Review: 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson

Book: 13 Little Blue Envelopes
Author: Maureen Johnson
Publisher: HarperCollins
Release date: August 23, 2005
Source: Free ebook purchased from Amazon

Summary: (from Goodreads) When Ginny receives thirteen little blue envelopes and instructions to buy a plane ticket to London, she knows something exciting is going to happen. What Ginny doesn’t know is that she will have the adventure of her life and it will change her in more ways than one. Life and love are waiting for her across the Atlantic, and the thirteen little blue envelopes are the key to finding them in this funny, romantic, heartbreaking novel.

First impressions: I love a book that wastes no time jumping into the action, and this one definitely falls into that category. It opens with the first letter to Ginny from her Aunt Peg, explaining the journey that’s going to take up the bulk of the rest of the book.

Lasting impressions: The travel aspects were a lot of fun to read, but I found it kind of unbelievable at times.

Conflicting impressions: For a high school student practically alone on her trek across Europe, Ginny seemed remarkably at ease. I kept waiting for her to experience some crippling self-doubt or break down and rip open the rest of the envelopes like any normal person would do, but instead she kind of wandered aimlessly at times and never seemed to get overwhelmed by this immense task.

Overall impressions: Every book requires some suspension of disbelief, but this one seemed to require it in massive doses. First, as other reviewers have mentioned before me, I find it hard to believe that Ginny is allowed to up and go to Europe. She has very few resources and is instructed (through her dead aunt’s letters) to bring no helpful guidebooks or other sources of money.

Now I get that her kooky, free-spirited aunt wanted her to go on a journey of self-discovery, and that her parents probably felt she’d be fine because said kooky aunt probably wouldn’t do anything to get her injured/maimed/killed, but…REALLY? There is no way my parents would have allowed that.

Maybe because I am an awful person, or maybe because I am sane, I also find it hard to believe that Ginny wouldn’t have opened all the letters, or even just the first few. The temptation would be so hard to resist! Sure, she wants to experience this journey of Aunt Peg’s but I certainly would not have had that kind of trust in my aunt.

But this is Ginny’s story, not mine. It doesn’t matter what I would do, because it’s about what Ginny would do, and Ginny chose to follow her aunt’s instructions on a wild goose chase around Europe. As she accomplishes tasks similar to those her aunt completed while spending her last few months alive, Ginny meets some interesting new friends and relatives, gets herself into some pretty ridiculous scenarios, and learns quite a bit about her aunt and herself along the way.

It’s a charming idea that Johnson developed well, and it was fun to get little glimpses of various European towns as Ginny makes her way to and from them. Still, some of the action dragged a bit at times, and the breakneck pace meant we were often flying off to someplace new before we’d had much of a chance to breathe and get to know where we had just been. I think 13 was a lot of envelopes to try and get through, and perhaps focusing on a smaller number would have allowed us to get to know Ginny a bit more and have her accomplish some tasks more in-depth.

This is a fun travel tale that I think younger teens would gobble up, but for the rest of us world-weary and cynical types it was sometimes too much to swallow.

Rating: 3/5 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: Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Book: Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Author: Laini Taylor
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release date: September 27, 2011
Source: ARC received from Around the World Tours
Series: Untitled sequel planned for Fall 2012

Summary: (from Goodreads) Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.

In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grow dangerously low.

And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”; she speaks many languagesâ??not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

When one of the strangersâ??beautiful, haunted Akivaâ??fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

First impressions: There are some books that make their greatness known from the first sentence. This is one of those books.

Lasting impressions: I will never be able to do this book justice through my clumsy attempts at a review. Laini Taylor’s work stands on its own, and this is definitely my favorite book of the year.

Conflicting impressions: Ha! It is absolutely laughable that I could even think of offering up a criticism of this phenomenal book.

Overall impressions: As I said on Twitter last night, JUST GO BUY IT!

There’s really not much more I can say other than that. Go buy it. You won’t be disappointed.

Karou does double duty in this one, functioning as both a normal art student in Prague and an errand girl for the mysterious monsters who summon her to fetch teeth. Yes, teeth. This is not your average paranormal.

And that is why I fell in love so hard. This book is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Is there any greater compliment you can pay a writer than telling them their work is inspiringly unique?

Laini Taylor, I bow down to you.

Karou and the bizarre world she inhabits are intensely captivating. I could barely stand to put this book down. I relished every word, and the suspense of not knowing what would happen at any given moment was exhilarating. Finally, a book that can genuinely surprise me!

Who is Karou? Why did Brimstone raise her? Why does she gather teeth from all over the world for him? Why is Akiva out to destroy her?

