Not this deserted island, please.

NIL ★★
Lynne Matson
Henry Holt
Expected publication: March 4th, 2014

***

nilA free copy was provided by the publisher through Netgalley for an honest review.

I really want to tear this book a new one, but it would be the equivalent of beating the shit out of the 80 pound asthmatic kid at school who wears glasses and stealing his lunch money.

See, here’s the problem: I picked up this book with entirely different expectations of what it’s actually about. The blurb caught my eye immediately:

On the mysterious island of Nil, the rules are set. You have exactly 365 days to escape—or you die.

My mind immediately began racing with awesome possibilities and potential — Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, The Long Walk — yeah, no. NIL is not any of these, not even close. What I should have done was keep reading the plot summary after that initial sexy blurb, which states:

Lost and alone, Charley finds no sign of other people until she meets Thad, the gorgeous leader of a clan of teenage refugees. Soon Charley learns that leaving the island is harder than she thought . . . and so is falling in love.

BUT I DON’T WANT A TEENAGE LOVE STORY ON A DESERTED ISLAND!!!

I want death games, and blood and danger and action and running and characters I can root for and scream in agony when they meet horrible, unpredictable ends.

Yeah, that is so not this book. There’s a little bit of that — about 13.36% (the rest is all lurve and angst of the teenage variety, my favorite kind). If the author really wants to have a love story (and let’s face it, these days it’s almost impossible to publish a YA novel without one), then it should have been more balanced. There are some great ideas and plot devices introduced here, but none of them ever get the attention they deserve, or are they ever fully fleshed out.

Young teens put off by violence seeking a more tepid adventure on a desert island may find some appeal here. I found it mostly pedestrian, safe and largely unsatisfying. The only positive I can think to throw out right now is that at least there was no love triangle. At least there was that.

This review has also been posted to Goodreads.

John Green wants to make you cry, but first he’ll make you laugh

grca_badge_winner-f9454940ba1e5388d3d719979c7f3f51The Fault in Our Stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
John Green
Dutton Books, 2012

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. ~Julius Caesar

I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.
~The Fault in our Stars

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsAlright, alright! I admit it, it got to me — it freaking absolutely got to me. If I were Superman this little book would be my Kryptonite. Why did I think I would be immune? I was so smug going into this, feeling secure in my awesome, arrogant certainty that the sure to be oodles of maudlin and reams of cliches would keep me safe and sound from any wrenchings of the heart. My overall dubiousness and cynicism would serve as my protective shield, offering immunity against such ruthless emotional manipulation — nay exploitation — about to be perpetrated against my person. Sick kids? Cancer? Dying sick kids with cancer? Dying sick kids with cancer falling in love? Really? You’re going to go there so completely and unapologetically and still expect me to respect you in the morning?

Despite all the obvious pitfalls lying in wait for John Green, he manages to avoid just about all of them (seemingly with ease). I experienced a level of integrity and commitment to the subject matter that gave sufficient weight and depth to what could have just as easily turned out to be breezy and shallow.

That’s not to say that this story wallows in gloom and gravitas — far from it. It’s funny. I laughed out loud — out loud — and when I wasn’t doing that I snickered, grinned, and tittered (yes, there were a few titters). I also bawled like a baby, but the laughter came first, and the tears were earned.

Hazel Grace — our terminal narrator — is lovely. You will notice she doesn’t always act or speak like your average teenager, and that’s because she isn’t one. Hazel has been in a staring contest with Death since she was 13 years old. He hasn’t beaten her yet, but it’s changed her, in more ways than any of us non-terminal people could ever comprehend. Our casual intellectual acceptance that we are all terminal and will one day die is not nearly the same as carrying Death on your skin and in your bones, to feel life seeping out of your pores and stalk you in the night. To sit on your chest and steal the breath from your malfunctioning, fluid-filled lungs.

Augustus Waters is sheer delight and I don’t give a donkey’s ass that the way he and Hazel speak to one another is unrealistic because it is filled with such a sincere sweetness and adorable, lovable humor I couldn’t get enough. It broke through my armor, tore a hole through my cynical self, and had me falling head over heels in love with these two. Each is defiant in the way that only a young person battling Death can be defiant, they are warm and insecure and brave and foolish and selfish and sad and real. I’m not going to say realistic — we could argue that point til the cows come home — but not once did they ever stop being authentic.

