Review: Various Positions by Martha Schabas

Book: Various Positions
Author: Martha Schabas
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
Release date: February 14, 2012
Source: ARC received from Debut Author Challenge ARC Tours

Summary from Goodreads: Trapped between the hormone-driven world of her friends and the discontent of her dysfunctional family, fourteen-year-old Georgia is only completely at ease when she’s dancing. When she is accepted into Canada’s preeminent ballet school, Georgia thinks it is the perfect escape. Artistic Director Roderick Allen singles her out as a star, subjecting her to increasingly intensive training, and Georgia obsesses about becoming the perfect, disciplined student. But as she spends more and more time with Roderick, it’s not so clear exactly what their relationship means. Is he her teacher and mentor, or is there something more? These blurred lines will threaten both Roderick’s future at the academy and Georgia’s ambitions as a ballerina.

First impressions: The prologue in this book is incredibly necessary. I know some people hate them, but here it is absolutely vital to our understanding of what is to come. This is not just a ballet book. This is going to get dark, and sexual. If anything about the prologue bothers you – STOP READING.

Lasting impressions: I considered not rating this book at all, because I had such ambivalent feelings about it. Parts of it were interesting in a Black Swan kind of way, but the story meandered without much purpose for large chunks of the book.

Conflicting impressions: What was Georgia’s goal? That’s a huge question to have dangling over the entire book. I never got an answer.

Overall impressions: I am a former ballerina. I love books and movies and TV shows about ballet. I was really excited to read this book, but I very quickly realized that it had nothing to do with ballet. The ballet school serves as a setting only, and as perhaps an extension of Georgia’s slightly obsessive-compulsive personality. She is a ballet dancer because she is, and that’s supposed to be good enough for us.

Once I got past that initial disappointment, I found the teaser from the prologue to be an interesting dangling carrot. We know sweet and innocent Georgia is going to meet someone at ballet school and seduce them. What I found strange by the end of the book, and I still can’t figure it out, is that the prologue scene never reappears in the book, nor does it fit with the actual sequence of events. Was it a dream? A fantasy? Did any of it really happen? I was looking for the payoff from the prologue, and wound up with a drastically different ending than I expected.

Georgia is only 14 years old, and I found her voice inconsistent. At times she felt much, much older and at other times she seemed naive and juvenile (as I would expect from a sheltered 14 year old). Her actions snowballed rather quickly, and over the course of only a few months she experiences a kind of sexual awakening that seemed suspiciously quick. Teenagers experience a whole host of emotions and thoughts about sex that are all over the map, but Georgia goes from zero to 60 and shows no signs of stopping. I’m not sure that’s going to resonate well with teen readers.

I didn’t find Georgia’s actions to be as disturbing as some other reviewers did, but the one aspect of the book that made me uncomfortable was that the reader had to essentially root for Georgia to act on her feelings for her teacher. To my mind, that’s the only goal Georgia was trying to achieve throughout the book, and it was weird to be dragged along on this escapade.

She expresses no thoughts on becoming a grand ballerina, doesn’t focus on the future in the slightest, and makes no effort to do anything besides passively fall in with a group of outgoing classmates and find time to be alone with her teacher. I desperately wanted Georgia to DO something or WANT something, but instead she simply reports on things as they happened. I didn’t understand how her family dynamic impacted the plot, and they gave us very little additional insight into her character.

At the end of the day, I must admit that I simply didn’t get the point of the book. It was an interesting, bizarre, dark little story that is recommended only for older readers.

Rating: 2/5 stars

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Review: Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

Book: Under the Never Sky
Author: Veronica Rossi
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release date: February 28, 2012
Source: ARC received from Around the World Tours

Summary from Goodreads: Aria is a teenager in the enclosed city of Reverie. Like all Dwellers, she spends her time with friends in virtual environments, called Realms, accessed through an eyepiece called a Smarteye. Aria enjoys the Realms and the easy life in Reverie. When she is forced out of the pod for a crime she did not commit, she believes her death is imminent. The outside world is known as The Death Shop, with danger in every direction.

