Thursday, April 26, 2012

Math Can Be Dangerous and Fun!

A Girl Named Digit
Math? Fun? You have got to be kidding, right? Well, for Farrah Higgens, in A Girl Named Digit, by Annabelle Monaghan, math is more than just something she is good at. It is almost a compulsion. So much so that her nickname is Digit. But math gets Digit more than she bargained for when she cracks a terrorist code embedded in a teen romance television program.

Digit is the girl Farrah has worked very hard to hide. Her parents even made the school promise to seal her SAT and placement scores in order to protect her from unwanted attention about her scores (which got her into MIT for the fall semester). Farrah works very hard to hide Digit, but when she notices a series of numbers flashing briefly on the screen of a silly teen drama one night, she can't help but notice them. Over the next couple of episodes, Digit realizes there is more to the numbers and cracks a code that leads her to the discovery of an event at JFK. Unfortunately, she doesn't know what the code means until she sees the news where a plane was destroyed and people were killed by a suicide bomber at JFK. Terrified, Digit and her faithful father go to the FBI to report her findings, at which point they are essentially laughed out of the office. But Digit doesn't give up.

She goes to the show's studio to get more information about the code, but she is immediately followed. Being the smart girl she is, she manages to get herself arrested and her attacker recorded by security cameras in order to be taken to the FBI safely. Finally, with the face of her attacker, the FBI realizes her code breaking is legitimate and that Digit is now being hunted by the same eco-terrorists who blew up the luxury jet at JFK. In order to protect Digit, the FBI lets the media think she is kidnapped and puts her in hiding with a particularly young and handsome FBI prodigy named John. When John and Digit crack another code, they can't help but track it down, but it means they will be running for their lives. But when you can't help but crack the codes, what can you do when they are right in front of you?

This was a really cute story for anyone who likes any books from Ally Carter (Gallagher Girls, Heist Society) or the like. It is a cute, girly middle reader adventure that sucks you in and keeps you reading. Digit is an interesting character because she is absolutely brilliant and still embarrassed by it. We all know what it is like for kids to stand out for being smart and have seen kids "hide" their smarts, so this story would be a great way to bring that out into the open. Why are they ashamed of being smart? Why would anyone hide the fact that they were a mathematical genius? I think you could find some really interesting conversations popping up within this realm. And the coolest thing is that Digit ends up foiling a terrorist plot with her smarts! Not to mention, I love the idea that John finds her intelligence one of her best features. Gotta love a boy who likes a girl for her brains!

I would say this is an excellent book for the pre-teen to teenage "girly girls" who like to read about boys and romance, but it still has a smart, strong young woman as the lead character. It is a fun, fast read so a struggling reader would be able to finish it fairly quickly and have success with the accessible reading level. The terrorist plot is particularly relevant for the world we live in today, making this story more than just your average "boy meets girl" story. All I can say is I hope we see more of Digit! 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Series Has Lost a Little Something

Loss (Riders of the Apocalypse)
The Riders of the Apocalypse are supernatural, Biblical, something otherworldly that we can't quite wrap our heads around. But what if they weren't. The Riders have to come from somewhere. What if they were ordinary teens, suffering everything we suffered as teens, who are chosen to bear the burdens of famine, pestilence, war, and death. In Jackie Morse Kessler's Loss, we see an ordinary bullied boy rise up to become the White Rider... even if he doesn't want to.

Billy Ballard is your typical bullied kid. He sinks into himself, takes the blows, and waits it out. It is all about survival. Fighting back just makes it harder. At home, things aren't much better. His grandfather is battling Alzheimer's and Billy and his mother have to take care of him, even when the caregiving can be brutal and totally unappreciated by a man losing his mind. The only glimmer of hopefulness in Billy's life is a beautiful girl who actually notices him. Unfortunately, the only other ones who notice him are the bullies.

Billy has recurring nightmares of an Ice Cream Man who made him make a deal when he was young. When Death, the Pale Rider, comes to Billy and tells him he must substitute for the White Rider, Pestilence. Billy has no idea what he is talking about until he realizes Pestilence was the Ice Cream Man who tricked a young child into agreeing to be the White Rider when the time came. Billy is reluctant to do such a job, so Death tells him he can bring back the original White Rider if he doesn't want the new position. But how do you bring back a Rider of the Apocalypse who doesn't want to be found? Well, it isn't easy!

