A Great and Terrible Beauty (Gemma Doyle, #1)

First Lines: “Please tell me that’s not going to be part of my birthday dinner this evening.”  I am staring into the hissing face of a cobra.

Coincidentally, I decided to reread this basically on my birthday, making that first line hilariously ironic.  (P.S. today is my birthday.  24, baby!)  Ok, so this book was my absolute favorite when I was in the 7th grade.  And it’s probably been since about 8th grade since I’d read this.  I was due for a reread.

It’s 1895, and Gemma has never set foot in England.  She’s spent her whole life in India…until the day she has a vision of her mother’s death that ends up being frighteningly true.  Gemma’s sent to Spence, a girls’ academy in London with dangerous secrets and equally dangerous girls.  Initially, she’s snubbed for being different until she blackmails her way into befriending the powerful Felicity, the beautiful Pippa, and Gemma’s own plain roommate Ann.  But life in London isn’t any better than it was in India when the visions won’t leave her alone.  Then Gemma discovers these visions may actually be a portal into new, magical realms.  Dreams come true.  The four friends start off going to get a taste of freedom forbidden to them as women, but magic always comes with a steep price…and someone will pay.

I still have to say that I greatly enjoyed this book.  This book is basically a gothic historical fiction.  There’s plenty of history, especially when it comes to the roles of women at the time, but there’s also a dark supernatural element.  And if that doesn’t spice things up, I don’t know what will.

The characters are interesting as well.  Gemma is inquisitive and cautious, but she’s lured in to the power of the magic.  The beautiful Pippa has secrets she can tell no one.  The powerful Felicity hides a pain that only those closest can understand.  And plain Ann is meek and unassuming, but she has her own strengths.  (My friends and I used to try to decide which one of us was which.  There were four of us…and they are four of them.  I think I was usually given Gemma or Ann.)

What’s quite interesting about this that I can appreciate more now that I’m older (and have a major in English behind me) is how the story is woven together.  There are subtle clues dropped throughout the story for a major twist at the end, and even more twists that you can feel coming but can’t quite see what’s around the corner.  Right from the beginning, the secrets are starting to knit themselves into complex patterns of niggling familiarity and haunting mystery.  <–Oh, I like that.  I have to remember that for later.

Honestly, I think this is a good clean read for any YA reader.  There’s a hint of romance and only a couple of curse words thrown in throughout, so that’s no great concern.  Mostly it’s about oppressed girls who wish to discover who they are before society tells them who to be.  And I think a lot of girls struggle with that, regardless of age.

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Brazen

First Lines: Marriage is a word that tastes like metal–the steel of armor, the gold of commerce, the iron bite of blood and prison bars.  But also bronze.  A bell that rings clear and true and joyously.  Like hope.

I started reading this about the time that I discovered that many many lines up my family tree, I’m actually linked in with some of these minor characters.  (If the research is correct, I’m descended from Hotspur, King Edward IV, and a cousin to Jane Seymour.  But take that with a grain of salt until I can confirm that.)  Still, it was fascinating and suddenly, these characters were real.  I was desperate to learn more.

As a Howard, Mary has always grown up knowing that family and reputation come first.  So it’s not a surprise when she’s married off to Henry Fitzroy, King Henry VIII’s illegitimate son.  It’s her duty as a Howard, after all.  And with this marriage comes Mary’s place in court.  Together, Mary and “Fitz” become friends with other rebellious teens in the king’s court and push the boundaries of what is accepted.  Much to Mary’s surprise, she finds herself falling for Fitz.  But court rules say it is forbidden for her to be alone with Fitz.  Suddenly, the only thing Mary wants is the one thing she can’t have: her own husband.  Most rules can be pushed…but is love worth dying for?

I was super excited to read this one because–FINALLY–we were getting a Longshore romance.  There were glimpses of it in her other books, but now we were really going to have a love story.

Well…not quite.  Longshore’s strength is, again, her weakness.  While her history is meticulous and beautifully described, it takes away from the emotion of the story.  And so, the love story came off feeling a little emotionally detached.  Don’t get me wrong though, they still feel like real people and their struggles are clearly conveyed.  But they don’t always…express emotions in a way that can be felt.  Does that make sense?  Weirdly?

