Top Ten Tuesday: Books Recently Added to My To-Read List

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Today’s Top Ten Tuesday (a book blogging meme created by The Broke and the Bookish) is themed: “Books Recently Added to My To-Read List.” I haven’t done one of these in a while (mostly because I’m lazy) but this one was easy enough!

1. The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg. This is the book club book for next month at school, so I’ve got to get this one read!

2. Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch. No less than three students flailed about this one, so I figure it’s worth reading.

3. Ru by Kim Thúy. This book won Canada Reads this year – and I’ve heard such good things!

4. Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien. I need this one for my reading challenge (Tim O’Brien shares my initials)!

5. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Gotta catch this one while it’s hot.

6. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty. It sounds weirdly intriguing.

7. Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. Snagged this at a book sale! So it’s going on my physical to-read shelf.

8. Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke by Anne Blankman. The sequel to Prisoner of Night and Fog, which I already reviewed!

9. All the Rage by Courtney Summers. I just love Courtney Summers. That’s all.

10. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. Because the school library had this one on display and I immediately went “YES I NEED TO READ THIS.”

What books are y’all looking forward to reading in the near future (hopefully)?

Tara

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Review: All Fall Down (Embassy Row #1)

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Title: All Fall Down (Embassy Row #1)

Author: Ally Carter

Publisher: Scholastic Press

Publication date: January 20, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

I bought this book right after it came out because of some great reviews from friends – but I only just got around to reading it! Once I started it, I finished in less than a day, because it was completely not what I expected but was instead way better.

First, a quick synopsis from Ally Carter’s website:

Grace Blakely is absolutely certain of three things:

1. She is not crazy.
2. Her mother was murdered.
3. Someday she is going to find the killer and make him pay.

As certain as Grace is about these facts, nobody else believes her–so there’s no one she can completely trust. Not her grandfather, a powerful ambassador. Not her new friends, who all live on Embassy Row. Not Alexei, the Russian boy next door who is keeping an eye on Grace for reasons she neither likes nor understands.

Everybody wants Grace to put on a pretty dress and a pretty smile, blocking out all her unpretty thoughts. But they can’t control Grace–no more than Grace can control what she knows or what she needs to do.

Her past has come back to hunt her . . .  and if she doesn’t stop it, Grace isn’t the only one who will get hurt. Because on Embassy Row, the countries of the world all stand like dominoes, and one wrong move can make them all fall down.

Disclaimer: I’ve never read anything else by Ally Carter, but All Fall Down absolutely blew me away. The story is set up so that Grace, the protagonist, returns to a place called “Embassy Row,” where all the foreign embassies in the country of Valencia sit side-by-side and tensions between neighbors are – as you may imagine – high. The book started out slowly as Carter unravels who Grace is (army brat, granddaughter of the American ambassador, PTSD sufferer after she witnessed her mother’s murder at the age of thirteen) and how Embassy Row is set up, but once it gets into the action, it never slows down again. Although all of her relatives and friends keep telling her that her mother’s death in her bookstore fire was an accident, Grace is adamant that a man with a scarred face shot her mother in front of her. When she sees the same man in Valencia – as a close companion to the prime minister, no less – she sets off on a mission to get revenge and ensure that no one else faces the same fate as her mother.

I absolutely loved all of the characterization. Grace is a girl who tries so hard to be independent and has a difficult time realizing when she needs to rely on her friends for support. Likewise, her newfound friends on Embassy Row (and some old friends as well) all have detailed personalities that lack any visible stereotyping. Plus, there’s hints of romance with a few different characters but romance definitely isn’t the #1 priority in the novel – political intrigue and character development are.

I found myself fist-pumping and cheering aloud for the characters more than once, which is probably embarrassing. But I couldn’t believe how into the novel I got, and the twist ending completely threw me for a loop in the end. Yet while there is a definite resolution to one major mystery in the book, the ending is a clear cliffhanger for a continuation of the series, which I’m really looking forward to.

