Tag Archives: YA

The Book of Lost Things – John Connolly

Review (Amazon):

High in his attic bedroom, twelve-year-old David mourns the death of his mother. He is angry and alone, with only the books on his shelf for company. But those books have begun to whisper to him in the darkness, and as he takes refuge in his imagination, he finds that reality and fantasy have begun to meld. While his family falls apart around him, David is violently propelled into a land that is a strange reflection of his own world, populated by heroes and monsters, and ruled over by a faded king who keeps his secrets in a mysterious book… The Book of Lost Things.

An imaginative tale about navigating the journey into adulthood, while doing your best to hang on to your childhood.

My Review (Spoilers):

Executive Summary: Mediocre

I really wanted to like this book, but I just could not get into it. It felt overdone and slow, and I really started to dislike how all the good people were men and all the evil people were women, which is really odd for a boy who is missing his mother.

We are introduced in the most cliche “Once upon a time” way to the main character, David, who had lost his mother. She had been slowly dying for a while, and David thought that his OCD activities could keep her alive. When she died, he took it as a personal failure, and in his bad dreams, the Crooked Man started appearing to him in his dreams.

Five months, three weeks and four days after his mother died, a new woman named Rose started joining David and his dad for things. Once David put 2 and 2 together, he started having panic attacks and was sent to a psychiatrist. Things get even worse when he finds out that Rose is pregnant. She has the baby, a boy, and the combined family moves out to the country (it’s WW2 time in England). The house is a family home of Rose’s and while he hates the whole situation, he loves the old fairy tale books in his room.

He eventually finds out that they were the books of Jonathan Tulvey, who was Rose’s uncle. He disappeared at age 14 with another little girl Anna, who Rose’s grandparents had taken in when her parents had died in an unfortunate fire. They were never found.

The tension between David and Rose continues to grow, and there’s a big fight at dinner which David takes that it’s his fault. He storms off, and walks out of his house. When he looks back at the house from the edge of the yard, he sees a figure in his room–the Crooked Man. He races back inside, gets his father, and they investigate–to find a magpie in there instead. That night, he dreams of his mother’s voice calling him from the sunken garden in the back of the yard.

The next day, David and Rose have a huge fight which causes David’s father to be very upset with David too. Because of this, he goes back to the sunken garden and enters a different world. When he gets inside, he encounters the Woodsman. The Woodsman helps David tie a string to the tree which he came in from so he can find it again. The Woodsman tells David that the king has a book of lost things so they must find the king so that he can help David return home. But to do so, they must escape the wolves and the Loups (wolves who have evolved into more human-like form) who are very hungry. They make it to the Woodsman’s house where David wonders why his mother is luring him here with the voices that he’s hearing in his dreams, and what the role of the Crooked Man (who the Woodsman tells him is a very bad man who steals children) is.

The Woodsman tries to help David with his OCD. He explains that he has rules too. Every day he cleans his ax. He checks the house is secure, etc. etc. David begins to think this over as the Woodsman tells him that they must go back and try to get the hole in the tree to reappear because he fears he can’t keep David safe. When they return, every tree has a string on it. So the Woodsman decides to continue the original thought of taking David to the king. When they get to the bridge, with the wolves and Loups hot on their trail, there are trolls guarding the bridges. One of the bridges is fake, but they have to determine which by solving the riddle. He solves it correctly, but the wolves are right there. They chase after David, some falling on the fake bridge, but the Woodsman stays to fight them off so that David can get away.

Next David meets the dwarves who then introduce him to Snow White, who they tried to poison with an apple because she’s so unbearable. She’s morbidly obese and bosses the dwarves around making them cook and clean for her. They lead him on his way.

As he’s walking, he sees an unusual sight–a centaur of sorts. Half human girl, and half deer. She’s panicking and he realizes why. She’s being hunted, and is killed in front of him. The hunter threatens him and then hog ties him and takes him back with her. She’s a maniac who uses a special magic salve to reattach and reanimate animals together, including human children. Then she releases them and hunts them for sport. Obviously she’s saving David for an experiment, but he manages to outsmart her by convincing her to become a centaur and then killing her and then managing to get out of there.

Next he meets the soldier Roland, who is nice to him like the Woodsman. Roland keeps him company and helps him get along more quickly on horseback. They come upon a terrible scene where many have died. David meets the Crooked Man there who shows him an image of his dad, Rose, and Georgie happy and not missing him one bit. David is furious and Roland calms him, teaching him strength and how to defend himself. Roland is on a mission to find out what happened to his “friend” (it’s the 40s) Raphael. In the process, he saves a village from a Beast, but then the Crooked Man catches up to David. He shows David the snout of the wolf that had been sent to track him. He tells David more in detail what he is doing. He will make David a deal that his father will love him alone. David suspects there is more to the story. The Crooked Man wants to know what David’s brother’s name is, but David won’t tell him. The Crooked Man is furious and David goes back to Roland and they continue their quest.

