Asylum (Asylum, #1)

First Lines: They built it out of stone–dark gray stone, pried loose from the unforgiving mountains.  It was a house for those who could not take care of themselves, for those who heard voices, who had strange thoughts and did strange things.  The house was meant to keep them in.  Once they came, they never left.

For a couple of years in my classroom, this book has had quite the following among a select group of students.  And for a long time, they tried to convince me to read it.  I’m not opposed to horror/scary stories, but I have a hard time reading them because I feel like I can’t read them late at night.  (I sometimes get nightmares; thanks, Stephen King.)  But having read another Roux book, I thought I’d give this a try.

Itching to get out and experience the world, Dan thinks the perfect start is to go to New Hampshire College Prep.  It’s a program on a college campus that gives students a taste of college, pulling students together from all over the country.  It’s perfect for Dan…except for the part where summer housing has been closed and they’re forced to stay in the Brookline dorm–a former sanitarium.  As Dan and his new friends Abby and Jordan begin exploring Brookline, they discover the horrible things that happened there, and the secrets that tie Dan and his friends to the asylum’s past.  Because Brookline wasn’t just a hospital, and sooner or later the truth will come out.

I can see why middle schoolers like it. The pictures (similar to the ones in the Miss Peregrine books) give a creepy feel to the book in a way that words alone don’t. The asylum setting is definitely creepy. The strange happenings at the asylum are also sufficiently creepy.

But that’s about all it was. It was low-level creepy, enough to be unsettling. And that was mostly because Dan starts to become a potentially unreliable narrator. But beyond that? It wasn’t the scary, nightmare inducing story I thought it was going to be.

I’m starting to notice this with Roux’s work, actually. The plots always sound incredibly interesting and creepy, but the follow-through just isn’t there. Suspense is not something she excels at. She really just seems to take things that are normally creepy and hopes that their creepy factor is enough to carry the story.  After trying two different series by her and being underwhelmed by them both, I think I’m just done with her writing.

The characters were interesting enough, if sometimes acting in unexplained ways. Like sometimes the characters fight and none of them know why. Or they talk in slightly bizarre ways (Felix comes to mind here). So I didn’t really connect with the characters as well as I would have liked.  I mean, they just didn’t feel like people.  Even the main characters felt like caricatures.  Actually, now that I think about it, that’s the way characters are in horror movies too, and it’s the exact reason why I can’t stand horror movies.

It’s not a bad read. It’s actually pretty quick. But I think a younger, less choosy audience (like my students) would like it better.

A Court of Wings and Ruin (A Court of Thorns and Roses, #3)

First Lines: The painting was a lie.  A bright, pretty lie, bursting with pale pink blooms and fat beams of sunshine.

I got this for my birthday about a month ago because, duh, I had to own it.  I own the other two books in this series (and reread them from time to time), so it wasn’t a surprise that I thought this one would be the same.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*  Of course, there truly isn’t much I can say anyway without giving the plot away.

Feyre has returned to the Spring Court, though not because she wanted to.  Stuck, she decides to use this opportunity to spy on Tamlin and gather information about his maneuvers and those of the invading king.  But this means playing a deadly game, one that could cost Feyre dearly.  If she gets caught, it could mean the end of Prythia as they know it.  As war approaches, Feyre will have to decide who to trust among the High Lords, and maybe find some allies in unexpected places.

I’m going to give you the warning that I never received before reading this: this is more or less the end of Feyre’s story.  Apparently there’s still more coming in the world of Prythia, but the crux of Feyre’s story is over.  I didn’t know this, so the end of this book surprised me and I was a tad disappointed that I wouldn’t be reading more from Feyre.

Ok.  One thing I love about Maas’s writing is how clever she is. She can spin and twist things in ways that you never expect but still make so much sense. It’s brilliant and engaging in so many ways. And she has a wonderful way of writing about relationships between characters, and their emotions.

That said, this one felt different in a few ways. Since it’s really the first book where Feyre is settled emotionally, I didn’t feel things as strongly with this book as much as I did the others. (Though, as one other reviewer said, I definitely stayed for Nessian.) I actually had trouble staying with the story in the beginning because I wasn’t connecting with Feyre the way I expected to. Not that I was going to put it down, but it just felt different from the previous two books.

But the action was great, the plot was superb, and the conflict was definitely worth it. So much backstabbing and two-timing, to the point where you don’t even know who to trust. I liked that.