The one thing that bothered me was that, looking back, I can see that Grace wasn’t asking herself the kinds of questions that she really needed to be asking (you’ll understand if you read the book). So in that way, I think that her POV as the narrator was slightly unreliable in retrospect, which made me feel just a teeny, tiny bit cheated. That being said, I only came to that conclusion afterwards – while reading, I had no complaints, and I also (reluctantly) see why that particular avenue was necessary in order to make the book work.

But overall, if you like thrillers, mysteries, female characters that are strong as hell, or books that will make you physically shout while reading them, you should add All Fall Down to your future reading list. If you’ve read it, let me know what you think in the comments below!

5 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: The Last Time We Say Goodbye

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Title: The Last Time We Say Goodbye

Author: Cynthia Hand

Publisher: Harper Teen

Publication Date: February 10, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

I’m going to be honest – I picked this book to read at the Starbucks at Barnes and Noble and finished it in one sitting, and I chose it solely because the cover has this really nice – I don’t know how to describe it, but almost – matte? This really nice-feeling matte. Whatever. It turned out to be a great choice and one of the most striking books I’ve read recently.

A brief summary from the author’s website:

There’s death all around us. We just don’t pay attention. Until we do.

The last time Lex was happy, it was before. When she had a family that was whole. A boyfriend she loved. Friends who didn’t look at her like she might break down at any moment.

Now she’s just the girl whose brother killed himself. And it feels like that’s all she’ll ever be.

As Lex starts to put her life back together, she tries to block out what happened the night Tyler died. But there’s a secret she hasn’t told anyone-a text Tyler sent, that could have changed everything.

Lex’s brother is gone. But Lex is about to discover that a ghost doesn’t have to be real to keep you from moving on.

The Last Time We Say Goodbye is another book about the aftermath of loved one’s suicide. At the point that I read this book, this was the third about this topic I’d read in about the span of a week, which was concerning. Why is this such a popular topic for new YA novels? Is it because teens are dealing with this more frequently? Is it because the authors have gone through this? Why? I don’t quite know.

At any rate, the book was well-written, no doubt about it. The imagery was vivid, the dialogue was sharp, and Lex was just the sort of complicated character that I am drawn towards. She’s not particularly likable, but in this case it’s understandable. She’s put up a wall of sorts between her and the rest of the world, and for good reason.

Throughout the book, I knew Lex felt guilty about her brother’s suicide – but I just didn’t know why. That mystery catapulted my interest, especially because it’s another one of those situations where no one’s going to forgive you. You have to find the strength to do that yourself, in that instance, and watching Lex’s struggle was difficult but emotionally cathartic. Raw guilt, raw grief, raw pain – it was hard to get through, sometimes, because my heart hurt by association. But I think the unfiltered emotion is what really lets this book shine.

This isn’t exactly a feel-good novel, but it might be just what you need. I didn’t enjoy reading this book – instead, I felt privileged.

5 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: I Was Here

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Title: I Was Here

Author: Gayle Forman

Publisher: Viking Juvenile

Publication Date: January 27, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

I’ve been excited about reading this book for weeks and weeks, ever since I saw the twitter campaign for it online. And I’ve loved Gayle Forman’s previous works, If I Stay being one of the romantic staples of YA lit ever since I read it years ago. However, this one let me down.

Before I get around to why, here’s a brief summary from Gayle Forman’s website:

When her best friend Meg drinks a bottle of industrial-strength cleaner alone in a motel room, Cody is understandably shocked and devastated.

She and Meg shared everything—so how was there no warning? But when Cody travels to Meg’s college town to pack up the belongings left behind, she discovers that there’s a lot that Meg never told her. About her old roommates, the sort of people Cody never would have met in her dead-end small town in Washington. About Ben McAllister, the boy with a guitar and a sneer, and some secrets of his own. And about an encrypted computer file that Cody can’t open—until she does, and suddenly everything Cody thought she knew about her best friend’s death gets thrown into question.

I Was Here is Gayle Forman at her finest, a taut, emotional, and ultimately redemptive story about redefining the meaning of family and finding a way to move forward even in the face of unspeakable loss.

