Review: Extraordinary Means

exmeanscover

Title: Extraordinary Means

Author: Robyn Schneider

Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books

Publication date: May 26, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

I picked this book up purely because the cover font and color scheme was gorgeous. I am a shallow person when it comes to book covers catching my eye. The fact that this was somewhat alternate-universe and slightly speculative, along with being a YA romantic dark comedy of sorts was secondary. But I’m glad that’s what it ended up being about!

As always, a brief summary from the author’s website:

At seventeen, overachieving Lane finds himself at Latham House, a sanatorium for teens suffering from an incurable strain of tuberculosis. Part hospital and part boarding school, Latham is a place of endless rules and confusing rituals, where it’s easier to fail breakfast than it is to flunk French.

There, Lane encounters a girl he knew years ago. Instead of the shy loner he remembers, Sadie has transformed. At Latham, she is sarcastic, fearless, and utterly compelling. Her friends, a group of eccentric troublemakers, fascinate Lane, who has never stepped out of bounds his whole life. And as he gradually becomes one of them, Sadie shows him their secrets: how to steal internet, how to sneak into town, and how to disable the med sensors they must wear at all times.

But there are consequences to having secrets, particularly at Latham House. And as Lane and Sadie begin to fall in love and their group begins to fall sicker, their insular world threatens to come crashing down. Told in alternating points of view, Extraordinary Means is a darkly funny story about doomed friendships, first love, and the rare miracle of second chances.

At Latham, there’s some of the camaraderie and shenanigans you’d expect from a typical teen summer camp or boarding school, but it’s constantly in the shadow of the fact that everyone will either a) get well and go home, leaving their friends forever or b) die. So, you know, not really a win-win situation. And it’s an unusual situation to describe. I’ve read some reviewers describe Extraordinary Means as somewhat like Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. While the latter is definitely different because it’s about a boarding school where the students are being raised in order to harvest their organs, I agree that there’s still a similarity. The students are all living on borrowed time, and they know that whatever relationships they build will inevitably fall apart, and not by choice.

But at the same time, this book is special because of it’s strong comedic aspect. When the blurb says that the book is “darkly funny,” it’s not kidding. I laughed out loud almost constantly throughout, from Lane and Sadie’s narration more than from anything that happened in the narrative plot-wise. But then I’d stop and be like, “Um, these kids have terminal diseases. Some of these things that are cracking me up are actually really morbid. Should I really be laughing so hard?” The answer I came to was, yes. It’s okay to laugh. Because if you take away the humor, you’re taking away any chance they have at living somewhat normal lives. And the characters make it clear that some of the humor is theirs, but some of it is also a coping mechanism.

Some of the actions of the characters are definitely… nonsensical. For example, in one scene, Lane and Sadie sneak out to a county carnival. Obviously they want to live their lives, but also, to risk spreading their disease? I don’t think anyone would really be cruel enough to do this. Also, there’s a constant black market of alcohol and other banned items, and the teens end up partying like there’s no tomorrow. Kind of stupid, especially when you’re dying of a lung disease. I don’t know. Some parts just didn’t make sense to me.

But overall, while there were some lapses in logical judgment and while I saw almost every “plot twist” and dramatic event that happened (there’s not much in this book that will surprise you, probably), I enjoyed it. Like I said before, it’s warped sense of comedy was weirdly engaging. I found almost all of the main characters to be relatable in some way, and in the end, I was satisfied with my reading experience. So if you like comedies, romances, or books about dying teens (which seem to be more and more common these days…), you may want to give this one a try.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Advertisements

Review: Anything Could Happen

anythingcover

Title: Anything Could Happen

Author: Will Walton

Publisher: Push

Publication date: May 26, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

This is one of those books that grabbed me at the first reading of it’s book blurb. Out of all of the recent releases, Anything Could Happen intrigued me the most, so it was only natural that I picked it up. I ended up buying it for my classroom, and in a moment, you’ll hopefully understand why.

First, the summary that immediately piqued my interest:

When you’re in love with the wrong person for the right reasons, anything could happen.

Tretch lives in a very small town where everybody’s in everybody else’s business. Which makes it hard for him to be in love with his straight best friend.  For his part, Matt is completely oblivious to the way Tretch feels – and Tretch can’t tell whether that makes it better or worse.