I have to say I LOVED the first two books in this series. They were creepy and honest and got to the heart of true teen afflictions with an candor I appreciated. But this one faltered for me. I understand Kessler wanted to stray from the formulaic "tormented teen becomes Rider, likes it at first, gets a little excited, then wants to give it up" story from the first two books. But in doing so, she created this strange "Billy chases King Midas" story that got too rambly and confusing for me. In fact, the thing I loved most about the first two books was how much I had invested in the main characters- the kids being called to be the Riders. They were flawed, damaged, and becoming Riders gave them a sense of power they had never had in their lives. And then they realized that too much power was even worse than what they had before. I loved those kids, damage and all. And sadly, this book didn't give me a chance to love Billy. Instead he was "chasing" Pestilence's soul through the "White" or whatever its oblivion state was, tinged with horrible memories written in a stream of consciousness. It wasn't badly written, but I just didn't like it as much as I loved the edgy situations in the first books.

What I did love, however, was the Author's Note at the end of the story where Kessler tells her own tales of bullying, and you won't believe what side she was on (or maybe you will now that I have made you think about it). She talks about the evolution of this story and the use of Alzheimer's on a very personal level. Thanks to this Author's Note, I felt very different about this story than I did at the end of the actual story. I only wish I had those feelings throughout the entire story, not just in the afterword. So I think this story faltered a bit from the edgy start of the series, but it still has its merits. The concept of a bully finally having an outlet to get back at their bullies is something every bullied kid thinks about. I would encourage any junior to high school student to check this series out as it deals with very real teen issues in a surprisingly interesting fictional way.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Starts with a Roar

The Roar
Animals are endangered, extinct even. Plants are bulldozed for parking lots and apartment buildings. Habitats are destroyed, and humans are at war with nature. Nature isn't winning. Until the Animal Plague.  When the Animal Plague turned all the animals into murderous crazed beasts hell-bent on destroying their one common enemy, humans, the humans were forced to abandon most of the world and live behind giant walled cities while the rest of the earth is poisoned to rid the planet of the hostile animals. In The Roar, by Emma Clayton, the world may not be exactly as it seems. 

Ellie knows her parents think she is dead, but she hopes her twin brother Mika knows she is out there. Kidnapped and trained as a super soldier thanks to her mutations, Ellie just wants to get back to her twin brother- her other half. Mika, on the other hand, is sure Ellie is alive, even though no one believes him. He has learned to keep his thoughts to himself after everyone was convinced he was crazy. But he knows he has to find a way to get Ellie back to him.

When the government releases a new pod fighter video game, the kids can't get enough of it. They start living just to play the game, almost in a zombie-like trance. The game quickly weeds out the normal kids from the prodigies, and Mika is one of the few incredibly talented kids who gets to compete in the final rounds of the competition. What no one is aware of, however, is the terrifying levels of corruption within the government who created the game to not only weed out the talented mutants like Mika, but to control the rest of the population as well. Mika suspects there is more to this game, but he knows it is the only way back to Ellie, and for Ellie, he would risk everything.

The Roar is a pretty long book, but it reads fairly easily. I have to admit, there was a long section in the middle of the book that could have been condensed and still maintained the same effect. It was this very long part about Mika working his way through the levels of the pod fighter video game that bored me a little in the middle. But once he progressed to the further rounds, it got more exciting... and more deadly. The world that was described, these cramped walled cities, the bottom portion damp, moldy, and filled with flood water and the top reserved for the wealthy where they could ignore the poverty of the millions of people beneath them. It was a pretty terrifying world, but the level of corruption and deception beneath the actual world is the real terrifying part. You don't get to see this corruption until the very end of the book, but it will leave you anxious to start the second book, Whisper.

This is a series that reads like a middle reader story, but has some complex ideas (not really content), and could appeal to lower skilled, older readers. It is certainly long, so it might be daunting for some students. The video games as mind and population control, however, is an awesome topic to discuss with your children and students. So many kids get sucked into these video games, that it would be interesting to pose a "what if?" to them in contrast to this story. I bet they would think twice about it next time they picked up the video game... what if they are being controlled?! It would be a great conversation to have and one that affects them personally. Overall, this was an interesting story and I look forward to the second book, but it was a little younger than most dystopias or post-apocalyptic stories out there. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Is Ignorance Bliss or Just Plain Ignorant?

Pandemonium (Delirium)
Lena chose love and feeling and pain over the simple bliss of surgically altered numbness, but it cost her. Not only did she cut herself off from every sense of normalcy and family she ever knew, but now she has lost Alex as well, the very reason she abandoned her life and took to the Wilds. But Lena has a lot more to learn about the world at large as well as herself in Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver.

