The Unforgettables – By G.L. Tomas

The Unforgettables Rating:

Synopsis2Back home in Chicago, Paul Hiroshima had it all.

Popularity, charming looks and a talent for the arts that made him admired by his peers. Moving to Portland, Maine the summer before his senior year was going to change all that. With his city life behind him, there was definitely no reason to make the best out of a bad situation—that is, until he meets the amazing Felicia Abelard.

Over a love of comic books and secret identities, Felicia becomes the sidekick to his hero; there’s just one problem: they weren’t supposed to fall in love.

As the season comes to an end, Paul and Felicia face in-depth challenges to preserve their summer formed bond. With the brink of the new school year at hand, this tale of best friends and first loves will make their year unforgettable.

My reviewI had a feeling I would end up loving the book right from the moment Felicia’s Haitian-American Christian meat-loving family would invite their new neighbors – Paul’s vegan Buddhist family. This set the tone for a wonderfully inclusive story, where differences are not just accepted and celebrated, but respected. It isn’t just blind, ignorant acceptance. The characters try to understand those differences, sometimes by directly asking, more out of blunt curiosity than courtesy. So when Felicia’s mom directly asks Paul’s Welsh mom (and not his Japanese dad) about “how” she ended up following Buddhism, it makes for a really good scene.

This is pretty much the spirit with which the entire book is written, where people with different faiths and “atypical” families and people with “niche hobbies” go about with their heads held high. Of course, it isn’t always easy, as we see with Felicia who dreads school because of all the passive-aggressive bullying. Or Paul, who is nervous about his final school year in a new town, worried about being coerced into taking more “traditional” and practical courses by his mom for his college, instead of allowing him to go into art school. I honestly loved the tug-of-war between Paul and his mom, both of whom are dyslexic and have different ideas about what “limiting yourself” means. By the end of the book, you are left with no doubt that Paul wants to go into art school because that is one of his primary passions and not because his dyslexia limits him from doing something else.

Can’t “understand” why someone is “different” from you? Well, honestly, sometimes kindness and basic decency goes a long way in making someone feel better. Felicia, being a social “nobody” in school, makes an impact in a little girl’s mind just by being patient, friendly and soft-spoken.
What if differences are something you can’t immediately “accept” though you understand it on some subconscious level? Well, you consciously challenge those phobias. It is a slow process, as Felicia knows, seeing her mother struggling with and facing her bi-phobia.

One of the main strengths of this book is the well fleshed-out family dynamics of both Paul and Felicia. We have involved parents and annoying siblings. We have parenting conflicts and sibling conflicts. Absent parents in YA has become such a cliche that coming across families like this always feels good to witness. So does watching responsible teens with a good head on their shoulders. Despite everything going on, both with each other and dealing with their own issues in school or at home with their parents, Paul and Felicia are never making vindictive, self-destructive decisions. Felicia never lets all the drama in school get in the way of her focus on what really matters – studies. Paul, despite not always understanding what is happening with his on-off friendship/romance with Felicia, doesn’t treat sex with someone else as a frivolous rebound decision.

The story of Paul and Felicia works because both of them grow in the relationship. Because Felicia comes to terms with her own insecurities – of being awkward and “hard to like” in comparison to Paul’s easy-going and people-pleasing nature. And Paul comes to terms with the fact that, with some people, it is harder to get them to open up – to talk about their fears and apprehensiveness. I found Paul’s frustrations with Felicia very real and to be honest, I felt that in the last 1/3rd of the book, Paul’s PoV was written better than Felicia’s. I think the problem was that the story focused more on Felicia’s fears of how her parents would react to her dating. But instead of all the “telling” through Felicia, I just wish there was more of “showing” wrt. her parents being that rigid. There was a bit, but just not that effective to convince me. Instead, I would have personally liked it if Felicia’s inner conflict centered more on the fact that she and Paul were such different people.
Because, I personally felt that after a certain point in the book, that was the main conflict. The authors actually did a really good job showing this – as long as Paul and Felicia were just the two of them together during the summer vacations, they were doing just fine with their comic-book geek-ing and the cosplay. But once they were thrust into the “societal environment” of the school, they had a harder time realigning their “social selves” with their deeply personal relationship.

Read this book if you are looking for a well-written YA love story (but this book is a lot more than just that)

Afterworlds – By Scott Westerfeld – On YA authors, publishing and cultural appropriation

Afterworlds (Afterworlds #1) Rating:

Synopsis2BELIEVING IS DANGEROUS…

Darcy Patel is afraid to believe all the hype. But it’s really happening – her teen novel is getting published. Instead of heading to college, she’s living in New York City, where she’s welcomed into the dazzling world of YA publishing. That means book tours, parties with her favorite authors, and finding a place to live that won’t leave her penniless. It means sleepless nights rewriting her first draft and struggling to find the perfect ending… all while dealing with the intoxicating, terrifying experience of falling in love – with another writer.

Told in alternating chapters is Darcy’s novel, the thrilling story of Lizzie, who wills her way into the afterworld to survive a deadly terrorist attack. With survival comes the responsibility to guide the restless spirits that walk our world, including one ghost with whom she shares a surprising personal connection. But Lizzie’s not alone in her new calling – she has counsel from a fellow spirit guide, a very desirable one, who is torn between wanting Lizzie and warning her that…

BELIEVING IS DANGEROUS.

In a brilliant high-wire act of weaving two epic narratives – and two unforgettable heroines – into one novel, Scott Westerfeld’s latest work is a triumph of storytelling.

My reviewTold in dual-narrative, Afterworlds, the title of this book is actually the title of the book that Darcy Patel, the protagonist is working on. Darcy, eighteen years old, has landed a two-book contract for almost a quarter million, and her life, as she knew it, changes overnight. From someone who has never lived alone, she moves from Philly to NY, and is thrown into the rigmarole of what goes into the few months leading to the big debut. It was absolutely delightful to read about everything you have always suspected being a blogger, about how the life of such a debut author would be. So I guess a part of it was wish fulfillment, to see it all on page, even if it felt slightly exaggerated and surreal – all the YA author parties, gatherings, pre-pub tours, the discussions about what makes a good book, “originality” versus writing what sells, the brainstorming during editing and rewrites and so on. Then you also have Darcy’s friends, through whom you see yourself on page too, as they are yapping on about how they have read or heard about most of the not-yet-published books because of their well-connected school librarian who always got hold of the latest ARCs.