The problem with living a lie is that the lie can slowly become your life. For Tretch, the problem isn’t just with Matt. His family has no idea who he really is and what he’s really thinking. The girl at the local bookstore has no clue how off-base her crush on him is. And the guy at school who’s a thorn in Tretch’s side doesn’t realize how close to the truth he’s hitting.

Tretch has spent a lot of time dancing alone in his room, but now he’s got to step outside his comfort zone and into the wider world.  Because like love, a true self can rarely be contained.

I’ve said before that I love LGBTQ books where the characters aren’t straight and that’s not a huge thing – where their sexuality doesn’t take a starring role, because usually it’s not the defining aspect of a character (or at least, it shouldn’t be). But I think that coming out stories are equally needed. Especially coming out stories that are positive. Yes, Tretch is afraid of judgment – it’d be impossible not to be. One reason why books like Anything Could Happen are valuable is because queer teens need to see that they can be accepted, and that their sexuality isn’t a direct ride to tragedy and rejection. And more than just in regards to sexuality, throughout the book Tretch learns what it means to be himself. Music is a huge part of who he is, and eventually he realizes that he doesn’t necessarily have to keep that to himself. His growth as a person and his slow building of confidence is touching to experience.

In terms of the style, Will Walton also really captures the shaky time when everyone is trying to find themselves. His descriptions are lovely and his dialogue both moving and hilarious, depending on what part you’re reading. I felt fully immersed in the story for the entire time I was reading – it was smooth throughout and events blended seamlessly from one to the next, which meant that while there were ebbs and flows of action, all of it fit together like a set of perfect jigsaw puzzle pieces. That’s not to say that the story itself was unrealistically perfect – more like, when you look back at it, you realize – wow. That makes sense. That’s the natural series of events. I don’t know how else to explain it, but it was wonderful.

What I didn’t love as much was that this book was all set around the holidays, which I didn’t expect. This threw me off just a little , especially because there was no indication about this before I started the book, and it was released in May. Something about reading about snow and holiday cheer just before summer was slightly off-putting. I also disliked the fact that Ellie Goulding music played a pivotal role in certain scenes. Like, I’m as big of a Goulding fan as the next person, but references to specific songs are going to make this book very dated in a few years. Still, after reading the whole story, I can see why that choice was made.

But like I said before, I definitely think Anything Could Happen has a strong audience out there, which is why I bought it for my classroom. It’s got friendship, family, a little bit of romance, and a lot of heart, all of which is put together stunningly. I can’t think of a reason why a YA reader wouldn’t find something to love about this book, and I can’t wait for more of Will Walton’s work.

And to end on an exciting note – after writing this review, I reached out to Will Walton via email because I stumbled across it on his website, and he agreed to an interview! So that post will be forthcoming. He’s not only a great author but seems like a genuinely sweet person, and I can’t wait for you to hear what he has to say about both Anything Could Happen and the writing process. So keep an eye out for that tomorrow!

But to end, as always:

4 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: Trigger Warning

triggercover

Title: Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances

Author: Neil Gaiman

Publisher: William Morrow & Company

Publication date: February 3, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

I love Neil Gaiman. Ever since I read Coraline as a kid (and had subsequent nightmares for weeks), I’ve been in love with his books. I re-read Neverwhere on the London Underground; I hurriedly consumed The Ocean at the End of the Lane in line at his book signing in Portland; I spent all last summer tracking down each issue of The Sandman. So as you can imagine, I was PUMPED about this new collection of short stories.

Before my reviews – a quick summary from Goodreads:

Multiple award winning, #1 New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman returns to dazzle, captivate, haunt, and entertain with this third collection of short fiction following Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things–which includes a never-before published American Gods story, “Black Dog,” written exclusively for this volume…

A sophisticated writer whose creative genius is unparalleled, Gaiman entrances with his literary alchemy, transporting us deep into the realm of imagination, where the fantastical becomes real and the everyday incandescent. Full of wonder and terror, surprises and amusements,Trigger Warning is a treasury of delights that engage the mind, stir the heart, and shake the soul from one of the most unique and popular literary artists of our day.

It’s hard to judge a collection of stories as a whole, because I loved some and was completely uninterested by others. So like I’ve done for other short story compilations, here’s a brief review of each story separately. It’s a little unconventional, but the best way to do it, I think. I won’t review the poems, but here are my thoughts on the nineteen short stories, in order from least favorite to favorite (so if you just want to hear about the good ones, scroll down or pay attention just to the bolded titles):

19. “Black Dog” – I feel like I would have appreciated this if I’d read American Gods, which has been on my to-read list for years. Since I wasn’t familiar with the characters, I skipped this story as a result, so I can’t comment.

