…and In With the New!

The year 2013 is done, and so my many challenges have come to an end. I’ve updated my 2013 Challenge Index and overall I did pretty well, though some areas definitely could use some improvement. Here’s a quick recap of how I did on my reading challenges:

2013 Goodreads Challenge: 130/75 books read

My previous high (since I started tracking everything I read on Goodreads) was 120 books in 2011. In 2012 I had a pitiful 50 books read. This year, I was glad to get back on track and I blew my conservative estimate out of the water. I think I reached my initial goal of 75 books by July or August! 

Debut Author Challenge: 4/12 books read

Once again, I didn’t read very many debuts. My self-imposed restriction on advance review copies has limited my access to debut author books, and they are harder to find at the library. I also found that I love reading new authors, just not necessarily debut authors.

Seriously Series Challenge: 12/12 series read

My focus for this challenge was to get up to the last book in a series that I had already purchased. I ended up getting quite a few from the library too. I’m happy I finally caught up on the Black Dagger Brotherhood, and I also finally read the entire trilogies of Across the Universe and the Infernal Devices. 

Get Steampunked Challenge: 5/5 books read

I managed to read more than my goal of five books, actually. I read 9! My favorite was the first in a new series combining steampunk and faeries, A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz.

Off the Shelves Challenge: 20/50 books read

I did better than last year, but still not as great as I would have liked. I made copious use of the library this year, and my shelves suffered as a result. I’m doing two challenges on Goodreads this year that focus on whittling down our TBR lists, so hopefully I can exceed this number in 2014.

Graphic Novels Challenge: 6/12 books read

I think I read all 6 of these in January and then promptly ignored my collection after that. I acquired two new graphic novels this year, one of which I’m reading for my YA book club in the spring. It would be nice if I could read another 6 this year.

Back to the Classics Challenge: 2/6 books read

I had so hoped to devote some time to the classics this year, but this was a pretty spectacular fail. I only read one of the required six, and read one alternate. I think in 2014 I’ll consider it a win if I read just one!

TBR Pile Challenge: 6/12 books read

There’s no cheating in this challenge run by Roof Beam Reader. The lists were set even before 2013 began, and I did pretty well. Ultimately, the rest of the list just didn’t appeal to me over the newer, shinier choices as the year progressed. 

Authors After Dark Challenge: 2/8 books read

I thought I would do better in this one this year, given the amount of PNR/UF I read. Turns out I just read a bunch of authors who happened not to be going to AAD. After two years of limping to the finish, I think it’s time to give this challenge a rest.

Literary Exploration Challenge: 33/36 books read

I came so very close to finishing this one, but just ran out of time. The five books I had left included a play and some sonnets – easy and quick reads. But the others I couldn’t quite sneak in. I had a lot of fun challenging myself to read such varied genres, and I struggled with the ones I expected to find more difficult. In many ways, however, it was easier than I expected. I learned that I tend to read in a lot more genres than I thought. This challenge has its own widget and group on Goodreads for easy tracking, and they’re offering it again in 2014 if any of you are interested in giving it a try.

Book to Movie Challenge: 6/6 books read and movies watched

This was the most fun to complete, I think. It helped that there were so many new movies this year based on great books. I saw Beautiful Creatures, The Great Gatsby, Ender’s Game, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and snuck in two oldies: The Princess Bride and One Day. I managed to read Austenland, The Book Thief, and Carrie, but didn’t get a chance to see the movie adaptations. I also haven’t seen City of Bones yet.

Did I miss any biggies? What book to movie adaptations did you see this year?

That’s it for my challenge round-up. Are you doing any challenges this year?

 

 

 

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Review: Splintered by A. G. Howard

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Alice in Wonderland is one of those tales that is so pervasive you feel like you’ve read it, even if you haven’t. Though I have never read Lewis Carroll’s classic book, I probably watched my old VHS tape of this ridiculously cheesy 1985 TV miniseries about a hundred times. I’ve seen the Disney version and the Johnny Depp version. And I’ve loved them all.

This modern take on Alice’s story imagines our protagonist, Alyssa, as a descendant of the Alice who lived and inspired Carroll’s stories. Along with a similar name, she is in line to inherit the psychological madness that is passed from female descendant to female descendant. Her mother is locked in an asylum, and Alyssa tries very hard to convince herself that she can’t hear the voices starting to appear in her head. She’s a cool skater girl into art and bugs and other Things That Are Dark And Twisty.

