Friday, July 26, 2013

Review: Saving Jane by Hannah Harrington

Saving JuneDescription: Harper Scott’s older sister has always been the perfect one so when June takes her own life a week before her high school graduation, sixteen-year-old Harper is devastated. Everyone’s sorry, but no one can explain why.

When her divorcing parents decide to split her sister’s ashes into his-and-her urns, Harper takes matters into her own hands. She’ll steal the ashes and drive cross-country with her best friend, Laney, to the one place June always dreamed of going, California.

Enter Jake Tolan. He’s a boy with a bad attitude, a classic-rock obsession and nothing in common with Harper’s sister. But Jake had a connection with June, and when he insists on joining them, Harper’s just desperate enough to let him. With his alternately charming and infuriating demeanour and his belief that music can see you through anything, he might be exactly what she needs.

Except June wasn’t the only one hiding something. Jake’s keeping a secret that has the power to turn Harper’s life upside down again.

Stats: Young Adult Contemporary, 322 pages, First Published by Harlequin Teen, May 2011.
My Rating: 3 Stars

"If she’d waited less than two weeks, she’d be June who died in June. But I guess my sister didn’t consider that."

Saving June follows a familiar tale of woe. We start at the beloved June's wake, the perfect student, the perfect daughter, who has committed suicide only days before. Now her younger sister Harper is left to pick up the pieces of her life and find where exactly she belongs in it now that June is gone.

Harper is a strong girl with a reputation as a disappointment compared to her sister. She's not particularly motivated, she only has one friend, she tries not to care about what people think of her, and loves photography and cigarettes. So, even if this is all about the common theme of learning to deal with grief, Harper's narrative was promising right off the bat. She constantly walked that line between being strong and weak, between angry and sad, between loving and losing. It's this variation in her emotions that made it so easy for me to connect with her. She wasn't picking one feeling and holding on to that. Instead, Harper is chaotic and confused  in the best way possible.

It takes a little while, but eventually Saving June becomes the story of a road trip from Indiana to California. June always wanted to go to the beautiful California ocean so what could be better then escaping the depressing homestead and bringing June's ashes to where she really wanted to be?

This of course means that Harper must steal said ashes and run away from home, but she has two very willing accomplices to get her there!

First we have Laney, the best friend. She is lovable, loose, and full of enthusiasm. She wants to help her friend, even if she doesn't entirely know what's best. Often times she was hit or miss for me, not because of then character, but because of how the writing often misplaces her. She's there, along for the journey, but wanders off at the drop of a hat for no reason, with no further mention of where she was or what she did, except that she has now returned from her convenient misplacement. But when she was around, she was interesting.

Then we have the mysterious Jacob, better known as Jake, who blackmails his way into the girl's plans, but provides in exchange wheels and enough cash to actually get there. He has some connection to June, but whatever it is he's not about to just come out and say it. Jake was by far one of the biggest reasons for why I enjoyed this book. His passion for music is a very, very key component in the storytelling. (of which this book would be completely different without.) He also has this reluctant charm to him that played well against Harper's personality. They had a rhythm of bouncing things back and forth between them with both their humour and their grief.

Now, because this is a road trip book, of course there are a few very colourful characters along the way. (In one case, colourful should be taken literally.) Some of which were interesting and charming, but the majority fell into a category of stock characters that you would automaticly expect from a road trip. This was disappointing since my stance on road trips is judged by the effectiveness of these side characters and the random destinations. Sometimes the side characters and pit stops worked, other times they left something to be desired.

I did however have a lot of things I liked about Saving June. The music references are a plenty but they aren't annoying or contrived. There are definitely some great one liners and fun conversation. Harper kept me invested and as the story progressed I found myself really enjoying all the road trip elements, even the ones I expected to see from the genre.