18. “An Invocation of Incuriosity” – I skimmed this one. It was uninteresting to me.

17. “Feminine Endings” – I didn’t get this one. I probably just need to re-read.

16. “The Case of Death and Honey” – Based on why Sherlock Holmes was so obsessed with beekeeping in his retirement. I liked the premise, but the execution (the style, mostly) was lacking for me.

15. “Jerusalem” – Eh. Okay. Not particularly scary or interesting, though slightly amusing.

14. “Adventure Story” – Funny but relatively unremarkable.

13. “A Lunar Labyrinth” – Cool mythology, creepy setting, nice.

12. “Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale” – A dark, modern spin on a fairy-tale-like situation. I enjoyed it well enough.

11. “The Return of the Thin White Duke” – Another great fairytale.

10. “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” – A sweet (and creepy) tribute to Ray Bradbury – and also very appropriately reminiscent of Fahrenheit 451.

9. “Orange (Third Subject’s Responses to Investigator’s Written Questionnaire” – This one is fun because you get only the interviewee’s answers, but not the questions, and have to piece together what happened yourself. A great (and successful) experiment in style.

8. “A Calendar of Tales” – Short stories WITHIN a short story – one for each month. All of them were great, and I’ll be re-reading this mini-collection in the future.

7. “Nothing O’Clock” – Essentially, a mini, written Doctor Who episode, set in the Eleventh Doctor & Amy’s era. Gaiman has written for the show before, and this was just as great as any full-length, produced episode.

6. “‘And Weep, Like Alexander'” – Perfectly over-the-top in its execution. A story about a man who can un-invent things – satirical and hilarious.

5. “Down to a Sunless Sea” – YES. SO GOOD. Short and anti-sweet.

4. “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains…” – A story twisted up in murder and mystery and mythology. This one is longer but it felt like it passed in the blink of an eye.

3. “The Thing About Cassandra” – Cute but also creepy, in a perfect balance. The twist ending actually blew my mind and made me question my own existence.

2. “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” – Supremely horrifying, and definitely a story you won’t want to read when you’re home alone.

And my #1: “The Sleeper and the Spindle” – Combine a kick-ass Snow White with an inverted Sleeping Beauty and you get this story. Absolutely perfect in every aspect. This should be the bedtime story for all children forever.

So while about six of the stories were uninteresting or “eh,” I absolutely fell in love with the other half of my list. The great thing about short story collections is that you don’t HAVE to read them all – you have the power to decide which deserve your attention and which you’ll leave for later (or never). For example, I bolded my must-reads. If you like creepy, if you like funny, if you like mind-blowing, or if you like Neil Gaiman, I’d recommend picking up Trigger Warning.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley

brawleycover

Title: The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley

Author: Shaun Hutchinson

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Publication Date: January 15, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

I picked this up on impulse because I’d heard good things through the Goodreads grapevine. It wasn’t anything like I expected it to be – and I think that ended up being a good thing.

First, a summary from the author’s website:

Andrew Brawley was supposed to die that night, just like the rest of his family. Now he lives in the hospital, serving food in the cafeteria, hanging out with the nurses, sleeping in a forgotten supply closet. Drew blends in to near invisibility, hiding from his past, his guilt, and those who are trying to find him. His only solace is in the world of the superhero he’s created—Patient F.

Then, one night, Rusty is wheeled into the ER, half his body burned by hateful classmates. Rusty’s agony calls out to Drew like a beacon, pulling them both together though all their pain and grief. In Rusty, Drew sees hope, happiness, and a future for both of them. A future outside of the hospital, and away from their pasts.

But to save Rusty, Drew will have to confront Death, and life will have to get worse before it gets better. And by telling the truth about who he really is, Drew risks destroying any chance of a future.

Drew feels a sense of guilt for what happened to his family – the details of which aren’t revealed until much, much later in the book. The entire book, except for flashbacks and stories told by the characters, takes place inside the hospital where Drew is a stowaway. Much of the story reminded me of Gayle Foreman’s If I Stay, though Drew’s purgatory is one of his own making. He wants to punish himself – so he does. Life can be hell if he makes it. And along with the self-imposed-purgatory theme, the book also deals with religion in a way that is more complex than most YA novels I’ve seen lately.