Then: Lena must survive, but survival isn't easy in the Wilds. They know they are constantly hunted by the officers of a government who wants to take away what they treasure most- their ability to feel emotions and care deeply. They depend on supplies from sympathizers inside what they jokingly refer to as "Zombieland". And the toughest part of all is life in the Wilds is flung into the dangerous world of centuries ago with no hospitals or even the simplest of medicines... and sometimes no food. But the people who find Lena want to help her. They know how hard it is to transition from Zombieland and that her loss is the greatest thing she has ever experienced. But in the Wilds, they can't afford "transition time". Lena must pull it together or she endangers everyone. But how can you pull it together when you have lost everything you ever cared about in one fell swoop?

Now: Lena's job is to keep an eye on Julian, the poster boy for the Cured. He, to his father's particular delight, is getting the Cure even though countless doctors have told him it could very easily kill him. He is meant to speak at a rally for the Cure, but when protestors and rebels turn the rally into a coordinated attack, Lena follows Julian into the tunnels. What she gets for her efforts is being held prisoner right alongside him. While being a prisoner isn't exactly the best situation, it allows Lena to get to know Julian. Now she feels like she has to protect him. Unfortunately, that might be harder than Lena could have ever imagined. 

I love that this book flies between present time and flashbacks to tell both stories in the most efficient way possible. I thought at first that these flash-arounds would be difficult to keep track of, but Oliver does a great job of making it easy to follow. It also gives you a chance to see Lena in two ways- the raw and emotional Lena and the Lena she becomes: mature, determined, and not nearly as afraid. It was a brilliant way to tell of a personal journey without having to detract too much form the action to sink into character development! 

This book gives you more of the dystopia that you wanted to see in the first book. It also gets to the heart of the initiative for the Cure and just how far they will go to make the population dull and pliable. But most interesting was the fact that the rebels have moments where they cross a line in order to get what they want too. It makes them more real and fallible, blurring the lines between who is good and who is not so good. I think this series continues to be a great story for any young adult reader with decent skills. It remains interesting and you feel invested in the characters by the time you are done. But you can't wait for more! Oliver has a knack for leaving you hanging with the very last word to the point where you keep flipping the final page back and forth hoping there is more to the final chapter!

Dexter Meets Seven

I Hunt Killers
There is nothing scarier than a serial killer.  Sure, monsters and demons are scary enough, but serial killers are out there right now, free to do as they wish. At least the monsters and demons are only a figment of my imagination. Now imagine growing up with that serial killer as your father... having a serial killer teach you his "trade". That horror is unimaginable... until Barry Lyga's I Hunt Killers.

Jazz just wants to be a normal kid, but there is no chance of normalcy when you are Billy Dent's son. Billy Dent has killed well over 100 people and is currently serving multiple life sentences with no hope of every getting out again. He taught his son well, but Jazz doesn't want to follow in Dear Old Dad's footsteps. Instead, he wants to just live his life and forget the world he was brought into. That isn't so easy when Child Protective Services wants to place him in foster care, he lives with his lunatic grandmother, and his only friend is a hemophiliac who bleeds with a simple sneeze.

When a dead girl is found in a field, Jazz knows it has the signs of serial killer, but the cops won't listen to him. The sheriff who caught his father is patient with Jazz, but he still doesn't want him near the crime scene or the evidence. But Jazz can't help himself. He knows there will be more bodies. When the bodies start piling up, the crimes look awfully similar to those of Billy Dent's earlier murders... and to the town where the serial killer lived, there is only one person who can follow in his footsteps. Jazz knows he must find the killer, not only to prove to everyone that it isn't him, but also to prove to himself that he isn't a monster like Dear Old Dad.

If you like the show "Dexter", you will like this story. It has the boundary crossing of being a serial killer and hunting a serial killer where the hunter and the hunted are eerily similar. I really loved Jazz because he desperately doesn't want to be the monster his father raised him as, but he is afraid all those years of brainwashing may have paid off. His only way to use that disturbing knowledge usefully is to find this killer before anyone else dies. He also feels somewhat responsible because he should be able to stop "his father's" crimes this second time around. Jazz is a complex character and the reader will find themselves wanting to protect him from everything he has lived through. But what impresses me the most are Jazz's girlfriend and best friend who both know his history and still care about him. They keep him as normal as possible and in Jazz's mind, the love for another person is what keeps him from ever becoming a monster. It was a lovely addition to this grim murder mystery. Finally, the sheriff who caught Billy is almost like a surrogate father figure for Jazz, caring about him and watching out for him. This book is full of complex relationships and characters that keep you from knowing what is around the corner, and I really appreciated that.

