Monday, July 30, 2012

Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Reviewed by Maggie: July 30, 2012
Published in UK April 12, 2012 by Orion
Published in US February 26, 2013 by St. Martin's Griffin
Goodreads • Buy at Fishpond ($14.60)
Preorder at AmazonKindle • Book Depository

Timing, as they say, is everything. I read most of Eleanor & Park while sitting by the pool and listening to Call Me Maybe... on repeat. This book though couldn't be further from a Carly Rae Jepsen song and I wondered if I would've enjoyed it more had I read it at a different time.

It's 1986. Eleanor is the new girl in school. She lives on the wrong side of the tracks, wears unstylish secondhand clothes on her larger than average body, and has flaming red hair. Basically, she is a walking target. From the minute she first steps on the school bus, she is heckled and called "Big Red." She can't even find a seat on the bus until the one Asian kid silently moves aside for her. Park is the son of an American soldier and a Korean woman. Being half-Korean puts an easy target on his back, but he's friendly enough with the popular kids to keep himself out of the crosshairs. He takes pity on the new girl, but instantly regrets it and hopes she doesn't take it as an overture. They slowly and silently open up to one another through Park's comic books. Eleanor reads them over his shoulder, Park realizes this and takes his time turning the pages. The volume on their silent connection eventually turns up and they begin to talk about comics and music and Shakespeare and Han Solo.

But it isn't all comics and mixtapes. While this is a love story, it isn't a light story. Eleanor has just started living with her mother, siblings, and abusive stepfather again after he kicked her out of his house. Everyone lives at Richie's mercy. He's their only source of income, as he's quick to remind them. Park, on the other hand, has a pretty close to perfect family. His parents still make out like newlyweds and they live next to his grandparents. The main issue is his relationship with his father, who calls him a pussy for not being able to drive stick.

I asked my friend to send me this book because I couldn't wait for the US release. Attachments, Rainbow Rowell's debut published novel, was one of my favorite books last summer. She actually wrote Eleanor & Park before Attachments, but sold it after. I make the distinction because Eleanor & Park feels more like a first novel. For example, there's a scene where our two leads are talking and Eleanor thinks,
"Park's eyes got wide. Well, sort of wide. Sometimes she wondered if the shape of his eyes affected how he saw things. That was probably the most racist question of all time."
YA THINK? This passage though didn't make me reach for the That's Racist GIF mainly because it was so awkwardly placed. Eleanor thinks this then goes on talking about X-Men, but it doesn't have the effortless feel of, say, Jessica Darling, who you know says some shit.

The alternating points of view also highlight the lack of gray in the novel. Eleanor's family life is SO low while Park's family life is SO high. Eleanor doesn't even own a toothbrush thanks to her wicked stepfather, and Park is comparing his parents to Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. While we're on the subject of Park's parents, they have an amazing, wonderful marriage... that I found completely unbelievable. I definitely appreciate minority characters, especially Koreans, but if you're going to use them, use the experiences they bring to the table too. You don't have to, but in the case of an Asian war bride in the Midwest in the 80s, not doing so just made it seem unrealistic.

Before you think I didn't like this novel, I really liked that the two main characters weren't your standard leads. Eleanor isn't some quirky but cute Molly Ringwald character, or someone who only sees herself as big and awkward. She IS big and awkward, and that's not the central storyline either. Park says of Eleanor,
"Eleanor was right. She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn't supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something."
The way Park and Eleanor's relationship slowly unfolded and evolved was so well-paced. Behold the power of the mixtape! Their connection to one another was believable and sweet. The cover of the US edition is perfect:
I think people who enjoyed Ernest Cline's Ready Player One would also enjoy this book. There are a ton of references to 80s bands and discussions about comics and Star Wars. I don't know who Boba Fett is and I missed the snap, crackle, pop of Attachments, but I think an audience would appreciate the low, steady beat of Eleanor & Park.