The entire book, i.e Darcy’s book “Afterworlds” is within this book. It is interspersed with Darcy’s story every alternate chapter and right off the bat you know that everything works out okay and atleast the publishing goes without a hitch, because you are practically reading the finished book within this book. But Westerfeld manages to make it interesting, especially by showing Darcy’s inexperience at pretty much everything – as an author, a lover and well, as someone terrible with her finances. Darcy can’t stick to her own schedule, is caught up with the bling of a new city and you just get a feeling that she has a “I will just wing it in the end” attitude sub-consciously. All the self-doubt about whether she was even a real author was done pretty well. At one point she wonders whether she is a fluke as she finished first draft in 30 days but she is taking months to rewrite the final chapters.

I personally felt that some of the Indian rep was done well. There were so many little things – about Darcy’s parents being believers but not that religious, her sister Nisha being great at math and hence looking over the family’s tax filings, her engineer dad, her mom’s story about how they didn’t spent any money on clothes when they first came to US and got everything from India, Darcy being naïve and clueless about a lot of things in NY because she has never lived alone, screwing up the budget allocation Nisha planned for her .. and so on.. It was a good balance between atypical and stereotypical .. because hey, there is no one “true rep” and the truth is always somewhere in between. And gosh, I loved all the moments when Darcy was searching for an apartment and ended up going atleast 500$ over-budget with the final monthly rent. She pretty much tears Nisha’s financial planning to shreds, it was a bit of a trainwreck tbh  – Darcy paying 3500k per month in NY without taking in any roommates and then casually blowing up money on food every eating outside frequently instead of, well, spending on setting up her kitchen so that she can cook at home. I think she finally does that (?) through her aunt gifting her some stuff and her dad driving over with some items(? I am not sure) but she continues to blow up money anyways. Nothing extravagant, but frugal or budgeted living is definitely not her cup of tea. She did give the impression of someone who knew she has a safety net of a stable loving home and a reasonably well-off family to return too if her writing career doesn’t take off as early as she expected.

Darcy ends up falling in love and living with another writer with Imogen and I thought the author contrasted the difference in their personalities pretty well; some of it due to their age difference. Imogen has been in atleast one relationship more than Darcy, and also has a markedly different work style when it comes to her writing. All this sort of manifests into challenges they have get through while living together, especially with Darcy struggling to give Imogen her space and privacy. Imogen, in turn worries about how Darcy will handle Afterworlds’ success (or failure). In some ways, Imogen takes charge of their present by making some difficult decisions so that they have the promise of a better future to look forward to.

I think what I struggled with the most as a reader is getting through the entire book (within the book) Afterworlds. I loved the idea TBH; Yamaraj is someone I am familiar with since I am Indian. But gosh, Yamaraj was made to be such a watered down and bland representation. Westerfeld might have as well written Twilight 2.0. Lizzie and Yamaraj’s love story was THAT kind of Hot YA commonplace. Look, I get it, the author’s intention was to show how so many stories publicized as “epic” YA romances are finally clones of one another and that so many authors have those breakthrough debuts with such stories (?). After reading Darcy’s novel, you do wonder – How on earth did THIS book get her a hundred grand in advance? The most interesting function of this book is however the conversation it generates regarding cultural appropriation. It raises questions with no definitive answers; but just further questionable topics for debate. Under what terms is “cultural appropriation” acceptable? Is there even such a thing as acceptability? Does Darcy being Indian exclude her from the criticism of getting the “essence” of her cultural history wrong when translated to paper? Considering she isn’t even that religious, can she be considered an “authentic” source of authority over the “correct” representation of Hinduism? So much of this brought up in the book, and in between Darcy is shown doubting herself. But, Darcy’s internal conflict doesn’t manifest into any real, tangible consequences.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the world-building in Darcy’s book. It was a pile of confusing mess, like Inception on steroids, except that you have ghosts and your ghostly selves on different astral projections. It was hard to keep track of the different worlds (Overworld, Afterworld, Underworld) along with the permutations and combinations of time, space, visibility and travel constraints in different worlds. So yea, definitely not my kind of fantasy novel. But if is something you enjoy reading, and can get past the slightly simplistic (deliberate?)plot stretched across half the book, then I think you would definitely enjoy Westerfeld’s Afterworlds in totality.

I quite enjoyed it for its unique idea. I might have liked it more if we didn’t end up getting Darcy’s entire novel and instead got snippet like say, Simon Snow’s fanfic in Fangirl, just enough to get an idea (and enough to drive discussions about appropriation). But I really liked all the “real” characters – be it Imogen, Nisha, Darcy or her friends. And I definitely enjoyed reading about Darcy more than Lizzie.

[Mini Reviews] The Vegetarian by Han Kang & Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

The Vegetarian Rating:

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This was pretty unsettling to read. Hard to really summarize the essence of what this was about. On the surface it was about a woman with severe mental health issues, but dig deeper (well, more like scratch the surface a bit..) and it is about renunciation – of societal expectations to get in touch with your most primitive reflections. This story is told in three POVs and interestingly, none of them is Yeong-hye’s. The story progresses with her turning vegetarian to finally giving up on food altogether because of certain recurring dreams and her finally interpreting what they really meant. We get glimpses into Yeong-hye and her sister In-hye’s childhood as they grew up in a patriarchal family system with an abusive father. In-hye later muses whether that was one reason for her sister’s current state. As her “dream” triggers her “madness”, we see the men in Yeong-hye’s life unable to understand her decision to go vegetarian. Instead, they literally try to force-feed her in one scene. Throughout the book, Yeong-hye keeps retreating further away from everyone else and well.. into herself as she resists everyone else’s attempt to tell her what to do to her own body.

