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Divergent (Divergent, Book 1)

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As the hot YA book of the summer, Divergent is a fast-paced and very interesting dystopian fiction from so-young-it-hurts Veronica Roth. Fans of the ever-growing dystopian genre will appreciate that, while many tried-and-true elements are here, Roth manages to keep the story fresh and fascinating. A perfect summer read, I highly recommend this as a great book to include on any weekend beach getaways. Oh, and it's set in a future Chicago, so folks from the Windy City will likely enjoy this even more than others.Beatrice Prior lives in a Chicago where factions determine the kind of life you lead. Each faction highlights a particular virtue, suggesting that its members value this virtue above all others and it is how those members are defined -- Abnegation (the selfless), Candor (the honest), Amity (the peaceful), Erudite (the intelligent), and Dauntless (the brave). You may be born in to a particular faction, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's where you'll cast your lot when you turn sixteen and make the biggest choice of your life. Beatrice and her twin brother were born in to Abnegation; for Beatrice, the question of leaving her family is too painful to even really consider, but when Beatrice undergoes the dream test that is supposed to confirm the predictions of where each person will end up, Beatrice's test results come up shockingly (and dangerously) inconclusive. With this information suddenly placing the weight of the decision entirely on her own shoulders, Beatrice makes a surprising decision -- and, incidentally, so does her brother, though their decisions leave their family scattered in ways they never saw coming. There's little time to mourn what must be left behind, though, as Beatrice is whisked off towards initiation rites that leave her gasping for breath and horrified that she might not measure up, and so be cast out to become Factionless. As Beatrice struggles with what her inconclusive test status might mean for her, she throws herself in to the initiation rights and renames herself "Tris." She makes friends and enemies, and even takes tentative steps towards something more with one of her instructors, a rather withdrawn young man known as "Four." This is definitely the first step on a long road for Tris, but Roth presents a fast-paced and compelling world, riddled with interesting choices for people who believe they have none.There are a large number of dystopian novels out there these days, but Divergent definitely one of the better ones. Granted, it is still one where, at this point in the game, you just kind of have to accept the societal structure (seriously, HOW would we progress to a point where these factions would form?), but once you've done that, you can enjoy the fascinating details and repercussions of focusing on one value. Tris is a character that audiences will love and her "divergent" nature presented right up front is an interesting concept. (Most books would let her whine and wonder if she's different before confirming it was late in the book, if ever.) While you know she's eventually going to be fine (or at least still be alive at the end of the book), its quite interesting to watch her friends and try to understand their trajectories towards success or failure within their faction. Roth doesn't shy away from killing characters, folks, so be prepared. The inevitable romance with Four still has a few tricks up its sleeve, I think, and I'm betting we can count on Roth to make sure that there's no such thing as smooth sailing in Tris and Four's future. Overall, Divergent is a great summer read if you're ready to just enjoy something and not overthink it. Since Veronica Roth is so young, I think we can expect to see a great deal of YA lit from her in the future. Fingers crossed that it's all as good (if not better!) than her debut.Please note: while I do not work on this book, it does factor in to my professional life, so weight my review as you see fit.
Days of Blood & Starlight

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Go to your calendar and circle September 27th, 2011. Right now. Make whatever preparations you must to ensure that you have the day to yourself. I'm serious here. Take the day off from work or plan to be sick from school; buy groceries the night before or have take-out numbers handy. Trust me. This book is worth it and once you start reading, you will not want to set it down.I was blown away by Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone. From cover to cover, I delighted in it all. The creative storyline, the fantastic characters, the clever writing. At BEA, I went to a YA panel where this book's editor spoke at (somewhat excessive) length about her adoration for this book, though she gave surprisingly few specific details about its general plot beyond what the tagline and backcover would indicate. I decided to take a chance and just read it -- and when I finished reading, I immediately wanted to start it all over again (and I haven't felt like that about a book since Anna and the French Kiss).I now understand the editor's difficulty in summarizing, as general statements don't do justice to the fresh voice and wit that infuses what is absolutely one of the best YA reads published in 2011. There are hints of Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker (the Abarat series, not the horror adult stuff) and yet there's still the allure of a mystery novel coupled with romance and a strong heroine with whom one can identify. It all starts with these fantastically tantalizing lines:"One upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well."The novel opens with Karou, a blue-haired, teenage art student in Prague whose ex-boyfriend, Kazimir, is a jerk. A creative jerk, no less, and as such, Kazimir can find different self-centered ways of trying to make Karou want him again (read: make her life miserable, as she no longer wants him), like getting a gig as a nude model for her life drawing class to display (among other things) a newly acquired tattooed "K" over his heart. (Karou's friend, Zuzana, responds to this with, "Can you believe him? Does he think if he just dangles his boy bits at you like a cat toy you'll go scampering after him?") While many teenage girls might have insufferable ex-boyfriends in their pasts, Karou can do just a little more than others could about it... like make wishes and know they will come true... "Wishes, for example, for things like itches."You see, the life she leads in Prague is only a small part of the world that Karou knows. Karou has a notebook filled with drawings of otherworldly things and while her friends wonder where she comes up with such fantastic creatures, Karou merely shrugs, because explaining that these chimerae, these devils, are the only family she's ever known... well, that could get awkward. Karou has been raised by Brimstone, the Wishmonger, and a handful of other chimerae. They might look like monsters, creatures cobbled together from pieces of animals and humans, and other things could never identify, but they are Karou's family and even when they've always been behind the door to the human world, they've raised her and loved her as their own. Following Karou's break-up with Kazimir, she was devastated and while every teenager finds a relationship conversation with an adult to be incredibly awkward, I found myself wishing I had such guidance as Brimstone quite bluntly offers:"The Wishmonger's voice was so deep it seemed almost the shadow of sound: a dark sonance that lurked in the lowest register of hearing. 