Roland and David eventually find the Enchantress who has lured so many men, including Raphael, to their deaths. Roland goes in ahead, and he, like the others does not make it out alive. The Crooked Man tries to keep David from going in after him using his mom’s voice, but David persists. He doesn’t get lured by the temptations, and when he sees Roland impaled, he becomes enraged and lures out the Enchantress and impales her.

David continues alone to find the King, and when he gets there, he finds the King is expecting him. He has a luxurious room, and eats well and goes to sleep. He awakes suddenly for no reason, and finds that the guards have left his room. He sneaks out and overhears the Crooked Man speaking to the King. The King is dying. The Crooked Man says that the book of lost things has no value, but the King says that it has value to him. David opens it and realizes that it’s all from “his” world and is a book of mementos and diary entries. The king as a younger boy had a young girl arrive in his life, and he was enraged. David can relate to the story, and then at the end realizes that the King is Jonathan Tulvey.

David finds a secret passageway to where the Crooked Man goes, and finds all sorts of horrors. In one of the last rooms, he finds a large hourglass nearing its end as well as a little girl in a jar. Her name is Anna. David realizes that Jonathan brought Anna there as part of the bargain. In return, Jonathan became king and the old Queen was allowed to die. Anna was killed and the Crooked Man ate her heart. She’s been trapped in the jar since. The Crooked Man grows weaker by the day, and David realizes that the hourglass is the Crooked Man’s life. He’s waiting for David to make the deal with him for Georgie so that he can continue to live.

This is where the book should have ended. It doesn’t. It goes on for another quarter to a third of the book with a wolf/Loup attack on the castle. The main Loup kills the King. The Crooked Man dies as he runs out of time, and the King’s death causes the disappearance of the Loups as they were created by the King’s nightmares. And then, just for good measure, the Woodsman, who wasn’t dead, reappears to take David home. -_-

David returns home. It turns out he’s in the Wizard of Oz and this whole thing was a dream while he was in a coma after being hit with some debris from the downed German bomber which crashed near him just as he entered the woods. When he awakes, he goes on to be a model citizen, but nothing ever fully goes right for him. His eventual wife and son die, so he becomes a writer. He writes beloved children stories until he’s old and gray, and eventually he goes back to where he first entered the forest and the Woodsman is waiting for him.

Verdict: 3 stars

Too cliché for my tastes. I’m not sure if it was supposed to be a young adult book, but it felt like one for very young adults if anything. As someone who solidly counts as an adult these days (sigh), I found it too overdone, too dramatic (I have a new brother, woe is me), and just not fun or enchanting in any way.

 

 

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The Girl with All the Gifts – M.R. Carey

Review (Amazon): 

Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her “our little genius.”

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh.
The Girl With All the Gifts is a groundbreaking thriller, emotionally charged and gripping from beginning to end.

My Review (spoilers):

Executive Summary: slow to get going but worth it in the end

We get introduced to ten-year-old Melanie on page 1. She is in a classroom, different than we are used to, but we only slowly get introduced to what exactly is different. Her favorite teacher is Miss Justineau, although they do have other teachers from time to time. They live in a compound to keep away from the hungries (aka zombies). The children live in cells and get wheeled into the classroom Hannibal Lector style each day, all strapped in and ready to learn. Occasionally the students leave by the hand of Doctor Caldwell and never come back, and they haven’t gotten any new students in a while.

One day the Sergeant comes in and has an issue with Miss Justineau getting “too attached” to the children, and he suggests that they aren’t even children. To demonstrate, he spits on his arm and holds it near one of the children who starts chomping and biting at him (still restrained) and so do the children near him. Melanie is very confused about what is happening.

We cut to Dr. Caldwell for a bit to determine that the children are not actually children (after she has dissected her latest two). They have a fungal parasite of some sort that Dr. Caldwell is crudely investigating. After the Breakdown, most high tech equipment is incredibly difficult to come by.

Miss Justineau and Dr. Caldwell are have very different ideas on how to interact with the children. Miss Justineau treats the children like normal children (at least as much as she can) whereas Dr. Caldwell and the Sergeant treat them worse than animals. But they all ended up in the compound under the same circumstances. They are trying to determine why some of the children that they have been finding are not mindless zombies like the other hungries, but instead can learn and reason and generally go beyond the mindless behaviors of the others. Miss Justineau and the other teachers are there to teach and observe. Dr. Caldwell is there to help create scientific revelations about the parasite to hopefully protect the other humans, and the Sergeant is there to protect all the humans in the compound both from the children, but also from the packs of hungries as well as the Junkers (bands of humans who sort of “Mad Max” about in the outside) who could attack at any time.

