Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Book: Between Shades of Gray
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release date: March 22, 2011
Source: Borrowed from library

  

Summary from Goodreads:

Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they’ve known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin’s orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.

Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously–and at great risk–documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father’s prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives. Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.

From the very first sentence, this book grips you by the throat and doesn’t let go. I devoured this book in two sittings, staying up late into the night, furiously wiping away tears so I could finish. I was so thoroughly invested in Lina’s story that I had a hard time letting go.

Lina, along with her mother and brother, is ripped from her Lithuanian home by Soviet secret police late on a June evening in 1941. They are given 20 minutes to pack a bag before they are whisked away on trucks and herded onto train cars bound for Russia. From there, we follow Lina’s harrowing journey of survival by train to Russian and Siberian forced labor camps.

The book moves quickly thanks to short chapters, often punctuated by Lina’s memories of moments from a better time. These snippets give us a glimpse into the girl she was before she was taken. They serve as a jarring juxtaposition against her situation in the camps – starving, worked near to death, fighting disease and failing health. Her memories are those of any girl, and reminds us of her humanity and innocence.

Lina meets a number of people on the train and in the camps, and they all captivated me in different ways. Ruta Sepetys, who researched this book by visiting Lithuania and hearing survivors’ experiences, created such vivid characters despite their dire circumstances. I felt for each of them in different ways, much like the way they each process their situation. No one person reacted the same way to what was happening – we saw denial, fear, shock, outrage, defiance, and defeat. Nothing can prepare you for the gamut of emotions that Sepetys paints onto each page.

This is a gorgeous, haunting, and incredibly moving book. I highly recommend it, but be sure to keep some tissues handy.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

 
 
 
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Review: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Book: Cinder
Author: Marissa Meyer
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Release date: January 3, 2012
Source: Borrowed from library
Series: Lunar Chronicles #1

 

Summary from Goodreads:

Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl. . . . 

Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.

If you couldn’t tell from the summary, Cinder is a loose retelling of the Cinderella story. Cinder is a cyborg who was adopted as a child by her father, who soon after died and left her in the care of her nasty stepmother. As a mechanic, she is responsible for the mechanical upkeep of her stepmother’s household machines. In her spare time, she dreams of escaping to a life of freedom on her own.

What could have been a somewhat interesting tale about a cyborg who wants to be treated as an equal quickly became a story so much deeper than that. There is a dangerous plague spreading rapidly through New Beijing, and when one of Cinder’s stepsisters becomes infected, Cinder is signed over to the kingdom’s scientists for medical testing. She discovers hard truths about the feared population living on the moon – the Lunars – and the price Earth must pay to keep them from taking over the planet. 

The politics of Earth’s negotiations with and history of the Lunars was so fascinating to me. I loved the mystery of the Lunars and their eerie mind-control abilities. The threat of their takeover raised the stakes of the underlying Cinderella story, and added a layer of nuance to Cinder’s exploration of her status as a cyborg and as a member of New Beijing society. Marissa Meyer built an incredibly rich world that was both believable and fantastic. I wanted to stay immersed in the story forever, just to keep walking the streets of town and interacting with its characters.

You may think you know the tale of Cinderella, but this book keeps you guessing. Although I found the twist at the end to be obvious from the beginning (so perhaps it’s supposed to be?), I still enjoyed the journey. I cannot wait to continue on with this series, and I’ll definitely be purchasing a copy for my shelves as well. This is a beautifully imagined and written book by a bright new star in young adult fiction.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

 
  
 

Book and Movie Review: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Book: Life of Pi
Author: Yann Martel
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release date: June 4, 2002
Source: Purchased ebook from Amazon

 

Summary from Goodreads:

Life of Pi is a masterful and utterly original novel that is at once the story of a young castaway who faces immeasurable hardships on the high seas, and a meditation on religion, faith, art and life that is as witty as it is profound. Using the threads of all of our best stories, Yann Martel has woven a glorious spiritual adventure that makes us question what it means to be alive, and to believe.

As Yann Martel has said in one interview, “The theme of this novel can be summarized in three lines. Life is a story. You can choose your story. And a story with an imaginative overlay is the better story.” And for Martel, the greatest imaginative overlay is religion. “God is a shorthand for anything that is beyond the material — any greater pattern of meaning.” In Life of Pi, the question of stories, and of what stories to believe, is front and centre from the beginning, when the author tells us how he was led to Pi Patel and to this novel: in an Indian coffee house, a gentleman told him, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” And as this novel comes to its brilliant conclusion, Pi shows us that the story with the imaginative overlay is also the story that contains the most truth.