'I don't know many rules to live by,' he'd said. 'But here's one. It's simple. Don't put anything unnecessary into yourself. No poisons or chemicals, no fumes or smoke or alcohol, no sharp objects, no inessential needles--drugs or tattoo--and... no inessential penises, either.''Inessential penises?' Karou had repeated, delighted with the phrase in spite of her grief. 'Is there any such thing as an essential one?''When an essential one comes along, you'll know,' he replied. 'Stop squandering yourself, child. Wait for love.''Love.' Her delight evaporated. She'd thought that was love.'It will come, and you will know it,' Brimstone had promised, and she so so wanted to believe him."There are two doors in Brimstone's office and Karou is only allowed to use one of them (she's never seen the other one opened, in fact) which opens to any city one chooses (or at least any city where there's an accompanying magic door linked to it). Karou runs errands for Brimstone, occasionally (and far less than she'd like) earning wishes bigger than the measly old scuppies that created Kazimir's itch. More often than not, these errands involve fetching teeth, which Brimstone keeps in jars and Karou is not allowed to know what purpose they serve. And, as if this wasn't already odd enough, good teeth are getting harder and harder to find. Here's a selection from an errand scene:"This errand turned out to be a black-market auction in a warehouse on the outskirts of Paris. Karou had attended several such, and they were always the same. Cash only, of course, and attended by sundry underworld types like exiled dictators and crime lords with pretentions to culture. The auction items were a mixed salad of stolen museum pieces--a Chagall drawing, the dried uvula of some beheaded saint, a matched set of tusks from a mature African bull elephant.Yes. A matched set of tusks from a mature African bull elephant.Karou signed whens he saw them. Brimstone hadn't told her what she was after, only that she would know it when she saw it, and she did. Oh, and wouldn't they be a delight to wrangle on public transportation?Unlike the other bidders, she didn't have a long black car waiting, or a pair of thug bodyguards to do her heavy lifting. She had only a string of scuppies and her charm, neither of which proved sufficient to persuade a cab driver to hang seven-foot-long elephant tusks out the back of his taxi. So, grumbling, Karou had to drag them six blocks to the nearest Metro station, down the stairs, and through the turnstyle. They were wrapped in canvas and duct-taped, and when a street musician lowered his violin to inquire, 'Hey lovely, what you got there?' she said, 'Musicians who asked questions,' and kept on going."Karou's life changes, though, the day she sees the angel, Akiva. On an errand for Brimstone, Karou is nearly killed by an angel and is just as strangely spared by him, as he hesitates long enough for Karou to be pulled through a doorway to safety... but safety is relative and it turns out that even while Karou knew more about the chimerae and their world, there is so much she does not know about the centuries-old battle they have fought against the angels... and there's even more she doesn't know about her own past.The fascinating worlds conjured within these pages are dark and dangerous, but crisp in vivid details. Prague is made particularly magical and otherworldly, despite its existence in our own reality. It provides an excellent gateway to the lands of Taylor's imagination. The reader will have the sense again and again that one door is opened only to discover entirely new realities beyond, multiplied ad infinitum. Karou and her sharp sense of humor are immediate favorites with the reader. She has incredible strength and yet there's a guarded vulnerability to her, so keenly noted in her despair after her ill-fated romance with Kazimir and further illustrated within the drama of the novel. Her uniqueness is brought to light in a hundred ways, causing the reader to actually fall in love with her, rather than simply accept that as the heroine, we're on her side. Her own internal struggles and attempts to understand her place in the worlds feel incredibly real, particularly when her emotions are those which any teen might have. A need to be true to one's friends, an allegiance felt towards those who have sheltered one, and the exasperating desire for connection even while wishing for independence."Yearning for love made her feel like a cat that was always twining around ankles, meowing Pet me, pet me, look at me, love me.Better to be the cat gazing coolly down from a high wall, its expression inscrutable. The cat that shunned petting, that needed no one. Why couldn't she be that cat?Be that cat!!! she wrote, drawing it into the corner of her page, cool and aloof."Just as Karou is a brilliant character, so are are Brimstone, Issa, Twiga, and Yasri. Taylor takes her storytelling time, easing us in to her creation, before we start to understand where the story is taking us. There's no need to learn everything at once and the reader will only be pulled deeper in to the story as truths dawn and one races to the finish to confirm if one's guesses are correct. I'll admit that I was a trifle concerned with the appearance of Akiva in his stony perfection at first, but he develops to have a beautiful depth as Karou and the reader learn more about the chimerae, the angels, their war, and that which the chimerae have sought to keep secret for centuries.I'll stop there. Just go read. Laini Taylor has created something extraordinary here and the best news is... there's more. I honestly don't see how she could possibly top Daughter of Smoke and Bone but I'll be waiting on the edge of my seat to see her try with its sequel. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is full of magic, romance, mystery, and a rare creativity that I only hope is replicated and expounded upon in the next installment in what is sure to be a masterful series.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth

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Just when you're convinced that the YA market has been flooded with vampires and fairies, something really interesting comes along... specifically, comes lumbering along looking for brains. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan is the first in a postapocalyptic series where flesh-eating zombies have overrun the world. Mary lives in a fenced-in town in what was formerly the Appalachian region of the United States of America, and the residents believe it might be the last hold-out against the zombies (known as the Unconsecrated). The town is overseen by the Sisterhood and the Sisters ensure for the well-being of the people while the Guardians (men only, btw) stand watch over the fences and, God-forbid, alert the town if there is ever a breach in the fortifications and the Unconsecrated enter. The fence is the most important thing in the world -- for it is the only thing that stands between a conscious, God-fearing individual and the damning fate that is an Unconsecrated's "existence." Unconsecrated never cease in their search for human flesh, even as their own flesh decays and rots from their bones, and one who was once a mother, father, brother, or wife... well, as soon as they turn, that former association and distinction no longer matters. Everyone in the village seems to accept the lives that they have been given, because there's not