As an Outsider, Perry has always known hunger, vicious predators, and violent energy storms from the swirling electrified atmosphere called the Aether. A bit of an outcast even among his hunting tribe, Perry withstands these daily tests with his exceptional abilities, as he is gifted with powerful senses that enable him to scent danger, food and even human emotions.

They come together reluctantly, for Aria must depend on Perry, whom she considers a barbarian, to help her get back to Reverie, while Perry needs Aria to help unravel the mystery of his beloved nephewâ??s abduction by the Dwellers. Together they embark on a journey challenged as much by their prejudices as by encounters with cannibals and wolves. But to their surprise, Aria and Perry forge an unlikely love – one that will forever change the fate of all who live UNDER THE NEVER SKY.

First impressions: The initial scenes in this book are dark, futuristic, and set up the conflict surrounding the world. Aria and some friends break into a compound in their city of Reverie, where everyone stays indoors for fear of disease and death in the atmosphere outside and communicates through SmartEye devices that allow virtual interaction in various imagined worlds. When the break-in goes horribly awry, Aria finds herself in danger and is saved by a tattooed tribal man from the outside real world, although this has even more profound consequences.

Lasting impressions: I think some more information on the rules of these worlds and societies would have made this reading experience more enjoyable. Though the mix of sci-fi and fantasy elements seemed interesting at first, by the end it all seemed like too many different ideas thrown into a giant mixing bowl, muddying the entire concept.

Conflicting impressions: If you’re going to have a book about two characters falling in love, it helps if they have chemistry. I did not connect at all with either Aria or Perry, so their love story became something of a snooze.

Overall impressions: I’m having the hardest time pinpointing what it is that didn’t work for me in this book. There were lots of individual elements that were interesting and exciting – the stormy Aether atmosphere, the Blood Lords and the tribal sensory enhancements, the Dwellers and their futuristic SmartEyes – but somehow when it all got put together it created a book that got bogged down by the weight of all of these Big Ideas.

Aria is a nice enough main character. She’s strong, gets by mostly without complaining, despite some pretty awful situations. Perry is more interesting in that he has this heightened sense of smell and is constantly at odds with his Blood Lord brother. He spends most of the book nobly trying to save his nephew, but treats Aria pretty brusquely. I knew at some point these characters were going to fall in love, because that’s the way things work in books, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why they would want to be together. They didn’t seem to connect in any realistic way.

At the end there are some reveals that are a bit predictable, and set up some action for the future, but overall this book didn’t pack enough punch for me. I didn’t have enough information to fully invest in either the characters or the worlds they were fighting, so it ended up falling a bit flat.

Rating: 2/5 stars

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Review: Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins

Book: Lola and the Boy Next Door
Author: Stephanie Perkins
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Release date: September 29, 2011
Source: ARC received for review from Around the World Tours
Series: Companion novel to Anna and the French Kiss
 
Summary: (from Goodreads) Budding designer Lola Nolan doesnâ??t believe in fashion . . . she believes in costume. The more expressive the outfit – more sparkly, more fun, more wild – the better. But even though Lolaâ??s style is outrageous, sheâ??s a devoted daughter and friend with some big plans for the future. And everything is pretty perfect (right down to her hot rocker boyfriend) until the dreaded Bell twins, Calliope and Cricket, return to the neighborhood.

When Cricket – a gifted inventor – steps out from his twin sisterâ??s shadow and back into Lolaâ??s life, she must finally reconcile a lifetime of feelings for the boy next door.

First impressions: Lola is such a refreshingly unique character! Stephanie Perkins nails the teen voice yet again.

Lasting impressions: Though I didn’t connect with this story as much as Perkins’ first novel, Anna and the French Kiss, there were elements I liked much better in this tale.

Conflicting impressions: At times Lola was written so convincingly teenaged that she became unbearably frustrating.

Overall impressions: Lola is a girl with a love of costume. She chooses to express herself in vastly different ways every day through a variety of interesting fashion pieces and wigs. It’s a chance to be someone new. I loved this quirk of hers – I suppose you could call it a personal philosophy – and it gave us an instant sense of who she is.

