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We All Looked Up
We All Looked Up
by Tommy Wallach
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.21
51 used & new from $9.00

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quiet, contemplative maybe-apocalypse, March 24, 2015
This review is from: We All Looked Up (Hardcover)
I really love a well-executed multiple-point-of-view book, but they’re hard to execute well. I’ve read a lot of multiple POV books by authors I otherwise enjoyed where the attempt to jump from one head to another kind of fell flat. Either one POV resonates more than the other(s), or they all sound kind of the same, or any number of other reasons.

Which is why this book stood out so much.

Even in third person, each of WE ALL LOOKED UP’s four narrators had their own unique voice, and each was a fully developed character, with strengths and flaws and moments of greatness mixed with moments of what-could-you-possibly-have-been-thinking. From Andy’s boneheaded pursuit of Eliza, to Anita’s ill-advised self-emancipation, to Eliza’s frustration over her undeserved reputation and Peter’s struggle between who he’s always been and who he wants to be, they all have honest and daunting uphill battles to fight in the face of their possibly impending doom.

The relationships start shallow, but become interwoven, intricate, and challenging. At the opening of the story, none of the four main characters know each other outside of a peripheral acquaintance, but as the meteor strips away the social boundaries keeping them apart, they come together in interesting and unexpected ways. They all begin the book viewing each other as objects and stereotypes — some more than others, but none are immune — until they don’t. Every one of them starts out as some version of “problematic” — again, some more than others — which, to me, read very true to where a lot of teens (and adults) are, drifting through life not really thinking about how their views and choices affect others until they have to.

I found it fascinating how the end-of-the-world scenario shoved them into those “until they have to” situations, and did it for each of them in different ways. How each faced the reality that they might all be dead in a couple months varied greatly — Do you try to become a better person? Do the thing you’ve always been afraid to do? Throw caution to the wind? — and told me a lot about each character and the lives they’d lived up to that point. By the end of the book, you may not necessarily be rooting for all four characters — some of them make some terrible choices with awful consequences — but I felt I understood them all better, and that they finally understood each other. Which, to me, felt like the point of their winding journeys.

The other aspect of this book I really loved was the glimpse into how society as a whole might handle an impending cataclysm. Since the approach of the meteor takes several months, and since they never know definitively whether its going to hit the earth or not, the world doesn’t instantly descend into chaos. Life goes on as normal — or normal-ish — for a while after the maybe-apocalypse is announced. But the closer the meteor gets, the more things break down. Kids stop attending school, people in unfulfilling jobs stop going to work, prices for basic goods and services skyrocket, rules and laws carry less and less weight until they’re eventually meaningless. The global shift in priorities starts subtle, then grows more and more pronounced throughout the book, until you can’t help but feel the slide. I’m not saying this is necessarily a more or less realistic view of what might happen than in other works of fiction where society bands together to work for the good of all; it’s just different. And for me, it was fascinating and kept the wheels in my brain turning for days after I finished the book.

I can’t speak to the science of the story. Physicists, I don’t know how realistic it is that NASA wouldn’t be able to predict whether or not a giant meteor will or will not hit us until the moment of impact. All I ask of science fiction (and this is extremely light science fiction, and even that categorization may be pushing it) is that it present its case in a way that allows me to buy into its premise for the duration of the book, and doesn’t throw anything at me that is so obviously far-fetched that it pulls me out of the story. And for me, WE ALL LOOKED UP delivered on that front.

Boiled down to its bones, this book is not an apocalypse story, but a character and relationship study under extraordinary circumstances. Its overall tone is quiet and contemplative, but there are definite moments of adrenaline and action and shock. It’s a weird one to peg down, because on one hand it has some definite science fiction aspects, but on the other hand it reads much more like a contemporary. I’d say that if you can swallow the maybe-end-of-the-world premise, and you enjoy well-drawn, far-from-perfect characters in scenarios that keep you thinking long after turning the final page, then you should try WE ALL LOOKED UP.