I resisted this book for a long time, for three very good reasons: 1) it’s literary fiction; 2) it won the Man Booker Prize, and I’m historically 50/50 on liking Man Booker nominee and winning books; and 3) everyone talked about how amazing it was, and that kind of lavish praise makes me wary.

It wasn’t until my sister said she wanted to see the movie and I read a bunch of reviews that said the book was one that needed to be discussed that we decided we should read it. She may live 500 miles away and be stuck in baby jail (she has an 8 month old and is a stay at home mom), but we can spend time reading the same book at the same time and then talk about it, right? Thus Sister Book Club was born, and our inaugural read was Life of Pi. A few weeks later, we found an afternoon where we could both see the movie in our respective cities at about the same time so we could see it “together.”

Today I’ll be talking about both the book and the movie, and I’ll provide major spoiler alerts/hides when I get around to discussing that ending. I had the book spoiled for me early on, and it’s a shame because I think the ending serves a very distinct and effective purpose to the overall structure and message of the book, so I promise to avoid spoiling it for those of you who haven’t read it. That said, there is a lot to say about the book and movie that doesn’t rely on spoiler talk, so I hope you’ll still stick around.

First, there was a book…

The book opens by telling us we are about to hear a story that will make the reader believe in God. It’s a tall order, one that seems to purposefully put us on edge. “Ha!” we say. “I’d like to see you try,” we mutter. And we begin by taking the words with a grain of salt, perhaps waiting for the treacly drivel that comes from a boy being lost at sea who needs faith to pull him through his debacle.  

Piscine Molitor Patel, known as Pi, tells us his history of faith. He was raised Hindu, but through a series of encounters with a priest and in a mosque, he becomes a faithful adherent of Catholicism and Islam as well. As a bit of a patchwork quilt of religions myself, I really identified with Pi’s healthy skepticism and yet profound sense of faith. There are many ways in which we express faith, and Pi felt at home in a variety of them. 

Though I have read complaints that this beginning section is slow, I found them to be a vital backdrop for Pi’s journey. Without understanding how he comprehends and converses with God, we have little understanding of how his tale at sea translates into faith. Even more importantly, without the knowledge of how Pi relates to Richard Parker or the zoo animals raised by his family, we will be unable to suspend our disbelief as to how a small Indian boy could possibly survive a journey in a lifeboat with a tiger.

The book is largely told as a story within a story – Pi is telling the story of his life to a young American novelist. There are a couple of POV changes where we see the novelist interject his own thoughts on Pi and his story, but largely the story is told from Pi’s perspective, including the longest section when he is lost at sea. 

The chapters after the shipwreck are short and not chronological. Pi lost most of his sense of time while adrift, and so we get glimpses at varying states of his being. We see him wildly delirious, joyously triumphant, and terrifyingly angry. Through these glimpses into his most powerful memories of this trip, we are taken on an incredibly journey alongside him.

So how does this tale inspire belief in God? Well, if you have any interest in seeing the movie or reading the book, I encourage you to not read too many reviews. I had the ending spoiled by reading comments on Goodreads, and it took some of the magic out of the reading experience. So skip this section and go right ahead to the movie review, but for the rest of you who have read it (or have seen the movie, or don’t care about spoilers) I’ve added my thoughts on the ending in the camouflaged section below.

**SPOILER ALERT – HIGHLIGHT TO READ THIS SECTION**
If you’re reading this section, I’m assuming you’re okay with major spoilers.
 
By the end of the book, we know only one thing for certain – that Pi survived his ordeal in the lifeboat. Beyond that, we have a lot of questions. Did he really travel with a tiger, an orangutan, a zebra, and a hyena? Or did he watch the cook murder the few survivors before Pi killed him out of revenge and survival?
 
The book challenges us by asking us to choose the one we like better. What makes the better story, and more importantly, why? By acknowledging the story as an allegory, it illuminates how other stories function as allegories, too. How does the reading of this story impact our understanding of, say, the stories in the Bible?

I loved being faced with all of the questions presented to us at the end, and I sincerely bow down to Yann Martel for creating such an incredible work of fiction. This is the kind of book that makes me want to throw in the towel on my own fiction, because I can only dream of creating a story so compelling, intelligent, beautiful, and inspiring. 

This one belongs on the Special Shelf, where it will be read over and over again. I strongly encourage you to pick up this book, but if you’re more of the movie type…

Then there came a movie…

After reading such an epic tale, I could see why so many had deemed it unfilmable. I mean, putting a tiger with a young boy is one thing, but throwing them in a boat too? Yikes.