Lola has typical teenager problems. She’s dating a boy her parents think is too old for her, leading to insufferable weekly brunches where they grill him about his life goals. He’s in a band, has tattoos, and they are in love. Or at least they think they are.

Lola is the daughter of two gay parents, a nice touch that introduces a new dynamic in YA literature as far as relating to parents goes. Perkins does a lovely job of reinforcing the fact that gay parents are just like anyone else’s parents – at times too restrictive, sometimes embarrassing, and always loving. The wrench in this relationship is that Lola’s birth mother appears from time to time, always one step away from being homeless and never owning up to her poor choices due to drinking and drug abuse. While I loved the role of Lola’s parents, I never felt the relationship with her mother was fully developed and I didn’t get how it served the story.

Of course you’re probably wondering who is this mysterious boy next door, right? Cricket, and his twin sister, Calliope, are Lola’s next door neighbors who come and go due to Calliope’s competitive figure skating. There is some history between Lola and the Bell twins, and Perkins slowly unfurls that complicated history as Lola tries to deal with it.

For those of you who have read Anna and the French Kiss, Lola’s love triangle between her boyfriend and the boy next door felt like Etienne St. Clair trying to decide between his girlfriend and Anna. In fact, at one point Lola even has a conversation with Etienne about this very topic. As much as I wish we didn’t have a re-hash of the “I already have a boyfriend and I love him but I also kind of love you tooooo!” arc, I recognize that this is fairly typical for teenagers. When you’re young, relationships seem both eternal and frivolous at once. You think you’ve found The One, and it’s hard to let go, even if you recognize that you like this other person, too.

I was disappointed at how much Lola strung along poor Cricket, though. He was a saint for hanging in as long as he did, sort of like Anna did with Etienne, and I never fully understood what was holding Lola back. There never seemed to be too much of a conflict in ditching the boyfriend who seemed to be moving on without her, yet she still clung to him. Sure, he was her first love, but Cricket seemed like the obvious choice and that she enjoyed spending time with him far more than she did with band boy.

This is a cute romance with fresh characters, a hip San Francisco setting, and lots of teen indecision. It’s a great read if you’re looking for some light refreshment in a market flooded with dark, brooding paranormal fare.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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Review: Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Book: Glow
Author: Amy Kathleen Ryan
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Release date: September 13, 2011
Source: ARC for review from Around the World Tours

Summary: (from Goodreads) What if you were bound for a new world, about to pledge your life to someone you’d been promised to since birth, and one unexpected violent attack made survivalâ??not loveâ??the issue?

Out in the murky nebula lurks an unseen enemy: the New Horizon. On its way to populate a distant planet in the wake of Earth’s collapse, the ship’s crew has been unable to conceive a generation to continue its mission. They need young girls desperately, or their zealous leader’s efforts will fail. Onboard their sister ship, the Empyrean, the unsuspecting families don’t know an attack is being mounted that could claim the most important among them…

Fifteen-year-old Waverly is part of the first generation to be successfully conceived in deep space; she was born on the Empyrean, and the large farming vessel is all she knows. Her concerns are those of any teenagerâ??until Kieran Alden proposes to her. The handsome captain-to-be has everything Waverly could ever want in a husband, and with the pressure to start having children, everyone is sure he’s the best choice. Except for Waverly, who wants more from life than marriageâ??and is secretly intrigued by the shy, darkly brilliant Seth.

But when the Empyrean faces sudden attack by their assumed allies, they quickly find out that the enemies aren’t all from the outside.

First impressions: Heart-pumping action gets things moving right away in this sci-fi space adventure. Waverly’s ship, the Empyrean, comes under attack almost immediately, just as she’s trying to navigate the pressures of her boyfriend Kieran’s proposal.

Lasting impressions: I was disappointed in the black-and-white outlook of this one, with very little gray area explored.

Conflicting impressions: Some of the moral issues Ryan tackles throughout the novel had very little nuance. The religious zealotry and adolescent boy power struggles particularly left me cold.

