This year, my year-end wrap up post won't be so acknowledgements like. It's annoying and you probably hate reading it. I also admittedly have little patience at the moment, and don't want to subject myself to that stuff.
2011 was like any other year. Good, bad, and random. I turned 17, became more cynical when it came to romance (outside the book world, anyway), and read a lot. 2012 promises to be a year of intensive stress with AP exams, college prep, and SAT tests.
The book part of my year went rather well - all things considered - and I'm working to try and read 250 by the end of today. I'm quite close, and I made a Best of 2011 list at Dear Author to showcase what books I've read this year that I've loved above all else (note that said list meant everything I read prior to December 20th, as I've since read one book that I would probably have included on that list.) This year has been good. I've become a more thoughtful blogger, and I've been thinking a lot about what goes into books as a whole.
My goals for next year will involve reading a lot, but not as many as this year. I'll be much busier and will be attempting to actually write, and an hour of writing a day is an hour of not reading. College will also take up a lot of time. That's the way things go, but the de-stress of reading will greatly be missed. My goals also include personal ones that I really need to spend the day preparing myself for: losing weight (I say this every year, so this should be interesting), being more organized with blogging, and writing. A lot of writing. I just started a story idea that I love, and I really want to see it through because I think it's something special and is just me.
Blog-wise, I'm hoping to prepare for some serious changes that need to happen in the next two months. I would like a new lay-out, but I can't pay for one, so if I do get one it will most likely be using the basic Blogger options. I love my current one, but it was a free grab from the internet and I would like something that is easier to read and look through for readers. I also am hoping to implement ads, because the extra income would be able to pay for contests and hopefully book/college things. I also feel like my recent enjoyment of indie YA will make the ads more of a fun thing to have, because it's a way people can get there book on my blog without me having to read and pro/con it. It's not an endorsement, but it's a way to at least give people a chance to see some new stuff - and I admit that being a broke teen getting ready for college is not a fun prospect.
I also have goals that involve my friend Maggie and a certain freelance editing thing we want to try, but that will most likely be happening close to summertime if we can get that going on.
This year's really just been confusing for me. I'm in a transitional space, and I'm trying to organize myself and make better use of my time to prepare for my last year of high school (this fall I'll be a senior - how is that even possible, I ask you?) and the break into college. There's a load of worry, insecurity, and just...questioning. I'm glad that my blog has been here for so long, and I can't tell everyone how much I appreciate them. Authors, other bloggers, readers, publishers, teachers and friends...my life has been so enriched by the experiences, and I can't even begin to comprehend it.
Oh, and I do want to say that with 2012 will come IMM and Rainbow Thursday again. I need to get some non-review stuff on the blog again, and I've been reading some fabulous LGBTQ books that deserve attention, interviews, and praise. There are probably other things, but I can't begin to remember them.
I also have plans for world domination. Or at least world domination by way of actually improving my life. I'll probably just angst over things with my kindred spirit bestie, Emma, and complain a lot. Same thing.
If you have any opinions on my plans for the year, or want to share your own, just make a comment, I guess. Here's to a fine 2012 where some wonderful things happen amid the horrible ones. The wonderful things are the ones we'll remember anyway.
Happy New Year (and all of that)
This year, my year-end wrap up post won't be so acknowledgements like. It's annoying and you probably hate reading it. I also admittedly have little patience at the moment, and don't want to subject myself to that stuff.
Title: Cold Kiss
Author: Amy Garvey
Publisher: Harper Teen
Other Reviews for This Author: None
As much as I enjoy books with lovely covers, I rarely if ever believe that the cover is a direct indication of the book. There's still a lingering cover prejudice. Cold Kiss has that. It's a cover that's very pretty, but suggests that it offers a lot of what's already on the bestseller lists - which I have nothing against, because I read a lot of those books and enjoy them. However, it led me to lower my expectations in case it turned the wrong way with the storyline. Cold Kiss is deceiving. The concept and the blurbs - both back and authorial - suggest something that is written to hit home commercially. Teenage angst! Starcrossed romance! The thing is, dear readers, it is so much more than that. This book doesn't focus on the romance, but the darker parts of grief and consequence - and may have been one of the most surprising debuts I read this year.
The love between Wren and her boyfriend, Danny, was strong. Wren embraced her feelings for her boyfriend and understood that they were strong - that she cared for him deeply and truly in that way that so many teenagers do with first true love. Losing him devastated her. It broke her apart. She couldn't face the world without her love. Danny dying was the ultimate loss for Wren, and she couldn't bare to be apart from him. It wasn't his time, she thought. He didn't need to die so soon. In all of her grief, Wren decided to use her untapped power to do what she thought was right and give Danny a second chance at life.
It didn't take long for Wren to regret her decision. Danny got back his life - but not the way that Wren planned. Danny's life never fully returned to him. He became a zombie. There are parts of him that seem normal - the parts that light up when Wren is around him. For a while, Wren was satisfied. It felt like her boyfriend had returned for good and wouldn't leave her in death. Wren didn't fully understand the extent of what becoming a zombie meant for Danny, though. She didn't understand his inherent neediness and the way his mind was pliable and emptier than what it used to be.
She didn't understand many things, and now Wren has to consider what she's done to Danny - and what he's actually become. The boy that Danny was never quite returned like his body did, and what's left of him seems to be deteriorating at a faster and faster pace. Wren's feelings have also changed, and her love for Danny has slowly faded. She still cares about the boy she knew and fell in love with, but it's not the same when his emotions are as cold and purposeless as his reanimated body. Because of her meddling, Wren has discovered that her powers are not a cure all. She has to learn to accept her grief for Danny and the consequences of her misguided actions. Cold Kiss is a love story about grief, self-discovery, and how people can change.
Wren makes some bad choices that will give readers the wrong impression of her early on, and I've no doubt that it was intended by the author to seem that way. The story of a girl zombifying her dead boyfriend sounds equal parts romantic and selfish, and in the beginning we see it as something of a vague romance. Wren's feelings are projected as strong enough to want to have Danny back, but also conflicted about the resulting issues that she's caused. Garvey starts her story a time after Wren's brought Danny back, and I think that makes all the difference in development with Wren's character. Garvey starts off by showing her protagonist as being slowly eaten alive by the morality and complications of her rash decisions. Wren has a part of her that knows the reality of her situation. She also has a part that clings to the idea that she can make her decision correct. However, Garvey seeks to show how the initial blindness caused by grief can disappear. Wren's grief completely ruins her for making common sense decisions, but she's by no means an irrational character. Garvey proves throughout this book that she can take a protagonist and show her through consequence. Wren sees how her decision is unraveling and really grows as a character with her attempts at fixing what she's done. Wren ultimately does things herself, and the way that she tackles her situation emotionally really speaks to how Garvey expertly wrote her character arc.
Other characters are surprisingly quite minor in this story. They do exist, but a lot of the attention is more so on Wren's emotional growth than her relationships with other characters. The greatest relationship development is actually between Wren and her family. Wren's mother is depicted as a woman who's secretive about the supernatural powers that the women in the family seem to get. She and Wren have a very untrusting relationship as a result of her lack of vocalization. Cold Kiss shows the two characters coming together and learning to have a more open communication that is quite relative to a teen's parental relationship, especially when you take out the paranormal aspect of the distrust. I always love it when an author takes their story themes further like this in the narrative, and Garvey does it well. There's also the appearance of a love interest. Gabriel is an interesting romantic choice in that he's a strong and sexy male character, but Garvey chooses not to focus on his romance with Wren. It's important and progresses nicely throughout the story arc, but it's not overpowering compared to Wren's struggles with Danny and her own power limitations. Danny himself is a character that doesn't have much room to develop - he's more so an object due to his limited range of emotions and usage as something to further Wren's plotline.