Ang Lee showed us all, that’s for sure. Though the majority of the tiger scenes in the movie were done with CGI, I really only noticed it in a handful of scenes. Digital creation has come a long way, and they spent a pretty penny to make one fantastic looking cat. 

I was a bit sad to see that they added in an unnecessary pseudo-love interest for Pi. Does every story need a romance these days? I can think of plenty of other ways from the book that Pi could stay motivated through his journey, which is the only justification I can come up with for why they added the love interest anyway.

The photography is stunning, and worth the price of admission alone. The movie manages to showcase the immense beauty and power of the ocean, while constantly reminding us of her danger and fury. Some of the shots and scenes were so visually impactful that I easily forgave their inconsistencies with the book. I don’t care that it didn’t happen in the book – Ang Lee can show me that whale jumping over the lifeboat all he wants. Amazing.

The movie succeeded in pulling me more into the emotional journey than did the book. This isn’t unusual for me, as I’m a pretty visual person in general. The moment when Pi last sees Richard Parker was sad in the book, for sure, but absolutely tore me up watching the movie. 

If you don’t think the book is for you, I still highly recommend seeing the movie. The ending may not be as impactful (the movie kind of beats you over the head with the message – what are we, dummies?), but the tale itself is one to see. 5 stars to both the book and the movie!

Rating: 5/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

The Princesses of Iowa by M. Molly Backes

Book: The Princesses of Iowa
Author: M. Molly Backes
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release date: May 8, 2012
Source: Bought signed copy from author

 

Summary from Goodreads:

What does it mean to do wrong, when no one punishes you? A smart and unflinching look at friendship, the nature of entitlement, and growing up in the heartland.

Paige Sheridan has the perfect life. She’s pretty, rich, and popular, and her spot on the homecoming court is practically guaranteed. But when a night of partying ends in an it-could-have-been-so-much worse crash, everything changes. Her best friends start ignoring her, her boyfriend grows cold and distant, and her once-adoring younger sister now views her with contempt. The only bright spot is her creative writing class, led by a charismatic new teacher who encourages students to be true to themselves. But who is Paige, if not the homecoming princess everyone expects her to be? In this arresting and witty debut, a girl who was once high-school royalty must face a truth that money and status can’t fix, and choose between living the privileged life of a princess, or owning up to her mistakes and giving up everything she once held dear.

My Big Fat Disclaimer 

In the interest of fairness, (and maybe only a teensy bit of pride [but totally the Mama Bear pride and not the gross look-at-me pride]) I should disclose that I know the author, M. Molly Backes. Over the past few years she has been my teacher, critique partner, and friend. While this does not prevent me from stating my honest opinions on the quality of her book, I am probably in a position to like it as a person familiar with her personality and writing style. With that all out in the open, let’s move on.

Shit just got real…

Go back up and read the first bolded line of the summary above. I’ll wait.

Back now? Good. I point it out (for the lazy set: “What does it mean to do wrong, when no one punishes you?”) because I think understanding this theme from the outset greatly impacts your enjoyment of the book. This is not a story about fluffy bunnies and sparkly unicorns and beautiful rainbows (even though, in my mind, that cover is just asking for a rainbow). This is a story about real things that can, and do, happen to teenagers.

The situations in this book punched me in the gut. I dare you to read the prologue and not connect deeply with at least some portion of it. Molly Backes is a master of Getting It. She wrote a character, Paige Sheridan, who is struggling to understand consequences, or the completely unjust and unfair LACK of them, that accompanies the life of a high school student, in a way that was believable and thought-provoking. Backes peeled back the superficial layers and forced Paige, and us as readers, to acknowledge the ugly sides of human behavior and the ease with which cruelty and convenience can influence even the best of intentions.

Life is not fair. Things don’t always end up the way we want them to. And I love that Backes portrayed this so truthfully in her narrative. Not everyone agrees with me.

“Issue” is such a loaded word…

Is this an issue book? It deals with the impact of a drunk driving accident on a group of girls. It illustrates common teen situations of homophobia, bullying, partying, and sex. But I didn’t see it as an issue book. It wasn’t pointing out the perils of drunk driving and why teens should avoid it. Were there severe consequences from the accident? Yes. One girl was seriously injured. But that wasn’t the point of the story. Nor was the point of the story to show us how destructive homophobia can be on a community, or how teen girls should handle their drunk boyfriends trying to rape them. The drinking and the sex and the gay slurs just happened to be a part of Paige’s life, and all of these things impact her growth from a narcissistic princess into a contemplative writer. This is Paige’s story and journey, not an issue book passing judgment on the behavior of its teen characters.