I considered quitting this book mid-way quite a few times because I couldn’t connect to a lot of devices used in this story, be it the characters chosen for the three POVs, the three-part narration itself which felt disjointed or the depiction of vegetarianism. I mean, I understand that this book wasn’t really about “vegetarianism” as such, but since so much of the book was about her giving up meat, I really can’t look past it. I didn’t get the people’s reactions around her, and I am not talking about husband and father (both were A-Grade MCPs who were upset for reasons that had nothing to do with her well-being) but I couldn’t understand why the general reaction was one of shock and distaste rather than being supportive or well, checking out more healthy, wholesome vegetarian food options. There were also some other things about the book that I didn’t understand – like the triggering circumstances that caused Yeong-hye’s psychiatric condition. It felt like some sort of half-baked attempt by giving her the background of childhood abuse (like some sort of afterthought, because hey, I need to give a reason, so let me throw in some random reminiscences of childhood). Another aspect of this book that I found irritating is that it isn’t just Yeong-hye plagued by dreams; we also have two of the three narrators getting abstract, creepy dreams and being tortured by it as they are trying to decipher it. Honestly, it was overkill, and well, just way too many people for a less-than-180 pages book that I, as a reader am trying to make some sense of.

This is just one of those books that I can’t rave about, but I am glad I read it, and would definitely not shy away from recommending.

Holding Up the UniverseRating:

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Synopsis2Everyone thinks they know Libby Strout, the girl once dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen.” But no one’s taken the time to look past her weight to get to know who she really is. Following her mom’s death, she’s been picking up the pieces in the privacy of her home, dealing with her heartbroken father and her own grief. Now, Libby’s ready: for high school, for new friends, for love, and for every possibility life has to offer. In that moment, I know the part I want to play here at MVB High. I want to be the girl who can do anything. 

Everyone thinks they know Jack Masselin, too. Yes, he’s got swagger, but he’s also mastered the impossible art of giving people what they want, of fitting in. What no one knows is that Jack has a newly acquired secret: he can’t recognize faces. Even his own brothers are strangers to him. He’s the guy who can re-engineer and rebuild anything, but he can’t understand what’s going on with the inner workings of his brain. So he tells himself to play it cool: Be charming. Be hilarious. Don’t get too close to anyone.

Until he meets Libby. When the two get tangled up in a cruel high school game—which lands them in group counseling and community service—Libby and Jack are both pissed, and then surprised. Because the more time they spend together, the less alone they feel.

Because sometimes when you meet someone, it changes the world, theirs and yours.

My reviewI was a bit skeptical after reading the synopsis and wondered whether this will be one of those stories about an overweight girl transforming herself into a svelte figure by the end of the book and shocking everyone. Then there is also this male protagonist who suffers from face-blindness (known as Prosopagnosia) . But body-image and self-esteem issues are addressed so well in this book that the love story stands on its own rather than not having any relevance beyond Jack’s neurological disorder and Libby’s struggle with weight.

I think what worked for this book is that by the time we meet Libby, she has already gone through some of the darkest phases in her life. We meet her when she is re-entering the “mainstream” life (high-school after months of isolation and counseling. So, when Libby makes friends, meets Jack, faces bullies, you know it is all on her own terms.

So, what about Jack? Well, he has had a different kind of struggle. While Libby’s lowest phase was telecast across electronic media and her struggle with weight is under glaring spotlight of bullies, Jack has somehow managed to hide his condition from everyone (so that people don’t make his life further difficult in school) until an incident forces him to reveal his secret to Libby. What follows after that is definitely one of the cutest YA love stories I have read so far.

There were few things I found a bit unreal – like the fact that Jack could hide his condition from everyone and that no one, not even his parents noticed anything amiss. This felt like one of those classic “clueless YA parents” tropes. I also felt some of the quotes, though mushy and cute, felt unrealistic when thought by or mouthed as dialogues by teenage narrators (especially some super-cheesy lines.. I couldn’t really imagine anyone talking like that)

I also thought the book had a pretty abrupt and quiet ending? I mean, it felt like the book started with a bang and ending with a whimper because the author didn’t know how else to finish it.

I really liked the book though and some of Libby and Jack’s inner monologues were pure gold. I think my 2017 TBR will now comprise of Niven’s previous works.

Holding Smoke – By Elle Cosimano

Holding Smoke Rating:

Note : I received an ARC of this book via Veronica’s blog giveaway. Do check out her lovely blog here.

Synopsis2John “Smoke” Conlan is serving time for two murders but he wasn’t the one who murdered his English teacher, and he never intended to kill the only other witness to the crime. A dangerous juvenile rehabilitation center in Denver, Colorado, known as the Y, is Smoke’s new home and the only one he believes he deserves.

But, unlike his fellow inmates, Smoke is not in constant imprisonment. After a near death experience leaves him with the ability to shed his physical body at will, Smoke is able to travel freely outside the concrete walls of the Y, gathering information for himself and his fellow inmates while they’re asleep in their beds. Convinced his future is only as bright as the fluorescent lights in his cell, Smoke doesn’t care that the “threads” that bind his soul to his body are wearing thin-that one day he may not make it back in time. That is, until he meets Pink, a tough, resourceful girl who is sees him for who he truly is and wants to help him clear his name. 

Now Smoke is on a journey to redemption he never thought possible. With Pink’s help, Smoke may be able to reveal the true killer, but the closer they get to the truth, the more deadly their search becomes. The web of lies, deceit, and corruption that put Smoke behind bars is more tangled than they could have ever imagined. With both of their lives on the line, Smoke will have to decide how much he’s willing to risk, and if he can envision a future worth fighting for.

My review I havent read too many YA books which just have that slight touch of paranormal. The few I have read recently have been disappointing especially a couple of them which are about mind-body-soul because the book somehow ends up reading like religious fiction instead of what was promised in the synopsis. Thankfully, Holding Smoke not just lives up to what is promised in the cover blurb, but also exceeds it by miles.