Overall impressions: There’s something to be said for a book that you already know you’re not enjoying, yet compels you to keep reading it anyway. This was one of those books.

Very early on, I knew I wasn’t connecting with Waverly, and the choices made by almost every single character frustrated me. Yet I kept reading. The action is incredibly well-written, with the pace pushing you page after page, until the next thing you know, you’re halfway through the book. Too bad the entire time I was reading it, I was growing more and more horrified by the ugly and unsympathetic characters.

Kieran is a nice enough boy, but he lacks any real leadership skills, despite being set to inherit the ship from the captain. Seth is set up as an interesting counterpoint in a potential love triangle, but the minute he’s left alone with Kieran the two of them duke it out in an over-the-top power competition where they torture each other. Without any accompanying backstory, we have no other frame from which to analyze their actions, leaving the reader stuck watching two boys do very bad things without any understanding of why they’re doing them.

*very slight spoiler alert!* Over on the New Horizon, Waverly is doing the best she can to take charge of the girls who have all been kidnapped from the Empyrean. *end spoiler* Waverly turns out to be a mostly effective leader, who questions what she is told by the adults around her, and strives to rescue her friends and family that were attacked by the New Horizon’s crew. She meets their captain, Pastor Anne Mather, who is nothing but a shrill old woman who uses religion to control her ship’s passengers.

Pastor Mather could have her own post entirely. She is a villain for whom Ryan creates a sympathetic angle (years of misogyny and abuse by the male elite), yet her actions are so indefensible that I couldn’t possibly side with her. The answer to violence and oppression is never more violence and oppression. This is something Waverly begins to understand while interacting with Mather, and I suspect it will be explored in future books.

Given how much I disliked the experience of reading this pessimistic, depressing tale, I worried I wouldn’t finish it, or would give it one measly star. However, the dramatic action and the fact that I had such visceral reactions to the material made me realize that it was probably just not the book for me. I think there are plenty of people that would eat this one up with the vivid characterizations and interesting plot around the power of religion and fertility in human development, but in my opinion, this one fell flat.

Rating: 2/5 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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Review: Burnout by Adrienne Maria Vrettos

Book: Burnout
Author: Adrienne Maria Vrettos
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry
Release date: September 13, 2011
Source: ARC received from Around the World Tours

Summary: (from Goodreads) On the day after Halloween, Nan wakes up in a subway car. She is not dreaming. She doesnâ??t know where sheâ??s been or what sheâ??s done. Sheâ??s missing a whole day from her life. And sheâ??s wearing skeleton makeup and a too-small Halloween costume that she doesn’t remember putting on.

Nan is not supposed to wake up in places like this anymore. Sheâ??s different now, so far from that dangerously drunk girl who hit bottom in the Nanapocalypse. She needs to find out what happened to her, and fast. As she tries to put together the pieces of the last twenty-four hours, she flashes back to memories of her previous life. But she would never go back to her old friends and her old ways. Would she?

The deeper Nan digs, the more disturbing things get. This time, she may have gone one step too far. This time, she may be a walking ghost.

First impressions: Oh, Nan. Poor, poor Nan. Twice in the opening chapters we see her waking up from being blackout drunk – once as a memory, and once to set the plot in motion in real time. Adrienne Maria Vrettos writes these so picture perfectly that I actually winced. Nan’s predicament is unsettling and upsetting, which sets up nicely the tone for the entire book.

Lasting impressions: Although this was an interesting book, I’m not sure it has the punch to make this one everlasting for me.

Conflicting impressions: While some aspects were extremely true to life, other parts had me shaking my head in disbelief.

Overall impressions: In general, Nan’s story is not a happy one. This is no feel-good tale. I think the summary is a pretty big clue, but the opening chapters are certainly going to weed out the ones who want to read this and the ones who should probably close it up quickly and back away. Either you want to experience life through a teen’s blackout drunk phase or you don’t.

