Category Archives: Book Review

Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

coldest girl in coldtownVampires in books are still alive and kicking and biting, even in the post-Twilight era, and we have Holly Black to thank for a unique spin on the old legend. Coldest Girl in Coldtown is the story of Tana, a teenager who awakes after an all-night party and notices that her friends are now corpses. All except her ex-boyfriend Aidan, who is alive but bitten, or, in the book’s terminology, Cold. Continue reading

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Why I Didn’t Finish the Fifth Wave

5thwaveI was excited about the Fifth Wave. After all, before publication I was primed with marketing materials (first few chapters snagged at a conference), and I eagerly devoured them. I even had the classic, “I wish I had written this” yearning after reading those intro pages. All good signs.

And when I re-read those first chapters after publication, I felt even more confident I would blaze through this book and finish at 2AM, with a guilty, satisfied smile. The beginning of the book was paced decently, the protagonist, Cassie, was sassy and interesting, and the terrifying state of post-apocalyptic Earth fit with what would really happen if ultra-advanced aliens set their sights on our planet. (less E.T. and more Half-Life 2)

Alas.

Let me back up and give the synopsis. The Fifth Wave is about Cassie, one of the last survivors of the first four waves of mysterious alien attacks that have wiped out billions of humans. Humanity is teetering near extinction, but Cassie is determined to survive. She camps in the woods alone, kills, feels guilty, interacts with interesting family members, tries to figure out who is an enemy and who is a friend, etc. The story is told in first-person from her point of view, and I liked that approach. She’s also a book-lover and lugs around some favorite tomes–limited backpack space and alien apocalypse be damned.

The whole first third of the book is tinged with a gritty, desperate air of mass extinction and survival at all costs. Like The Walking Dead, but better.

[some spoilers below ]

The book goes downhill, fast, when the author (Rick Yancey), decides to jump POV to Cassie’s little brother, Sammy. Then he jumps to a mysterious stranger dude, Evan, who saves Cassie and starts a creepy, awkward relationship with her. Then another guy, Ben, who is important to Cassie and is part of the brainwashing military compound.

Basically, once Evan entered the picture and gave Cassie a weird bath, I was done. I just didn’t know I was done for a few more chapters. All the head-switching was difficult to follow, and all the characters but Cassie either annoyed me or creeped me out.

Plus, even though I didn’t read to the end, I could see the plot coming a mile away. Who is mysterious Evan? You’ll figure it out many moons before the author thinks you will. And that’s no fun.

At the very least, forbidden love should feel tingly and dangerous, not creepy and squirmy. So, I ended the book on my own terms. And I feel confident in saying Cassie wouldn’t have chosen this book to tote around in her apocalypse backpack either.

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Book Review: These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

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After a spate of disappointing YA books, I ditched the genre for almost a year. Then I read this book.

Now, I don’t want to oversell it or anything. Let’s put it this way–These Broken Stars didn’t change my life, but it did keep me sitting in a bagel shop well past the socially acceptable time to sit in a bagel shop when your bagel is gone.

You may have heard that this book is “the Titanic in space.” That’s a fairly accurate tagline, IMO. The story starts when the aptly named Icarus, the galaxy’s foremost luxury cruiser, falls out of hyperspace and crashes onto an unknown, terraformed planet. 

Our two plucky survivors are Tarver (the Leonardo DiCaprio character with an earnest heart and empty pockets), and Lilac, the spoiled daughter of the richest man in the galaxy. The chapters alternate between Tarver and Lilac’s point of view.

Interestingly, the two authors (Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner) alternated chapters. Amie wrote the Tarver chapters and Meagan wrote the Lilac ones. To their credit, the chapters were written in the distinct voices of the characters, but the overall novel felt seamless.

Also on the positive side, the book moves along at a fast clip but, for the most part, doesn’t feel rushed. The setting of a terraformed planet is plenty intriguing, as are the mysterious, Lost-style happenings that plague the characters as they slog across the planet.

