Tag Archives: young-adult

CBR9 #5: Goldenhand by Garth Nix

tl;dr: Stick with the first three books in this series: Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen.  I don’t know what Nix is doing with these later ones, but he’s not doing it super great and it’s a total bummer.

Goldenhand isn’t a waste of time, but it does not hold up to the originals, especially the first two.goldenhand

The Back Story

For five years I was a seventh grade English teacher.  One of the best parts of the job was hearing my students’ book reports and reading their book logs.  I had a built in data-pool and instant access to titles to explore (or avoid) for 180 days a year.

My first year of teaching, one of my students gave a report on Sabriel.  It was a delight to watch because he had that excited frustration that a reader gets when a book is so good and you can’t find the words to explain it so you just want to thrust it at someone and say “Please, just read it!  Trust me!”  I could tell that he loved it and immediately recognized that eagerness to share it with others.  I got a copy soon after and was not disappointed.

Nix created something original using the familiar when he wrote Sabriel.  Almost 500 pages of intense description, world creation and history with strong plot and characters.  And an amazing kick-ass female lead.

When Lirael came out, I thrilled at the brick sized paperback.  Again, almost 500 pages continuing the Abhorsen story line.  Lirael was even a more compelling character than my beloved Sabriel and I was so happy to live in her world.  Nix again took his time to create her story and weave it into Sabriel’s world.  So much mystery, the same familiar magic and more characters who were an absolute delight to read.

He finished up with Abhorsen.  Not quite 400 pages this time and the font and page size was bigger, but still a satisfying read.  Lirael and Sabriel’s stories are added to the history of all the Abhorsens and while I wanted to read more and more and more about them, I was content with what Nix had created for us.

It was massive, it was well written, the female characters were awesome, and whenever anyone asks me for a book recommendation for a niece or cousin or family friend’s kid, this trilogy is always my immediate response.

Perhaps not wanting to leave the Old Kingdom and knowing there were more stories to tell, Nix published Across the Wall, a book of short stories.  I grabbed it and it was a nice companion to the three.

And then he threw Clariel at us.  I was disappointed in a way that only happens when a creator somehow manages to make his original work become less by screwing up with new stuff.  (Looking at you, Star Wars Episodes 1-3.)

Feel free to read my review over on Goodreads.

Ugh, it was such a drag.  I found myself wondering if Nix had even written it himself.  It didn’t follow any of the strengths of the original three and I was sad and confused.  How could someone who created such an amazing trilogy of books somehow lose his mojo when writing the backstory of one of his characters?

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when someone on the Cannonball Read FB group suggested the original three.  There were a bunch of us who had read them and were all “YES!!!” and someone reminded me about Goldenhand.  I had completely forgotten that Nix was working on book five, and even better, it was done and out.  I snagged it from my library and hoped it wasn’t another Clariel.

The Review

We’re in hardcover here, and I immediately knew it did not measure up to the page count of Sabriel and Lirael.  This was my first indication that this was not going to hold up to its sister books.  Those first two books especially were not the kind of YA  to talk down to its readers with large font and large pages.  These were physically solid books that were not fucking around.  You were going to work to read them.  Abhorsen grew in page and font size, and while it lagged behind, it wasn’t trying to scrimp on ink.  Clariel fell into the big font and pages that seem to be the norm of YA.  Yes, I want readers to not feel overwhelmed by a book, but at the same time, I want them to feel accomplished when they’ve finished a book that is massive both in page count and plot.

The story picks up where Abhorsen ends.  I read these a long time ago, but felt like I was brought up to speed fairly quickly.  Nix doesn’t take time to retell everything, but throws in a few sentences here and there to remind us what happened.

Lirael is still a delight.  She’s shy and awkward and doesn’t quite fit in.  Part of her very much wants to disappear back into the library, but she knows she doesn’t belong there.  She is in physical pain from mourning her Disreputable Dog and I felt like I could cry with her.  Dog’s disappearance meant Nicholas was returned to life, and while there is a great deal of solace there, Lirael aches with emptiness.

The confusion she feels over Nicholas was not my favorite part of this book.  On one hand, it makes sense that Lirael is so awkward.  It would be off and wrong if she was suddenly self-assured and commanding.  But she also read like a young teenager sometimes and it took me out of the story.  The same with Nick’s POV when he’s tripping over himself to try and be cool.  There were moments when it was a little cute, but other times it felt clumsy, and not because the characters were clumsy.

Sabriel and Touchstone have been forced into a vacation, leaving the kids to run the kingdom.  Not the best plot point, especially when it’s echoed later with the Clayr, but whatever.  We need to get Lirael and Nick back together.  A message is sent from over the Wall, Lirael investigates, here comes Nick, and off we go.

On the other side of these chapters we have Ferin.  Here’s a character who I enjoyed, but by the end was very concerned at how close to Mary Sue status she came.  There is some serious danger headed down from the North and Ferin is the only one who can warn Lirael and save everyone.

Ferin, like Sabriel and Lirael, is a total badass.  She’s was brought up to be the best of everything and does not have time to deal with the unknown or insignificant.  She moves toward one fixed point, doing whatever she needs to do in order to get there.  There were times where I felt like this should have been a negative trait and more strife should have happened, which is where the Mary Sue comes from.  But I also liked her matter of fact attitude.  She immediately accepts the facts, deals with them, and moves on.  She’s not going to ponder all the what-ifs or dwell on what could be.  She assesses a situation, looks at what she has in the moment and moves.  It’s really fun to watch.  I’m not sure why she didn’t bug me, and this is where Nix’s talent shows.  Ignoring Clariel, he writes great characters.  I wanted Ferin to succeed and watching her interact with Sam and everyone else on the other side of the Greenwash Bridge was a lot of fun.  Sam especially needs to learn to get out of the way because she’s going to take him out when she passes by.

A bunch of stuff happens super fast and the book ends.


The pacing of this book is such a let down because in the first three Nix took his time.  And it wasn’t boring!  He describes the journey.  He lives in Sabriel and Lirael’s heads.  He shows you how they’re changing and you see what they are missing.  He sets up his plot points so he can reveal them later.