I hesitate to use the term “alcoholic” only because Adrienne Maria Vrettos dodges the term herself. Nan is an abuser, but mostly at the whims of her best friend, Seemy. She goes to sort of “rehab lite” and acknowledges that it wasn’t the most hardcore of programs. Nan seemed more like a lost girl caught up in the peer pressure of Seemy’s crazy existence rather than a bona fide alcoholic.

The book is told in alternating chapters of Nan in the present, slowly piecing together the last 24 hours that she can’t remember, and vignettes from the past. We see how she met her friends Toad and Seemy, how she handles waking up in strange places, how she relates to her mother and little brother. Nan is insecure, and drawn to the vivacious Seemy like a moth to a flame. Based on the few interactions we see with her, it’s not hard to follow how Nan could end up where this story begins.

Although it was interesting finding out how Nan woke up on the subway in a tiny Halloween costume, I didn’t connect to the bigger life lessons here. Beyond the obvious – don’t drink so much and don’t be friends with people who suck – there isn’t a lot of meat to this story. Vrettos hints at growth in Nan’s relationship with her mother, and even at growth in her own self-confidence, but at under 200 pages, this quick read didn’t quite nail the heart of these issues.

I felt the friendship with Seemy was well-executed, and I found their exploits to be quite imaginative, if a little over-dramatic. When Nan realizes who or what is responsible for her blackout, the plot veers into a scenario I found a little hard to believe. Was it exciting to read? Yes. Did I think that’s what would have really happened? No effing way. Part of my disappointment with the book is that I felt it would have more impact if it had a more realistic ending. It was like I was watching the made-for-TV version of real events, when the actual story is more compelling than the media hyped version.

Bottom line is that this is a good mystery set around the bitter effects of drinking too much. Nan is a sympathetic character that finds herself in the most awful of circumstances, but ultimately rises to face the challenges of her day head-on.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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Review: Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Book: Anna Dressed in Blood
Author: Kendare Blake
Publisher: Tor Teen
Release date: August 30, 2011
Source: ARC for review from I Read Banned Books Tour

Summary: (from Goodreads) Just your average boy-meets-girl, girl-kills-people story. . .

Cas Lowood has inherited an unusual vocation: He kills the dead.

So did his father before him, until his gruesome murder by a ghost he sought to kill. Now, armed with his father’s mysterious and deadly athame, Cas travels the country with his kitchen-witch mother and their spirit-sniffing cat. Together they follow legends and local lore, trying to keep up with the murderous deadâ??keeping pesky things like the future and friends at bay.

When they arrive in a new town in search of a ghost the locals call Anna Dressed in Blood, Cas doesn’t expect anything outside of the ordinary: move, hunt, kill. What he finds instead is a girl entangled in curses and rage, a ghost like he’s never faced before. She still wears the dress she wore on the day of her brutal murder in 1958: once white, but now stained red and dripping blood. Since her death, Anna has killed any and every person who has dared to step into the deserted Victorian she used to call home.

And she, for whatever reason, spares his life.

First impressions: Male POV! Yes! Not only is Cas a great male protagonist, he’s funny. Swoon!

Lasting impressions: Great little horror book for the ghost hunting set.

Conflicting impressions: Can we have a new rule where nobody falls in love with ghosts?

Overall impressions: This book was so much fun, which feels weird to say about a sometimes gruesome, often scary tale about a demonic ghost. Kendare Blake sets the tone with our fearless narrator, Cas. He’s witty, funny, quirky, and has an interesting occupation: ghost killer.

Cas has inherited a knife and an ability from his father that allows him to put murderous rampaging ghosts to rest. He grew up traipsing around the world after his dad, who followed leads on where to find the worst ghosts. His mother, a witch, sells candles and other Wiccan supplies online, thus supporting the ghost killer habit. When Cas’s dad dies at the hand of a particularly brutal ghost, Cas takes over.

Now following tips of his own, he pursues a lead on a ghost in Canada known locally as Anna Dressed in Blood. Murdered in the 50s on her way to a school dance, she now haunts her old house, taking out anyone who dares enter. She proves this in epic fashion on Cas’s first visit to the house, when a bully from school locks him in the house and Anna unleashes her wrath upon the bully.