No aspect of the book threatens to eclipse the other – the murder mystery complements beautifully with the human stories of the inmates. That’s a rarity in mystery books with a sizeable secondary cast – where sub-plots often tend to test your patience and make you question their need. But here, you actually do enjoy and empathize with everyone – with all their background stories that have been added cleverly into the book through Conlan’s paranormal power. I loved all the prison scenes, there was no unnecessary amped up melodrama but yet it is so effective – whether it is the counseling sessions or the power play in the yard. I feel like this is probably one of the biggest strengths of the book – to never lose sight of the fact that this is a juvenile rehab and NOT an adult prison. No matter how “hardened” they might be because of the circumstances, their vulnerabilities as teens are always bubbling beneath the surface.

I loved how we got the background story of how Conlan ended up in the detention center. The author takes her time to build it up gradually – whether it is the details of the fateful day or nuggets from his earlier difficult years with his abusive father. Conlan’s life is a template of childhood degraded, a present devalued and a future lost – A future that had a college degree and a well-paying job.  This is also the story shared by a lot of characters at the center. Of course, if you are lucky you might have an empathetic warden or a counselor taking an interest in you and reinforcing the belief that you can finish your education and making something of your life once you get out. But no inmate seriously believes it.

There is no romance in this book. What Conlan and Pink have between them is more of a strained-friendship-with-romantic potential and that’s a good thing because both have a lot of things going on in their individual lives. Pink is practical and gosh – just so gutsy! Not some wannabe badass. Conlan initially seeks her out because he needs her help but later does start valuing her and respecting the life she leads. He also feels like he is losing out on someone important to him when turns her away at one point in the story. Despite his feelings for her, I liked how Conlan never turns reckless in using his paranormal ability just to meet her.

I really liked the murder mystery though I guessed the “who” halfway through the book. But I think it is more due to the fact that I have gotten pretty good at guesswork than anything else. I couldn’t guess the “why” though. I also liked all the red herrings the author used and explained in the final pages. The only issue I had is probably the presence of another girl – Vivian – in the story. I felt like the book didn’t really need her. I think any other existing character(s) could have contributed whatever she did to the story. But it is a pretty minor gripe and well, I understood why she was there once I read the Author’s Note in the end. (Do read that once you finish the book!!! You will find some great personal insights there.)

There is an epilogue that I felt was not required. I got my closure even without that. Well, with or without the epilogue, it was such a bittersweet conclusion and an immensely satisfying one.

[Mini Reviews] Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon & Titans by Victoria Scott

  Rating:

Note : I received this book via Bookidote blogiversary giveaway. Do check out their amazing blog here !

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Synopsis2

My disease is as rare as it is famous. Basically, I’m allergic to the world. I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla.

But then one day, a moving truck arrives next door. I look out my window, and I see him. He’s tall, lean and wearing all black—black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly.

Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster.

My review

Oh dear, this is such a frustrating book to talk about .. and review. It is the sort of book where there is a big surprise towards the end that explains quite a few things which happened throughout the book(so it is hard to write a nice non-spoilery take on the book).

This book was strangely addictive to read despite some of the issues I had with it. I totally dug the adorable Olly and Madeline moments. But, it gets kind of weird and silly in the second half when huge and reckless decisions are made.. which doesn’t even make any kind of realistic sense for teens who are still in high-school and don’t have any jobs or source of income (where do they get all the money?!!!). Btw, that’s another thing I didn’t understand –  why are both are still in school? Shouldn’t they be in college? Madeline is 18, Olly is 18 or older , and both are described as conscientious with their school work. So, it isn’t like they flunked a year or anything of that sort.

I think one big reason I was underwhelmed is because I guessed the big twist pretty early. Take that away, and there feels like nothing spectacular about the rest of this book. There is a lot of cute touches – Madeline’s spoilery book blog reviews, her drawings, IM chats with Olly, e-mails.. But no amount of embellishments can cover up some of the book’s basic weaknesses. Just like no amount of pretty icing can salvage a badly baked cake. The plot twist, though it explains a few things, also made me wonder about a lot of other things (so, basically opening up more plot holes).  The ending was just weird and unreal, and unbelievably “easy” for Madeline who has lived her entire life in a bubble, with her nurse and mom being the only other human contacts.

Despite my low ratings, I would still recommend you give it a try, because it is just one of those books that evoke mixed reactions. There are a lot of good things about it too, so maybe it will strike a chord with you… Check out Trang’s positive take on the book here

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  Rating:

Note : I received an ARC of this book via Michele’s blog giveaway. Do check out her lovely blog here.

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Synopsis2

Ever since the Titans first appeared in her Detroit neighborhood, Astrid Sullivan’s world has revolved around the mechanical horses. She and her best friend have spent countless hours watching them and their jockeys practice on the track. It’s not just the thrill of the race. It’s the engineering of the horses and the way they’re programmed to seem so lifelike. The Titans are everything that fascinates Astrid, and nothing she’ll ever touch.

She hates them a little, too. Her dad lost everything betting on the Titans. And the races are a reminder of the gap between the rich jockeys who can afford the expensive machines to ride, and the working class friends and neighbors of Astrid’s who wager on them.

But when Astrid’s offered a chance to enter an early model Titan in this year’s derby, well, she decides to risk it all. Because for a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, it’s more than a chance at fame or money. Betting on herself is the only way she can see to hang on to everyone in the world she cares about.

My review

I really liked the idea – a futuristic sports drama involving mechanical horses – but that’s just about it. This packed in pretty much every cliché you can expect – an underdog (and of course, it is a teenage girl), a grumpy mentor, a best friend with a fashion sense that the protagonist doesn’t have, sneering elite competitors and officials who hate you. There is even a Hunger Games inspired (?) drama revolving sponsors and playing to the media by selling romance. Sadly, even that felt like a pale imitation and you are wondering why that was even included. It was just so random – a fellow competitor just suddenly indulging in PDA with Astrid, catching her unaware, just for the photographers and journalists to capture and write about. It felt like some half-hearted idea or sub-plot that was ditched half-way through the book – and that wasn’t the only one.