Goldenhand though?  Was he told he only had so many pages?  There were only short descriptions of getting from Point A to Point B.  Maybe nothing of importance happened, but it made me miss the original books.  Nix had a lot to say and show and share in them, and it’s not here.

Perhaps it’s unfair to judge a book based on previous works, but isn’t that a sort of compliment to the author?  Nix did an amazing job, so when he isn’t amazing, I hold him to this higher standard.  If this book was the first book, maybe I would have liked it more.

Even the final scene was “Eh.”  There were only a few pages left and I knew there’d be a happy ending so I was almost skimming to get to the part where everything is fixed.  I don’t remember feeling that way in Sabriel and Lirael.  Lirael especially had me stressed out because how were things going to get resolved?

This ending felt rushed and way too short.  Just hang in there, dear reader, everything is going to be A-OK.

I am glad I read this.  I was happy to be back in the Old Kingdom.  It was wonderful to see Lirael and get a tease of what’s coming up from her after this book ends.

I missed Sabriel and Touchstone.  I guess we’re not supposed to care about them anymore because they’re boring grown ups.  I’d like to get another story of everything they’ve been doing since Sabriel ended, but the stories have been turned over to the next generation.  Even Clariel went back to the teenage years.

If you’ve read the Old Kingdom books, you’re going to read this one.

If you haven’t yet, read the first three.  Love them.  Reread them.  Hold them in your heart.

Maybe stop after Abhorsen and be content with two books that feel close to perfect and a third and final that is an acceptable conclusion.


CBR9 #2: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

aristotle-and-danteFew things are as satisfying as starting a book and realizing you’re going to sit there and read it straight through.  It is such a wonderful moment where you know this is your life’s purpose for the next few hours and you can measure your next bit of existing by the number of pages the author has handed to you.  It didn’t take me long to know I’d be with Aristotle and Dante and Sáenz until the last word.

Ari is 15.  He’s bored and miserable.  He can’t figure himself out or anyone else.  He can throw a punch, so everyone leaves him alone, and this makes him happy.  He doesn’t understand how people interact with each other.  What they talk about.  How they’re supposed to feel.  So he hopes things will change but you can tell he doesn’t really even know what that would mean either.

Happily he has a great relationship with his mom.  She worries about him, but there’s lots of love there.  Several times during this book I wondered what Ari’s life would be if he didn’t have her.  His dad?  That one is confusing.  He’s back from Vietnam, but he’s not really back.  He and Ari try, but for Ari, it’s easier to avoid and wonder why his mom fell in love with the guy in the first place.

Ari is waiting for things to change.  For summer to end.  For it not to be so hot.

And then he meets Dante and… Ari doesn’t know what’s happening.  Are things changing?  Is this how you act when you have a friend?

Dante is different from anyone Ari has ever met.  He gets excited about things.  He wants to talk about everything.  He shares his thoughts and ideas and experiences.  He wants Ari to do the same.

Ari doesn’t get it.  He doesn’t want to share.  He’s worried that he doesn’t have anything to share.  Maybe he’s so entirely different that if he did share, Dante would realize there is something wrong with him and decide he didn’t want to hang around.

But that doesn’t happen.  Suddenly Ari is laughing all the time.  He’s reading books he didn’t know about.  He’s thinking more about who he is and why he acts the way he does.  He doesn’t like that part so much.

He wants to know the secrets in his family.  Dante is always asking questions, but Ari stopped asking long ago.

And then he finds out Dante is leaving at the end of the summer.  Ari doesn’t know how he’s supposed to feel.  How to react.  He’s sad and excited for Dante.  Jealous.  Relieved.  He doesn’t know how to be a friend.  He won’t have to answer questions.

And after the accident happens, he won’t have to see Dante cry.

School starts.  There are letters.  Ari wants to go back to who he was, but he didn’t know who he was before Dante and he doesn’t know who he is now.

More time passes.  More confusion.  Anger.  Relief.

And then Dante is back.


Oh, this book.  Ari is a complicated and carefully written character.  The way he questions everything without wanting to think is both confusing and true.  Sáenz has created a strict set of rules for Ari and does not break them.  There’s sadness and sometimes you see hope.  Ari is afraid of hope.  He’s afraid of Dante.  Of not being friends with Dante.  Of not knowing how to be a friend or how to talk to people.  Of being normal.  Of not being normal.

Dante on the other hand?  Pure and open and honest.  Sure, he has a few things he keeps to himself, but other than that?  If he thinks it, he says it.  His questions don’t stay locked up.  He wants to know favorite colors and deepest fears.  Ari is a puzzle.  Ari is a friend and Dante wants Ari to be open and honest.  Dante has the social constructs down for friendship, but Ari is hesitant because he knows some questions aren’t supposed to be asked.

The parents in this book are so awesome.  Mistakes are made, but there is so much love there.  Knowing Ari and Dante had their parents before they had each other is comforting.

Watching Ari navigate and distrust friendship spins perfectly around the secrets in his own family.  How can you be a friend if you don’t know what happened when you were too little to remember?  How can you be open and trusting when your mom shuts down when your brother’s name is mentioned?  Who is your dad and why do you only get to see parts of him?

Everything about this book… struggles of growing up, coming of age, anger, first kisses, school, fights, family, pure confusion and terror of being a teen.  Sáenz is gifted.  He created a world and made me care about everyone.

I’m really curious about what’s in store for Ari and Dante in There Will Be Other Summers.


#2: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

The Orphan Train Movement was a supervised welfare program that transported orphaned and homeless children from crowded Eastern cities of the United States to foster homes located largely in rural areas of the Midwest. The orphan trains operated between 1853 and 1929, relocating about 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children.  Two charitable institutions, the Children’s Aid Society and later, the Catholic New York Foundling Hospital, endeavored to help these children. The two institutions developed a program that placed homeless, orphaned, and abandoned city children, who numbered an estimated 30,000 in New York City alone in the 1850s, in foster homes throughout the country. The children were transported to their new homes on trains that were labeled “orphan trains” or “baby trains”. This relocation of children ended in the 1920s with the beginning of organized foster care in America.