Minor characters also find their time to shine in this book. The ER nurses, the cafeteria cook, the patient that Drew falls for – they all have their own lives that leap off of the page. I don’t quite understand how Hutchinson achieved this effect, of every single character having an entire life and background and story without overpowering the main narrative of the book, but I’m in-freaking-love with it.

I also loved the fact that Drew draws a graphic novel throughout the book, the plot of which is intertwined with his own life – and Shaun Hutchinson includes these actual graphic novel pages into the text of his book, usually at the ends of chapters. This added another element to the story that went above and beyond, and I found it extremely compelling.

The surprises in The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley kept throwing me for a loop, and though I never fully understood everything (I can’t say much more without giving it away), I think I liked it better that way. The entire book was an emotional read, from cover to cover.

I’m giving this four stars, only because I’ve read so many great books lately and I just didn’t connect with this one on the same level. But the story will stay with me, and I definitely recommend it to anyone who is in need of a purging of emotions, because the catharsis is real.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: Vivian Apple at the End of the World

viviancover

Title: Vivian Apple at the End of the World 

Author: Katie Coyle

Publisher: Houghton Miffling Harcourt Books for Young Readers

Publication date: January 6, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s blog / Author’s twitter

I’ve been looking forward to reading Vivian Apple at the End of the World for ages! I’ve heard nothing but good things, and of course the cover is gorgeous. (Plus, I really needed a “V” title to fill out that slot in my Alphabet Challenge.)

A brief summary of the book from Amazon:

Seventeen-year-old Vivian Apple never believed in the evangelical Church of America, unlike her recently devout parents. But when Vivian returns home the night after the supposed “Rapture,” all that’s left of her parents are two holes in the roof. Suddenly, she doesn’t know who or what to believe. With her best friend Harp and a mysterious ally, Peter, Vivian embarks on a desperate cross-country roadtrip through a paranoid and panic-stricken America to find answers. Because at the end of the world, Vivan Apple isn’t looking for a savior. She’s looking for the truth.

First of all, I have to say that this is one of the most ingenious YA stories I’ve ever read. Crazed religious fanatics sweep America as the world is about to end, and one set of teens decides to take the apocalypse into their own hands and brave the elements – and the converted – to try to find out what really happened to their families? Yeah, count me in.

Of course, I couldn’t fall in love with every aspect of the novel. Hurricanes and earthquakes sweep the nation, there are snowstorms in May, and crazy fog in California – which, when you find out what’s happening in America at the end of the novel, doesn’t make sense. Also, Viv & co. reach one specific town and literally nothing has changed about it. If the world was ending, wouldn’t there be a greater reaction? There’s never any mention of widespread panic to the extent you’d expect, or looting, or… well, it just doesn’t seem to mesh, even in this alternate/near-future universe. Also, almost every adult is ridiculous/crazy/over-the-top, which was just annoying.

But the characters were so compelling that in the end, I was able to overlook the (minor) annoyances and (many) plot holes. Vivian is kick-ass, even though it’s a constant struggle for her not to fall apart while the world is doing so around her. Her best friend, Harp, is equally lovable, the more “rebellious” of the two friends, and one who actually serves a purpose rather than just being a sidekick. Peter is cool, too, but less so than the ladies of the book. Together, these three and the cohorts they run into along the way made me actually, literally laugh out loud too many times to count.

I’m really looking forward to seeing where Katie Coyle takes the story next, so I hope the sequel gets published soon. If you like slightly unbelievable comedy with a heart of near-gold, I’d recommend this one.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: The Boy Who Drew Monsters

monsterscover

Title: The Boy Who Drew Monsters

Author: Keith Donohue

Publisher: Picador

Publication Date: October 7, 2014

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

So I actually read this book ages ago and just got too busy to write a review. But I genuinely loved it and wanted to give it a nice shout out, so here we are! Especially because this is one of the few “adult” books I’ve read recently.

A brief run-down from the author’s website:

Ever since he nearly drowned in the ocean three years earlier, ten-year-old Jack Peter Keenan has been deathly afraid to venture outdoors. Refusing to leave his home in a small coastal town in Maine, Jack Peter spends his time drawing monsters. When those drawings take on a life of their own, no one is safe from the terror they inspire. His mother, Holly, begins to hear strange sounds in the night coming from the ocean, and she seeks answers from the local Catholic priest and his Japanese housekeeper, who fill her head with stories of shipwrecks and ghosts. His father, Tim, wanders the beach, frantically searching for a strange apparition running wild in the dunes. And the boy’s only friend, Nick, becomes helplessly entangled in the eerie power of the drawings. While those around Jack Peter are haunted by what they think they see, only he knows the truth behind the frightful occurrences as the outside world encroaches upon them all.