I appreciated that Backes didn’t gloss over any aspect of Paige’s life. She has a manipulative best friend, a weak-willed boyfriend, and a self-absorbed mother. Her friends drink too much, Paige cares too much about what people think, and everyone in this book is capable of bad decisions. The beauty of this book is the subtlety with which each character’s growth is illustrated. There is not one cathartic event that pulls everyone together. Instead, there are a series of events that impact different characters in unique ways, setting all of them on a different trajectory. 

Sisters, man…

One of the best devices I noticed to show a subtle change was the name Paige used for her sister. In the first half of the book, Paige’s younger sister Miranda repeatedly has to remind everyone that she prefers to be called Mirror. As with many flights of fancy with young people, she is ignored. Paige refers to her always as Miranda, since that’s her name, and she thinks calling her Mirror is dumb.

I don’t know when exactly the shift occurred, but toward the end of the book I noticed that Paige was consistently calling her sister Mirror. While finding acceptance of herself, Paige began to understand that something as simple as a name change was also an important way for her sister to find her own identity. Though Paige may not have given herself a unique nickname, I think she subconsciously realized that Mirror did so because she wanted to be taken seriously, much like how Paige now wanted to be viewed as more than just a vapid princess. And she finds common ground, as well as a fresh starting point in their relationship, by using her sister’s preferred name and therefore validating Mirror’s perspective and identity. As someone with a younger sister, I really connected with this concept.

What I’m saying is…

I’m no expert in contemporary YA fiction, but this one spoke to me on so many levels. It’s a book that will make you think, which is always a good thing. It sheds some light on the power of cliques and group thinking that can take over a teen’s life without them even realizing it. Backes finds a way to validate experiences without passing judgment, and without needing to find a lesson in every difficult event that her characters encounter. Life doesn’t always hand us teachable moments, nor do we find answers in the immediate aftermath of major events. It’s how we process our experiences into making the choices that feel right to us that truly matters.

 

 

 

 

Rating: 5/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

Review: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Book: Grave Mercy
Author: Robin LaFevers
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release date: April 3, 2012
Source: eARC from NetGalley
Series: His Fair Assassin #1

 

Summary from Goodreads:

Why be the sheep, when you can be the wolf?

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous giftsâ??and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittanyâ??where she finds herself woefully under preparedâ??not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Deathâ??s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

First impressions: YOU GUYS. LADY NUN ASSASSINS. Enough said.

Lasting impressions: Ismae may be one of my favorite heroines of all time. She’s up there with Claire Randall, vying for the top spot. She’s smart, humble, kind, merciful, and oh yeah – a stealthy handmaiden of death.

Conflicting impressions: While the convent was a large focus of the first part of this book, the ending didn’t tie up many loose ends in that regard. I have a feeling much of this information will become the focus in later books, but I felt a little jilted in this book when it came to Sybella and some of the other sisters.

Overall impressions: It’s a historical novel with courtly intrigue and a protagonist who is a kick-ass murderer. But a nice kick-ass murderer. I would have bet anyone a million dollars that I would love this book.

Guess what? I win!

The premise of this book could never hold the weight of its own ambition without a heroine that makes the reader care about her. From the very first page, Ismae stole my heart. Trapped under an abusive father, marked by Death himself to be an outcast, and thrust into a marriage with a disgusting pig of a man, I couldn’t help but want something more for her. When she is offered a home and a purpose for her miserable life at St. Mortain’s convent, Ismae can finally start to believe in herself. 

The bulk of the novel focuses on one of Ismae’s first major assignments. She is assigned to play mistress to Lord Duval and accompany him to the Breton court to ferret out traitors that need assassinating. There is a delectable romance that builds between the two unlikely lovebirds, and I appreciated that LaFevers devoted more time to personality based obstacles than class driven ones. Yes he’s a Lord and one of the most influential men at court, and she’s just the lowly peasant girl, but that never seems to be the focus for why these two shouldn’t fall in love.

Perhaps why I loved Ismae so much was precisely because LaFevers made her more complicated than the usual historical trope. Despite her training and occupation, Ismae is an Everywoman. She’s unsure of herself and makes mistakes. She follows at times she should be leading. She trusts when she shouldn’t. Yet we don’t fault her for any of it. We understand why she makes the decisions she does, and it makes her all the more believable and compelling. 

