Saturday, December 29, 2012

Try Not to Breathe by Jennifer R. Hubbard

Plot: Teenager Ryan once tried to take his life. A year later, his only friends are from the mental institution where he recovered. Everyone at school avoids him and his mother hovers constantly. Ryan's only escape is to stand underneath the waterfall by his house - the exhilerating pounding of the water reminds him that he's alive. Then Ryan meets Nicki, who starts asking him questions he doesn't want to answer, bringing up haunting memories of the past.

Comments: I have to admit that I really didn't like Nicki. She's boisterous, bossy, and rash. On the other hand, Ryan is quiet, stoic, and blank. They contrast like a watercolor painting to a black and white photograph. Nicki pushes Ryan to talk about his suicide attempt and his depression - though really, this is probably good for Ryan. But I sided with Ryan when it seemed she was using him for her own purposes.

I thought Ryan was a sort of plain character. The whole point of him was that he kept his emotions shut away, but in showing this, Hubbard made it difficult for the readers to understand or sympathize with him. And perhaps that is the point. I still liked him. He was solid and confused in a way that makes sense. He felt real.

I was bugged by the romance between Ryan and Nicki. I don't understand why they couldn't have just been friends. A book about teenagers growing to know each other doesn't have to end with them together, and it felt kind of forced with these two. And why is the cover a picture of teenagers kissing? That's not the focus of the story.

This story is more about accepting the past and learning to live. Appreciating life and what it offers. Letting go and moving on. Friendship. That's why I liked this book.

Rating: I rate Try Not to Breathe a seven out of ten.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats

Plot: When Cecily's father moves them to occupied Wales because the king wants hardy Englishmen to keep down the barbarous Welshmen, she thinks her life is ruined. The only good thing is she'll be able to be the lady of the house. Gwenhwyfar used to dream about being lady of that house, but then the English came and destroyed everything she once held dear. Now she waits hand and foot on the bratty Cecily, struggling to survive, while Cecily struggles to fit in with the snobby English society.

Comments: The Wicked and the Just was a really good book. I read it all in one go because I constantly wanted to know what would happen next. All the historic aspects of the novel were woven into the plot in a way that made it interesting - though I can only assume the history is accurate. Reading about the oppressed Welsh and the dictatorial English had me on the edge of my seat, wondering just how far the English would go to prove their superiority and just how long the Welsh would take it.

Cecily proved a most intriguing character. She had grown up being taught to look down upon servants, and the entire English community in Wales encourages her to treat the Welsh as slaves. So she did. Cecily was imperious, spoiled, outspoken, and prideful, taking enjoyment in punishing and taunting the Welsh around her. However, she was only following along with what she'd been taught. She thought it was how things were supposed to be. I would have hated Cecily but for the moments when she did or thought something different from what society told her. She rebelled in her thoughts and sometimes in her surprising actions of generosity and equality. It made me hope she could grow to become a better person, and that's what made me tolerate everything else about her.

Gwenhwyfar was a spitfire, which I loved, but mostly in her thoughts. Her perspective is written differently from Cecily's. More broken and simple but just as strong. However, I felt that her character was not nearly as developed as Cecily's. Though Gwenhwyfar's story is told and she's an important part of the plot, she's mostly there to help show Cecily the Welsh's point of view. Her background is never fully explained, only hinted at, leaving me to suspect a sequel.

I loved watching Cecily and Gwenhwyfar's relationship shift and change, and watching Cecily herself grow immensely in perspective and worldliness. I could sympathize with Cecily even though she was often a spoiled brat - I was rooting for the part of her that was a righteous, good person. The story was one of oppression and unfairness, but also of progress and justice.

Rating: I rate The Wicked and the Just an eight out of ten.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Obsidian Blade by Pete Hautman

Plot: Tucker's family began unraveling ever since he first saw the disk. His father, the Reverend Adrian Feye, lost his faith, and his mother lost her mind. When both Tucker's parents disappear one day, Tucker knows it has something to do with the disks. He discovers the secret of the disks and embarks on a whirlwind journey to save his parents.

Comments: I think The Obsidian Blade is meant for younger audiences, maybe pre-teens. If not, then it's a much too easy read. The language is very simple and the writing is not very exciting. Nothing felt believable, especially the characters' reactions to the situations. The main character, Tucker, was not easily likable because he didn't feel like a real person. It was the same for everyone else. The writing constantly told instead of showed, having to explain in small words what was happening. It was frankly not very interesting.

The concept of the story was intriguing. A great idea for a fantasy novel, with so many possibilities. But the story was confusing. Tucker never knew what was going on and neither did I - which is okay in some situations, with suspense, but nothing was ever resolved in this book. The whole thing was setting the stage for a sequel (or several), rather than standing alone as its own exciting story with a follow-up. And because of the simplistic style of writing, there was no suspense or shock - or really any other dramatic emotions - and so I'm not at all interested in reading more of this story. Perhaps a younger reader would enjoy this book more than I did. Or any other reader, I don't know.

Rating: I rate The Obsidian Blade a six out of ten. It was a good idea for a story but not written to be very gripping.

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

Plot: Based on interviews with Arn Chorn-Pond. Growing up in Cambodia, Arn remembers the day the soldiers marched everyone out into the countryside. For the next several years, he struggled to survive in the forced labor camp under the harsh government of the soldiers. This is his story of horrors, loss, survival, and courage.

Comments: Never Fall Down, while written in a somewhat subdued tone, is a harrowing, true tale of the Killing Fields and Chorn-Pond's experiences as a child soldier. The things that he saw and went through will stay with you for a long time.