It’s rare that there’s a book that genuinely terrifies me. But the images that Donohue paints – the monsters in the dark, and in the light as well – left me tempted to sleep with the light on, just for a rough approximation at comfort. Donohue’s writing style is descriptive and ocean-like – something about it made me feel like I was floating along the waves, watching the story play out on the shore. Yet there are these juxtaposed moments of intense action, violence, passion, etc., that kick-started my adrenaline and kept me from falling into too much of a pattern.

It’s also rare for me to find a book where the “plot twist” is actually any kind of twist at all. Usually, it’s more like a half-hearted flip-flop. That being said, I couldn’t believe the ending of this book. The last chapter completely threw me for a loop, and everything fell into place, and I hated myself for not seeing it coming – but you know what? I never would have seen it coming, even had I known that, oh yeah, there’s going to be a major surprise here. So applause to Keith Donohue for that.

The only negatives I have to say are that there’s one plot line that doesn’t interest me in the slightest, and also, one of the main characters, Jack’s mother, is so unlikable that I wanted to repeatedly punch her in the face. And I don’t know that her unlike-ability was wholly intentional.

But overall, I immensely enjoyed this read. The Boy Who Drew Monsters is a story that is frightening not because it could happen to you – but because it might already be happening; not because it leaves questions unanswered – but because there are no answers to be had. Psychologically, this was one of the most compelling books I’ve read in years. This book will unsettle you, but if you’re like me, you’ll probably love it.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: Alex As Well

alexcover

Title: Alex As Well

Author: Alyssa Brugman

Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.

Publication date: January 20, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

These Australian authors are just killing it lately! The cover of Alex As Well caught my eye, so I read it in one sitting at the bookstore and then proceeded to buy it and bring it home so I can read it again later. It’s a book that deals with a subject I’ve never seen in YA fiction, so I was super happy to get my hands on it.

Before my review, a quick summary from the author’s website:

What do you do when everybody says you’re someone you’re not?

Alex wants change. Massive change. More radical than you could imagine.

Her mother is not happy, in fact she’s imploding. Her dad walked out.

Alex has turned vegetarian, ditched one school, enrolled in another, thrown out her clothes. And created a new identity. An identity that changes her world.

And Alex—the other Alex—has a lot to say about it.

Alex As Well is a confronting and heartfelt story of adolescent experience—of questioning identity, discovering sexuality, navigating friendships and finding a place to belong. Alex is a strong, vulnerable, confident, shy and determined character, one you will never forget.

Essentially, the heart of the story is that Alex, an Australian teenager, was born intersex and designated male by her parents. However, she’s realized that she’s really a girl, and her parents have trouble coming to terms with that. The story is told from Alex’s point of view, with interludes consisting of her mother’s posts on some kind of parenting forum.

Alex is just a girl. She tries to make new friends, has crushes on her classmates, wants to experiment with her style. But she also has to deal with the fact that there are people, namely her parents and her old classmates, who won’t let her be herself. Some characters I couldn’t help but detest – like her mother, for example, who is completely horrendous but unfortunately not outside the realm of realism. Others, like her new friends, are shown as characters who may not understand Alex at first but who grow to challenge their own prejudices in the end.

Of course, there were still a few elements of the novel I wasn’t wholly in love with. Alex mentally quotes popular song lyrics occasionally, which is really going to date the book in a few years. The way that she’s portrayed as having a male alter-ego, the other Alex, was also confusing at times, and I think could have been handled in a better way.

But overall, the book seems to deal with gender identity in a mature and complex way. The story was engaging and definitely did not take the turn of events that I expected in the end. I hope to look up more of Brugman’s work in the future, and I hope this book does well in the US!

4 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: My True Love Gave To Me

truelovecover

Title: My True Love Gave To Me: Twelve Holiday Stories

Editor: Stephanie Perkins

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Publication Date: October 14, 2014

Goodreads

I was so excited to see this at my school’s library when I got back after winter break! It’s never too late in the season to get into a good holiday novel, especially one with short stories from so many of my favorite YA authors.

