Saturday, January 19, 2013

ARC Review: Splintered by A.G. Howard

Publisher:  Abrams/Amulet Books
Publication Date:  January 1st, 2013

This stunning debut captures the grotesque madness of a mystical under-land, as well as a girl’s pangs of first love and independence. Alyssa Gardner hears the whispers of bugs and flowers—precisely the affliction that landed her mother in a mental hospital years before. This family curse stretches back to her ancestor Alice Liddell, the real-life inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alyssa might be crazy, but she manages to keep it together. For now.
When her mother’s mental health takes a turn for the worse, Alyssa learns that what she thought was fiction is based in terrifying reality. The real Wonderland is a place far darker and more twisted than Lewis Carroll ever let on. There, Alyssa must pass a series of tests, including draining an ocean of Alice’s tears, waking the slumbering tea party, and subduing a vicious bandersnatch, to fix Alice’s mistakes and save her family. She must also decide whom to trust: Jeb, her gorgeous best friend and secret crush, or the sexy but suspicious Morpheus, her guide through Wonderland, who may have dark motives of his own.
(Courtesy of Goodreads)

This book was just... WOW!  I am going to try to find words to express how much love and adoration I have for this book, but honestly, there just aren't really any to do it justice.  I was blown away for so many reasons...

The initial reason I was drawn to this book was the cover.  I don't think they come any more stunning!  The art is absolutely eye-popping, and I would have wanted to read this book no matter what it was about; It just happened to be a bonus that it is a retelling of one of the greatest books ever written, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland.  I'm always in the market for a great retelling of a much-loved classic book, because I think so many authors have been influenced by these stories, and oftentimes, their perspective is creative genius.  The Fairy-tale Retelling has actually become a genre of its own, and it seems that the Classic Retelling is moving in that way.  I've recently read some great Jane Austen retellings (The Trouble with Flirting and Epic Fail, both by Claire LaZebnik, and For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund), and several authors have retold the amazing L. Frank Baum's fabulous stories of OZ (most notably, Gregory Maguire's brilliant Wicked, Son of a Witch, etc.), but Alice has been rather untouched (although I have to say that I adore Frank Beddor's The Looking Glass Wars trilogy).  I was so excited when I read the synopsis of Splintered because the potential for a great, imaginative story stemming from Alice and her adventures, is limitless...

Well, I'm sure you've gathered from my introduction to this review, A.G. Howard TOTALLY pulled it off.  I was completely sucked into this story; It was almost as if I went down the rabbit hole myself...  So why was is so brilliant?  Since there are so many reasons I loved this book so much, I am going to bullet point them...
  • Characters- The characters in this story were fantastic!  The main character, Alyssa, was very real; A damaged, insecure teen who isn't really sure who she is, or where her life is headed.  She grows a lot throughout the story, and it was great to be along for the ride.  Two other characters who I was really drawn to were Morpheus and Jeb.  Jeb is Alyssa's neighbor, BFF since childhood, protective older brother figure, and secret love interest.  He is a major player in this story, and I loved the way his character developed, and the way his relationship with Alyssa grew.  Morpheus is an extremely complex character.  He has so many facets, that as the reader, you will find it impossible to form a concrete opinion of him until the very end, and maybe not even then, and I love that.  Alyssa's mother was also interesting, although I never formed any kind of attachment to her like I did the aforementioned.  Some of the best characters were some of the crazy creatures and oddballs of Wonderland.  I even loved the baddies...
  • Story- AMAZING!  I was completely enthralled.  Like, seriously, for real...  I could not put this book down.  It pulled me in from page one, and got better and better (I actually tweeted the author about 150 pages in to ask if there would be a book two, because I knew I wouldn't be happy when it ended!).  I knew very early on that this would be one of those books that I wanted to slow-read to have it last longer (even though there was no way I could possibly do that), because I was going to be so sad to have to leave the world and the characters behind.  The pacing was perfect, and the plot was riveting.  I loved how everything unfolded; How each character's closely guarded secrets were revealed, and how those secrets tied so well into the tasks that Alyssa and Jeb had to complete to save her mother and herself.  I even enjoyed the love triangle, which is usually something I detest in YA.  The romantic element was expertly done.  I have to admit that some of my favorite parts of this story were the betrayals (and perceived betrayals), and the profound sacrifices that some of the characters were willing to make for one another.  There were also some really epic twists- ones that I never saw coming- that made this story even more fantastic.
  • World Building- I just can't even.  Splintered has some of the best world building I have ever read.  The images my mind produced while reading this book were so vividly detailed, so remarkably original, and oftentimes, so disturbingly grotesque, that I still haven't let go of them, and likely won't for a very long time.  The landscape of Wonderland that A.G. Howard paints is phenomenal.  I dare say that her depiction was even more vibrant than that of the original author, Lewis Carroll, which is saying A LOT.
I am going to go out on a limb and say that even though it is only January, this book will make my top five for 2013 (as of now, it is tied for the number one spot with Victoria Schwab's The Archived).  I loved it so much.  If you are a fan of the original, you MUST get a hold of Splintered right now.  You won't be sorry that you did.