Writing-wise, I think Garvey does a beautiful job. She picks a subject that could so easily come off as trite and stupid and makes it glow. Her magic is understated and intelligently formed, and I loved that she included an author's note about why she chose a specific type of zombie mythology to work with. THAT is what I want to see more in paranormal books. Like in romance novels, that little letter from the author explaining influences and ideas can drastically alter how you perceive the novel. It showed me that she really cared about why she did certain things, and it also made perfect sense to me as a reader because of the way that her world building was set up. The writing itself is done in first person present tense, but it flows very well and has a lovely sense of wording about it. It's not poetic, per se, but the writing very much reflects the emotional weight and complication that Garvey tries to bring across in Wren's story. Everything flowed and felt like it took the appropriate amount of time to occur, and I didn't ever once feel bored. There also wasn't a lot that I felt was extraneous, and I've noticed a tendency more and more towards extraneous domestic detailing (like waking up, putting on make-up) to fluff up paranormal books, so I appreciated that Garvey's writing felt powerful and fast without involving anything that was purposeless beyond description of daily life. The pacing may seem slow by conventional PNR standards, but the difference here is that there is no useless set up. Garvey wisely uses her words to make every character and situation rich and emotional, and that makes all of the difference.
There's nothing quite like a surprise book, and Cold Kiss was that for me. Everything about it makes me think about how much better it was than I expected. For a debut, it's very strong. There are little spots where I would have liked to see a bit more push, but Garvey hits a lot of things very well. Her characters are strong and complex, and her writing is polished and light. There's something about her writing that just screams quality, and I hope that she continues to expand her work in YA - and that she continues the trend of single-title YA paranormals. This was one of my favorites this year and it was a single title to boot. That tells me just how well Garvey can build a world and write a story.
Cover: As stated, I find it pretty but common. The lettering is nice. I would pick it up from the shelves but the impression feels a little too same-old for the kind of story it brings to the table.
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Heather and Harper Collins!)
Title: The Reckoning
Author: Kelley Armstrong
Series: The Darkest Powers #3
Other Reviews for This Author: The Awakening
I want to take a moment and say - YES. I have finally finished a trilogy (even though it's really only going to be finished by the trilogy following it), which is so rare for me considering how many series I start for review. Kelley Armstrong's Darkest Powers series caught me before book blogging period, and I have a special fondness for it because of it. Despite some issues with the way her writing works in this series, I find it addictive and well-thought out. It's the kind of writing that manages to get you reading several hundreds of pages without stopping. The Reckoning is a book that will ultimately please fans of the series, but will not provide the closure that is expected from the third book in a trilogy.
*Note: This review has pretty much will have spoilers for the first two books, so if you don't like...read the summary paragraph at the end.*
Chloe Saunders has a life that is anything but normal, and in the past few weeks it has gone from mildly abnormal to flat-out messed up. She's discovered that she's a necromancer (someone who can raise the dead), and that the home she was sent to for emotional recovery was more than just a place for her to rest. She discovered an entire supernatural world right under nose, with werewolves, warlocks, phantoms, and more. The process of uncovering that also led to the uncovering of other things. With the excitement and macabre of discovering her powers, Chloe discovered the makings of a plot that involved her and the other supernatural teens at the boarding house.
Soon after that, Chloe went on the run. She gained the assistance (and heart) of the silent and cranky Derek, who could become a werewolf. She also gained the friendship of Derek's foster brother Simon (okay, maybe something a bit stronger than friendship...), a warlock, and a frenemy-ship with Tori, who matched Simon's own gift with spell casting as a witch. The group of teens found themselves being chased by a scary organization with frightening ties to their past and their supernatural abilities. Rogue werewolves, accidental summonings of zombies, and betrayals of the family and friend variety led the teens into darker places than they ever imagined.
Now, Chloe has to deal with the aftermath of their discoveries...and what they have yet to find out. Chloe and her friends are running for their lives, and they have no idea where to turn to. If they get caught, they'll be slaughtered by the very corporation that helped usher them into the world. No one can be trusted. Anyone that seems like a helpful supernatural could very well be a double agent - or working for another section of the supernatural world entirely. The hostility and fear found in the supernatural races could very well destroy them before the group does. Chloe also has to come to a choice between Simon and Derek. Will she go for the gruff and angsty werewolf, or the artistic warlock? Will she even live long enough to do it?
You can't enjoy reading this series without liking the protagonist. Chloe Saunders is one of those people that completely captures your attention. She's slightly bumbling in going about her powers - and accidentally raising the dead is more than a little bumble in the grand scheme of things. Unless you count zombie bunnies as being a minor inconvenience. And let's not forget human zombies, too. Chloe's powers manage to grow and mature throughout the series, though, and these accidents become more the cause of others than of herself - and that's what we get with Chloe as a character. When she started out in The Summoning, Chloe was a more awkward girl who just wanted to be a film director, and when she raised a zombie she did it with absolutely no idea what she was doing. She also went into life like that, and her decisions were just that - sporadic and random attempts at gleaming knowledge from an unknowable source. The Reckoning is the stage of the game where Chloe knows what the hell she's doing, and the rest of the world is getting in her way. She doesn't have the trust she did at the beginning of the series, and she knows all too well the repercussions for not thinking ahead. The Chloe in The Reckoning is the kind of character that you read a multiple book series for - the kind of character that proves that all of those near-death experiences and supernatural encounters mean more than finally choosing a boyfriend.
The romance in The Reckoning is actually surprising in how little it means to the rest of the plot. Normally you see a build-up of the love triangle and the angst that goes with it, but Chloe is quite adult in how she reasons out who she loves. There isn't any extra pomp or teasing for the reader, and I'll just say that it's pretty obvious who she chooses if you've read the books. The rest of Chloe's group felt developed, too, and I constantly loved seeing how they finished up their character arcs in this book. Derek's still the same old gruff guy from the previous books, but his protectiveness is a little more appealing this time around - though I do feel that Armstrong lets him get away with a bit too much gruffness with as attractive as he's supposed to be to Chloe. Simon gets more of a backbone and some angst this time around, and I have to say that I wished that I could have him for myself. Tori's the character with a real sense of finality, though. She's much less bitchy and more of a good person - and considering how frustrating she was in the first book, the character improvement is very noticeable with her. There's something about a character that you grow to trust as a reader that keeps them firmly in your memory. Tori's one of those characters, and she's the type that you wouldn't mind reading more about should the series end.