Rating: 3/5 stars.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Audiobook Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Read by Wil Wheaton
Reviewed by Maggie: July 25, 2012
Published August 16, 2011 by Random House
Goodreads • Buy at AmazonKindleBook Depository

Note to VH1: No one loves the 80s as much as YA authors. This is the 3rd book I've read this year set in the 80s, and it's BY FAR the most comprehensive. 

Goodreads blurb:
It's the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place. Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets. And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune--and remarkable power--to whoever can unlock them. For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday's riddles are based in the pop culture he loved--that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday's icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes's oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig. And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle. Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt--among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life--and love--in the real world he's always been so desperate to escape. A world at stake. A quest for the ultimate prize. Are you ready? 

This may end up being one of those "on the other hand" reviews where I seemingly have 3 hands and keep contradicting myself because while I enjoyed the book, I also had issues with it.

Good hand: The premise was intriguing and grabbed my attention immediately. A virtual scavenger hunt for billions of dollars based on a rich man's love of the 80s? I'm game! Bonus points for keeping my attention in audiobook form. I've listened to exactly one audiobook in full before -- Finnikin of the Rock -- which had 3 things working for it: 1) It had an Australian narrator, 2) I'd read the book before, and 3) Hello, it's Melina Marchetta. None of those factors were in play for Ready Player One, and since I'm more of a visual person, I worried about how much of the story I would be able to retain without reading it. I actually didn't have any problem understanding or retaining the story because...

Bad hand: ...the beginning was really repetitive. I started this while stuck in my car for hours and at one point, I checked to make sure I hadn't accidentally hit the back button on my iPod because he was saying the same. thing. I think part of the reason may have been to make sure the audience understood this virtual world but the thing is...

Ugly hand: ...the world Ernest Cline is describing isn't SO incomprehensible or wildly imaginative. It's a few steps beyond our current reality, but nothing I can't easily wrap my brain around. I think many readers would say that this is a good thing, but when I read sci-fi, which isn't often, I want to be wowed and blown away. For example, I loved 1984. I loved that it was the world as George Orwell saw it in 1948. Ready Player One is looking at 1984... from 2012. A lot of the world building felt tedious because we don't need all that explanation in 2012. We're already there. It's like when I read articles in the New York Times last year explaining Twitter. Gee, thanks for the tutorial 20,000 tweets in.

Still, the story made me curious enough to stick around for all FIFTEEN+ HOURS of the audiobook, and I'm definitely not the target demographic. The Comic-Con crowd would probably eat this book up. I went to Comic-Con with my friend and when we saw Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, our reaction was,
"Eric from Days of Our Lives!"
"And Dean from Gilmore Girls!"
"What are they doing here?"
Wil Wheaton as the narrator was great, except for when he went into his Asian voice for Shoto. Um, why? He didn't suddenly make his voice higher for the female characters so I don't get why he went all Joy Luck Club for Shoto.

Ready Player One was an intriguing concept that lost its novelty for me partway through, but one that I had to finish nonetheless.

Rating: 3/5 stars.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Bookmark Binge: July 22, 2012

Look at all these links lying around...
Stifling my jealousy long enough to post the Melina Marchetta, Kristen Cashore, Gayle Forman book event recaps by The Readventurer and Bunbury in the Stacks.
A 6 year old guesses what classic novels are about based solely on their cover. 
Check out Findings: a site where you can upload, share and chat about your Kindle Highlights.
That Cover Girl goes behind the cover to get some author thoughts on one of our anticipated reads.
Behold some amazing new Carved Book Landscapes by Guy Laramee.

Everyone within a 50 mile radius of LA...
Unless you're giving birth this Thursday, July 26, you don't want to miss MELINA MARCHETTA at the Central Library for LA Teen Author Reading Night. Maggie will be there in person and Noelle will be there in spirit.

Coming soon -- What We're Reading and Reviewing... In Theory



Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bookmark Binge: July 15, 2012

Can't get enough of...