Dr. Caldwell requests that Miss Justineau provide a list of 1/2 the class to be dissected, and Miss Justineau is understandably having a hard time with it. Not just because she has become close to the students but she also understands how losing half the class will affect the dynamics. So she holds off on providing the list. In response, Dr. Caldwell decides to start with Melanie. Sergeant Parks gets her, and takes her in to Dr. Selkirk and Dr. Caldwell.

When Melanie doesn’t come to class, Miss Justineau realizes that something is up. She confronts Sergeant Parks who tells her where Melanie has been taken. Luckily Miss Justineau arrives just in time. She confronts Dr. Caldwell and the two break into an argument followed by a physical fight. In the midst of it, the evacuation siren goes off, and hungries break into the window. Dr. Caldwell and Miss Justineau make it out, but Dr. Selkirk does not. No one knows in the chaos what happened to Melanie so Miss Justineau goes out to find her. Instead she runs into a pack of Junkers. Luckily Melanie reappears and attacks them with full force.

Melanie, Miss Justineau and Dr. Caldwell find Sergeant Parks and one of his soldiers, Kieran Gallagher. They get into a Hummer and leave Beacon. Melanie is faced with existential challenges after killing the Junker. Justineau and Caldwell are at complete odds except that they both want Melanie to live (for different reasons) so they are able to keep Parks from killing her. Off they go to an unknown location. They stave off a few groups of hungries, and then they eventually find the Rosalind Franklin. It’s a huge armored mobile laboratory that Dr Caldwell is very familiar with. As we learn, she was fully trained on the unit, but didn’t end up making the final cut for the mission (and she’s been holding a grudge for the last twenty years). There are no humans or food inside, but all the scientific equipment is intact.

Melanie asks to speak to Parks alone, and when they reconvene after assessing what Rosalind Franklin does and doesn’t have, Melanie is gone. The generator needs to be fixed, so Parks starts on that while Justineau and Gallagher look for food. Before they leave, Justineau asks Parks where Melanie went. She was going crazy inside in close quarters with all the humans. All their e-blocker had worn off, so Parks let her go outside. He figures she can take care of herself. Justineau and Gallagher take off. They only see a few hungries. Most of them have died and have sprouted seeds for the fungus. Eventually they find a storage unit beside a convenience store that hasn’t been looted, and they take all they can back to the RF.

While everyone else is out, we learn that Dr. Caldwell has blood poisoning from the injuries she sustained during the original hungry attack. She’s trying to do what she can in terms of research before she dies. She tells Parks that it doesn’t really matter anyway. When the fungus took over the planet, it was in a juvenile form. Now it’s sprouting into an adult form and pollinating. And when it does, she doesn’t think there will be anything left.

When Justineau and Gallagher return, it’s late but Melanie hasn’t returned. So despite Parks’ arguments, Justineau decides to set off a flare. Melanie knows where the RF is; she just hasn’t wanted to return. She has spent the day looping around bigger and bigger circles until she finds something interesting–some others like her. When she returns to RF, she tells the adults that there are others out there–junkers, she says. Parks doesn’t believe her story. He believes she saw something which scared her, but it wasn’t Junkers. Justineau talks to Melanie who finally gives up the true story. She didn’t want to tell everyone because she was worried that Caldwell and Parks would round all the children up and dissect them. When everyone reconvenes, they realize that Gallagher is missing.

Unfortunately by the time Melanie, Justineau and Parks find Gallagher, the hungry children have already gotten to him, and tricked him to his death. Melanie insists that he should be honored, and as they are lighting his funeral pyre, they hear the engines of RF in the distance. Caldwell has left without them. She doesn’t get far before the hungry children encircle her. She’s trying to figure out how to capture one to dissect it before she dies. She opens the door locks and manages to close the door quickly enough to squash one. She doesn’t hurt his head though, but she needs to get the airlock fully shut because she is being shot at through the gap by the other children. She manages to get as far away as she can until she is stopped by a 40 ft high tower of the fungus for as long as she can see. She decides to dissect the head, and when Parks, Justineau, and Melanie finally find her, she won’t let them in. She’s too close to a breakthrough.

Parks sends Melanie on an exhibition to determine whether there’s a way around the fungus. There’s not. The 2 humans find a place to stay for the night. Dr. Caldwell is able to dissect the brain in peace and finds the answer she’s looking for. Once she’s done, she sees someone outside–a search party, she thinks. She goes out of RF and when she returns, Melanie is inside and wants to know the truth. The original hungries are because the fungus completely took over the bodies and then utilized them to hatch seed pods. Melanie and others like her are second generation hungries where the fungus doesn’t attack and feed on the brains.