There is plenty of violence and a smattering of foul language (f-bombs flying!), so this is one for the older set. I, for one, did not mind the language, but a few times it seemed to pop up so suddenly that it took me out of the world for a second. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so clean lately?

Anna is as wonderful a character as is Cas. She’s bold, confused, and full of hideous secrets she tries desperately to hide. I don’t want to give too much away, because the joy of the novel is discovering Anna’s story as well as Cas’s. The two of them have to explore their histories and destinies in ways that make them uncomfortable, but it must be done in order to set things right.

This is a magical, dark, funny novel full of interesting characters. I loved the story, and its twists and turns kept me guessing. There were a few elements that could have been developed a little further, and I’m not a fan of the fact that this turned into a paranormal romance when it could have been a great standard horror book, so four stars from me. It’s still a great read, however, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a great male protagonist.

Marry me, Cas!

Rating: 4/5 stars

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Review: Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey

Book: Haunting Violet
Author: Alyxandra Harvey
Publisher: Walker Childrens
Release date: June 21, 2011
Source: ARC received from I Read Banned Books Tour
Summary: (from Goodreads) Violet Willoughby doesn’t believe in ghosts. But they believe in her. After spending years participating in her mother’s elaborate ruse as a fraudulent medium, Violet is about as skeptical as they come in all matters supernatural. Now that she is being visited by a very persistent ghost, one who suffered a violent death, Violet can no longer ignore her unique ability. She must figure out what this ghost is trying to communicate, and quickly because the killer is still on the loose.

Afraid of ruining her chance to escape her mother’s scheming through an advantageous marriage, Violet must keep her ability secret. The only person who can help her is Colin, a friend she’s known since childhood, and whom she has grown to love. He understands the true Violet, but helping her on this path means they might never be together. Can Violet find a way to help this ghost without ruining her own chance at a future free of lies?

First impressions: We first meet Violet as a 9 year old child in the opening chapter, and she quickly drew me in to her hard London life of poverty and cons. Her mother swindles the rich society ladies with fake Spiritualist readings and seances, while Violet follows the script and occasionally picks pockets. It was a fascinating setting for a ghost story.

Lasting impressions: One of my favorite reads so far in 2011. A historical gothic YA book that was equal parts frightening, delightful, and heartfelt.

Conflicting impressions: It seemed like there were a couple of inconsistencies, though I’m not sure if this is due to the fact that I read an advance copy. A few times while reading I was scratching my head and flipping back through the pages, trying to figure out if we’d ever received that information before. At two different points, the color of Violet’s eyes becomes important, but I couldn’t find a mention of them at any time prior to these points. Odd.

Overall impressions: Quite simply, I wanted to hug this book when I was done with it. I wanted to climb under the covers and put it under my pillow, whispering “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…” And of course, when it comes to explaining why exactly I loved it so much, I find myself coming up short.

Violet Willoughby has spent her entire life at the whim of her con artist mother’s moods and lies. Forced to help her mother with the various tricks and preparations for the then-uber-popular psychic readings and seances, Violet has never believed in spirits. Her mother, Celeste, has filled her head with lies about her father, and Celeste’s ego and beauty drive her to pursue a life of deceit (rather than honest work) in order to raise her young daughter.

Celeste is an awful person, and a worse mother. Unsatisfied with her poor station in life, and desperate to win her way into the society life of the peerage, she conducts herself as a medium – though she is a complete fraud. In order to pull off the various parlor tricks required for the seances and readings, she takes on a young boy named Colin, who also helps Violet pick pockets when they’re short on food money. It’s a hard life with few certainties save for the fact that Celeste will always be critical of Violet.

After a short chapter where we get a snapshot of this life when Violet is 9 and Colin is 11, we fast forward seven years to 1872. Violet, her mother, Colin, and a young maid are traveling to a country estate for a weeklong party held by an avid Spiritualist. It’s a big week for the family, and if they pull it off, it could mean the end of destitution and a real chance at a better life. Violet is being courted by a wealthy, handsome boy named Xavier, who can persuade his family to allow him to marry her (without a dowry!) based on her beauty and the fame of her mother. Violet seems ambivalent at best toward Xavier, but recognizes that without him she likely will face a life as a seamstress or cook.