Initially I didn't like the way in which McCormick chose to write the story. It's written from Chorn-Pond's point of view, as if someone with bad English is speaking. I thought this was unnecessary and an unfair way of representing this boy's memories and experiences. However, McCormick says this: "Trying to capture that voice was like trying to bottle a lightning bug. Every time I imposed the rules of grammar or syntax on it, the light went out. And so, in telling Arn's story I chose to use his own distinct and beautiful voice."

Chorn-Pond's courage and determination to survive throughout this story is astounding. There are so many situations that he was lucky to survive. It's hard to read but I think a good way to learn more about this awful truth in history.

Rating: I rate Never Fall Down a seven out of ten. An amazing story, written a little detached from the emotions.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King

Plot: Teenager Vera Dietz has been in love with her best friend Charlie for years. She's also kept a lot of his secrets. When Charlie dies, Vera is haunted by his ghost because she's the only one who can clear his name. But does she even want to after what he did to her?

Comments: Please Ignore Vera Dietz is a spectacular young adult's novel. Vera is easy to fall in love with and feels like a real person. Her sarcastic voice and the experiences she struggles to accept create a realistic teenager. I loved her use of school vocabulary words.

I really liked the way in which the story was told - from different perspectives at times, and with vignettes from different periods of time, all revealing some aspect of the past. It was a fun and new way to look at things.

The story dealt with some very real teenage issues. Sometimes this was hard to read, because I hated some of the choices Vera made and I wanted her to be smarter, better than that. But in reality, even smart teenagers make stupid choices. So in retrospect, I'm glad King made Vera an imperfect character because that's the only type of person in the real world. But that didn't stop me from yelling at Vera in my head throughout certain parts of the book.

It all came together well. Loose ends were tied up but not unrealistically neatly. Life went on and the past was forgiven. It was a sweet ending to a tumultuous story. Also a little bit heartbreaking. I think many people can relate to the emotions and events in this book.

Rating: I rate Please Ignore Vera Dietz a nine out of ten. It was a good story of grief and forgiveness.

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga

Plot: Jasper "Jazz" Dent grew up under the tutelage of his father Billy Dent, an infamous serial killer. Billy taught Jazz how to maintain a normal facade as well as tricks of the killing trade for avoiding capture. When Jazz was thirteen, Billy was finally caught and imprisoned after murdering more than one hundred people, and for four years Jazz struggled to live a normal teenage life. But Billy's voice always echoed in Jazz's head. When a body is discovered in Jazz's hometown, the 17-year-old is convinced it's a new serial killer. Jazz sets out to hunt down the killer, hoping to prove to everyone - and to himself - that he is not like his father.

Comments: First of all, I Hunt Killers was creepy. I must admit that I'm easily frightened, but the graphic descriptions of the victims in this book are freaky. This story delves deep into the minds of serial killers, which I think is enough to make anyone paranoid and a little disturbed. In addition, the constant struggle in Jazz's head between normal teenager and raised-to-be-a-serial-killer is also incredibly perturbing.

Despite that, it was a well-written, suspenseful novel. As before mentioned, the descriptions were startlingly vivid. Jazz's suspicion of pretty much everyone is contagious, so you don't trust anyone. It was definitely a good murder mystery.

I really didn't like Jazz. I think you're supposed to, but I didn't like him. Though he tried to tell himself that he wasn't like his father, he always had urges to kill people, which was creepy. Maybe that's not his fault, but it still was unsettling. Furthermore, Jazz never stopped manipulating the people around him. That's all he ever did - twist their feelings with his smooth talking. Worse, he didn't seem to think that that was wrong or a big deal. I really disliked that part of him, that he would think so little of the people around him that he wouldn't think twice about making them do what he wanted. He took pride in his ability to bend them to his will. It disgusted me.

I think some loose ends tied up too neatly in this story. Everything ended easily. A few openings suggest a sequel, but for the most part the ending was generic and rather predictable. Unrealistic in its simplicity and smoothness. And Jazz continues to display his overconfidence and pride up to the final page.

Rating: I rate this a six out of ten. Jazz wasn't a very enjoyable character and the plot itself was just creepy.

Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen

Plot: A retelling of Robin Hood, Scarlet tells the tale of a fiery young woman stealing from the rich and protecting the poor - but most people know her as Will Scarlet, a boy in the exiled Robin Hood's notorious gang, harboring a mysterious past. When a thief-catcher comes to town, Scarlet's already dangerous life takes a turn for the worse. As she struggles to stay free from the law, Scarlet also fights between her feelings for her leader, Rob, and her teammate, John.

Comments: Scarlet was an intriguing story with a strong female lead. I enjoyed the retelling of Robin Hood with its theme of protecting the impoverished, overtaxed villagers from the cruel, violent local government. The plight of the peasants takes a back seat, however - the story focuses on Robin Hood's band and the complicated relationships between the outlaws. Specifically, the main conflict appears to be the love triangle between three of the members, including the female lead, Scarlet.

For what seemed to be a romance story, the actual elements of romance were slightly unclear. Yes, Scarlet's growing emotions - as well as her denial of those feelings - were evidenced in her confused thoughts and the fluttering of her heart. Gaughen did a good job of showing those feelings expand and morph without actually having to explain or name them. However, I never quite understood Scarlet's motivations or the reasons for those feelings. While I could feel her emotions, it was never clear as to why she was attracted to the two men. Perhaps there isn't ever an explainable reason when it comes to love, but I still felt like I was missing something as her feelings mysteriously grew stronger.