It’s not a perfect book though. If you’re super annoyed by the archetype of the poor boy and the rich girl, be warned – yes, these characters fit the archetypes. If you have a low tolerance for bratty types, be warned that Lilac teeters on the edge of completely unlikeable for about a third of the book. 

Fortunately, Lilac learns her lessons and becomes way more likeable as the story progresses.

Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t fulfill the potential of the wonderful beginning. Let’s just say there was a strange plot twist that didn’t actually seem necessary and made for a confusing, rushed resolution. The plot twist would have been great if it’d been the main point of an entirely separate story or of a philosophy course, but it felt tacked-on and awkward in this one.

But to the book’s credit, I kept reading to the end, and the world and the characters lingered with me. 

Bottom line. You’ll probably like These Broken Stars if you liked Beth Revis’ Across the Universe and if you don’t mind the downsides I mentioned. And speaking of bottoms, the wooden chair in the bagel shop was really hard after two hours…

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Reasons why I’m reading a book series out of order (True Blood)

I have a confession to make. I’m reading the True Blood books by Charlaine Harris, and I’m doing it totally out of order. When I mention this to people, I get the impression that reading out of order is tantamount to that other sin of reading (which I’m also guilty of)–peeking ahead to read the ending.

I don’t read all series out of order. In fact, this is kind of a rare occurrence for me, but I have no regrets thus far. I watched True Blood seasons 1 and 2, so I figured I got the gist of the story from HBO, and no need to repeat it for the sake of saying I read the actual words.

In the library, I browsed through the True Blood paperbacks, reading the back of each book to see which one piqued my interest. I wasn’t totally committed to even trying the books, so I wanted to pick the most interesting one possible. My eyes lit up at the summary of Book #4, Dead to the World. It looked like Sookie and Eric would finally get it on this book! So I was sold. Or, er, borrowed.

Now, Book #4 wasn’t the best thing I ever read ever, but it was funny, entertaining, engaging, and I liked the characters and setting. Perfect for a summer beach book. It’s on to Book #3, Club Dead. From there, I’m not sure what to do. Go back and read Book#2 anyway, since I heard it’s somewhat different than the TV series? Or forge ahead through the series based on what interests me the most? I might go that route.

I’m not worried about the typical concerns of reading out of order, like not understanding the plot. It’s clear that most authors embed recaps, some better than others, for the forgetful or blatantly non-linear readers. I figure that this time, those annoying recaps telling me what happened in the previous book won’t be so annoying anymore (I’m looking at you, Harry Potter).

I highly recommend tackling a series out of order if the following inclinations apply to you.

1. It’s a sequel or continuation of a popular movie/TV show and you dread the thought of backtracking. Don’t worry about bucking the numbers! No one is making you read in a particular order! It’s your free time, so pick up the story where it starts for you.

2. You have a feeling you might like a series, but the beginning sounds boring (for whatever reason). Why not pick up the book that does sound interesting? If the author recap isn’t good, there’s always Wikipedia.

3. It’s a long long series, and you can’t picture reading all of it. But you can picture reading Book #5…

4. You’re at the library/bookstore with a flight/beach trip/boring evening looming, and they don’t have the next book in the series in stock!!! NOO! But they do have some other books in the same series. Hmm….

If you’re still feeling guilty, consider that sometimes authors even write their books out of order. When I was a teenager, I read both The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, both EXCELLENT books. I read the Blue Sword first, and it happened to be published first too, in 1982. Later, I read the Hero and the Crown, the prequel to the Blue Sword, and was surprised to see it was published in 1985. (I didn’t read the books when they came out, so the dates were afterthoughts to me). There are times when authors write the story that moves them first, and I think it’s a good move for readers to follow their hearts too, even if it’s a zig-zaggy path.

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The Challenges of Writing Memoir and Life: Are Forced Stories Good Stories?

I recently read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller, a sort of meta-memoir about storytelling in our lives. The author goes through a period of self-reflection after writing the New York Times bestselling memoir Blue Like Jazz and then meeting two Hollywood types who want to turn his story into a movie. Except that his life is too boring to be a movie, so they have to doctor up the plot.