Thanks, Wikipedia!

Orphan Train

Almost-18 year old Molly Ayer doesn’t have the most awesome life.  She’s been bounced around the foster system for years and her latest placement is falling apart.  A stolen book might be the end of everything.  In need of community service to avoid juvie, she finds herself in an attic.

91 year old Vivian Daly has hung on to much of her life, boxing things up and storing them away.  Coaxed into helping a needy kid, and not knowing that this is community service for a stolen book, she lets Molly into her home.  Molly dreads spending time with the old woman, although does like the idea of organizing and purging decades of memories.

As they go through each box and Molly tries to create some sort of system, it’s clear that Vi has no intention of throwing anything away.  Molly slowly gets Vi to talk about her things, and as the two begin to get comfortable with each other, Vi opens up about her past.

The main story in this book is Vi’s life and there is a lot of criticism from readers that Molly wasn’t needed.  Vi’s story is told in flashbacks while she and Molly go through the attic.  Molly gets her own chapters that mirror some of Vi’s experiences, but the book could have worked with just one of the stories.  Like most people, I was more interested in Vi than Molly, although I did like seeing Molly open up and begin to trust Vi.  She also brings in technology and is able to research Vi’s life.  If this was only Vi’s story, the ending would have been much different.

I really enjoyed Vi’s story.  I didn’t know anything about the Orphan Trains and as she stood and waited for a family to choose her, I had a feeling it was going to end badly.  This is not Anne of Green Gables.  Like Molly, her placements don’t work out.  She is rarely safe, and yet when given the chance, she latches on to hope and works to make her own luck.

I especially liked her story from her late teens into adulthood.  A chance meeting changes everything and happiness and contentment fill the pages.  Of course the reader is also cringing and looking for any signs of foreshadowing while at the same time waiting for the next fight in Molly’s life.

I didn’t love the ending, especially because Molly’s story is sort of abandoned in favor of a nice closure for Vi.  Again, if Molly’s character wasn’t there, this book would have had to end in a very different way.

My main complaint with the book is that no matter how awesome Vi is, I had a hard time believing the strength of her mind and body.  I know that there are a lot of kick ass elders out there, but for a 91 year old woman, she had no problems with speech or sight.  I had a hard time with her picking up a laptop for the first time and being able to navigate the internet so quickly.  Yes, a lot of people’s grandmothers are very computer literate, but it seemed silly.

This is a great introduction to the Orphan Trains.  I want to learn more and I’m fascinated with how people have been able to find friends and family members who they were separated from.  Not all of the kids were orphans and not all of them stayed with their siblings.  There are organizations working to document the passengers and later generations are finding families they never knew about.

I liked this one a lot.  It made for a good book group meeting, especially when discussing if Molly was really necessary.

#34: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

I feel like the jerkiest jerk because I haven’t returned this book to the library.  I checked it out in OCTOBER and finished it within two weeks in between other books.  It’s been sitting next to my computer for me to review and there’s a wait list for it.  People have been waiting for me since October to get this done!  I am so sorry.

I love love love Holly Black.  When I read Tithe for the first time, I found a kindred spirit.  I’ve read all of her YA and dug up a lot of her short stories in various anthologies.  I’ve been lucky to see her on a few different panels at different book events.  Even better, she lives a few towns over from me, so sometimes I’ll see her when I’m out.  And then I embarrass myself by trying to tell her how much I like her writing.  Seriously, it’s bad.  I once walked past her in a restaurant and didn’t want to interrupt her, so I planned on tossing out a quick “Thank you for writing” but instead I sang it.  I sang it.  “Thank yooooooooo… for wriiiiiiiiitinggggggg…..”  Think of the scene from Elf where they think Buddy is a sing-o-gram except make it horrific.  I don’t know what happened in my brain.  I then followed up with “I donnnnnn’t knowwwwww… why I am sinnnnnnngingggggg….”  She laughed and thanked me.  I went to the bathroom and realized I was going to have to walk by her table again on the way back to mine.  I’m in my thirties and I had just awkwardly and painfully serenaded a favorite author.  I think I managed to save it on the way back with a casual “I really love your books” as I passed by.  Smooth.

Coldtowns are where the vampires live.  And those who might become vampires.Coldtown  And those who are obsessed and enthralled with vampires and want to serve them in any way.  It’s also where people are sent who are infected and if you can prove you’ve made it through your quarantine without turning, you can leave.  But no one ever seems to leave.

When you’re bit by a vampire, you get cold.  And hungry.  If you go Cold and then drink human blood, you’re done.  You get sicker, then you die, and then you come back to life, or whatever the category is for vampires.  The guideline for quarantine is eight-eight days.  If you can make it that long without taking human blood, you’ll be OK.  The problem is that when you’re craving blood, you will do anything to get it, including trying to kill your own daughter.

When Tana was ten, her mom went Cold.  Terrified of being sent to the nearest Coldtown, she agreed to be locked in the basement until it passed.  Within weeks, the screaming was nonstop.    It took a little over a month for Tana to give in, sneaking the door open to let her mother out.  A moment, and then teeth tearing into her arm.  Her mother wasn’t a vampire yet so couldn’t infect her daughter, but she was going to kill her.  Her father saved her by killing her mother.  Tana is now seventeen with a silver scar.

She wakes up at a party where she’d passed out in a bathtub with the curtain drawn.  A sundown party, where garlic hangs from the windows and holy water is sprinkled over the doorways.  Only something happened.  A window left open and the house is filled with dead friends.  Somehow they missed Tana, but she has to get out before they realize she’s there.  She knows they would have gone to the darkest part of the house to rest, their blood filled bodies waiting for darkness.  Terrified, she creeps to get her car keys and finds her ex-boyfriend alive, gagged and tied to a bed.  Just out of his reach is a young vampire, chained to the furniture.  He’s being tortured, having to look at this living boy but not being able to feed.