The ending, of course, is what The Reckoning is all about. It's billed as the end of the Darkest Powers trilogy, and supposedly opens up another trilogy starting with different characters. I'm all for making a broad cast and connecting them in the end (it's an epic idea if done correct), but The Reckoning was (to my mind) something that was going to at least give a good tie to Chloe's story. I won't give away any secrets, but the open ending annoyed me more than I expected it to, and that was going in with the realization that it wasn't going to be the end after all. The story arc is interesting, and the plotting is addicting and features a lot of that cat-and-mouse action that occurs in the other books in the series. The plotting felt tighter than in The Awakening, but overall the lack of finality still made it seem thin. Armstrong's writing itself is very engaging and keeps you turning pages - there's never a problem with not being interested. She also does more to expand and deepen the emotion and character relationships in this installment. It feels like she really wants to make the characters complete, even if the story itself isn't. In that regard I was satisfied, although there was something brought up that didn't get completely resolved. Oddly enough, it was resolved in a short story in the Darkest Powers universe published in the Enthralled anthology, but in the end it kind of bummed me out because I felt like it was something people would want resolved in the actual book.
My experience with The Reckoning was mixed due to my feelings for the ending and the way Armstrong delt with some plotlines. Overall, there is a sense of finality to the characters and how they've grown and showed their depths. Readers will appreciate what Armstrong does with them. They'll be caught up in her sense of language and the ability to keep readers on their toes. It's just the ending - and the ending can effect any reader's impressions of a book - that kept me from loving this book. The characters are finished, but the plot wasn't, and I wasn't sure how to feel about that as a reader. I'll be reading the connected trilogy for the coming conclusion, and I'm sure many of the series' fans will do so as well, but people on the fence about it may be turned away by how opened ended it is.
Cover: I enjoy how the covers for this series, when set together, look very clean and cool with the positioning of the models and the amulets.
Rating: 4.0 Reviews
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Heather and Harper!)
Hey, readers! I've been in remission reading a manuscript for the past week - and doing a crap ton of homework in preparation for today, the last day before break - but I have a great cover reveal for you all! The book in question is a new YA dystopian called The Chosen Ones by Tiffany Truitt. So, without further ado....
The cover of The Chosen Ones!!
And for your reading pleasure, here is a blurb! Sounds quite good. :) The book is coming out from Entangled Publishing, a new mainly e-publisher (that also does paperback) of romance and YA.
What if you were mankind’s last chance at survival?
Sixteen-year-old Tess lives in a compound in what was once the Western United States, now decimated after a devastating fourth World War. But long before that, life as we knew it had been irrevocably changed, as women mysteriously lost the ability to bring forth life. Faced with the extinction of the human race, the government began the Council of Creators, meant to search out alternative methods of creating life. The resulting artificial human beings, or Chosen Ones, were extraordinarily beautiful, unbelievably strong, and unabashedly deadly.
Life is bleak, but uncomplicated for Tess as she follows the rigid rules of her dystopian society, until the day she begins work at Templeton, the training facility for newly created Chosen Ones. There, she meets James, a Chosen One whose odd love of music and reading rivals only her own. The attraction between the two is immediate in its intensity—and overwhelming in its danger.
But there is more to the goings-on at Templeton than Tess ever knew, and as the veil is lifted from her eyes, she uncovers a dark underground movement bent not on taking down the Chosen Ones, but the Council itself. Will Tess be able to stand up to those who would oppress her, even if it means giving up the only happiness in her life?
Author: Marianna Baer
Publisher: Balzar and Bray
Other Reviews for this Author: None
As much as I loathe when a book takes too long to get going, there are certain authors that do a long book in a really good way. There's just something about the style that fits the length. It works. When I picked up Frost, I wasn't sure if it was going to be one of those situations or not. The premise sounded creepy and ghost-ridden, but what I got was something that went a bit deeper and skewed more towards the psychological end of the horror spectrum. Readers going in wanting a lot of action and spirits will prefer something like Gretchen McNeil's Possess, but those with an open mind ready for some gothic horror and a slower pace will find Frost to be an exhilarating debut novel.
Senior year is supposed to be the year to end all years of someone's schooling. It's the year that signifies the end of being treated like a child - the last year before heading off into the world as an adult, free to make decisions going beyond whether or not to continue your education. Leena Thomas has had her share of ups and downs at her rigorous boarding school, but she's been looking forward to senior year for a long time. This has included a strong wish to move into a very specific dorm - Frost House - with a group of her closest friends. The old dorm exudes a dank Victorian brilliance that pulls Leena in beyond her imagination. Frost House represents a finality between her group of friends and their time at boarding school.
A break in the system shatters Leena's well-made plans, however. Instead of a tight-knit group of friends, a snag causes a lone outsider to be put in the dorm. Celeste Lazar is more than a little questionable to the group with a history that does not bode well for Leena's year. She can't help but fear dealing with her, even if Celeste is supposedly harmless. A girl with odd collections of bugs and other oddities must be a lost cause, anyway. Celeste's brother, David, brings a further complication into the equation in the form of Leena's attraction to him. How can two such completely different people be siblings? The idea is strange to Leena, but her attraction to David isn't hindered by her problems with Celeste.
The real trouble starts after Celeste moves into the dorm. Strange events start happening one by one. Events that inexplicably seem to be targeted at Celeste. None of the girls in the dorm seem to have any intention of hurting her despite their frustration with not having the bonded group they wished for. Strange occurrences continue to happen anyway. Leena herself finds the events troubling, but is targeted by something much more dangerous. Whether it's herself and her secret addiction to medication or the confines of Frost House itself, the fact remains that Leena begins a slow and steady change that coincides directly with the events that begin to plague Celeste. The two unlikely roommates develop an odd and frightening relationship with each other and the house itself as they begin a descent into a psychologically terrifying tale that only begins to unearth the sense of horror behind the situation.
For those who don't know much about gothic fiction, one of the biggest draws is the way that the characters unfold with the story. The heroine and the hero slowly become these complex characters that reflect the ever-darkening world around them. There's something decidedly eerie and just plain off about the world, and the characters often reflect that as the novel continues. What helps make this a good progression is an establishment of normalcy prior to the gothic events beginning to make themselves evident. Leena is perfect in this regard. Not a perfect person, but the perfect character type for a truly gothic story. She begins with a voice that sounds like any other refined teenager: someone who is more miffed than anything about the situation she's been put in. There's something that seems almost feral about her reaction to Celeste's moving in with her, but the reader dismisses it as nothing of vital importance. Merely a teenager who is frustrated with not having everything go according to plan. Leena seems like the type of student that would overcome it, though, with her great grades, her strong relationship with the headmistress, and the way she seems to take on a leadership role in the school community. What the reader doesn't understand is what lies beneath that facade of perfection. Leena is a character that you quickly become accustomed to, but you really don't understand the significance of her narrative until you get deep within the confines of the novel. Leena's mind is jacked up in ways that you can't understand without reading. There's so much going on inside of it that lies just beneath the surface - in her reactions and the events that transpire. Baer makes it a purpose to show everything and tell very little. You have no idea if Leena's mind has always been messed up or if there are outside influences. The character development in her regard is just so well done that you can never tell. She's too unreliable and at times too scary to believe, but you can't help but the feel the need to trust her when you read the story. That's some really good narrating at work.