Mosquitoland
Mosquitoland
by David Arnold
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.78
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Full of sharp wit, abundant strangeness, and endless quotability, March 18, 2015
This review is from: Mosquitoland (Hardcover)
The first thing a reader notices when they pick up MOSQUITOLAND is the voice. Self-proclaimed strange protagonist Mary Iris Malone (“Mim”) leaps off the page, a precocious, declarative and impulsive girl with a view of life and people that is, even at its most stable, a little askew. She is quick to judge and quicker to act, and though her wit is razor-sharp, her common sense is quite a bit blurrier.

Which is why, as one might expect, her spur-of-the-moment road trip to find her absentee mom doesn’t go exactly as planned.

It’s an odd thing, sometimes, being an adult reading books about teenagers. Actions I would have cheered in my adolescence cause me to cringe, situations that appear romantic and exciting to a 16-year-old seem rife with danger, and the logic that feels incontrovertible to the teenage protagonist is riddled with holes.

Often, these are the sorts of things that can pull me out of a story, because checking one’s adult sensibilities at the door is not a natural impulse. Honestly, Mim makes a few choices that would probably even give some — or most — of her peers pause. But her voice is so open and authentic that even when she’s jumping into a scrap-heap truck with an older boy she just met or taking a dip in a probably-disease-riddled swimming hole or any of the myriad other weird and ill-considered things she does, I was with Mim, totally and completely, instead of wishing I could pull her back before she charged headlong into disaster.

And she does, on more than one occasion, charge into disaster. Sometimes physical and cataclysmic, sometimes internal and echoing, and probably not nearly as frequent as might be likely if a real-life Mim were to embark on this same journey. But the consequences Mim faces for her impulsive and often uninformed decisions are enough that while a reader may sympathize with Mim’s intentions, they can still recognize her fallibility and naivete.

As for tone, this book skillfully straddles the line between “issues” and “light” contemporary. It tackles hard topics in a way that gives them weight without bogging down the narrative, and balances tough real-world issues — mental illness, suicide, divorce, and sexual predators, among others (it’s worth mentioning that this book is marketed for readers 12 and up, but I think it skews a bit older) — with an effervescent lightness, as if the story has been painted with a vibrant, Wes Anderson-esque brush. Every part of MOSQUITOLAND is a little brighter and larger than life, from the cast to the plot to Mim herself and her perception of reality.

For my money, that’s a good thing: Mim views her story as grandiose and that is how she tells it, and being submerged in her off-the-beaten-path brain gives her tale a degree of authenticity that may not have been present with a more straightforward narrative.

Mim’s odyssey is a strange one, full of strange characters and strange happenings. But it’s also beautiful and fun and heartfelt and raw, and while Mim’s musings are not always brimming with objective wisdom, they are honest and endlessly quotable.

If you’re a fan of surprisingly eventful road trips, of quirky and bizarre casts of characters, of flawed protagonists, of vivid settings and skewed realities, of the type of voice that will dig its way into your brain and refuse to let go, and of strangeness, I can’t recommend MOSQUITOLAND highly enough.


A Darker Shade of Magic: A Novel
A Darker Shade of Magic: A Novel
by Victoria Schwab
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.76
66 used & new from $12.75

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magic, murder, intrigue, and fabulous coats, February 24, 2015
As with most high fantasy, A Darker Shade of Magic starts slow and quiet, building a world that is like ours, and not like ours, brick by brick. We meet Kell, a mysterious wanderer in a fabulous coat, who travels between worlds as easily as stepping from one room to another. There is Grey London, which plays like a straight historical fiction of our world, Red London, Kell’s home, which is rich and teeming with magic, and White London, which has been all but burned up by magic and treachery. And then there is Black London, which no one travels to anymore, not even Kell.

The world of each London is established subtly but confidently, and through Kell’s eyes, the rules of each overlapping London gradually become clear and distinct. Once we’ve gained our footing in the magic of Kell’s world and have a sense of the difficulties he faces in each London, we meet Lila, a cunning thief from Grey London with a quick hand and a taste for adventure. It takes a while for all the building blocks of the story to fall into place, but there are plenty of rewards for the patient reader, from the lush details of the worlds to the charming characters to Schwab’s signature poetic prose.

Then, once Lila and Kell inevitably cross paths, the story takes off, plunging both protagonists into a London-jumping whirlpool of courtly intrigue and deception while playing up the conflict between Lila’s lack of magic and Kell’s abundance of it to maximum, satisfying effect.