Tana starts to untie Aiden and he lunges for her, trying to bite.  Horrified, she realizes he’s been infected.  She’s in a room with someone going Cold and a full vampire sitting and watching.  He seems to be panicking too, straining at the chains around his neck and frantically looking back and forth between her and the door.  Someone is coming.  Someone who will love to drain her life.

Without fully understanding why, Tana saves them both.  Wrapping the vampire in as many blankets as she can find, she shoves him in her trunk.  Trying to figure out a way to keep Aiden from attacking her, she gets him in the car.  As she desperately claws her way out the window, the sun sets, the door is kicked open and she feels the scratch of something on the back of her leg.  Was she bitten?

And that’s the first three chapters.

The rest of the book is Tana trying to figure out what she’s going to do.  She wants to save Aiden but he doesn’t seem to want to be saved.  She’s waiting to see if she’ll turn Cold and turn on him first.  She’s either holding a vampire captive or being held captive by a vampire.  And he’s cute and mesmerizing and dangerous but also seems hesitant to hurt her.  None of this is normal, and she lives surrounded by things that aren’t normal.

Knowing her father won’t help, he’s been drinking nearly nonstop since her mother first went Cold, and terrified she’ll hurt her little sister, Tana decides the best thing she can do is get herself to the nearest Coldtown and wait it out.  Somehow she’ll figure out something to get herself out after her eighty-eight days have passed.  She’ll also somehow drag Aiden along with her, forcing him to wait it out, even though he’s looking at her, waiting for her to slip up so he can feed.  She was in love with him once and he broke her heart.  He knows what to say to her and how to say it and she hates herself for wanting him to be safe.

Then there’s Gavriel.  He seems to simply be waiting.  Why was he being tortured by the pack of vampires in the party house?  It makes sense that they’re coming for Tana and Aiden, but what do they want with one of their own?  And why isn’t Gavriel attacking his human saviors?

Tana just wants to come up with a plan.  Coldtown seems to be the safest bet.  If you turn in a vampire, you’re given a marker.  Get out of jail, free.  She can betray Gavriel, get herself locked in until her Coldness passes, then leave.  She’ll have to figure out something for Aiden once she’s there.  And she might not even be going Cold.  She’s still not sure she’s been bit.

The Coldtowns have become the center of reality TV.  Blogs, live feeds, 24 hour programming… the vampire followers are intense.  Many kids fall in love with the idea of forever.  They change their names and dye their hair.  The set up elaborate websites while they are on the outside, making connections and families on the inside.  When they are ready, they lie and tell the guards they have gone Cold so they can start their real lives inside of Coldtown.  Not surprisingly, not all of them do well.  They are often robbed as soon as they get there.  No one quite knows who to trust.  Some vampires don’t care where or how they feed.  There are plenty of people who will hook up IVs for them to sip from, but if you find a human wandering about…  Other vampires hate themselves and when the sun comes up, they stand in it, begging for an ending to what they’ve become.

It’s a party and anyone can come.  While Tana isn’t the only one who is afraid, she’s the only one in her group who doesn’t want to stay locked up.  Aiden is eager to see what happens next.  Maybe he’ll stay Cold without completely turning.  Maybe he’ll give in to his hunger.  Maybe he’ll kill Tana before they even arrive.

And Gavriel?  He seems to have business behind the locked gates.  Tana still doesn’t know why the other vampires want him, but he has a plan no one needs to know about.

Get him there, get her marker, get out with Aiden.  That’s all she needs to do.

And of course, everything goes to shit.  People die, people disappear, friends betray each other, people get bit.  Tana makes mistakes.  She figures things out too late.  She makes powerful enemies and traps herself.  She tries to get help from people who don’t want to leave and worship the vampires as gods.  She is completely alone, lost in Coldtown without any backup plan.

Well, maybe Gavriel?  But she doesn’t even know where he is.  Or who he is.

This is another solid book from Holly Black.  Her writing is wonderful, her story telling is skilled and she once again captures than unnamed longing that you have when you’re a teenager.  You feel like you own the world while at the same time feeling completely out of control.  You want someone to be in charge while knowing that no one can understand what’s happening.  Things seem so simple but plans become complicated.  You feel like you’re in a huge group of friends while feeling completely alone.  Black has a fantastic ability to pull from this turmoil and create characters who are completely relateable.   Sure, as an adult I can roll my eyes at a seventeen year old falling in love with a vampire.  But my inner seventeen year old is thinking “Yeah.  Go for it.”  And this happens because of Black.  She doesn’t write weak, easy characters.  Tana struggles and makes mistakes and you want her to win, even though you have no clue what winning is going to look like.

I highly recommend Holly Black to any fans of fantasy, urban fantasy and to people who just want to get their hands on smart, well-written YA.  She is extremely talented and she’s also really nice if you sing at her in public.




#26: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews


I have no idea how to write this stupid book.

Can I just be honest with you for one second?  This is the literal truth.  When I first started writing this book, I tried to start it with the sentence “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”  I genuinely thought that I could start this book that way.  I just figured, it’s a classic book-starting sentence.  But then I couldn’t even figure out how you were supposed to follow that up.  I started at the computer for an hour and it was all I could do not to have a colossal freak-out.  In desperation I tried messing with the punctuation and italicization like:

It was the best of times?  And it was the worst of times?!!

What the hell does that even mean?  Why would you even think to do that?  You wouldn’t, unless you had a fungus eating your brain, which I guess I probably have.

Me Earl and the Dying GirlThis is how long it took me to realize I was going to have to force myself not to stay up all night and read this book in one go.  I mean, come on.  This voice?  I didn’t even know who Greg was, but I was in.  Honestly, I was probably in at “I have no idea how to write this stupid book.”  So many questions!  Why is he writing it then?  Is he being forced to?  What happened that was so important or awesome or scary or whatever that he decided to sit down in front of a computer and force himself to think of words while at the same time acknowledging that he might have a brain fungus?