First of all, we recommend stopping by Rachel Hartman's official blog.
Once again, the book trailer is pretty awesome.
Don't miss Hartman's Inspirations and Influences post at the Book Smugglers.
Read another great interview over at The Enchanted Inkpot.
And if you've read the book (link is a bit spoilery) make sure to check out Tamora Pierce's review.
Ten Dumbfounding Facts about Rachel Hartman via Book Chick City.

Check out Tom Leveen's dream cast for a hypothetical Zero movie.
Watch a two part Yallapalooza interview with Leveen here and here.

Look at all these links lying around...
YA Highway is celebrating their 3rd Anniversary with a massive giveaway!
Mandee's recap of Melina Marchetta's Sydney Author Talk.
Thanks to io9's Great Opening Sentences from Classic Fantasy Novels my TBR list just doubled in size.  
A tumblr I follow unexpectedly posted this amazing The Ask and the Answer photoset and made my day.
Don't miss Wear the Old Coat's Philip Pullman Week

Coming soon -- What We're Reading and Reviewing... In Theory

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Review: Lost Girls by Ann Kelley

Lost Girls by Ann Kelley
Reviewed by Maggie: July 12, 2012
Published: July 10, 2012
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Goodreads • Buy at AmazonKindleBook Depository

Whenever I hear a news story or watch a movie about people who end up in bad situations after ignoring the advice of locals, my reaction is something like this:


I don't think they deserve to DIE, but since a ton of resources are going to be spent on their rescue due to their arrogance, they can deal with a little Running Man.

In the beginning of Lost Girls, a group of Amelia Earhart Cadets ranging in age from 9-14 find themselves blown off course while heading to an island for a camping trip. Their chaperone, a glamorous Scottish woman in her 20s named Layla Campbell, has the boatman drop them off on another island despite his protestations and refusal to step foot on the island. Layla Campbell, nicknamed the Duchess by the adoring girls, dismisses the boatman's warnings and has the girls start setting up their campsite. Get ready to do the Running Man.

The first day is picture perfect and the girls go to sleep thinking they're in paradise. Their idyll ends the first night when they're awoken by a storm that rips apart their campsite. One girl is fatally injured. They have two more days left before the boatman is scheduled to pick them up. The two days pass, but no one comes. Not only that, they see an explosion in the distance. Was the mainland attacked? Are their families in trouble, thus explaining why no one has come for them? Are people looking for them?

I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected. The story is told from 14-year-old Bonnie's point of view through her journal entries. This reminded me of Ellie in Tomorrow, When the War Began, one of my favorite series. The situation also called to mind another favorite book, Lord of the Flies. Bonnie addresses this similarity, but says girls wouldn't act that way. I love this because I remember thinking the same thing while reading Lord of the Flies. There is one obvious biological difference between boys and girls that is addressed -- oh, the joys of menstruation -- but a lack of testosterone doesn't stop girls from behaving badly either. 

I really liked Bonnie. She's the responsible, bossy one who isn't popular with the girls who wear makeup, and she's prone to make judgements about people, but I found her to be relatable. She goes from being glad her mother didn't come so she can spend time with a "cool" adult like the Duchess, to wishing more than anything that her mother was there. She brought along her mother's copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and as the Duchess keeps failing her, Bonnie turns to that book as a survival guide.

I love books like Tomorrow and Lost Girls because I always wonder what I'd do in extreme survival situations (I'd die), and I take notes on all the things I should learn to do just in case. Pro tip #1: Learn to make a fire without matches. (Actually, tip #1 is always: If a local starts yelling and flailing when you say you're going somewhere, DON'T GO THERE.) The author doesn't skimp on details of the smell, the bugs, and the filth, and I hope to God to never encounter a chigger as long as I live. 

Lost Girls is set in 1974 during the Vietnam War, but aside from references to the Duchess's petticoat and a lack of references to cell phones, this story could be set in the present. There are a few references to the war and whether it's right or wrong through Bonnie's flashbacks to fights with her soldier father, but substitute Iraq for Vietnam and this is a modern discussion. This book isn't middle grade, but it does skew toward the younger end of the YA spectrum. I would've loved reading this book in 8th grade. Despite being far beyond 8th grade, I still really enjoyed this book. 

