Archive for 5 stars

The Princesses of Iowa by M. Molly Backes

Aug
21
2 COMMENTS • This post is filed under: 5 stars, Contemporary

Book: The Princesses of Iowa
Author: M. Molly Backes
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release date: May 8, 2012
Source: Bought signed copy from author

 

Summary from Goodreads:

What does it mean to do wrong, when no one punishes you? A smart and unflinching look at friendship, the nature of entitlement, and growing up in the heartland.

Paige Sheridan has the perfect life. She’s pretty, rich, and popular, and her spot on the homecoming court is practically guaranteed. But when a night of partying ends in an it-could-have-been-so-much worse crash, everything changes. Her best friends start ignoring her, her boyfriend grows cold and distant, and her once-adoring younger sister now views her with contempt. The only bright spot is her creative writing class, led by a charismatic new teacher who encourages students to be true to themselves. But who is Paige, if not the homecoming princess everyone expects her to be? In this arresting and witty debut, a girl who was once high-school royalty must face a truth that money and status can’t fix, and choose between living the privileged life of a princess, or owning up to her mistakes and giving up everything she once held dear.

My Big Fat Disclaimer 

In the interest of fairness, (and maybe only a teensy bit of pride [but totally the Mama Bear pride and not the gross look-at-me pride]) I should disclose that I know the author, M. Molly Backes. Over the past few years she has been my teacher, critique partner, and friend. While this does not prevent me from stating my honest opinions on the quality of her book, I am probably in a position to like it as a person familiar with her personality and writing style. With that all out in the open, let’s move on.

Shit just got real…

Go back up and read the first bolded line of the summary above. I’ll wait.

Back now? Good. I point it out (for the lazy set: “What does it mean to do wrong, when no one punishes you?”) because I think understanding this theme from the outset greatly impacts your enjoyment of the book. This is not a story about fluffy bunnies and sparkly unicorns and beautiful rainbows (even though, in my mind, that cover is just asking for a rainbow). This is a story about real things that can, and do, happen to teenagers.

The situations in this book punched me in the gut. I dare you to read the prologue and not connect deeply with at least some portion of it. Molly Backes is a master of Getting It. She wrote a character, Paige Sheridan, who is struggling to understand consequences, or the completely unjust and unfair LACK of them, that accompanies the life of a high school student, in a way that was believable and thought-provoking. Backes peeled back the superficial layers and forced Paige, and us as readers, to acknowledge the ugly sides of human behavior and the ease with which cruelty and convenience can influence even the best of intentions.

Life is not fair. Things don’t always end up the way we want them to. And I love that Backes portrayed this so truthfully in her narrative. Not everyone agrees with me.

“Issue” is such a loaded word…

Is this an issue book? It deals with the impact of a drunk driving accident on a group of girls. It illustrates common teen situations of homophobia, bullying, partying, and sex. But I didn’t see it as an issue book. It wasn’t pointing out the perils of drunk driving and why teens should avoid it. Were there severe consequences from the accident? Yes. One girl was seriously injured. But that wasn’t the point of the story. Nor was the point of the story to show us how destructive homophobia can be on a community, or how teen girls should handle their drunk boyfriends trying to rape them. The drinking and the sex and the gay slurs just happened to be a part of Paige’s life, and all of these things impact her growth from a narcissistic princess into a contemplative writer. This is Paige’s story and journey, not an issue book passing judgment on the behavior of its teen characters.

I appreciated that Backes didn’t gloss over any aspect of Paige’s life. She has a manipulative best friend, a weak-willed boyfriend, and a self-absorbed mother. Her friends drink too much, Paige cares too much about what people think, and everyone in this book is capable of bad decisions. The beauty of this book is the subtlety with which each character’s growth is illustrated. There is not one cathartic event that pulls everyone together. Instead, there are a series of events that impact different characters in unique ways, setting all of them on a different trajectory. 

Sisters, man…

One of the best devices I noticed to show a subtle change was the name Paige used for her sister. In the first half of the book, Paige’s younger sister Miranda repeatedly has to remind everyone that she prefers to be called Mirror. As with many flights of fancy with young people, she is ignored. Paige refers to her always as Miranda, since that’s her name, and she thinks calling her Mirror is dumb.