Do I think this story needed to meander through nearly 600 pages? No. There were moments where the pacing lagged and Ismae got a bit repetitive with her musings. At its core, however, this novel has a pure soul that guides us carefully through morally complicated situations that at times benefited from a lengthier examination. As Ismae determines her true calling as Death’s handmaiden, the book culminates in one of the most spiritually enlightened moments I’ve ever experienced in fiction. 

The vast depth to this book offers pure pleasure to the reader. If you’re willing to invest the time, it will heap its rewards upon you. There’s a reason for the hype, and this one definitely lives up to it.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

 

Review: Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver

Book: Pandemonium
Author: Lauren Oliver
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release date: February 28, 2012
Series: Delirium #2

Summary from Goodreads: Iâ??m pushing aside the memory of my nightmare,
pushing aside thoughts of Alex,
pushing aside thoughts of Hana and my old school,
push,
push,
push,
like Raven taught me to do.
The old life is dead.
But the old Lena is dead too.
I buried her.
I left her beyond a fence,
behind a wall of smoke and flame.

Lauren Oliver delivers an electrifying follow-up to her acclaimed New York Times bestseller, Delirium. This riveting, brilliant novel crackles with the fire of fierce defiance, forbidden romance, and the sparks of a revolution about to ignite.

**slight spoilers for book one contained in this review**

First impressions: I had no clue what to expect with this book. I liked Delirium, but had some major issues with the premise of a society that views love as a disease. It kept me from fully enjoying Lena and Alex’s story, despite beautiful writing. I went in to this one with some hesitation as a result, which turned out to be completely unnecessary.

Lasting impressions: This may be one of the only times I recommend reading a first book just so you can read the second one. This sequel was a thousand times more enjoyable for me than Delirium, and no matter what your feelings on the first book, this is a fantastic read that nearly stands on its own.

Conflicting impressions: I thought Julian changed his ideals and morality a bit too quickly and conveniently. It definitely added tension to Lena’s storyline, but I found it hard to swallow that he would be so afraid and disgusted by Lena’s affliction of delirium, only to fall victim to it a few days or weeks later with no internal conflict.

Overall impressions: When we left Lena at the end of Delirium, she had made it past the wall into The Wilds, and her love Alex had been captured in Portland. This book picks up immediately after, with Lena injured and heartbroken at the assumed death of Alex. She is saved by a group of people on the outside, who take her into their community and nurse her back to health. As she gets stronger and more determined to live life free of the cure, she begins to take on more advanced assignments within their group’s resistance efforts.

Lena experiences some major growing pains in this book. She is alone in spirit, fending for herself for the first time. She makes some acquaintances with her new family in the wilderness, but on the outside people are harder and have been through so much pain that they build emotional walls to fill the place of the physical ones of their old lives. Raven, the mothering leader, is tough as nails while holding tenuously to her desire to care for others. She and Lena have an interesting dynamic that is at times competitive and at times friendly. It’s hard to fully trust her, despite the fact that she seems to do what’s best.

Things really ramp up when Lena is sent to a public rally to spy on a young uncured named Julian. Lena winds up being kidnapped with him and despite his fear of her as a delirium victim, he feels drawn to her. They share some touching moments during captivity and Julian begins to fall for Lena. As they work to escape, navigating their feelings becomes equally treacherous as their harrowing situations. Lena is conflicted about her remaining feelings for Alex, and Julian has been brought up to despise everything that Lena stands for. It’s an interesting dynamic ripe with tension.

The book is full of exciting action and beautiful prose. I appreciated the chance to follow Lena outside the contstrained life in Portland, and following her through the wilderness and into New York City brought a fresh perspective that was so much fun to read. The story is told through chapters that alternate between a 6 month timeframe, labeled “now” and “then.” In the now chapters, we follow Lena and Julian’s exploits, and in the then chapters we see how Lena made her way from Portland to Raven’s crew. When the stories ultimately collide at the end, Lauren Oliver drops another bomb on us (though ultimately not that surprising) and leaves us with another uncertain ending that begs for continuation. It was an appropriate end to this section of Lena’s story, but I anxiously await the third book to see what comes next for Lena.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

Review: Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

Book: Airborn
Author: Kenneth Oppel
Publisher: Eos
Release date: May 11, 2004
Source: Borrowed from library

Summary from Goodreads: Matt Cruse is a cabin boy on the Aurora, a huge airship that sails hundreds of feet above the ocean, ferrying wealthy passengers from city to city. It is the life Matt’s always wanted; convinced he’s lighter than air, he imagines himself as buoyant as the hydrium gas that powers his ship. One night he meets a dying balloonist who speaks of beautiful creatures drifting through the skies. It is only after Matt meets the balloonist’s granddaughter that he realizes that the man’s ravings may, in fact, have been true, and that the creatures are completely real and utterly mysterious.