I loved how well Alyxandra Harvey manages Violet’s feelings in this difficult historical time. She is play-acting the part of a lady while at this function, but she knows deep down that she doesn’t belong. The beautiful part is that she’s not sure she wants to. There is a certain freedom to being poor, without the expectations and rules and stifling conversations. Yet no one wants to stare a life of hard labor in the face and embrace it full on. Would she rather sew all day long until her fingers bleed or sit in a parlor drinking tea and reading books to her heart’s content? Not much of a question really, but she also struggles with whether being married to a dreadful bore is a price worth paying.

Shortly after arriving, and during the first of several readings by Celeste, Violet has a startling encounter with a ghost. Having never believed in them, it takes her a while to accept that she truly has developed the ability to speak to the dead. This is when the spooky kicks in. There are ouija boards, brushes with death, and various attempts to communicate before Violet, with the help of her friend Elizabeth, decides she must find out what happened to the ghost Rowena. Most of the book revolves around this murder mystery, and Violet was like our very own 19th century Nancy Drew. She bumbles around, trying to nose her way into everyone’s business to determine who killed Rowena, because if she doesn’t she’s afraid that either Rowena (and the other pesky spirits who are on to her new medium status) will never leave her alone, or the killer will strike again.

The mystery contains lots of red herrings and lots of action. I thought it was well paced and had appropriate amounts of clues thrown at us from time to time. Interspersed throughout the story are further complications to Violet’s well being and her relationship with her mother. There is a dramatic turn of events around the two-thirds point, and it serves as an important catalyst for Violet to decide what she wants out of life. She also starts to develop feelings for Colin, which only makes it more difficult to decide whether to marry Xavier.

Ultimately, this is a story about a girl who grew up never believing in the Spiritualist movement, only to wind up being a true medium herself. Violet must decide what to do with her gift – ignore it and whatever is bothering Rowena, or accept that she can choose to help people instead of exploit their grief like her mother did. Violet is such a likable character, with a quick wit and a heart of gold despite the hardships she endured under her controlling and wicked mother. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, especially if you at all enjoy historical or gothic tales.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system 

 


Thank you to I Read Banned Books Tour for lending me this copy!


Amazingly beautiful and painstakingly crafted signature courtesy of Small Review

Review: The Mephisto Covenant by Trinity Faegen

Book: The Mephisto Covenant
Author: Trinity Faegen
Publisher: EgmontUSA
Release date: September 27, 2011
Source: ARC received from I Read Banned Books Tour
Series: The Mephisto Covenant #1

Summary: (from Goodreads) Sasha is desperate to find out who murdered her father. When getting the answer means pledging her soul to Eryx, she unlocks a secret that puts her in grave danger â?? Sasha is Anabo, a daughter of Eve, and Eryxâ??s biggest threat.

A son of Hell, immortal, and bound to Earth forever, Jax looks for redemption in the Mephisto Covenant â?? Godâ??s promise he will find peace in the love of an Anabo. After a thousand years, heâ??s finally found the girl heâ??s been searching for: Sasha.

With the threat of Eryx looming, Jax has to keep Sasha safe and win her over. But can he? Will Sasha love him and give up her mortal life?

First impressions: I tweeted and blogged already about the exhilarating opening to this book, but it bears repeating. Few novels have been able to draw me in so completely. Sasha, determined to find out what happened to her dad, sets out to a secret meeting of Eryx devotees who promise to fulfill your dreams. Almost immediately they turn on her, and she is caught up in a brutal stoning. A stoning! It caught me completely off guard and told me that this book was going to be full of surprises. Loved that aspect.

Lasting impressions: Trinity Faegen put the effort into creating this fully developed mythology, and it shows. The character arcs are nuanced and proceed at an appropriate pace, and she never lets the story get away from her.