This book is certainly gruesome with the murders and dismemberment, etc. While the active serial killer is bad enough, the descriptions of Billy Dent's murders are the most gory. Not to mention the very existence of this "super killer" who knew how to defy all police expectations makes me pretty terrified! Billy Dent will give you nightmares, no doubt about it! I think this is a book for your typical high school student rather than a younger reader because some of the content is pretty bloody, but more importantly, the characters and relationships are so complex, a less mature reader will get lost in the intriguing ambiguity. The writing style is highly accessible and exciting, and this would most likely be a great book even for an adult who is interested in serial killer stories and murder mysteries. But I caution, this might not be the book for the feint of heart! And, just to warn you, the very, very end of the book will leave you hanging in a way you won't believe (and that will keep you looking out your window and behind the shower curtain!).

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Hana in a Whole New Light

Finally a short story tied to a trilogy that actually has a purpose! After so many that were a total disappointment, I am excited to get this extra look into the life of Lena's best friend, Hana... the very girl whose rebellious ways led to Lena meeting the boy she fell in love with and gave up everything for...

Hana wanted to rebel. She went to underground concerts, talked to boys, and even kissed one. Hana wasn't going to let some rules stop her from enjoying herself. She knows her knew ways are driving her apart form Lena, but she needs to explore what else is out there. When an unexpected raid makes her realize just how dangerous what she is doing truly is, Hana decides to reconnect with the girl who always does the right thing: Lena. What she finds, though, is that Lena was the true rebel who wouldn't let any government stop her from falling in love.

I am really glad I gave this short story a try, because it adds wonderful insight into Delirium. We know Hana, and we know how she led to Lena's choices, but we don't really know Hana, until this story, it shows her transformation from the typical rebellious teen we know and expect to a girl who isn't willing to risk her life for a simple contest. In fact, this short story changes the entire tone of the ending of Delirium, giving you a new perspective on how everything happened. You might not be happy with how this story changes the trilogy, but everything will make more sense once you read it!

Friday, April 13, 2012

No Fevered Excitement Here

Fever (Chemical Garden)
Ah, the sad middle book. Just like the middle child, it suffers from identity crisis. Neither the attention grabbing first book or the long-awaited, cathartic conclusion, the middle book is bound by the desperation to live up to the first book without all the excitement of the final book. So, it makes sense that Lauren DeStefano's Fever would have a lot of work to do to make Wither fans happy. But could it pull itself out of the middle child lot in life?

Rhine and Gabriel ran for their lives, but the life they find outside the estate's walls where Rhine's husband, sister wife, and evil father-in-law live is not the freedom they imagined it would be. Almost immediately after escaping, they find themselves held captive again. This time, the captor might not be performing horrific experiments, but she isn't exactly warm and cuddly either. 

Sucked into a brothel where the girls are ranked according to color by their level of worth, Rhine finds herself trapped and Gabriel is being kept drugged so he can't help her. Lilac, another trapped girl, helps Rhine through this terrifying experience, and finds a way to get Rhine and Gabriel to safety outside the brothel's electrified walls, but she wants to come with them and she doesn't plan on leaving her blind, malformed daughter behind. Their escape brings them closer to finding Rhine's brother, but in a world where mother's don't grow old enough to see their children become adults, another mother is separated from her daughter. Is finding Rhine's brother Rowan worth everything she and Gabriel have suffered through.

Sadly, this book did not live up to Wither for me. I thought it was kind of forced with no real purpose and while the outcome was incredibly interesting, the almost 300 pages that came before it were bland and lost. The exploits of Rhine and Gabriel could have been exciting, but instead they rambled around in a drug and illness induced haze that just seemed unnecessary. I found myself hoping the book would end quickly so I could move on to something more interesting, but feeling obligated to stick with it out of love for the first book.

When all was said and done, I am glad I slogged through this book because the final 40 pages or so were reminiscent of the Wither I love. It was creepy and exciting and terrifying all at once, and I couldn't stop reading once I hit that point. Unfortunately, a struggling reader might never make it to that point. I am sad to see this series stray in the middle, but I am hopeful it will triumph in the end. So fingers crossed that the final book will live up to the first book and not be stained with the memory of the sad middle child!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Shattered My Expectations

Shatter Me
If your very touch could end a person's life, would you think you were cursed, or just plain crazy? What if everyone you knew and love thought you were a monster? Tahereh Mafi's Shatter Me explores the world of a girl whose touch is so dangerous, she hasn't seen the light of day in almost a year.

