Sunday, March 30, 2014

In My Mailbox (60)

Bought from
Le Petit Prince
by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Je demande pardon aux enfants d'avoir dédié ce livre à une grande personne. J'ai une excuse sérieuse : cette grande personne est le meilleur ami que j'ai au monde. J'ai une autre excuse : cette grande personne peut tout comprendre, même les livres pour enfants. J'ai une troisième excuse : cette grande personne habite la France où elle a faim et froid. Elle a besoin d'être consolée. Si toutes ces excuses ne suffisent pas, je veux bien dédier ce livre à l'enfant qu'a été autrefois cette grande personne. Toutes les grandes personnes ont d'abord été des enfants. (Mais peu d'entre elles s'en souviennent.) C'est un plaisir de publier cette nouvelle, de haute qualité, et l'édition à prix abordable de cette histoire intemporelle.

Bought from Kobo:
The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba's Greatest Abolitionist
by Margarita Engle

“I find it so easy to forget / that I’m just a girl who is expected / to live / without thoughts.” Opposing slavery in Cuba in the nineteenth century was dangerous. The most daring abolitionists were poets who veiled their work in metaphor. Of these, the boldest was Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, nicknamed Tula. In passionate, accessible verses of her own, Engle evokes the voice of this book-loving feminist and abolitionist who bravely resisted an arranged marriage at the age of fourteen, and was ultimately courageous enough to fight against injustice. Historical notes, excerpts, and source notes round out this exceptional tribute.

What was in your "mailbox" this week?

In My Mailbox was started by Kristi of The Story Siren.

Weekly Recap - March 23-March 29, 2014

Here's what I blogged about over the last seven days:

Tuesday - For the Top Ten Tuesday meme I listed the 10 books that I want to read this spring.

Wednesday - I reviewed Sonya Hartnett's Surrender and gave it 4 ladybugs.

I also redid the theme of my blog (which included replacing many of the graphics in previous posts so that everything would look pretty).  Whew!  I don't think I'm going to change things again for a while.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Review - Surrender

by Sonya Hartnett
Date: 2005
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 153
Format: e-book
Source: Kobo

As life slips away, Gabriel looks back over his brief twenty years, which have been clouded by frustration and humiliation. A small, unforgiving town and distant, punitive parents ensure that he is never allowed to forget the horrific mistake he made as a child. He has only two friends—his dog, Surrender, and the unruly wild boy, Finnigan, a shadowy doppelganger with whom the meek Gabriel once made a boyhood pact. But when a series of arson attacks grips the town, Gabriel realizes how unpredictable and dangerous Finnigan is. As events begin to spiral violently out of control, it becomes devastatingly clear that only the most extreme measures will rid Gabriel of Finnigan for good.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

Reading this book was a strange experience.  I haven't read a story in quite a while that kept me guessing as much as this one did.  Even after finishing it, I'm still not sure what actually happened.  However, the ambiguity may be (partly) the point.

At first, Surrender reads a bit like a fictional memoir, with twenty-year-old Gabriel narrating from his sickbed.  The story starts off as a lyrical portrait of life in small-town Australia, and we quickly come to realize that poor Gabriel doesn't exactly have an easy time of it.  His parents are viewed as a bit "off" by the rest of the town and so, by extension, is their son.  Making matters worse is a tragic mistake that Gabriel made when he was a small child, the consequences of which have never left him.  For much of the book, I thought that I was reading contemporary fiction... but then certain things would happen that made me think we'd veered off into paranormal territory.  The constant question of, "What is going on here?" haunted me throughout my reading of the book.  Even at the end, when it seems like that question has been answered, the reader only has to look back to see that there are other unanswered questions... and things, once more, seem unclear.

The main character of note here is Gabriel (whose name is actually Anwell; the reasons for the pseudonym are addressed in the story).  Although the chapter points of view alternate between Gabriel and Finnigan, the bulk of the story is seen through Gabriel's eyes.  I suspected early on that Gabriel might not be the most reliable narrator, though I had no idea to what extent he was or wasn't.  Even knowing this, I still wasn't expecting what happened in the last seven pages.  Not that the twist was necessarily bad; I quite enjoyed being surprised.

As for the pace and writing of Surrender, you'll either love it or hate it.  Most of the book plods fairly slowly, in often-flowery prose.  While the writing evokes all the senses and paints a gorgeous picture of the surroundings, some readers might find it to be a bit much.  Personally, I didn't mind the writing, and the pace didn't matter so much because the book wasn't terribly long; the parts that drag soon make way for ones that move along at an uptempo pace (especially toward the latter part of the story).

Make no mistake, though: this book has some dark themes.  There are multiple deaths, some of them violent, and not all of them happen to human adults.  Some readers may find the subject matter a bit too disturbing at times.

