Thursday, August 30, 2012

Review: Speechless by Hannah Harrington

Tags: YA, contemporary, gossip, bullies


Chelsea Knot has clawed and climbed and gossiped her way up to the top of her school’s social chain. But her reign as the queen bee’s best friend takes a shocking, dizzying fall when Chelsea’s post-party decision has the entire school jumping at the chance to alienate her.

Well, not quite the entire school. Despite her self-imposed vow of silence, Chelsea befriends Asha and several other classmates she’s never spoken to before, who all work at the diner in town. And one of her new friends, Sam, is utterly too cute and sweet. But has Chelsea finally learned her lesson this time about knowing when and when not to speak, and what she’s going to speak up for?


Hannah Harrington’s debut novel, Saving June, was my delightful surprise of 2011, so I had high expectations for her sophomore novel, SPEECHLESS. And while I didn’t like SPEECHLESS as much as I did Saving June, it was still an uplifting and quick YA contemporary read.

SPEECHLESS’ strength lies in its treatment of its protagonist, Chelsea. There is no doubt that Chelsea is a mean girl at the beginning of the book, so caught up in the dangerous thriller of being the first to find and spread gossip, and yet we readers undoubtedly see the potential she has in her for good. And yeah, okay, this is kind of the way that protagonists have to be—they have to arouse our empathy in order for us to want to invest in their journey—but Chelsea is, really, likable. She has a very relatable reaction to her changing social position at her high school, but she has an inner strength that we can admire: this is not a girl who will dissolve into a spineless, quivering, tearful mess in the face of extreme challenges.

That being said, the predictability of the rest of the story made this only a mediocre read for me. SPEECHLESS follows a very basic YA contemporary story format, complete with a budding romance that readers can call from the love interest’s first appearance on the page. While Chelsea’s situation is no doubt cringe-inducing—she’s forced to suffer at the hands of some truly heartless school bullies—it’s all written about in a very straightforward manner, so that you can anticipate everything that’s about to happen. While I don’t always require oodles of surprises and utter originality in my reads, the elements of this book just all felt very…safe to me, and thus ultimately forgettable.

SPEECHLESS’ reformed protagonist, golden-hearted supporting characters, and predictably sweet romance are nothing new in this genre, but sometimes that’s the kind of read you seek. If so, you can’t go wrong with Hannah Harrington’s well-intentioned books.

Similar Authors
Donna Freitas
Morgan Matson

Cover discussion: This is a brave cover. It completely defies all the norms and goes for the ultra-minimalistic look. And it works.

Harlequin Teen / Aug. 28, 2012 / Paperback / 288pp. / $9.99

e-galley received from publisher and NetGalley.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

ORIGIN Blog Tour

I am honored to be part of Penguin's Breathless Reads blog tour for ORIGIN, the debut YA sci-fi/dystopian novel by Jessica Khoury. This blog tour is a little different in that, at each stop, an except from Origin will be posted, along with Jessica's thoughts on that excerpt. Here is mine!
I know Uncle Paolo’s eyes are on me, searching for any sign of weakness. It’s all I can do not to wince.

I can’t fail this. I can’t. Of all my studies, the Wickham tests are the most important. They gauge whether I am ready to be a scientist. Whether I’m ready for the secrets of my own existence. Once I prove I’m one of them, my real work can begin: creating others like me. And that is everything. (Origin, page 6)
Thoughts from Jessica:

Objectivity is not a bad thing. It’s necessary in everything from reporting the news to writing a novel. But if done excessively, to the point of immorality, then it becomes a bad thing. Many dystopian stories are set in worlds where objectivity completely rules out emotion. For example, in Ally Condie’s Matched, the government controls everything according to a set of very objective rules which allow no room for emotion, because they believe this will maximize the quality of life for everyone. When we cease to view and conduct ourselves with emotion and morality, we reduce ourselves to machines. Are emotions messy? Yes. Can they lead us to make rash or irrational choices? Yes. But are we human without them?