I love sports drama and rooting for the underdog. I understand that there is a “basic template” and you know what to expect and what the end result will be. But, I just wanted a few surprises thrown in. I wanted something more to happen on the sidelines of the actual races. Because, as thrilling as these racing might be in the form of a movie or a television show, it is just hard to visualize them and feel the same excitement by reading through pages and pages of description of each race. It is even harder if you are someone like me – who is pretty bad in understanding and appreciating the physics and mechanics of vehicles.

I am not exactly complaining about the details included – in fact I appreciate the author’s focused attempt to tell a story about racing and the families set to ruin if they aren’t careful about being swept in the adrenaline of placing bets. But I just wish there was more to the secondary characters and plots than the very in-your-face poor v/s rich stereotypical posturing. Then, there is also a feeble attempt at building up a mystery over what happened to Astrid’s grandfather and why she feels guilty about her part in it.

I could go on and on and list everything about the characters and plots that felt incomplete and superficial. Right from being hammered over our heads with the fact that Astrid’s family is falling apart and only she can save it; to all the people who are given some sort of “mysterious” background information to make them interesting (but they just feel like missed opportunities to have fleshed them out better)

It was a fast read and I think as a movie it would make a really good visual spectacle. But, as a book, there is nothing much that held my attention in terms of the larger cast of characters.

The Boy Who Killed Grant Parker – By Kat Spears

Rating:

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*Note: I won this book through Goodreads giveaway program*

Synopsis:

Luke Grayson’s life might as well be over when he’s forced to go live in rural Tennessee with his Baptist pastor father. His reputation as a troublemaker has followed him there, and as an outsider, Luke is automatically under suspicion by everyone from the principal at his new school to the local police chief. His social life is no better. The new kid in town is an easy target for Grant Parker, the local golden boy with a violent streak who has the entire community of Ashland under his thumb.

But things go topsy-turvy when a freak accident removes Grant from the top of the social pyramid, replacing him with Luke. This fish out of water has suddenly gone from social outcast to hero in a matter of twenty-four hours. For the students who have lived in fear of Grant all their lives, this is a welcome change. But Luke’s new found fame comes with a price. Nobody knows the truth about what really happened to Grant Parker except for Luke, and the longer he keeps living the lie, the more like Grant Parker he becomes.

My Review: (contains mild spoilers)

Being bullied is hard. Standing up to bullies is harder. But what about suddenly being in the same position of power as the bully? How does one wield that? As Luke finds out, that’s probably the hardest for him.

I am so conflicted about my ratings (kept toggling between 3 and 3.5). I loved the whole idea behind this book – being on both sides of bullying and how one can get weak when it comes to making the hard choices when everything is suddenly going hunky-dory for you. I rarely read books from the POV of a male teenager. So, this was something different and a change from reading about all the high school pressures faced by teenage girls.

Kat Spears does a very good job of showing it from a guy’s perspective. I really empathized with Luke’s situation – a city kid used to the anonymity provided by Washington – as he ends up in a small town where he sticks out and is soon known to everyone. Right from his flashy T-Shirts and lack of interest in hunting; to his agnostic beliefs, he just feels at odds with everything and everyone in Ashland. The only people who sort of seem to get him are Delilah, one of his classmates and the local police chief’s daughter and Roger – a garage owner who offers Luke a part-time job.  The isolation, embarrassment and dreading over facing school every morning, and then avoiding people and situations amidst all of this – all those feelings were just so spot-on.

The first half of the book is really good and I totally got and understood everything Luke was going through. But, it was after the “freak accident” that I just began to feel disconnected with him.  Luke’s account went from feeling personal to ..well.. me feeling like an outside spectator to the entire in-his-head ordeal. Sure, he is still saying things like him feeling bad about his former friends being bullied and him not doing anything about it or, him feeling uneasy about alienating Delilah and Roger – but it just didn’t feel forceful or honest enough. While I loved that Spears made him a sort of anti-hero and not-so-perfect or likeable teenage protagonist, I just couldn’t understand what I should make of his “introspection” later on. It felt more like a matter of convenience for him – as if he changed only because he wanted people like Delilah and others not to be angry with him anymore; and because the other “cool kids” just bored the hell out of him. Oh, there was also this slight issue of Grant Parker’s former girlfriend (and his current girlfriend) nagging him daily to change him and turn him into some kind of suave social butterfly. So, it basically felt like Luke changed back to his previous self only because he realized it is too hard to don the mantle of Grant Parker’s social self – and not because Luke felt like repenting.

I also felt there were too many secondary characters and none of them made any kind of lasting impression. Those who could have – such as Delilah and Roger – were given sort-of background facts about their earlier life; so I just felt they were given a raw deal when they were ignored in later part of the book. People closer to home – such as Luke’s dad and step-mom were written as weird caricatures of religious people.

This book was a pretty fast and easy read. I liked the theme of the book and Spears’ approach of keeping a lot of the storytelling simple. But, I just felt this “simplicity” ended up being more of a weakness in the later part of the book.

Phantom Limbs – By Paula Garner

  Rating:

Note: I won an ARC of this book via giveaway hosted by Amy@novelgossip

Buy links:

Kindle       Hardcover   Audio CD

Synopsis2

How do you move on from an irreplaceable loss? In a poignant debut, a sixteen-year-old boy must learn to swim against an undercurrent of grief—or be swept away by it.

Otis and Meg were inseparable until her family abruptly moved away after the terrible accident that left Otis’s little brother dead and both of their families changed forever. Since then, it’s been three years of radio silence, during which time Otis has become the unlikely protégé of eighteen-year-old Dara—part drill sergeant, part friend—who’s hell-bent on transforming Otis into the Olympic swimmer she can no longer be. But when Otis learns that Meg is coming back to town, he must face some difficult truths about the girl he’s never forgotten and the brother he’s never stopped grieving. As it becomes achingly clear that he and Meg are not the same people they were, Otis must decide what to hold on to and what to leave behind. Quietly affecting, this compulsively readable debut novel captures all the confusion, heartbreak, and fragile hope of three teens struggling to accept profound absences in their lives.