To make it better, Baer furthers the distrust and the creep factor by adding in some great supporting characters. Celeste is the most prominent, and Baer immediately gives the reader cause for concern by adding in her reputation and the way that she seems to be beyond understanding. As the narrative progresses, readers will see a complete change in how her character is viewed. The way that Leena sees things is so skewed that you begin to doubt the original perceptions of Celeste. How creepy is she, really? How much truth is she telling? You never really know for sure, but you begin to really enjoy reading about her character and how she interacts with Leena. She sees the majority of Leena's issues by being her roommate, and the way the two seem to be affected by Frost House makes for some interesting contrasts in their characteristics and stories. Celeste's brother, David, is the other character that Baer features the most in the story. He's the love interest of Leena, and he has a lot more to him that a sexy smile and smoulder. What's most interesting to David is why he is attracted to Leena. He's not the kind of character to abandon her as the narrative continues, but what's more interesting is that he becomes a life-saver for her character in a way that isn't screaming of total female-to-male dependence. David is, in effect, the one constant within the story, but even he has skeletons in his closet. I really admired the way Baer was able to write his relationship with Leena as a romance despite how twisted her life seemed to get. It's not overly romantic, but David ultimately adds a lot of hope to the narrative - and provides a way to make it even more ambiguous. With David around, Leena manages to keep enough sanity to keep the reader questioning because of her self-to-self conversations and conflicts. We never get the chance to see Leena fully consumed because of David, which allows for the story to remain ambiguous without torturing the reader with unanswered questions.
What this novel is heavily reliant on is the style that Baer establishes early on within the narrative. Going off the earlier explanation of what I know gothic novels to be, I directly attribute the book's success to the style that Baer used in order to tell it. Without it, the story would have felt pandering and pointless. The way that Baer kept everything mysterious and twisted was what helped the story remain dark in the best way. She, at times, treats her characters with a fierce and unforgiving attitude that can make them unlikable. Leena can become extremely selfish as she goes into the madness, and the reader never really knows if it's her (stress), some kind of more complicated mental deterioration, or a force from Frost House itself. She ultimately allows the characters to be seen as sympathetic with the way their lives have been pushed and pulled by addiction and past fears, giving them some leeway for seemingly impossible behavior and anger. The style of this book takes all of this in stride with a very melancholy undertone. I could see this as a play - something that doesn't rely on orchestral sound, but instead the overall atmosphere of the work provided by the writing, staging, and cast. Frost doesn't rely on fast pace or a high concept plot. Baer's writing brings to mind something more thoughtful and reliant on the inner mind of the character. The reader doesn't really read it for the idea of a possibly destructive dorm house, but instead reads it for the way that Leena's mind deteriorates with the possibility of any number of reasons. The fall of the golden girl is always something that appeals to readers, but Baer turns it into a process of fear and psychology that twists and turns in the most subtle and interesting ways. The only downside to this narrative is that it has many aspects - unlikable characters, slow pacing - that will alienate general readers. It does take a while for the novel to get into its stride. The characters require set-up before they show themselves, and it ultimately has a better payoff than one would expect.
This book was so not what I expected, but in the best way possible. I connected with it far beyond what I imagined, and I loved the writing style and the way everything just fell into place. Baer's writing is so precise and evocative with the style and story that she chose with Frost. It's totally not what readers of mainstream YA will necessarily connect with, but the payoff is huge if you want something that will keep you thinking. It's the kind of novel that makes you think about the ending and the structure long after you've finished it. I still am quite impressed by it, and have not quite gotten over just how well the characters were developed. Truly a worthy addition to YA, and I hope Ms. Baer writes many more books for the YA audience.
Cover: The cover is haunting, and I love the center of the house with the dark images, but I would love something that's a bit more...abstract, considering how this is not the usual paranormal YA book.
Rating: 5.0 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Heather and Harper Collins!!)
Title: If I Tell
Author: Janet Gurtler
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Other Reviews for This Author: None
When I received this and I'm Not Her for review, the first thing I did was ask the author which book to read first. I was conflicted and had absolutely no idea where to start. I'd also been off of contemporary reads for a while, and I wanted some guidance as to where to go from there. While I'm Not Her was published before If I Tell, I was informed that this was actually the earlier written novel. I am quite anal about reading in order of author backlist if possible. If I Tell signaled a return to the YA contemporary for me as a reader, and it was a good way to enter back in after reading so many paranormal novels. A reader can tell that this book was an early one, but Gurtler's style and tone show a lot of promise that will make her a solid contemporary writer for the genre in the next few years.
Jaz is an excellent guitarist and barista when she's not doing schoolwork. She's a teenager pulled between many different things in her life. There's nothing that separates her from everyone else in her actions, but in her small town you don't have to be separated by something big to be considered an outcast. Jaz is the product of a white bombshell mother and a black football player father, and everyone knows it. Being biracial in this day and age may not sound like much of a problem, but Jaz sees it living in a town as small as hers. People treat her differently. Jaz has always been an outcast as a result of it. It all comes back to surviving day-to-day until she can move beyond high school and the simple inborn prejudices that people contain.
Something more separates Jaz from the rest of the people in town, too. She harbors a secret that threatens to eat her alive. The scene of a party. Her friend Lacey. A guy making out with her, buzzed out of his mind. The sexual antics of her friend aren't anything new to Jaz, but what is new is who she is performing those antics with. The guy turns out to be her mother's boyfriend. The father of her future half-sibling. This secret sickens Jaz. She trusted her mother's boyfriend and connected with him in that way that two people of the same race in an isolated town do. The relationship between these two characters crumbles with this one incident. Jaz doesn't want a blood connection to him because of what he did to her mother, but she also doesn't want to upset her mother in her current stage of pregnancy.
On top of keeping this secret, Jaz has other problems. A new boy has started working at the coffee shop that she's employed at, and he's admittedly quite attractive to her. The rise and fall of friendships make her emotions even more confused. Lacey's part in the kiss has made it impossible for Jaz to deal with her, and she's not sure if she will ever want to resurrect the friendship. Jaz has luckily been able to turn to another friend - a lesbian swimmer named Ashley. Though Jaz isn't interested in girls, the two bond over being outcasts in school. Jackson soon begins returning Jaz's feelings, and Jaz has to figure out how to balance the teenager things with the stresses of the secret she carries.
Like any good "problem novel" - the subgenre that this particular contemporary work seems to identify with most - If I Tell relies on its troubled protagonist to make the story flow and to battle directly with the moral ambiguities of the issues that are being faced. Jaz starts off making a strong impression, but after the first few pages you realize that she really is a teenager - and all of the faults that come with it. She's the type of protagonist that will connect with actual teenagers, but probably make more adult readers iffy on whether or not they like her. Jaz starts off the novel very unsure of herself. The stress of the racial dilemma is the kind that bothers her on a social level, but not on the full level that the secret she has does. Because of the secret, Jaz is unable to separate herself from the problems in her life anymore because of how close to home it hits. Her problems start to build on each other with the stress. She becomes this character that just doesn't know what to do with herself. Does she worry about her relationship, or does she try to figure out a way to break the secret to her mother? And what about her sanity? The way the moral dilemma threatens to cave in on Jaz is very realistic, and Gurtler captures that nicely and with a very appropriate level of heaviness. What will make Jaz hard to like for adults is the indecision. A lot of If I Tell is just asking that question - to tell or not to tell - and Jaz's fear and immaturity as a teenager come through a lot. It got frustrating at times, and it made her hard to like in some portions. What I did like was that it came to a resolution and character growth. There was a purpose behind the behavior, and Jaz benefited from learning the lesson as a result. She was also a musician, which I have a fondness for in main characters. Her tenderness with racial issues (especially in regards to her boyfriend) felt a little glossed over by the conflict of the secret, and I felt like her intensity for it made some parts difficult to relate to (or forgive) because of how the narrative just didn't seem to have time to focus on the growth of that so much as the secret.
