Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in Review

2012 was a crazy year for me -- I moved from Southern California to the Chicago area for grad school at Northwestern, I got a new job, and my sister found out she's having a baby in 2013! Unfortunately, a lot of this stuff caused me to not be so productive in my blogging, but it was still a great year full of some awesome books.

Notable Changes
Both Michelle and Della joined this blog as reviewers in 2012. I can't wait to do more work with them in the upcoming year!

Top 5 books I read in 2012
1. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
2. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
3. Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
4. Bloodlines by Richelle Mead
5. A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare's Plays Teach Us about Justice by Kenji Yoshino

Longest Book 
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1,392 pages)

Most Views for Review Posted in 2012
Beloved by Toni Morrison

I'm hoping that next year will be even better and more exciting! Here's to a new year filled with great, new books!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Book Review: Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead

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Title: Vampire Academy
Author: Richelle Mead
Publisher: Razorbill
Series: Vampire Academy, Book 1
Paperback: 332 pages
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)
St. Vladimir’s Academy isn’t just any boarding school—it’s a hidden place where vampires are educated in the ways of magic and half-human teens train to protect them. Rose Hathaway is a Dhampir, a bodyguard for her best friend Lissa, a Moroi Vampire Princess. They’ve been on the run, but now they’re being dragged back to St. Vladimir’s—the very place where they’re most in danger... 
Rose and Lissa become enmeshed in forbidden romance, the Academy’s ruthless social scene, and unspeakable nighttime rituals. But they must be careful lest the Strigoi—the world’s fiercest and most dangerous vampires—make Lissa one of them forever.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5

I must say, “I never in a million years thought I would be writing a review about Vampires.” When a friend suggested that I read Vampire Academy I laughed at her. Having never read anything in this genre, I wasn’t in a hurry to start. She handed me her copy and said just try. I reluctantly agreed knowing that I would never be interested in it. The first chapter seemed a little weird to me, as I tried to understand what was happening between Rose and Lissa. The spirit dream confused the heck out of me and when Lissa fed off Rose I thought I was going to be nauseated. But I really liked Richelle Meade’s writing style, so I continued reading. It wasn’t until Rose and Lissa arrived back at the Academy that I found myself actually enjoying the book.

I was intrigued by the whole concept of there being two types of Vampires; Moroi, who are the good vampires, and Stigoi, who are the bad. There is also a group called Dhampirs, who protect the Moroi and they are half Moroi and half human. St Vladimir Academy is a special school for Dhampirs to learn to protect Moroi. Rose, the protagonist of the book, is a Dhampir who ran away from St Vladmir Academy to protect Lissa, a Moroi, from an unknown enemy. The guardians at St Vladmir Academy found Rose and Lissa, secretly living among humans and returned them to the Academy. While at the Academy, Rose practiced training skills with Dimitri Belikov. It was this intense training along with Rose's quick response that would ultimately make her one of the best guardians. The concept of good versus evil has always been the cornerstone of my favorite types of books, so I was hooked to learn that even vampires have a code of ethics.

All the characters were enjoyable, but I have to say Rose, was my favorite. What I found fascinating about her was although she had a lot of emotional problems that played out in her personal life, starting with her thoughts that every male wanted to be with her, she had a strong sense of duty to protect Lissa, keeping her extremely focused. Lissa, being a spirit using Moroi, had saved Rose from death and in doing so created a supernatural bond between the two of them. Rose could read Lissa's thoughts and sense when she was in danger. Because Rose and Lissa had run away from St Vladmir Academy for over a year, Rose was behind in her training. As punishment she had to train extra hours with Guardian Belikov, who I can only imagine by his description to be likened to that of a Greek god, but only Russian. Personally, one could only hope for some one-on-one training with this Russian god. This was a fantastic storyline with many twists that kept me rooting for Rose and Dimitri even though guardians could not date each other.