Overall, I enjoyed Surrender, even though it wasn't exactly what I was expecting.  The only thing that I can really point to as a negative is that the ambiguous ending is going to keep me thinking about this book for a while.

Plot: 4/5
Characters: 4/5
Pace: 3/5
Writing: 4/5
Editing: 4/5
Originality: 5/5
Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall: 4 out of 5

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday - Top Ten Books On My Spring 2014 TBR List

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at The Broke and the Bookish.

This week's topic is Top Ten Books On My Spring 2014 TBR List.  I've been purchasing quite a few (i.e., too many) discounted books since I found out about Amazon's Deals Store and the Riffle Select program.  So most of these books were $2.99 or less; I just can't say no to inexpensive books!  (These are in alphabetical order; I don't know in which order I'll read them yet!):

Backwards by Todd Mitchell

Feed by M. T. Anderson

Girl Parts by John M. Cusick

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski

Splintered by A. G. Howard

Surrender by Sonya Hartnett

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

The Uninvited by Tim Wynne-Jones

The Winter Witch by Paula Brackston

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Review - Vivian Versus the Apocalypse

Vivian Versus the Apocalypse (Vivian Apple #1)
by Katie Coyle
Date: 2013
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 288
Format: e-book
Source: library

A chilling vision of a contemporary USA where the sinister Church of America is destroying lives. Our cynical protagonist, seventeen-­year-­old Vivian Apple, is awaiting the fated 'Rapture' -­ or rather the lack of it. Her evangelical parents have been in the Church's thrall for too long, and she's looking forward to getting them back. Except that when Vivian arrives home the day after the supposed 'Rapture', her parents are gone. All that is left are two holes in the ceiling...

Viv is determined to carry on as normal, but when she starts to suspect that her parents might still be alive, she realises she must uncover the truth. Joined by Peter, a boy claiming to know the real whereabouts of the Church, and Edie, a heavily pregnant Believer who has been 'left behind', they embark on a road trip across America. Encountering freak weather, roving 'Believer' gangs and a strange teenage group calling themselves the 'New Orphans', Viv soon begins to realise that the Rapture was just the beginning.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I don't know if I can express how much I disliked this book.  Maybe it's disappointment coupled with wanting to pull my hair out after reading this painful excuse for a YA dystopian... but if I ever hear about the titular heroine, Vivian Apple, again, it'll be too soon.

Dystopian novels have a lot of promise.  When the horrible events that happen in the real world don't make a lot of sense, sometimes it's helpful to be able to read one of these books and remind ourselves that things could be a whole lot worse.  But when these books aren't done right, they can fail spectacularly... like this one did.

From the moment Vivian returns home the morning after the "Rapture" to find her parents missing -- and two human-sized holes in their bedroom ceiling -- the reader might expect that they're in for a good story.  But that couldn't be further from the truth.  Instead, the reader is treated to a haphazard road-trip sort of story, with characters who pop into and out of the narrative for no particular reason (unless they're some sort of set-up for -- heaven forbid -- a sequel).  And the road-trip portion of the story doesn't even begin until more than a quarter of the way through the book; before that, Vivian just hangs out with her grandparents in New York City, a couple of stodgy old folks who are such staunch atheists that they apparently don't even believe in weather (I don't know how else to explain their refusal to leave the city when a killer hurricane is approaching).

I get that the author was trying to create a dystopian setting in the present-day U.S.A., but I just didn't buy it.  The Church of America is like a cross between the Westboro Baptist Church, the fundamentalist Mormons, and QVC... and it's completely incomprehensible that hundreds of thousands of Americans (including the President) would convert to such an extreme belief system.  I spent the majority of the book thinking that there had to be some sort of mass drugging involved, that the water supply was spiked with some sort of mind-control drug.  But that wasn't the case, and as a result it comes across as pretty insulting to Americans.  Are they really so gullible and stupid as to abandon their previous beliefs, ways of life, and (in some cases) children to follow a misogynist, pro-capitalist religious cult?  I don't think so... at least, not on the scale that is implied here.

I hated the characters in this book.  Vivian is a bland, self-deprecating goody two-shoes, who's also completely clueless, usually figuring things out after everyone else already did.  The rest of the characters aren't much better, mostly because they are inconsistent.  One character could be bemoaning the judgment and condemnation of another character and in the next breath be judging and condemning them with equal vigor.  Vivian's friend, Harp, is especially guilty of this.  She's altogether annoying: inappropriate, bitchy, promiscuous, popping Xanax pills like they're candy, drinking vodka for her nerves, telling Vivian that when a boy says he doesn't want a relationship, he really does:

This morning when he was in the shower, I hurriedly whispered to Harp what he said to me last night, and she rolled her eyes at my despair.