My review (contains mild spoilers)

This was a wonderfully nuanced novel in its exploration of so many powerful themes through its characters. I thought it would be easier for me to talk about each of them taking turns for the three main characters:

otis I loved how Garner made sure he didn’t turn out to be a sad Mary-Sue version. I mean, he is described as someone with an athletic body, good with kids, and a loyal friend and totally disinterested with the fact that all these attributes would easily get him a date. Sounds typical and unreal, right? But, Garner does make him believable. There is a history, reason, and background to the way he is.

Themes explored:

Sexuality: Sure, he is still pining for Meg, but you also see glimpses of how he is (or might have been) a regular teen when he does notice that someone is good-looking or mentally compares someone with Meg. The closest female relationship he has had since Meg left him is his friend-slash-coach Dara. There is a moment in the book where he does compare Meg to Dara and how he finds the former more physically and sexually attractive. I just found it interesting that the only person he immediately sought to compare with is the probably the only female friend he has. So, while Meg and he have a lot of shared emotional baggage and history which binds Otis to her, I wonder whether he and Dara could have ever been more than just friends.

Friendship – Oh, they were more than just friends all right!! I mean, not lovers but definitely not your regular buddies either. It was an intense friendship because at its root, it was borne out of a need to numb the past wounds. It definitely started out at a need-based relationship – Otis needed a routine something that would force him out of the grieving stupor over his brother’s death. Dara needed another goal to replace her own scuttled Olympics dream. So Otis welcomes Dara’s vigorous swimming training and humors her Olympics ambition for him. Dara was just content in living vicariously through him. But finally the carefully constructed and fragile schedule starts coming apart when Otis realizes that time is running out for him to confront Dara with the fact that he isn’t really chuffed about training for the Olympic trials. The mail from Meg and later, her reappearance further distracts him.

I absolutely loved his equation with Dara. Sure, at times their friendship felt symbiotic but there was something so pure and honest about it. I loved how Otis recognized and acknowledged that Dara was crucial for him to get through the months after his brother’s death.

Loss – Otis has grieved for the last three years, not just over the loss of his brother but also Meg – who leaves him without any explanation. His brother, Mason’s death is like a scab that he can’t scratch at, it is always there. He wants to preserve Mason’s memories forever, but each good memory is followed and clouded by the fact that they can’t be relived in the present day.

And Meg? Her disappearance hurt him, but her reappearance confuses him further. He sees that she has changed and realizes he isn’t the same either. He compares his pain to that of a phantom limb – of something that exists in nothingness and he doesn’t know how to deal with it.

dara  Definitely one of my favorite characters this year!! She is described as someone who is gritty, hates sympathy coming her way due to half her left arm missing, and has always had a bit of a reckless streak in her.

Themes explored:

Sexuality – This book and Dara will definitely be on my LGBT recs list this year! I loved how Garner wrote her as she was trying to let her defenses down and accept that there is nothing wrong to be a little “vulnerable” in love. It was a huge step for Dara to let someone that close to her life – her inner thoughts and insecurities. It was also difficult for Dara because she knew it is something her father wouldn’t approve.

Parental Abandonment – Her father emotionally abandons her after her accident because he had set his sights on her winning the Olympics. She craves for that love and acceptance from him again and this is one of the reasons she is hesitant to reveal to everyone that she might be a lesbian. Because, she worries it might be the last straw for her father.

It isn’t just her father who has abandons her. Her mother does too… but to say anything else will be a huge spoiler.

Loss – She has suffered from many losses – of her parents, dreams, and a degree of independence with the loss of her limb. She insists on driving a car with a clutch and manual gear system (though she can afford a better car) because I guess, somewhere she likes being challenged every day? I wasn’t really sure why.

The hardest loss for her is definitely her limb because it isn’t just that – She doesn’t have half her left arm and what that leaves her with is the occasional phantom pain that she can overcome only by either the mirror box or Otis rubbing his hands in front of her (thereby creating a virtual reality). The pain is hard on her psyche especially when it shoots up during her swim sessions. After all the efforts to wave off sympathy, her body doesn’t support her  when she most needs it and she feels embarrassed when her teammates watch her writhing. Moreover, it feels like a cruel taunt aimed at her whenever she is trying her best to continue doing what she loves – swimming.

Friendship – Otis is her protégé slash closest friend. He is the first one who is privy to her past and the first person in whom Dara has confided so much. I loved how Dara changed through the book, from someone who wanted to hold onto Otis for the lost dream he represented to someone who was willing to let him go for his sake. Some of the revelations in the end totally surprised me. Throughout the book, we mostly see how Otis is more perceptive towards her and understands her but we never really get a sense of it being reciprocated. But, in the end, we see that she understands him and has listened to him all these years.

meg  Since the story is from Otis’ POV, we are as clueless about her as he is. I mean, a large part of the story’s “mystery” is centered on her. Why did she leave? Why did she come back? What happened in her life the past three years? These are the questions Otis desperately wants to know, and yet he is scared to ask because it is also related to Mason’s death. He has tried to stay aloof from the exact details so far because he is scared to know any further. This was probably the only part of the book that I felt a bit lacking – the whole routine where Meg wants to tell him but he doesn’t want to listen and when he does want to know, Meg doesn’t open up. It was built like a big mystery plot but the revelation isn’t that surprising.

Themes explored:

Well, since Meg is a bit of an enigma and revealing anything more about her would be a major spoiler, I am just talking about a couple of themes (and skipping others):

Guilt – This was probably the reason for all that changed in her after Mason’s death. As the years pass, the burden becomes easier in some ways, but harder in many other ways. This intense feeling of guilt is also shared by Otis’ mom. One of my favorite Meg scenes is between the two, because it provided some sort of closure to a painful chapter in her life.

Loss – Otis was her best friend and first love ; so leaving him when she had just entered her teens was hard. In addition, she also has to deal with the loss of the family structure that she has always known – due to her parents separating.

Overall impressions – This was definitely my favorite book released this year. The ending was deeply satisfying and I was so happy that no character was shortchanged or treated shabbily by the other.