Everyone in the story, including the reader, is left in the dark about her past and the apparently scarring experiences she's had. This is intended, of course, but hints were dropped rather suddenly and out of context. Throughout the book Rob was able to draw out the truth from Scarlet in an effortless manner that I felt unrealistic, given her stubborn, private nature. And when the big reveal of her past was finally spilled completely, it felt forced and not nearly as important and touching as it was probably meant to be.

Despite this, I did love Scarlet's character. She rivaled the other teammates in skill, making up for her lack of physical strength through speed, cunning, and a knack for near-invisibility. And she never let anyone get to her, always talking back and ready for a fight. Scarlet was pretty flighty, though, and while she never ran away when someone needed her, she always escaped when someone was trying to talk to her. This made her a rather feral creature, one who didn't want to be human anymore.

Spoiler alert. Skip to the rating if you haven't read the book yet. I thought the ending was strange and forced. Why would Scarlet agree to marry the psychotic guy who planned to kill her? Originally I figured it was a distraction - but she actually went through with it. For what reason? Just to create extra conflict in the love triangle, I assume. And as for the love triangle: Scarlet's sudden complete love for Rob surprised me. One moment she told John she loved him (she actually did!) and the next she never wants to leave Rob's side. I don't understand this. It felt very unrealistic and inexplicable, like Gaughen wanted Rob and Scarlet to end up together in the end even though it didn't really fit the plot anymore.

Rating: I rate Scarlet an eight out of ten. It was an exciting read and fast-paced, but the characters' actions were sometimes confusing and unrealistic.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Various Positions by Martha Schabas

Plot: Georgia, a 14-year-old girl living in Toronto, Canada uses ballet to escape her dysfunctional family life. But when her classmates at her prestigious ballet academy show their growing interests in boys and sex, Georgia struggles to come to terms with her own sexuality and a growing attraction for her much older ballet teacher.

Comments: This book was disturbing. I can't believe this is a young adults novel and recommended for young teenagers. The more I read, the more I was grossed out. Though initially Georgia is determined to focus on her love of ballet, she gradually becomes obsessed with the idea of a relationship with her decades-older teacher. She perceives every little thing he does to be a come-on, a sign that he wants her. A strange part of this is that in the beginning she was worried that her teacher was a creep who was interested in his students - but as time passes, she suddenly switches to actively pursuing him herself. It doesn't make any sense.

In fact, all throughout the book, I never could understand Georgia's motivations for anything she did. She was a very two-dimensional character. The author Schabas had to say everything Georgia was feeling (as in, "I was angry") because Georgia wasn't enough of a developed character for readers to understand her without constant explanations. Though the story was told from Georgia's point of view, she felt like a blank wall, a robot who just wandered through the plot and did what was needed in order to make the plot reach the intended ending. Because I didn't understand or relate to her, I didn't like or have any sympathy for her. It was the same with the rest of the characters. Georgia's mom mopes around the whole book, her dad is distant and elite, and none of the people in the book feel real.

As the plot progresses it grows more and more creepy and Georgia's actions more and more inexplicable. I forced myself to finish, but by the end I was completely disgusted with the book. While some may say it's healthy for teens to read about this side of sex portrayed so openly and unashamedly, I disagree. The only good thing about this story is that Georgia's friends and family took action, confronted Georgia, and found her help when they discovered the extent of the situation - exactly what they should have done. But besides this, I don't see any good messages from this book. I feel like the way Georgia acts and thinks actually tells teens that it's okay to pursue illegal relationships with teachers and middle aged people. And the way the book ends, I feel like it was about to happen all over again. The message this sends and the pure sexual content and graphic descriptions in this book are not appropriate for most teenagers, and certainly not for the average under-16-year-old.

Rating: I rate Various Positions a four out of ten. I hated this book and do not recommend it for anyone - but especially not for teenagers. Not only did I dislike the main character because she didn't feel human, but the story itself was dark and disturbing. This book did not seem to condemn illegal, highly sexual relationships between young teenage girls and middle aged men - rather, it almost said that these relationships are normal and okay.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Plot: Not far into the future, the world's amazing technology turns against its creators to cause the bloodiest, most destructive war humankind has ever seen. Robots almost destroy the entire human race when they first attack at Zero Hour, but humanity fights back with their defining trait of a fierce determination to live. For the first time, all humans must unite in order to stand a chance against the fatal technology surrounding them.

Comments: This book was both fascinating and nightmarishly-creepy. Though the technology in this book is more advanced than what we currently have available today, it doesn't seem like such a strange idea that some day it all may turn against us. Though household robots are not common today, the thought of one such normally obedient, subservient invention suddenly slaughtering your neighbors is frankly quite terrifying. This book definitely made me check over my shoulder once or twice. The theme of the whole story is a blend of confusion, terror, horror, and determination.

The stories compiled in this book are varied from a soldier's perspective as he battles on foreign soil to a child's viewpoint while she struggles to make sense of the horrifying new world. I love the way the story is told through many different perspectives because it gives you a wide, general idea of what's happening in the war all over the world. Each snapshot tells a whole story, of heartbreak or courage and often both. Though each character only plays a small part in this book - and in the war - they leave a distinct imprint on the reader's mind and heart.

I like how there are still questions left unanswered when the book ends. It's realistic: none of the people in the stories ever got the answers to their many questions, so why should the reader? This way you're left with an air of intrigue and mystery. This is a theme throughout the whole book, really. There's a good balance between the scientific theoretically possible aspects and the unnatural, alien qualities in the story. It keeps you guessing and using your imagination.