What V.E. Schwab did so well in Vicious, and what she does again here, is establish each of her characters, from heroes to villains, as fully realized, fleshed-out individuals. While Lila and Kell are both brave and charismatic, they are also criminals, and while the main antagonists – the terrifying sibling rulers of White London – are undeniably sinister, the people they use to carry out their dark deeds are in many ways conflicted and sympathetic. Blurring that line between hero and villain is a tricky game, but Schwab accomplishes it masterfully.

As I said before, the first half of the book may be a slow burn, but it’s a delicious one. Readers shouldn’t expect to plunge straight into adventure and murder and intrigue, but there is plenty to enjoy along the road to chaos. And once the book hits its stride, there are payoffs aplenty as the story builds in intensity all the way through to its twisting, bloody conclusion.

A Darker Shade of Magic will have a sequel, but this first installment ends on a perfectly satisfying note. I can’t wait to join Kell and Lila on their next London-hopping adventure, but I was utterly sated with the ending of this book. There are no cliffhangers here, only the graceful bow of one adventure while another waits in the wings, peeking around the corner.

If you’re in the mood for a refreshingly unique spin on alternate universes, magic, and devastatingly gorgeous coats – or if you just want a beautifully crafted story told in a mesmerizing, lovely, and occasionally creepy voice, then you should move A Darker Shade of Magic to the top of your list.


My Heart and Other Black Holes
My Heart and Other Black Holes
by Jasmine Warga
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.78
56 used & new from $8.08

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A thoughtful, honest story of loneliness, heartache, and hope, February 10, 2015
Suicide isn't a topic most people like to discuss. It's upsetting and sad, and I doubt the majority of folks want to believe that it's a subject they'll ever have to deal with personally. Of course, they think, if they ever need to talk about it, they will. They will get a suicidal person the help they need, and they will be supportive, and they will show their loved one that they are not alone.

The problem with that sort of thinking, unfortunately, is depression and suicidal thoughts are not visible to the naked eye. They isolate and tear down, whispering to the depressed person that they are alone in their struggle, and sometimes the people who love them don't see the signs until it is too late.

MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES tackles this difficult conundrum. Aysel (pronounced Uh-zel) is a 16-year-old girl living each day in tremendous doubt and fear after a horrific incident that turned her life upside down and inside out. Roman is a 17-year-old boy wracked with suffocating guilt over a terrible tragedy that he feels was his fault. Both of them consider the cold end of death far more appealing than the certain pain of continuing their lives. Both of them know they can't take the plunge into that dark unknown without a little nudge.

Both of them feel completely, devastatingly, alone.

But in that loneliness, they find common ground. And on that ground, using the pieces of their shattered lives, they start to build.

MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES takes a thoughtful, honest approach to depression and suicidal thoughts. Aysel's pain is very real and raw, and there are no easy answers for her. She sees the world through a jagged, fragmented lens that twists everything into ugly and hateful shapes. But even as she longs to escape her life, she has fears and uncertainties about what taking her own life means. And when she looks at Roman -- a boy who is good looking, popular, athletic, and loved by his parents -- she sees so many reasons to live that she can't see for herself.

I'll admit, parts of this story were hard for me to read. Any time Aysel had to interact with Roman's parents and felt guilt over what his death would do to them, I was gutted. And when the tragedies in each of their lives are revealed, it was achingly clear that should Roman and Aysel decide to live, their journeys will not be without pain and heartache and the kind of healing that can hurt worse than bleeding. This is not a story with easy answers or simple anything, and it felt all the more real for it. As the Author's Note at the end of the book states, recovery is not a switch flipping, but a daily battle that some people fight their whole lives.

But despite the pain and loneliness and bitter heartbreak in Aysel and Roman's lives, MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES is not a bleak book about death, but a story about hope. It takes two broken, hurting people and shows us that even at our darkest, we can be someone's light. Even at our weakest, we can find strength. And even the loneliest of us can provide support to someone who may desperately need it.