 

A Fatal Family Secret (The Morphosis.me Files, #1)

Rating:

Author : Samantha Marks
Publication date : May 26th 2015
Genres : Fantasy, Young Adult

Note : I received an e-copy of this book from xpressobooktours in exchange for an honest review.

Synopsis (From Goodreads):
If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?

On the first day of high school, Kayleigh wishes she could be taller, curvier, and cooler. But when she discovers she’s a shape-shifter, she bites off more than she can chew. Overnight, she becomes a target, and surviving the school-year means defending herself against cyber-bullies, learning to control her new-found powers, and hiding from the ancient secret society that kidnapped her mother. Morphing has consequences, and Kayleigh begins to realize that being able to change into anything can mean losing herself in the process.

My Review:

I am not sure how to start my review, because this book is like a really cool goodie bag with a lot of cute stuff. Aaaahhh…. Well, I guess I can begin by mentioning what drew me to pick this book – It’s super adorable book cover. And the cute factor doesn’t stop there.. There is something so cute (Yes, yes, I know I have overused the word) and quaint about the entire story; the world, people and setup. Irish folklore, characters with diverse backgrounds, fairy tales, mysterious antique jewellery, secret notes and lot more. There is such a picturesque, and an almost Disney-like magical feel to the entire narration. I think part of it is because of the main “superpower capabilities” featuring in this book: morphing. It looks like it is unrestrained with near-limitless possibilities – people can change into pretty much anything (and anyone) tangible. So it is a lot of fun reading about ..say.. someone changing from an old man, into a crane and then a panda all in the span of a few minutes.

The story is paced pretty well, covering an entire term at high school, and I never felt lost with respect to where we are in terms of the passing of time from the first page, because we are taken through the descriptions of seasons changing from winter to spring and the festivities of Halloween, Christmas and Valentine’s day. This school year is particularly tumultuous for Kayleigh – it has been two years since her mom went missing, and she feels like she needs her now more than ever, what with her facing bullying at school, going through puberty, and suffering from a really low self-esteem because of which she is not able to stand up for herself or be confident around the guy she has a crush on. To be honest, I wasn’t totally convinced about the whole bullying theme in the book, maybe because I couldn’t really understand why she got cowed down so quickly. Because from what I saw, it was Kayleigh who had a larger circle of friends than the “mean girl” who just had two girls tagging along with her. As I read along, I think I slowly got where Kayleigh’s anxieties and fragility stemmed from. There was a point in the book where she breaks down because all the events of the past couple of years – beginning with her mom’s disappearance, to recent strange discoveries about her mom’s past, cyber bullying, the typical high school stress related to grades, friends and dating, physical changes to her body due to puberty and morphing – take a toll on her.

My favorite moment in the book is a conversation between Kayleigh and her friend. I can’t discuss it much because it is a major spoiler, but I will say that it was a mix of sad, profound and ironical. I just found it so fitting and “right” that the “limitations” of morphing was addressed so succinctly. You need to identify and get comfortable with your core self before trying to perfect morphing. And sometimes the cards life deals you feels so unfair, and no amount of morphing can completely heal or change that.

The book is strewn with some red herrings, so I had fun guessing. I got a few right, and was totally off the mark with some others. I thought this was a really good start to the series with so many things left to discover in the next book. The only thing I am a bit sceptical about is how the whole “international secret evil organization” is going to play out. There are times I feel the whole scope and premise of that track is so… vast, that I wonder whether the rest of the story will be able to gracefully handle the weight of it. So I am curious to see how that turns out.

The book is now available to download for free from kindle store, and I would definitely recommend that you check this one out!

(Amazon) Links:

Kindle
Paperback

Cargo (The Reservation Trilogy, #1) – By Jen Castleberry

9781942111061 Rating:

Buy link: Cargo (The Reservation Trilogy Book 1)

*Note: I received an e-copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review*

Synopsis (From Goodreads):

The earth has been reduced to a singular continent, governed by extra-terrestrials, collapsed by nuclear weapons residue and wracked with radiation sickness. Only one viable territory remains, and access there is restricted by a mysterious selection process. Everyone hopes to be chosen for transport. Everyone but Cass. 

Seventeen year old Cassidy Hartinger has spent the past eleven years living in a government-maintained bunker. She should be thrilled when a handsome transporter arrives to take her to the Reservation. So why does she feel like he’s dragging her, kicking and screaming, straight into the anti-paradise?

Faced with gun-wielding survivalists and elemental catastrophes, will Cass make it more than two steps out of the bunker? Will her journey to peace and safety in the Reservation turn out to be the most perilous thing she’s encountered so far?

Fast-paced action and a tumultuous teenage romance will keep readers begging for more installments of The Reservation Trilogy!

My Review

I was curious to see how a post-apocalyptic dystopian trilogy would work as novellas. Is it enough to establish the characters and also describe the “world” in the story? Well, first let me talk about the world building. There are references to E.Ts and hybrid beings but we never really meet or read anything that is not “human”. It is more on the lines of a war-torn city courtesy periodic bombing and air-raids. So you have damaged buildings and roads, the commoners pretty much left abandoned and forced to take handouts from the church and the “Reservation”, which is the only prosperous place left. Cassidy was whisked away from her parents and sent to live in a bunker under a church with other children and teenagers. There are no crazy mutated monsters in this book. Everything is as “real” as you would expect in any current city razed down because of war. For a change, you have a teen protagonist who is thrilled to get away from her family (bickering parents, no opportunity to make friends, house arrest et al) and put into a bunker full of kids in her age group. So for the next ten years, she makes two best friends – Nars and Adrienne – a family of her choosing. She longs to be back with them, she thinks about them in practically every other page. So, I felt it was a bit overdone, but maybe, somewhere it was necessary too. To drive home the point. Since this is a short book, it is harder to spend much time on “showing” rather than just “telling”. So we are told a lot about her missing Adrienne and Nars. She is so used to sharing a bunk bed with Adrienne that the hardest adjustment she has to make is the idea of sleeping alone. She misses her terribly and I liked how that was described. I mean, it is kind of rare nowadays to see “physical affection” described between friends without sexual connotations.