And then I got to page 2.

I do actually want to say one other thing before we get started with this horrifyingly inane book.  You may have already figured out that it’s about  girl who had cancer.  So there’s a chance you’re thinking “Awesome!  This is going to be a wise and insightful story about love and death and growing up.  It’s probably going to make me cry literally the entire time.  I am so fired up right now.”  If that is an accurate representation of your thoughts, you should probably try to smush this book into a garbage disposal and then run away.  Because here’s the thing: I learned absolutely nothing from Rachel’s leukemia.  In fact, I probably became stupider about life because of the whole thing.

Again, I don’t know who Greg is, but I’m in.

Turns out Greg is a high school senior who has perfected the art of invisibility.  He realized early on in his educational journey that he had nothing to offer the social structure of school and rather than get the snot knocked out of him on a daily basis, he became a master of blending in and disappearing.  It’s quite brilliant.  He maintains a friendly and neutral relationship with all groups at school.  No one is really sure where he belongs, figures he’s accepted by all, so they pretty much ignore him.  He’ll pop in to laugh at a joke and then fade away.  If no group can fully claim you, then no group can ostracize and destroy you.

He’s got one friend, but they don’t interact with each other at school.  Greg thinks of him more as a co-worker.  They met in kindergarten and bonded over video games.  This then led to an understanding of movies that no one their age understood or even wanted to understand.  When you’re in elementary school, subtitles aren’t interesting.  Greg and Earl realize they can make movies, and they go crazy.  They then quickly realize that when they do make a movie, they must never, ever show it to anyone.  Greg’s parents will ooh and ahh and tell them how proud they are even though it’s clear to everyone that what they just watched was a waste of time for everyone on the planet.  No, the movies are just for Greg and Earl and the making is more important than the watching.

Greg’s life is going just the way he wants, until Rachel gets cancer.  But don’t worry, he doesn’t learn anything from it.

One of the things I really liked about this book was the way Greg tells it.  We know right away that he’s writing this after everything has happened.  We know Rachel dies.  We know that something happens during this that has made him sit down to write the book.  He tells the story in a way that makes sense for him – sometimes it’s linear, sometimes not so much.  He’s a filmmaker, so sometimes we get scripts.

For the entire book we get the confusion that is the high school boy brain.  Even worse, he knows how stupid he is, but he can’t stop himself.  His inner monologue is brilliant.  As he finds himself going off on a tangent of being sexually attracted to pillows he sort of sits back, horrified at what is happening while at the same time being fascinated at the effect of it on Rachel.  Might as well get even more and more disgusting about masterbation if it’s making a dying girl laugh, right?

Clearly what I loved the most about this book is Greg’s voice.  Andrews created a character who is fully developed from the first page.  Yeah, we don’t know who he is or what he’s about, but we know this is a character that could exist off the page.

He continues to tell his story and watching everything unfold, you start to get more and more uncomfortable.  You know Rachel dies.  Greg tells us on page two!  And yet you want it to be different.  You also get to see Greg making amazingly bad decisions and you want to grab him and, if not shake him, at least turn him around and shove him down the hallway so he can think about what he’s going to do before doing it.  There are a lot of cringe inducing moments in these pages.

I also wanted everything to work out for Earl, but I knew it wasn’t going to happen.  Earl got dealt a bad hand.  His homelife sucks and statistically you know he’s not going to have a super great ending.  Still, you want him to have that moment of discovery, but don’t forget… Greg told you that this isn’t a story of love and redemption and learning and growing.

This book made me laugh out loud more than once, which is always awesome.  There were parts that reminded me of my own stupid high school moments, which aren’t awesome, but it is awesome when an author can capture reality.  I liked Greg and I wanted him to come out on top.  Getting to the end of the book, I felt so bad for him and wondered what this one year of school had done to him and if he would be able to recover.  The start of the book isn’t coming from a place of “I am awesome and let me tell you how I got to this amazing life.”  I wasn’t sure where he even was when writing.  Is he in jail?  A psych ward?  In some random hotel room in the middle of no where?  What happened?

I really needed him to be OK.

This is one of my favorite books I’ve read so far this year.  I could have easily read the whole thing in one sitting because of how Andrews wrote it.  I loved the structure and Greg’s voice.  The setup of the chapters is fantastic with lists and reviews, as well as screenplays coming in.  It’s original and it works.

#23: Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

Vera DietzWatching your best friend make new friends and leave you behind is a special kind of heartbreak.  It still stings a bit as an adult because the two of you spent so much time together and were into the same things, and then they chose a path that you didn’t get to follow.  Maybe you tried to follow because the person was that important to you, or maybe they shoved you away and made it clear that you were no longer part of their life.  Maybe you realized that you didn’t want to have anything to do with these new people and walked away on your own.  Or maybe it was a little bit of everything.

No matter what, it hurts like hell.

Seems like the pain of your first lovesick broken heart isn’t quite as bad as losing your best friend.  Love is supposed to break your heart, according to all those songs, so maybe you expect it.  But a best friend?  Someone you’ve been with since you were little kids?  You don’t get to mourn publicly for that.  If your boyfriend breaks up with you and you start wailing in the middle of the lunchroom, people understand.  If your best friend takes up with other kids and you cry in the bathroom…  yikes.

So what happens when both happen to you at the same time?

Vera and Charlie grew up near each other and have been best friends since forever.  He knows her family secrets and she knows his.  They’re normal little kids – kicking around in the woods and climbing trees.

Suddenly they aren’t little kids any more and Vera realizes she’s in love with Charlie.  Charlie realizes he’s in love with Vera.

And everything goes to shit.

The book starts near the end.  Charlie is dead.  Vera is furious and hurt and silent about everything that’s happened.  How do you accept that your friend is dead when he was dead to you for months before everything happened?  How do you process that your heart was broken when you never got the chance to give it away?

Charlie is dead, Vera is being haunted, her father is making flowcharts and the town pagoda sits and watches kids fly paper airplanes from its roof.