The coolest thing about this book is the brilliant display of imagination on the part of author A. G. Howard. I only wish I could think up stuff this vivid and exciting. When Alyssa goes down the rabbit hole, we get a version of Wonderland that is fresh and new without being unfamiliar. Carroll’s characters pop up, but in different forms than you might expect. I don’t want to spoil the fun of discovery, but I will say that the White Rabbit is not just a rabbit – he’s much creepier than that.

If you’re tired of love triangles, consider yourselves warned. Alyssa is into the boy next door, Jeb, and while in Wonderland starts to fall under the spell of the difficult and dark Morpheus. Morpheus acts as a sort of guide and childhood friend of Alyssa’s on the Wonderland side of things, while Jeb is her friend and protector on the reality side. Morpheus is certainly the more interesting and mysterious of the two, but his sketchy motives later in the story made me not like him as much.

If I had one complaint about this book, it’s that those motives, and the plot, got a little confusing toward the end. I had a hard time following what was happening because the history was so rich and complex. The politics of the Red Queen and White Queen and Morpheus’s place in the middle of all of it overwhelmed me, and I’m still not entirely sure I absorbed it all. I kept having to go back and re-read sections to track who supposedly did what and to what end, and what they really meant when they did them, versus what everyone else thought they were doing.

Did you get that? Yeah. Me either.

Fuzzy plot or not, this was a really enjoyable story. I loved seeing such a cool concept from a debut author, too! I picked this one up at the library because I couldn’t find it at the store, and the cover is absolutely stunning. The text is a beautiful dusty purple color. Normally I’m not a fan of colored print in books, but for some reason this really worked for me. If you’re in the market for a beautiful book for your shelf and want to support a debut author with a fantastic story, I recommend this one.

Rating: 4/5 stars

[rating stars=”four-stars”]

2013 Debut Author Challenge

 

The Debut Author Challenge is hosted by Hobbitsies this year! 

The goal of this challenge is to read at least 12 books by authors writing their debut middle grade or young adult novel. The challenge runs from January 1, 2013 to January 31, 2014, with the extra month to give us time to read the end of year debuts. I hesitated over this one because I’m trying to keep the acquisition of new books to a minimum, but ultimately I couldn’t resist. I love supporting new authors too much! 

This year, in addition to the monthly link-ups, the monthly and grand prize giveaways are back! Every review gets you entered for the monthly prize. New this year is a Goodreads group where you can track your progress and chat with participants.

Sign up here!

My list so far:

  1. Splintered by A.G. Howard
  2. Touch of Death by Kelly Hashway
  3. Coda  by Emma Trevayne
  4. Pantomime by Laura Lam
  5. Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson
  6. Prophecy of Oz by Megan Shan
  7. The Cadet of Tildor by Alex Lidell
  8. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve Tucholke
  9. The Beautiful and the Cursed by Page Morgan
  10. Dualed by Elsie Chapman
  11. Midnight City by J. Barton Mitchell
  12. The Summer I Became a Nerd by Leah Rae Miller

Check my progress all year on the sidebar or on my 2013 Challenge Index.

Happy New Year!

I hope everyone had incredibly happy holidays and had a great New Year’s Day. I spent the majority of my holidays traveling, so I’m looking forward to some time at home the next few months!

In reflecting over the past blogging year, I took some time today to update my 2012 Challenge Index. Here’s a quick recap of how I did on my reading challenges:

2012 Goodreads Challenge: 50/100 books read

Compared to the 120 books I read in 2011, this is a pitiful number. I’m not sure why I read so many fewer books this year, but I think I simply wasn’t as motivated to power through so many review copies. I focused much more on library books and didn’t pressure myself to read quickly. I’ve adjusted my 2013 challenge to 75 as a “split the difference” strategy between my 2011 and 2012 reading goals.

Debut Author Challenge: 6/12 books read

I read far fewer review books this year. I even had my NetGalley account deactivated and changed my review policy so that I no longer accept advance copies at all. As a result, I read fewer debuts as their availability at the library is more limited than older titles, and I only purchased a couple of them. I probably won’t participate in this challenge anymore.