I know I’ve already mentioned this, but Longshore’s research is her shining star.  There are so many different things she factors into the story.  She’s clearly done a ton of research (and she lists books in the back for further reading, if you’re interested) and it is utterly fascinating.  Obviously, there are some moments where she takes liberties, but it’s historical fiction.  There’s wiggle room.

One thing that sort of bothered me about this book was its pace.  For most of the book, Mary or the others are waiting for something.  For a party, for the King’s return, for a stolen moment with Fitz.  Whatever it was, there was a lot of waiting.  It got a bit boring and seriously slowed down the pace.  This 500+ page book did not need anything slowing it down.

Truly, though, it’s a delightful read.  But you probably want to have an interest in this time period or it might seem a bit dull.  Or maybe not.  I’m a history buff; I can’t get out of the mindset of “Oh, history!  This is COOL!”

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

First Lines: I have no idea how to write this stupid book.  Can I just be honest with you for one second?  This is the literal truth.  When I first started writing this book, I tried to start it with the sentence “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

Greetings, my friends!  I have just returned from vacation, where I got to read many lovely books in the mountains among the birds and delightful scenery.  And now, over the next few days, you’ll be getting reviews of the books I managed to read!  This was one I wanted to read before I saw the movie (not that I actually have plans yet to see it, but…you know).

Greg has mastered the art of invisibility in high school: he is in all groups and in none.  His only friend is Earl, who is actually more of a coworker than a friend.  Together, they make terrible movies based on their favorite films.  And they never make movies for people.  Until Rachel emerges in Greg’s life, battling leukemia.  At the insistence of his mom (and against his better judgement), Greg befriends Rachel.  And, for as much as he’ll deny it, he kind of enjoys hanging out with Rachel.  But when she stops treatment, Greg and Earl finally have to take a stand and do something.

First of all, I loved how clear and unique Greg’s voice was in this story.  You can tell from the first lines that this isn’t your usual book.  Greg’s writing this, 100%.  It totally sounds like a high school boy was forced to sit down at his computer and outline his life.  From that standpoint, it’s probably one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time.  Even those first lines had me giggling.  And that was far from the last of my giggles, I assure you.

And because of that, I loved how awkward Greg and Earl were.  We all have those awkward friends or those times we can be sitting with our friends and suddenly we’re talking about the stupidest thing we can think of.  And Greg recounts all of that.  It’s fantastic.

(Just as a warning, also due to Greg and Earl’s awkwardness, there’s a ton of language in this book, from your usual curse words of the f-variety to more explicit language.  This book is not recommended for young readers, though I won’t stop you.  I can’t.)

What I felt this book lacked was a plot.  I mean, it’s great that there are awesome characters and great conversations and all of that, but the story itself was slow.  A lot of the time, stuff just happens to Greg.  He doesn’t go looking for it, and he really doesn’t do much when that stuff does happen to him.  I kept waiting for character growth or anything resembling Greg taking initiative in his life, but it never really happened.  And, partly, I knew this from Greg’s prologue.  Still, I’d hoped for more.

It also didn’t help that the story didn’t really seem to build to much.  Yes, you know where it’s headed without even picking up the book.  Because of that, I didn’t really feel as though there was a climax to the story.  It was more like a speed bump in the story, something to get past and move on.

It does have an unusual cast of characters and great voice, but I didn’t think this was the best of stories.

Top Ten Unafraid Females

As many of you know, I love a strong heroines.  When I started planning this post, that’s what my mission was: find strong role model heroines.  But as I really got digging, I realized that what most of the girls I picked had in common wasn’t necessarily that they were physically strong, but that they were unafraid of being who they are.  So with that theme in mind, here are 10 females who are going to be who they are, even if you don’t like it.

Jordan from Catching Jordan by Miranda Kenneally

I cannot express to you how much I love Jordan.  I must’ve read this at a time when I wasn’t liking other female characters or something because she has always stood out to me.  She plays football, she’s totally one of the guys, and she’ll dish it without hesitation.  But ask her to wear a dress and heels?  Or talk to other girls?  Jordan is a fish out of water.  I loved that attitude because I feel that tomboys/athletic girls are underrepresented in YA.  Girls, be proud of who you are!