Vera jumps around and lets the story slowly unfold.  It’s the type of book that’s even better on a second read because you know the whole story and can find where everything fits together.  The timeline is there and you see things you missed the first time.

Vera’s heartbreak sucked.  Charlie was there, was in love, and then he wasn’t.  He wasn’t dead, not yet, but he was gone from her life.  Even worse, he shit on her before he left.  And I mean that just about literally.  Bad enough to get spit on by a friend, but to have shit thrown at you?  My middle and high school self ached.

But now he’s gone and Vera knows the truth, but she’s not even sure she cares.  He broke her heart and then took away his friendship.

Why does it matter that there was a fire?

Why does it matter that everyone thinks he did it?

Why is it so important that it has made Charlie come back to haunt her?

She’s the only one who has known and loved him for just about his whole life.  Best friend love to girlfriend love.  She watched him change and leave her.  And now she’s the only one who can tell everyone the truth.

But why bother feeling all that pain again if no one cares?  Charlie is dead and she never has to talk about him again.  He left her before he died, so why bring it all back?

Can’t everyone just ignore her?


King’s structure is fantastic and the characters are really polished.  Vera’s dad’s chapters are wonderful and I like how he has his own voice.  This wasn’t Vera’s version of what she thinks her dad would say.  He’s fully developed, even though he only gets to talk for a few small parts of the book.

I also like how she lets Vera have a life in the present time while reliving everything that she and Charlie were.  Vera is alive and wants to be loved and is interested in boys.  In a boy.  An older boy.  A young man.  He’s not Charlie, but he’s there and he’s kind to her and she really likes him.  But Charlie is also there, and it sucks.  Will he continue to screw her over from the grave?

If you lived through the pain of a best friend turning on you, this book will make you hurt.  If you are one of the lucky bastards that had it happen with your first love, you and Vera will have lots to talk about.  This is a solid YA book with a strong female voice.  King does an amazing job capturing that special brand of hell that happens from middle school to high school.  Vera is 18 when she’s telling this story, but all the confusion is there at all those crazy age levels.

Bonus Review! Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge, Illustrated by Andrea Dezso

lies knives girls in red dressesThis one is too short to count toward my CBR goal but I didn’t want to leave it off my review list because I really enjoyed it.

Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses is (are you ready?)  a collection of retold and re-imagined fairy tales.

I love this genre.  I don’t know if it’s possible to have a favorite of any type of book when you love books so much, but fairy tales and folklore are way up on the list, and when they turn into retold tales and urban fantasy, my knees get weak.

There are twenty two stories here, including Rapunzel, the Twelve Dancing Princesses, Hansel and Gretel, the Ugly Duckling, Rumpelstiltskin, Red Riding Hood, and the Princess with that damned pea.

The tales are told as short poems without much introduction.  We know who Cinderella is, so when we hear the aftermath from the stepsisters’ point of view, we don’t need to hear all that crap about the ball again.

To make these stories all the more sweet is the amazing mix between Once Upon and Time and Modern Time.

Cinderella’s stepsisters have surgery instead of their mother hacking off their toes.

Rapunzel’s mother talks about her three times a week therapy appointments.  The prince meets other princes in rehab while he waits for his eyes to heal.

The Little Match Girl is selling her CDs on the corner.  The cops find her dead, but what are you going to do?

A soldier makes a pact with the devil where he’ll wear the bearskin for seven years so his PTSD will stop.

The Beast is a bit bored now.  The weather is perfect, he’s a man again, but sometimes he really misses those fangs.

Hansel and Gretel?  Oh, they are pissed.  So very pissed.

Death makes his godson an amazing football player, poised to win the Heisman.  Things don’t go so well.

If you spit jewels when you speak and your sister spews toads, how on earth to you expect to keep a husband?

When you’re the only one speaking the truth about the Emperor’s New Clothes, how long can you hold out?

The miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin?  Life is so boring after you’ve won a dangerous game.  Surely there’s got to be something much more dangerous out there in the woods.

Little Red Riding Hood is trying to tell the story to her mom, but god, stop interrupting me!  The whole thing was, like, gross?  But whatever.  I let him.  And then some dude shows up with scissors and it’s wicked gay, but whatever, I’m hungry and you need to get off my back, OK?

I love it.

The illustrations are amazing.  Koertge wrote some beautiful lines, but without Dezso’s art, this book wouldn’t have been as good.  The art is all black on white in  woodcut style.  The lines are sharp and deep.  Shadows and movement surround the cuts and you can almost see the red of the blood as it drips down someone’s chin.

Even better?  Dezso is an art professor at Amherst College, so I bet I could go see her work in person somewhere.  http://andreadezso.com/

Hole.  Lee.  Shit.  She did embroidery of things her mother said to her as a child.  Transylvanian moms are AMAZING!

I need to stop looking at her page or I’m going to stay up for another hour and I should really go to bed.

In conclusion:

If you like folklore, fairy tales and slightly fucked up shit, get this book.  It’s much tamer than the monkey sex in Robert Coover’s Briar Rose but not purified like Disney.


#12: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

SeraphinaI was in love with this book a few sentences in.  By the end of the five page prologue I realized I was going to stay up all night reading it cover to cover, but it was a work night, so I forced myself to stop before 2:00am.  I was not happy about this.

Seraphina lives in the kingdom of Goredd.  There has been an uneasy truce between the humans and dragonkind for four decades.  The humans distrust the dragons living in Goredd, even though they remain in their human shape all year, except for the anniversary of treaty day.  Although time has passed, many in the kingdom still hate the dragons and wish to return to war so they may completely wipe them from existence.  A few hours into their cups and they seem to forget that the dragons are bigger and more dangerous than any one man.

The dragons are distant and logical, and humans confuse them.  They’re sort of a mixture of Spock and Aspies.  (I am aware that people will fight to the death defending the point that Spock is/is not an Aspie.)  Because they live so long, they see humans as quick flickers and don’t bother to learn things like emotion, body language, or even the correct pronouns.  Why refer to a baby as “she” when “it” works just as well?  Their world is pure logic and reason, and when they spend too much time with humans, they return to their Board of Censors where their minds are erased and all ideas of emotion are taken away.  Anything that can be considered self-pleasure, such as music or love, is pointless and makes a dragon weak.  It makes them humanlike, which is abhorrent.