Parks and Justineau are attacked where they are sleeping. Melanie hears shots fired on the walkie talkies and arrives to help as much as she can. Unfortunately Parks is bitten by the hungries, but she and Miss Justineau make it out unscathed. The 3 return to RF where Melanie decides to blast the fungus wall with the flame throwers. She’s outside with Parks as little bits of ash begin floating to the ground. Parks asks Melanie to shoot him before he becomes a hungry, and she agrees. But first she explains to him that it’s not ash, it’s fungus seeds. The flame thrower has opened all of the seed pods. She now knows that the original people will become hungries, but the second generation will be like her. They can end the war between the humans, the hungries, and the junkers, and create a new species. When Melanie returns to Miss Justineau, she explains again what has happened, and the book ends with Melanie introducing the hungry kids to their new teacher!

Verdict: 4 Stars

I thought the book was really creative. I am not typically super interested in zombie stories, and I’ve found that a lot of the post-apocalyptic ones are a bit overplayed at this point. So this was a breath of fresh air for me. It’s a bit slow at points, but it pays off in the end.

 

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Graceling – Kristin Cashore

Review (Amazon): Kristin Cashore’s best-selling, award-winning fantasy Graceling tells the story of the vulnerable yet strong Katsa, a smart, beautiful teenager who lives in a world where selected people are given a Grace, a special talent that can be anything from dancing to swimming. Katsa’s is killing. As the king’s niece, she is forced to use her extreme skills as his thug. Along the way, Katsa must learn to decipher the true nature of her Grace . . . and how to put it to good use. A thrilling, action-packed fantasy adventure (and steamy romance!) that will resonate deeply with adolescents trying to find their way in the world.

My Review (SpOiLeRs!!!):

Executive Summary: a fun escape

The book is set in the Seven Kingdoms which were originally ruled by the same family, but now many generations later, each has a different ruler–some good and some bad. In this land, certain children are born with two different colored eyes and a special skill of some sort. These children are called Gracelings and their skill is called their Grace. The main character Katsa is a Graceling who is from the Middluns and her Grace is killing.


As it is the protocol in most of the kingdoms, Gracelings are given to the ruler once their Grace appears and the ruler can determine whether the Grace is of use. (If your Grace is holding your breath underwater for a long time, it might not be. If that’s the case, you’re sent home to your parents.) Katsa’s mother was the sister of the Middluns king so either way, she ended up as the king’s ward at a young age when her parents died. Once her Grace appeared at age 8 as she accidentally killed her distant cousin, a creep who liked little girls and tried to touch her, the king put her to work.

It was a lonely childhood as most view the Graced as people to avoid–a sort of curse. Especially in Katsa’s case. Her only friend was the King’s son Raffin, her cousin. Eventually she also gained the confidence of Captain Oll who helped her train as well as a woman named Helda who was the nurse of the royal nurseries, but who had a son who was a Graceling who she had left behind so she took a particular fondness to Katsa.

As Katsa grew older, she trained in all fighting skills and did King Randa’s dirty work. She continued to get more and more disenchanted with it. She, Raffin, and a few others decide to start using their skills for good and assemble a council.

The book begins with a mission. Katsa, Captain Oll and Giddon (one of Randa’s right hand men) were in the dungeons of Sunder to rescue the father of the King of Leinid (Prince Tealiff) who had been kidnapped. During the process while Katsa knocks the guards unconscious and gives them some sleeping medicine developed by Raffin, she encounters another Graceling, a Lienid, who she wasn’t expecting. She doesn’t want to kill anyone but she also doesn’t want her plan foiled. She debates what to do with him and eventually leaves him unconscious like the others. They rescue the Prince and take him back to Middluns to hide him and figure out who kidnapped him and why.

They immediately thought of the kings of Wester, Nander, and Estill as they were typically the most troublesome. King Randa for the most part minded his own business so he wasn’t likely to blame. King Ror of Leinid was the least troublesome and well-liked by his people. Even King Murgon of Sunder where the Prince was found was typically only doing someone else’s bidding, not plotting something on his own. The only other kingdom was Monsea who was ruled by King Leck whose wife was a Leinid and also the daughter of Prince Tealiff. Monsea was separated geographically but the general view was that King Leck was well liked and kind to children and animals. However, the word was also out that the queen had locked herself in her room after hearing of her father’s disappearance.

After returning to the kingdom after some time away, it turns out that Prince Tealiff hasn’t spoken. She asks Raffin if he had ever heard of a Graceling Leinid and Raffin mentions that he’s the son of King Ror and is in the Middluns castle at the moment as he is searching for his kidnapped grandfather. On the way to her rooms to dress for dinner, she sees him a floor above and feels his gaze on her.