Richelle Mead's writing style made reading this book not only enjoyable, but one of my favorite recommendations for young adults. This book has a kick-butt storyline, great characters, great plot, but more importantly Richelle Mead constantly interjects the back story, throughout the book, so I didn't have to put much thought into remembering how each character relates.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Book Review: The Twisted Window by Lois Duncan

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Title: The Twisted Window
Author: Lois Duncan
Publisher: Open Road Young Readers
Ebook: 184 pages
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)
High school junior Tracy Lloyd is unsure about the new guy in school. Brad Johnson is attractive, smart, and polite, but Tracy can’t help but feel he watches her too closely. Then one day Brad confides in Tracy a horrible secret: His little sister Mindy has been kidnapped by his stepfather, and he needs Tracy’s help to get her back. But even as Tracy commits to a plan to help her vulnerable new friend, details emerge that suggest nothing is what it seems.  
The Twisted Window is a zigzagging thriller that keeps readers guessing up until the final page. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Lois Duncan including rare images and never-before-seen documents from the author’s personal collection.
Overall Rating: 3 out of 5 

The Twisted Window is a story about Brad Johnson and Tracy Lloyd. Brad has traveled to Texas from New Mexico in order to track down his baby sister Mindy, who has been kidnapped by his stepfather. Enrolling Tracy in his plan to get her back and bring her home, the two teenagers come together to help Brad's family become reunited.

The beginning was strange for me, with Brad looking over girls in a high school to find "the right one" for his plan. However, after all that was over, I was automatically interested in his story. The main theme of the book is about relationships between families, and I quickly got sucked into the characters' lives and their family troubles. Tracy, especially, has an interesting background and her relationship with her relatives play quite a big role in framing what happens throughout the story.

The main characters' stories were what got me through this book -- much of the plot was over-the-top. I was more frustrated with the side characters than anything. I can't say much at risk of revealing the big twist, but I'm not sure how Brad actually gets the opportunity to kidnap his sister. A lot of the major plot points had issues in believability for me, which kind of turned me off the whole story. I do recommend The Twisted Window more for middle-grade readers than for older people. It is too undeveloped to be a very satisfying read to most adults and even older teenagers. There are a lot of unresolved issues at the end, especially in regards to Tracy and her relationship with her aunt, uncle, and father.

This particular edition has some edits made to help it fit in with the newer generation (the use of cell phones and other updated technology). Overall, these worked great, but there was one time where the CD player suddenly became a cassette player.

However, the twist at the end is very good. I didn't start suspecting that something like that was coming until quite late in the book, so it was a nice surprise. Overall, it's a fast read and great if you're looking for a quick suspenseful story.

*I was provided a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.*

Monday, December 17, 2012

Book Review: Giving up the Ghost by Eric Nuzum

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Title: Giving up the Ghost: A Story About Friendship, 80s Rock, a Lost Scrap of Paper, and What It Means to Be Haunted
Author: Eric Nuzum
Publisher: Dial Press
Paperback: 320 pages
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)
Eric Nuzum is afraid of the supernatural, and for good reason: As a high school oddball in Canton, Ohio, during the early 1980s, he became convinced that he was being haunted by the ghost of a little girl in a blue dress who lived in his parents’ attic. It began as a weird premonition during his dreams, something that his quickly diminishing circle of friends chalked up as a way to get attention. It ended with Eric in a mental ward, having apparently destroyed his life before it truly began. The only thing that kept him from the brink: his friendship with a girl named Laura, a classmate who was equal parts devoted friend and enigmatic crush. With the kind of strange connection you can only forge when you’re young, Laura walked Eric back to “normal”—only to become a ghost herself in a tragic twist of fate. 
Years later, a fully functioning member of society with a great job and family, Eric still can’t stand to have any shut doors in his house for fear of what’s on the other side. In order to finally confront his phobia, he enlists some friends on a journey to America’s most haunted places. But deep down he knows it’s only when he digs up the ghosts of his past, especially Laura, that he’ll find the peace he’s looking for.
Overall Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Ten pages into this book, I was surprised to find that it was non-fiction. Seriously. I don't know if it was just me, but I definitely thought this was going to be a kind of literary paranormal/horror novel. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a memoir though, and I was hooked right from the beginning.