When in human form, they must wear bells to distinguish themselves from the humans, although their manner would quickly show the truth.  Many wear their bells proudly, although a few try to keep a low profile so as not to attract the attention of the Sons of St. Ogdo, the group craving to rid the world of dragons, preferably in the most violent manner they can think of.  A few are allowed to remove their bells and study and teach without having to deal with Goredd’s human interference.

It is quickly revealed that Seraphina is part of both worlds.  No spoilers here; we know very early on that she is half human/half dragon.  This is an abomination on both sides and her father is furious and heartbroken that the woman he loved lied to him.  He didn’t know she was a dragon until she died in childbirth, silver blood pooling around her.

He creates a world of lies for the girl, possibly more to keep himself safe than her.  Perhaps if she was never born, he never would have know what his wife was.

Seraphina’s two sides are almost constantly at war.  Her mother implanted memories in her and if Seraphina is not careful she collapses to the ground, overwhelmed with her mother’s visions.  Her dragon uncle, one of the dragons allowed to teach in secret, has taught her to control her dragon mind and hide her identity to keep herself safe.  She must take time each day to calm her dragon side in order to maintain her secret.

And of course she almost blows her cover in the first chapter.

Her whole life she’s tired to remain invisible, but when she is forced to play at the Prince’s funeral, she’s suddenly known to all.

The Prince’s funeral threatens to destroy the treaty between Goredd and the dragons.  His death is suspicious and points to dragonkind.  They have sworn off eating humans, but perhaps their taste for blood has returned.

Seraphina finds herself on both sides, desperate to keep her true self hidden while saving both kingdoms and the treaty.

She quickly makes friends with members of the royal family as well as discovering that there are more like her.  These other abominations have also crafted secret lives for themselves and are horrified that there are others which makes their secret that much easier to reveal.  If  you’re the only one, you’re safe.  However, a part of them is relieved that they aren’t alone.

There’s lots of twists and turns and forbidden love and heartache and loneliness as Seraphina is forced to confront who she is and what it means.  How does she keep her friends and family safe and will she be forced to choose a side?  If her true nature is discovered, she’s not safe with the humans or dragons and if she is somehow not killed, there is nowhere for her to go that will be safe.

Family secrets are revealed and her own mind and memories begin spilling out  and she’s caught up in so many undragonlike and intense human emotions that it seems impossible that she won’t be found out by either side.  The constant hiding, lying, and redirections are exhausting and I kept expecting her to slip up or simply give in so she didn’t have to struggle anymore.

Hartman follows traditional fantasy paths and I liked it.  Seraphina is a fairly strong YA character, even though at times she does fall a little bit into the plot device of a lost young woman desperate for friends but forced to hide a terrible secret.  There’s also a teeny bit of Mary Sue lurking about when she quickly makes powerful friends who either willingly overlook her oddness or are completely blind to the signs.  I’m willing to forgive this because I liked all of the characters so much.  Sometimes it’s OK to use a pattern if you make it enjoyable.

I’m very pleased that this is Book One and I hope the follow ups get better and better as Hartman reveals more of the story and her writing gets stronger.

If you liked The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater or Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Realm series, then try this.  Seraphina isn’t as strong as the female leads in the others, but she’s a good companion.

#48: Switch by Carol Snow

Quick and easy premise:

Fifteen year old Claire is a girl with normal and fairly easy teenage problems.  Nate, the love of her life, sees her as a bro.  Her body, while strong from swimming, isn’t going to turn any heads.  She’s average.  Well, she would be if it wasn’t for two things: she hangs out with her dead grandmother and she sometimes switches bodies with other girls.

OK, so everything is normal and quiet about her except for that whole switching bodies.  Turns out that electricity does something to her and she wakes up as someone else.  The first time it happened was quick and weird and the result of a science experiment at school.  She tried to put it out of her mind.  But the second time she woke up in a strange body she freaked the fuck out.  Wouldn’t you?  It’s the middle of the night, there’s a crazy thunderstorm, you wonder how you got into someone else’s room and then you catch sight of yourself in the mirror and HOLY SHIT THAT ISN’T YOU!!!

Luckily she falls asleep, wakes up in her own body, and her grandmother is all “Uhm, yeah.  That’s a thing you can do now.”

So she does it.  Grandmother Evelyn hangs out and when electricity shoots Claire into someone else, Evelyn slips into her body and holds it for her until she falls asleep and returns.  The other girl sort of hangs out, neither dead or alive, asleep or awake.  As soon as Claire falls asleep, Evelyn moves out of her body, Claire moves back in, and hover girl returns to her own body.

When the book starts, this whole thing is commonplace to Claire.  There’s been a few uncomfortable nights, but for the most part she waits for a thunderstorm to roll in, closes her eyes, wakes up in a new body, goes back to sleep and wakes up back at home.  Easy, breezy, lemon squeezy.

But then…

When Evelyn is hanging out somewhere else in the house, Claire gives herself one hell of an electrical shock.  Not expecting to be shot into a new body, she sits up in bed and tries to figure out why this happened.  Shrugging, she figures she’ll go back to sleep to reset the whole deal, but she is curious to find out whose body she’s in.

She looks into the mirror and falls in love.

She’s beautiful.  More than beautiful.  She’s perfect.  The kind of girl who looks amazing no matter what she wears.  The kind of girl who makes boys fall over themselves just to get a glimpse of her.  The kind of girl who can roll out of bed and be stunning.

The girl that Nate has been trying to meet.

Larissa.   Even her name sounds luscious.  Gorgeous Larissa, visiting the beach town where Claire lives year round.  Hating the beach town.  Scornful of the boys who think they are worthy enough to even speak to her.