I don’t know when exactly the shift occurred, but toward the end of the book I noticed that Paige was consistently calling her sister Mirror. While finding acceptance of herself, Paige began to understand that something as simple as a name change was also an important way for her sister to find her own identity. Though Paige may not have given herself a unique nickname, I think she subconsciously realized that Mirror did so because she wanted to be taken seriously, much like how Paige now wanted to be viewed as more than just a vapid princess. And she finds common ground, as well as a fresh starting point in their relationship, by using her sister’s preferred name and therefore validating Mirror’s perspective and identity. As someone with a younger sister, I really connected with this concept.

What I’m saying is…

I’m no expert in contemporary YA fiction, but this one spoke to me on so many levels. It’s a book that will make you think, which is always a good thing. It sheds some light on the power of cliques and group thinking that can take over a teen’s life without them even realizing it. Backes finds a way to validate experiences without passing judgment, and without needing to find a lesson in every difficult event that her characters encounter. Life doesn’t always hand us teachable moments, nor do we find answers in the immediate aftermath of major events. It’s how we process our experiences into making the choices that feel right to us that truly matters.

 

 

 

 

Rating: 5/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system



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Review: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

May
04
6 COMMENTS • This post is filed under: 5 stars, Historical

Book: Grave Mercy
Author: Robin LaFevers
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release date: April 3, 2012
Source: eARC from NetGalley
Series: His Fair Assassin #1

 

Summary from Goodreads:

Why be the sheep, when you can be the wolf?

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous giftsâ??and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittanyâ??where she finds herself woefully under preparedâ??not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Deathâ??s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

First impressions: YOU GUYS. LADY NUN ASSASSINS. Enough said.

Lasting impressions: Ismae may be one of my favorite heroines of all time. She’s up there with Claire Randall, vying for the top spot. She’s smart, humble, kind, merciful, and oh yeah – a stealthy handmaiden of death.

Conflicting impressions: While the convent was a large focus of the first part of this book, the ending didn’t tie up many loose ends in that regard. I have a feeling much of this information will become the focus in later books, but I felt a little jilted in this book when it came to Sybella and some of the other sisters.

Overall impressions: It’s a historical novel with courtly intrigue and a protagonist who is a kick-ass murderer. But a nice kick-ass murderer. I would have bet anyone a million dollars that I would love this book.

Guess what? I win!

The premise of this book could never hold the weight of its own ambition without a heroine that makes the reader care about her. From the very first page, Ismae stole my heart. Trapped under an abusive father, marked by Death himself to be an outcast, and thrust into a marriage with a disgusting pig of a man, I couldn’t help but want something more for her. When she is offered a home and a purpose for her miserable life at St. Mortain’s convent, Ismae can finally start to believe in herself. 

The bulk of the novel focuses on one of Ismae’s first major assignments. She is assigned to play mistress to Lord Duval and accompany him to the Breton court to ferret out traitors that need assassinating. There is a delectable romance that builds between the two unlikely lovebirds, and I appreciated that LaFevers devoted more time to personality based obstacles than class driven ones. Yes he’s a Lord and one of the most influential men at court, and she’s just the lowly peasant girl, but that never seems to be the focus for why these two shouldn’t fall in love.

Perhaps why I loved Ismae so much was precisely because LaFevers made her more complicated than the usual historical trope. Despite her training and occupation, Ismae is an Everywoman. She’s unsure of herself and makes mistakes. She follows at times she should be leading. She trusts when she shouldn’t. Yet we don’t fault her for any of it. We understand why she makes the decisions she does, and it makes her all the more believable and compelling. 

Do I think this story needed to meander through nearly 600 pages? No. There were moments where the pacing lagged and Ismae got a bit repetitive with her musings. At its core, however, this novel has a pure soul that guides us carefully through morally complicated situations that at times benefited from a lengthier examination. As Ismae determines her true calling as Death’s handmaiden, the book culminates in one of the most spiritually enlightened moments I’ve ever experienced in fiction. 