YA Historical Fiction Challenge: 6/10 books read

This is a favorite genre, so I’m not surprised I got closer to completing this one. I was derailed by finding lots more adult historical fiction this year, which doesn’t count for this particular challenge. I think I’ll try a less narrow genre challenge this year.

Get Steampunked Challenge: 3/15 books read

Yikes! I’m surprised I didn’t get through more of these. I have amassed a large selection of steampunk books this year, so now I need to get to actually reading them. I’ll be signing up for this one again.

Off the Shelves Challenge: 1/30 books read

At least it’s not zero! This was a challenge to read books sitting on my shelves, which did not happen (obviously). Because my book horde is approaching unmanageable proportions, this is a MAJOR goal of mine in 2013 – read the books I already own before I buy (or borrow) old ones. The library is proving to be the toughest competition, because I justify borrowing books because they are free, but doing so does nothing to increase the books read on my shelves. I am definitely doing at least a couple of TBR-oriented challenges this year to get my butt in gear!

Books Started But Not Finished Challenge: 2/6 books read

The idea here was to finish books from my short list of abandoned titles. It did not go well. There’s usually a reason I didn’t finish them, so most of these titles just didn’t appeal to me over shiny new books that might be the best book ever. I’ll give this challenge a miss in the future.

Graphic Novels Challenge: 0/12 books read

Another embarrassing failure. Because my graphic novel collection is precious to me, I don’t really want to take them out of my house. This means I don’t take them on the train, which is where I do most of my reading. Still, I plan to keep the same list and try again with this challenge. I can usually finish a graphic novel in a relatively short amount of time, so I need to pick a gloomy weekend this winter and get through a few at a time. Maybe that should be the primary focus of a read-a-thon?

Why Buy the Cow? Challenge: 0/12 books read

No freebies read this year. I also think I acquired very few (if any) of them. I have plenty of paid-for books to read, and I’m not really interested in glutting my Kindle with more freebies. Unless it’s a title I’ve been itching to read anyway, no thanks. After two years in a row of failing, I won’t be doing this challenge again.

Speculative Romance Challenge: 3/12 books read

This was another one that surprised me. I really thought I would read more than that in this genre. Instead of doing a strict romance genre challenge, I’ll be substituting the Seriously Series challenge, since I have so many UF/PNR series books in my TBR pile.

Dusty Volumes Challenge: 3/6 books read

Finishing half of my list is a definite step up from 2011, so I’m happy with that number. It’s entirely thanks to the Austen in August event hosted by Roof Beam Reader that I even got this far! I don’t think Midnyte Reader is hosting this again (so I’ll probably do her Authors After Dark challenge instead), but I’ll attempt a different classics challenge, since I have a good list in mind that I want to finish this year. 

Outlander Reading Challenge: 1/6 books read

This didn’t turn out to be a big priority for me, so it fell to the back of the pack. I know I’ll get to the rest of these eventually, but I don’t need a challenge to do so.

1st in a Series Challenge: 9/12 books read

I did the best in this challenge, partly because I like starting series, and partly because it’s hard to find books these days that aren’t part of a series.

Finishing the Series Challenge: 1/3 series finished

I guess I got too distracted by new series to finish the ones I’ve already started!


Now, on to 2013!

In the coming weeks I’ll be posting challenge sign-ups and getting my 2013 index ready. It felt really good to update links and do, well, anything, blog-related. Maybe this year I can get around to posting my challenge progress bar widgets to help keep me on track. 🙂

 

 

 

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: Cross My Heart by Sasha Gould

Book: Cross My Heart
Author: Sasha Gould
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Release date: March 13, 2012
Source: eARC from NetGalley

Summary from Goodreads: Venice, 1585.

When 16-year-old Laura della Scala learns that her older sister, Beatrice, has drowned, she is given no time to grieve. Instead, Laura’s father removes her from the convent where he forcibly sent her years earlier and orders her to marry Beatrice’s fiancé, a repulsive old merchant named Vincenzo. Panicked, Laura betrays a powerful man to earn her way into the Segreta, a shadowy society of women who deal in only one currencyâ??secrets. The Segreta seems like the answer to Laura’s prayers. The day after she joins their ranks, Vincenzo is publicly humiliated and conveniently exiled. Soon, however, Laura begins to suspect that her sister’s death was not a tragic accident but a cold-blooded murderâ??one that might involve the Segreta and the women she has come to trust.