The answers to these questions are half the fun of the novel. I was in no hurry to find this information, and waited patiently for our blue-haired heroine to figure it out for herself. In the last third we are treated to a glimpse into lost memories, as Karou starts to put the pieces of her disjointed life together. There is more emotion packed into the final pages of this book than in the last 10 books I read combined.

This book is haunting, magical, strange, glorious, and beautiful.

JUST GO BUY IT.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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Review: Torrent by Lisa T. Bergren

Book: Torrent
Author: Lisa T. Bergren
Publisher: David C. Cook
Release date: September 1, 2011
Source: Received from publicist for review
Series: River of Time #3

NOTE: THE SUMMARY AND REVIEW BELOW CONTAIN SOME SPOILERS FOR THE TRILOGY! READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!

Summary: (from Goodreads) When Gabi and Lia finally learn to surf the river of time, they realize they must make hard choices about life and love in the third and final book in the River of Time series.

Gabi and Lia Betarrini have learned to control their time travel, and they return from medieval Italy to save their father from his tragic death in modern times. But love calls across the centuries, and the girls are determined to return forever â?? even though they know the Black Plague is advancing across Europe, claiming the lives of one-third of the population. In the suspenseful conclusion of the River of Time series, every decision is about life . . . and death.

First impressions: We’re back! After jumping through some serious hoops with major consequences, the Bettarini girls are back in Marcello’s time, and the action picks up immediately. At this point, reading this series feels like meeting old friends for coffee. No need for pleasantries, we can jump right into the heart of things.

Lasting impressions: But…but…I want moooooooore!

Conflicting impressions: There wasn’t nearly enough resolution for me. I wanted to know the fate of Paratore. And what happened to Giacinta? I felt like the book rushed through all of the events without taking the time to fully explore them in a way I’d have more enjoyed.

Overall impressions: It’s impossible to sum up my feelings on this book without a few spoilers, so if you’ve made it this far by ignoring my above disclaimer, then I wash my hands of responsibility for spoiling the party.

I want to start first with what annoyed me. Ben had it far too easy working his way into this new century. He’s thrust into battle right off the bat, and then they have to run for their lives without any time to stop and consider what just happened. When they do, I found it to be desiring. Much like others’ complaints that Marcello and Luca don’t seem curious enough about the future, Dad seemed a little too accepting. For all the trouble they went to to bring him back, Dad gets the short stick in this tale, which was a bit disappointing.

The ending was also a bit cliffhanger-y. There’s a huge battle (which Lisa Bergren continues to write with exquisite pacing and detail), but the story ends just after it. I wanted some more clues on where their lives were headed and just how much the events of the three books have impacted them. I felt I was denied a complete resolution for these characters.

Okay, but there was way more good stuff than bad stuff. All of my whiny complaints aside, Bergren has given us a solid third book in the River of Time trilogy. As in Cascade, the action drives the story at a brisk pace. The war between Firenze and Siena is threatening to boil over, and Firenze wants nothing more than to get their greedy paws on the She-Wolves of Siena. Gabi faces the pressure of marriage in order to save the dying and tortured Fortino. Can she thrust aside her feelings for Marcello and save Siena by marrying the alluring and attractive Lord Greco?

Marcello seemed miles away from Greco in this one. Rash, stubborn, and a bit immature, the luster of Marcello was wearing thin for me. Along comes dashing Rodolfo Greco and I’m all “Marry him Gabi!” I love books that can make you divide your allegiance between hot, strapping men. It gave Gabi some needed perspective and made her choice to get married at all more informed and adult instead of just a bit of teen love cementing her fate.

Obviously, this is a must-read for River of Time readers. It is full of excitement, love, doubt, sacrifice, and faith. Not just faith in God or destiny, but faith in ourselves and our choices. Gabi’s story is all about the decisions she makes and how she knows they are the right ones. Sometimes she does, and sometimes she has to take a leap of faith and do what she thinks is right. It’s a fantastic journey for her and for the readers, and I’m glad I got to be a part of it.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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Curious about my reviews for the first two books in the trilogy? Read my take on Waterfall and Cascade.

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

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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!


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Review: Between by Cyndi Tefft

Book: Between
Author: Cyndi Tefft
Publisher: Self-published
Release date: June 1, 2011
Source: Ebook from author
Summary: (from Goodreads) It just figures that the love of Lindsey Water’s life isn’t alive at all, but the grim reaper, complete with a dimpled smile and Scottish accent.