I wasn’t expecting this to be any sort of ending, and I’m a little disappointed by that, as I said.  I was expecting another huge cliffhanger, the likes of which we saw at the end of the previous book, but there wasn’t.  And so here I was reading along, all the while noticing that this felt like an ending but hoping otherwise.  And when I got to the end, it just didn’t feel as satisfactory since I thought there’d be more.  True, there are still loose ends that will probably be worked into whatever future books there are, but I didn’t want it to be over.  Ugh.

Still, this was another excellent book in this series and I’m always looking forward to what Maas puts out next.

Imposter (Variants, #1)

First Lines: (um….I returned this book to the library without getting the first lines, guys…whoops…my bad)

This has been on my to-read list since 2013, when it came out.  One way or another, it works its way to the top of my “Hey, you should probably read this eventually” list.  So I grabbed it (finally) and gave it a shot.

Tessa is a Variant, or a person with a genetic variation that gives her something similar to a super power.  For Tessa, this means being able to absorb the DNA of a person and mimic their appearance.  After being shunned from her family for her abilities, she’s been training with a secret branch of the FBI called the Forces with Extraordinary Abilities.  When a serial killer strikes in Oregon, Tessa is given her first mission: impersonate Madison, a normal teen, before the killer strikes again.  Tessa hates everything about impersonating another person, but she loves being a normal teen for once in her life.  Because, as Madison, she learns what friendship is, what family means, and a little romance.  But the clock is ticking and if Tessa isn’t clever enough, she may be the next victim.

This turned out being better than I thought it would be. When I started this, I thought it was so slow. It wasn’t going anywhere, it was super cheesy, and I couldn’t connect with the characters. But it got better.

At first, I wasn’t sure what was going on with this whole Variants thing. It throws you right in and expects you to just figure everything out, which takes a while (though it does avoid a weird info-dump). It was probably close to 70-100 pages before I felt like I had a grasp on the story, and I know a lot of people won’t hang in there that long.

Surprisingly, the mystery was actually pretty good. I mean, it’s not exactly impossible to guess the culprit (he/she made my suspect list), but it didn’t exactly go the way I thought it would. And that kept me reading.

I also eventually got pulled into Tessa’s character as well. Here’s a girl on a mission to infiltrate a family and pretend to be their daughter without anyone noticing the differences. It’s challenging mentally, but the emotional side of it blindsided Tessa, and I liked how that played out. Once I had that connection to the story, I was invested.

There is, admittedly, quite a bit of cliche and eye-roll worthy writing. This book is more than a few years old, and it heralds back to more cliche YA writing, where there are love triangles, BFFs to the death, and other YA tropes that I sometimes struggle with. I guess I’m not saying this as well as I’d like, but there were definitely points where I wished the writing was better.

Still, the surprise was good and there’s something of a cliffhanger that I kind of want to read the next book to learn how it gets resolved.

Eliza and Her Monsters

First Lines: Eliza Mirk is the kind of name you give to the creepy girl who clings to her ex-boyfriend for weeks after he’s dumped her because she refuses to accept that he hates her guts.  Eliza Mirk is a low-level villain with a secret hideout in the sewers.  Eliza Mirk belongs in a comic book.  But Eliza Mirk is me.

If you’ve been with me for a while, you may recall my love for Zappia’s debut novel, Made You Up, which deals with a girl with schizophrenia.  It was a beautifully written novel.  And when I knew this was coming out, I was very interested to see how it would measure up to the previous novel.

In the real world, Eliza is weird.  She’s shy, maybe a bit creepy, and definitely a loner.  But online, she’s the creator of the massively popular webcomic Monstrous Sea.  And because her online life is so amazing, she has no reason to try to make her real life any better…until Wallace.  When Wallace Warland moves to her school, she finds a kindred spirit.  A huge Monstrous Sea fan and fanfiction writer, Wallace manages to draw Eliza out of her shell and she begins to wonder if life offline can be just as awesome as online.  But when Eliza’s secret is accidentally shared with the world, everything she cares about–Monstrous Sea, her relationship with Wallace, her family–starts to fall apart…

I was not disappointed. Zappia does her homework when it comes to the mental health issues she uses in her books and she writes about it in a realistic way so you can feel it too. This was very well done.

Also, you know what this reminds me of?  Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl.  There are a number of similarities between Eliza and Cath, though obviously there are a lot of differences as well.  But I think if you’re cool with Fangirl, you’ll probably like this as well.  This is maybe a little less heavy on the fandom stuff and a little heavy on mental health issues.
Eliza is an antisocial artist. For years, she’s been working on a webcomic that became big. And no one knows she’s the artist, just the way she likes it. Eliza is not perfect, which is the way I like protagonists. She’s seriously closed off, a bit selfish, and definitely has trouble communicating with anyone if she can’t talk to them via the internet. But it was relatable. As an introvert myself, I got it. I understood that need to have a few moments to think through your answers before you say important things out loud. I understood that need to get away from people and settle in somewhere alone to work on your own projects.

