Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2011).

Mara Dyer doesn't know what's wrong with her, and she doesn't figure it out by the end of this novel, but at least she has Noah Shaw at her side.  The background:  Mara wakes up from a coma to discover that her best friend, her boyfriend, and his twin sister have died in a building collapse that she somehow miraculously survived. She doesn't remember much else, and she's freaked out, plagued by hallucinations and nightmares, and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.  She and her family have moved to Miami from Rhode Island to help her heal, but Croyden Academy's elite students aren't exactly welcoming, except for devastatingly attractive Noah Shaw who notices Mara right away; she can't resist him, either, even though she knows he's bad news--and she does have this psychotic baggage, too. Plus, she keeps imagining deaths that then happen.

This is a creepy good novel with a magnetic romance.  Really, the romance is the best part (aside from the cover!) because the plot is riddled with sink holes and deep crevasses, but Noah and Mara make a great couple and the pages fly by.  Mara's family, especially her two brothers, are fine secondary characters. Thankfully, Noah doesn't sprout fangs or sparkle in the sunlight. Mara is all over the map and her mother is probably right--she should be in a heavily guarded facility, but that would be a different kind of novel entirely, not a sort-of psychothriller, paranormalish romance.  I will definitely look for the sequel!  Recommended for ages 14 & up.  Sexual situations, intense creepiness, language, completely legal prescription drugs.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (NY: Little, Brown, 2011).

Karou is an art student in Prague who draws fantastic beasts which her friends assume roam in her imagination.  Wrong.  They're her family, at least her foster family, and they're all she has aside from her best friend Zuzana. Her principal guardian is Brimstone, a monstrous wishmonger who buys teeth from all over the world. Karou has been running teeth buying errands for him since she was a child, slipping in and out of the secret doors that open from his workshop to almost anywhere in an instant.  But something is happening.  The supply of teeth is dwindling, and black handprints are appearing on the secret doors. Karou wants to know what's going on, but Brimstone won't tell her--and then she meets Akiva, a haunted, beautiful angel, and her world literally explodes.

Taylor builds an amazing world, and Karou is a respectably complex character, the mystery of whose origins puzzles herself and the reader for most of the novel.  The romance between her and Akiva plays out well, but a little oddly, not surprising given that she doesn't know what she is (probably not human) and he's...what he is.  On the plus side, the angel lore doesn't overwhelm the story, and the war between the two worlds is layed out clearly. Prague makes a perfect setting--real, yet magical and steeped in ancient potential. Recommended for ages 13 & up.  Sexual situations, intense situations, violence.

V is for Vengeance

V is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton (NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2011).

Kinsey Milhone is back and taking hits again in this latest (twenty-second!) installment of Grafton's alphabetical detective series. Nominally, she's investigating the probable suicide of a woman she witnessed shoplifting at a high-end department store.  The woman's fiance is sure she's been murdered, and Kinsey's equally sure there's more to the death than is immediately apparent.  After all, the woman looked like a pro in the store and her partner-in-crime tried to run Kinsey down in the parking garage.  Various threads emerge--and merge--as Kinsey deals with some seemingly unrelated situations that end up being oddly related as she digs into a shoplifting ring, its organized crime connections, the family at the heart of it, a dirty cop, and more.

Some detective series diminish severely as they progress, but this one continues to deliver.  Kinsey is sharp, caustic, and complex, and this latest case twists and turns engagingly.  Sadly, Kinsey's neighbor Henry is out of town for much of the narrative, but Rosie and William are present for some comic relief.  The crime boss is creepy yet human, and there's even a bit of romance as he pursues a beautiful woman who's tied to him in ways he hadn't anticipated. All in all, highly recommended for Grafton fans new and returning.

Monday, November 7, 2011


Prized by Caragh M. O'Brien (NY: Roaring Brook Press, 2011). Reviewed from e-ARC provided by publisher via

Prized is the second installment in the Birthmarked Trilogy. Gaia Stone has escaped the treacherous injustice of the Enclave and now faces new injustices in the matriarchal community of Sylum, where the infant sister she fought to rescue is immediately taken from her. Like the Enclave, Sylum is a dying community, though for different reasons.  Sylum has a huge imbalance between male and female population, with very few girls being born and many of the men infertile.  Women rule this society and there are strict rules regulating relations between men and women.  Gaia's midwife skills are valued, but she has trouble understanding the rules and makes mistakes, misleading people without meaning to out of ignorance.  Her friend Leon from the Enclave turns up in Sylum, and Gaia has to navigate rules from her old society as well as this new place.