After transporting souls to heaven for the last 300 years, Aiden MacRae has all but given up on finding the one whose love will redeem him and allow him entry through the pearly gates.

Torn between her growing attraction to Aiden and heaven’s siren song, Lindsey must learn the hard way whether love really can transcend all boundaries.

First impressions: The book opens with Lindsey in a car, kissing her boyfriend and not really enjoying it all that much. Hilarious and sweet, and it made me like Lindsey a lot. Then the action picks up and before you know it, Lindsey is dead. It’s a great beginning that keeps you glued to the pages.

Lasting impressions: What will stick with me the most about this book, unfortunately, is how offensive I found its moralizing.

Conflicting impressions: This book was full of inconsistency in the characters and their choices. The decisions made stretched the bounds of plausibility for me, so I wasn’t able to fully invest in what was happening.

Overall impressions: I really, truly wanted to like this book. It’s a Scottish boy who falls in love with his very own Sassenach (Outlander) and sort of time travels with her! Plus, Lindsey is a college student, and I’m all about more YA fiction for the college set. It had everything going for it, but just couldn’t deliver.

My first problem with this story was the insta-love. MAJOR case of it going on here. Lindsey dies in a car wreck, is whisked away by Aiden to this “between” place on her way to heaven. At no time does she seem overly concerned about being dead. She’s sad, sure, but not sad enough to miss the fact that Aiden is smoking hot and she kind of wants his bod. This didn’t really ring true for me. If I found out I was dead, I would not automatically be concerned with the attractiveness of my reaper.

Lindsey decides that she’s really upset about going to heaven still a virgin. And Aiden gets all uppity about deflowering a maiden and it really wasn’t working for me. Aiden came off as more jerky than chivalrous or old timey. I get that he would find modern female behavior strange, but when he gets Lindsey make believe drunk and she starts flirting with him he basically calls her a whore. And she doesn’t immediately tell him to eff off and run away to heaven. Bad move, Lindsey!

It touched a nerve. On the one hand, Aiden is skinny dipping and lusting after her, but on the other he doesn’t want to take her maidenhead or have her acting too much like a floozy. I mean, what a turnoff, right? (Insert eyeroll sprain here.) Similarly, Lindsey is supposed to be a college aged nice girl virgin, but yet she jumps in naked in the lake with Aiden and sleeps with him, and later practically gives him a lap dance after some drinking. Where is the conflict here? She has no qualms about giving up her virginity in the afterlife? It seemed inconsistent with my idea of Lindsey and so I couldn’t figure out who these characters were supposed to be.

I admit that I had a very personal reaction early on that may have colored my perceptions a bit. Cyndi Tefft really lost me when describing Aiden’s story. Aiden explains that the reason he’s spent 300 years transporting souls to heaven while not going there himself is because he committed suicide and God was mad at him. Later in the book, there’s another discussion of suicide with similar blatant moralizing about how all suicide victims are selfish and cowardly.

I realize that this is almost always true, but I don’t need it flung in my face. The whole concept was handled in a clunky way at best, and in an offensive way at worst. I have been personally touched by suicide, and so having the basis of Aiden’s position be a punishment for his suicide just didn’t sit well with me. At all. But that’s just me, and it may not bother most readers.

The time travel elements were fun to read, though I had a hard time getting into them knowing they weren’t actually happening and were memories instead. I did like the idea of “casting,” where the characters in Between can make their own reality by just imagining what they want. It was a cool world and an interesting story of two people facing the ultimate obstacle. The story does take an interesting twist into new territory about halfway through, but a lot of the side characters and backstory didn’t add much to Lindsey and Aiden’s tale. If I had been able to get past the preaching and really believe in these characters and their love I may have enjoyed this book, but in the end I couldn’t and I didn’t.

Rating: 1/5 stars

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Want a different perspective? Read this rave review by Steph: Short & Sweet.

Vacation Reads Challenge

I can’t help it! I love challenges! So I’m signing up for another one, this time co-hosted by my buddy, Ruby’s Reads, and the equally awesome Julie from Manga Maniac Cafe.

This challenge runs from June 21st through September 23rd, and the deadline to sign up is June 21st so get going if you want to play! The challenge is to read at least 6 books that take place in a setting you’d like to visit. It can be contemporary, historical, fantastical – anything as long as you want to visit that place.

Prize packs are being offered each month of the challenge, and good times are going to be had by all. I’m really looking forward to seeing where everyone wants to visit! To sign up, click the button above and add your name to the linky. Be sure to post about it and spread the word to all your friends!

I have some books in mind for the challenge, but I’m looking for recommendations. What are some books you love with cool locales?