Miller spends some time reflecting on what it means to have a boring life, and concludes that our lives are better lived when we engage in active stories, complete with conflict and pain and growth. To give Miller credit, he embraces his thesis wholeheartedly and goes from being a couch potato to hiking the Inca trail, dating a girl he likes, biking across the country, and starting a nonprofit mentoring program. I bet his Facebook friends are super jealous.

His experiences got me thinking about stories though. I agree with the overall idea that good stories are a better sign of life-well-lived than a TV screen. But, I don’t think all life experiences, even the seemingly adventurous ones, naturally organize themselves into stories of self-development. Sometimes, things are just plain fun. Or just plain unfair. Or just plain boring.

I went on an educational trip once that was just begging to be a story. We were even given journals to record our daily thoughts and answered reflection questions. Because of all the build-up, I felt like the trip was some great life lesson waiting to unfold, and I tried to wring out meaning every day in my journal entries. In the end, some interesting things happened, but assigning an overarching lesson to the whole thing was forced. It was a trip without a plot. It was fun at times and bad at other times, but it was mostly a vacation.

Writing memoirs must be difficult. I imagine that, once an author writes a fantastic memoir and sells oodles of books, they’re compelled to bring out the sequel. But, as I mentioned at the end of my post on Elizabeth Gilbert, how many truly life-changing and memoir-worthy experiences can one person really have?

Based on my experience reading memoirs, I think some of the better “sequels” are comprised of stuff that already happened before the original, bestselling memoir was written. That way, the author didn’t feel pressure the pressure to ohmygod do something interesting/adventurous/profound and crank out a new book by deadline.

I wonder if authors of memoir actually do feel pressured to seek more stories in their lives, and I wonder how that affects the quality of the stories. Sometimes, I think intentionally plunging into a story like Elizabeth Gilbert did in Eat, Pray, Love, can work. At other times, a vacation is just a vacation. Everyone needs one.

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Book Review: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

If I were choosing a book to read just by browsing cover-jacket summaries, I probably wouldn’t have picked up Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson’s latest YA book about Lia, a (barely) living anorexic girl and her former best friend Cassie, a bulimic girl who is now deceased and haunting Lia. Typically, I don’t gravitate toward gritty realism for the sake of gritty realism, so upon picking up the book, my warning sensors were screaming “Egads! Anorexia AND bulimia! Holy after-school special!”

But, Anderson is no cookie-cutter author, which I knew from reading Speak, her most famous book, so I decided I would trust in her writerly abilities and give Wintergirls a shot. I’m glad I did.

Anderson’s writing reminds me of poetry. As a writer, I know it’s tough to use metaphor and simile skillfully, but Anderson’s sentences work, creating connections that stick, vividly, in your head: (pg 223) “Fat drops of blood splash on the counter, ripe red seeds.” or (pg 84) “Dark chords from the organ slip into the night, turning our shoes into concrete blocks and pulling down our faces until we look like trees drooping with black leaves.”

Anderson also plays with language, often jamming two words together to form new words, or adding crossed out lines, or hyphens, or smaller text. For the most part, I felt the word-coining and language improvisation added depth to the story, although I found the crossed out lines distracting by the end.

When Lia eats something, there are parenthesis after the food indicating the calories, and that small addition worked best for me, a shorthand allowing the reader to jump in Lia’s head and understand how she thinks–pg 7 “I pour too much cereal (150) in the bowl, splash on the two-percent milk (125).”

Overall, Wintergirls is a strong book with a compelling story that sucks you in. The writing is superior, the characters well-developed, and the story and pacing engaging. Sure, anorexia and bulimia aren’t things that I’d list among my normal reading interests, but after reading Wintergirls I felt like I understood Lia’s thought process. Kudos to Anderson for writing a real story and not a lesson plan.

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Book Review: Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Shiver takes a new twist on werewolf mythology, and it works. Really well. Much better than sparkly vampires.

In Stiefvater’s world, humans become wolves in the Wisconsin winter, in response to the cooler temperatures. The transformed wolves aren’t slathering monsters with ripped-shirt biceps–they’re simply, literally wolves. The one distinguishing characteristic of these wolves is their eyes, which remain exactly the same as their human eyes once were.