Rating: I rate Robopocalypse an eight out of ten. Don't get turned off by the slightly cheesy title. If you like robots, war stories, and tales of heroics and sacrifice, read this book.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Plot: This tells the stories of several black maids working in white households amidst the racism of 1960's Mississippi and one young white woman who wants to learn their perspectives. Together they gain courage and support while working to change their community for the better.

First Line: "Mae Mobley was born on an early Sunday morning in August, 1960."

Comments: The Help is an amazing novel. The individual stories and the differing viewpoints and voices of each character weave together to create a powerful, thought-provoking book. Every person has something different to say and a different perspective of life, but they are all drawn together for more or less the same reason.

I love the characters. Aibileen, a maid raising her employer's daughter, is my favorite. She is patient and loving but strong and sturdy, and she helps create the movement towards equality. Minny is a spit-fire maid who has trouble finding work because of her tendency to speak her mind. Skeeter is a young, white college graduate who returns home to find that the black maid who raised her is gone, and no one will tell her where she went. These people all have such different personalities that it's a pleasure to watch them interact and to hear the thoughts in their heads.

Not only does this book share stories of what it was like being a black maid in the South during the 1960's, but it encourages more than just racial equality. It inspires readers to stand up for their beliefs and stick together, even when it seems like the whole world is against you. This story mixes wit, history, perseverance, and harsh reality into a fantastic blend of page-turning goodness.

Rating: I rate The Help a 10 out of 10. I definitely recommend this book.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

John Dies at the End by David Wong

Plot: "The important thing is this: The drug is called soy sauce, and it gives users a window into another dimension. John and I never had the chance to say no. You still do. ...As you read about these terrible events and the very dark epoch the world is about to enter as a result, it is crucial you keep one thing in mind: none of this is my fault." (excerpts from back cover of book)

Note: David Wong is the pseudonym of Jason Pargin.

Comments: This book is... strange. Also shocking, malformed, surprisingly hilarious, and rather creepy. John Dies at the End is a whirlwind story that no one can ever really understand. It hooked my attention, made me laugh, and caused me to see nightmares everywhere.

I very quickly grew attached to the main character, Dave. I also grew to love his best friend John and the random assortment of other characters. John adds heavily to the hilarity of this story, while Dave piles up the emotional factor. The two work well together in a way that makes you scratch your head.

There are many things in this book that will be unclear and muddled, but that's how it's supposed to be. It's best not to question too many aspects. Just grab hold of the first page and hang on for the ride. It's a wild ride, but well worth it. Pay attention to every word and just keep reading.

Sometimes it seemed like the book hit a dead end, but there was always a story that continued on. I wouldn't try to guess what will happen next, because there are more twists and turns and random happenstances in this book than you could shake a stick at. The point of the story isn't evident.

A warning: this book freaked me out. I read parts of it at night and wished I hadn't.

Rating: I rate John Dies at the End a nine out of ten.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Plot: Young English adventurer Robinson Crusoe shares his tales of misfortune and survival as he travels the world. He lives through shipwrecks, encounters with cannibals, and many years on a deserted island.

Comments: Robinson Crusoe is an old book. It was first published in 1719, so as you can guess, the language is odd. The way in which Crusoe speaks can make some sentences confusing. Most of it is understandable, if outdated.

Another thing about the book being old: it's racist and religious. The foreign tribesmen of the Caribbean are treated as animals, which was the way they were viewed by England in the 1700's. I didn't like reading those parts, but it's from a long time ago. Don't be offended because the past is past and things are better now. As for the religion, I accepted that Crusoe was religious and left it at that. It doesn't have to affect the story.

The story itself was interesting. Crusoe certainly survived many fatal situations. It was fun to read about how he grew his civilization on the island where he spent so many years. I didn't always understand the science of how he did things, but the general concepts were clear.

The sense of time in this book seemed rather skewed to me. Sometimes Crusoe would say "two years later..." Also, he described all the things he did on the island, then explained afterwards that this took him years. Everything he did seemed so in the moment, until you realize he's been doing it for months. I can't imagine having the patience and determination to begin projects knowing they'll take that much time away. The book encompasses many years of his life, and it felt strangely like fast-forwarding.

Rating: I rate Robinson Crusoe a seven out of ten. A good read, and a classic.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Star Wars Trilogy

Star Wars: A New Hope by George Lucas. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back by Donald F. Glut (based on a story by George Lucas). Star Wars: Return of the Jedi by James Kahn (based on a story by George Lucas).

Plot: For years Luke Skywalker worked on his uncle's farm on the remote planet Tatooine, longing for the chance to adventure. When he intercepted a cry for help from a beautiful princess, Luke was thrust into a dangerous journey that would alter his fate and the fate of the universe.

Comments: It has been a long time since I've seen the Star Wars movies. I was worried that I wouldn't understand what was happening when I read this stories. However, these novels were written in such a way that I could have understood perfectly even if I had never seen the movies. The stories were very clear. There were plenty of names and characters, but not so many that I lost track.

The pure adventure and desperate reliance on luck in bad situations made these stories incredibly exciting. They take the classic story of the underdog fighting the bully and expand it into a battle between good and evil for the freedom of all. I couldn't put the books down.

Though I liked the Rebel characters Luke, Leia, Solo, and such, I never really cared about them. I cheered for their cause and their victories, but I really had no empathy for the characters. They didn't feel like real people to me. The authors told rather than showed what the characters were feeling, which made the characters unrealistic and two-dimensional.