A brief summary from Amazon:

If you love holiday stories, holiday movies, made-for-TV-holiday specials, holiday episodes of your favorite sitcoms and, especially, if you love holiday anthologies, you’re going to fall in love with My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories by twelve bestselling young adult writers (Holly Black, Ally Carter, Matt de La Peña, Gayle Forman, Jenny Han, David Levithan, Kelly Link, Myra McEntire, Rainbow Rowell, Stephanie Perkins, Laini Tayler and Kiersten White), edited by the international bestselling Stephanie Perkins.  Whether you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, Winter Solstice or Kwanzaa, there’s something here for everyone.  So curl up by the fireplace and get cozy.  You have twelve reasons this season to stay indoors and fall in love.

I’m going to briefly review each of the twelve stories individually, since it’s hard to comment on the book as a whole when none of the stories are related. My favorites are in bold!

1. “Midnights” by Rainbow Rowell: Cutesy, romantic, everything you’d expect from Rainbow Rowell. Set at New Year’s across the years, following one pair of friends’ journey from friendship to couple-dom.

2. “The Lady and the Fox” by Kelly Link: This one took me a few pages to get into, but once I realized it was a fantasy short story, I really enjoyed it, though it was hard to get attached to the characters in such a short amount of time.

3. “Angels in the Snow” by Matt de la Peña: In this one, the protagonist, Shy, is stuck dog-watching during a blizzard in an apartment with no food, and miracles do happen when a girl from a higher apartment floor has a plumbing issue and comes seeking help. I almost cried while reading this one, not gonna lie. I loved it.

4. “Polaris is Where You’ll Find Me” by Jenny Han: Meh. This one is about a human girl adopted by Santa Claus who’s in love with an elf from the North Pole (the girl’s in love, not Santa). Wasn’t the best in the collection, but it was cute.

5. “It’s a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown” by Stephanie Perkins: Really sweet romantic story, with just the right number of pop-culture references and a couple that I rooted for throughout. 

6. “Your Temporary Santa” by David Levithan: RIP MY HEART OUT, WHY DON’T YOU.

7. “Krampuslauf” by Holly Black: Creepy and dark and everything you’d want from a Holly Black holiday story. 

8. “What The Hell Have You Done, Sophie Roth?” by Gayle Forman: Sophie is a Jewish girl stuck at her university over the holidays, until she bonds with a fellow student over the ridiculousness of non-ironic Christmas sweaters at a caroling concert. ABSOLUTE PERFECTION. Adorable and sad and hilarious all at once.

9. “Beer Buckets and Baby Jesus” by Myra McEntire: Just as funny as you’d imagine from the title. I won’t say more than that.

10. “Welcome to Christmas, CA” by Kiersten White: Set in a cheesy Christmas-themed California diner, with just the right balance of magic and realism to offset the strongly emotional conflicts the characters come across. 

11. “Star of Bethlehem” by Ally Carter: A girl looking to escape trades plane tickets with a foreign exchange student from Norway, and ends up spending Christmas in the middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma. Very Parent-Trap, where the look-a-likes switch places. This one was a little predictable, and not as funny or heart-wrenching as most of the others in this collection, but still sweet.

12. “The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer” by Laini Taylor: I skimmed this one because I just couldn’t get into the fantasy-ish, otherwordly setting.

Overall, I really enjoyed most of the stories, and it was definitely a fun book to read while I was snowed in on a snow day yesterday. If you like any of these YA authors, or if some of these tidbits above spark your interest, definitely give this book a shot around the holiday season next year (or this year, if you’re like me and you’re down for Christmas all year long).

4 out of 5 stars for the collection.

Tara

Review: Welcome to the Dark House

darkhouse

Title: Welcome to the Dark House

Author: Laurie Faria Stolarz

Publisher: Disney-Hyperion

Publication Date: July 22, 2014

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

The typography on this one called to me again. It was only after I checked this one out from the library that I realized it was by the same fright-inducing author as Blue is for Nightmares, which haunted me throughout my teen years. I made a stupid decision and read this one anyway.

A brief summary from the author’s website (which, by the way, has a neat gif-version of the cover):

For Ivy Jensen, it’s the eyes of a killer that haunt her nights. For Parker Bradley, it’s bloodthirsty sea serpents that slither in his dreams.