In a swashbuckling adventure reminiscent of Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson, Kenneth Oppel, author of the best-selling Silverwing trilogy, creates an imagined world in which the air is populated by transcontinental voyagers, pirates, and beings never before dreamed of by the humans who sail the skies.

First impressions: Be still my beating, swooning heart! Kenneth Oppel wastes no time jumping into the action of this story, and it completely sucked me in. I so love when books do that.

Lasting impressions: Absolutely pitch perfect. Full of excitement, adventure, and mystery, this one grabs you and never lets go.

Conflicting impressions: None. Seriously.

Overall impressions: If I learned one thing from this book it’s that airships are so my thing.

Fans of Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series will love this book as much as I did. Matt Cruse, our confident protagonist, is very similar to Westerfeld’s Deryn Sharp. He is so comfortable in the air he feels as if he could fly. He lost his father to a horrible airship accident. He has to take a post as a cabin boy to help pay the bills, but he also really and truly loves working on a ship. If there’s anyone who has found his place in the world, it’s Matt.

On a routine flight across the Pacific, Matt’s ship encounters an adrift hot air balloon with a few secrets contained within the pilot’s journal. On the next flight, Matt meets the pilot’s granddaughter, Kate de Vries. Kate is precocious, intelligent, stubborn, and a bit of a princess. She comes from the upper class and has a hard time taking no for an answer. Matt, as a lowly cabin boy, soon finds himself dragged into Kate’s exploits as she pursues the mysterious creatures her grandfather had discovered.

But Matt is not all passive. Part of his journey is finding his voice and learning to exploit his own capabilities in the face of hardship. Through the course of the book, Matt faces pirates (several times) and crashes and strange flying cats (oh my!), and still manages to keep his brain on straight. Younger readers will chew through this one!

If you’ve never tried steampunk, this is a superb place to start. It’s light on complicated gadgets and heavy on interesting characters and setting. Matt is brave and quick, and his story will capture your heart.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

Review: Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen

Book: Scarlet
Author: A. C. Gaughen
Publisher: Walker Childrens
Release date: February 14, 2012
Source: eARC from NetGalley

Summary from Goodreads: Many readers know the tale of Robin Hood, but they will be swept away by this new version full of action, secrets, and romance.

Posing as one of Robin Hoodâ??s thieves to avoid the wrath of the evil Thief Taker Lord Gisbourne, Scarlet has kept her identity secret from all of Nottinghamshire. Only the Hood and his band know the truth: the agile thief posing as a whip of a boy is actually a fearless young woman with a secret past. Helping the people of Nottingham outwit the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham could cost Scarlet her life as Gisbourne closes in.

Itâ??s only her fierce loyalty to Robinâ??whose quick smiles and sharp temper have the rare power to unsettle herâ??that keeps Scarlet going and makes this fight worth dying for.

First impressions: I have to confess up front that I almost put this book down after the first few pages. I found Scarlet’s speech patterns to be jarringly irritating (she uses “were” instead of “was,” as in “I were truly bothered by the way she kept saying ‘were.'”).

Lasting impressions: Dialect choices aside, this is a thrilling adventure about life in Robin Hood’s gang from the perspective of a girl who can’t see past her own perceived failings to recognize the strength she carries within herself.

Conflicting impressions: See first impressions, above. Eventually I got over it, and I’m so glad I stuck with it, but it’s never a good thing when a character’s voice is initially so off-putting.

Overall impressions: It’s probably not my best idea to write this review immediately after finishing this (amazing, stupendous, terrific) book, because all I want to do is heap (amazing, stupendous, terrific) accolades upon it and call it a night.

Despite all of my grumblings about Scarlet’s dialect, she wormed her way into my heart. While approaching a particularly poignant revelation about three-quarters of the way through the book, I reached my train stop on my way to work and got disturbingly grumpy about having to stop reading for THREE WHOLE HOURS until lunch. Yet when I got home with merely fifteen percent of the book left to read, I savored it because I couldn’t bear for this to be the end of my journey with Scar and Rob.