Sam, the wolf guy in the story, has pure yellow eyes. Grace, a pragmatic girl who mysteriously survived a wolf bite unscathed, notices these eyes on “her” wolf, the one who saved her from becoming wolf-chow in a childhood attack. She spends years mooning over “her” wolf from the window of her house.

When Sam is unexpectedly shot, he morphs into human form right before the start of the winter, meets Grace, and promptly falls in love. Unfortunately, Sam realizes this will be his last year to take human form at all. As wolves age, they turn human later and later in the summer, eventually living out their (shortened) lives as wolves, with wolf intellect and no real knowledge of their humanity.

The plot revolves around keeping Sam warm and human, while also determining the whereabouts of dangerous new wolf. Each chapter begins with the temperature noted, which helps to build tension. Grace and Sam narrate alternate, first-person chapters, and Stiefvater pulls off this unconventional narrative device perfectly. As a reader, I often find that books with split narrators have a “good” narrator and a boring one. I’m usually tempted to skim right over the boring narrator sections in such books, but Shiver captivated me the whole way through.

The characters of Shiver held my interest too. Sam and Grace are well-developed and likeable. The chemistry between them absolutely sizzles, and the book succeeds at wringing an emotional response from the reader. Grace kicks butt and proves that strong female narrators can still carry swoon-worthy stories. The secondary characters are fleshed-out too, with no real cardboard sidekick types in this book.

Another plus to Shiver :the writing, the prose that Stiefvater composes, is a lyrical treat. I found myself reading passages again just because they’re enjoyable and vivid.

I think Stiefvater’s twist on werewolves is even more chilling, perhaps, than the original conception of half-human monsters tied to the moon’s cycles. At least a conventional werewolf only remains a wolf for a brief, predictable period, spending most of his time as human. I suppose the horror comes from the savagery the wolf unleashes, the loss of humanity in an angry rage.

Stiefvater’s wolves cut out most of the savagery part, other than the normal danger of normal wolves. But I think Shiver better captures the unnerving, and scary sense, of gradually losing one’s humanity. These wolves spend half the year as wolves, and they can’t pinpoint the moment they’ll change as precisely as the moon’s patterns. And, to up the tension, they lose time as humans every year until they eventually their humanity slips away forever.

Regular werewolves evoke the visceral fear of losing control in anger, but Stiefvater’s wolves touch a much deeper horror. I liken the process to someone getting Alzheimers, losing a little of oneself at a time, until only the eyes are recognizable and humanity is lost forever. It’s not as bloody an end, but I think the chill is universal.

At any rate, I highly recommend Shiver to anyone who likes a good love story with an original werewolf twist, fully realized characters, and kick-ass writing.

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Malcolm Gladwell, Challenger, and the Oil Rig Blow up

I need to half-take-back part of my assessment of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, What the Dog Saw. I said I liked the book overall, which is still true, but that the chapter explaining the Challenger disaster bored me.

Okay, so, lately that chapter seems way relevant. I picked up the book again after the news of the oil rig catastrophe along the Gulf Coast headlined last week.

In the article, called “Blow Up,” Malcolm Gladwell basically explains why extensive investigations into such disasters usually prove futile (I managed to unearth a link to the original New Yorker article if you want to check it out). Challenger and the Three-Mile-Island nuclear disaster were both caused by a series of smaller, normal accidents. Three Mile Island had a normal blockage problem in the plant’s filter. Then the backup cooling system failed. Then a gauge that should have alerted operators about the backup failure failed. And at this point there was almost a meltdown.

Back to May 2010–apparently the oil rig had several backup systems that failed too, resulting in another unexpected and unprecedented disaster. I’m not sure where I stand on nuclear power, offshore drilling, and space exploration, but Gladwell’s observations articulated something I’ve always noticed: the ritual of disaster investigation. The need to find something or someone to blame in order to prevent it from happening again.