Reagan from Open Road Summer by Emery Lord

Reagan is a ball of sarcasm and sass.  But she’s fiercely protective of her best friend, Dee.  What I love most about Reagan is her spunk.  She’s not afraid to stand up for Dee or say what’s on her mind.  Sometimes, she even plays into her darker, edgier personality because she knows something needs to be said.  I respect that she’s so willing to face criticism in the name of standing up for others.  True, this does make her come off as brash and, occasionally, offensive, but she’s a good friend at heart.  Dee is a lucky girl.

Jessamin from Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

In this fantasy novel, Jessamin is in a racial minority, but she owns it.  She will not let anyone talk bad about where she comes from or get away with racist comments.  She’s terrifically strong, stubborn, and clever.  But perhaps what I liked best about this book (and Jessamin by extension) was its Feminist approach to the story.  Jessamin does not play into female stereotypes if she can help it.  She will do everything on her own, and she’s not afraid to look a little foolish in the process.  That is strength.  (Seriously, looking like an idiot in front of others is incredibly hard.)

Leesie from Taken By Storm by Angela Morrison

Leesie is the first of 3-4 girls on this list who are unafraid to quietly stand behind their principles.  Leesie, as a Mormon, constantly has others question her faith.  Others, like her crush Michael, don’t understand her faith.  But she’s ok with that because she knows who she is.  And that kind of solid assurance was exactly what I wanted to feature in this post.  In the sea of physically strong females, Leesie has inner strength that comes from loving yourself and understanding your own needs and desires.  She may not be able to accurately shoot an arrow from 100 yards, but she can still be strong.

Ismae from Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

As an assassin for Death himself, Ismae needs to be all kinds of strong.  Not just physically, but mentally as well.  She needs to be sure of her purpose, of her faith that Death (or Mortain, as he is known in the story) is guiding her hand.  As if I wasn’t impressed enough already with her being an assassin, Ismae is also strong enough to find answers to questions she’d rather not ask.  Again, that’s an underrated quality.  Instead of shying away from anything she doesn’t want to hear, she faces it head-on and deals with the fallout.

Caymen from The Distance Between Us by Kasie West

When one works in a porcelain doll shop for years, one develops an interesting way of looking at the world.  Enter Caymen, who hides behind layers of dry humor, sarcasm, and obscure references that she’s sure few will get.  (And the ones who don’t get them aren’t worth her time.)  She’s so subtle with her sarcasm sometimes that her victims aren’t aware that they’ve been targets of her wit.  I respect her for her sarcasm because it takes a certain amount of strength to be so sure of yourself that you don’t care if others are angry at you for what you’ve said.  Caymen bites.

Harper from Rebel Belle by Rachel Hawkins

What I like about Harper is initially what I didn’t like about her: the fact that she’s a super girly-girl who participates in things like Cotillion and beauty pageants.  Harper owns this, though.  She knows who she is and, even when others make fun of her, keeps doing what she’s always done.  When her life turns completely upside down (as life often does in novels), she handles it with the grace you would expect from a Southern belle.  And I love that she’s brave enough to hang onto that part of her identity through everything.  (Also, she’s full of spunk and sarcastic quips, which I love.)

Cath from Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I nearly cried the whole way through this book because Cath was me.  What I love about Cath is that even though she’s scared of so much, she’s ok with being this fanfiction writer.  She’s the shy nerd girl that most of us are inside but rarely let the world see.  And that’s the side Cath showed to the world.  It takes a lot of strength to be unafraid to share unusual pieces of yourself to the world.  I respect her for her quiet demeanor and her writing because these things set her apart from others, like her outgoing twin sister.  We’re not all outgoing or loud or social.  Sometimes we just need a girl like Cath to look up to.