Since I am now quite familiar with some of the popular tropes used in dystopian fiction, I did get a feeling of been-there-done-that with some of the character dynamics and plot points. Teen female protagonist forced to leave the familiarity of her home? Check. Friendzoning your male bestie who has a crush on you? Check. Creepy and elite officials you want to punch but cannot. Check. Crushing on the guy who is irritatingly secretive about everything? Check. I quite liked Nathan though. There was something sensible and mature about the way he handled Cassidy. I usually warm up and sympathize with the “friend-crush” (Nars) in books because they are always ditched by the girl who ends up with the better looking and the originally intended “hero” of the book. But surprisingly, though I liked Nars, I didn’t care much about his feelings towards Cassidy. Maybe it is because when he had to make a crucial decision, his self-preservation kicked in, and not “selfless love”.

I finished the book with a feeling that there were more unanswered questions than answers which will be addressed in the future books. But I would have loved it if there was more of a window to get a glimpse of it in the first book itself. I feel like it would have given the proceedings more verve, especially during their journey through the desert. I thought this was one of those books which seems a bit generic as a standalone but will feel more rounded in context of a completed series. So, if you are looking to start a new dystopian trilogy with a short, brisk first instalment, this does make for a nice, quick read.

Gambit (The Prodigy Chronicles #1)

9781942111061 Rating:

Author : C.L. Denault
Published by : REUTS Publications
Publication date : March 31st 2015
Genres : Dystopia, Young Adult

Note : I received an e-copy of this book from xpressobooktours in exchange for an honest review.

Synopsis (From Goodreads):

In Earth’s battle-ridden future, humans have evolved. Those with extraordinary skills rise to power and fame. Those without live in poverty.

Sixteen-year-old Willow Kent believed she was normal. But when a genetically-advanced military officer shows up in her village and questions her identity, long-buried secrets begin to emerge. With remarkable skills and a shocking genetic code the Core and its enemies will do anything to obtain, Willow suddenly finds the freedom she craves slipping through her fingers. Greed, corruption, and genetic tampering threaten every aspect of her existence as she’s thrust, unwilling, into the sophisticated culture of the elite Core city. To ensure peace, she must leave the past behind, marry a man she’s never met, and submit to the authority of a relentless officer with a hidden agenda of his own.

Her life has become a dangerous game. How much will she sacrifice in order to win?

My Review:

The book has a lot of elements you would expect and be familiar with from a classically modern-day dystopian novel. But the first few pages gave me a queasy sense of deja vu with its all-too-familiar introduction of a girl in her teens living with the simpler folks from the outer villages who are governed and at the mercy of scraps from the oppressive main city. However, the story took off amazingly well and set itself apart due to the author’s deft handling of all the revelations about Willow’s identity and the murky politics of the Core city. We are never given all the information completely and yet enough to keep us inquisitive and interested. I quite liked reading Willow’s peaceful, normal life with her siblings and parents in their family-owned pub and her friendship-with-romantic-potential relationship with Tem. And then there is the school in a slightly decrepit building that she attends where she also gets a bit of defence training from her instructor Kane. The stable life that she knows turns on its head when Reece, an officer from the Core pays a visit to their pub. She is forced to leave everything that she has grown up with and move into an uncertain future.

The world-building is pretty cool, I totally dug the idea of the Core city run by powerful councils and families who own the major power and medical industries. Some of the futuristic initiatives by the Core such as an almost-complete reliance on solar energy and tree conservation (by entirely doing away with paper) gave me a vibe of a utopian-tomorrow for a fleeting moment. I loved the whole concept of the Surge, which takes place when kids turn sixteen and may or may not result in them developing a “skill” (translation: superpower). The first half of the book is pure adrenaline rush, very entertaining and everything that a first book of a dystopian-fantasy series should be like. I loved the power-play between Reece and Willow. I liked how Willow was written; she was angry, conflicted, rebellious, and almost felt cheated that she has no control over the rest of her life. I thought the way she reacted was raw, natural and just the way I would expect a sixteen year old to react when told that she has to leave behind her family and country ways and take on another identity.

So what didn’t I like? Well, pretty much most of the second-half of the book. It turns Willow-Reece centric and let’s just say, it is something I couldn’t wrap my head around. Why? Well, the author does too good of a job establishing Reece as a cold-blooded, abusive, murderous and manipulative guy, so it is difficult to see past that later on in the book. I honestly found him nothing less than loathsome. Is he a layered, interesting character? Yes, definitely. And that’s what made all the Reece-Willow (and Reece-X/Y/Z) confrontations so chillingly effective in the first half of the book. But their equation starts changing after the story shifts to the Core city and that’s when I felt both the pace and narrative of the book drops. We meet new characters, but they are just not allowed more breathing room. Some of them are in a position of power and actually seem nice and capable of empathy, so I couldn’t understand how they seemed undisturbed by some of the violent goings-on. There are a lot of “Willow settling in and getting used to her new surrounding” pages, and while it is nice and also a bit amusing to see her staring and questioning about all the new gadgets and stuff, it gets a bit boring after sometime. I started missing some of the characters from earlier part of the book. And as I said, there was way too much of Reece-Willow, and to be honest, it turned into more of a Dystopian-Romance. The romance bit troubled me, because Reece does too many things in the beginning of the book which is hard to forgive and brush over, so the attempt to humanize him in the second half of the book and Willow softening towards him didn’t sit well with me. Nor did his blow-hot-blow-cold, physically and emotionally aggressive behaviour towards Willow.

At over 550 pages in paperback, it is a long book but there is enough meat in the first half to go through the entire book easily. Gambit ends on a promising note, with the significance behind the title revealed and Willow trying to ascertain herself in the position of being able to make more choices. It is clear that there is a lot more to the series in terms of Core politics and Willow’s destiny. I always find it a bit irksome when the romance ends up taking away the focus from other (and, in my opinion, stronger) aspects of the story. But keeping that aside, it is a pretty decent series-opener.

Buy links:
Gambit : Paperback
Gambit : Kindle