The secondary characters and conflicts are where If I Tell become a complex book to grade (and read.) There's a lot that goes on in this book, and that reflects in the abundance of secondary characters. Jaz has a lot of relationships that are more than what they seem to be, and Gurtler touches on them in one way or another throughout the narrative. There is the complex relationship with her older friend Lacey and Lacey's male roommate. Jaz has to deal with trust failures with both of them - Lacey's involvement in the secret, and her friend's attempt at date-raping Jaz - and a realization that the outsiders she originally came to know weren't as trustworthy as they seemed to be. There was also the introduction of Ashley. Ashley is one of my favorites - partially because she is an already-out lesbian character with no angst or qualms about that. (I really hope Ashley gets her own book someday, too.) Ashley immediately gives you an impression and a character image, and she isn't reliant on cliches or conventions of the lesbian stereotype. I wanted to know more about her very quickly. What was nicer was that Ashley was a complete friend with Jaz, and there was never any issue in regards to Jaz worrying about Ashley crushing on her or being awkward. These girls had no worries about romantic affiliation, and I appreciated the complete bond of pure friendship that they embodied.
And then there is Jackson. Jackson is swoon worthy. Jackson is a guy with a past that involves drugs. He's a hard guy to fully comprehend. On one hand, you cannot fully trust him because of his (very real) past and reputation for drug use early on in it. On the other hand, he treats Jaz like a human being. He respects her the way she deserves to be respected. Her understands her in ways that she doesn't even understand. Jackson has some complex issues of his own that come out later in the book, and he really turns into a three-dimensional character you love. A conflict involving him that comes out towards the end was questionable on Jaz's part because of how it off it seemed (and how mean it was), and the relationship has a surprising amount of push and pull in it as a result. There's also some other minor issues that Jaz finds with it, but they took a more traditional route that ended with a whimper. They did pertain to the theme of secrets, but not in a way that I found very satisfactory as a reader. The best part about Jackson and Jaz is that they do come out as a good couple in the end. Jackson makes it clear that Jaz does not deserve to be treated badly because of who she is. He is the first character to tell her that an attempted date-rape is just plain wrong no matter how you look at it. He makes it clear to her that she does not deserve to be blamed for a disgusting guy's indiscretions. You just have to love a guy like Jackson.
Gurtler's voice is a nice, clean addition to the YA canon. I was immediately reminded of the contemporary authors that love to mess with your emotions with character conflict. Think Sarah Dessen and Deb Caletti (without the wordiness - Gurtler is more streamlined), and others that fit that description. Unlike her counterparts, though, Gurtler's story seemed to be much more streamlined. There wasn't as much description or character interaction. While it prevented the book from being 300+ pages, I also felt like there was a distinct lack of development. Problem novels/contemporary stories can work in a very limited, clean way, but it all depends on the execution and the type of development that the author shows in the work. Gurtler dreams big with this novel and attempts to tackle a lot of issues - racism, prejudice, being biracial, pregnancy (of the non-teen variety), and infidelity. Seriously, this book tries to go big, and I respect the attempt of being true to life and not sugar-coating how it can suck in a variety of ways. The problem is that If I Tell just isn't a book that's able to support all of this development. It makes the characters seem realistic, but the time for each problem is so divided that nothing feels fully explored or resolved. It's all done on a level that feels like it's just skimming the problems. They are addressed and resolved but not given the weight that would take this book to the level that it could be at. A problem that comes up later in the novel that was really interesting especially felt like it wanted to be written more about. Not every problem has to last the breadth of the entire book, but when none of them do and the attention is so divided the narrative feels shallower than it is. The book did move fast, and I enjoyed the voice a lot despite this issues.
If I Tell is definitely a novel with pluses. The characters can be annoying in a teenager-ly way, but they will resonate well with the target audience as a result of it. They all have their own purposes in the narrative, and they are the probably the best way that the strengths come through. Gurtler has a lot of talent and promise with this novel, but she tries to tackle a bit too much in one go-around with all of the different issues that are addressed. The resolution works at the end of the day, but it feels too clean with the way that some things were brought up and handled, and I hope that with further books she can better do what she wants within a single narrative. Fans of contemporary novels with certain levels of angst and intensity will appreciate a book like If I Tell, and it remains a nice easy read that can help you get back into reading contemporaries, even if it does have some issues.
Cover: I like the cover, and I like that the model is indeed a PoC. :) It fits the story quite nicely.
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Sourcebooks Fire!)
Title: Bring Me Home for Christmas
Author: Robyn Carr
Publisher: MIRA Books
Series: Virgin River #16
Other Reviews for This Author: None
Romancelandia has quite an interesting relationship with the small town romance. There are authors that basically have this as their entire backlist save for a few random books beforehand - think Debbie Macomber and Carr herself - and they are quite successful because of it. Not everyone takes to the small town romance. Growing up in a small town has made me realize that I'm not at the age or settled enough to appreciate the truly-small small town, but in a romance I can appreciate it as a setting for romance between two adults. I do get frustrated with some aspects, and I think those complaints are almost universal in small town romance, but they come up in my reading anyway because of the structure of the narrative. While Bring Me Home for Christmas is not the best small town romance that I have read, it is quite a good one in the genre - though people looking for a purely Christmas story will not be satiated by the level of holiday cheer throughout the 300-some pages.
Becca Timm is engaged to the man that her parents would just love her to marry. He's old money and attended a prestigious college. The kind of man that a family would want to take care of their daughter at the end of the day. Becca is also assured that they will someday get married and have that wonderful married life that two people that love each other are supposed to have. Something, however, is off to Becca. She's satisfied with Doug, but a thought seems to forever linger in the back of her brain. What about Denny? What about that old spark they had? Unfinished business refuses to leave Becca alone, and over Thanksgiving she decides to hitch a ride with her brother to visit him to get closure.
It's been several years since Denny Cutler has come in contact with his old flame Becca. He's gone to war and back, and has since settled down in the tiny hamlet of Virgin River. Small town life agrees with the veteran. Denny has managed to since hold down two stable jobs despite lacking anything beyond a GED. More to the point, Denny has become completely invested in the town of Virgin River. He's come to understand the importance of working together and community that seems to make the town one-of-a-kind. Denny has yet to forget Becca. Her appearance in Virgin River makes him uncomfortable, scared, and just a little bit hopeful.
Love rarely allows itself to be snuffed out because of a difficult past. Denny and Becca quickly begin to understand that the feelings they had for each other were more than simple youthful lusts. The love they had never left either of them, though both would deny that it's still present. Becca injures her leg after hunting with her brother, Denny, and the guys, and is soon taken in by her ex-lover. As Becca allows herself to be cared for, she realizes that what she had with Denny was broken in the worst way. Bring Me Home for Christmas promises to reunite two ex-lovers over the holidays - and potentially change Becca's life forever by introducing her to the small town of Virgin River.