Julia from Meant to Be by Lauren Morrill

Julia is a lot like Cath from Fangirl: she’s quiet and fascinated by books.  In fact, she’s given the nickname “book licker” for it.  She’s also a rule-follower and an unapologetic know-it-all.  Characters made fun of her a lot for these qualities, but she doesn’t care.  She’s not going to start breaking rules because that’s what’s cool.  She’s not going to dumb herself down for anyone to keep from intimidating them.  I love this about her because I feel that so many girls change themselves in order to fit in with a new crowd or to impress a guy, and here’s Julia who can’t be bothered to even listen to their jokes.  And her best line from the book? “Why does everything think a girl who prefers books to people must be in want of a life?”  Well said, Julia.

Rosaline from Still Star-Crossed by Melinda Taub

Could there be a more independent-minded character in all of classic literature than Rosaline, the girl who turned down Romeo’s affections?  Rosaline is stubborn and determined to do what she wants to do.  In Verona, where everyone is still worried about the feud between the Montagues and Capulets, Rosaline is unafraid to be her own woman.  She doesn’t need or want anyone telling her what to do.  (Also, I just really happened to love how different she is from Juliet, but that’s really not here nor there.)  I love how strong she is to handle so much death in her family and still stay true to who she is.  (There’s more, but I can’t say it without spoilers!)  Suffice it to say she’s overcome a lot to get to where she is.

Into the Still Blue (Under the Never Sky, #3)

First Lines: Aria lurched upright, the echos of gunshots ringing in her ears.

I grabbed this on a whim because the 2nd book was still fresh in my head.  I mean really, am I going to pass up on the conclusion to this series?  (Obviously not, since I’m writing this.)  Also, it was a super nice change from my contemporary fictions.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

Time is running out for Dwellers and Outsiders alike.  They need to find the Still Blue before the world around them is destroyed by fire and storms.  Aria and Perry are determined to save their loved ones–together.  That includes Cinder, their friend and the key to getting to the Still Blue, who was kidnapped by Sable and Hess.  Piecing together an unlikely team, Aria and Perry aren’t going to let Cinder go without a fight.  Can they get to him before Sable and Hess can use him for their own nefarious plans?

Personally, I liked the first half of this book a whole lot more than the second half.  I thought the characters were truer in the beginning than the end.  For example, Perry is protective but he has attitude.  Aria is quick thinking and acts as piece-keeper.  And Soren is a delightful pain in the butt.  With the stress of everything that happens in the story, I didn’t feel like they were still these characters at the end.  Yes, I realize their lives changed and they matured, yada yada yada.  But it’s hard to stay really into a story when everything you loved about these characters is missing.  On the bright side, Roar was the opposite of this, regaining his personality as the story went on.

Sable and Hess are fantastically evil together.  They are unpredictable and volatile, which meant I was never quite sure where the story would go next.  But at  the same time, I have a really hard time reading stories with horrible villains.  (For example, as a kid, I always refused to watch Disney’s Tarzan because Clayton was such an unforgivable villain.)  I think it’s some kind of stress reaction, but again, I can’t read the book in one good go if I’m constantly getting bothered by the villain.  Some of you may love this.  I didn’t, though I can appreciate them as characters.

I thought this story was still unique, but it started feeling more predictable the closer we got to the end.  I guess I liked and didn’t like that.  For a series that was so original, I guess I expected a little more.

Overall, though, I thought this was a great conclusion to the series, but it could have been a bit better.  Or maybe I’m just nitpicking.

Shadows in the Silence (Angelfire, #3)

First Lines: The demonic had tried to break me over and over again, but even with my dress drenched in Will’s blood, I stayed standing.

I’d been meaning for a while to get to this series again.  I’m horrible about finishing off series.  I’ll start them any day, but following through?  Eh…  Still, I swooned hard for this series in the first book, so I knew I had to read this.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

For Ellie, it’s not even a choice: she has to save Will.  Wounded by one of the demonic’s worst weapons, Ellie may be Will’s only chance at survival.  But to do that, she will have to team up with an unlikely “friend” to get what she needs.  As if that wasn’t enough, demons are gathering for the End of Days.  Humanity will suffer horrifically if Ellie and her friends can’t stop them in time.  But to fight, Ellie will have to shed her humanity and become the archangel Gabriel.  Can she hold on to what matters most, even when she’s no longer human?