really much to tempt them to dream of better things, but Mary wants more. She wants to see the ocean, this mythical body of water that Mary's mother would tell her stories about when she was a child. It's not like anyone has ever seen it -- people have been born and have died within the village walls for generations now and this "ocean" is dismissed as a myth, to the point where Mary seems to be the only one to think of it at all. There is only the Forest of Hands and Teeth outside the fence, and the death and damnation that comes with a bite from the Unconsecrated. Meanwhile, the sole thing within the village that Mary *does* seem to want is Travis -- but it appears as though Travis will marry her friend, Cassandra. Mary's only chance for marriage, if she's realistic about things, appears to be Travis's brother, Harry. It's not that there's anything wrong with Harry. He obviously likes her, as he's often watching her, but he's not Travis. Reconciling herself to this is difficult, but on the day that Harry comes to ask if Mary will go with him to the dance that starts the beginning of the official courtship festivities, tragedy strikes. Mary's mother, grieving the loss of her husband to the Unconsecrated some time ago, got too close to the fence and was bitten. Mary's mother is taken to the Sisters and now everyone must wait to see if Mary's mother will turn. When it's obvious she will, the Sisters (and, frankly, everyone else) hopes that Mary's mother will choose death rather than surrender her chance at salvation by turning (an odd twist now on what constitutes a mortal sin, really), but no... mom is released in to the forest and Mary is devastated. Believing that she could continue to live with her brother and his wife, Mary is further stricken to learn that he will not have her in his home and that since Harry has not asked for her (for he did not alert Mary's brother to the whole asking Mary to the dance thing), Mary is sent to join the Sisterhood. Within the walls of the Sisterhood, Mary embarks upon a life that would be mind-numbing if Mary did as she was told, but instead, Mary continues to quietly rebel and sneak about (but not in a fun way, lest you think this story is in any way light). Indeed, she has to do this quietly, as she's forbidden to speak. The sneaking around thing comes in handy when her beloved Travis is brought in after an incident while he was on guard and he needs to be nursed back to health -- and Mary happens to be on hand. Mary tends to him night and day (or every chance the sisters give her) and, unsurprisingly, their quiet and strange relationship deepens, constantly shadowed by a number of factors that all add up to the painful truth -- Mary cannot hope to truly be with Travis without their destroying Cassandra and Harry. But before you get concerned that this book is just like every YA out there, obsessed with the romantic entanglements, I would like to point out the romance is an important plot point, and yet this isn't anything whatsoever like your standard YA romance (minus the teenage longing in the face of terrible odds). Travis isn't the only person that the Sisters bring in to their sanctuary -- Mary spies a stranger, which is utterly impossible... because this would mean that their village is NOT the only village still standing and there are other settlements, full of other people, fighting against the Unconsecrated. Mary's life grows more and more complicated until the inevitable happens: the Unconsecrated breach the wall. Bloody, action-packed, and horrifying, the village's fall involves death and destruction on an epic scale. Mary manages to escape with a handful of others (and just who these companions are is related to a crucial plot point that I won't give away) through a secret corridor of fenced-in protection from the Unconsecrated that was used by the Guardians, but their little survival party has an incredibly twisted dynamic as they flee the only home they've ever known, uncertain if they should return or forge on with the slim hope of encountering other villages or, just maybe, the mythical "ocean."As I've already indicated, The Forest of Hands and Teeth is not your average YA novel in many ways. To begin with, zombies aren't sexy. Vampires, werewolves, fairies, mermaids, angels, demons, ghosts, dragons, whatever... you can make each and every one of those sexy and accessible for teens, but try as you might, I just don't think that a classic zombie can be sexy. (I'm sure someone has tried, but I don't think I want to read that story.) So there goes the whole angle of a girl who (a) falls in love with a paranormal creature or (b) is a paranormal creature and falls for someone outside her realm of "acceptable" choices that are part of her particular paranormal sect. Instead, we have the paranormal element being a real honest-to-goodness threat and our storyline is set in the midst of this terror and chaos. I mentioned a love story and teenage longing -- oh boy is there longing -- but be warned now: most of it is implied angst or one-sided. We get a lot of Mary's perspective on everything, so we know that she's in love with Travis and she feels bad about Harry being in love with her when she wants his brother, but this isn't a story where we'll have steamy scenes or deep conversations in popular YA style. This could be disappointing for some readers who need romance in their stories, but it's also somewhat refreshing to get a different angle, something that isn't simply a PG-13 version of a bodice-ripper. You might be driven mad by all that remains unsaid, but it's definitely different.The overall tone of the story is incredibly bleak, but again, I found this to be a really interesting choice for a YA novel in today's market. I simply haven't come across anything like it. Even things like Hunger Games, which has the same realistic struggle elements to it, at least makes the characters more open and accessible. Here, the reader is isolated with Mary and there is no real relief in the form of a connection that isn't otherwise so complicated that it's impossible to say anything. There's a lot of time where people aren't talking and, indeed, the Most Frustrating Thing Ever in this book is the fact that no one can bring themselves to say what they feel for fear of disturbing the established order. It's almost British in the total lack of honest communication. It's a clear choice on the part of the author to do this, but it can prove to be somewhat taxing as you move along.That said, I definitely recommend The Forest of Hands and Teeth for anyone who's a bit fed up with the current YA scene and needs something different. Its appeal is hardly limited to YA fans, though, as it doesn't really feel like YA, except for the teenage angst and longing. Carrie Ryan may not have been able to make zombies sexy, but she sure as heck created a fascinating and compelling world that will have you wondering until the end at what lies in store, even if you want to smack most everyone upside the head along the way. This is the first in a series, but it stands on its own quite capably. Even if you tear through this book, it will leave you thinking about it for weeks. You may not like Mary and you may be frustrated with her world, but it's impossible to forget either of them. I haven't yet read the other ones in this series, but I've already bought them and tucked them away for a rainy day when I can sit on the couch, bar the door in case of zombie attack, and settle down with a book that I know will be twisted, emotionally wrenching, and thoroughly riveting.