In Little Cam, the scientists seek to create a new race, and they are fully aware that one of the things which will differentiate the immortals from humans is the lack of emotion they hope to instill in them, as they try to do with Pia. In their minds, this is a strength. They want the immortals to be able to see “clearly,” to make objective, rational decisions. And this is a good thing—but not to the extent that it erases emotion altogether. Our emotions hinder us, but they also define us and make us what we are. Sure, you could try to live a life based only on unemotional objectivity—but that life will be dry and meaningless. We just weren’t designed to function as machines, and in destroying one’s capacity to love, hate, fear, or weep, one’s humanity is also destroyed.

About Origin:
Pia has grown up in a secret laboratory hidden deep in the Amazon rain forest. She was raised by a team of scientists who have created her to be the start of a new immortal race. But on the night of her seventeenth birthday, Pia discovers a hole in the electric fence that surrounds her sterile home—and sneaks outside the compound for the first time in her life.

Free in the jungle, Pia meets Eio, a boy from a nearby village. Together, they embark on a race against time to discover the truth about Pia’s origin—a truth with deadly consequences that will change their lives forever.

Origin is a beautifully told, shocking new way to look at an age-old desire: to live forever, no matter the cost. This is a supremely compelling debut novel that blends the awakening romance of Matched with the mystery and jungle conspiracy of Lost. [summary from Goodreads]
More about ORIGIN! 
Book Trailer:

Breathless Reads:
Breathless Reads Facebook:
Breathless Reads Tumblr:
Breathless Reads Scribd Samplr:

Jessica on the web:

Tour Schedule:
Monday 8.27 - The Book Smugglers -
Tuesday 8.28 - Pure Imagination -
Wednesday 8.29 - Steph Su Reads -
Thursday 8.30 - Mundie Moms -
Friday 8.31 - Forever YA -
Monday 9.3 - Novel Thoughts -
Tuesday 9.4 - Page Turners -
Wednesday 9.5 - Frenetic Readers -
Thursday 9.6 - Bookshelf Banter -
Friday 9.7 - The Story Siren -
Monday 9.10 - Green Bean Teen Queen -
Tuesday 9.11 - The Book Muncher -
Wednesday 9.12 - The Book Cellar -
Thursday 9.13 - Book Chic -
Friday 9.14 - The Compulsive Reader -

Monday, August 27, 2012

Jamie the Perpetual Page-Turner's Wedding

Earlier this month I went back to the States to attend my friend Jamie's wedding. As most of you know, Jamie blogs at both The Broke and the Bookish and The Perpetual Page-Turner. We started meeting up for bookish events and conversations at IHOP when I was still at Swat. I can't imagine how she runs two blogs, organized her wedding pretty much singlehandedly, and still has the time and energy to remain one of the sweetest, nicest, and most considerate people I know, but that's what she did and that's what she is.

The wedding took place at the First Baptist Church in Doylestown, PA. You could totally tell Jamie planned every detail, from the yellow flower decorations to Vitamin String Quartet playing as the bridal party walked down the aisle.

I took many pics but my camera has been moody ever since I mashed an orange into it last Christmas (there's really no more story to it than that), so unfortunately lots of these pictures aren't as clear as I would have liked. But look closely, and you'll see some beautiful expressions that would make even the most stone-hearted sigh and swoon...

He liked it so he put a ring on it.

First kiss as husband and wife! *CUE THUNDEROUS APPLAUSE AND SQUEALS*

They walked out to Hall & Oates' "You Make My Dreams." What more perfect song could they have picked? How could anyone not love that song?

I love the way they look at each other here.

The reception was subtly bookish. Check out the table decorations!
Jamie even gave us (us being me and April of Good Books and Good Wine, plus a whole table of British male soccer coaches) the quote from Paper Towns by John Green!

April of Good Books and Good Wine, Jamie, and me, representing the bloggers. (We missed you, other bloggers!) I apologize for the awkward arms: I can never get myself to actually do the sorority girl hip thing.