I Was Here
I Was Here
by Gayle Forman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.95
77 used & new from $7.07

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Raw, tragic, and ultimately hopeful, February 4, 2015
This review is from: I Was Here (Hardcover)
After reading Forman’s debut novel, If I Stay, and its sequel, Where She Went, I knew Forman was not afraid of tackling difficult subjects and handling them with care, which is why I was interested to see her approach to one of the most upsetting and relevant topics in our society today, teen suicide. Though the subject matter is far from pleasant, it only takes a glance at the headlines to confirm that this is a very real problem facing teens. It is my hope that I Was Here and books like it will help kids experiencing thoughts of suicide realize they are not alone, and raise awareness in the people who love them.

I Was Here follows Meg’s best friend, Cody, as she learns to navigate life without her other half following Meg’s suicide. We never meet Meg except through Cody’s memories, and while there is an element of mystery and suspense as Cody tries to make sense of why Meg would kill herself, I Was Here is ultimately a book about grief, and how to move on after unspeakable loss.

It feels strange to say I enjoyed a book centered on such a grim topic, but I did. I Was Here constantly walked the line between hopeful and tragic, light and dark, guilt and healing. Cody could be a difficult narrator at times, partially because she was in such a painful emotional state and partially because Cody was naturally standoffish, but the other characters provided balance and occasional humor, which I appreciated.

As in all of Forman’s books, there is a romantic element to I Was Here, but it took a backseat to Cody and Meg’s story. I enjoyed watching Cody and her reluctant love interest come together, and fans of subtle, slow-burn romance will appreciate how their story is woven into the main narrative of trying to put together the pieces Meg left behind.

The mystery – why Meg killed herself when, to Cody’s eyes, she had shown no indication that she was suicidal – takes both Cody and the reader down a disturbing rabbit hole that is both illuminating and horrifying. I was concerned at first that the book may attempt to distance itself from its subject matter, taking the easy way out, but I shouldn’t have worried. I Was Here faces its demons head-on, even when Cody would prefer to stay steeped in denial.

Even though the book winds up where most people probably assume it must, the journey Cody takes to get there is in turns heartbreaking and hopeful, and at the end, I came away satisfied. I’d recommend this book to fans of Forman’s previous books, as well as anyone interested in a raw, thoughtful story of depression, loss, grief, and healing.


For Real
For Real
by Alison Cherry
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.21
55 used & new from $3.79

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As compulsively enjoyable as reality TV is watchable, December 29, 2014
This review is from: For Real (Hardcover)
Man, this book was fun.

Everything about the premise of this book appealed to me. Sisters. Revenge. Reality TV. International travel. Romantic shenanigans. It sounded like exactly the sort of breezy, light read that would leave me with happy butterflies in my tummy and a goofy smile on my face. The kind of book that’s cozy like a pair of fuzzy slippers and a glass of lemonade. And it delivered in every way.

Miranda and Claire are not a saccharine-sweet pair of sisters — think less Meg and Beth, more Jo and Amy. They’re different in their interests, looks, personalities, insecurities. They’re the way I think lots of siblings are — two people who may not have ever chosen to spend much time interacting with each other if they hadn’t been raised under the same roof. It’s not that they’re incompatible; more that they’re not inherently complementary. But incongruities aside, they share a special bond, and I felt FOR REAL did a fantastic job exploring that dichotomy — sisters who love each other and are fiercely loyal to each other, despite how little they have in common.

I loved – loved – how their relationship was the driving force of the story. Miranda’s revenge on her sleazy ex-boyfriend, Claire’s awkward attempts to woo her charming crush, and the array of bizarre challenges they were forced to complete as contestants on Around the World were highly entertaining, but all the big emotional punches hinged on what was happening between the two sisters, as did most of the big shifts in motivation and stakes. It’s no big surprise that my favorite scene in the book — and one that may have provoked a few tears — was a quiet moment between the two sisters in the midst of all the crazy set pieces swirling around them. I loved the balance between the absurdity of what the characters were forced to do and the groundedness of the relationships. A book about competing on a ridiculous reality show needs to really drive home the authenticity in its characters and emotion, and I thought FOR REAL did a masterful job of that.