First impressions: Man, I am such a sucker for historical settings. The rich details and ominous beginning had me hooked.

Lasting impressions: A fun historical mystery that’s recommended for fans of both genres.

Conflicting impressions: The romance didn’t feel real for me, and I felt the story could have done without it.

Overall impressions: If there’s one thing I love more than historical fiction, it’s secret societies. This book offered me both, and for the most part I was not disappointed.

Laura is a pleasant protagonist, who is stuck in the most unfortunate situations for much of the book. I really rooted for her, because nobody likes to see nice people in sucky circumstances. Forced to live in a convent while her father uses all the available dowry money to try and marry off her older sister, Laura’s life is bleak. When her sister dies suddenly in a mysterious drowning, her father pulls her from the convent to use as a back-up bride.

Say it with me: ICK.

Laura goes along with this plan while out enjoying society for the first time, but soon learns that her new husband-to-be is a decrepit, dirty old man who promises nothing but a lifetime of misery. He’s skeezy in every sense of the world and I shuddered at the thought of poor Laura forced to spend the rest of her life with him.

Say it with me: DOUBLE ICK.

This is where the Segreta comes in. They are a secret society of powerful women that help make things happen in Venice. They pull strings, using the power and influence of secrets to bribe and undermine the men that rule over their lives. It’s an intriguing concept, and one that I wish had been developed a little more. We are given only the face value of this group, with no explanation into their surely rich history and inner workings. As written, it felt a little like a device used to propel Laura’s story forward instead of a vital, integrated thread of the plot.

Similarly, Laura develops a romance that was very ho-hum for me. I didn’t sense much chemistry or connection between them, and it jumped from friendly to ohmigodpleasemarryme in 4 seconds flat. Though the character provides an interesting subplot to the book, I personally would have found the book more satisfying with more emphasis on the Segreta and less on the romance.

The mystery of Laura’s sister’s death at times gets shuffled to the backburner as the story progresses, but the reveal at the end was interesting and I enjoyed the mystery component. I think fans of Renaissance Italy and mystery books will like this one as much as I did, despite its few small flaws.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

Review: Incarnate by Jodi Meadows

Book: Incarnate
Author: Jodi Meadows
Publisher: Katherine Tegen
Release date: January 31, 2012
Source: eARC from NetGalley
Series: Newsoul #1

Summary from Goodreads: NEWSOUL
Ana is new. For thousands of years in Range, a million souls have been reincarnated over and over, keeping their memories and experiences from previous lifetimes. When Ana was born, another soul vanished, and no one knows why.

NOSOUL
Even Anaâ??s own mother thinks sheâ??s a nosoul, an omen of worse things to come, and has kept her away from society. To escape her seclusion and learn whether sheâ??ll be reincarnated, Ana travels to the city of Heart, but its citizens are suspicious and afraid of what her presence means. When dragons and sylph attack the city, is Ana to blame?

HEART
Sam believes Anaâ??s new soul is good and worthwhile. When he stands up for her, their relationship blooms. But can he love someone who may live only once, and will Anaâ??s enemiesâ??human and creature alikeâ??let them be together? Ana needs to uncover the mistake that gave her someone elseâ??s life, but will her quest threaten the peace of Heart and destroy the promise of reincarnation for all?

Jodi Meadows expertly weaves soul-deep romance, fantasy, and danger into an extraordinary tale of new life.

First impressions: Without a doubt, the concept of this book had me sold from the beginning. Ana’s status as a newsoul, within this well-visioned fantasy society of recycled souls, was intriguing and captivating. I loved setting out on this journey to discover the secrets of why she is different in a world where everything is the same.

Lasting impressions: Ana and Sam were interesting characters, but the real standout here is the world where their story takes place.

Conflicting impressions: The book didn’t have enough answers for my taste. We spend the majority of the book waiting for Ana to buckle down and search for the reasons for her newsoul-ness, only to have them explained in the blink of an eye amidst too much other action. The last third of the novel threw way too much new information at me during a flurry of major events.