By the end I decided on three stars because this does have it's flaws. The plot is predicable. A nice, comfortable sort of predicable, but when it came to the events and characters I was looking for something a little bit more exciting. The side characters have very vivid personalities, but this was the Jake and Harper show. I was hoping that friendship would play a bigger part then romance, but Laney got treated like a third wheel and her side story that happens near the end of the book was treated the same way her character was, one second it's there and the next it's really not, with no real gravity or focus on the events which had to have taken place in-between.

I came off of reading this book on a high, it was amazing in those moments right after I closed the book, but the more time passes the more I settled out of my buzzing state and into one of a more subtle appreciation.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Review: My Parents Are Sex Maniacs by Robyn Harding

My Parents Are Sex Maniacs: A High School Horror StoryDescription: Louise Harrison's folks are destroying any chance she has of enjoying 11th grade... Sixteen-year-old Louise Harrison is insecure about a lot of things: her hair, her fashion sense and her "big-boned" build. At least her social status is secure because her BFF, Sienna Marshall, is a certified member of the mega-watt crowd. But all hell breaks loose when Louise's brother walks in on their father, Len, and her friend Sienna's mother, Sunny, in a flagrantly compromising position. Soon after, Len and Sunny move in together.

Stats: Young Adult Contemporary, 224 pages, First Published by Annick Press, February 2009.

My Rating: 4 Stars

My Parents Are Sex Maniacs: A High School Horror Story is about what happens when you are forced without a doubt to acknowledge that adults, despite their paternal role in your life, also have sex. When Louise's father is caught in a compromising position doing something he shouldn't have, with someone he shouldn't have, her calm family life takes a turn for the worse and we get to join the chaos as she gets thrown into the deep end with a surprising amount of humour.

Louise is such a stand out main character. I rooted for her like you wouldn't believe! I loved the way the focus of her story wasn't just about her friendships, or just about her romantic entanglements, or just about her family, but all of those things all at once. It made her experiences all the more real and all the more interesting as her life gets rather complicated.

Robyn Harding has reminded me how awkward and uncomfortable high school is. The high school experience is portrayed in this novel so realistically that I saw some of my own experiences and old friends echoed in her characters.

High school is a bitch. As much as we turn our noises down at popular harpies and jerk boy, the halls of any educational establishment is just as filled with hormones and uncertainty as it is teenagers trying to make their way to class. That showed through in this without the melodrama I expected.

I'll be the first to admit this type of novel won't be for everyone. Although I enjoyed the writing, I was thrown off initially by the genre. It has been a long time since I've read a contemporary YA novel set in high school without much of a romantic focus for the main character. I did not expect to enjoy this as much as I ended up enjoying it, but now I would definitely recommend this one. (There is even a lgbtq sub-plot that had me harkening back to my "everyone's flawed" Will Grayson, Will Grayson experience.)

A common theme for my YA reading appears to be sex ed. First, The Color of Earth graphic novel series and now My Parents Are Sex Maniacs. Although these two stories are entirely different when it comes to tone and presentation there are some surprising parallels.

When it comes to sex we first learn by witnessing how our parents relationships. This is where we get our beginners glimpse into the world of sexuality (without any of the icky stuff), before we even have the opportunity to do anything ourselves. In My Parents Are Sex Maniacs how parents influence their children can be seen within each character, especially with Louise's and her best friend Sienna.

Overall, I was very happy with this book and definitely plan to read more of Harding's work. Seeing a book set close to home has made me appreciate home grown Canadian writers even more. British Columbia represent! 

SPECIAL NOTE: For a preview of the book you can read the first two chapters on Harding's website.

Review: As I Wake by Elizabeth Scott

As I Wake
Description: Ava is welcomed home from the hospital by a doting mother, lively friends, and a crush finally beginning to show interest. There's only one problem: Ava can't remember any of them - and can't shake the eerie feeling that she's not who they say she is.

Ava struggles to break through her amnesiac haze as she goes through the motions of high-school life, but the memories that surface take place in a very different world, where Ava and familiar-faced friends are under constant scrutiny and no one can be trusted. Ava doesn't know what to make of these visions, or of the boy who is at the center of them all, until he reappears in her life and offers answers . . . but only in exchange for her trust.