Abandon

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Meg Cabot's latest series is a dip in to the supernatural and mythological. Abandon features a marketing tagline of "She knows what it's like to die. Now Death wants her back." It's... sort of accurate, but rather sounds like a horror movie rather than a supernatural romance, right?With a new spin on the Persephone myth, Abandon moves the story of a young girl drawn in to a relationship with Death to the setting of modern-day Florida... specifically, to Isla Huesos (aka Island of Bones) where secrets (among other things) don't seem to stay buried. Seventeen-year-old Pierce Oliviera is a bit different from the average teenager. You might point to her family's incredible wealth (her father is CEO of a large, environment-damaging company) or her parents' messy divorce that has her mother dragging Pierce back to the mother's own family and hometown. But really, the main thing that separates Pierce from every other teen (or adult, for that matter) is that she's died and returned to life. She can patiently explain the scientific descriptions of her body's shut-down and revival or what studies say the often-reported bright light might mean... but she can't actually describe what happened to her or she'd be labeled as crazy. Crazy is exactly what most people thought when she came back to life and started talking about much more than a bright light: finding herself in a place where she was pushed into a line, this man on a giant horse who she'd met before as a child, her sudden removal to a very calm room with him before he talked about her staying there forever, and the moment when she threw tea in his face to escape...But let's back up for a second here.The story begins with all that death experience in the past and Pierce trying to start again as a normal teenager in this new town. Cabot chooses to reveal information about Pierce's past in flashbacks, often triggered by the sudden appearance of the dark and brooding lord of the underworld, who seems to lurk around town with alarming frequency... particularly when we go in to this bit about how there isn't just one underworld and this guy is actually not Hades or anything, he's just the designated overseer for this particular underworld entry point for this zone. Hm. I'll also note that Pierce's moments where she pauses to remember something aren't clear and obviously delineated from what's going on at the moment. They're really hazy and sketchy flashbacks that make the reader wish she'd be just a little clearer and just get it all out there already. Quite honestly, that's my big criticism of the book, so I might as well get it out there, too. If Cabot is trying to distract you from the fact that this is a story about a boy (whose name is John, btw) who wants a girl back and a girl who doesn't quite want to admit she wants the boy back... well, then at least she succeeded in confusing you for long stretches of time.When you finally have all the puzzle pieces, the story is mildly intriguing -- Pierce, as a child, met a dark man in a cemetery as she waited for her mother and grandmother to finish dealing with the details of her grandfather's funeral. Years later, Pierce drowned in the swimming pool in a theoretical accident and met him once more. This time, he was very interested in keeping her with him, but she fled (which is somewhat uncharacteristically brave of Pierce) and now she's back in the real world... unable to separate her near-death experience from the rest of her life, no matter how hard she tries (which isn't very hard at all) as stalker-John keeps popping up.Readers of Twilight might be particularly intrigued with Abandon as it had a similar feel of fated (yet founded on nothing substantial) love that the characters struggled against in a half-hearted way while darker forces lurk about. As a set-up to a series, Abandon doesn't quite feel complete enough on its own, so you should probably be willing to commit if you embark upon this one. It's not unpleasant, but Pierce wasn't exactly a strong heroine. She was, in fact, quite a dim bulb at times (example: trying to catch a lecherous teacher in the act but failing to have a camera or something stashed away? or a plan as to how to escape?). John always has to swoop in and save her and we then proceed with the inevitable descriptions of cosmic attraction.Abandon is a quick read and will, I imagine, have some adult cross-over fans who appreciate a twist on Greek mythology and some steamy (yet still YA acceptable) romance. Rather than give this two stars, I yielded to the fact that I did fall in to the world quite quickly, though I think a large part of the interest was in untangling the narrative as it looped around on itself. As far as the Persephone stories for this year go, I preferred The Goddess Test, but I'll still be interested on seeing where Cabot takes this series arc, as I can't quite suss out exactly where this is headed while still sticking with the mythological angle.