Rating: I rate this trilogy a nine out of ten. Great stories, exciting action.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Extinction Event by David Black

Plot: When attorney Jack Slidell is suspected in the drug/sex murder of his law partner, he finds himself on the run with a beautiful woman. He quickly becomes caught up in a conspiracy that may mean the end of the planet.

Comments: I slogged my way through less than one hundred pages of this book before giving up. Definitely not a good story. The characters are just absolutely horrible - you feel no empathy for any of them, and so the story means nothing to you either.

According to a few other people who read the whole book, The Extinction Event has a few nice twists to the plot but the actual extinction event - the threat to human existence - appears as an afterthought in the final few pages. Overall, many agree that this was not a good book and that the characters are not well created.

As a side note, Jack's romance with the woman just grossed me out because he's sixty and she's not even thirty. That may be personal preference, but it made me dislike the characters even more.

To summarize, I thought this book was terrible.

Rating: I rate this book a five out of ten.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Mr. Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett

Plot: During the Great Depression, thousands roam the country seeking jobs and money. Among the crowds of hobos is quiet, determined Marcus Connelly. But Connelly is searching for something other than a job: he looks for the scarred man who murdered his daughter. Connelly lives only to take revenge upon this man who leaves behind whispers of a terrible legacy; the man everyone knows as Mr. Shivers.

Comments: Beginning as a solemn, grim story of a man driven to vengeance, Mr. Shivers soon twisted into a dark, disturbing tale. By the last page, I was thoroughly perturbed. This is certainly not a book for young people (I recommend high school and up) or for those who are easily frightened or sickened. The descriptions can get fairly graphic in a matter-of-fact manner that makes it even more disgusting.

I liked Connelly at first because he was such a simple person who didn't say much. He cared about other people. However, as the story progressed and he grew more obsessed with his quest, Connelly changed. He started to be like the very man he despised, Mr. Shivers. This disappointed me, and I no longer cared about Connelly. By the end, every character was just another pawn to play in the sick, twisted game of the story.

While this was a well-crafted story, I was so disturbed by it that I didn't enjoy it very much.

Rating: I rate Mr. Shivers a seven out of ten.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus

Plot: Manjiro is a young boy living during the mid 1800's in isolationist Japan. After his small fishing boat runs aground a deserted island after a powerful storm, Manjiro is rescued by fearsome American demons. Now he must choose between the culture and traditions he has been taught and the new world of America.

Comments: Though an interesting idea with the potential for a very good story, I didn't think Heart of a Samurai was a very exciting read. Manjiro didn't make a very three-dimensional character: I rarely felt any real emotion from him and so he was empty and uninteresting. I believe he's meant to be lovable, but I really didn't care about him at all.

The story itself was rather boring. None of the characters were terribly exciting or easy to relate to, which in turn made each adventure unimportant. There was nothing keeping my attention caught. I did like the small integration of Japanese words with the English, as well as Japanese traditions.

All in all, I really didn't enjoy this book. There was nothing memorable about it.

Rating: I rate Heart of a Samurai a five out of ten.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick

Book one in the Ashes Trilogy. Book two, Shadows, will be out in September 2012.

Plot: Alex is hiking alone in the woods, trying to escape the malignant monster lodged in her brain, when suddenly the world ends. An EMP has exploded overhead: all technology is destroyed and the ones who survived the blast start to go crazy. She fights to survive with her new family of an eight-year-old girl and a young soldier.

Comments: Ashes was amazing! I loved the premise of the book as well as Alex herself. I felt Alex was a strong female character because though she was sometimes overwhelmed by the challenges in her new life, she persevered and would not give up. The little girl was pretty annoying. That was meant to be a part of her character, but I just didn't like reading about her, honestly. The soldier seemed too perfect. He could do anything, which was pretty exasperating, especially when Alex began to rely on him.

The people going crazy actually gave me nightmares. That might just be me, but I certainly don't recommend this book to anyone younger than high school age. They're meant to be terrifying, so I guess mission accomplished. The people in the shielded town of Rule also gave off an odd sense. I felt uneasy when Alex was in Rule, and I didn't like her sudden romance with another boy. I thought that was unrealistic and I didn't want Alex to like him.

The story was exciting and intriguing, a constant adventure. The uncertainty is almost tangible and the tones of fear and raw survival instincts are always in the background.

Rating: I rate Ashes a nine out of ten.

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton

Plot: Ever since a traumatizing experience years ago when he was eight, Mike has not spoken a single word. As his life unfolds with twists and turns, he remains silent in happiness, in fear, and in determination. Mike narrates his many-faceted story of coming-of-age and getting involved in a darker world, from which he can never escape.

Comments: I could not put this book down! The Lock Artist is absolutely captivating. Mike is a character who is difficult to understand because of the secrets in his past, but he endears himself to the reader easily. You can't help but cheer for him even when the situation looks hopeless.

Each chapter switches to a different time in Mike's life, which is confusing. Eventually it morphs into two or three distinct periods and is easier to follow, but initially it was dizzying. The dates listed at the beginning of each chapter meant nothing to me, so I never knew how old he was or what was happening until I read through the first page or so.

I thought Mike's relationship with the girl was a little unrealistic. The way they communicated through comics was very cute, though. I appreciated that Mike had more than the one particular talent: rather than just his very important skill (read the book to find out, though it should be a little obvious from the title), Mike was also a highly gifted artist in drawing. I thought that rounded out his character more.

All the characters felt very real. While I wouldn't say I was attached to them, they fit well into the plot and together created an actual story.