I’m generally hit-or-miss with retellings, but this one knocked it out of the park. Perhaps my fond memories of Kevin Costner heaving that glorious mullet through a Bryan-Adams-soundtracked Sherwood Forest had something to do with my excitement for a new Robin Hood tale. (Don’t act like you didn’t see – and love – that movie.) Maybe I’m just a sucker for do-gooder redemption stories with tough, knife-wielding heroines. Whatever the case may be, it’s safe to say that this one is going on the Special Shelf.

Scarlet, a girl on the run from a secretive and damaged past, has taken up with Robin Hood and operates among the townfolk as Will Scarlet to keep her identity as a girl under wraps. Robin, John Little, and Much are all aware that she’s a girl, and although this fact keeps her as somewhat of an outsider among their band, Scarlet can hold her own in a fight. She has a hard time fully trusting her brothers for reasons not fully understood until they are painfully and slowly (in a good way) extricated throughout the narrative.

Things start to get overly complicated for Scar when the thief taker Gisbourne shows up in Nottingham. She’s been on the run from him, but won’t tell Robin why. Between the visible fear the usually unflappable Scarlet exhibits around Gisbourne, and the hints of a growing attraction between Scarlet and John, Robin starts to worry that Scarlet is endangering their band. Scarlet is all too aware that things are spiraling out of control, but as the Sheriff ratchets up the violence against innocent townspeople, she can’t help but try to save them to put right what she feels has been a lifetime of wrongs she has committed. Fighting her past as well as her suppressed feelings for Robin, she is losing her grip on her destiny she has tried so hard to control, and it may be too late for her to give everyone their happy ending.

The romance and internal conflicts are expertly handled, and though this is a familiar tale, there are plenty of twists and surprises to keep you guessing. Scarlet is a lovable, heart-breaking girl who absolutely enthralled me, and the men vying for her attention are equally engrossing. You River of Time series Luca fans will swoon over John Little, whose charming personality forgives his skirt-chasing ways. And what can I say about Robin Hood? He’s dashing, brilliant, and has a heart of gold. He wants to take all of the pain in the world upon himself to protect those around him. What’s not to love?

You must read this (amazing, stupendous, terrific) book. Right now. If you read one book this year, let it be this one. And in case I’m not being clear, I’m telling you that this is a really good read. Do you see what happens when I review (amazing, stupendous, terrific) books right after finishing them and just before bed? I’m reduced to spewing gobs of praise in every imaginable form and hoping that some part of it seeps through your eyeballs and into your synapses that then march you into your bookstore to pick up a copy.

If it worked, be sure to let me know.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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Review: Saving June by Hannah Harrington

Book: Saving June
Author: Hannah Harrington
Publisher: Harlequin
Release date: November 22, 2011
Source: Review copy received via NetGalley

Summary: (from Goodreads) â??If sheâ??d waited less than two weeks, sheâ??d be June who died in June. But I guess my sister didnâ??t consider that.â??

Harper Scottâ??s older sister has always been the perfect one so when June takes her own life a week before her high school graduation, sixteen-year-old Harper is devastated. Everyoneâ??s sorry, but no one can explain why.

When her divorcing parents decide to split her sisterâ??s ashes into his-and-her urns, Harper takes matters into her own hands. Sheâ??ll steal the ashes and drive cross-country with her best friend, Laney, to the one place June always dreamed of going California.

Enter Jake Tolan. Heâ??s a boy with a bad attitude, a classic-rock obsession and nothing in common with Harperâ??s sister. But Jake had a connection with June, and when he insists on joining them, Harperâ??s just desperate enough to let him. With his alternately charming and infuriating demeanour and his belief that music can see you through anything, he might be exactly what she needs.

Except June wasnâ??t the only one hiding something. Jakeâ??s keeping a secret that has the power to turn Harperâ??s life upside down again.

First impressions: Can Harper be my new book BFF? In the first few scenes she is funny, irreverent, rebellious, and sympathetic. She is the most authentic teenager I’ve read, perhaps ever.

Lasting impressions: Beautiful. Heartbreaking. Magical. Hilarious. Although this one hit close to home for me, it was wonderfully cathartic.

Conflicting impressions: I can’t think of anything that didn’t work for me in this book.

Overall impressions: Harper has lived in the shadow of her sister her whole life, unable to understand why she doesn’t have June’s innate ability to exceed everyone’s expectations. Feeling like the loser letdown of a daughter, Harper has carefully constructed a persona to match her perceived failings – black nail polish, a wall of truancy and detention slips, smoking cigarettes. June is the golden child and she is the black sheep, invisible to her warring parents.