Giving up the Ghost is about Eric Nuzum's search for answers. Since he was a boy, he'd been haunted by a ghost he called The Little Girl, and as he grew older, he became increasingly haunted by his friends and acquaintances that have died far too early in life, especially Laura -- a girl who was his best friend and whom he was in love with at one point. Nuzum explores the past by switching from past events and to the present, where he is actively searching for haunted places in order to find answers about The Little Girl, and possibly Laura.

The beginning hooked me and I found myself thoroughly enjoying this book. It's interesting, funny, and has some truly moving moments. I'm also a fan of dysfunctional stuff, and Nuzum certainly had a lot of that going on in his life. It's also very open and honest -- I almost felt like I was listening to a friend's confessional or something. Nuzum leaves everything on the page, which makes for a raw, emotional experience.

Though I think there could have been more organization in terms of letting the reader know when everything was taking place (dates at the beginning of chapters would have been helpful), I loved the back-and-forth between the past and present. Seeing the parallels and changes that have happened from Nuzum as a teenager to Nuzum as an adult was interesting, and it really helped move the story along.

I would have liked there to be more of a focus throughout the book. The beginning was really strong, I think, but it started to lag in the middle because of all the issues that Nuzum tried to tackle. And near the end, I wasn't sure what message I was supposed to be taking from his stories. Like I said before, Giving up the Ghost is about a search for answers, a search for the meaning behind past events. However, this sometimes gets lost in all Nuzum's stories about drugs, fits of rage, and dysfunctional relationships. Don't get me wrong -- they're good stories. And I think that they should definitely be told, but not necessarily in this book. It would have been much stronger and much more satisfying if the focus stayed on The Little Girl, his relationship with Laura, and his search for haunted places.

With that said, I still enjoyed it and I think it's a worthwhile read. I'm also very interested in reading more of Nuzum's work.

*I was provided a free copy from the publisher through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review.*

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Audiobook Review: Prospero's Daughter by Elizabeth Nunez

Title: Prospero's Daughter
Author: Elizabeth Nunez
Narrator: Simon Vance
Publisher: Sound Library
Edition: Unabridged
Duration: 12 hours, 32 minutes
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)
Cut off from the main island of Trinidad by a glistening green sea, Chacachacare has few inhabitants besides its colony of lepers and a British doctor who fled England with his three-year-old daughter, Virginia. An amoral genius, Peter Gardner had used his talents to unsavory ends, experimenting, often with fatal results, on unsuspecting patients. Blackmailed by his own brother, Peter ends up on the small island as England’s empire is starting to crumble. 
On Chacachacare, Peter experiments chiefly on the wild Caribbean flora–and on the dark-skinned orphan Carlos, whose home he steals. Though Peter considers the boy no better than a savage, he nonetheless schools the child alongside his daughter. But as Carlos and Virginia grow up under the same roof, they become deeply and covertly attached to one another. 
When Peter discovers the pair’s secret and accuses Carlos of a heinous crime, it is up to a brusque, insensitive English inspector to discover the truth. During his investigation, a disturbing picture begins to emerge as a monstrous secret is finally drawn into the light.

Overall Rating: 2 out of 5

This title got my attention right away because of its link with Shakespeare. It's supposed to be a modern retelling of The Tempest, and I was interested in seeing what Nunez would do with that story. Unfortunately, I don't think it's a successful retelling.

Prospero's Daughter is about an orphan named Carlos who lives in the Caribbean. Peter, who has escaped England with his small daughter to avoid a scandal, steals Carlos's home and forces Carlos and another native woman to work as his servants. When the time comes for Peter to give his daughter, Virginia, lessons, Carlos feels sorry for the girl, since she isn't able to learn them fast enough for her father and is yelled at constantly. Carlos, whose parents taught him to read, secretly teaches Virginia how to read at night so that she can impress her father. Eventually, they end up falling in love, and when Carlos tells Peter of his intentions to marry Virginia, Peter accuses Carlos of rape and launches an investigation, in the hopes of getting Carlos arrested.

I think that the enjoyment you get out of this book really depends on what you're reading this book for. It's a great book about colonization, and what the natives go through when the English come in and take over their island. The story is well-written, and is generally enjoyable; however, if you're reading this as a modern retelling of The Tempest (as I was), or even for the "romance" you may be disappointed.