And for seven essay contestants, it’s their worst nightmares that win them an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at director Justin Blake’s latest, confidential project. Ivy doesn’t even like scary movies, but she’s ready to face her real-world fears. Parker’s sympathetic words and perfect smile help keep her spirits up. . . at least for now.

Not everyone is so charming, though. Horror-film fanatic Garth Vader wants to stir up trouble. It’s bad enough he has to stay in the middle of nowhere with this group-the girl who locks herself in her room; the know-it-all roommate; “Mister Sensitive”; and the one who’s too cheery for her own good. Someone has to make things interesting.

Except, things are already a little weird. The hostess is a serial-killer look-alike, the dream-stealing Nightmare Elf is lurking about, and the seventh member of the group is missing.

If you imagine touches of And Then There Were None mixed with a contemporary horror movie, that would describe this book fairly well.

It switches perspectives between each of the characters who win a trip to meet Justin Blake, one the most popular horror movie directors in the world. We get a little bit of background on some of the characters beforehand, but most, we only meet once they’re in the Dark House – their vacation-stay reward. I was a little confused trying to get to know each of the characters and their personalities, but maybe that was just because I had to keep taking breaks from the book so I wouldn’t freak myself out, and I kept forgetting who everyone was.

As you might have guessed, their fake-horror trip quickly takes a shift towards real horror. When the characters end up at an abandoned amusement park with instructions to find their own nightmare ride, some take to the challenge with enthusiasm and some begin to worry that maybe this trip isn’t what it seems to be. One of the fun things about the book was trying to figure out – are they still just on their reward? Is all of this fake? Who put together the amusement park and why? Are they in real danger? And if so, how on earth are they going to get out of it?

Honestly, the only reason I’m giving this 4 stars instead of 5 is because it gave me nightmares. I don’t like horror novels and this book reminded me why. Still, if you want a good scare, do pick this one up. And according to Goodreads, it’s the first in a series – so you can look forward to that as well (although I won’t, because I’ve scared myself well enough already).

4 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: Otherbound

otherboundcover

Title: Otherbound

Author: Corinne Duyvis

Publisher: Amulet Books

Publication Date: June 17, 2014

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

The duality of the cover immediately caught my eye, as did the title (otherbound? bound to what other?). I ended up reading this one in just one weekend. Part of the time I was reading it, I was on a boat – but only physically; mentally I was with Nolan and Amara as they fought for their lives in their respective circumstances.

As always, a brief summary from the author’s website:

Amara is never alone. Not when she’s protecting the cursed princess she unwillingly serves. Not when they’re fleeing across dunes and islands and seas to stay alive. Not when she’s punished, ordered around, or neglected.

She can’t be alone, because a boy from another world experiences all that alongside her, looking through her eyes.

Nolan longs for a life uninterrupted. Every time he blinks, he’s yanked from his Arizona town into Amara’s mind, a world away, which makes even simple things like hobbies and homework impossible. He’s spent years as a powerless observer of Amara’s life. Amara has no idea . . . until he learns to control her, and they communicate for the first time. Amara is terrified. Then, she’s furious.

All Amara and Nolan want is to be free of each other. But Nolan’s breakthrough has dangerous consequences. Now, they’ll have to work together to survive–and discover the truth about their connection.

I’m a sucker for the visit-another-world-when-you-sleep trope. This book, however, goes a step further, because whenever Nolan closes his eyes – even if it’s just to blink for half a second – he gets pulled into a fantasy realm, though the mute Amara’s eyes. Getting adjusted to Nolan’s world and Amara’s world and trying to figure out how they’re connected and why was a delight. Most of the book was a good old fashioned fantasy/sci-fi adventure, which was engaging and full of surprising developments along the way.

Additionally, Otherbound has a variety of automatic star-winners for me. POC lead characters! Queer lead characters! Point of view from varying genders! Kick-ass disabled characters! Morally complicated characters that fit all of the above! Love.

One thing that kept it from getting five stars was the fact that sometimes it was hard to follow the goings-on in Amara’s world – too much technical vocabulary, too many rules for magic, too many things that were too hard to understand. I liked getting thrown into her world immediately, but it was too difficult to follow some of the intricacies, which annoyed me after a while. Also, there were too many crucial plot details that were skimmed over or left unexplained.

Overall, though, I loved this book. I wish there was a second one, actually, and I’ll definitely be reading this one over again. I already miss the characters, which I completely credit to Duyvis and her creative style and characterization. Bravo to her for this spectacular piece of fantasy.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tara