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Review: Zero by Tom Leveen

Zero by Tom Leveen
Reviewed by Noelle: July 11, 2012
Published April 24, 2012 by Random House Books for Young Readers
Goodreads • Buy on AmazonKindleBook Depository

Amanda has always gone by the nickname Zero--an apt description of her self-esteem.  When she gets accepted into a prestigious art school, her "nothing" status at last seems a thing of the past.  Amanda is planning to spend her last summer at home hanging with her best friend, making art and going to see her favorite local bands.  What could go wrong? How about not qualifying for a necessary scholarship.

Just like that the best summer ever has become Zero's worst nightmare.  She's stuck in remedial art classes at the local community college, avoiding her best friend after an awkward drunken moment and ducking for cover as her parents' marriage implodes.  When Zero meets Mike, a drummer in an up and coming local band, he creates a bright spot that shines some hope on her summer, but is it enough to enlighten the path to her future?

Amanda's self-doubt and low self-esteem seem pretty overwhelming at first.  Her Zero nickname is the result of her massive and I do mean massive amount of insecurities--insecurities that weighed down the story with their quantity at first and then didn't have enough heft in their eventual solutions.  I think I would have liked Zero much better if one of her insecurities had turned out to be actually valid:
  • For a majority of the book, the reader is led to believe that Amanda is a little overweight.  Turns out she's just wearing clothing five sizes too big and actually secretly skinny.  
  • Amanda worries she'll be forever alone, but attracts the attention of not one but two of the most appealing characters in the book.  (Don't worry, you're in a no love triangle zone.)
  • Amanda had always based her value as an artist on the compliments of her 7th grade art teacher and I admit I cackled at the importance Amanda placed on evaluations of her talent assessed at twelve years old, but never fear--by the end of the summer, despite focusing a questionable amount of her art around rainbows, she has affirmed her artistic genius.  
Luckily, Zero delivers in other ways. The young love was swoony (despite Mike having the girl's haircut on the cover), the drama was sincere in its angst and after a shaky quippy beginning with too many sex and genitalia jokes for a female protagonist the voice evened out charmingly.  The story goes in some unexpected directions that were handled differently than the typical contemporary YA.

I'm also a sucker for artist neurosis and not only does Amanda love art, her obsession with Salvador Dali gave her passion a detailed depth.  Despite having a pretty extensive interest in art history (thanks to my Mom's bookshelves of art books), Dali was never my guy.  Sure, he seemed pretty interesting but I ended up associating melting clocks with dorm rooms rather than the persistence of memory.

Fast forward to a sophomore year visit to the Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. Whatever you think of his artwork, there is something about seeing it in it's 15 foot tall glory right in front of you.
Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus

The Hallucinogenic Toreador
It's breathtaking.  I highly recommend visiting the Dali Museum in St. Pete if you have the chance.  My other favorites from the exhibit are Velázquez Painting the Infanta Margarita with the Lights and Shadows of His Own Glory and Galaciadalacidesoxiribunucleicacid (Homage to Crick and Watson).  The amount of detail, the double imagery and layers upon layers of symbolism and meaning in his works are truly fascinating.

While Zero falls short of matching the depth and complexity of the artist it honors, it does feature a lot of my grade-on-a-curve topics (music and art appreciation, fictional boys in bands, song lyric appropriation to fictional situations etc.) and I enjoyed it accordingly.  3/5 stars.

Giveaway:  I was fortunate enough to receive a finished hardcover copy of Zero from the publisher and since I already had an e-book copy on my Kindle I would like to share the wealth!  Enter to receive the brand new hardcover of Zero by Tom Leveen below.  One winner will be randomly selected.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Reviewed by Noelle and Maggie: November 2011
Published July 10, 2012 by Random House Children's Books
Goodreads • Buy at AmazonKindleBook Depository

Noelle: I would describe this book as part game of spies, part comedy of manners, and part Law & Order: Dragon Investigations Unit. Yes, it's as awesome as that sounds.