It was, hands down, the best wedding I've ever been to. The music freshened up centuries-old wedding traditions and got everyone smiling and dancing; the reception offerings (literary table decorations! A Photobooth!! Open bar!!!) were thoughtful; and the atmosphere was just genuinely fun, and loving, and real. Jamie outdid herself with all her planning, and I'm so, so happy I got to be there for her special day.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Review: Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield

Tags: young adult, contemporary, death, murder, small town


Becca is on the brink of leaving her suffocatingly small town—just one summer to go before college—when the appearance of a dead girl’s body shocks everyone. As the claustrophobic community of Bridgeton attempts to figure out the meaning of this death and its impact on them, Becca finds herself clinging to her old life—her old job, her high school boyfriend—scared to see herself in Amelia Anne’s fate.


AMELIA ANNE IS DEAD AND GONE is not really a book that wants you to like it. From the uncomfortable opening sex scene to the way Becca’s plotline ends up intersecting with that of Amelia Anne’s death, it’s like you’re forcibly pressed close to the story and its ugliness, so that every blemish is magnified. If you’re the kind of reader who likes this no-gloss dissection of flawed characters and setting, then great! It wasn’t my type of read, but I can see why other will find this winning.

Say goodbye to your romantic conception of the American small town. Bridgeton is vicious and claustrophobic, its bright spots—such as stars at night and a swimming hole—marred by the harsh reality of tensions between locals and summer residents, people’s desperate desire to escape its black hole gravity. As someone who definitely has a romantic conception of the American small town, AMELIA ANNE’s depiction nearly made me cry, it was so unforgiving. It’s the same with the characters. They gossip and slander and take sides and make poor decisions and say terrible things to one another. But Kat Rosenfield does not apologize for reality—and nor should she. Even I have to respect her for that.

That being said, if you’re the kind of reader who likes a certain amount of happiness in your books, AMELIA ANNE might not deliver. Becca, the protagonist, is not particularly likable: she denies the harshness of reality by retreating within herself, and forgives her boyfriend for his really very heartless act. While in theory I can understand her reactions—she’s on the brink of leaving Bridgeton, exciting but also terrified, when Amelia Anne’s shocking death sends her reeling and petrifies her—I don’t think they were explained as well as they could have been in the book.

In addition, I found the prose too “pretty” in an unoriginal sort of way. Unfortunately I don’t have the book on hand to find examples, but passages that I could tell were supposed to be insightful or beautiful instead left me unmoved. I like turns of phrase that surprise me, a la Beth Kephart or Cath Crowley, but if you’ve read your fair share of lit-er-uh-chur, you’re going to realize that you’ve seen all the similes and metaphors here before.

I wanted AMELIA ANNE IS DEAD AND GONE to be emotionally and literarily earth-shattering, but it wasn’t for me. However, I can bet there’s an avid audience for this book. For those who prefer their YA lit darker and without supernatural delusions of luv, check this out.

Similar Authors
Anna Jarzab
Nova Ren Suma
Kirsten Hubbard

Cover discussion: The muted, desaturated colors match the mood of this book.

Dutton Juvenile / July 5, 2012 / Hardcover / 304pp. / $17.99

Copy received for review from publisher.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Tags: fantasy, historical fantasy, magic, Regency England


At the turn of the 19th century, it seems like no magic remains in England. But then a practicing magician named Mr. Norrell turns England upside-down when he performs the first bit of magic in England in several centuries, and immediately shoots his way up the social ladder. Norrell wants to use magic to do England good, but he’s particular about how to regulate magic—which is why the sudden appearance of a second English magician, the charismatic Jonathan Strange, rocks Norrell to his core.

Whereas Norrell’s squirrelly looks and socially awkward demeanor are a disappointment as the face of magic, Strange’s carriage and behavior earn him the goodwill of a fair number of Englishmen. Yet even as tensions between Norrell and Strange continue to develop, a long-simmering magic plot to take over England keeps threatening to come to light.


Widely regarded as one of the best works of the modern fantasy canon, JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL was a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while. And while every one of these 1000 or so pages is evidence of literary brilliance, it wasn’t something I was fully emotionally invested in. Still, though, I’m glad I finally read it.