The vast depth to this book offers pure pleasure to the reader. If you’re willing to invest the time, it will heap its rewards upon you. There’s a reason for the hype, and this one definitely lives up to it.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

 



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Review: Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver

Apr
04
6 COMMENTS • This post is filed under: 5 stars, Dystopian

Book: Pandemonium
Author: Lauren Oliver
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release date: February 28, 2012
Source: Around the World ARC Tours
Series: Delirium #2

Summary from Goodreads: Iâ??m pushing aside the memory of my nightmare,
pushing aside thoughts of Alex,
pushing aside thoughts of Hana and my old school,
push,
push,
push,
like Raven taught me to do.
The old life is dead.
But the old Lena is dead too.
I buried her.
I left her beyond a fence,
behind a wall of smoke and flame.

Lauren Oliver delivers an electrifying follow-up to her acclaimed New York Times bestseller, Delirium. This riveting, brilliant novel crackles with the fire of fierce defiance, forbidden romance, and the sparks of a revolution about to ignite.

**slight spoilers for book one contained in this review**

First impressions: I had no clue what to expect with this book. I liked Delirium, but had some major issues with the premise of a society that views love as a disease. It kept me from fully enjoying Lena and Alex’s story, despite beautiful writing. I went in to this one with some hesitation as a result, which turned out to be completely unnecessary.

Lasting impressions: This may be one of the only times I recommend reading a first book just so you can read the second one. This sequel was a thousand times more enjoyable for me than Delirium, and no matter what your feelings on the first book, this is a fantastic read that nearly stands on its own.

Conflicting impressions: I thought Julian changed his ideals and morality a bit too quickly and conveniently. It definitely added tension to Lena’s storyline, but I found it hard to swallow that he would be so afraid and disgusted by Lena’s affliction of delirium, only to fall victim to it a few days or weeks later with no internal conflict.

Overall impressions: When we left Lena at the end of Delirium, she had made it past the wall into The Wilds, and her love Alex had been captured in Portland. This book picks up immediately after, with Lena injured and heartbroken at the assumed death of Alex. She is saved by a group of people on the outside, who take her into their community and nurse her back to health. As she gets stronger and more determined to live life free of the cure, she begins to take on more advanced assignments within their group’s resistance efforts.

Lena experiences some major growing pains in this book. She is alone in spirit, fending for herself for the first time. She makes some acquaintances with her new family in the wilderness, but on the outside people are harder and have been through so much pain that they build emotional walls to fill the place of the physical ones of their old lives. Raven, the mothering leader, is tough as nails while holding tenuously to her desire to care for others. She and Lena have an interesting dynamic that is at times competitive and at times friendly. It’s hard to fully trust her, despite the fact that she seems to do what’s best.

Things really ramp up when Lena is sent to a public rally to spy on a young uncured named Julian. Lena winds up being kidnapped with him and despite his fear of her as a delirium victim, he feels drawn to her. They share some touching moments during captivity and Julian begins to fall for Lena. As they work to escape, navigating their feelings becomes equally treacherous as their harrowing situations. Lena is conflicted about her remaining feelings for Alex, and Julian has been brought up to despise everything that Lena stands for. It’s an interesting dynamic ripe with tension.

The book is full of exciting action and beautiful prose. I appreciated the chance to follow Lena outside the contstrained life in Portland, and following her through the wilderness and into New York City brought a fresh perspective that was so much fun to read. The story is told through chapters that alternate between a 6 month timeframe, labeled “now” and “then.” In the now chapters, we follow Lena and Julian’s exploits, and in the then chapters we see how Lena made her way from Portland to Raven’s crew. When the stories ultimately collide at the end, Lauren Oliver drops another bomb on us (though ultimately not that surprising) and leaves us with another uncertain ending that begs for continuation. It was an appropriate end to this section of Lena’s story, but I anxiously await the third book to see what comes next for Lena.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system



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A fan of historical, dystopian, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, mystery, steampunk, and young adult fiction, as well as any book that thinks smartly and imaginatively.

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