This suicide, unlike the other suicide-focused YA books I’ve read and reviewed recently, is more a mystery than anything else. Cody tries to understand why her best friend killed herself – what exactly led to that? And (mini-spoiler, though you find this out fairly early in the book): one thing that contributed was Meg’s participation in a pro-suicide forum of sorts online. Cody, then, makes it her mission to track down the person who she believes talked Meg into killing herself online. An interesting take, and one that I didn’t anticipate (mini-spoiler over).

So the mystery aspect of the book was great, as was Cody’s realistic emotional trauma over losing her best friend. Anyone who’s lost someone close to them unexpectedly would be able to relate with a lot of what Cody goes through in the novel. Although I do have to say that if you have any sense of foreshadowing at all, you can tell almost immediately the “reveal” at the end of the novel. Authors don’t mention things for no reason, and the hints were all laid out for the reader almost obnoxiously.

But what was really annoying was the introduction of a romantic angle – I was 100% thrown off by the unrealistic, unnecessary love interest. Ben and Cody have no chemistry, and their relationship makes zero sense. I understand that Gayle Forman is a romance writer, but also I’d like to see a book where romance isn’t unnecessarily thrown into the mix just for the heck of it. Without the awkward love addition, this book would have been way better. Even if Ben and Cody were just friends, his character would have accomplished the same purpose. An appropriate tweet from my fav, @BroodingYAHero:

I am still left with a residual sense of confusion about my feelings for I Was Here. It was an interesting enough read, and I still like Forman’s writing style, but overall I think my annoyances outweighed the positive aspects of the novel, so much so that I can’t even tell what kind of reader I’d recommend this book to.

3 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: Playlist for the Dead

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Title: Playlist for the Dead

Author: Michelle Falkoff

Publisher: HarperTeen

Publication date: January 27, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s twitter

I always love the idea of books that incorporate music, because I think music is so relatable to almost every reader. So I picked up Playlist for the Dead as part of my accidental teen-suicide-extravaganza. Anyway – unfortunately, this book fell a little short, in my opinion.

A summary from the HarperCollins website:

There was a party. There was a fight. The next morning, Sam’s best friend, Hayden, was dead. And all he left Sam was a playlist of songs and a suicide note: For Sam—listen and you’ll understand. To figure out what happened, Sam has to rely on the playlist and his own memory. But the more he listens, the more he realizes that his memory isn’t as reliable as he thought. And it might only be by taking out his earbuds and opening his eyes to the people around him that he’ll finally be able to piece together his best friend’s story. And maybe have a chance to change his own.

Playlist for the Dead is an honest and gut-wrenching first novel about loss, rage, what it feels like to outgrow a friendship that’s always defined you—and the struggle to redefine yourself. But above all, it’s about finding hope when hope seems like the hardest thing to find.

When Sam’s best friend commits suicide, it comes as a major shock. The only thing he’s left is a playlist of songs. Each chapter title is a song on the playlist, and to make my reading experience more authentic, I listened to each song (on YouTube) as I read the chapter. It added a nice ambience to the story, though most songs were either too long or too short for the time it took to read the chapter, which was annoying but obviously an unsolvable issue (and I doubt anyone else would even care, other than me). Throughout the book, Sam investigates to try to figure out exactly what happened the night Hayden died and how to move on from there.

On a concept level, I really liked the idea of Playlist for the Dead. But the execution fell way short. Mostly because the main character in the story other than Sam was the textbook definition of a manic pixie dream girl. Such characters should have been banned from literature decades ago. Also, I feel like the conclusion of the book didn’t particularly solve anything. I just… didn’t buy into the emotion that was supposed to be happening, and I didn’t have any attachment to what was going on. If I can’t care about the characters, there’s no point in reading the book.

For creativity alone, I’ll give the book two stars. I think that there might be an audience out there for this type of novel, but there are so many other better books about suicide, especially in YA literature lately, that I remain distinctly unimpressed by this one.

2 out of 5 stars.

Tara