Susanna Clarke takes the subgenre “Regency fantasy” to a whole new level with her superb command of that time period’s language. Think Austen with a heavy dose of magical elements: not only was the language reminiscent of Regency England times, but Austen’s almost insidious portrayal of ridiculous people had a heavy showing in JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL. While Strange and Norrell are arguably the main characters of the eponymous novel, we readers don’t really like them the way we usually do protagonists, because most of them are not good people: Norrell in particular manipulate nearly everyone out of fear of a loss of influence, meanwhile letting his even-less-appealing “friends” manipulate him in turn. All the unsavory characters in the book make Jonathan Strange look very good indeed, but he’s no real “wounded hero,” just another self-centered guy who does not give enough consideration to others in his life.

That, I guess, is what ultimately disappointed me about this book: it doesn’t break any conventions or tread new ground in terms of genre or sociohistorical issues. Clarke crafts an alternate, magician-focused history for England, but, with the exception of head-scratchingly long footnotes showing just how in-depth Clarke has got with her alternate history creativity, JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL didn’t blow me out of the water with originality in its fantasy genre.

Additionally—and this may just be me—I found it a bit off-putting how small a role women played in the novel. For a book written by a female author, I had expected a bit more subversion of historical attitudes toward the role of males vs. females in society; yes, the book doesn’t attempt to focus on the inequality and tensions between different parties, but I was surprised that the book didn’t take such a step with potentially strong and interesting female characters such as Arabella Strange and Mrs. Pole. No, at the end of the day, things and people seemed to be pretty much what they had been before the book started, which results in reader’s confusion along the lines of, “I just spent three weeks reading 1000 pages…and did anything significant really happen?” Hrmph.

So, in some ways, reading JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL was for me like reading a classic that the “great authorities of literature” say is a must-read but on a personal level was a slog to get through. While I certainly appreciated Clarke’s Austenian writing style, I closed the book realizing that 500 pages could’ve been cut out and I would have thought nothing was amiss.

Cover discussion: Win! Straightforward. Iconic. Recognizable.

Tor Books / Aug. 1, 2006 (reprint) / Mass Market Paperback / 1024pp. / $9.99

Personal copy.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Review: Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl

Tags: YA, historical fiction, Austenian


Seventeen-year-old Althea lives in a crumbling, laughable faux-castle on a cliff designed by a debilitatingly romantic ancestor. Her family has no money, her two stepsisters are stingy with theirs, their castle is falling apart around them, and they will starve to death unless the practical Althea marries well. Althea sets her sights on the handsome and rich Lord Boring…but in addition to the irritating and unwanted near-constant presence of Lord Boring’s cousin Mr. Fredericks, there’s a lot more that doesn’t go according to Althea’s plans.


KEEPING THE CASTLE is a quick, Austen-flavored story that you can breeze through in a few short hours. Is it a keeper? Well…I enjoyed the voice and the setup, but felt the story was too short to develop the characters and their predicaments into full and empathizable creations.

My favorite thing about KEEPING THE CASTLE was definitely its Austenian influence. Aptly described as a combination of Dodie Smith’s lovely I Capture the Castle (another book I loved) and Jane Austen’s works, KEEPING THE CASTLE features a spunky heroine whose extreme pragmatism is cause for many moments of laughs and head-shaking sighs. Althea’s practical nature make her the perfect foil for the social foibles that typically occur in Austenian novels, but it is when that delightful personality comes up against tired Austenian elements and a too-quick plot development that things stumble for me.

No matter how much I love Jane Austen, there comes a point where Austenian elements tire me out. Unfortunately, I felt like KEEPING THE CASTLE crammed all of the most recognizable elements of Austen’s novels into a quick 250 pages, resulting in sensory/familiarity overload for me. First, Althea seeks a rich husband (youth and attractiveness a plus but not required). Later, she attempts to matchmake between two of her new acquaintances. Okay, to be honest, I’ve only read two of Austen’s novels to their conclusions, but combining the most familiar elements of Pride and Prejudice and Emma into one story felt like overkill to me.

Additionally, the short length of the book prevented the characters and plot from developing thoroughly. It was hard for me to ever get a grasp on the attraction between Althea and Mr. Fredericks. Bickering couples are sometimes fun for me to read about, but unlike the change in Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s feelings toward and understanding of each other, Althea and Mr. Fredericks never seem to undergo the same kind of mental evolution. Secondary couplings are also barely explained, with the result that I flitted from one marital revolution to the other in a state of confusion and only polite interest, instead of emotional investment in the characters and their outcomes.