What can I say? I loved them. I loved this book. Okay?

Okay.

Occasionally, I like to play around with book trailers. Here is one I made for this lovely little book.

Rot and Ruin by Jonathan Maberry

Rot & Ruin ★★★★★
Jonathan Maberry
Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, 2010

rotI have been on a zombie reading frenzy lately – I see a zombie book and I must read it, I can’t help myself. And the books are coming fast and furious, especially in the YA area. Some are good, some are awful, and some are outstanding. Jonathan Maberry’s Rot and Ruin falls somewhere just shy of outstanding. It reeks of EPIC WIN.

So yeah, I love this book and before I go all fangirl over Tom Imura and squee my head off let me highlight why you should start this series:

1) It is very well-written — that’s not always a given, even from talented authors — see my review of David Moody’s Autumn: The City. Moody is the man, but even he can write a zombie novel that sucks. Maberry has already established his reputation in the horror genre (his Ghost Road Blues snagged him a Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel). This is his YA debut and I’m impressed to say the least.

2) It is a highly charged, emotional story where some heavy shit goes down and you really fucking care who it’s happening to. This comes back to the all-important character development. I don’t scare if I don’t care, and I cared plenty here (even about the zombies!!!) Through the eyes of 15 yr old Benny Imura, we come to understand that zombies are not just mindless monsters out to gouge and consume humans. We see the tragedy of what they’ve become. Benny’s older brother Tom forces him to confront who they used to be:

Look at that woman. She was, what? Eighteen years old when she died. Might have been pretty. Those rags she’s wearing might have been a waitress’s uniform once….She had people at home who loved her….People who worried when she was late getting home.

So the zombies are not just plot devices or mere window dressing here; they serve a real purpose and are an important part of the story.

3) It’s a fascinating examination of what fear does to people. Just imagine a world that survives an actual zombie apocalypse. As groups of survivors ban together in fenced enclaves to try and eke out a semi-normal existence, who will these people become? How will they interact with each other, with the world that’s left to them? I know it’s a personal bias of mine, but I figure a zombie novel hasn’t done its job if it doesn’t convincingly show that humans can be the real monsters. Maberry hits that out of the park and I want to smooch him for it.

They held each other and wept as the night closed its fist around their tiny shelter, and the world below them seethed with killers both living and dead.

4) Tom Imura – squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! It’s been a long time since I’ve been this excited over a character from a book and reading as much YA as I do, most male protagonists are still battling hormones and attitude. But not Tom. Tom is in his 30s. He is a survivor. He is a specialist. He has been forged in battle and now is as strong and unbending as his katana – the Japanese long sword he uses. In a world that has been plunged into Hell and lived to tell about it he has retained his humanity. He is deep and soulful and will kick your ass in 2 seconds flat. He’s a mix of Master Li Mu Bai from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Morpheus from The Matrix, and my beloved Dean Winchester from Supernatural. How could a girl NOT fall in love?

For all these reasons and more five stars and HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION!

Don’t miss the rest of the series!

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

Revolution ★★★★
Jennifer Donnelly
Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2010

“Because God loves us,
but the devil takes an interest.” ~Revolution

revolutionI find writing reviews for books I love quite intimidating really. I feel overwhelmed with the task of ever doing a book justice that I want everyone to read. And then there’s always the risk that if you gush too much, it’s going to turn people off, or build their expectations so high that when they do pick the book up they can’t help but be a little disappointed. But perhaps I’m over thinking it too much.

I had never read anything by Jennifer Donnelly before and didn’t know quite what to expect when I picked up Revolution. I thought the cover quite beautiful, and the historical aspect of the story called to me, so I had no qualms about giving it a try. What can I say about a book that totally swept me up in its pages and consumed my every free thought when I wasn’t reading it? The sheer beauty of some of its prose squeezed my heart. Donnelly does such an amazing job writing about music that I swear sometimes I heard the notes wafting up from the page. I’ve never claimed to be a music aficionado of any age or style, I don’t read music, I’ve never taken a music appreciation class – but I listen to music. It has an undeniably important place in my life, as vital as reading, and there is just something so simple and honest about the way Donnelly threads music throughout this novel that left me totally captivated.