Becca is a heroine that is hard to like at the beginning, but by the end of the novel you find yourself sympathizing with her course of action and the reasoning behind it. She's so stuck in the classic way of living that she forgets what it's like to actually be in love. Her impulse to visit Denny starts out as seeming very stupid. She lies to her fiance and just hitches a ride last minute to make for a very awkward situation. It seems desperate and immature for someone who should be an adult. As the story progresses, there seems to be more of a shift in Becca's actions. The adult side of her - the teacher side of her - becomes more apparent, and we see more of a mature side of things than the beginning gives. Still, this beginning left an impression of Becca that seemed more flighty and impulsive than was the case. The narrative actually shows Becca to be pretty sensible. After the initial portion, she explains in detail why she needs the closure and that it doesn't have to end in her falling in love despite her preference for Denny over Doug. The need for closure is what allowed me to start thinking of her as adult and mature. Virgin River as a whole seems to suggest that part of Becca's journey lies in becoming a bit more accepting and contemplative as a person. She's since become adult enough to accept that Denny might need a level of communication that she doesn't want to deal with - something that all couples learn at one point or another.
The hero, Denny, is scrumptious and quite good as far as romance heroes go. He's not one for dynamic or alpha-male antics - although he is seen as extremely possessive early on when Becca first appears - but he is definitely the more aggressive character in the relationship. Denny's history in the military provides some nice character development, and I liked that the biggest connector was in relation to his relationship with Becca. I believe that a lot of his backstory occurred in previous novels in the series that I have not read, so I felt like his end of the relationship was already developed before the story actually began. This made his progression and the progression of the relationship peak about halfway through the novel. The issue of living in Virgin River or not also comes up, but seems almost an afterthought than the actual problem it is in the relationship. Readers will enjoy the heat between the two characters - this romance is quite hot for a small-town setting, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much heat and tension was between the two characters. The other characters of Virgin River leave a pretty strong impression via the text, and it seems that Carr really likes to stress the aspect of community vs. the individual in the novel with how many of the characters that seemed to be focused on getting the community together in difficult times.
The writing style of Bring Me Home for Christmas is really what made it enjoyable for me. I think Carr was able to combine a contemporary heat-level with a small-town feel, and it made the book feel like a tolerable fantasy than a too-conservative small town. Sometimes the author will just make it feel too stuck in the past. Carr does not do that with this book, though, and I enjoyed that part of it to a large extent. Carr's style is also nice and easy to read. I sped through the story quite quickly and enjoyed the description of the town and the interaction between the hero and the heroine. I found the overuse of backstory in the beginning to be a problem - there are literally large sections of the early chapters just dedicated to explaining backstory (which happened so early that it made the conflict between the characters diminished) - and a problem in the beginning. The biggest problem with this is that the beginning and the ending felt disconnected from the main portion of the story. My problems with the beginning went away, but then once the romance ended there were about 50 or so pages where the conflict shifted away from the romance almost completely to focus on saving Virgin River and being heroic. I understand the necessity for plot beyond the couple, but it could have been so much more even and consistent. Instead Carr waited to introduce it, so the pacing felt off. I wished that the issues she addressed outside the romance were brought up earlier and tied in with the romance so that it could have developed better as a plotline. Still, she does what she does well, and once you get in the story you don't notice the way the pacing feels off.
Overall, I have to say that Bring Me Home for Christmas was a story that I could appreciate. It was a good way to read a Robyn Carr book and see the tropes at work. From what readers tell me, the general consensus is that the ex-military hero and the magnetism of Virgin River are consistent. I don't think I could read the series for a long-haul endeavor, but readers looking for a nice singular work can luckily still read Bring Me Home for Christmas. It has a light holiday flavor but focuses more on other things than Christmas and Thanksgiving, and its strengths are in the youthful reunited-lovers romance and the chemistry between the main characters. The plotting felt uneven to me, though, and I didn't think it was the strongest way to showcase the tropes Carr used or the romance's development. I may read Carr in the future, but I will say that anyone looking for a light contemporary read around the holidays will find this book satisfying without being overly reliant on the use of Christmas to get its readers.
Cover: The cover is cute and gives a pretty good idea of what the contents have - although I do have to say that I don't think Christmas is focused on enough for the tree to be the focal point of the cover.
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Eric and Harlequin!)
Author: Catherine Greenman
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Other Reviews for This Author: None
One of the most controversial subjects in today's society is teen pregnancy and parenting. A taboo subject for many years, it's still seen as something that people want to either ignore or misconstrue. With the recent advent of films and stories like Juno - a movie that portrayed a more sympathetic and realistic ideal of the teen pregnancy and its problems - teens are finally getting the issue addressed more and more. Teen pregnancy isn't a subject that I read about too often in YA, and that's what first got me into reading Hooked. The cover and the description leave nothing to the imagination. They suggest something with punch and with honesty. What Hooked provides is more than a simple angst-trip into the world of teen pregnancy, however. What it does so well is discuss the after and how it can change a person.
Self-parenting has been Thea's main source of parental need for as long as she can remember. Her mother owns a night-club and is frequently in-and-out out of the house. Her father is a recovering alcoholic. Thea has become self-sufficient and given herself the means of deciding. She even attends a competitive high school that promises good for its graduates. She could graduate from there and aim to go to one of the best colleges in the country. Her options are open. Her parents want so much from her, and she's always been responsible enough to make the goals they'd like her to have - the goals they'd expect her to have. Those goals do not include falling in love in high school.
Love was not in Thea's plan anymore than in her parents' plans for her, but unlike her parents Thea has been able to reestablish them. Will is like Thea. He's going places. He's wonderfully handsome and makes her think. There's nothing wrong with their relationship. Two teens falling in love. Intelligent teens. It happens every day. Sadly, so do pregnancies. When Will moves off to college, Thea worries that their relationship will not survive it. It does, but the sexual portion of it leads to Thea getting pregnant. She's not just a high schooler with the world at her fingertips anymore. She has the opportunity to bring a life into the world. She and Will both seem to agree that the life isn't something they're ready for.
Abortion comes but is never realized. Thea can't bring herself to give up the baby for whatever reason. The fear of going under the knife and giving it up is just too great. She's not opposed to it, but she can't seem to find it within herself to make the decision. Motherhood doesn't seem to agree with teenagerdom. Thea's lack of true direction in life only comes to the surface with the baby's growth. In becoming a mother, Thea realizes for the first time that parenting one's self and parenting a child are two completely different things. She sees the change in relationships - her parents, her boyfriend, and her friends - that come from having a baby. From growing up. But baby or no baby, can Thea actually grow up this time?
Taking a narrator like Thea and making her more than a simply angsty mother is tough business, but Greenman manages to pull out some really interesting character development cards with her. The literary end of the book really comes out in the way we see Thea's narration progress. The main point of the beginning of the novel is that we see a complete disconnect between Thea and her family. Her parents are seen as the rowdy teenage children, and she as the responsible and boring adult. Then she gets pregnant, and in a complete 180 the even that is supposed to make her adult finally starts turning her into the child and teenager that she was supposed to be from the start. Thea is a character that masks her insecurities with her need to be the responsible parental figure. She allows herself to go with the flow of life and not necessarily act against the workings of nature. Her goals and motivations aren't really motivating her because she feels that's she's already grown up - so things like going to college and making a career seem almost petty when we still consider them precursors to fully growing up. I loved how Thea became more and more unsure of herself whens he began to see just how hard it is to parent yourself and prepare yourself for an adult point of view. She becomes this girl who is more knowing and aware of herself as a person, but thus comes to see the incredible amount of faults and difficulties that appear in one's life from adulthood. Thea's the type of character that really speaks to the real person - someone who's there, but not completely.