Juliette hasn't spoken to another human being for over 200 days. She has been locked in the asylum for so long, she thinks she really is going crazy when they give her a roommate- a boy roommate. Adam tries to talk to her, but it has been so long since she had any human contact that she can barely even look at him. Most of all, she must make sure he doesn't touch her because the consequences are deadly. When officers barge into their cell, Juliette is taken away to one of the Reestablishment's leaders. What she expects least of all is to find out Adam is one of the soldiers. 

Warner, head of a Reestablishment sector, wants to use Juliette's "gift" to help him deal with prisoners and enemies, but she doesn't have any interest in hurting anyone. Now that the Reestablishment has destroyed and starved most of the population, they find themselves at war with the rebels who will do anything to stop the destruction of the country and its people. But Juliette simply cannot give herself to Warner and his evil plans, especially since his attachment to her borders on obsession... OK, actually is creepy obsessive! Juliette thinks she has no way to be free to Warner, but help may arrive in the most unlikeliest of places.

At first, I really struggled with this story. When Juliette is in the asylum, her stream of consciousness is not only disturbing and frantic, but Mafi uses the cross out feature to show her scattered thoughts... a LOT. It started out being just a little annoying and became incredibly frustrating after a few pages. Thankfully, after Juliette left the asylum, the cross-outs reduced dramatically. I get the choice to use this feature to show the mental state of the character, but I have to admit it was pretty distracting at first. I actually almost put it down because the cross-outs annoyed me, but I am very glad I kept with it because the story beneath this strange choice was really, really good.

The characters are a little difficult to get to know: Juliette because of her shattered mental state and Adam because you aren't immediately sure of what his game is. Once you get about half-way into the book, though, you find yourself very invested in the story and therefore totally invested in the characters, especially when Adam proves his worth to Juliette. The book certainly ends on a cliffhanger and in a way I never saw coming (I think if you read some reviews, someone may have given it away, but I won't do that to you!). The rest of the trilogy has the potential to be quite amazing. I think the dystopia classification is a little lost, though. There is definitely a dystopic world out there, but the scope of the world is hidden behind Juliette most of the time. I think there will be more of the dystopia in the upcoming books, but if there is one thing I am sure of, it is that once you finish this book, your curiosity simply won't be able to prevent from reading the next book.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Withering Unnecessarily

The Seeds of Wither
The new thing these days with these young adult trilogies is to release small stories in between novels as "teaser" for the newest book in the series. OK, I am fine with that, but the short story has to do something for me. I buy them because I love the trilogy, but when I get to the story and find out it is actually 86% (according to my Kindle) filled with chapters from the first book (and you wouldn't be reading this short story had you NOT already read the first book), and another ~10% previews for the next book, you find yourself wondering, "Why did I buy this 7 paged snippet?" 

Once you wade through the chapters from Lauren DeStefano's Wither (which you undoubtedly already read), you get to the short story First Bride, which is the reason you purchased this eBook in the first place. The story is from Rose's point of view, the first wife who was dying and Rhine and the others were a replacement for. The chapter, because for me 7 Kindle pages does not constitute any kind of short story to speak of, was certainly interesting, but it should have been incorporated as a brief introductory chapter to Wither. Its only saving grace was getting to view Linden in this light, who was always a character you struggled to like or dislike. Seeing him with Rose, the girl he truly loved, you get to see the magnitude of his grief and the devastation this virus has caused.  

But still, I just can't justify this being sold separately from the original novel Wither and the new novel, Fever. I suppose if you are a Wither fan like myself, you will still buy it since you want to know everything you can about Wither. Of course, you will most likely be a little disappointed like I was. The story was interesting, but not worth the money or the effort of slogging through 50 pages of the first book... But I imagine, if you are anything like me, you are still dying to read Fever regardless of the disappointment of Seeds of Wither.

Athena Won't Know What Hit Her

A Beautiful Evil
Greek Mythology is so full of interesting stories and characters. The Gods alone are full of material to play off and manipulate into new stories with familiar faces. Kelly Keaton did just that with her first book, Darkness Becomes Her where Athena was an almighty beast of a Goddess who had no problem torturing and killing beings for her own enjoyment. Now, in A Beautiful Evil, we watch Ari, a gorgon girl who hasn't yet come into her own, give Athena a run for her money.