Then there’s the story – about a defeated young girl undone by tragedy who has lost her way, and her will to live. Andi is angry at herself, at the world, and the depth of her grief and rage is like a sharp and vicious thing that she carries in her chest. Andi is definitely a young woman spiraling out of control.

I love how this novel unfolds, that it is two stories with two narrators – one contemporary one historical. The detail is so vivid, the sense of place so strong, you walk the streets of Paris and run through the catacombs that haunt the modern city to this day. French Revolutionary history is filled with brutality, intrigue, betrayal, hope and disillusionment. As a novelist, you don’t have to exaggerate any of the historical details, you simply stand out of the way and let the story tell itself. I feel that’s what Donnelly has done here; she’s taken her fictional creation – Alexandrine – and written her into the pages of history. Through Alexandrine’s diary, we get an intimate look at the scale of human barbarity it takes to pull off a Revolution.

Andi becomes consumed with the diary and with Alexandrine’s fate and the fate of the boy King locked in a tower to rot. She can only hope that the diary can give her the peace and understanding she seeks to save her own life. This book is gorgeously textured and layered like an 18th century French painting, or a beautiful piece of composed music. It is also a pulse-pounding page-turning adventure, an enigmatic historical mystery shrouded in intrigue and speculation. It’s a love story about the bonds between parent and child, brother and sister, lovers and friends. What else can I say? Read this book.

Random House has done a sumptuous book trailer for Revolution. Enjoy!

Everfound: Neal Shusterman’s Skinjacker Trilogy a triumph

Everfound (Skinjacker Trilogy #3) ★★★★★
Neal Shusterman
Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 2011

BRAVO! OUTSTANDING! EPIC ADVENTURE! SHEER DELIGHT! HEART STEALING!

HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION!!!

***An open letter to Neal Shusterman (please pardon me while I squee my head off):

Dear Mr. Shusterman (or may I be so bold as to call you Neal?) After completing the Skinjacker Trilogy I do feel like we are old friends and maybe even knew each other in a previous life. Also, I could kiss you smack on the lips and that seems to call for a first-name familiarity.

everfoundMy first introduction to the Everlost realm charmed me to the very tips of my toes and to the very ends of each strand of my hair. The tale’s sheer originality enthralled me from beginning to end. You could say I got lost in Everlost (and loved every nail-biting, white-knuckled moment). There is sadness in this story of dead children who lose their way “into the light” and find themselves stranded in this in-between place. Their journey of discovery is filled with child-like wonder, fear, and yes, even horror. Sometimes, especially horror.

Could the sequel ever live up to its predecessor? I approached it with caution and much trepidation, but what the hell was I worried about? For you, Neal, had so much more in store for your readers yet. What joy to be swept up in an epic adventure! More delectable characters are introduced while the ones we have come to know are pushed even further to their limits. The fascinating world-building continues, the details delicious, the page-turning pace sublime. The tension of Book 2 builds to a crackling crescendo and a maddening cliff-hanger. How long would you make us wait for Book 3???!!!!

Fortunately, not that long (you could teach Mr. George R.R. Martin a thing or two about deadlines I daresay). Everfound is everything it should be and everything I hoped it would be. I don’t say that lightly (though I’m still feeling a little giddy and light-headed in the glow of having just turned the last page). You sir kept such awe-inspiring momentum going through all three books only to ramp it up OFF THE CHARTS in this final installment.

You really were saving the best for last weren’t you, you magnificent bastard? Not once did you have to repeat yourself, not once did you have to milk a great idea for extra points, you STILL had new stuff to show us, you STILL had places to take us that we’ve never been or imagined. I could not guess how it was going to end, I couldn’t even be sure you wouldn’t break my heart. “Edge of my seat” seems too trite and overused an expression, but that’s where I was Neal — on the edge of my seat.