That said, the Around the World premise (and its unexpected and wholly inconvenient twist) was such wacky fun. Everything from the premise of the show, to the insane challenges, to the over-the-top contestants, to the polished host, to the zany twists was simultaneously outlandish and totally plausible in the current landscape of reality television. Following the characters through each challenge was as compulsively readable as actual reality TV is watchable. Plus I loved the snippets of different countries and cultures as the characters raced from one exotic location to another, even as the characters were frustrated that they didn’t really get to experience the different cultures because they were too busy smashing pomegranates and coating each other in pudding (yes, really).

As for the romance, all I’ll say is that FOR REAL is chock-full of the kind of witty banter and squishy moments and stolen glances that make for the best kind of romantic comedy — but that it never forgets its reality show premise, or that the primary focus of the book is the two sisters. So don’t expect conventional romance tropes to come into play here — in FOR REAL, the boys are the side show, never the main attraction.

All in all, if you’re a fan of great sister stories, or reality TV, or travel — or you’re just looking for a fun, quick, un-put-down-able read that makes you chuckle and groan and roll your eyes, all while tugging at your heartstrings and making you grin like a fool — then FOR REAL is the book for you.


Tease
Tease
by Amanda Maciel
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $13.39
77 used & new from $0.42

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Infuriating, brilliant, and important, July 18, 2014
This review is from: Tease (Hardcover)
From the opening pages of TEASE, I knew I wasn't going to like Sara -- and that it was okay. It's a rare YA book that has such a purposely unlikable narrator (the only other one I can think of off the top of my head is Lauren Oliver's BEFORE I FALL) but when you're reading about a girl that bullied her classmate to the point of suicide, you don't really expect her to be all sweetness and light.

If you are looking for sweetness and light, a warning: there is none of that in these pages.

Sara is self-centered, whiny, and seems to lack even a trace of empathy for everyone around her. Her rolling eyes and her "like, whatever" attitude immediately set the tone for the rest of the book. This wasn't a girl I wanted to root for. This was a girl I wanted to take by the shoulders and shake every time she repeated her "But I didn't do anything" mantra -- which she does for almost the entire novel, which alternates chapters between the months leading up to Emma's suicide and the months following.

In the flashbacks, we get to watch Sara and her BFF Brielle (think Regina George from "Mean Girls," except worse) be utterly, inexcusably horrible Emma. They're vicious and cruel and infuriating. But what's interesting is that we also get to see that Emma was no saint herself. She made mistakes. She did some underhanded stuff. In Sara and Brielle's eyes, she earned every bit of vitriol they spit at her. From Sara's perspective, she was the victim of Emma's cruelty, since Emma "stole" her boyfriend. Sara and Brielle were certain that Emma's tears were a stunt to grab attention, and that everything she did was intended to irritate them.

Now, does that excuse what they did to Emma? No. Not in the slightest. I thought Brielle was an absolutely horrible person (and totally undeserving of Sara's devotion to her) and that despite Emma's missteps, the punishments that Sara and Brielle doled out were far, far worse. They were toxic in every way. Watching them revel in their constant abuse of Emma was sickening and horrifying, especially since we kept flashing forward to the period after Emma had died and Sara still couldn't see that she did anything wrong.

That was the most disturbing part for me. How even after Emma was dead, Sara still couldn't understand the role she played. She still thought that Emma deserved what they'd done, and that the main problem was her lack of ability to take a joke.

It may sound like I'm trying to discourage you from reading this book, but here's the thing -- I thought TEASE was brilliant. I spent the majority of it furious with Sara and Brielle, but I thought it did an amazing job of showing how bullying happens without romanticizing either the perpetrators or the victims in the slightest. Sara is a terrible bully, but then we get to see her be a wonderful big sister to her two brothers (although let's be clear - I never really liked her). Emma is absolutely a victim, but she also purposely provokes them on a few occasions. Brielle is...well, Brielle is awful. But her awfulness is still somehow raw and real. Every character in TEASE was fully-formed and utterly believable, which is one of the things that made it so challenging. It wasn't like reading a story. It was like watching these events unfold in real life, and watching these kids self-destruct, and being unable to do anything about it.