The other characters in Thea's life make an interesting bunch. Will isn't like the male characters in YA that I usually read. I go for romances - where the male hero is supposed to be someone who has a requisite happy ending. It comes from my natural love for the romance genre. I do love to read about real men, too, and Will is as real as they come. He's the type of character that is developed really well, but that you aren't really sure if you should root for at the end of the book. He starts off as being someone who is intelligent and swift. He sweeps Thea off of her feet in true intelligent-college-boy style, and he doesn't just mess around with her. He's in it for the long haul when their situation occurs. His faults steadily start to show like Thea's do, though. He becomes a character that turns away from his relationship with Thea and almost wants to give up. In becoming an adult, he loses the stubborn sense of survival that Thea wants to keep. She refuses to give up the challenge of raising a child, and though Will seems to have more sense, he seems to lack the full reality of parenthood and its problems. Will isn't the bad guy, but he also isn't the good guy that ends up making all of the right choices. Greenman chooses to show him as she does Thea: a character with scars that run deeper than one perceives. The development of Thea's parents and her relationship with them is also really well done. They are much like her and start to move towards their "true" social placement in the family dynamic. There's something very strong about seeing the adults of the family finally becoming adults. Hooked is as much a testament to Thea's parents' adulthood as it is to her own.
The writing in Hooked is, pardon the pun, what will either 'hook' you as a reader or not. This is not the book for every YA reader. People read YA for a plethora of reasons, and one of the best (and worst) things about it as a genre is that the writing styles of pretty much every other genre in existence can occur within the YA spectrum. People looking for the light, breezy style of a romantic comedy, the angsty style of a problem novel, or the style of a paranormal romance/urban fantasy won't find it here. Greenman's style is the kind you see in contemporary adult fiction - the kind of character-driven style that wants you to consider the evolution of the characters as the real plot, with everything else just working towards the fulfillment of the characterization of the story. There's nothing wrong with this style - nothing that makes it better or worse than other styles that fiction is aimed at - but some readers will want more of a plot. They'll want to see the dark drama of getting pregnant as a teenager. There is drama, but Greenman chooses instead to show her character as being helped by the experience overall. She does so in ways that don't demonize the experience of getting pregnant, but also do not glamorize it. Thea does not become a better or more focused person immediately after having her child. On the contrary, she makes mistakes with her child that lead her to that conclusion - which is common and realistic based on how people learn. The style reflects this, and is thus more of a quietly paced story. It moves along quite well - a lot of Thea's life is shown, and there isn't a lot of unnecessary exposition that goes on - but some readers just won't connect with it, which is really a shame. Greenman has a lot of depth and meat to her story that puts it beyond a simple issue-book. It's the kind of book that deserves to be discovered.
Greenman has really impressed me with her debut novel. The characters are solid and have great understanding to them. The writing is literary and unusual for the genre, but readers who go in with an open mind will find the story surprising and worth the read. My only personal gripe was that the narrative voice felt a little too adult at times, but the style of the writing allowed me to ignore that once I got into the flow of the story. Greenman is a really solid voice for a debut author, and I hope that she continues to write character-driven stories that speak to the realistic in the YA world. This is the book for someone who wants something in reality but sans the constant unfiltered angst.
Cover: This cover is very striking. The fabric actually connects to the story, but it makes the back look old. I do love the image of the pregnant girl, though. This cover got noticed QUITE frequently when I read it, and that's not a bad thing.
Rating: 5.0 Stars
Copy: Received from publicist/publisher for review (Thank you, Random House!)
Author: Colin Meloy
Illustrator: Carson Ellis
Publisher: Balzar and Bray
Series: Wildwood #1
Other Reviews for This Author: None
Wildwood is a book that shouldn't work when you consider its individual parts. It's like a platypus. The bill of a duck. A body that looks like an otter's. A beaver tail. Webbed appendages. It all sounds so oddly put together. Wildwood is the platypus of the children's book world. You have Portland, nature, politics, 560 pages, a middle-grade focus, and lots of animals. Much like the platypus, Wildwood is much better when you look at the bigger picture. What seems like a random mishmash of parts turns out to be something finely crafted for a bigger purpose than one would expect. Wildwood is both a homage to the youth fantasy that has captured many hearts...and an entirely new entity that could very well prove to be a classic if it goes over well with its readers.
Prue is a child of several appropriately able talents, but her one true love is drawing the nature around her. She carries her sketchbook like a security blanket, and will spend hours drawing a few little leaves that come into her sight. She carries around a book of birds to sketch from. Nature, to Prue, is something worthy of taking down in an art. It is with unparalleled shock in which Prue realizes that nature is something more than a subject for sketching. A murder of crows appears out of the sky to kidnap her baby brother and takes him in the Impassable Wilderness just outside of Portland, where no one dares go into for fear of never coming out. Prue may be scared and frightened, but to her there seems no other option but going in to retrieve him.
In the same sense of childhood curiosity, Prue's friend from school follows her into the Wilderness. He sees her just after the kidnapping and is all too like her in his sense of adventure and morals. How can he let her go off into the Wilderness by herself? Curtis, who unlike Prue never graduated from drawing superheroes for his artistry, joins Prue and her faithful bike on the journey into the Wilderness. What they find at first is nothing more than a seemingly ordinary wood that is covered in dense moss, forgotten dropped foliage, and trees that allow anything to hide within them.
The Wilderness hides more than either kid can think to imagine. Prue and Curtis begin an adventure that goes beyond a simple kidnapping-by-bird. They discover through unusual means that humans are not the only ones to speak in human tongues. Animals that walk on two feet like humans and speak English litter the woods. Coyotes, owls, foxes, and more. Human bandits haunt it as well. Perhaps more so than any of these similarities is the struggle for political power. Like their human counterparts, the animals are locked in battles that go beyond the simple calls of nature. The Impassable Wilderness is facing a crisis, and when Prue and Curtis get separated they begin to uncover the depths of it. Wronged political figures, conspiracies, armies, and prophecies all amass as these two Outsider children make there way into uncharted territory that brings to mind Lewis' Narnia and Carroll's Wonderland.
Whenever I read a middle grade novel, I find it hard to really connect with a character in a way that doesn't befit a certain level of nostalgia. It's hard to say "I connect with them as a teenager", when some characters are most exclusively meant to appeal and resonate with middle grade readers. In that regard, it's hard for me to say I will make connections and dig into them the way I do with YA and adult characters. Prue and Curtis were a breath of fresh air for me. Wildwood is in many senses an adult novel in how it operates itself, and the characters are quiet adult in terms of their levels of complexity and appeal. The characters themselves act their age and have to fend off some intense scrapes within the novel, but the overall complexity lies within the situations we see them in. We don't see them talking just about simple first crushes or feelings of displacement in the world. We see them fighting battles. Feeling what it's like to be the reason someone's life ends. Being variables in a legal system and political situation that is crazy and falling apart around them. These are situations that, for better or worse, bring out the adult connectors in our brains. Going into Wildwood with the preconceptions of middle grade novels did not prepare me for what I found there in the characters, and the simple fact of connection was just breaking the surface.