Cinder: Book One of the Lunar Chronicles

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Okay, I'm going to level with you. This is a cyborg Cinderella story. There's just no mincing around the simple fact that the most economical way to describe Marissa Meyer's YA novel Cinder is to admit that it's "a cyborg Cinderella story." When a friend handed me this galley and described it as such, I winced. I say it even now and I wince. (The cover sure doesn't help here, either. It's dreadful.) But wince away, because Cinder is much better than such a simplistic summary would suggest, delivering a strong heroine, an interesting futuristic world, and a plot that weaves in subtle-but-not-too-contrived nods to the original Cinderella story. Linh Cinder is a gifted mechanic working a stall at the market in New Beijing, the capitol city of the Commonwealth. She also happens to be a teenage orphan and a cyborg. An accident at the age of eleven killed her parents, wiped out Cinder's memory, and left her as a part human, part robot creation, with both flowing blood and electronic wiring. Following that accident, Cinder was taken on as a ward to the Linh family by Linh Garan, but unfortunately Lihn Garan died right after this act of kindness and as a result, Cinder's been treated like a servant by Garan's wife Linh Adri and her two daughters, Pearl and Peony (well, by Adri and Pearl -- Peony is Cinder's only human friend and actually seems like a decent sort, if a bit silly). Since Cinder is a cyborg, she is a second-class citizen in everyone's eyes and she's actually considered the property of Linh Adri, so all income earned by Cinder in her market stall goes straight in to her wicked stepmother's pockets. Additionally, as a cyborg, Cinder could be drafted in to become a test subject for the government's research to find a cure to Leutmosis, a disease that has been ravaging the country for over a decade. It's luck alone that has kept her name from being called up, though Cinder is aware that the only reason Linh Adri hasn't "volunteered" Cinder for the draft testing is because they need her income from the market stall.The novel opens with Cinder working in the market (well, sitting in her stall while dealing with her own too-small robotic foot that hasn't been upgraded since she was eleven) when an unlikely client shows up -- Prince Kai, the eighteen-year-old prince that will very soon become Emperor. Cinder recognizes him immediately (beyond her computer identification, her stepsisters are obsessed with the prince, along with practically every other single female in the Commonwealth), but he's dressed to blend in and is seeking the services of the mechanic Linh Cinder, of whom he's heard excellent things. Surprised to find that the teenage girl before him is the famed mechanic, the prince shifts in to pleasant bantering with Cinder as he requests that she fix his tutor android without wiping its memory. Cinder can tell that this isn't simply a sentimental request to restore the tutor droid, but takes on the job and says she will try to have it completed before the upcoming festival in two weeks. Naturally, things happen that delay this critical fix, though this doesn't stop Cinder and the Prince from running in to each other repeatedly. Prince Kai's father dies and he must prepare himself to become Emperor... which primarily means preparing himself to face down with the Lunar Queen, the power-hungry ruler of the strangely evolved race that lives on the moon. Cinder's beloved stepsister Peony contracts leutmosis after going out on an errand with Cinder and, blaming this tragedy on Cinder, Lihn Adri volunteers Cinder for the cyborg draft. Cinder does not die, but instead becomes a very interesting test subject to a rather interesting research doctor at the palace and I'll stop there before I summarize too much, but just accept that (in Cinderella style), there's a coach and a dress and a ball. Of course, this book is only the beginning of Cinder's story. Indeed, this series is slated to feature four books and while I can't quite conceive of what, exactly, will possibly occupy our time for long enough to take four books, I'm very interested to see what the next book has in store. By far, the best thing to recommend this story is Cinder herself, a resourceful heroine who's been trampled upon for most of her life and will find herself in somewhat impossible situations... yet rises to great challenges to do what she can for those who care. She doesn't have much self-confidence, but is convinced that if she (with Iko in tow) can just get out of the Commonwealth and start somewhere new, like Europe, then she might have a short at a decent life, free from Linh Adri's control. Iko feels a little like an over-the-top Disney sidekick, with her vibrant personality and her own robotic crush on the prince. I wasn't terribly sold on Prince Kai's interest in Cinder, though I appreciate that they have multiple meetings, so it's not just a one-shot deal where he sees this slightly dirty mechanic and becomes smitten just because she's not some palace girl throwing herself in his path. The Lunar Queen is rather evil for evil's sake, so I'm looking forward to future books where we'll inevitably gain more information about the Lunar race. So yes, indeed, it's Cinder carrying the story, and yet I didn't mind that all too much. I'll definitely be reading the next installment to see what happens to Cinder and I'll be keeping my fingers crossed for deeper character development for those in the cast beyond Cinder.Please note: this review is based off an ARC.
Shatter Me

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My advice to you is this: if you are a YA fan and have not read (or, indeed, do not know anything about) Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, then don't read this review beyond the first paragraph. Go find yourself a copy but do not read the summary, do not look for anything online, just start reading. Let this utterly fascinating and completely riveting story engulf your senses and steal away with your afternoon. Bid it farewell with delight, for the hours spent reading at breakneck speed be well spent. Be warned, though -- if you read this on public transportation, you will miss your stop. If you try to read this while something is cooking, your food will burn. Attempting to only read part of this novel will be a very hard task, as it will set upon your attention like a terrier, refusing to relinquish its hold until you've read every last word. So just trust me and go.I will assume the rest of you who are still reading have already (a) read the book or (b) at least read enough to know the general plotline. I'll confess that I knew nothing whatsoever about Shatter Me before reading it which might be surprising, since everyone around me was raving, but I absented myself from conversations that got too specific. I only knew that those people were being so complimentary and several of them were people whose opinions actually mattered in my estimation. Rather than trying to educate myself, I decided to just start the novel and I cannot begin to describe my delight in this experience as I was swept away in the strong current of Mafi's storytelling. The story is deceptively simple and, frankly, somewhat common in its basest form if one considers the large number of dystopian novels piling up on our shelves these days. Yet I feel as though Shatter Me is a unique and precious tale, made rich by an author who allows us to see with new eyes. Our narrator, Juliette, has been locked up for 264 days, during