Stats: Young Adult Dystopia, 269 pages, First Published by Dutton Juvenile, September 2011.

My Rating: 3 Stars

I am surprised I enjoyed this.

Going into As I Wake, I had very low expectations. The overall ratings on Goodreads are little all over the place, but the cover is absolutely beautiful. As with most things in a pretty packages that convinced me to at least give it a go.

Our story follows Ava, a girl within a girl. After losing her memories Ava starts having visions of another life. With her mind fighting for answers, As I Wake is about her completely questioning everything and everyone she knows. If she can't remember the Ava she is supposed to be, then why is she remembering an Ava from another world? And what could possibly explain why she doesn't belong in the life she's living?

The answer to those questions is kind of trippy. Out of everything in this story the plot, although understandably confusing at points, was fantastic. However, this is where my main issue also emerges. The writing that accompanied this plot wasn't always up to par.

To start with, as many other reviews will state, the writing style here is not for everyone. It is first person based and for the initial part of the book is written very rigidly. My first thought was that it read like a first person video game, however eventually, I either adjusted to the style or it became more fluid. Either way, after that shift I actually found it enjoyable for it's unique style.

Unfortunately, the writing had other issues for me to find fault in. Its biggest flaw is that it doesn't give you a lot to work with. My imagination was responsible for filling in a lot of the smaller details that were left blank. And although that's interesting from a mystery stand point, it's makes the experience less immersive and a little tedious. This is especially prominent when it comes to setting.

Giving me two or three details doesn't flesh out an environment!

From what I've read I understand that the characters are at a bar, sitting in a dark corner. I don't know what the bar looks like, what their table looks like, what the other people in the bar are doing, what the characters look like in this setting. It's like a low budget movie where they couldn't afford a full set or extras so they can just focus on a single dark table.

Although the plot relies on keeping the reader in the dark, I don't think the storytelling would have suffered had it taken more time to flesh out these environments, the world building, and initial character introductions. I think adding a bit more detail would have made the story easier to follow and more fulfilling to read. Overall, the writing needed to show a little less restraint.

Something I did enjoy about the book is that it doesn't follow any sort of formula that I'm familiar with. The love story isn't the one I've read time and time again. Actually, this isn't even really about romance, it's more about the mystery. You would think, pessimistic YA reader, that the mystery of Ava's life is just a backdrop for something else, (like say lusting after a boy or something else to do with the sexy time) but this has some serious focus. The way that everything is weaved together the romance elements actually further the story in a meaningful way! Let me repeat that, IN A MEANINGFUL WAY. Let's all join hands and happy dance!

So, you've heard the negative and the positive. Let me tell ya about the so-so.

Ava. She kind of went back and forth for me. Sometimes, I was completely into her, her narrative was great, and she acts realistically for the personality she has and situation she's in. The depth of character is great! Then the coin flips and all of a sudden she losing some of her dimension. But then things flip back and she's having meaningful conversations, and is putting her observations to good use, and the plot is advancing!!

There is so much about this book that I like, but then there is a lot that I'm not to keen on. It is definitely a very strange book, but strange in a good way. I got really into the story being told. Although I didn't always love the writing I was able to read through this rather effortlessly.

As I Wake has its flaws, so I wouldn't recommend you go out of your way to read it. However, if the concept interests you I think the story is worth the bumpy ride.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Review: The Hunt of the Unicorn by C.C. Humphreys

The Hunt of the Unicorn
Description: Elayne thinks the old family story that one of her ancestors stepped through a tapestry into a world of mythical beasts makes a great fireside tale. But she lives in the real world. In New York City. And she's outgrown that kind of fantasy.

Until she finds herself in front of a unicorn tapestry at the Cloisters museum and sees her initials woven into the fabric. And hears a unicorn calling to her. And slips and falls—into that other world.