But that's the beauty of a book. Because despite the fact that Emma, Sara, and Brielle don't exist, there are kids just like them who do, and maybe after reading TEASE, they will think twice about pulling a prank or starting a rumor. I think it's good that TEASE is infuriating, because maybe if a reader is furious with Sara, she will try harder to avoid being like Sara.

The prose is far from poetic, peppered with frequent, "like"s, "I don't know"s, "whatever"s, and "or something"s from Sara, who narrates exactly like the bored, insecure, self-centered teen she is. Her voice gives the whole book an authenticity that I don't think could have been achieved with a more lyrical style. It's a book where I thought the writing was perfection, even though it kind of made me want to rip my hair out.

Which is kind of the theme with every part of TEASE. Infuriating brilliance. Flawless abhorrence. Frustrating authenticity.

TEASE is not an easy book to read, but I found it impossible to put down. It's beautiful and ugly and terrifying and real, and I think there should be a copy in every high school library. It's not a book that made me cry, but it's a book that made me think. I never really came to root for the characters, but I'm not sure that was the point of this book. I hope that in a strange way, this book about these kids who totally lacked empathy will be able to inspire empathy in the Saras and Brielles who are reading. Not toward these fictional characters, but to the real people they encounter every day. I hope they'll be able to put themselves in someone else's shoes and choose the higher road. The one that Sara and Brielle never took.

And to any Emmas out there, hang on. There is always hope.


Prisoner of Night and Fog
Prisoner of Night and Fog
by Anne Blankman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.14
67 used & new from $1.83

4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating historical tale, July 15, 2014
I’m no historian by any means, but I have a deep appreciation for a well researched piece of historical fiction. Even when I know very little about a time period, I think that when an author does her homework, it shows. This is especially essential when the subject matter is one about which many readers already have formed opinions — in this case, the Nazi (National Socialist) Party and Adolf Hitler. I was excited, but a little wary, to see how Anne Blankman would approach such a delicate topic. I knew the protagonist starts the book very close to Hitler, but surely she couldn’t actually like Hitler? Surely the author wouldn’t dare paint Hitler as a nice guy who’s been horribly misunderstood?

I needn’t have worried. While, yes, protagonist Gretchen Müller is very fond of Hitler when we meet her, referring to him as Uncle Dolf, I found PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG very thoughtful in its approach to her beliefs and her interactions with the infamous Führer. I could see how this young, intelligent girl would have been won over by Hitler’s charisma and propaganda. It was clear a lot of care had been put into Hitler’s portrayal, and Gretchen’s perception of him, and I found it extremely believable.

It was chilling to see characters that truly seemed like good people embrace Hitler’s horrifying ideals. Some of the Nazi characters in this book were, indeed, monsters, but many were otherwise decent folk who didn’t seem to see how wrong their beliefs and actions truly were. One by one, they all turn against Gretchen when they realize she’s pulling away from the Party, in a series of events that becomes more and more terrifying as Gretchen sees how deep Hitler’s poison has sunk into the hearts of her German friends and neighbors. Watching as Gretchen slowly has the wool pulled from her eyes was both compelling and heartbreaking, especially when I considered that this story takes place before World War II, which meant opposing Hitler would only become more difficult for Gretchen.

The murder plot is exciting, but I have to admit, it wasn’t much of a mystery. The reveals that shocked Gretchen I found somewhat predictable, but I didn’t mind, because I wasn’t really reading to learn who killed Gretchen’s father. The answer was interesting — and tied brilliantly into a real historical event — but the aspect of the story that gripped me the most wasn’t the ten-year-old crime, but how Gretchen would survive once she knew the truth.

Likewise, I loved watching Gretchen’s interaction with Jewish reporter Daniel. It was fascinating to watch Gretchen grow from someone who mindlessly accepted that Jews were subhuman into someone who understood the value and humanity in all people. The love story was sweet, but much like the murder mystery, it was secondary for me. I was mostly invested for Gretchen’s internal change and growth. It’s rare to read a book where the protagonist wholeheartedly buys into the rightness of society’s harmful ideals, and then is forced to change her mind and heart completely when she is faced with the truth. I thought PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG handled that transformation wonderfully.