Rating: I rate The Lock Artist a nine out of ten. Good read.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

After Hamelin by Bill Richardson

Plot: The night before her eleventh birthday, young Penelope is struck deaf. This curse becomes a gift when Penelope is safe from the Piper's enchanting music, while all the other children in Hamelin are stolen away. She must embark on a journey to rescue her friends through the dangerous world of Dreaming.

Comments: I remember enjoying this book much more when I was years younger. I believe this is a great story for young readers, perhaps eleven themselves like Penelope, but it isn't meant for sophisticated reading. The simplistic, predictable way in which the story is written can be boring and uninteresting for higher level readers.

Trying to think of After Hamelin through a young person's point of view, this was a good story. The old tale of the Piper and his magic pipes luring children away from their parents was expanded upon very well with extra details and characters. The contrast between Penelope as a young girl and as an old woman narrating the story was fun to read. However, I felt closer to the old Penelope than I did the young, main character Penelope.

After Hamelin was written using easy words and concepts and should be an exciting story for young readers. I recommend it for late elementary school or early middle school students.

Rating: I rate After Hamelin a seven out of ten for young readers.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Plot: In a desperate attempt to save her family, willful Kate enters the deadliest horse race in the world. These otherworldly horses have a taste for meat, which is where the deadly comes in. Meanwhile, four year race champion Sean's life is turned inside out when he meets Kate and is inspired by her determination.

Comments: I loved this book! The Scorpio Races was clever, exciting, and an intriguing mix of everyday worries and the fantastical. The story captivated me through the final page.

I always love a strong female character, and I believe Kate was a wonderful example of this. She had her faults and was in no way perfect, but her passion and righteousness set me to internal cheering. Her obstinance and pride were hilarious and realistic. The way she interacted with other characters showed her growth throughout the book as she discovered self-confidence.

It was fun watching Kate and Sean together as well, however obvious that outcome was. Some parts of the story were fairly predictable, but perhaps that's the beauty of this book: the comforting familiarity of knowing what will happen next. Certainly I wasn't bored by the plot, which had its fair share of twists and turns.

The concept of these wildly beautiful horses creates an atmosphere of wistful longing and the untamed, furious power of nature. Loving the horses is like loving the ocean from which they come, courting danger and death at all times. This story makes you wish you could understand what it feels like to ride a horse so spirited and terrible, to feel the thrum of this disastrous race running through your veins, and to love and fear the ever present ocean.

Rating: I rate The Scorpio Races a nine out of ten. A wonderful story.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Huntress by Malinda Lo

Plot: Two girls, Taisan with unnatural powers and Kaede without, are sent by the king on a dangerous journey to meet the Fairy Queen. As they begin to rely on each other, they also begin to fall in love.

Comments: I didn't particularly like this book and only finished it because I was extremely bored. Because the summary on the inside book jacket explained that the girls fall in love, that crucial part of the story was ruined. From the beginning I knew they would fall in love, so their tentative feelings and confused internal monologues were a waste. There was absolutely no mystery and so there was nothing to keep my attention or interest. In addition, Malinda Lo did not do a very good job with the age-old "show, don't tell" guideline: the narrator blatantly stated that they were falling in love rather than showing how it was happening.

I found it interesting that the main characters falling in love were both girls because I have never read a romance novel that wasn't a man and a woman. However, I was disappointed in this love story. Hopefully I can find better romance stories with girl-girl or boy-boy. Taisin and Kaede were also rather disappointing characters. They had no depth and no purpose beyond falling in love. Everything they did was predictable.

The plot itself was also highly predictable, as well as anti-climatic. The whole book seemed to lead up to one event, which failed to perform for more than a couple of pages. A final adventure was crammed into the last few pages as if written last minute. The writing of this book was a big disappointment.

Rating: I rate this book a five out of ten. Not worth reading.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Laika by Nick Abadzis

Plot: This graphic novel is based on the true story of a dog sent to outer space in the Russian rocket Sputnik II. Nick Abadzis added fictional details as well as beautiful drawings to blend several perspectives of the story. Laika and the humans in her life will capture your heart.

First Line: "I am a man of destiny... I will not die."

Comments: I loved this graphic novel. I don't read many, but the wonderful story held my rapt attention through the last page. Initially the drawings of the people seemed unusual to me, but I came to appreciate the raw emotions portrayed through simple lines. The story itself was sweet, adventurous, and a heartbreaking reality check. I learned about the dog Laika through the people surrounding her and the lives that she touched. Not only did I care for Laika, but also for the human characters, especially the dog handler Yelena. Watching Yelena struggle between her duty to her country and her love for Laika was painful, yet clear and truthful. Laika is a truly beautiful story.

Rating: I rate this graphic novel a ten out of ten.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Up the Capitol Steps by Barbara Roberts

Plot: Up the Capitol Steps: A Woman's March to the Governorship is Barbara Roberts' memoir as Oregon's first and only woman governor. In this book, she recalls the long, political journey from her childhood to the hard-won position of governor. This is a story of a strong woman who made a difference in her state and in views toward women in politics.

Comments: First, I will emphasize that this is not an autobiography. While Roberts does write about her life and her experiences, she focuses on the events that led her to her political career. I must admit that I am not supremely interested in politics. Because of this, many parts of the book were slightly dull. Now, due to Roberts' skillful writing, I strongly believe that anyone with an interest in politics or history would find this very interesting. I simply lean toward less technical books.

It was difficult for me to read this book because of the complex descriptions of bills, organizations and politicians. In the end I only read half of the good-sized book because I felt most of the story was over. The second half occurs when Roberts has gained governorship and is detailing accomplishments and events in that political sector. Once again, I think this book could be very interesting; it is merely my own lack of interest in political technicalities and history that caused me to be less than enraptured.