Overall, KEEPING THE CASTLE is a relatively fun and diverting read for a lazy afternoon (or a sleepless night, if you’re me), but it doesn’t as if it will be a staple of Austenian literature.

Similar Authors
Polly Shulman
Jane Austen
Dodie Smith

Cover discussion: It's pretty unassuming, and I had overlooked this title at first because I wasn't sure from the cover what the book would be about.

Viking Juvenile / June 14, 2012 / Hardcover / 272pp. / $16.99

Personal copy.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Why You Should Enter This STORMDANCER Giveaway

Yes, the cover is astonishingly gorgeous, but here are other reasons why STORMDANCER, Jay Kristoff's debut novel, is worth your notice:

1. It's a different kind of fantasy. It's hard to find fantasies out there that aren't set in Medieval England, and STORMDANCER does Japanese steampunk right, with an almost overwhelming assault of detailed world-building on the reader. You may feel like the first 50 pages are too clunky, with all the world-building, but then, as the plot progresses, you slip right into the world and can really envision it cinematographically. You know how some speculative fiction have underwhelming world-building where inconsistencies and gaps get in the way of the story? Yup, not here.

2. Buruu and Yukiko's relationship is one for the books. Fictional human-creature relationships are often a lot of fun to read about. In STORMDANCER, Buruu has a personality we grow to love, and there are moments when I cracked up from his snark. Jay Kristoff deftly writes how an unshakeable friendship connection can change both parties irrevocably.

3. STORMDANCER is arguably the most relevant book I've read all year. Tears welled in my eyes as I read, for I recognized, in the midst of the different speculative setting, the pain and the frustration of attempting to improve some of the huge problems in our world. And I hope that this is something other readers will be affected by as well.

The Shima Imperium verges on the brink of environmental collapse; an island nation once rich in tradition and myth, now decimated by clockwork industrialization and the machine-worshipers of the Lotus Guild. The skies are red as blood, the land is choked with toxic pollution, and the great spirit animals that once roamed its wilds have departed forever.

The hunters of Shima's imperial court are charged by their Shōgun to capture a thunder tiger – a legendary creature, half-eagle, half-tiger. But any fool knows the beasts have been extinct for more than a century, and the price of failing the Shōgun is death.

A HIDDEN GIFT Yukiko is a child of the Fox clan, possessed of a talent that if discovered, would see her executed by the Lotus Guild. Accompanying her father on the Shōgun’s hunt, she finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in Shima’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled thunder tiger for company. Even though she can hear his thoughts, even though she saved his life, all she knows for certain is he’d rather see her dead than help her.

But together, the pair will form an indomitable friendship, and rise to challenge the might of an empire.
STORMDANCER will be published in hardcover by Thomas Dunne Books on September 18, 2012. Visit Jay Kristoff's author website for more info.

I was fortunate enough to be able to read STORMDANCER early, thanks to the generosity of some lovely people. And now, I want to pass this story on to you, if you're interested. There will be 1-3 winners (I'm not certain how many copies of this ARC I have, haha). This giveaway is open internationally and ends Tuesday, August 14, 2012. I will not be announcing the winners here; you will get an email from me if you win. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

Tags: middle grade, contemporary, friendship


Georges (the S is silent; yes, his parents are crazy Seurat fans) is just an ordinary boy, slightly north of nerdy, who’s trying to survive seventh grade. Then, in his new apartment building, he meets Safer, a boy his own age, and gets pulled into Safer’s strange spy games. But as Safer’s games get stranger and stranger, Georges has to decide where to draw the line between fantasy and reality…both within himself and without.


Rebecca Stead, whose previous book, When You Reach Me, I loved (and, apparently, so did a lot of other people, as it won the Newbery), is back with another middle grade novel, LIAR & SPY. Different in feel and content from When You Reach Me, it nevertheless pays homage to the intelligence and subtleties possible for middle grade literature.