Now that Ari knows what she truly is, the mixture of a gorgon (offspring of Medusa) and Son of Perseus (hunters sworn to kill gorgons and other magical monsters), she realizes how unique she really is. But her impending doom of soon becoming a monster who cannot even be touched without turning people to stone is not what troubles Ari... It is the fact that Athena has her father and Violet, one of the kids who took her in when she found herself in the destroyed Garden District of New Orleans. Ari knows she is no match for a God like Athena, but that won't stop her from hunting Athena down.

Sebastian and the rest of the kids who live with Ari are determined to find Athena, but they have to do so with the help of the Novem, the elite of magical folks who own and run the city of New Orleans. Ari is granted access to the secret library which is stored in Pandora's Box (but not really a box) and holds the secrets of the universe. It is there that she gets the idea of locating Athena's temple and hitting her where it hurts, but the only problem is, the entry to her temple isn't so easy to locate or to open. Hidden in the middle of the wasteland of beasts and soulless creatures of New Orleans, the location of the door might be just as dangerous as what lies on the other side. But there is only one way for Ari to get her father and Violet back, and she has no intention of leaving them to Athena's murderous rage. Even if it means releasing the gorgon inside her.

I really loved the first story, Darkness Becomes Her, but this sequel fell a little flat for me. I did like it, but not as much as I liked the first book. At times the story seemed incredibly rushed. A character would be attacked and die in the course of four paragraphs and *poof* just like that the action had moved on around them. The pace of the book left me a little confused at times, and more than a little frustrated at other times. The way things ended in the final showdown(s) was also symptomatic of this bizarre pacing and I had to reread it to make sure I understood everything that had happened. My other criticism was the supporting characters. In the first book, they were just as awesome as Ari, and you couldn't get enough of them. In this book, they really are secondary characters and their charm is lost in how rarely they appear. I am not sure if I want this series to continue to a third book after reading this sequel, but the author definitely left it open for another book.

This series is age appropriate for young adults and has a good heft of choice language. The story lost its way a little in this second installment, but if a kid enjoyed the first book, they would most likely still enjoy this one. The mythology in it is interesting and I love the twists on old "tried and true" stories. The reading level is fairly simple, but combined with the language, it might be best for a low-skilled older student who needs something accessible to read. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Funny and Touching Romance

The Selection (Selection - Trilogy)
If you are anything like me, you have been looking at this cover for a while but were unsure of the description- a dystopia with glitter and jewels? Isn't that like shimmery vampires? But I urge you to ignore the description of this book and give it a chance because Kiera Cass has started a new trilogy that will keep you coming back for more... even if the description doesn't do it justice!

America Singer is a five. In Illea, the caste system has royalty as ones and the lowest level, eights, are essentially non-humans who barely survive in society. As a five, America's family struggles to make ends meet, but at least they aren't as bad off as the sixes. People in Illea don't date out of your caste because no one wants to move down... upward caste mobility is always in the back of people's minds, but America doesn't care about that when it comes to Aspen, the boy she loves who just happens to be a six. But when Prince Maxon comes of age, the Selection is held to find his wife. All girls in Illea are possible candidates and one girl from each province is chosen at random (although the number of girls below a four is low enough to suggest otherwise) to be one of the 35 girls who is moved to the palace to compete for Maxon's hand and the crown. America only agrees to enter in the selection to pacify her mother, but when she is chosen, Aspen can't bear to see her give up the opportunity to move up in caste just to move down for him. 

With a broken heart, America begrudgingly heads to the palace, but she refuses to play the game all the other girls are so intent on playing. In fact, when she accidentally happens upon Maxon before they are supposed to officially meet, she doesn't hesitate to tell him just what she thinks of him and this bizarre mating ritual that is the Selection. Surprisingly, Maxon isn't offended, but rather intrigued by America's spunk and sass. She tells him she wants nothing to do with being a princess, but they agree to be friends and he convinces her to stay if for no other reason than to keep him company and to enjoy the delicious delicacies she could only dream of back home as a five. The agreement makes sense for a girl with no chance of falling for the man in question, but when that man is Maxon, there is a chance America's feelings might not be as cut off as she originally thought...

I really loved this story! BUT I must caution that the dystopia part of this story is so minute you could almost miss it if you weren't looking hard enough. In fact, I think the description and billing of this story as a dystopia is going to hurt its reputation because people who like serious dystopias are going to be disappointed by the lack of world building and people who would love the romance might be turned off by the dystopia angle. I think the rest of the forthcoming trilogy may delve into the dystopia more heartily, but for this book's purposes, the dystopia label is a little misleading. 