And the other characters are equally imperfect and well-written.  You can tell that almost everyone means well, and the ones who don’t still have redeeming moments. But it’s the emotion that gets you. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that hit me that hard right in the feels. This one was raw.  The last like 50 pages left me struggling for my composure.

Sometimes, it was almost too raw. A couple of the characters (I won’t say who) deal with anxiety and panic attacks. And as someone who deals with mild anxiety of her own, there were some scenes that were almost too well-written because my own anxiety started to flair up. But I managed to get over it quickly enough. Still, that was a surprise.

This is beautifully written and such an accurate portrayal of what it means to have anxiety, among so many other things.  Zappia is, I think, doing so much for bringing mental health issues to the forefront by creating real characters who show you that this is just a part of their life and they still struggle with all the same things (boys, school, family) that you do.  I’m really starting to love her for that.

March: Books 1-3

First Lines: “Can you swim?”  “No.”  “Well, neither can I–but we might have to.”

So over the weekend, I actually read all three of these.  And since they’re so similar, I didn’t think it made sense to give each of them a different review when I was going to say the same things over and over.  I thought it would be better just to tell you about the whole series at once.

Congressman John Lewis was a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement.  He committed to nonviolence in the 60s, fighting everything from segregated lunch counters to African-Americans’ right to vote.  From the days of Jim Crow and segregation to the present, Lewis has steadfastly fought for what he thinks is right.  Now, he shares his story.

In case you didn’t pick up on it, this is a nonfiction graphic novel series.  Lewis tells his story and shows you everything he and others went through in their fight for equality.  I’m sure some things have been slightly edited or changed simply because who’s going to remember every detail 50 years later?  I can barely remember what I ate yesterday.

But for the most part, this is an incredible and emotional look at the Civil Rights Movement.  Obviously, most of us grew up learning about it in the context of Martin Luther King and possibly Malcolm X, as well as a few scattered other pieces of history.  I’d only known about John Lewis as a Congressman who knew King.  (I think someone interviewed him on TV at some point in the last few years and that’s how I knew that.)  That’s basically all I knew about him.

Lewis…I can’t say just how much I now respect this man.  He fought for so much without losing himself or his values along the way.  It’s simply incredible.

Book 1 begins with Lewis’s upbringing in rural Alabama, continuing on to his joining a nonviolent movement, protesting segregated lunch counters, meeting MLK, and more protests.  I found this story to be a bit more amusing than the later ones.  (For example, Lewis wanted to be a preacher, so he practiced his sermons on chickens.  And it’s drawn in great detail.)

Book 2 gets more serious.  While Lewis and the nonviolent movement have had some successes, the violence against them is increasing.  This book includes Freedom Rides, police brutality, the Kennedys, and some of the biggest movers and shakers of the Civil Rights Movement coming together to coordinate their efforts.  This one really started to drill home how much people in the South did not want to integrate.  No better example of this than Bull Connor, a police chief who would literally do anything to stop the protesters.

Book 3 is, of course, the most harrowing of them all.  Bombings, murder, assassinations, injustice, and the quest to give everyone the right to vote as the Constitution ensures.  This one is a little more political because, now that the movement has grown so much, they’re trying to make more sweeping changes that can only happen through legal means.  And, of course, they want to make sure they’re fighting as much as they can legally to make sure these injustices can’t continue.

I love that these books speak on so many levels.  There’s this overwhelming theme of equality, whether you’re male or female, Black or White, American or something else.  Yes, it’s absolutely a tale of the Civil Rights Movement, and I don’t want to diminish that in any way.  This is a Big Deal and can easily be looked at just through that lens (as I mostly did).  But Lewis’s conviction that inequality and injustice should always be fought so easily translates to anyone else fighting for the same rights he fought for over 50 years ago.

I don’t often read graphic novels, so I can’t comment too much on the artwork, but I will say that it was easy to follow and the story made sense.  I think there were some times they may have dropped the plot a little just because there was so much going on, but it generally worked.

And I think a graphic novel was probably the perfect medium for this story.  It’s one thing to read about the treatment these protesters received at the hands of citizens, vigilantes, and police; it’s another to see depictions of burned out cars, wounds, and explosions.  It’s more emotional that way.  And I think this makes the story more accessible to audiences.