Rating: I rate this book a seven out of ten. Roberts' voice throughout the stories is fun and engaging.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Zahir by Paulo Coelho

Plot: After his wife leaves him unexpectedly, an unnamed man goes in search of her and in the process finds himself.

Comments: I didn't really like this book.

First, it was a sexist book. Women were not treated as equals to men in this story and neither did they expect or strive for equality. The messages I received from this book were about the inferiority of women to men. This is somewhat of a sore spot for me, but I don't think sexism in any book is a good thing.

Another problem was that the main character narrations could go off on long, philosophical tangents at any moment. Vaguely throwing out words and ideas and hoping it sounded deep and thoughtful was my impression of what Coelho was doing - or rather, what he had the main character doing. I skipped many a page that was filled with ramblings about love and life.

The next issue I had with this book is the unannounced, anachronistic flashbacks completely made up of dialogue by unknown persons. I never knew who was talking to whom or when this conversation was occuring. This discussions were also very vague and philosophical.

I did not enjoy reading The Zahir for several reasons, the best of which is that the book just didn't interest me at all.

Rating: I rate The Zahir a five out of ten.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Plot: Follow amibitious Estaban Trueba's journey from young adulthood to grandfatherhood, Clairvoyant Clara's life living with unseen spirits, and young Alba's battle against tyranny and tradition. This is a magical realism story about three generations of a closely connected family living in cycles of sexism toward women and set roles for social classes.

Comments: I analyzed this book for a class, which tends to lessen my enjoyment of the book. However, I think that without the requirement for the class I would not have finished the book at all. The House of the Spirits is Isabel Allende's first book and displays her style of magical realism, where magic is entwined with reality in subtle, almost believable ways. Personally, magical realism is not my favorite genre.

Esteban was an enormously sexist character, as well as believing strongly that the lower class citizens should stay in their inferior place. Despite all that made me despise him in the beginning of the book, I grew to sort of like his character at the very end. I did feel guilty for forgiving him of his horrible acts against women. There's an emphasis on abuse of women physically, mentally, and socially in The House of the Spirits, which I believe is meant to advocate equality.

I didn't connect with many characters for very long, which translated into a lack of empathy. The story didn't interest me very much. The political unrest didn't seize my attention and neither did the hidden messages in every action, word, and symbol. It was a good storyline, but I wasn't very impressed with the book.

Rating: I rate this book a six out of ten. It wasn't a great book.

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

Plot: The first book in the popular series A Song of Ice and Fire, this novel encompasses many complex stories and perspectives woven together in a history of a conflicted world. A Game of Thrones is written with dramatic themes such as war, betrayal, and scandal.

Comments: I'd been given a multitude of recommendations to read A Game of Thrones by the time I finally acquired a copy. Initially, I was unimpressed with the book. The plot felt slow-moving and not entirely interesting, and the characters were introduced too quickly to really connect with, among other issues. I grew to appreciate the story more as I continued to read, but I never loved the book.

One thing I really disliked about A Game of Thrones is the total sexism against women. The book is set in a time of knights, maidens, and tradition; Martin may be modeling the setting after a period of time in Earth's history, complete with gender inequality. However, I don't understand why it's necessary to include the sexism. Women in this book rarely had any power and were for the most part not taken seriously. It chafed me every time a man made a sexist comment or a woman obeyed a man without question. Of course there were also the many prostitutes. Why the sexism?

Another problem I had with this book was the overwhelming barrage of names. There are seemingly hundreds of characters, each with three variations of their name (first name only, last name, title). Minor characters were often not introduced, yet the reader was apparently expected to memorize their names for further reference. The names of places were the same way. There were just too many names and complicated relationships. It really took away from my enjoyment of the story.

The story was extremely complex and unpredictable, which was one of the best parts of the book. I never knew what was going to happen next. In addition, there were several characters whom I grew to enjoy reading about: Tyrion, for example, added hilariously sarcastic wit to the dramatic, tense atmosphere. The many different perspectives from all sides of the conflicts made for an interesting compiled read.

Rating: I rate this book a six out of ten. While the plot is interesting in its compexity and twists, the confusion from the names and the annoyance from the sexism caused me to overall not enjoy A Game of Thrones very much

The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Plot: Young Kvothe's adventures continue in the second book of The Kingkiller Chronicles (read my review of the first book, The Name of the Wind). His relationship with Denna grows complicated as his relationship with the University grows strained. Kvothe travels far away and learns many things about combat, reality, and himself. Meanwhile, problems are piling up. The conflict rises steadily to the promise of a spectacular climax.

Comments: I recommend rereading The Name of the Wind before reading The Wise Man's Fear, as there are many details and names to remember. However, Patrick Rothfuss does a good job of keeping the plot complex without making it confusing. That's not to say this book doesn't leave you with a lot of questions.

I love watching Kvothe grow into a young man, though I don't particularly like some of his more annoying attitudes. He is as pigheaded as ever, but now he has more power at his fingertips and more enemies lurking behind his back. Kvothe is not a perfect person; this is a good reminder that no one is. Once again, I'm struck by how Rothfuss has created characters who are all imperfect and therefore realistic. I also was much more satisfied with the strong women in this book than the first book.

The words grip you like real hands: they shake you senseless, spinning you around and around before setting you gently back on the ground. That's what it feels like reading The Wise Man's Fear. It's challenging to stop reading for even a moment. The story seizes your attention and takes you on a wild ride that includes science-fiction, romance, and philosophy. This book is a very exciting, engaging, and witty read.