"Girl, please.  Don't you realize what that means?  You're already in.  You just have to make him want it."

If this was two guys talking about a girl, would this "no means yes" crap have made it past the editor?

In addition to all that, there was the fact that it was often difficult to tell the characters apart.  When they spoke, they often sounded the same.  And no fewer than four characters called Vivian by her full name, which was just odd.

The writing and editing in this book was also pretty bad.  I couldn't tell if the book was supposed to be funny or serious.  The subject matter was too serious to be funny, but some of the writing tried so hard to be "literary" that it came across as unintentionally amusing.  Add to that the idioms that weren't quite right ("all of the sudden" was used repeatedly), the weirdness at one point where the author apparently forgot how to use the word "the", the logical inconsistencies (like saying it's May and then implying it's still April... or having moonlight streaming in through a window when it's pouring rain... or being able to see the stars when you're in the midst of a dust storm so thick that you can't see more than a few feet in front of you and you kill an owl with your car), and the characters repeatedly -- and literally -- shrugging their speech, and my inner proofreader was absolutely screaming in frustration.  It really started to fall apart at the halfway mark; I'm not sure if that was because I was getting tired (reading a book you're not enjoying can be exhausting) or if the editor only bothered with the first half of the book.  In any case, the last half was kind of excruciating, with caricature characters, a willy-nilly plot, and weak writing.

I practically wrote a book of snark as I was reading this, making notes in Adobe Digital Editions as I went along.  In fact, I wrote so many notes, I repeatedly crashed the software as I neared the end of the book.  I think that speaks volumes about my impression of Vivian Versus the Apocalypse.

On the plus side, I did learn an important lesson:  Just because a book has won a contest and just because a book has a good rating on Goodreads doesn't mean it's actually good.

Now I know.

Plot: 1/5
Characters: 0/5
Pace: 0/5
Writing: 0/5
Editing: 0/5
Originality: 1/5
Enjoyment: 0/5

Overall: 0.29 out of 5

Saturday, March 15, 2014

2014 Reading Challenge

I'm challenging myself this year.  Better late than never!

I don't know how much of a challenge this actually will be (although, judging by how much I've read so far this year, it might be more challenging than I realize).  Through Goodreads, I'm challenging myself to read 13 books in 2014 (one per month, plus one... a baker's dozen of books).

2014 Reading Challenge

2014 Reading Challenge
La Coccinelle has read 8 books toward her goal of 13 books.

1. Cinder by Marissa Meyer
2. Stolen by Lucy Christopher
3. Vivian Versus the Apocalypse by Katie Coyle
4. Surrender by Sonya Hartnett
5. Unearthly by Cynthia Hand
6. More Than This by Patrick Ness
7. Dream Boy by Mary Crockett & Madelyn Rosenberg
8. The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba's Greatest Abolitionist by Margarita Engle
9. World After by Susan Ee
10. Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
11. The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater
12. Neverland by Anna Katmore
13. The 57 Lives of Alex Wayfare by M. G. Buehrlen

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday - Top Ten All Time Favorite Books in X Genre

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at The Broke and the Bookish.

This week's topic is Top Ten All Time Favorite Books in X Genre.  I worried that I wouldn't be able to come up with 10 favourite books in any genre... but I'm going to go with my favourite genre: paranormal fiction.  There's lot to choose from in that category: ghosts, reincarnation, rifts in the space/time continuum...

The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee - I can't even remember why I decided to read this book many years ago (unless it was because I'd just read the Claidi Journals books and I wanted more from that author).  This book looks like science fiction, but it actually has a paranormal twist.  I still remember this one fondly, years after reading it; it has one of those endings that you just can't forget.

Absent by Katie Williams - Reading this book was just a happy accident.  I was trolling through the e-book offerings at my local library and I happened upon this one.  I chose to read it because it was short.  It was actually one of the more enjoyable stories I'd read in a while.  It's almost in the contemporary genre... except that it's told from the point of view of a ghost.

Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer - I wanted to read this book for quite a while before I actually got my hands on a copy.  It's a decades-old third book in a trilogy about two sisters, but I think it stands up pretty well against some of today's offerings for this age group.  It's a bit of a boarding school story, a time travel story, and a historical fiction story, all rolled into one.  And I loved some of the characters (especially Emily).

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs - This story was creepy and weird... but in a good way.  The addition of the strange vintage photographs that depict the peculiar children only add to the uniqueness of this very odd and entertaining novel.

The Lake and the Library by S. M. Beiko - This was another library find.  I'd never heard of it, and judging by how many times I've stumbled across it on other book blogs (i.e., zero), I'm guessing most people haven't heard of it, either.  That's a real shame, because this Canadian offering is just as good as many of the highly hyped YA paranormal novels out there.  It's a love note to books and libraries, as well as a heart-warming story about friendship and love.