Maggie: The story is a lot to take in at first because you're hit with the worlds of Goredd (human) and Tanamoot (dragon), and the half-human/half-dragon world of Seraphina. Seraphina's world is as fascinating as it is confusing because it exists in her mind, created by memories left by her deceased mother. It's populated by odd characters that Seraphina names Fruit Bat, Pelican Man, etc.

Noelle: At first, I had some difficulty getting acclimated to the world because there seemed to be an almost overwhelming amount of characters to keep track of and to make it more confusing, some were referred to by several different names. Power through, my friends, because once you figure out who is who, there are so many awesome surprises. Nearly every character delightfully upends your expectations. There are no cookie-cutter roles here. I don't want to give away anything in my examples but the two main female characters are just amazing. I adored Seraphina. She's smart, quick on her feet, kind, gutsy, and for someone who is forced to lie nearly non-stop, SO true to herself. The hero is also a wonderful surprise. I also loved, loved, LOVED Seraphina's relationship with Orma (and her developing understanding of it). I could easily list five more characters that were absolute favorites. That's how well-developed even secondary characters are in this book. I also really liked the alien-nature of the dragons with their bafflement of human customs and emotions, their logical minds and fascination of how things work. The world building is awesome. The garden of grotesques was both creepy and trippy. Oh and the dragon made machines and trinkets were so cool.

Maggie: Rachel Hartman takes what could easily be cliche characters and plot and makes them compelling and intelligent. She doesn't dumb it down for her readers or make it easy for her characters. Princess Glisselda, the fiancee of Prince Lucian, is also one of the most likable characters in the book. Prince Lucian is an actual knight in shining armor, but Seraphina is more often than not coming to his rescue. That brings us to Seraphina, a brilliant musician who struggles with the legacy her mother left her. I'd be pissed about metallic silver scales too. But who has time to dwell on scales when Lucian and Glisselda's uncle has been killed and all clues (namely, the lack of a head along with the body) point to a dragon as the culprit. This murder just before the anniversary of the peace treaty between humans and dragons could tip the balance towards war. There's discontent on all sides -- humans who aren't happy living with dragons, dragons who feel they've given up too much to humans, knights who fought during the wars and were banished following the peace treaty. Assassinations are plotted and identities are revealed as the nation of Goredd plans to welcome the leader of dragonkind.

Noelle: Basically I really liked this book a lot and I am pretty sure you will too! Is there going to be a sequel or did I just hope that into existence in my head? Either way, I will definitely be keeping up with Rachel Hartman's future writing endeavors.  Rating 4/5 stars.

Maggie: This is just the beginning (I hope!) of a series. I don't mean to keep using the word "intelligent" but Rachel Hartman writes characters that actually use their brains. Deductive reasoning! It happens! Seraphina reminded me a lot of The Thief in that as good as it was, I know the sequel is going to be even better. Nevertheless, this book stands very capably on its own. It is as much political thriller as it is fantasy, which I love. I also loved the discussions of parentage and the legacies, both beneficial and detrimental, that parents leave their kids. I can't believe this was a debut novel! It was so assured and entertaining. I definitely look forward to reading more of Rachel Hartman's work.  Rating 4/5 stars.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Bookmark Binge: July 1, 2012

Can't get enough of...

This Is Not a Test?
Sony has optioned it for a television movie!
The book trailer alone freaked me (Noelle) out.  Here, have another.
Read an excerpt on Courtney Summers' blog.
Enter to win a signed finished copy on Courtney Summers' Facebook.

Look at all these links lying around...
The Babysitters Club play!  We're going to need someone to go and report back.
Children's picture books: the R-Rated movies edition.
The Book Smugglers and Bunbury in the Stacks list their Favorite Books (so far) of 2012.  
Wasting away in a cubicle? There's hope for you yet--The Early Jobs of 24 Famous Writers.
Flavorwire's 10 Fake Books in Movies That We Wish We Could Read.

Coming soon -- What We're Reading and Reviewing... In Theory