which she hasn't spoken to or touched another living soul. The reason the whole "hasn't touched" part is important is because Juliette's touch is what landed her in this cell, a prisoner of the Reestablishment. By touching someone, Juliette can inflict pain and can even kill. It's unintentional; it just happens. She doesn't know how or why but the mere fact has made her a prisoner, someone far too dangerous to allow to remain uncontrolled, particularly when it seems the Reestablishment is having difficulty maintaining power. Much of the beginning of her story is told in crossed out lines -- journal confessions adjusted so that the reader knows the conflicting thoughts and feelings within Juliette, who's struggling with her own comprehension of her situation, not to mention her sanity. Stuck within the confines of this cell, with only her own thoughts for company, it's no surprise that Juliette herself clings to language like a life preserver and while some might find the prose to be a bit much, I thought it was rather fitting for someone who has all the time in the world to turn thoughts over in her mind. She's a bit strange, but then, so would we all after 264 days without real contact from another living soul. It's no surprise, then, that the introduction of a cellmate throws Juliette's world in to total chaos... particularly when that cellmate is a young man and perhaps not a stranger. I won't go any further than that, really, where it comes to specifics. Juliette does see the world outside of this prison and we come to understand that the world is in chaos and the Reestablishment is barely holding on to control. While Juliette might see herself as a monster, there is the undeniable fact that she is powerful... and Juliette needs to decide whether she'll become a weapon or a warrior in the fight that could see the Reestablishment firmly in control or completely overthrown. It cannot all happen in the course of one book, but we definitely see a set-up for Juliette that presents her with options for her own life, love, and purpose. There appear to be two camps where Mafi's writing is concerned and I'm rather firmly in positive camp. There are moments when action or emotions could have been described more succinctly, but personally I was never truly displeased with the more elaborate style of communication that Mafi/Juliette adopts. The love triangle is both strange and a bit predictable. The obvious good choice is so very good and the obvious villain is perhaps even more appealing for sheer interest value. The dystopian society is intriguing enough for a first novel in a series where one knows the second will likely take us further in to the complications and details of conflict. As I mentioned before, it's not the world itself that is the most intriguing, but Juliette's perspective and journey. Great storytelling can come from a tale that everyone has heard as long as the story is told well and I feel that Shatter Me is very illustrative of this concept.I know that Juliette's power is all very X-Men, so I have trouble pinpointing exactly why it still felt like a unique idea for a dystopian novel setting. I think my favorite parts were all a little twisted, so maybe that's where my X-Men affection comes in. We might think we know exactly who's good and who's bad, but I'm looking forward to learning more about what compels both sides. I have a feeling it's all more complicated than we think. And with so many dystopian novels out there, I'm really relying heavily on my connection with the characters to be what sees me through. The crumbling world isn't what kept me reading late in to the night... it was Juliette and watching her cope. Everyone else might be falling to pieces, but Juliette is just learning to build herself up in to something strong and fearsome because her power cannot be ignored. She is not normal and that isn't something for her to lament any longer. She has to embrace it if she's going to survive. Shatter Me features a female character who has to find her own strength and courage (sure, there's a cute boy around to help her do that, but the romance here can be quite fun, so I accepted it... harder to accept is the standard girl in a pretty dress on the cover but whatever) and I'm looking forward to the next stage in this series. I sure hope it keeps the momentum going because I was delighted with this and it deserves some fantastic follow-up.Full disclosure: I don't work on this book, but it does factor in to my professional life. My review is my own personal opinion, though, so weight this knowledge as you see fit.
Bumped

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In the midst of all the dystopian novels that are out these days, Megan McCafferty's Bumped separates itself from the pack with an amusing blend of quirky humor and a world that is frightening not only in its differences from our current world, but in its hyper-intensified take on the familiar. Let's start with the changes: a virus that seems to affect almost the entire world population has resulted in fertility taking such a nose-dive that most adults are sterile by 18 or 20 -- which means the baby-making has to happen early or not at all. In response, religious groups pretty much marry girls off as early as possible, but the rest of the world is starting to warm up to a different, more capitalist approach: pregging for profit. Teens themselves might not be ready to be a parent and raise a baby, but they COULD offer it for adoption... and a cash incentive from potential adoptive parents (or, say, the prospect of a free ride to college and a car) means that more and more girls are looking to get "bumped" early on. Now let's shift to the eerily familiar -- though technically we started on "eerily familiar" when we introduced the capitalist greed element. Technology has made leaps in communication avenues (there exists an online system of communication called MiNet accessible via contact lenses where blinking cues control the program). Parents push their daughters into the idea of pregging for profit (the same way they already push extracurriculars, except now pregging is in addition to those sports teams and orchestra performances). Oh, and high school is still a cliqueish hell on earth, but that's kind of an "always has been, always will be" thing.Melody's parents are economics professors, who long foretold of the day when a teenage girl's fertility would be the most valuable thing on earth. So Melody, herself an adopted child, was raised with the knowledge that she, too, would join the ranks of pregnant teens -- but she would do it as a professional (Reproductive Professionals are know as RePros). The first in her school with an agent and a contract to preg for a wealthy couple, Melody made professional pregging a widely accepted option at her school -- to the point where the professionals and the amateurs actually experience some tension. Melody, meanwhile, may have started the debate but can't really enjoy full participation in the argument... as she isn't pregnant. Her wealthy couple is dithering on male gene choices, so Melody is stuck with her own nerves about them wasting her valuable time to get bumped before the virus renders her sterile... and that's on top of the general nerves that accompany bumping at all. Her super pregnant best friend is slightly useless for all this stress, which would normally send Melody to her other best friend, a guy, but things have started to get slightly weird between them and Melody's not sure what to do with that, either.Now, let's switch to Harmony. You