My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares - Am I the only one who's disappointed the sequel never happened?  This was one of the best novels that featured the concept of reincarnation that I've ever read.  And the characters (especially Daniel) were so appealing that I really wanted to read more of their story.

The Witches of Willowmere by Alison Baird - This is the first book in a self-contained trilogy (probably my favourite YA trilogy of all time) that deals with witches and reincarnation.  There are a number of similarities with the more popular Immortals series by Alyson Noël... but this trilogy was written years earlier and Baird did a much better job.

Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side by Beth Fantaskey - If you've got to have brooding, angst-ridden teenage vampires, they might as well be funny.  I don't think Lucius intended to be, but he was endearingly amusing in his letters home.  Plus, he actually was a young man, so his wooing of the heroine didn't come off as creepy and pedophilic.  Some of the secondary characters in this book were wonderfully memorable, as well.

Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor - I read this book not too long ago, and I'm still in awe of the author and what she did here.  Not only was the world-building amazing, but the character development was so awesome that by the time that ending happened, my heart was a figurative pile of mush on the floor.  I want to read the sequels, I really do; I just don't know if my heart can take it.

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver - While it could be argued that this is more of a contemporary novel about mean girls, it also falls squarely into the paranormal camp (unless reliving one day over and over again is some sort of normal occurrence that I'm not aware of).  The bonus here (and why it's one of my favourite novels of all time, regardless of genre) is Oliver's beautiful prose.  I really, really liked this book and its message about bullying and the power of redemption wrapped up in a paranormal framing device.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Review - Stolen

by Lucy Christopher
Date: 2009
Publisher: The Chicken House
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 306
Format: e-book

It happened like this. I was stolen from an airport. Taken from everything I knew, everything I was used to. Taken to sand and heat, dirt and danger. And he expected me to love him.

This is my story.

A letter from nowhere.

Sixteen year old Gemma is kidnapped from Bangkok airport and taken to the Australian Outback. This wild and desolate landscape becomes almost a character in the book, so vividly is it described. Ty, her captor, is no stereotype. He is young, fit and completely gorgeous. This new life in the wilderness has been years in the planning. He loves only her, wants only her. Under the hot glare of the Australian sun, cut off from the world outside, can the force of his love make Gemma love him back?

The story takes the form of a letter, written by Gemma to Ty, reflecting on those strange and disturbing months in the outback. Months when the lines between love and obsession, and love and dependency, blur until they don't exist - almost.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This is not the type of book I usually read, or even contemplate reading.  But it just goes to show how occasionally stepping outside of your comfort zone can pay off.  I really enjoyed this book.

While the underlying premise might seem similar to a book like Emma Donoghue's Room, Stolen is altogether different in voice, setting, and tone.  I cycled through a range of emotions while reading this book.  I felt anger at Ty for what he'd done to Gemma.  I felt the fear that goes along with the horrible sense of isolation of the unpeopled desert.  And I felt utter confusion as I started to understand and even empathize with the villain.  I liked that this book wasn't just written in black and white; it was painted in shades of grey.

It's interesting that, even though the entire novel takes the form of a letter written by Gemma, we're really more familiar with Ty by the end of the book.  While Gemma comes across as a somewhat stereotypical teenager, who does stereotypical stupid teenage things (like drinking in the park with friends and almost getting herself raped), Ty is really the more interesting character.  What little he tells Gemma of his backstory is enough to help us understand what he did, why he did it, and why he thinks his actions were completely logical and justified.  And yet he was more than just a calculating criminal with a hair-trigger temper.  At times he was gentle, sensitive, and caring; those vulnerable moments let the reader see what kind of person he might have been had the events of his own past been different.

And I found that having such a complex, utterly human character as the story's villain really messed with my mind.  I kept having to remind myself (much like Gemma did) of what this man had done, the initial decisions and acts that had set the story in motion.  But I suspect that the back-and-forth of emotions in the reader was actually what the author was going for.

One of the main themes in Stolen is summed up well by Gemma herself when she says:

A part of me understood why you'd done it, too.  And it's hard to hate someone once you understand them.

Had we been left with no real understanding of Ty, it would have been so much easier to hate him.  And while I couldn't quite get to thinking about him as appealing, I did feel awfully sorry for such a messed-up young man.

Stolen wasn't really what I was expecting when I picked it up and started to read; it ended up being better than that.  It's an emotional roller coaster that immerses the reader in a landscape and a relationship that are both difficult to forget.

Plot: 5/5
Characters: 5/5
Pace: 5/5
Writing: 4/5
Editing: 4/5
Originality: 4/5
Enjoyment: 5/5

Overall: 4.57 out of 5