Overall impressions: Vexing. That’s what this novel was to me. The beginning is beautiful, brilliant, exciting, and full of so much promise! I was rooting for this book. So when the ending fell flat for me, I wanted to scream and smash things. Consider me thoroughly vexed.

At first, the mysteries of the book completely captivated me. Ana is the first completely new person, and we as readers are as desperate to find out why as she is. Ana has led a somewhat sheltered life, interacting only with her abusive mother, so when she sets out on her journey there is a lot she doesn’t understand. I loved being a part of her discovery of her world.

Secrets are everywhere, and the tension arising from this fact is delicious. Ana doesn’t know who to trust, and neither do we. Everyone seems to be hiding something, particularly Sam, and part of the fun of the novel is trying to ferret out the truth from the clues given. I felt there were lots of times when I was picking up on things that Ana’s past couldn’t let her see, and it was a really enjoyable reading experience.

That led to an even bigger disappointment, however, when so few of these hints and clues amounted to anything. Ana never calls anyone out on their sketchy behavior. She never notices the small things that seem so obvious to the reader. Worst of all, things that we are led to believe are significant turn out not to be. For instance, Sam in his past lives has constantly been targeted by the dragons that periodically attack town, and he wonders if that’s true or just his imagination or coincidence, but we never find out. The idea is simply dropped. Similarly, Ana has a unique and strange reaction to the pulsing walls that surround the city of Heart and make up the sacred temple, and this is likewise never explored but instead left to dangle like an errant thread.

I kept waiting for that “a-ha!” moment when answers would be revealed and Ana would have some peace, but it never came. I feel cheated out of a whole, complete novel, and wish things would have wrapped up in a way to give us some more answers before plunging on into the next book. It’s a shame that I’m not looking forward to the next installment in this series, because it truly started out in all the right ways.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

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

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

Review: Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

Book: Shatter Me
Author: Tahereh Mafi
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release date: November 15, 2011
Source: ARC received from Around the World Tours
Series: Shatter Me #1

Summary: (from Goodreads) Juliette hasn’t touched anyone in exactly 264 days. The last time she did, it was an accident, but The Reestablishment locked her up for murder. No one knows why Juliette’s touch is fatal. As long as she doesn’t hurt anyone else, no one really cares. The world is too busy crumbling to pieces to pay attention to a 17-year-old girl. Diseases are destroying the population, food is hard to find, birds don’t fly anymore, and the clouds are the wrong color.

The Reestablishment said their way was the only way to fix things, so they threw Juliette in a cell. Now so many people are dead that the survivors are whispering war – and The Reestablishment has changed its mind. Maybe Juliette is more than a tortured soul stuffed into a poisonous body. Maybe she’s exactly what they need right now.

Juliette has to make a choice: Be a weapon. Or be a warrior.

In this electrifying debut, Tahereh Mafi presents a world as riveting as The Hunger Games and a superhero story as thrilling as The X-Men. Full of pulse-pounding romance, intoxicating villainy, and high-stakes choices, Shatter Me is a fresh and original dystopian novel â?? with a paranormal twist â?? that will leave readers anxiously awaiting its sequel.

First impressions: Juliette is a beautiful character. From the beginning, we are alone in her thoughts, as she whiles away her time in isolation. Her touch kills people, and for the last 264 days she has been alone in a wreck of a psychiatric hospital/jail with only a window and a notebook to pass the time. I fell in love with this sweet girl who dreamed of birds in flight and wished for a taste of fresh air.

Lasting impressions: Never has a title of a book been more appropriate. The writing and the characters and the world all made me want to shatter into pieces. Though the ending of the story went a different direction than I anticipated, it was not unwelcome. I’m excited to see where the next chapter in Juliette’s life takes us.

Conflicting impressions: At times the stylistic prose pulled me out of the story. How many ways can Juliette describe falling to pieces? A lot. I also wish that we’d gotten more of the history of her world in order to understand Warner’s motives as the villain. He kidnaps Juliette for his own purposes, but we don’t really know what those are because Juliette is so in the dark about the world outside her cell. I felt like I was flying blind a lot of the time.