My Rating:  ★ ★ ★ ★ ★  

Grade Level Recommendation:  There are a few scenes in this book where the romance gets a little hot and heavy (no sex though), but otherwise this book is pretty clean.  I say it's fine for 5th grade and up (ages 10+).

Monday, January 7, 2013

ARC Review: Shadowlands by Kate Brian

Publisher:  Disney/Hyperion
Publication Date:  January 8th, 2013

Rory Miller had one chance to fight back and she took it. Rory survived… and the serial killer who attacked her escaped. Now that the infamous Steven Nell is on the loose, Rory must enter the witness protection with her father and sister, Darcy, leaving their friends and family without so much as a goodbye. 

Starting over in a new town with only each other is unimaginable for Rory and Darcy. They were inseparable as children, but now they can barely stand each other. As the sisters settle in to Juniper Landing, a picturesque vacation island, it seems like their new home may be just the fresh start they need. They fall in with a group of beautiful, carefree teens and spend their days surfing, partying on the beach, and hiking into endless sunsets. But just as they’re starting to feel safe again, one of their new friends goes missing. Is it a coincidence? Or is the nightmare beginning all over again?
(Courtesy of Goodreads)

Shadowlands is one of those books that totally catches you off guard.  Of course, now that you've read that statement, you will think to yourself, "Now I'm looking for it.  You won't get ME! Ha!".  Well, guess what?  You will still be saying, "What the? Really?", at the end of this book, and then, like me, you will be going back in your mind, attempting to put the pieces together, realizing that Kate Brian is just schooled you, and you never saw it coming (even though you were warned)!  Intrigued yet?  You should be.

When I got Shadowlands in the mail, I could not wait to dig in.  It sounded so good.  A thriller about a teenage girl who escaped a certain serial killer- the only one to EVER have managed to do so.  Now he is on the loose and hunting her, wanting to finish the job.  YES, PLEASE!  I was on it like white on rice (whatever that means...).  Anyway, I went into it with gusto, and was immediately drawn in; I could not put this book down.  The story flowed well, the characters were well done, while still managing to have an air of mystery surrounding them, and the way everything was set up was just flawless.  It was creepy, with lots of twists and turns, more questions than answers, and spine-tingling events that made me want to sleep with the lights on if I had been able to sleep.  Fortunately, it never came down to that, because this was a one sitting read.  I could not put it down to save my life, and when I did, at the end, I could not believe what I had just read.  My jaw hit the floor.  A few days later, I was talking to another bookish friend who had also read this, and she informed me that this is the beginning of a series, which I am thrilled about, because if it was a stand-alone, I would have been seriously pissed...  Read this one, people.  It wasn't perfect in every way, but it was awesome in every way that counts.

My Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ 

Grade Level Recommendation:  This book was graphic in some ways, but still fine for most middle school readers.  I would say it is fine for 7th grade and up (6th if not easily scared).  Ages 12 and up.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

ARC Review: Empty by K.M. Walton

Publisher:  Simon Pulse
Publication Date:  January 1st, 2013

Dell is used to disappointment. Ever since her dad left, it’s been one let down after another. But no one—not even her best friend—gets all the pain she’s going through. So Dell hides behind self-deprecating jokes and forced smiles.

Then the one person she trusts betrays her. Dell is beyond devastated. Without anyone to turn to for comfort, her depression and self-loathing spin out of control. But just how far will she go to make all of the heartbreak and name-calling stop?
(Courtesy of Goodreads)

This review has given me a lot of trouble.  I've had a tremendous amount of difficulty putting my feelings about this book on paper because the feelings are so complicated.  I really hated this book in so many ways.  It left me feeling ugly inside, and I think I sat in my bed for about 20 minutes, hand over my mouth, in shock at how it all ended.  This book does not contain an ounce of good feeling in it.  Everything about it made me feel uncomfortable and really, really sad.  The thing about that is that that was exactly how I was supposed to feel.  This book is raw, and graphic.  It gets right down to the nitty gritty of the effect bullying can have on a young person.  Some people come out on the other side of it, others don't, but nobody comes away unscathed.  The title is absolutely fitting, because it left me feeling just that, empty...