As I mentioned before, the attention to historical detail in this story is commendable. While Gretchen, Daniel, and several other important characters are fictitious, many of the characters in this book were real people, in addition to Hitler himself. Similarly, many of the events and locations referenced also were based on true historical accounts. I thought Anne Blankman’s thorough research and her thoughtful portrayal of history helped the fictional events leap off the page, and gave her story a real air of believably. I don’t think anyone should pick up a historical fiction novel expecting a 100% educational experience, but I do think PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG helped shed a light on a period of history that isn’t often taught in schools, and did so with a lot of care and respect to the time period. The plot of the story may be fictitious, but the backdrop was real, and I thought the balance between the two was wonderful.

Overall, I found PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG a fascinating read, full of compelling characters and challenging questions, set in one of the most intriguing and terrifying periods of history. If you enjoy well-written, thoughtfully researched historical fiction, or simply great characters making hard choices against overwhelming odds, I highly recommend you give it a try.


We Were Liars
We Were Liars
by E. Lockhart
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $10.79
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Left me thinking for days afterward, May 13, 2014
This review is from: We Were Liars (Hardcover)
Obviously, the summary gives you very little to go on to decide if you want to read this book. For me, it worked for friends to shove it into my hands saying, you will like this. But that’s because they know my taste. You probably need a little more to go on, because I actually don’t believe this book is for everyone.

So here’s the most non-spoilery summary I can give:

WE WERE LIARS is about a group of four teens (three cousins, one friend) who grow up spending their summers with their families on a private island. When they are fifteen, the narrator, Cady, has an accident. She hits her head and loses her memory, suffers a traumatic brain injury, and spends two years convalescing under the watchful eyes of her parents. She never can recall what happened to her, but she misses the island and begs to return. So when she is seventeen, she does.

Only this time, everything is different. And no one will tell her why.

This is a hard book to peg down. It’s not the suspenseful page-turner I thought it would be, given the back cover copy (although it is a speedy read). Nor is it the quiet literary fiction that it feels like in parts. It’s a mystery that doesn’t read like a mystery. It’s a modern story that feels vaguely historical because of the isolated setting (Internet, phones, cable all don’t seem to work on the island). It’s psychologically manipulative, but then again, maybe it’s not.

It’s an enigma. It defies categorization.

The prose is gorgeous, but detached. It took me a while to become completely engrossed in this book because I couldn’t emotionally connect with the narrator. I was always interested in the plot and wanted to see what happened; I just wasn’t invested until about the halfway point. (Take this with a grain of salt – I have many friends who were utterly riveted by page 1.)

That said, once I was in, I was all in. This book solidly staked its claim on the “There Were Tears” shelf in my brain, and let me tell you, that is a small shelf.

There are twists and red herrings galore in WE WERE LIARS, and whether or not you see them coming or find them satisfying is part of the draw of this book. I found it smart and well-executed and original, but I also was able to call some of the surprises early on. However, that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book.

This is a book you can only really discuss with others who have read it, and it’s one of very few books that I’ve heard people recommend even if they didn’t like it, just because they wanted to be able to talk about it. It’s well crafted, beautifully written, and unlike anything else I’ve read. It’ll leave you thinking for days (and, if you’re like me, you’ll flip back to the beginning and start reading again immediately after you finish, looking for the things you missed), and talking about it over dinner with your friends.

You know, the friends who read it because you made them read it because you just had to talk about it.

I will give you the disclaimer that this book isn’t one for people who need clear answers. There is a lot open for interpretation, and there is a very valid way of reading the book that could leave the reader in a pretty dark place. There’s also a more uplifting way to read, but if you prefer your endings unambiguously positive, this may not be the book for you.

That said, if you’re up for a ride into the twisting dark unknown, I hope you’ll give it a try.


The Fifty-Seven Lives of Alex Wayfare (Strange Chemistry)
The Fifty-Seven Lives of Alex Wayfare (Strange Chemistry)
by MG Buehrlen
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.03
30 used & new from $0.61

25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fun, energetic, timey-wimey romp through history, March 8, 2014
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THE FIFTY-SEVEN LIVES OF ALEX WAYFARE does all sorts of things I don't see often in YA, and especially in this kind of intricately-plotted, genre-bending, world-building-heavy YA.