At dinner, she is seated next to Giddon and next to the next potential suitor, Lord Davit, that King Randa has arranged, except this one has come to inquire about the Council. Katsa overhears the King telling a story about her and gets enraged and leaves the dinner to go for a walk. The Leinid Prince, Po,  finds her at the archery range. He explains that he is no good at fighting with weapons but is graced with hand to hand combat. He’s looking for his grandpa and he fights Katsa, an even fight, to get some answers, and he is invited to that evening’s Council meeting.

Po remains in Middluns until they decide what to do, practicing fighting with Katsa which continues to make Lord Giddon upset.  Katsa and Po get to know each other out of the ring too as Katsa has never really met any other Gracelings. She learns that he has six older brothers, his own castle, and has never felt weird about his Grace. In the meantime, Lord Randa sends Katsa to do his bidding. When she arrives, she makes the decision to not follow orders because she knows the King can’t actually harm her. She also refuses Giddon’s proposal for marriage but something he says gives her cause for concern–it’s an exact phrase that Po has said to her. When she returns to Middluns, she confronts Po that his Grace is not what he has said–he is in fact a mind reader. Katsa is furious, but Po eventually convinces her that he has to keep it a secret so that he can lead a relatively normal life. He tells her that he is leaving the following day and asks her to come with him.

Before she can answer, she gets called in to see the King for her disobedience. The king has lined up all his best soldiers to confront her, 10x more than the usual amount. Instead of unleashing her fury, she listens to Po’s voice in her head and tells the King how she could defeat all the soldiers and still get to him and then tells the King that she will no longer be his pawn and is leaving the following day with Po.

As she and Po travel, she becomes more accepting of his Grace and they figure out a way to make it work. He openly shares with her and she practices on guarding the thoughts that she doesn’t want him to outright know and also how to communicate with him without speaking. He boosts her confidence, first by suggesting that she keep in mind that she started the Council so therefore is not completely evil and only good for doing the King’s bidding and then leading to her revelation that in fact, her Grace is not actually fighting–it’s survival.

Po also tells her the tale of the King of Monsea. The previous King and Queen of Monsea yearned for a child but never could have one. One day, a young boy arrived, wearing an eye patch, and charms the King, Queen and the rest of Monsea. The King and Queen take him in, feeling pity for this poor boy who has no home and has lost an eye. So a few years later, when the King and Queen still do not have an heir, they name him the heir. Only a few days later, the King, Queen and their closest advisers had all died.

They collect information along the way which leads them into changing their plans to head to Monsea instead to talk to King Leck. And then they realize that his eye patch might mean that he’s actually Graced and has used the patch to hide it. They suspect that King Leck’s Grace is distributing misinformation. So they head that way and assume that Po’s Grace will protect them. As they travel, both Katsa and Po hone their Grace. Po begins to be able to sense things around him, even inanimate things that could not be thinking of him. Katsa and Po also begin to think about each other. Katsa does not want to get married or have children, and Po is OK with that.

When they arrive in Monsea, they stumble across a scene–a woman is running from an army of men, led by a man with an eye patch. The woman is shot in the back trying to escape. Po tells Katsa to kill King Leck, but he sees them and goes on about what a terrible accident the whole thing was so Katsa doubts what she has just seen and puts down her bow. Po and Katsa run into the woods although Katsa’s thoughts are blurry and disoriented and she doesn’t understand what is going on. It takes a while for her to realize that she was fooled by Leck’s Grace. He shot his own wife in front of Katsa and he was still able to convince her that it was an accident.

They hide out in the woods until they believe that it is safe (that King Leck’s men aren’t looking for them) and they go off in search of Bitterblue, the King’s daughter who took off and is hiding. Luckily Bitterblue’s mom thought about where Bitterblue was hiding as she died so Po has a good idea of where it is.

Once they find Bitterblue, she reinforces that her father needs to be killed. He tortures children and animals. And her mother locked the two of them up so that her father couldn’t get to Bitterblue. King Leck stole Prince Tealiff to try to blackmail Bitterblue’s mother into changing her mind. Po is to set out early to find King Leck and kill him. However, he returns very injured and King Leck is very much still alive. Po remains in hiding because he will slow them down due to his injuries. Po gives Katsa his ring so that his parents will trust her, and Katsa and Bitterblue set off to Leinid. They take an impossible pass since Leck and his minions will be watching for them at the obvious ones.

The journey is incredibly difficult but Katsa’s Grace protects them. Eventually they arrive at Po’s castle and his whole family is there…with King Leck. King Leck has the entire family in a trance. Luckily Bitterblue has fought against him long enough to be able to combat his trickery some. King Leck wants to talk about Po–where he is and how he is doing. When he begins to suggest that Po’s Grace is more than just fighting, Po’s mom and Katsa become agitated and Katsa kills Leck with a dagger to the throat.