Dell's story is not unique.  Young people face the kinds of abuse Dell faced in Empty every day, most of the time, silently, or worse, like Dell, with a mask of humor to hide their hurt.  Nothing about Dell's, life was easy.  Yes, much of it was of her own doing, but too much of it wasn't, and it was heartbreaking.  I felt sick to my stomach much of the time I was reading this book because Dell didn't just FEEL like she had nobody looking out for her; She really didn't.  She was alone in the world, and dealing with more hurt and ridicule than any one person should ever have to.  Dell never even got her "moment" to show everyone her value as a human being.  Even that was robbed from her.  This book was so truthful and eye-opening, and REAL.  I can't even.  Sometimes there aren't happy endings.  Sometimes people don't ever find joy in their lives.  It is sad, but so heartbreakingly true.  All this being said, I absolutely hated this book.  Yes, it needed to be written, and yes, I think K.M. Walton did an absolutely stellar job writing it, but I can't get past how it made me feel.  It cut me deeply, and I can't forgive it for that.  If you like gripping, gritty, heart-wrenching reads (and I often do- Ellen Hopkins is a personal favorite), then you will probably want to read this, but I can't say that you will enjoy it.  If I could go back in time, would I spend the time reading it again?  Absolutely.  But I still wouldn't like it.

My Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Grade Level Recommendation   This book is for high school age readers and up.  It is graphic in many ways.  There is a lot of language, sex, sexual assault, drinking, drug use, and other mature subjects.  That said, I think this should be REQUIRED reading for HS students, just not before. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

ARC Review: Middle Ground by Katie Kacvinsky

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: November 20th, 2012

In this provocative cautionary tale for teens, the sequel to Awaken, seventeen-year-old Maddie’s rebellion against the digital-only life grows dangerous. Maddie is in Los Angeles, trying to stay out of trouble. But one night, a seemingly small act of defiance lands her in the place she fears the most: a detention center. Here, patients are reprogrammed to accept a digital existence. Maddie is now fighting for her mind, her soul, and her very life. Once again, Katie Kacvinsky paints a disturbing picture of our increasingly technology-based society.
(Courtesy of Goodreads)

When I first began reading this book, I wasn't really sure how I was going to feel about it.  I absolutely LOVED its predecessor, Katie Kacvinsky's debut, Awaken (read my full review HERE), and I had high hopes for this one.  I couldn't wait to see what direction Maddie's life would take, and whether her relationship with and feelings for Justin were real.  Well, Middle Ground started out a bit shaky for me.  Not to get spoilery, but during the first few chapters I felt like Maddie was being needlessly reckless, given the situation she was in, and I didn't see anything working out at all like I was hoping it was going to.  I started to feel a sense of dread and pending disappointment, and I was not liking it one bit.  THEN... The story made this crazy turn in a direction that I never imagined it would go in, and I was beyond impressed.  I don't want to give anything away, because I want you to feel those same feelings I felt when I was reading this.  I stopped trying to predict what was going to happen next, and just went with it, and it was brilliant.

I loved the characters and dialogue in Awaken, and I thought those elements were even better in Middle Ground.  I also loved how inside Maddie's head we were in Middle Ground.  I felt like she was really detached in Awaken, and in Middle Ground her soul is laid bare through the horrors she endured for her cause.  It was captivating.  I found the story original, well-paced, action-packed, and intellectually stimulating; Not an easy combo to come by.  As with its predecessor, the social commentary was amazingly subtle, yet absolutely compelling.  Finally, I really enjoyed how the romantic element worked out.  I had some misgivings about the relationship between Maddie and Justin after book one, and while things didn't play out the way that I expected them to in this book, I was happy nonetheless.  My only disappointment with this book was that I had hoped to see more of Maddie's mother, as I had grown to really like her in Awaken.  Perhaps there will be a book #3...

If you haven't read Awaken yet, do yourself a favor and pick it up.  It is a plausible, well-drawn dystopia, that really keeps you thinking long after it is over.  That, and you need to read it before you can begin reading its even more brilliant sequel...

My Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 

Grade Level Recommendation:  I stand by my recommendation for Awaken; 5th grade and up (ages 10+).  There is some romance, but nothing graphic.