Conflicting impressions: The flip side of that mythology coin is that because the background needs to be explained to us, there wind up being a lot of info dumps. I would have liked to see this information more seamlessly blended with the action instead of feeling like “Oh, now they’re going to explain who Eryx is.”

Overall impressions: Everything about this book seemed fresh, different, and unique, while also simultaneously feeling like this was not new ground being covered. I hate when stories feel as if the author was trying to go so hard against the grain that they wind up with a story that doesn’t work. Here, Faegen instead blends exciting new elements with a story that felt comforting and familiar.

Sasha is the daughter of an American insurance salesman (or is he?) and a Russian mother who defected and now works for the State Department in San Francisco. Sasha’s father is recently deceased, and the circumstances seem too bizarre for Sasha to just let it go. She wants to find out what happened, and in the process stumbles into this club for followers of Eryx, who promises the world to these kids and then takes their souls. He is a corrupted son of Mephistopheles and Elektra who is trying to gain enough souls to take over hell from Lucifer.

Enter Jax. Also Mephisto, though not corrupted, he and his brothers fight against Eryx, taking the souls back from him and depositing them in Hell on Earth – sort of the permanently sealed Tupperware for these bad egg humans that sold their souls. He saves Sasha from the Eryx followers that are attacking her, explaining that as Anabo – a pure soul – she is a target for them. She also happens to be destined for love of a Mephisto, and that Mephisto is Jax.

It gets a little complicated here (see info dumps), so I’m not going to get into the details, but Jax must convince Sasha to love him (and he must love her) in order to find redemption and a path out of hell and into heaven. By doing so, however, Sasha must leave her old life behind and lose some of her pure Anabo self. She must join the Mephisto and capture lost souls, while also taking on some of their hellish characteristics. It’s a choice that dogs her throughout the narrative, as she struggles between wanting her old life back and wanting to be with Jax.

Their love happens quickly, but believably. It seems they are fated from the beginning, and I bought into that. Though Jax gets moony quite quickly, Sasha is more reserved with her feelings, so when she finally needs to make a choice her anguish seemed honest. There is a lot of talking about sex in this book (as, of course, it carries significant plot consequences) and I should also mention that this is definitely a book for older readers. There’s a scene toward the end that borders on romance novel territory.

Did the book have more complications than it needed? Yes, but I was thoroughly engrossed in what was happening. I couldn’t wait to see what would happen to Sasha, whether she would find out about her dad, and how many characters would make the mistake of succumbing to Eryx. When Sasha’s mother is deported and she moves to Telluride, Colorado to live with a family friend, the threat of Eryx goes up by a thousand points. The tension is palpable and as the stakes get bigger Sasha’s timeline gets shorter.

I highly recommend this one to fans of Unearthly and Angel Burn, or anyone with an interest in mythology. I can’t wait to read the sequel!

Rating: 4/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

San Francisco is my favorite California town, and someplace I’m dying to visit with my husband. I’ve never been to Telluride, but I love Colorado and definitely want to go back. For both of those reasons, I’m counting this toward the Vacation Reads Challenge.


Thank you to I Read Banned Books Tour for lending me this copy!


Amazingly beautiful and painstakingly crafted signature courtesy of Small Review

In My Mailbox (12)

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 weekâ??s IMM here.

Won:
Relic Master: The Dark City by Catherine Fisher
from Reading with Tequila


I loved Catherine Fisher’s writing in the Incarceron series so I’m looking forward to checking out something different from her.

Received for review:
The Mephisto Covenant by Trinity Faegen
Torrent by Lisa T. Bergren

IT’S HEEEEEEERE! It’s here! It’s here! Torrent is here! First, though, I’m reading The Mephisto Covenant and it’s AWESOME. In the first 15 pages there’s a stoning. A STONING!?! Love.

Ebooks:
The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson (via NetGalley)
Rampant (Killer Unicorns #1) by Diana Peterfreund (via Overdrive/library)


Killer. Unicorns. I had to try it.

That’s it for now. What books did you get recently?