It takes quite a while for the effects of Leck’s spell to stop but eventually Po’s family realize that they had been tricked. They set off the next morning to take Bitterblue back to Monsea where she will be the new queen. They make their way back to find Po. He has healed some but Katsa finds him depressed and not the fun loving person she left. Eventually, she realizes that he is blind–blinded during his fall into the river after his attack with Leck’s men. His Grace keeps the others from realizing what has happened. Katsa begins training him as well as Bitterblue so that Po can get back to full health and Bitterblue can learn to protect herself. She decides to take her skills on tour–starting in Monsea where she continues to teach Bitterblue along with other girls how to fight. The book ends with her planning to meet Po back in Leinid in the fall.

Verdict: 3.5 stars

This book was a fun, easy read. It had a lot of resemblance to Hunger Games but it didn’t feel quite so dark. I did enjoy that while it was still a YA, it wasn’t the traditional “I’m just waiting for that man to come along and suddenly I’ll be smitten and get married and have babies!!!” On the other hand, I wished that we got to see a bit more depth out of Katsa throughout the book. Maybe in the next one.

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We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

2015/01/img_1041.jpgSummary (Amazon): E. Lockhart’s novel, We Were Liars, is clever, alluring, and wildly addictive. Each summer the wealthy, seemingly perfect, members of the Sinclair family gather on their private island.  We Were Liars is the story of those annual reunions; in particular what happened during a summer that protagonist Cadence is unable to remember. Prejudice, greed, and shifting patriarchal favoritism among the three adult sisters contrasts with the camaraderie and worldview of the teenage cousins and their dear friend Gat. Lazy days of sticky lemonades on the roof and marathon Scrabble games give way to twisty suspense, true love, and good intentions gone horribly wrong. We Were Liars is a story that begs to be read in one sitting. —Seira Wilson

My Review (SPOILERS!!! Seriously do not read this review if you want to read this book)

Executive Summary: Shocking

This is the first book for book club for 2015, and I think we started off well! I ended up buying this book (with a gift card my mom got me for Christmas!) because my best friend’s maiden name is Sinclair. And I know she will want to read this book as it’s so like her upbringing. </sarcasm>

The main character of the book is Cadence Sinclair. Her grandparents, Harris and Tipper Sinclair, are rich, and very controlling. Harris and Tipper have 3 daughters–Bess, Carrie, and Penny (Cadence’s mom) who are all useless individuals. They are drunk, unhappy has-beens who are living off of their father’s money, and therefore their father can control them quite easily. Let’s be honest, most everyone in the book (except Gat who is the “normal” voice) is pretty horrible.

The book begins when Cadence is about 14 or so, and from the start, we know that Cadence will be involved in an accident. (The book bounces back and forth between past and present tense.) The book is written in a style that I think really supports the main character’s age. There is a section near the beginning of the book where Cadence talks about when her dad left her and her mother. She writes “Then he pulled out a handgun and shot me in the chest. I was standing on the lawn and I fell. The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my rib cage and down into a flower bed. Blood gushed rhythmically from my open wound, then from my eyes, my ears, my mouth. It tasted like salt and failure. The bright red shame of being unloved soaked the grass in front of our house, the bricks of the path, the steps to the porch…” After a few pages later when I realized that she wasn’t ACTUALLY shot, that the whole thing was a metaphor, I realized what a good metaphor that was for a naive (read: overly dramatic) teenage girl.

Each summer, the grandparents and the families of the 3 daughters go to Beechwood Island, off the coast of Massachusetts, which Harris owns. Each family has their own house on the island, and three of the grandchildren–Cadence, Mirren, and Johnny are all nearly the same age. Cadence is the oldest, but only by a few weeks. Starting at the summer when she was eight, a new child of similar age started coming to the island. His name was Gat. And he was the nephew of Carrie’s new boyfriend, Ed. Carrie never marries Ed because her father is a racist, and she will lose her inheritance if she does. Once Gat arrives, the four older grandchildren become known as the Liars, as they are always getting into mischief.

During summer 14, a different sort of relationship begins to grow between Gat and Cadence. They hang out all the time, share books, write love notes on each other’s hands. But they only hang out during the summer. Each of the Liars have their own “regular lives” during the school years. Right before summer 15 is when Cadence’s father leaves them. She’s excited to get to the island to get away and to see Gat, but when she arrives, she finds him mailing roses to his girlfriend. Between summer 14 and summer 15, Gat went on a mission trip to India. So he’s especially antagonistic about these rich people and their private island and all their silly things that they just shrug off like they are no big deal.

Also prior to summer 15, Tipper dies. The dynamic on the island has completely changed. Cadence and the others are instructed to keep it together for Grandpa’s sake.

And sometime on the island, Cadence goes swimming alone. She is found later curled up on the beach wearing a camisole, bra, and underpants. She doesn’t know what happened. They took her to a hospital off of the island, and can’t figure out what’s wrong with her. She has debilitating migraines, and can’t remember anything from shortly before, during or shortly after the attack. None of the Liars are returning her emails.