I am not making this up: the moment I finished this book, I hugged it tight to my chest, grabbed the necessary tissues, and began planning which scenes I wanted to reread.  It was that good.  I still can’t put into words the feels I had.

One minor setback that I had was that I didn’t remember much of the 2nd book.  So some of the new main characters (and at least one of the baddies) I didn’t remember…at all.  So…that wasn’t great.  Especially since this book picks up right where the 2nd left off.  But I handled it, I got to know them again, and everything was cool.

Oh my God, Ellie and Will, though.  There’s something unique and special about them.  I wish I could dissect their relationship and pinpoint exactly what it is about them that makes me swoon like a 1700s debutante.  But I can’t.  Still, every scene they’re in together is like magic.  I don’t say this very often, but I truly love these characters.  Like I physically miss them right now.  (If this isn’t a sign that I’m a crazy reader, I don’t know what is.)  Those scenes I previously mentioned I reread?  Yeah, they were all the cute scenes between Ellie and Will.  If I could find my own Will, I’d never want for anything else in my life.

I thought the plot was interesting and always moving, which is good since this book is nearly 500 pages.  I would’ve been surprised if it didn’t move, considering there’s a war going on and this is the last book in the series.  But not everything was about the war.  Some parts had little or nothing to do with that and all to do with Ellie’s life.

That ending.  I broke into a million little pieces.  When I reread it only like, 2 hours later, I cried again.  Moulton is a master, my friends.  Because not only did I break into pieces, but she also helped me slowly knit those pieces back together.

If you’re like me and have put off reading this book, what are you waiting for?  If you’ve read this review but haven’t read any of the books yet, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?!  (I uh…I’m kind of passionate about this series.)

When You Were Here

First Lines: When someone you love has died, there is a certain grace period during which you can get away with murder.  Not literal murder, but pretty much anything else.

And with this book, my trend of reading dark contemporary novels continues.  (But fear not, friends; my next review is supernatural!)  For whatever reason, I’m really drawn to books about death and grieving.  I don’t know why, exactly, but I think it has something to do with messages of hope in them, about living.  So I figured this book would have that in spades.

Two months before Danny’s graduation, his mother loses her five-year battle with cancer.  She’d been trying to hang on long enough to see him give his valedictorian speech.  Completely alone now besides his dog and his heartbreaking ex-girlfriend who won’t leave him alone, Danny is left to put the pieces of his life back together.  When Danny gets a letter from his mother’s building manager in Tokyo where she’d been going for treatments, he discovers a side of his mother he never knew.  With nothing better to do, he goes to Tokyo to find more of her.  She was so happy in those last few months, and Danny can’t understand it.  What was in Tokyo?  With the help of a new friend, Danny begins to unravel how sometimes learning to die means learning to live.

I will say that if you’re looking for an emotional read, this is it.  I think I cried like, twice reading this.

But the beginning of this was so dark.  Danny is incredibly angry and apathetic toward others.  He’s numb.  He’s directionless.  And while I completely understand that that’s probably how I would be if I were in his position, it made it incredibly hard for me to get into the book.  I even thought about putting it down because I struggling so much to get inside Danny’s head.

I stuck with it because I figured he would grow as a character and that darkness would disappear.  And I was right.  The longer the story went on (especially once he made it to Tokyo), the more I started to like him.

I liked the setting of Tokyo.  I admittedly know very little about Japanese culture, but I always hope these books will teach me more.  Their culture is so drastically different from how it is in the US, and it was fun to watch Danny and his Japanese friend, Kana, navigate the city.

As for the plot, there are quite a few surprise twists.  One was just so good that the only way I can sum up my reaction is with this gif:

http://reactiongifs.com/?p=19314  (Sorry, gifs are still strange beasts to me and I don’t have enough time now to figure out how to actually make this look pretty.)

And, admittedly, there were a few twists that were also way obvious.  (But I think that was intentional.)  Still, be prepared for a few epic surprises and some not-so surprising moments.

While it was hard to initially get into, I came to like this book and enjoy it.