I'm all in favor of authors changing original plot points and characters to fit in with their retelling of the story. I don't think that happened enough in Prospero's Daughter, and when it did, I wasn't sure why the story changed. For example, I found it strange that Peter is portrayed as a mad scientist and Carlos describes him putting on a robe decorated with stars to do magic. I didn't get this. At first, I thought it was Carlos's imagination, but later, I wasn't sure. Though he's supposed to be a stand-in for Prospero, this didn't make sense to the story in general, and I think that Peter would have been a perfect Prospero without the "magic robe." Especially since The Tempest is directly mentioned in the story and Carlos blatantly calls Peter Prospero. One thing that changed that I didn't like was the fact that Carlos teaches Virginia to read, whereas in the play, Miranda teaches Caliban. I'm not sure what purpose this change was supposed to serve, especially when other things are so strictly adhered to, even when it doesn't make sense within the world that Nunez has created.

Though many people consider this a romance, I definitely do not. There is romance in this novel, but it's not really the main focus of the story. Actually, it's more of a plot device for the author to show the mistreatment and discrimination of the natives by the English. I also don't think that the resolution of what separates Virginia and Carlos is very well done. A romance between an English woman and a native from an island that the English have colonized will never be without its problems, and I think that Nunez overlooks the fact that there are some real challenges that people in the position of Virginia and Carlos would have faced.

As for listening to the audiobook version, I have no complaints. I think that Vance did an amazing job with all the voices and the characters. The switching of points of view and the dialogue were all extraordinarily easy to follow. I only wish that the story could have been better so that I could have enjoyed Vance's narration all the more.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Book Review: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

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Title: Wintergirls
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher: Viking Juvenile
Hardcover: 278 pages
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)
“Dead girl walking,” the boys say in the halls.
“Tell us your secret,” the girls whisper, one toilet to another.
I am that girl.
I am the space between my thighs, daylight shining through.
I am the bones they want, wired on a porcelain frame. 
Lia and Cassie are best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies, competitors in a deadly contest to see who can be the skinniest. But what comes after size zero and size double-zero? When Cassie succumbs to the demons within, Lia feels she is being haunted by her friend’s restless spirit. 
In her most emotionally wrenching, lyrically written book since the multiple-award-winning Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson explores Lia’s descent into the powerful vortex of anorexia, and her painful path toward recovery.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

Lia has her share of problems. Her parents are divorced, her mom is a workaholic and her dad has remarried. To top it off, she has issues with her image and her family situation does not make that any better. This book starts off when she learns that Cassie, her estranged best friend who suffered from bulimia, has died. Though she tries not to show it, this is very upsetting to Lia. Lia tries to find out the circumstances of Cassie's death while trying to hide her own relapse of anorexia from her family.

I really liked the way this was written. Though this story is told from Lia's perspective, the writing is structured so that we are able to see both how she wants to feel and how she really feels. This is done through something as simple as having Lia's true feelings crossed out like this, followed with how Lia is trying to force herself to feel. Though a simple technique, I think it works really well and is unique enough to be kind of risky. But the risk paid off because due to this, I was able to get a better sense of who Lia is and what problems she's going through.

I also loved the way Anderson portrays the characters. Wintergirls shows that one person's problem creates problems for the whole family. Lia has a fantastic relationship with her younger sister, Emma. The kind, caring way she takes care of Emma helped me to connect with her and see that she had her good moments while she was suffering from anorexia. Adding in Cassie's ghost and Lia's search for answers was a definite plus; it gave the book a horror/gothic/mystery sort of feel while still dealing with real-world issues.

Anderson also has the amazing ability to write about dark subjects without making them overpoweringly painful to read. Wintergirls is convincing and doesn't gloss over the negative effects of eating disorders, but there are still some happy moments in there -- moments when you almost forget that Lia is anorexic. These usually happen when she's interacting with someone she cares about, such as Emma. This brings an element of levity to the novel that balances nicely with all the issues that are going on. I appreciated that.

Anorexia is not a topic to joke about -- many individuals and families struggle with this every day. I think this is a good read and would recommend it. I can definitely see this being studied in schools and think that this topic should be studied a little bit more.