see, Melody and Harmony are identical twins, separated at birth. Harmony was adopted in to a cult/commune religious community and it appears that when she learned about her twin, she simply went forth to try and convert her sister to the path of righteousness... but it's quickly apparent that Harmony is not quite as simple as all that might suggest. In fact, it appears as though she fled her beloved community in order to find her sister and very little proselytizing is going on, though Harmony does spend a lot of time marveling at the society and technological advances. Melody is slightly appalled at Harmony's presence, because it devalues her own stock on the RePro market if there's another person out there offering the exact same genetic material. Plus, to have one's long-lost twin show up on one's doorstep is not exactly normal. Inevitably, the fact that they are identical twins leads to all kinds of mix-ups and confusions, particularly when Melody is offered the chance to bump with the world-famous Jondoe... but Harmony is the one he finds waiting at Melody's house. This may be a lot of information to take (indeed, the first 20% of the book has a rather steep learning curve as you dive in), but if you can handle a complicated world (and a WHOLE LOT of new vocabulary and slang), then you'll find that Bumped is shockingly deep in its assessment of the issues that arise from this world. McCafferty somehow strikes a fantastic balance between light-hearted humor and intense philosophical thought when it comes to the choices teens make. And that's not just limited to her world, either. The question of when to have sex and with whom and for what reasons. The idea of doing something because society (including one's parent) says it's the right thing to do, even when you're not sure it's the right decision for you. What to do when faced with unspeakable heartbreak and tremendously difficult decisions. Pretty deep for a YA novel that's core premise involves having sex and getting pregnant. Given that premise, parents may not think this a book for very young teens, but it's also not explicit or graphic, so I wouldn't really worry about it too much. Besides, it might even remind girls that sex is a complicated subject and shouldn't be something they rush in to without thinking of the consequences, both physical and emotional.While you might grow a bit weary of the slang that the book creates (and you might have to keep reminding yourself exactly which twin is which), you'll also find yourself seriously thinking about the plot of this book (and the shocking cliff-hanger of an ending) for a long time after you set it down. Bumped is funny and thoughtful -- a combination that will keep you devouring page after page, desperate to know what decisions Harmony and Melody will make as their lives get even more tangled up. Now we only need to wait and see what interesting issues will arise in the sequel, Thumped, because even if certain plot points will be obvious, I would bet that McCafferty still has some surprising and fascinating things up her sleeve.Full disclosure. This book indirectly factors in to my professional life. This is a personal review, but feel free to let that info factor in to what you make of this review.
Last-Minute Knitted Gifts

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This just goes to show that you can never be quite sure what I'll be reviewing here.I don't often review knitting books, but Open Road put this up on NetGalley and one should always try to review what one requests. A pretty little book, Last-Minute Knitted Gifts by Joelle Hoverson delivers exactly what it promises -- a collection of patterns that take less time than you might otherwise think. The gifts that are truly short on time aren't necessarily something that serious knitters will be tempted by (and, let's face it, the "linen tassel" for a bookmark is a bit of a joke and doesn't quite belong here), but for those knitters who are just starting to stretch their legs, this might be a nice book to consult when you're looking to find something that knits up "quickly." Note that "quickly" is a somewhat relative term, as there are patterns for blankets and sweaters in here... they just happen to be somewhat simple ones. The book itself doesn't seem concerned that "last-minute" usually implies that most of these patterns should be for quickly knit items... not perhaps one-skein things, but at least things you could conceivably finish within a few days (where the entirety of that time isn't spent furiously knitting). Some of these are definitely "Oh dear, so-and-so's birthday is a month and a half away, what do I do?" kind of things, so take "last-minute" with a grain of salt. There are some particularly pleasing scarf patterns that provide some nice inspiration and there's a pretty set of hand/wrist warmers. I, for one, will be making ample use of the angora bootie pattern as I struggle to keep up with knitting some tiny-yet-heartfelt presents for pregnant co-workers.
Sweet Venom

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Greek mythology is finally making its way from Percy Jackson to the teen market -- and Sweet Venom is a charming new adaptation of an old myth with new tricks. Popular culture leaves most people with the awareness of Medusa was a woman/creature with snakes for hair and a stony gaze that could turn anyone who looked into her eyes into, well, stone. In Tera Lynn Childs's "Medusa Girls" series, this isn't quite the whole story, as Medusa (and her two sisters) got a bad rap from a jealous god. (Isn't it always the way?) This isn't to say that the reputation was entirely a bad thing in the end, as it shielded her descendants from scrutiny. These descendants follow in her footsteps, turning the "family business" into guardianship (they are called "huntresses"), and making it their life's work to protect the general human populace from beasties that slip through a crack between the worlds, a crack which happens to be located in San Francisco.Of course, Grace knows nothing about this. She's lived in the middle of nowhere USA with her family and she thinks the big adventure of her life will be their relocation to San Francisco so she can take advantage of a scholarship at a prestigious high school. That's before Grace sees a minotaur (though she appears to be the only person startled by it)... and *then* sees someone who could be her double show up to fight it. This is how Grace meets her long-lost-twin, Gretchen. Gretchen is a huntress and a damn good one. (In my mind, I pictured Faith from Buffy before she went totally nutso.) Saved from living on the streets by a mentor who trained her to fight the monsters that it seemed like only Gretchen could see, Gretchen isn't scared of the monsters now... she's mostly just pissed that between monster hunting and homework, she barely gets any sleep. What *does* scare her is the fact that her mentor has gone MIA and Gretchen has no idea what's become of her. Now this whole identical twin thing pops up and Gretchen doesn't do well with the personal/emotional stuff.Grace and Gretchen have to come to terms with this newfound relationship and it really isn't easy for either of them. Grace has a loving family (and a very protective brother, Thane, who might notice when a girl identical to his adopted sister is walking around school) whereas Gretchen only really trusts her mentor and this soft version of herself could only be deadweight. Grace has to decide if she wants to help Gretchen in her fight against the monsters (if Gretchen even lets her)... and