Georges and other characters of LIAR & SPY are fairly average in terms of memorability, but wicked smart in terms of intelligence for characters their age. It’s not every day you get to read a middle-grade novel that involve the attempted English spelling reform movement and the umami taste (that’s the one that recognizes delicious or savory foods). Knowledge can come whenever and wherever, in all forms, as Rebecca Stead proves over and over again.

Safer’s suspicious and passive-aggressive behavior did get on my nerves pretty quickly, as they did Georges’, but the characters’ insecurities, actions, and feelings are all very genuine to the physical and emotional turmoil of middle school. And, as always, Stead writes a killer of an ending, one that nearly singlehandedly bumped my rating of this book up a whole star. Alas, the rest of LIAR & SPY didn’t capture my affections the way When You Reach Me did—the pacing was slower and the characters not as easily likable. Nevertheless, despite the lack of emotional connection on my part, it is a touching and impressive work of literature that fans of middle grade and young adult literature alike should consider reading.

Cover discussion: So unique and deceptively simplistic. I like how it retains similar elements from the cover of When You Reach Me!

Wendy Lamb Books / Aug. 7, 2012 / Hardcover / 192pp. / $15.99

e-galley received for review from publisher and NetGalley.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Review: The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

Tags: YA, middle grace, juvenile fiction, historical fiction, time travel, American South, Antebellum, slavery


In the sweltering summer of 1960, 13-year-old Sophie’s newly divorced mother sends her to her family’s old plantation to live. Sophie, awkward in her body and struggling to be the graceful lady her family demands her be while she’d rather bury her nose in books, thinks it will be a miserable summer…until she meets a strange creature who ends up sending her back in time to 1860!

Sophie’s Fairchild ancestors mistake her as a slave, and at first the work demands are unfamiliar and difficult. But gradually, Sophie learns to manage herself, and better understands her white ancestors as well as her fellow slaves. Still, there’s the problem of returning to 1960…


THE FREEDOM MAZE is an odd and intriguing book, blending two historical periods with mystical elements. At its core, though, this is a traditional coming-of-age story—which actually makes it hard for me to decide how I feel about this book.

In middle school, I read a book called The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen, which tells the story of a modern girl who gets thrown back in time to WWII Europe. THE FREEDOM MAZE follows the same storypath. It is clear that Sherman has meticulously done her research on both time periods: the dialogue feels authentic, social beliefs ingrained, and details regarding setting extraordinary. It’s hard enough accurately depicting one historical period; Delia Sherman has to make everyone look like underachievers by doing so for two!

All of that is the backdrop, however, for the classic bildungsroman structure of this story. THE FREEDOM MAZE involves slavery and racism and Southern culture, but it’s not interested in that so much as it is in Sophie’s development from a petulant child to a more independent teenager. And that’s where my potential love for this book trips up. Sophie is sympathetic at the beginning of the novel, when she is ordered this way and that by her “Southern belle” mother and grandmother, but when half the book passes and Sophie is still petulant and incompetent, my sympathy for her waned a bit. Of course, it wouldn’t be a bildungsroman if Sophie didn’t eventually learn, but it was a bit of a struggle for me in the middle to continue to be invested in the well-being of a timid and fretful girl. Think Mary from The Secret Garden, thrust into the pre-Civil War American South.

THE FREEDOM MAZE is not a book for those who like their plots and pacing action-packed and always-running. I put the book down several times out of repetitiveness and Sophie’s stagnancy before I began to be invested. And while I’m glad to have finished it, half of a book with a slow plot and fretful main character is still too much for me to like it fully. THE FREEDOM MAZE will be best for patient readers who like their readings challenging, well-researched, and with just a dash of the fantastical.

Similar Authors
Jane Yolen (The Devil's Arithmetic)
Nancy Werlin
Frances Hodgson Burnett

Cover discussion: Oh, I like that it's unusually old-fashioned! Just like the story, the cover is the sort that rewards the discerning and patient: it will grow on you the more time you spend with it.

Big Mouth House / Nov. 22, 2011 / Hardcover / 258pp. / $16.95

Personal e-book purchased.


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