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.