I only wish Gladwell had suggested a way to solve the problem. Instead, he points out that more inexplicable disasters await us in the future, since safety investigations don’t do squat, really. We investigate and discover the equivalent of how to prevent lightening from striking in the same place again–but how often does lightening strike in the same place twice?

So, should humanity get rid of oil rigs and space shuttles and nuclear power? Is the answer to arrive at some sort of balance? If so, how do we know when we’ve crossed the line?

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Book Review: What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

I think Malcolm Gladwell is one of the best nonfiction writers out there. I tend to get pretty picky about the quality of writing in nonfiction books (if I wanted to read a boring textbook full of stilted sentences I’d go back to school), but Gladwell’s words go down smooth. Seamless transitions, compelling anecdotes, unconventional yet logical thinking. I like the guy. I’d like to invite him over to dinner and just hear him talk for two hours.

What the Dog Saw is a compilation book, the best of Gladwell’s essays cherrypicked from the pages of the New Yorker. There’s no common theme, but his work is arranged under three broad categories.

Although all the sections are worth reading, the Personality, Character, and Intelligence section held my attention more than the others. The story on late-blooming versus early-blooming geniuses opened my mind to subsets of talent, and I learned plenty about the artist Cezanne along the way.

Among my favorite individual pieces, Gladwell writes about why mustard commands so much shelf space for its gourmet iterations, while innovation in the field of ketchup seems doomed. I also enjoyed his pieces about hair dye ads in the postwar era, the birth control pill, and the talent-centered culture that contributed to Enron’s demise.

Actually, I eagerly consumed too many pieces to name them all. It’s simpler to name the few I didn’t like. Oddly enough, I could have done without the title story, What the Dog Saw, about the dog whisperer Cesar Millan. The story about the Challenger disaster didn’t hold my attention either. Still, the majority of the book is fascinating and well-worth buying/checking out from your local library/filching from a friend.

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Book Review: In the Woods by Tana French

I picked this book up because it seemed to promise beautiful writing, complex characters, and a satisfying mystery. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite meet my expectations and left me unsatisfied after turning the last page. I have to give it kudos for beautiful writing though.

In the Woods tells the story of Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox, two Murder detectives on an Irish squad. When Rob Ryan was a kid, his best friends Jamie and Peter disappeared one day in the woods. They were never found. Rob was found, though, with blood-soaked sneakers and a blank memory of the incident.

Now, twenty years later, Rob has a friendly/flirtatious relationship with his partner Cassie, and the old case has come up again in connection with a new one. A young girl has been murdered, and her body was found on the altar stone at an archeological dig site. Rob keeps his identity to himself and teams with Cassie to close both cases.

The premise intrigued me and held my interest, although the book seemed to slow at times for lengthy description and bantering dialogue. For the most part, I didn’t mind the descriptions. I really revel in high-quality writing, the kind where a vivid picture is summoned to mind at the words of the author.

On the other hand, the banter between Cassie and Ryan became tedious. Sure, at first I marveled at the wit of their conversations, but eventually I felt like the author was trying too hard to have ravishingly interesting dialogue, and that realization took me out of the story. It didn’t feel like real life, or even the distilled parts of real life that dialogue is supposed to capture.

Over the course of the book, Rob showed promise of developing as a character, but that promise was never fulfilled. I think that’s part of why the story left me deeply unsatisfied. I understand that happy endings aren’t the only endings, but I look for characters who at least move forward in their personal development. As for Cassie, she was almost perfect in every way. Witty, wise, playful, kind, quirky, etc. I can’t hate a character who drives a Vespa, but it’d have been nice to see some human flaws in her.

I could have lived with the characters if the plot had blown me away. However, there are three major components to the book’s narrative, and only one of them was even somewhat resolved. The rest were left dangling, and after putting down the book I felt cheated. I believe that a complete narrative arc is a universal, ancient quality of writing. I had so much hope for this novel, but I just couldn’t like it after seeing how it concluded. Still, the atmosphere of Knocknaree and the woods was rendered well, and I might consider reading another book by the author, as long as there’s a real ending.

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