Like Birthmarked, Prized places Gaia in a precarious situation that requires her to use her wits to solve a mystery and find some resolution.  O'Brien creates another fascinating dystopic world in Sylum that has the reader actively wondering what she would do in such a situation under such circumstances as those in which Gaia finds herself, perhaps moreso than in Birthmarked.  Extremely engaging on many levels, Prized is a winner for readers aged 12 & up.  Mild sexual situations, drugs.

3 Willows (Audio)

3 Willows: The Sisterhood Grows by Ann Brashares (NY: Random House-Listening Library, 2009).

This novel shares a setting with and a few tangential connections to Brashares's previous series, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but readers (or listeners in the case of the audio version) need not have any knowledge of that series to enjoy 3 Willows. Here three friends, Jo, Polly, and Ama, have grown apart, though they still often think nostalgically of their former closeness--including the time at the end of third grade when they planted their class project willow trees in the woods. They're definitely going in different directions during this summer before they start high school.  Ama had wanted to attend an academic achievement camp, but finds herself heading out west to an outdoors adventure camp that's way outside her comfort zone, facing challenges she never wanted to face, including life without hair products and major blisters from her hiking boots. Jo's parents are separating, and she and her mom are going to spend the summer at their beach house.  Jo has a job bussing tables at a local seafood restaurant plus she's hooking up with one of the waiters who she met on a bus.  Meanwhile, Polly casts about for something to keep her more grounded than her absent mother, faded friendships, and endless babysitting jobs and happens upon a modeling camp that seems to promise exciting changes.

As in her previous series, Brashares presents different characters facing different challenges who somehow engage and help each other in spite of their differences.  I never cared for the magical element of the traveling pants, so I actually liked this novel's focus on the real problems these girls face.  Polly's issues seem particularly poignant, while Ama adds a lot of humor with her distaste for camping and her overachiever's horror at the prospect of being graded for rappelling skills she has no desire to cultivate.  Jo seems the most independent of the bunch, but in the end she finds herself needing the stabilizing connection of an old friendship, too, especially once she discovers the flimsiness of her summer fling.  A fine read for ages 12 & up.  Sexual situations, language, alcohol.


Supernaturally by Kiersten White (NY: HarperTeen, 2011).

In this sequel to Paranormalcy, Evie is now living a "normal" life away from the International Paranormal Containment Agency (IPCA).  She's crazy about her boyfriend Lend, but he's away at college during the week, and after the thrill of having a locker at a real high school has worn off, Evie finds that she's sort of missing the excitement of bagging and tagging vampires and other assorted paranormal baddies.  Plus she's noticing some weirdness that she's sure means faeries are planning something bad again--or just continuing their previous plan that she never quite figured out.  Thus, she's happy to oblige her old boss Raquel when she makes contact and requests Evie's help again with a few projects that require Evie's special skill set of seeing through paranormal glamours. Unfortunately, the new gig also requires a new guide through the faerie paths--a guy named Jack whose wild and wacky ways bode trouble in more ways than one. 

This is a great sequel, and it's lots of fun to watch Evie's relationship with Lend evolve.  There's also excitement and mystery as Evie starts working with the IPCA again.  Evie's worries about her future with Lend and her own abilities are well done and realistic--quite a feat considering her abilities are way outside the realms of normal! Evie's feisty, spirited responses to her situations make her a fabulous character, and even a role model. Thankfully, there are enough loose ends to suggest another installment (fingers crossed)!  Recommended for ages 12 & up.  Mild sexual situations.  No language issues (Evie says bleep!).

Mission (Un)Popular

Mission (Un)Popular by Anna Humphrey (NY: Disney-Hyperion, 2011).