But let's talk about the characters! Oh America. I love this girl. She is sassy and determined and fantastic. When she mistakenly thought Maxon was out for "one thing" she actually kneed him in the "royal jewels"! And she isn't cowed by his royal status, even before their friendship blossoms. She has no problem telling him exactly how she feels, and when she shares with him the true state of life int he lower castes, Maxon actually does something about it. He is a man any one of us could fall madly in love with! He is the epitome of lovable male lead who is kind, generous, funny, and takes his responsibility as future leader very, very seriously. Even his shyness with the girls in the Selection is endearing (he is terrified of crying girls, but really, what man isn't?!) I loved Maxon! I think Aspen was a bit of a dud for me, but you don't see much of him except the very beginning and the very end of the book. I think more of him would have made this a true "love triangle" for me, but as it stands now, I am team Maxon all the way! 

I loved this story. I think the billing should be altered to not mislead dystopia fans, but if you like a great romance with spunky characters, you will enjoy this story. I know the story ended on a little bit of a cliff-hanger, but it wasn't so bad it made me livid, it just made me impatient to read the next book! I can't wait to see where Cass goes with this story! Your eye might be caught by this beautiful cover, but the book will hold you to the last page! 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

It Put a Spell on Me

Spell Bound (A Hex Hall Novel)
Hex Hall has grown up a lot over the past few years. We have seen a fun, sometimes goofy middle reader transform into a pretty serious story (not without funny, snarky moments of course!). We have watched Sophie Mercer grow up from a confused Prodigium to a demon ready to use her powers to prevent evil. And now we find ourselves at the final installment of Rachel Hawkins' trilogy, Spell Bound.

Sophie knows she is a demon, and her powers were supposed to be stripped (like her demon father's were), but she can feel them inside her. Somehow they weren't stripped, just buried deep inside where she can't tap into them. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on how you look at it), her dead, now ghost, former rival Elodie is tied to her and can possess Sophie and use her own magic in desperate times. Sophie isn't thrilled by being possessed, but since Elodie has saved her life, she really can't complain. When Sophie wakes up after narrowly escaping the attack that may have killed her father and both boys she cares about, the last place she thought she would wake up is at the Brannick's house- the family who take Prodigium hunting to a whole new level. 

What Sophie learns about the Brannick's is something she can barely believe- not only are they no longer the crazy group of hunters they used to be (only 3 members left and two are barely teenagers), but Sophie's mother is one of them, making Sophie a bizarre demon/demon-hunter mixture. At the Brannick's, Sophie learns that the people who attacked and all but destroyed the Council are actually council members trying to rally the rest of the Prodigium into striking back with full force and they aren't afraid to create demon children in order to get what they want. They have control of Hex Hall and summon its former students to the school in order to complete their demonic experiments and raise an army no one could fight. Sophie is summoned to the island as well, but there is no way she intends to go down without a fight. She isn't going to let anyone hurt her friends, regardless of where their intentions came from. For Sophie, enemy and ally is no longer who she thought and the war just got scarier.

This was a bittersweet ending to a series I really enjoyed. I understand why Hawkins ended the story like she did, and honestly I wouldn't change a thing about the ending, but that doesn't mean I didn't find myself thinking, "Awww. C'mon! Did you HAVE to?!" Sophie is a great character because she is spunky and sassy and fun to travel along with, but in this story, the supporting characters I loved so much were lost in the efforts to wrap up the story. I think too much time was spent with the Brannick's and then Hawkins realized the story had to have an ending and shoved a huge amount of meat into the final half of the book. Regardless, though, I really thought this ending was very good and it made me appreciate the series as a whole. The series started as a pretty goofy middle reader, but by the end of this third book, it was nosing into the young adult realm, which is helpful for young readers. 

This is a great series for any middle reader or low-skilled young adult. I have given it to a number of nieces/cousins and they have enjoyed the story. I think it might be too young for a mature young adult, though, so be aware of the proper age group the series was intended for. Some of the demonic action in the end gets pretty hairy, but nothing is overly violent or too scary, so it remains appropriate for the same age group as the first book was. I have to say I am sad to see this series go! It was fun to look forward to these stories every year or so! Looking forward to something new out of Hawkins!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Who's Your Queen?