When June commits suicide, there is no note, and everyone struggles to understand why she did it. Harper feels the weight of being the one that’s left, and has a hard time shaking the feeling that everyone thinks the wrong sister died. While going through her sister’s things, Harper finds a mix CD that June had been listening to right before she died, as well as a postcard of California – the one place June had always wanted to go.

Jake Tolan is a boy who seems to have no ties to June, but shows up at the wake. After Harper discovers June was tutoring him, and that he works in a record store, she realizes he made the mix CD. Soon Harper, Jake, and Harper’s best friend Laney have concocted a plan to drive to California and put June’s ashes to rest in the place where she wanted to belong. June wanted nothing so much as to escape the pressures of life and family, and to be free to do and be whatever she wanted, and Harper is determined to make that happen as a final gift to her sister.

As Harper experiences impromptu protests, concerts, and landmarks, and shares these exciting adventures with new people, she begins to find herself. The road trip experience is full of powerful moments that reveal things about her desires and strengths, as well as her feelings about her sister. We don’t watch Harper change as a result of the trip, we watch her discover that the person she has been all along is nothing less than her sister. She has always been strong and capable, but her fears and insecurity colored her perception of herself.

Harper is without a doubt one of the best characters I read this year. I related to her and her struggles on so many levels, from her inability to cry at a funeral, to her need to just run away from it all and so something meaningful for the person she feels she failed the most. Hannah Harrington has written a girl so complete that I had a hard time believing she wasn’t real. Harper lives far beyond these pages, showing us the way teenaged girls really think and feel.

This book is one that will definitely stick with me. With a love story that seemed genuine in its slow growth, and an exploration of music through the eyes of Jake Tolan that provides a perfect soundtrack to Harper’s journey, this one is full of life and memories. For anyone who’s lost someone close to them, especially from suicide, this is a cathartic story that allows us to process our feelings alongside Harper. This is a powerful treasure that should not be missed.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Book: The Night Circus
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Publisher: Doubleday
Release date: September 13, 2011
Source: Borrowed from local library, then bought

Summary: (from Goodreads) The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underwayâ??a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into loveâ??a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

Written in rich, seductive prose, this spell-casting novel is a feast for the senses and the heart.

First impressions: Opening a debut novel in 2nd person narrative is ballsy. But, oh man, did it work in this case. By introducing the reader to the wonder that is this night circus through gorgeous prose and the immediacy of the perspective, we are hooked from the first sentence. The circus arrives without warning.

Lasting impressions: I relished this book in a way that rarely happens for me – slowly. For the week I spent reading it, I rarely thought of anything else, yet I prolonged the reading experience in order to get the most out of it. This is a book that inspires reflection in all of the best ways, and rewards you for taking the time to read every word carefully. The story builds slowly, but purposefully, until the exciting climax threatens to turn the entire world of these characters upside down. It’s a beautiful journey to witness.

Conflicting impressions: I confess that I read all of the negative reviews of this book first. Surely no book could live up to the kind of magical hype this book has had heaped upon it, right? So I read the most blistering, scathing reviews, preparing myself for a slow, boring, overly dense novel with wooden characters and little action. And you know what I got? Subtle characters deftly written by a master puppeteer. Erin Morgenstern fills the pages with lush details, yes, but they all serve to inform us about the characters and the setting. I understood this world so well that I wanted to live in it for as long as possible, which is why I took so damn long to finish it. And why I bought a copy for my shelf the day before I returned my library book. I didn’t want a single day to go by without having this book in my possession.

Overall impressions: This book is magical, but not because it contains magic. This is not Harry Potter. Our young protagonists learn magic through natural ability and frustrating lessons by their parental figures – no straightforward schoolteachers to be found. They learn through trial and error, cruelty, and their own perseverance and curiosity.

Celia and Marco do not spend a lot of time in each other’s company, and as readers we are often much more knowledgeable than our characters. For me, this made the plot that much more enjoyable, as I had an inkling of where the story was going, but no idea how it was going to get there. As the story unfolded, I was more than willing to go along for the ride. This is a novel you either succumb to completely, or resign yourself to frustration. I think by the end of the first few chapters any reader will be able to tell if this is the book for him/her.

The Night Circus has rich period details, lots of colorful characters, and more than a handful of intrigue. This was not only one of my favorite books of the year, but one of my favorite books, period. If you’re looking to be entertained by something truly fresh and surprising, you must get your hands on this one.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system