Suddenly the line between fantasy and reality isn't so clear. But the danger is real enough.

Stats: Young Adult Fantasy, 341 pages, First Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers, March 2011.

My Rating: 2 Stars

Is it possible to give unicorns a dark side? I've come to the conclusion that unicorns are probably the hardest sell of all magical creatures. Sure, they are right up there with rainbows and butterflies on the popularity scale for most females under the age of fourteen (or at least they used to be before Edward came along), but the mythology of unicorns is pretty simple. In the same way vampires are an embodiment of darkness, unicorns are an embodiment of purity. A unicorn is a healing creature with a thing for virgin girl companions. I guess when I ask if unicorns can have a dark side what I'm really asking is: Is there an interesting story to be found within the mythology?

Unfortunately, I'm not totally convinced. Although The Hunt of the Unicorns is a perfect example of a really great attempt the story here was just too... tame for me.

This isn't the sort of thing I would normally choose to read, but I got this book after meeting C.C. Humphreys in 2011 and have put off reading it till now. Confined to my bed I had only the books in front of me to choose from and I wanted something I knew I could read through quickly. The Hunt of the Unicorns fit the bill, so I started reading, and got incredibly bored, incredibly quickly. If I was reading this under different circumstances I can almost guarantee that I would have set it down for a looooong time before continuing, but desperate for entertainment I pressed on.

To give the author credit, he put a lot of work into creating an interesting magical world for his story to take place in. The imagination and variety of beasts that he uses was oddly fascinating and I feel he succeeded in what he was trying to achieve in that world. However, it was also very touch and go. In some places I feel he didn't take things far enough, in others you can see the development of the world getting to broad and getting in the way of the development of the characters and the plot. For me, the characters are the most important part of any story. In the Hunt of the Unicorn it was more about the world building then it should have been.

Our protagonist Elayne is a great character in concept, but not in execution. It wasn't till I finished the book that I realized that she wasn't really a character, but a story device. I had no idea of who she really was. She had plenty of motivation, but very little substance. She's sort of just a teenage girl who gets swept up in a adventure, which is fine, but I ask for a little more.

On the other hand I was happy to see that the unicorn character, Moonspill, was a character in his own right and not just a horse with a horn. He had his own motivations and of all the characters in the story he stands out as one of the more rounded. Also very noteworthy is the character of Amphisbaena. A two-headed snake with mouths like no other. Amphisbaena is a surprisingly funny character gifted with all languages of man, beast, and magical creature alike.

Overall, everything was pretty good. There wasn't anything I hated and I finished the book without many complaints. Then of course I sat down to write this review and really thought about it. I realized two things.

First off, near the beginning of the book there is a scene that is central to the unicorns role in Goloth, Land of the Fabulous Beast. The role of the unicorn is to apparently purify the water so all the animals in and around Goloth can drink from the rivers because of course the humans have f-ed it all up. Normally, I would have considered mentioning this to be a spoiler because at the time it seemed like a pretty big deal. I thought that it was going to be part of the central plot of the story, but it isn't. It actually amounts to nothing. I can understand wanting to showcase the unicorns powers, however there are quite a few moments later in the book where this water-purification thing should be brought up again, but it isn't.

Then my second problem, the big, giant, plot hole problem. Later on in the book, when talking about the unicorns, it is mentioned by Moonspill that there is a place that is far away, over mountains yonder, where his children are safe from the dangers of Goloth. In this magical world, or at least in Goloth, Land of the Fabulous Beast all creatures are hunted, hunting is what everything is all about, the book is called The Hunt of the Unicorn. So if there is a place that is safe, why don't all the creatures just leave and go there? If the forest is on fire, you leave the forest.

I will say, before I put a cap on this review turned unexpected rant, that while I was reading The Hunt of the Unicorn it was an enjoyable experience, but the more thought I put into it the more I'm disappointed. For a book that I went into with very low expectations it did pretty well! Now however, I just find myself wanting to move on.