Things get fun for a bit.  Claire, ever unhappy with her swimmer’s body, pulls out just about every article of clothing from Larissa’s closet and has a one woman fashion show.  It’s like playing dress up Barbie, except it’s her body now and she gets to admire it.  Well… it’s not permanently her body, but since she’s borrowing it, she’s going to squeeze as much fun out of it as she can.

But too soon she realizes that she needs to go to sleep so she can go home and give Larissa her body back.

And then she wakes up and she’s still Larissa.

Oh.  Shit.

For the rest of the book, Claire has to figure out why she’s still Larissa, how to get her body back, how to keep people from finding out, and what to do about her grandmother.

Also?  She’s totally going to make out with Nate.  Hard.

This isn’t too challenging of a book and I liked how much fun Claire had in Larissa’s body.  At times she did feel a bit guilty for taking advantage of this body, but on the other hand… just look at this body.

I was a but surprised that she didn’t feel guilty or conflicted about her “relationship” with Nate.  At some point Larissa was going to get her body back and have no memory of Nate.  It’s pretty convenient that she’ll be leaving town as soon as this happens.  Claire creates a fake email account so that Nate can stay in touch with her.  Larissa.  Claire.  Claire/Larissa.

It’s kinda skeezy.

Getting back to the non-challenging parts of the book:

  1. There is a piece of foreshadowing that foreshadows so hard that the only way it could foreshadow more is if there was a bright red arrow pointing at it that said “FORESHADOW!!!”
  2. The set up of who Claire can switch with is a total cop-out.  Snow didn’t want to write a book where Claire could switch into older and younger people, and definitely not boys, so she comes up with a pretty bullshit set of rules that dictates what happens.  I get why she did it, but I rolled my eyes when I read it.
  3. There is very little fallout in this book.  Everything ends well and life goes on.  This goes back to my skeezy feeling about her and Nate.  She knows he’s out of her league, so she’s happy that she got to make out with him as someone else and now she’s probably going to cybersex him all the time with Larissa’s fake email.  Dude.

One thing that really pleased me about this book is that it was nothing like Wake by Lisa McMann.  It’s a sort of similar premise and I was worried that this was also going to be shit writing and easy answers.  Happily, the writing was good, there were some challenges in the plot, but it wasn’t anything that was going to keep you up at night.  Well, unless you’re paranoid that someone is going to take over your body during a thunderstorm.



#46: A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

I’m coming right out with it:

There’s a cat in this book and it dies.

I knew it was going to die from the moment it appeared, but FFS!  Can we get some books where stuff happens that doesn’t involve the death of a beloved pet?

Our protagonist in A Mang0-Shaped Space is Mia Winchell.  She’s been keeping a secret from everyone since she was eight years old and learned it had to be kept a secret.  She has synesthesia, only she’s never heard that term before and doesn’t know it’s a thing.  All her life she’s seen letters and words as colors and textures.  Intense sounds explode into colors in her head.  When she realized that other people don’t see the same things, she learned to pretend and hide it from everyone.

But she’s thirteen now and school is finally falling apart.  She can’t make the numbers be something different in math and she can’t make words match up to the wrong colors in Spanish.  After another F in math, she decides it’s time to tell her parents.

After a trip to the pediatrician and a disastrous visit with a cruel psychotherapist, Mia is sent to a neurologist to see if she has a brain tumor.  Lucky for her, the nearby neurologist is studying synesthesia and is able to tell Mia and her parents that while it isn’t a normal thing, it’s not going to kill her and it’s not something that needs to be cured.

Mia then explores her brain to see what else it can do.  She learns from others who have synesthesia and experiments with different stimuli to increase the sensations and intensify her reactions.

While she does this, it looks like she’s going to lose her best friend, have her first romance, continue to fail at school, and help a five year old boy.

I didn’t love it.

When the book started I was really into it.  You see Mia panicking and holding everyone at a distance.  She’s mourning the death of her grandfather and coming to terms with starting a new year in school.  She knows she’s not normal and wishes that she could just be liked everyone else.  It’s painful.  No one needs extra pain on top of the run of the mill teenage angst.  She has no one to talk to.

I thought that it was going to take a while for her to get caught or willingly reveal her secret, but it happens fairly quickly.   And then she takes off on a mad path to see what else she can do and how much she could control.

Here’s where things got weird for me.  On the one hand, I totally understood her celebration.  For the first time in her life she has a name for what she has… for what she IS.  She doesn’t have to hide it and she has an online connection to other people who have the same thing.  It makes sense that she’s eager to explore and share and learn.

But for some reason it fell apart for me here.  I didn’t feel like it fit her personality to shut everyone else out so completely even though she had kept them away from her secret for so long.  I wish there had been more exploration for this giant shift in personality.  I know that it makes sense, but at the same time I wish Mass had shown it more.

Mia’s friendship issues worked well.  A lot changes for girls in the eighth grade.  Boobs start appearing.  Priorities change.  Boys become interesting.  Schoolwork become challenging in different ways.  There are plenty of books that just explore these issues.  Throw synesthesia in and you’ve got an entirely new path to explore these problems with.  Along with her best friend, Mia has other girl friends to share with and push away.  For the most part, I liked these scenes.

I did feel like some of the the conflicts got too easy.  Mia has a huge falling out with her best friend.  There are a few moments where the friend explains why she’s so hurt and it makes sense.  We see their relationships before Mia tells people her secret and to have it change so drastically so quickly didn’t work for me.

Her first romance, on the other hand, did work for me.  It was awkward and unexpected and it felt very realistic.

And then, of course, her cat dies and things change.

Why do the pets always have to die?

I think this is a great book to learn about synesthesia.  I liked the characters and the story, but overall it wasn’t a huge win for me.  It did make me wonder about my own math games.  Growing up, I assigned personalities to the numbers one – ten to help myself get work done, especially when it came to multiplication.  I always figured I had an overactive imagination.  Was that a mild form of synesthesia or did I just like to make up stories?

In case you’re wondering, eight is a fucking bully.  I hated that guy.