Margot Button is starting seventh grade determined to avoid the social pitfalls she's practically thrown herself into during elementary school.  She just needs to keep her big mouth shut and find the right hair product to tame her wild mane.  But things get off to a bad start even before the first day when she finds out her best friend is going to another school, she won't be getting any new school clothes, and she's going to have to babysit (for free!) her triplet sisters every day.  There's also some weirdness with her friend Andrew who's acting like he wants to be more than a friend, and mean girl Sarah J. keeps bringing up last year's debacle--Margot's attempted shoplifting of a glazed ham--which has earned Margot the moniker of "Hamburglar."  A brash new girl from New York City may help Margot out of the social morass, or her schemes may just land Margot into even more trouble instead of getting her closer to Gorgeous George, her longtime crush.

Plenty of tween girls who feel socially and physically awkward will sympathize with Margot's plight.  Even as Margot tries to fit in, she can't help but dig herself into even deeper trouble, especially through her frequently thoughtless comments and actions, which are usually hilariously funny.  Her family situation--a free-spirited mother, a well-meaning but out-of-touch stepfather, and hugely cute triplet sisters--screams, and delivers, social humiliation. Margot is also a girl of color--her father, long out of the picture, is Indian--, and Margot frequently notes that she's one of the few non-Caucasians at her school.  Humphrey mentions economic realities, too, that will ring true with many readers who can't afford all the latest fashions and gadgets.  Margot's relationships with her best friend Erika, her new friend Emily, and her nemesis Sarah are well drawn and realistic, as is the awkwardness of a boy who's always been a friend and now wants to be more.  Overall, this is a great read for middle grades and is recommended for ages 10 and up. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Safehouse

The Safehouse by T. Thomas Ackerman (Denver: Outskirts Press, 2011). Review copy provided by author.

Having herself escaped an abusive relationship, Detective Jessie Warren feels a special mandate to advocate for victims of domestic violence.  She uses her community connections at the shelter to give women a means of escape, and if necessary, she knows of an additional safety net for them--a secret safehouse whose location she alone on the police department knows.  Most of her colleagues respect her, but one internal affairs officer seems bent on undermining her, and her own sergeant seems concerned as well when a few too many of the principals in Jessie's investigations meet terrible ends.

The premise for this novel is excellent, but it sadly misses the mark in execution.  Jessie's character is flat and the writing is largely bland, with far too much telling and not enough showing. The plot lurches disconnectedly at first, and much of the dialogue is stiff while descriptions are sparse.  Worse, the vigilante justice imposed at the safehouse is horrifying.  Some might argue that perpetrators of domestic abuse deserve what they get, but as a police officer Jessie should not be abetting such violence.

Lola and the Boy Next Door

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins (NY: Dutton, 2011).

Lola's life is great--super parents, a best friend who gets her, an older, rock-and-roll boyfriend, perfect fashion sense, and a fabulous design idea for her winter formal dress.  But then Cricket and his famous figure skating twin sister Calliope move back into the neighborhood, and all of the feelings Lola had thought were gone come flooding back to confuse her.  Lola and Cricket had been the best of friends while growing up and had shared a first kiss when she was five and he was six. She thought there had been more before he moved again two years ago,  but then he left without saying a word.  Now he's back, looming large, and Lola starts watching his bedroom window--which is right across from hers in their adjacent San Francisco Victorian homes.

Lots of romance conventions make this novel somewhat predictable, but Lola is a feisty and interesting enough character to overcome most of that monotony.  On the other hand, her relationship with her twenty-two-year-old boyfriend (she's just turned sixteen!) seems somewhat creepy.  Her parents (a gay couple who have adopted Lola, the daughter of one's sister) allow the relationship to avoid having it take on a forbidden quality, but it seems like a questionable move on their part, as they must know that Lola's having sex with the guy.  This makes it even more remarkable when they completely overreact to catching Cricket in Lola's room, especially given that they've been actively sabotaging the older boyfriend while encouraging Cricket.  Lola's conflicted feelings get a little repetitive, but Cricket is an equally interesting character and their relationship evolves in a romantically realistic way with lots of teen angst and misunderstandings. Fans of Perkins's Anna and the French Kiss will enjoy revisiting Anna and Etienne St. Claire as an established couple in a new locale. Recommended for ages 13 & up.  Sexual situations, alcohol, drugs (marijuana).