If I were to recommend this to someone it would be to younger YA readers. If I was just coming into the YA genre and I loved adventure fantasy then this would have blown me away!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Review: The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight
Description: Today should be one of the worst days of seventeen-year-old Hadley Sullivan's life. Having missed her flight, she's stuck at JFK airport and late to her father's second wedding, which is taking place in London and involves a soon-to-be stepmother Hadley's never even met. Then she meets the perfect boy in the airport's cramped waiting area. His name is Oliver, he's British, and he's sitting in her row.

A long night on the plane passes in the blink of an eye, and Hadley and Oliver lose track of each other in the airport chaos upon arrival. Can fate intervene to bring them together once more?

Stats: Young Adult Contemporary, 236 pages, Poppy/Little Brown, January 2012.

My Rating: 4 Stars

When I started The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, I didn't expect it to be a sit-in-one-spot-till-I-finish type of book, but it was. I mean, the premise sounds cute and the cover is pretty, all the makings of some madcap rom-com, but I was surprise how quickly this drew me in.

Hadley, our main dame, is having a bad day and that bad day leads to a sequence of events that some might call coincidence while others might call it fate. Either way, there is a cute British boy called Oliver involved and some major family drama.

I thought that because of the "love at first sight" / "24 hour" thing that the romance would be hard for me to believe within the confines of reality and my own scepticism. This had a 50/50 shot of being one of those: "You are the one, the only one!" type deals. So, when it ended up being more along the lines of "Hey, nice to meet you.", I was very pleased.

The plot is very chick-flick and had every opportunity to go somewhere bad, but it never did. Instead, within the simple plot it developed a story with a lot of heart and some very well written characters. That's what made this stand out for me, the heart and the characters. To start with I quickly found myself emotionally invested in Hadley. She seemed very real as she tried to tough things out and battle her ridiculous claustrophobia, while revealing in the past, and dreading the future. This is more then just the story of how she fell for some guy, but how she learned to accept the changes in her life.

Oliver, our boy, also did not disappoint. He was charming, funny, kind, and most importantly had his own thing going on. He was not just there to play a love interest, he too had places to go, people to see, drama to confront. It also wasn't all about how attractive he was or the blind hormone driven want of some sexy time, Oliver and Hadley were just getting to know each other.

Isn't that refreshing? They've only known each other for 24 hours and they probably know more about one another then some YA couples do over an entire trilogy.

The Statistical Probability of Love at First SightAlthough there was never a question of how it was all going to end, the getting there was fun. Smith sold the entire situation with her writing. The way the narrative tangled together the past and the present was masterful. With each memory and each moment the characters felt more real and the plot would get pushed forward.

The best part of it all was that this left me giddy the whole way through. The dialogue was done perfectly, the banter was adorable, and I enjoyed this with a school girl like enthusiasm that I love to have when reading contemporary romance. I'm sure there were some faults that I'm forgetting, but overall this was an incredibly fun read, if not a bit unexpectedly so.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Review: Spookygirl: Paranormal Investigator by Jill Baguchinsky

Spookygirl: Paranormal Investigator
Description: Violet doesn't remember much about her late mother, but she is certain of one thing: she too can see ghosts and communicate with the dead. But when Violet discovers paranormal activity in the girls' locker room, she finds herself ill-equipped for handling the school's ghostly echoes. Through Violet's own investigation and with the help of some unlikely allies, Violet discovers there is a lot she doesn't know about her special skill--and more still that can stand in the way of its power. With sharp wit and determination, Violet sets out to uncover the truth behind her school's haunting, to finish the investigation that led to her mother's sudden death, and to learn why the only ghost she has ever wanted to see is the one that has eluded her forever.

Stats: Young Adult Paranormal, 256 pages, First Published by Dutton Juvenile, August 2012.

