear she will end up just like her mother. Her mom was a bright star that faded to nothing when they moved to their small town, and watching the depression wash over her was too much for Jude and her father to bear.

Jude feels ignored and invisible, with few friends and not much going for her…until Stella comes back. Stella was a childhood friend who had pulled Jude out of her shell until she disappeared and moved away. Now she’s back, and Jude gets caught up in Stella’s whirlwind energy and bad influence. With Stella, Jude starts partying, dressing sexier, and getting interested in boys. When she lands an audition at the prestigious Lab, her dream theater school in London, she and Stella take the train together and Jude nearly blows her chance.

Watching Jude’s life get bolder and more outrageous is exciting until you see the scale tip in the wrong direction. When Jude goes to her audition, Stella is no longer the fun friend out to ensure they have a good time, she’s an enabler who is controlling Jude’s actions and dragging her down. It’s heartbreaking to see Jude realize that Stella may not be the best thing in her life. This definitely struck a chord with me – the idea that sometimes your friends can harm you more than help you. Welcome to adulthood, Jude!

This story is quickly paced and full of all the pains of adolescence: first love, wild friends, dreams of grandeur, and absent parenting. Jude rises to the challenges presented by all of these, finding her own voice and strength of spirit to reclaim the hold on her life that Stella threatens to steal from her. Dramatic, harrowing, and real, Jude’s tale will definitely make an impression.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Interested in reading this book? Click below to sign up for the ARC tour for this and other titles at I Read Banned Books.

Review: The Minister’s Daughter by Julie Hearn

Book: The Minister’s Daughter
Author: Julie Hearn
Publisher: Atheneum
Release date: May 17, 2005
Source: Borrowed from local library

Summary: (from Goodreads) In 1645 in England, the daughters of the town minister successfully accuse a local healer and her granddaughter of witchcraft to conceal an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, but years later during the 1692 Salem trials their lie has unexpected repercussions.

First impressions: The book introduces us to two different perspectives from the start: one is the young Nell, granddaughter to a local healer, in 1645 England; the other is Patience, younger sister to Grace, daughter of the town minister, who writes her own account of the events from 1692 Salem. I liked this alternating style, which added a level of deception and spite to the unfolding accusations of witchcraft.

I was also immediately taken with the voices of the girl Nell and the woman Patience. Hearn does a great job of establishing the stubborn ignorance of Nell, and the woeful remorse of Patience. These contrasting views only add to the heartbreak we know is coming.

Lasting impressions: I was quite taken by surprise with the amount of magical wonder throughout the book. The townspeople are new to the Puritanical religion, and are hesitant to completely disregard the paganism that has been a large part of their lives. Hearn takes this belief and spins it as truth, with the characters interacting with fairies and little creatures called “piskies.” It is fanciful and yet confusing. Are we readers to believe these creatures exist? Or are these the imaginings of a simple people who are not able to make sense of the world around them? I’m not sure what the intent was, but it was still delightful to read.

Negative impressions: That said, some of the longer scenes with the fairies and piskies didn’t feel like they belonged in this tale. The shorter sightings and interactions were much more effective for me. Though Nell goes through a long sequence to obtain an item that becomes incredibly important later in the book, while I was reading it I couldn’t figure out the point of that scene and it frustrated me as a reader.

Overall impressions: This is the kind of story that resonates with me. The “witchcraft” that so many women were said to practice in the 1600s was typically nothing more than pagan ritual, and oftentimes accusations flew to draw attention away from themselves or to act out against the repressive male hierarchy. The mass hysteria that fuels this hunt for wrongdoing and scapegoats turns my stomach, and insults my sense of justice in the world, so I was quite taken with the subject matter.

Here, a minister’s daughter discovers she is pregnant, is rebuffed by her lover, and decides to start acting possessed as a way to cover her tracks. Nell despises the haughty attitude of Grace, and refuses to give her an abortifacient when she realizes that the baby may be a “merrybegot” like herself – a sacred child of nature. So begins the quest for revenge, with Grace providing more and more nails in Nell’s withcraft coffin, and poor Nell unable to see how her pagan rituals are only adding fuel to the fire.

These events are also told retrospectively by Patience, Grace’s sister, who is in the midst of her own witchcraft trial in Salem some 40 years later. By her admittance that Grace is only pretending, we can only read on in horror as Nell and her grandmother are persecuted by their peers. It is a quickly moving tale with depth of feeling and carefully layered expositions into the actions of the main players. We soon realize that Grace and Patience’s father, the minister, may be more complicit than first assumed, and that other characters may not care whether or not Nell is actually innocent.

I highly recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, particularly those with an interest in the witch hunts. Although the primary narrative is not concerned with the trial, it is a fascinating study of how these types of charges were set up and delivered with the kind of one-two punch that can only result in a knockout. These women had no chance to refute the charges against them, completely oblivious to the danger approaching as they went about their daily lives. The book also speaks to the benefits of doing what is right no matter the cost, as you never know when your actions may come back to help or haunt you.

Rating: 4/5 stars