Overall impressions: Despite the aforementioned flaws, and a perhaps tired plot that feels like a re-tread of the X-Men, I still absolutely loved this book. Tahereh Mafi fills her plot with such incredible characters that I couldn’t help but be captivated by all of them.

Juliette is one of the most sympathetic characters I can remember reading recently. She has been neglected by her parents and forced to avoid human contact for her entire life. My God! I would die! Yet she has remained kind, thoughtful, and perhaps most surprising, sane. She never gives up, and I admired that about her.

Adam is a bit of an enigma. He starts off almost cruel toward Juliette, but later reveals himself as a Peeta-like admirer from afar. Working for the enemy, it takes a while for Juliette to fully trust him, but he is so pure of heart and full of love that he ultimately wins her, and the reader, over.

Warner is a great antagonist. We may not be sure of his motives, but we know he wants to have Juliette as a pawn in his war against The Reestablishment’s enemies. He will do anything to achieve this goal, and forces her to do some pretty awful things along the way. For such a smart and sadistic guy, however, he seemed awfully gullible when it came to Juliette’s feelings.

This is an interesting paranormal crossed with a dystopian setting that never failed to keep my interest. Powerful characters are all seeking to find their destiny, and the new direction Juliette’s life takes at the end of the novel will have profound consequences for the next book. I’ll definitely be looking forward to the sequel as one of my most anticipated books of 2012.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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Review: The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin

Book: The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer
Author: Michelle Hodkin
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release date: September 27, 2011
Source: ARC for review from Around the World Tours

Summary: (from Goodreads) Mara Dyer doesn’t think life can get any stranger than waking up in a hospital with no memory of how she got there.
It can.

She believes there must be more to the accident she can’t remember that killed her friends and left her mysteriously unharmed.

There is.

She doesn’t believe that after everything she’s been through, she can fall in love.

She’s wrong.

First impressions: I tried really hard to avoid reading much on this book before I read it. It was majorly hyped at BEA this year, and everyone has been buzzing about it since. I wanted to keep this one fresh, so I had few expectations. That made the beginning a lot of fun to experience, with no idea where we were going. I loved the letter up front that tells us “Mara Dyer” is a made up name to protect her identity. Mystery for the win!

Lasting impressions: Without question, the best thing in this book is the romantic interest, Noah Shaw. He is my new book boyfriend.

Conflicting impressions: Our heroine has a big change in direction in the last part of the novel, and her motivations went against the character we’d followed for so long. It made her actions disappointing and let me down as a reader.

Overall impressions: There are two big reasons you should read this book: Noah Shaw and masterful intrigue.

The entire book is spent playing catch-up, as we follow Mara Dyer trying to remember the blacked out portions of her memory where she may or may not have killed her friends. As she slowly pieces the story back together, we learn more about her and that she has strange powers that can have devastating consequences.

When she arrives in a new school for a fresh start after her family moves to Florida, she meets the notorious Noah Shaw. He’s a playboy who has worked his way through most of the female student body, but he’s not just a pretty face. He’s insanely intelligent, incredibly caring, and feisty to boot. The banter between Noah and Mara is TO DIE FOR. Noah’s witty comebacks, coupled with smoldering looks, had me fanning myself as I sped through the pages.

I was not crazy about the plot of this book once all of the information came to light toward the end. There were a few moments that didn’t make much sense to me. Noah arrives in the middle of the night and leads Mara on a crazy trek through alligator-filled water, yet she never questions him on what they’re doing. Really? Later, she makes a life-changing decision that seemed to go against everything we thought we knew about her and her feelings for her family and Noah. I didn’t understand the motivations behind that choice, beyond the obvious need for retribution.

And the ending! If you are not a fan of game-changing twists, do not read the last page. It sets up a strange new chapter that I’m not sure I want to see explored. I made the mistake of skimming the last sentence while doing a page count check, and sort of ruined it for myself, so I repeat: DO NOT read the last page of this book!

I liked the supernatural elements in this one, although I do wish we’d gotten some more information along the way. Still, the overall story was intriguing and fun to read, and I haven’t been this into a romance since Bella and Edward in Twilight. Noah is majorly swoon-worthy, and his chemistry with Mara is white hot. No matter what the novel’s other shortcomings, it is completely worth a read just to spend some time with Noah Shaw.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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