The following summer, Cadence’s father decides to take her on a trip around Europe. She’s upset. She wants to go to Beechwood Island to see the rest of the Liars. Her mother won’t allow her. Her grandfather’s house on the island is being redone so the summer won’t be any fun anyway. She reluctantly goes to Europe with her father and has a somewhat terrible time as she is sick so often.

The following fall, Cadence begins to take some of Gat’s lectures to heart. She begins a plan to give away something of hers every day. Some of the things she gives to homeless people. Some she mails to her cousins. Her mother is upset because spending money is her mother’s favorite activity.

Summer 17 Cadence is supposed to go to Australia with her father. However, she doesn’t want to. She wants to go to Beechwood. She hasn’t been there in 2 years and she wants to see the Liars. Her mother compromises and says she can spend 4 weeks there, but then she is staying with her father in Colorado for the remainder.

Cadence asks her mother what happened with the accident, and her mother is obviously frustrated. She’s told Cadence all she knew about what had happened every day since it happened, but Cadence doesn’t retain it. She asks her mother one last time, and this time she writes it down. She’s on a mission to figure out what happened.

Cadence and Penny arrive on the island for summer 17. Grandpa didn’t just renovate. He tore the entire house down and replaced it with a modern monstrosity with clean lines as opposed to the old Victorian home. He even got rid of the old maple tree with the swing. Cadence is devastated but she holds it together like she’s supposed to. But it’s hard. They don’t even stay at their old house now. Cadence and her mother now stay in the “New Clairmont” with their grandfather. She is expected to be there for all meals and hang out with the little cousins. But she hasn’t even seen the rest of the Liars yet. She finally finds some time to escape and find them. They are staying at Cuddledown, Mirren’s family’s house, together. Unfortunately though, Cadence is still required to stay at the New Clairmont. She catches up with them. Things are a little awkward, especially with Gat.

Cadence continues the summer trying to piece together what it was that had happened. She writes down the memories that return and keeps trying to get more information from her cousins and aunts.

STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW THE ENDING. SERIOUSLY

Eventually Cadence remembers that she and the Liars were getting pitted against each other by their mothers and grandfather. They were being used as pawns to get a better share of the inheritance. Penny was using Cadence’s first birth status to try to get more. Johnny’s mother was using his eldest boy status. Mirren’s mother was using the fact that she had 4 kids and the others didn’t. They were all fighting over petty things like table clothes. So the liars devised a plan. Everyone but them was off the island, and they set fire to grandfather’s house. That way there wouldn’t be anything left to fight over. They knew that the fire department would take a while to arrive from the mainland, and they knew that they wouldn’t be prosecuted.

But Cadence was the only one who escaped the fire. Johnny, Mirren, Gat, and the two golden retrievers all died. They weren’t able to get out in time. Cadence burned herself badly in the fire, and the emotional shock blocked most of the painful memories. She’s the only one left of the Liars.

 Verdict: 4 stars

It’s pretty rare that a book fully surprises me, and let’s be honest, especially a young adult book. I even knew there was a surprise ending before reading, and it still got me. For that, it gets four stars. I have read some other reviews that criticized the writing, but to me, it felt very appropriate. It felt like I was reading a journal written by a 17 year old, and I also think that the writing style was critical to the surprise ending. And although my family unfortunately did not have a private island (gasp), I’m certainly familiar with the family drama that accompanies a grandmother dying. I think it’s a relatable theme. All in all, a good way to kick off book club for 2015!

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The Fault in Our Stars – John Green

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/9e3/45106722/files/2014/12/img_0991.jpgSummary (Amazon):  In The Fault in Our Stars, John Green has created a soulful novel that tackles big subjects–life, death, love–with the perfect blend of levity and heart-swelling emotion. Hazel is sixteen, with terminal cancer, when she meets Augustus at her kids-with-cancer support group. The two are kindred spirits, sharing an irreverent sense of humor and immense charm, and watching them fall in love even as they face universal questions of the human condition–How will I be remembered? Does my life, and will my death, have meaning?–has a raw honesty that is deeply moving.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: realistic

I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while as I like to try to fill in my pop culture gaps, especially when it comes to books. I finally got the chance when I borrowed this book from one of my friends in book club.

The story is pretty simple, and really not that unique. However, the success of the book is in the details. The general premise is that the main character, Hazel, has cancer and has an unknown amount of time to live. She meets a boy, Augustus “Gus”, at her therapy group and they click. See, like I said. Not that unique. But the characters have a compelling mixture of optimism and sarcastic realism that is enticing.