Of the two, Prue is the character that we see most within the story. Her storyline is the strongest, and I loved right off the bat that the female character got to be the one focused on the most within the book. Prue is depicted as a character that is very attuned to nature to some degree. Her sense with plants and animals in her art is something that's depicted almost immediately within the story, and it's no surprise that she is the character to start the journey into the Wilderness. What is immediately appealing about Prue is her sense for adventure and responsibility. She is someone who feels responsible for her baby brother and does not go to her parents for help, but feels it is up to her to save him because he was kidnapped around her. She does it so her parents can avoid being emotionally distraught about his disappearance, and she can avoid the guilt and the powerlessness that would come from just telling them, which would result in nothing. Prue does these things for a reason. She starts this journey with a purpose that is backed up by a sensible nonsense and a heart brimming with courage, and what's better is that she still grows from the experience. Prue learns about her connection to nature and the natural world - about politics and the ways that the governmental machine can be severely messed up. For a story that is seemingly just about some magical woods, Prue's becomes about so much more. Responsibility is also a repeated theme, and it's interesting how Prue learns about it in regards to politics and her brother's kidnapping. Meloy ties together some unexpected threads that bring to mind the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, and in these ties and knots in the storyline he makes some great themes come out in Prue's development.
The secondary story of Curtis is perhaps just as strong, though I preferred Prue's. Curtis does not get as much page time, and whereas Prue is dealing with politics from a broader end, Curtis himself becomes the captive of a group of rogue coyotes lead by a woman known as the Dowager Governess. He opens the story as a follower - someone who is just as curious about Prue as he is about the Wilderness itself. We see him as someone who is possibly more childish and bold. Superheroes, after all, are only for children. Our protagonist Prue makes that observation quite frankly early on. In some ways, we learn that Curtis does indeed need to grow up. He experiences some awakenings that Prue does not need to - including the harshness of war in the political and social field, as well as the terrors of imprisonment. Yet in many ways we understand that Curtis does not need to grow up completely. He is a character that becomes more and more confident as the book goes on. He sheds his worst fears in order to become a stronger person, and is fine with a few remaining in the process. Leadership is one of his big themes, and that is where he becomes most interesting to observe. Curtis' connection to nature is more subtle than Prue's, and in many ways it contrasts it throughout the novel. What I liked about their relationship is that they are friends, first and foremost. There is no immediate romantic relationship that I could possibly decipher between these two characters. Meloy instead focuses on the magic of loyalty in a friendship, and how friendship can allow people to cross barriers that are otherwise inaccessible to them.
The strong characters gain their complexity from the events in which they participate, and plot-wise there is a lot to praise in Wildwood. For a book that is filled with stimulating and beautiful illustrations, it's the events that are portrayed that stay with the reader most. The events are also surprisingly adult. Meloy does not play with any simple fantasy ideas here, but instead takes a deep and dark look at politics. He brings to mind many wars and troubles that we've seen go on throughout the world. The names of specific characters bring to mind a connection to the Romanov Dynasty (Alexei and Alexandra), and when I made that connection I immediately began reading more into the politics. Meloy tells a tale that has a purpose, and in many ways the story is not even about Prue and Curtis, but about the Wildwood itself. The pro's and con's of rebellion and disunity - of government and power. This book is meaty for a reason. Meloy chooses to explore a story that is complex and does anything but talk down to its audience. The world itself shines and could very well be alive somewhere today. That is how realistic the fantasy is. It radiates the natural world. After reading it, one does not feel it unlikely for animals to talk or have their own frantically put-together postal system. Coyotes in uniforms carrying muskets seems almost normal. Grounding this kind of world is pivotal for the reader, and in some ways it does a better job than classics like Narnia ever did in that regard. The magical world is, in this case, a direct effector of the natural world. They are in many ways the same thing. Meloy just loves his cause and effect, and you'll find quite a lot of thought that goes into his plotting because of it.
A praise-worthy book like this - one so literary and daring for the genre - wouldn't go without issues, however. I am not one for being afraid of a thick book, but Wildwood intimidated me after reading it for so long. Yes, the ideas are excellent and cerebral. That does not mean that the book itself needs to be a doorstop. Sometimes the longest stories are the simplest, and the shortest the most complex. I feel the need to compare this to a short story I read in class by Anne Proulx. It was three paragraphs and titled 52 Miles to the Gas Pump. We had an entire forty-five minute discussion on this one story - three simple paragraphs. You can tell a lot with sparse prose, and you can tell little with dense prose. Wildwood is written in a dense style that uses a lot of flourishes, adjectives, and big vocabulary words. In some places it's advantageous - you feel like there is a lot of understanding, and you are able to really picture yourself in the situations with the characters. The middle of the novel, however, drags. A good hundred pages feel like a slog because of just how expansive everything in this book is. I think it goes without saying, too, that I find it difficult to relate this to the target audience. I think they could handle and fall in love with the complexity of the storyline and the beautiful prose, but I feel like they will shy away from a large book that feels unregulated in the pacing. The wording could have been trimmed without losing any of the weight or the power of the storyline, and in that regard I was disappointed. This is such an excellent book, but little things like pacing can make a huge difference to a younger audience. The prose is beautiful - don't get me wrong - but at the same time the beauty doesn't always add to the experience of the story, which is what makes a book special.
At the same time....I'm conflicted about this book. The pacing issue I would normally overlook in the review because I am a reader that can deal with a slow-paced story. I have loved books like Gone with the Wind, Pegasus...books that are beautiful and show that length can have purpose and reason. In this sense, I don't feel bad recommending Wildwood. I do feel like I have an issue with the pacing because of the genre it's aiming towards. One thing to notice about traditional children's fantasy is that it's short. While I did not like Narnia, the books are fairly concise. One can build an entire world in someone's head and make it come alive without dealing with excess issues. Wildwood is much larger in scope than any one of the Narnia books, but I feel like it's an idea worth exploring. As a reviewer I feel that the book has a critical problem in regards to the target audience. Middle grade readers are not stupid, but nor are they happy with a book that will slow down for no good reason. A lot of the best middle grade fantasies faced a series progression from small to larger books (see Harry Potter), and that allows reluctant readers to fall in love with the book at its best before seeing the expanded side - the side that is more thinking and slower. It's harder to get that when the first book is straight-off long. I can see middle grade readers liking it, but I haven't personally talked to one who has read it. My biggest concern is that it will ward off readers/lose their interest because of the pacing, and that is probably its biggest flaw as a novel.
Like the book, my review turned into a big rambler. It goes without saying that this book is beyond what you'd expect for a middle grade novel. It will surprise you with how thoughtful and deep it is. With how much justice it does to the reader in terms of plot content and characters. However, I still think the pacing was a bad choice - not because readers can't handle it, but because younger readers know and care more when prose is excessive and needless. That is something that is very important to think about in middle grade literature, and I don't think that choice with Wildwood was the best one. I loved the book as a book. I think it is something that will have me running to read the next book in the trilogy. There is no question of that. I just hope that the next one can consider more for pacing.
Cover: The artwork in this book is so good. It adds to the experience AND is high quality. Best combination.
Rating: 4.0 Stars
Copy: Received from publicist/publisher for review (Thank you, Heather and Harper Collins!)