It gives our main character, Alex, an entire intact family unit, complete with parents, grandparents, and siblings, that is not dysfunctional in the slightest.

It puts at the center of the book a relationship that is in no way romantic, and a male lead who isn't even kind of swoony (unless you are about 40+ years older than the book's target audience, in which case 1) GOOD FOR YOU, and 2) go right ahead and swoon).

It presents three possible love interests for the main character, but at no time ever resembles a love triangle, square, hexagon, dodecahedron, or any other geometric shape. And of those three, not a single one is an obviously terrible choice.

Yet at the same time, Alex is not a She's-All-That-esque swan-in-ugly-duckling-clothing. When she takes off her nerd glasses, she is -- shockingly -- still a nerd. She never becomes magically popular. She isn't stunningly beautiful underneath her rumpled appearance. And she actually turns out to be less of a Chosen One than she originally thought.

This all brings me to the main reason I loved this book: It put characters first. A lot of time, even in good books, when there's this many EVENTS that have to happen on the pages, writers almost seem to run out of room to develop the characters. But with ALEX WAYFARE, the thing that kept me turning pages well past my bedtime wasn't the thrilling missions through time or the looming menace of the ever-nearing villain -- though those were fun too -- it was the heart in the characters. It was the fact that the characters rang true.

They reacted illogically. They made mistakes. They carried unfair prejudices. But these weren't just quirks. They weren't a laundry list of imperfections so that the characters could be more interesting. They gave the characters depth and history, even when I didn't agree with them.

Take Alex herself. At one point, she tells a boy that he should know that most girls are "shallow, shallow creatures." At first glance, a reader might be turned off by that line. That's an awfully sweeping statement to make about half the human race, isn't it? Isn't she a girl? Isn't her sister, who she adores, also a girl? Why does Alex think she's such a special snowflake?

But then you realize, Alex literally has no friends. Her only encounters with other girls are with the couple popular girls at school who bully her and gave her an ugly nickname. Everyone else seems to pretty much ignore her. She's under the impression that the entire school is constantly whispering about her, but in reality, they're probably not. It's just her perception of reality. As a result, she closes herself off and tries not to interact with anyone. Ever. So of course she thinks all girls are awful. Her only encounters with them have been negative, and as a coping mechanism, she's made sure that the only way she will continue to have contact with girls is if they seek her out. And who seeks her out? The bullies.

Vicious cycle.

This isn't the only example where Alex, or the other characters, rang true in their shortcomings. It's just one that stood out, because I remember going through a whole circuit of reactions when I read that line. Plus it's toward the end of the book, so it's fresh in my memory. I liked that MG Buehrlen didn't shy away from the less appealing aspects of her characters, but instead explored them and allowed me to see why they'd come to think or act the ways they did. In addition to being a bit prejudiced against her own gender, Alex is impulsive, naive, and kind of shockingly short-sighted at times.

But then these moments of weakness are balanced with strengths. Alex is also clever, inventive, brave, caring, and loyal. Her good points really do outweigh the bad, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching her develop and mature throughout the story. And she's not the only one. I loved her family, and how involved they all were in each other's lives. I loved Porter, her middle-aged mentor who teaches her about herself. And I loved Blue, the boy she meets over and over again in each of her lives, and Jensen, the boy on whom she blames her social misfit status.

Outside of the characters, though, I loved the story itself. I loved the creative spin on a reincarnation story, and how each journey into Alex's past highlighted a different point in history. The narrative weaves seamlessly through different eras, jumping from the modern day to Prohibition-era Chicago to a train heist in the Wild West. It kept me constantly on my toes, wondering where I'd be transported to next, and opened the door to endless possibilities in the future. And I followed the logic of the time travel pretty easily, with most of my questions being answered just a few pages after I asked them.

All in all, I loved the timey-wimey goodness that is THE FIFTY-SEVEN LIVES OF ALEX WAYFARE. It was a fun, energetic romp through history with characters I enjoyed following on their various (mis)adventures. It helped me rediscover my love of the genre, and made me excited for what's to come in the series. It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and when I turned the final page, I was left simultaneously satisfied and yearning for the next chapter in Alex's story. If you're a fan of time travel and adventure and history and heart, I highly recommend this one.
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