My Rating: 3 Stars

Spookygirl: Paranormal Investigator is an easy to read standalone novel in the much beloved genre of teen-girl-sees-ghosts. If that's something you love then this should be a no brainer from the concept alone. I wasn't surprised that I ended up enjoying Spookygirl, but I feel like I can't totally praise it. There were a lot of things in the story that could have been improved upon that I'll be mentioning in this review, but these things didn't really affect my enjoyment because this delivered what I was looking for.

Spookygirl impressed me right off the bat with it's unique take on ghost mythos. The plot is centred around Violet and her first foray into paranormal investigation. In this world paranormal investigation takes on a more legitimate spin then the "reality" TV shows I normally relate the term to. In Spookygirl it's a combination of Ghostbuster science and medium abilities. Not all ghosts are created equal and being able to see them doesn't come with a vast understanding of what they are, what they can do, or why they do it, which makes room for the classic voice recordings, temperature gauging, and EMF readings. I found this concept really interesting and would love to see more ghost YA take on the paranormal investigator angle.

Over the course of the story Violet has a lot of interesting ghost encounters of a vast variety. We have everything from the jock who's back from the dead, to the killer in the haunted mansion, to the ghost that just loves it's squeaky hamburger, to cemetery ghosts, to violent locker-room hauntings. There is a lot of ghostly action! Although it may sound over-crowded, each encounter worked well in the story and kept things moving. This is mostly because the writing knew how to handle it. Although I wasn't always a huge fan of the themes in the book (more on that later) Baguchinsky's writing was very engaging, especially for a debut. I'll definitely be on the look out for whatever she writes next!

Something else that I give Baguchinsky some major credit for is that Violet is a teenage girl who sees ghost, but doesn't fall in love with one! YAY! It's a very nice change of pace to have a YA novel almost devoid of romance, where the main character doesn't for a second think about boys, and instead focuses on more pressing issues. This only makes Violet a better character. Despite having all the social worries most teenagers do, she wishes to embrace her abilities more so than hide them. Although she's not a huge fan of the spotlight she isn't afraid or ashamed of her "Spookygirl" status. It was refreshing to not have a character constantly trying to hide or lie about being able to see ghosts. She's not worried about fitting in when she knows that what makes her special is a good thing. It makes her a stand out among these sort of characters.

Even though I enjoyed Spookygirl it for what it is, there are things that should be noted for the prospective reader on the negative side of the spectrum.

For all it's originality, Spookygirl can come across as rather standard. The characters and plot lines are all pretty predicable and the lack of ghostly rules are sometimes used for convenience sake. This wasn't a problem for me because I went into this expecting something light and easy, but for people looking for something more this might not be it.

The overall theme on the book was one of my pet peeves. This is very much a representation of those high schools where the jocks and cheerleaders are evil and the outcasts are just so darn special because of reasons. It was all rather stereotypical and they were only ever used as characters for Violet and friends to hate rather than anything interesting. These jock characters garner so much scorn, despite only collectively having a estimated total of six or seven lines of dialogue... and one cheerleader's name is Cherry.

(Side note: When people wonder why athletes look down on reading, one may be able to make the argument that it's because they're generally represented as one-dimensional and evil. The book had more sympathy with a murdering ghost than the popular crowd. ... I'm just saying.)

The only real complaint I have was the occasional sense of deja vu, which I found to be a bit distracting at first. If your a fan of the genre and you've read the Mediator series by Meg Cabot recently, you may have a similar experience when comparing The Mediator's Suze and Spookygirl Violet. I love both of their characters, but it would be very easy to confuse one for the other. Which can be seen as either a good thing or a bad thing.

But these are all minor nick-picks. With all that being said, Spookygirl: Paranormal Investigator should be a go-to for fans of the teen girl sees ghosts genre. It was a lovely read that would, indeed, be an great follow up for fans of the Mediator series (Shadowland) or The Ghost and the Goth and are looking for more of the same.

SPECIAL NOTE: According to Baguchinsky's blog she states: "Although it is slated as the first volume of the Riley Island Paranormal series, it stands on its own as a complete story." I would like to say I would totally read a second book!!