Before I close I would like to sneak in here some of the other elements that make this trilogy so great — how it tackles the meaning of life and what makes life so precious in the first place — that it’s memory and remembrances of things past that make us who we are. Yes, you’ve given us a grand adventure Neal, but you’ve also given us a part of your heart I think. For I feel much love went into these novels, and that I am certain is what makes each of them worth loving right back.

And just in case there was any doubt left — I do love them, all of them, very very much. My sincerest thanks for introducing me to Everlost, taking me on this marvelous adventure, and getting me home safe again.

Forever yours,

Trudi (should we ever meet, you can definitely call me by my first name)

House of Stairs – one step away from the beast within

House of Stairs★★★

by William Sleator

I am insanely addicted attracted to stories about “the group in peril”, when people are thrust into an alien setting absent of any social rules and obligations. Under such circumstances, it usually doesn’t take long for humans to throw off the shackles of civilized conduct and resort to a more brutal “survival of the fittest” approach. That’s not just the pessimist in me coming out, but the realist.

house of stairsWhat we become in extremis is both fascinating and frightening in the heroic heights we reach and the craven depths we sink to, and how quickly we revert to our most primal and baser urges. One hundred thousand years of evolution gone in the blink of an eye. William Golding shows us this in Lord of the Flies, as does Scott Smith in The Ruins, Jose Saramago in Blindness and Stephen King in his novella The Mist. These books teach us that there are even worse fates than losing your life – it’s losing your humanity.

In House of Stairs, William Sleator proves just how quickly humans can be stripped of their humanity. First published in 1974, I imagine Sleator was influenced at least in part, by some of the more famous psych experiments of the first half of the 20th century including the Little Albert Experiment and the Milgram Obedience Experiment. Just a few years prior to its publication there was also the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment – a study designed to ostensibly observe the effects of becoming either a prisoner or prison guard. Twenty-four students were selected out of 75 to play the prisoners and live in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. Roles were assigned randomly. This “experiment” degenerated so rapidly into violence and the dehumanization of its subjects that it had to be stopped after only six days. Good times.

The five 16-year-old protagonists here are subjected to much the same mindfuck (pardon my French), enclosed in a never-ending space of stairs – there are no walls, no floors, no doors, no ceiling, just stairs, going up, going down. That’s the set-up. What follows is pretty tame by today’s standards, and in my books does not hold a candle to Lord of the Flies; however, it still makes for pure, unadulterated compulsive reading. It doesn’t surprise me that in 2000, the American Library Association, with teen participation, chose it as one of the 100 Best Young Adult Books of the last 50 years. Recommended!!

A dystopian classic for readers of all ages

The Giver ★★★★★
Lois Lowry
Houghton Mifflin, 1993

“It’s the choosing that’s important, isn’t it?”~The Giver

giverI always thought of Lois Lowry’s The Giver as the little book that could. Written almost like a parable, its deceptively simple story delivers some heavy, reverberating hits. I consider this little book to be a significant contribution to the genre, ranked right up there with such dystopian classics as Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Soylent Green. I love it because of its simplicity and accessibility; it’s the perfect way to introduce younger readers (especially reluctant younger readers) to some pretty powerful themes.

It’s a book that can only generate discussion and debate amongst the young and young at heart on the importance of personal choice. You fight for it. You don’t ever let it be taken from you. Sameness, calmness, serenity… these may sound like lofty goals, comforting words, but they should never come at the cost of the individual’s right to explore, question, challenge, choose.

Some readers may be left unsatisfied by the ambiguous ending; I have to admit, first time reading it I was a little frustrated. But like any good parable, the ending is probably the best launching off point to a passionate debate of “what-ifs” “maybes” and “for sures”. Other readers might be put off by Lowry’s lack of detailed world-building; this is a teensy book – a long short story really – and with such a small canvas there really isn’t room for answers, mostly questions. There is a lot we don’t know – the how and why this community came to be. But the mystery inspires some addictive speculation, especially in the context of other dystopian tales which surely influenced Lowry here.

The Giver is a chilling bedtime story, as good at warning us and teaching us a lesson, as it is at entertaining us. That’s a magnificent book that can do those things all at once.

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