Seriously, everyone needs to read this series.  If I could, I would teach it in my class.

The Names They Gave Us

First Lines: The first prom crisis is manageable.  I’m reapplying my lip color in the ladies’ room when one of the swim team girls bursts in, sobbing.  Our senior captain, Mallory, is right behind her.

I’ve been a fan of Emery Lord from the beginning, and every new book of hers is one that I always add to my to-read list.  She is the new Sarah Dessen (not that anything at all is wrong with still reading Dessen books), writing contemporary stories with love, family, hard problems, and life.  She’s great.  And I had to grab this at the library.

Life is perfect for Lucy.  She’s the swim captain with the perfect boyfriend and a fantastic family.  But when Lucy learns that her mom’s cancer has reappeared, her life goes into a tailspin.  Gone is that comfort she used to feel, gone is her solid faith in God.  She even loses her place at the bible camp she’s been going to her entire life.  Instead, Lucy gets a job at a camp for kids who have been through hard times.  Lucy’s doing her best, but she’s in over her head and wants nothing more than to be across the lake with her parents.  But that’s before she gets to know her coworkers.  Still, it’s not just new friends that Lucy finds at camp–there are also secrets coming to light.  There’s more to Lucy’s family than even Lucy knew about.

I found this one to be better than When We Collided, which was one Lord story I just couldn’t connect with. I don’t think I connected with this story as much as some readers (the ones who keep mentioning how much they cried), but I related to Lucy and her story. Lucy is a PK who loves her time in Bible camp and playing piano in church. She’s close with her parents and she is the swim captain with the perfect boyfriend. But that all falls apart when her mom’s cancer returns. And so does her faith.

I’ll be the first to admit that I usually steer clear of stories with a focus on religion. Mostly it’s because I have my own long and tangled past with religion and I don’t like reminders of certain things. But I’m also drawn to these stories because of the struggles the characters go through.  They just have a different feel to them than stories about other struggles, like families falling apart or trying to fit in.  I can’t really describe why they feel different, just that they are.

This book covers a lot of really dark topics without going too far into detail. Mostly it’s cursory with the proper seriousness to get you to understand what’s going on. This camp is for kids with horrible pasts, remember.  The plot would have been really slow if we had had to listen to everyone’s story.

I really liked the characters. I thought they were all sweet and different in their own ways. Obviously we see the most of Lucy, but she’s got a lot of depth, a lot of struggles. And it really showed how she grew over time. I liked that.

And I liked the plot too. It moves, though not at a ridiculous pace. I was always reading this, barely taking time to put it down. There were few if any spots I would call boring or unnecessary to the story. It all felt like it had a purpose.

Overall, I thought this was a great story. Still maybe not my favorite Lord story, but I really enjoyed this.

Seeker (Riders, #2)

First Lines: You don’t know what anger is until you’ve spent time with a mare in a truly foul mood.

You know what?  I don’t really know what to say up here today.  Normally I’d say something about Rossi or the series, but I’ve got nothing at the moment.  So let’s just get on with the review, shall we?

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead* This is a duology, so this is it.

When Daryn started having visions, no one believed her.  But she knew she could make a difference and save lives.  Until she lost Sebastian.  Since accidentally sealing Bas into another realm with a demon, Daryn has lost her visions.  She knows that Bas is alive and waiting for them to save him, but she’s going into this mission blind.  The other riders are relying on her.  As they begin their journey into a realm where nothing is as it seems, Daryn will face the ultimate test: will she have to become evil to stop evil?

It’s been a while since I read Riders, but I praised its originality at the time. A story about the Four Horsemen? Awesome. This story…not as exciting to me.

I’ll admit, part of the problem was that I didn’t remember the first story all that well. I remembered the big things, but not the nuances of the characters. It just made it so much harder to actually get into the story.

I did think it did some things well. This story jumps in narration between Daryn and Gideon, and it uses it to its advantage well. There are times it really heightens the suspense and other times when it’s used to explain things. Either way, it worked. I also liked seeing the characters put into situations that made them really uncomfortable and seeing how they responded to those challenges. And let me assure you, there are a lot.

I struggled a little with how much fantasy there was in this one. I don’t feel like that was the case with the first one, which was predominantly centered in the “real world”, but gave the characters supernatural powers. This is definitely more of a fantasy, taking place in another realm. And I just wasn’t getting into it.

Truly, I just struggled to get into this one and to stay interested. It’s not poorly written, but it may not have been what I thought it would be.  I think I just wasn’t in the mood for a fantasy right now.  Paranormal, yes.  Fantasy, not really.