Rating: I rate The Wise Man's Fear as a nine out of ten! I can't wait until the third and final book.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Shards by Ismet Prcic

Plot: Young Bosnian Ismet escapes his war torn country, leaving behind his old life and beginning anew - but this is easier said than done. Ismet struggles to make sense out of his existence, tormented by his memories confusingly intermingled with those of others.

Comments: Shards is an abstract story of a Bosnian boy coming of age under the pressures and dangers of constant war in the background and familial insecurity in the foreground. Learning about the conflict in Bosnia from the perspective of a child, then a teenager and a young man, is a new experience and rather shocking. Ismet wrestles with his sense of himself and his place in the world. I can relate to his confusion and frustration in that respect, as I think many people can.

However, due to excessively anachronistic, haphazard shifting of perspective, Shards is discouragingly challenging to read. By the time I finally finished the book, most of my questions were unanswered and I was left with an overall feeling of dissatisfaction. In an attempt to express Ismet's emotions and inner turmoil, Prcic seems to have thrown out as many random, wild concepts and stories as he could, creating a mess of words not worth reading.

Rating: I rate Shards a five out of ten.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Homer's Odyssey by Gwen Cooper

Plot: Gwen Cooper adopts an eyeless kitten she names Homer, and his determination to live life spectacularly changes her own life forever.

Comments: While this was a cute story about an inspiring cat, before I started reading I didn't realize how much of an autobiography Homer's Odyssey really is. I liked reading about Homer's shenanigans and various mischiefs. He was endearingly high maintenance. However, the autobiographical elements in the story were somewhat less than captivating. Oftentimes I skipped whole paragraphs of the author pondering the meaning of life. Frankly, her abstract musings bored me and had no place in a story supposedly about an inspiring cat.

It's true that Gwen Cooper's firsthand perspective of the terrorist attack on September 11th was intriguing. Yet I maintain that, having believed the book to be centered upon the cat Homer before I began reading, the life of the author was not terribly interesting to me. Homer's story was, nevertheless, uplifting.

Rating: I rate Homer's Odyssey a six out of ten.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Plot: When housemaid Anna Frith's village becomes infested with the plague, they make the decision to quarantine themselves to protect the outside world. Through these grueling times of sickness and tragedy, Anna rises to the challenge and proves herself an able healer and strong young woman.

Comments: This is a story filled with imperfect people struggling in a cruel world. Anna is strong in some ways and weak in others. I love her capability and willingness to help but dislike her subservient nature. Every person in Year of Wonders has flaws, creating a mismatched, conflicting reality of strained relationships and deteriorating faith.

The story was fairly predictable, disappointingly. What was probably meant as merely foreshadowing completely gave away important aspects that would appear later in the book. Nothing came as a surprise or very impacting in any way. I didn't feel very attached to any characters, and so everything that happened was rather insignificant. However, the tales of survival and failure were intriguing and somewhat inspiring. The story was enjoyable and at times captivating, though I was not able to feel much empathy for the characters.

Rating: I rate Year of Wonders a seven out of ten.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Plot: After spending years in prison yearning to see his wife, Shadow learns days before his release that she has died in a car accident. Then Shadow meets the mysterious man Wednesday, who drags him into a powerful battle between gods for the soul of America. In the midst of the intrigue, confusion, and danger, Shadow discovers that everyone, including his dead wife, has a secret side to them that no one sees.

Comments: An intricately woven tale of many stories together, American Gods is vividly haunting. Dark themes react with light parables to create a beautifully colorful slurry of emotions. This story combines hilarious wit, poignant real-life moments, and drastically tragic endings exceptionally.

Shadow appears to be a fairly two-dimensional character at first, but slowly reveals aspects of himself that even he didn't know existed. Throughout the book, Shadow becomes more complicated and human until he is absolutely lovable. His childlike simplicity and innocence cause the reader to be protective of him; his righteousness and determination inspire pride. Similarly, the other characters invoke different emotions and embody indefinite concepts, serving individual purposes through the story.

A problem I uncovered with the complexity of American Gods is failing to remember minute details when they become significant later in the book. Because of the vast multitude of names and descriptive explanations for each side story, things muddled together a bit in a dizzying swirl of letters and ideas. However, the important points of the story serve as landmarks to follow, and the book as a whole is worth mild confusion.

After reading American Gods, I had difficulty deciding whether I actually enjoyed it or not. Either way, this story left an impact that will not be easily forgotten. It is truly haunting.

Rating: I rate American Gods a nine out of ten.

Friday, January 20, 2012

One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus

Plot: In order to escape a constricting life, May Dodd joins a government program in the late 1800's in which white women are sent to marry Cheyenne Indian men. The hope is that these "civilized" ladies will assimilate the Indians into modern society. Along with a motley group of eccentric women, May experiences the true life of a Cheyenne and realizes that everything looks different from the other side.

Comments: This was a very interesting story, with engaging imagery and creative characters. The idea itself was intriguing. I didn't feel much of a connection with May, but I absolutely loved a few of the other women. They were all quirky, different, and very strong. Their sisterhood among themselves and with the Indian women was touching and light-hearted. Furthermore, the relationships between the white women and their new Indian husbands were at times sweet, at others amusing. I loved learning about the Cheyenne culture and their beautifully purposeful ways.

Once again, I wasn't a huge fan of May Dodd. She was very casual about sex and not terribly compassionate. However, she was independent and determined, both admirable qualities. Her story is unconventional and wound into the lives of others.

Rating: I rate this a seven out of ten.