Hazel’s favorite book is a (fictional) book called An Imperial Affliction. (I love book within book stories. I can’t help it.) She lends it to Gus who also loves it, but they are both shocked by the ending–or lack thereof. In “AIA”, the main character, Anna, has cancer and decides to start a charity for people with cancer who want to cure cholera. Her mother meets a rich Dutch man, who might be a fraud, but her mother is going to marry him. The book ends abruptly, mid-sentence, and Gus and Hazel discuss what happened to the remaining characters. Was the Dutch man a fraud? Did they end up getting married? Hazel has already written the author, Peter van Houten, a bunch of letters with no replies, so she is stunned when Gus tells her that he has tracked down Peter’s email address and has received a response! Hazel summarizes her numerous letters into an email which she also sends. van Houten tells her that he cannot tell her the ending of the story except in person because he doesn’t trust that she wouldn’t publish it without his consent.

Hazel tells her mom who assures her that they would let her go to Amsterdam to meet him in person if they could, but they just do not have the money. However, Gus has saved his Wish (Make a Wish), and he surprises Hazel with a trip. (Hazel used her wish at age 13 to go to Disney World, and Gus justifies including her as she is the one who introduced him to the book.) Despite some hiccups in Hazel’s health, she is approved to go with her mom as a chaperone.

They arrive in Amsterdam and Gus and Hazel have dinner at a fictitious restaurant (yes, I looked) overlooking a canal. The meal was paid for Peter van Houten, and they are excited to meet him the following day. The next day, they arrive at his doorstep and he all but shuts the door in their face. It turns out that his assistant, Lidewij, approved the trip, and he had no idea that they were coming. He proceeds to down a couple glasses of scotch, speaks philosophically to them, and refuse to answer most of Hazel’s questions. They storm out dejectedly, and Lidewij comes out after them. She explains that she thought having people arrive who were lovers of his book would help re-ground him (but obviously that didn’t work). She offers to take them to see the Anne Frank house as a consolation, and they accept. Overcome by emotion in the museum, Hazel and Gus begin a mega make out session that they continue after the tour in his room. Cue the Marvin Gaye music.

The next morning, they have breakfast with Hazel’s mom and tell her about meeting Peter. Honestly, I’m not sure what they were expecting. The ending of a book is the ending for a reason. You don’t get to know what the characters do. Maybe the author doesn’t even know. It’s a book of made-up characters.

And then Gus starts acting weird. And you just know what is happening. His cancer has returned and is all through his body. He found out before they left, but he still wanted to go on the trip. They return to the states and he begins chemo and other experimental treatments. His health declines quickly, but there are still some good days in the midst. When he has one of his last good days, he invites Hazel and Isaac (another friend of theirs who is blind due to his cancer that attended the group sessions) to a pre-funeral so they can read him their eulogies while he can still hear them. He dies soon after.

Hazel speaks at his funeral, although she determines that funerals are for the living, and she revises the eulogy that she read to Augustus. But the biggest surprise at the funeral is that Peter is there. Augustus had been in contact with him after their trip and convinced Peter to attend his funeral to make amends for his terrible behavior during their visit. Hazel refuses to accept his apologies or endings to the story, but she does finally realize that the main character in Peter’s book was based upon his own daughter. She died at age 6, and he has never recovered.

Hazel, understandably, is having a hard time getting over the fact that Augustus has died, and she decides to hang out with Isaac. He tells her that Augustus was writing her a sequel to AIA in his last few days. She decides to go to Augustus’s house and check his room, where she finds nothing. A few days later, his mother calls her to say that she found a notebook with some missing pages. Hazel realizes that perhaps he sent those pages to Peter, so she emails his former assistant for help. Lidewij finds the missing pages, which were a request for Peter to write Hazel’s eulogy. She makes Peter read the letter and then send it to Hazel. You don’t get to choose whether you get hurt in the world, but you do get the choice of who hurts you. Augustus liked his choices, and he hoped that Hazel liked hers. She did.

Verdict: 4 Stars

In terms of young adult books, this is one of the better ones that I have read. Like I mentioned, the story itself is not particularly original, but there are a lot of things that I liked about it. In many YA books, the teenagers run the show. That might be motivational, but it’s not very realistic. In this, all people are strong and fragile, and therefore a lot more believable. Despite the fact that Isaac and Hazel appeared to be the sickest, in the end, Augustus is the one who dies. And throughout the book, he is the one who wanted to leave a legacy after he died, however, through Hazel, he realizes that it’s quality over quantity. I also appreciate the balance that the book took with regard to making the most of the time that you have.  I enjoyed the philosophy interspersed in the book (not overbearing like philosophy can be) and the author’s ability to write a book that was a love story, a tragedy, and yet humorous without being too swayed in any one direction.

A few quotes throughout the book that I loved:

“Come quickly: I am tasting the stars.” (Also I did not know prior to this book that Dom Perignon was a real person)

“There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. … You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.”

 

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