even if they can find a way to come to terms with each other, well... the surprises aren't over for this pair.If you're looking for a story with dark twists and turns, you'll have to hunt elsewhere, because Sweet Venom is quite sweet and light indeed, striking a charming note in the often quite-dark-indeed paranormal teen genre. I'll admit that I scooped up Sweet Venom with only the awareness that this was a Medusa story and so I didn't read much beyond that... and maybe that it takes place in San Francisco. I was pleasantly surprised by the tone, which seems just as eager to tackle Grace's crush on her brother's friend Milo as the issue of various mythological demons cropping up in the Castro. Narration jumps between Grace and Gretchen in the beginning, allowing you to see both of their perspectives, which gives nice perspective -- and eventually allows Childs to do a fun twist which caught me slightly by surprise (in a good way!) and I'm pretending that it hasn't been spoiled for you with other reviews. Grace is obviously the "straight man" character and so provides the reader with the chance to be oriented in to this world while Gretchen provides attitude and knowledge. Later, you meet another important character who didn't seem to get the same careful depth as Grace and Gretchen, but the series is young, there will hopefully be time for that. The important note is that here, they are all distinct characters and don't immediately mesh together, and their differences will likely fuel many bits of dialogue in the books to come. I only hope Childs continues to let each character to continue to develop in an independent fashion as they grow, rather than falling prey to any easy shortcuts like allowing stereotypes to take the place of character development, which would keep them sounding different but deny them any depth. Given the care that Childs has shown to the characters thus far, though, I don't think she's in any danger of that.I always appreciate when authors who use mythology are inclined to let the stories stand without wild adjustments -- or if there are adjustments, for them to happen in relation to the more modern setting rather than repeat "no, the history books got it all wrong!" over and over. Not that Childs doesn't make any adjustments... she tweaks enough to accommodate for her additions to the storyline, but there's no feeling of deep, egregious wrong or outrageous liberties being taken with the myths as most folks know them. I frequently found myself thinking that this book reminded me of Percy Jackson... only it wasn't trying so hard to be funny and it was a bit more grown-up (only slightly, as we're aiming for teens instead of tweens, but I imagine this novel would be totally acceptable for tweens, too). There's a definite girl-bent that will make this a hard sell for male readers, though it's refreshing to have a story where the romance is on the lighter side as opposed to being the sole focus with some other storyline details tossed in. Some interesting young men that factor in as romantic interests for the girls and I think we can bet that they're all more than they seem at first glance. (Indeed, they somewhat fade in to the background before the ending of the book, so I hope they come back with beefier storylines or some ability to contribute to the larger goals in the book.) It looks as though real romance or male character development will happen as the series unfolds, for Childs isn't rushing things there and I suppose I prefer it this way. Better to take it slow than create false drama to liven things up. All in all, Sweet Venom is a fun romp and a quick read -- a delightful beginning-of-fall novel as you look to curl up on the couch with something light and entertaining as the back-to-school crush might load one's plate down with heavier tomes. I'm certainly looking forward to the next in this series, as I think these Medusa girls have some very amusing storylines ahead of them.Full disclosure: I don't work on this book, but it does factor in to my professional life. My review is my own personal opinion, but weight this knowledge as you see fit.
Cantique de Noël

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The story of A Christmas Carol is one that most of us in the Western world know fairly well... in fact, I would wager that most children over the age of 7 in the US or UK could give a pretty good breakdown of the general plotpoints with ease. But did we actually read the Charles Dickens classic to gain this knowledge? Or is your understanding of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future the result of a film adaptation? I'm not railing against movie adaptations, as I think A Christmas Carol translates brilliantly to film... to the point where we might all know the plot of this particular story as a result of a movie that puts a twist on the original tale. My personal favorite is The Muppet Christmas Carol, though a close second is Scrooged. My only previous read of the actual text of A Christmas Carol occurred back in sixth grade. It's a short little novella and was a good introduction to Dickens, as his other tomes seemed daunting to an eleven-year-old. One can easily breeze through A Christmas Carol in a single evening, curled up by the fire with Christmas lights twinkling and presents under the tree. That said, A Christmas Carol really isn't something I would opt to re-read year after year. Here's where those film adaptations become very, very useful. You watch the Muppets, Bill Murray, Ebbie, or Scrooge and you've had your yearly dose. This year, I noticed an Audible performance of A Christmas Carol done by Tim Curry and it simply had to be purchased and immediately loaded on to my ipod. I listened to it over the course of three days, knitting a Christmas present on my commute to work. I was surprised at how few details slip through the cracks in various performances and I was comforted by how familiar the words were to the point where I could have recited many passages along with Curry. (And some of them were even ones I could do without Gonzo's voice.) The story is timeless and it's hard to imagine the holidays without this particular tale in existence, when in fact it was only published in 1843. This might be a bit blasphemous to say, but it's second only to the actual origin story of Christmas in terms of our association with this time of year. Beyond Christmas, think of the cultural contributions of this novel to our general lexicon. Think of such outstanding quotes as "Mankind was my business," "as solitary as an oyster," "there's more of gravy than of grave about you," and even "'Bah,' said Scrooge. 'Humbug!'" Tim Curry gives a fun reading with voices that are never too ridiculous. I'll admit that I hoped for a little bit more, though I'm not quite sure what. Some flash, a bit more panache, something. I've listened to Curry read the first in the Series of Unfortunate Events and that was pure magic. Here, it was certainly amusing enough but I didn't feel the same delight for which I had hoped. I'm not sure I could reconcile the visual of Tim Curry anywhere in the story but as a voice in your ear, it's a fine way to experience A Christmas Carol for the first time in its original form or as a re-telling that isn't brought out with the rest of the Christmas DVDs and tinsel each year. So on this Christmas Day, I leave you with this, quoted from memory:"And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any many alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one!"
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