Exiled Queen, The (A Seven Realms Novel)
Raisa is the princess everyone wishes could be queen, but not only is her mother still queen, but her line is being threatened by the wizards who are controlling her mother. In order to preserve the sanctity of the throne, Raisa does what she must do... she flees her own queendom and escapes into a world of anonymity where no one knows she is royalty and life isn't easy. The Seven Realms saga continues in Cinda Williams Chima's The Exiled Queen

Amon and his soldiers accompany Raisa, now going by the name Rebecca Morley to protect her identity, to Oden's Ford, the home of the schools for soldiers, the clergy, and wizards. While each have their own separate schools and tend to stick to themselves, they do come across one another occasionally. Raisa is concerned she will cross paths with Micah Bayer, the wizard she was almost forced to illegally marry (queens aren't allowed to marry wizards for fear of consolidating too much power). Despite her concerns, she immerses herself in her studies and sets her mind to what she came here for- to be the first queen who actually understands the people she leads. 

Han, after discovering his magic which was once controlled and is now set free, has headed down to Oden's Ford as well with his childhood friend. Both are newfound wizards still struggling with the idea that they are the very magical folks they grew up despising. But, they know it is more dangerous to let their magic run rampant, so their education must be a priority. When Han arrives, he finds himself plagued with an arrogant young wizard named Micah Bayer who is intent upon making his life miserable. Then he is approached by a mysterious stranger who wants to use Han as a weapon against the Bayers and their threat to the throne. Han is confused by who to believe, but when he comes across Rebecca Morley, he is drawn to the woman he once kidnapped. Together, they realize they can help one another, but neither truly knows the identity or intentions of the other. They have a common enemy, but neither is aware of the true extent of what they face.

This was an amazing follow up to the first book. First, I have to say Chima is a magnificent world-builder. She has created a fictional land we can imagine perfectly. The characters are strong but flawed, the perfect mixture of people you can cheer for but can relate to as real people. I particularly love the strong female characters in this series. In addition to a queendom, you also have female soldiers and warriors who live and fight alongside men. It is explained so naturally that you find yourself wishing this situation wasn't fiction. but Raisa still remains my favorite character. She is strong, she is a leader, and she has a conscience. In a world where we can barely stomach most of the politicians we have to choose from, and we settle for "the lesser of the evils", I wish people would take a look at the type of leader Raisa hopes to be- one who has lived, learned, and fought alongside the very people she plans to rule, because how could someone be a ruler if they don't understand the true nature of the lives of the people in their realms. 

I love this series for any middle reader through adult who likes fantasy or even one who likes realistic fiction, because even though it is fantasy, the world and characters are relatable enough to appeal to a wide variety of readers. I also encourage anyone to contact Ms. Chima if you are interested in talking about the books. I connected with her and she is the nicest woman! This book also gives a lot more explanation and background information than the first book did, which was well appreciated. I am very happy to have found this brilliant fantasy and can't wait to see where the story takes us. 

Remember the Gallagher Girls?

Out of Sight, Out of Time (Gallagher Girls)
Cammie Morgan hasn't had the most normal childhood. It doesn't help that she grew up attending a school  for spies, but the real hardship is her father's disappearance. When a covert group called the Circle of Cavan attacks Cammie, she made a huge decision: her friends and family would never be safe with the Circle after her. The only way to keep them safe was to leave the Gallagher Academy. In Ally Carters fifth Gallgher Girls book, Out of Sight, Out of Time, we see Cammie grappling with the consequences of that decision.

Cammie wakes up in a convent in the Alps with no idea of how she got there. Even worse, she finds out she has been missing all summer, and she has no memories of anything since she left the school. She calls her mother and Aunt who come to get her and bring her back to the school, but her loss of memories isn't the only thing plaguing Cammie: the Circle is still out there and they aren't going to rest until they get what they want from her. 

Despite everyone's insistence that she not try to recover her memories, Cammie needs to know what happened in the months she lost. No one at the school trusts her anymore, even her own mother and friends. She starts losing time and doing things unconsciously, like putting together an assault rifle without even knowing how she learned to do so. The only thing Cammie can be sure of anymore is that the memories of summer hold huge secrets, and she isn't afraid to go digging.

This middle reader series has seriously grown up since its first book. This book is the most adult book, in terms of seriousness, not inappropriate content, so far. It really gets to the scary and ugly side of being a spy, which is something that has been sort of glossed over so far. The evolution of Cammie is pretty impressive, and I think readers can grow up along side her character. She has made great sacrifices to protect her friends and family, but the idea that those people would literally put themselves in grave danger to protect her is the most comforting and scariest thought Cammie has ever had. But that is what people who love you do!

This started out a middle reader series, and while still appropriate for middle readers, it is also great for any kid who has transitioned more into the young adult age group but still read the early books in the series. They won't be disappointed as the story gets darker and more serious, and neither will you. It is a great series and although Carter claims to only have one more book planned, I hope she continues the series!