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Geek Girl by Cindy C. Bennett

(2011, Cedar Fort, 281 pages)

Jen’s life of rebelling and sneaking out is growing stale. In an effort to combat her boredom, Jen makes a bet to turn Trevor, a nice little geek, into a “bad boy.” She’s immediately pulled into Trevor’s world of sci-fi movies, charity work, and even—ugh!—bowling. Unexpectedly, Jen discovers that hanging out with Trevor isn’t so bad after all. But when Trevor finds out about the wager, all bets are off.

I requested this book from NetGalley on a whim. To be honest, I’m a sucker for popular guy/unpopular girl love stories (see Nathan and Haley from One Tree Hill, most John Hughes movies, and the recently adorable Jenna and Matty from Awkward), so I thought it would be fun to see the She’s All That concept in reverse.

At first glance, Jen is your typical goth girl, while Trevor is a handsome geek. The idea was clichéd, but to be honest, I adored this book so much I read it in one sitting. While the premise may have been familiar, the book ended up being much more than I expected—it was a well-rounded story about trust, first love and self-discovery. The chemistry between Jen and Trevor was so palpable that I couldn’t contain my excitement and devastation through the ups and downs of their relationship. Everything about it was so real and natural and it had me absolutely hooked.

There were little touches that gave the story a lot of depth. Jen is a foster child, and her past is slowly revealed giving us a great insight into why she is the way she is. The book deals with other sensitive teen issues, like drugs, celibacy, abuse, adoption and drinking, which enhanced the story and added great insight to the characters. It was eye opening to see Jen’s deeply distrustful outlook on life and it was heartbreaking to see her disbelief in happy endings almost sabotage getting everything good she deserves.

When I enjoy a relationship in a book, it’s usually because I have developed a not-entirely-appropriate crush on the guy. This wasn’t the case with Trevor. He was everything you’d want in a boyfriend, but it was never about how much I liked his character and always about how good he was for Jen. I was rooting for them from the minute she asked him to dance, and kept rooting all the way to the end. I enjoyed seeing their relationship develop during their deep conversations, dates, arguments and witty banter, refreshingly unlike the ‘love at first sight’ premise that a lot of YA books would have us believe is the norm. I liked her awkward discomfort when she was in ‘his world’, then her slow realization that she actually enjoyed family time, bowling and volunteering at an old folks’ home. I enjoyed Jen’s voice and thought her sarcasm and dry humour was very endearing. The slightly-off sci-fi pop culture references she used with Trevor were very cute and a very real way to portray her growing feelings. Best of all, Jen and Trevor’s relationship always felt equal. They never forced each other to be anything more than who they were, but tried their best to adapt to each other’s world. In the end Jen’s development from rebellious teen, to geek girl, to finally finding her happy middle was truly believable.

If I had any complaints, it was that some of the supporting cast was under-developed and that Jen and Trevor felt slightly off-character as the book was rushing towards an ending, although it probably had something to do them being apart and struggling with themselves because of it. Even so, lines like, “Trev, all you had to do was breathe to make me want you” made me grin like I was 17 again. Even though it’s been a long time since I’ve been to high school, I highly recommend this book to anyone that wants to laugh and cry along with two very different teenagers who fell in love, and worked it out in the end.

Tris and Izzie by Mette Ivie Harrison

(2011, EgmontUSA, 272 pages)

I was initially drawn to this book because I am huge fan of Arthurian legend and the heartbreaking tale of Tristan and Isolde. The original story is timeless and has inspired famous tragedies Romeo and Juliet and the Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere legend. It has been immortalized as an opera by Wagner. It is probably one of literature’s first love triangles. That said, nothing about this book is timeless or classic, and that’s putting it lightly. If I only had one word to describe this book, it would be superficial which applies to Tris and Izzie in so many ways.

The story is narrated by popular Tintangel High student Izzie. She has the perfect boyfriend, captain of the basketball team Mark, and a slightly less attractive best friend Branna. Everything seems to be going smoothly for her and her worst problem is solving Branna’s woes by finding her a boyfriend. Enter new student Tristan, who transfers to the school after the death of his parents. He’s a fast runner and speaks in a slightly archaic style of English (which is about as interesting as he gets). Izzie, superficial, self-centered girl that she is, decides that Tristan and Branna would be perfect for each other and that she going to personally ensure they happen.

Suddenly, we are hit with the appearance of a magic wine bottle, the fact that Izzie’s mom is a witch and that the obvious solution to Branna’s problem is a love potion (or philtre, to be accurate). The fact that the entire book now revolves around magic was introduced so randomly it was jarring. In fact, that is an accurate description of how I felt throughout the book—jarred. Like the story was one long bumper car ride whose only resemblance to the original heartbreaking tale are the names. If you think the idea of a love potion is bad, it only gets worse.

The plot manages to be transparent but shocking at the same time, in a bad way. Take for example Izzie ‘accidentally’ drinking the love potion she prepared for Branna. Couldn’t she have dropped the bottle instead? I realize that a love potion is the catalyst in the original story, but who would purposely drink a potion that would make them fall for someone else, fully aware of its permanent effect, even though they had a boyfriend they loved?

All the relationships and interactions in the story were just as inorganic and forced like the love potion—I felt absolutely no chemistry between any of the couples at any time. All the characters were underdeveloped, like cardboard cutouts made to walk and talk. The only personality trait they had was the ability to infuriate me. I didn’t once feel any sympathy or even empathy towards them. The love rectangle was so forced and I didn’t buy Tristan and Izzie’s feelings at any point in the story. It just happened, like they both just woke up and were suddenly madly in love. It wasn’t even a real love potion! There was no build up to the relationship, which is the part that makes us as readers care. Izzie tells me they were tensely, madly in love before I had a chance to form an opinion about it.

That said, my main complaint about the book (and you can see I’ve already had quite a few so far) is its treatment of magic. All other books of a similar genre I’ve previously read builds a world and sets out clear rules of how magic fits into it. Whether it is wands, or different abilities, or the presence of certain magical creatures, races or occupations, there is a perspective and a history of what magic is and how it works in the world. There are also magical limits and levels of difficulty, like the time and effort it takes to conjure a spell or potion, or the training someone has to go through to master their powers.

None of this was established in Tris and Izzie. Instead, every magic cliché felt randomly thrown in. There are magical objects, potions, elemental magic, magical creatures, magical places, but most of it is poorly explained and doesn’t enhance the story. Izzie’s mom is a witch and potions maker, Izzie is an elemental sorceress, Tristan is an alchemist from a magical island, Branna’s grandmother may or may not be able to see into the future, but not once in the book does it describe what all of it means beyond the very basics.

Going back through the notes I made, the phrase “Seriously?!” was used so often I felt like I was reading a script of the Gilmore Girls. Events happen with no explanation and then resolved with little to no effort. Izzie, with no formal training, is simply told by her mom she actually has elemental powers and suddenly she’s throwing fireballs left, right and center. Tristan’s magic sword defeats a two-headed dog, and then they both kill a giant that is chasing magic. Most ridiculous of all, Izzie defeats the main antagonist (a tyrant of a giant serpent) using the power of its ‘true name’ which she learns in a flashback of her dad shown to her by the giant serpent himself! The concept, commonly found in Egyptian Myth, was just another thing thrown into the mess of a world the story inhabits. When Tristan is blinded during the final battle, I felt a small glimmer of hope, but he is healed instantly by one of her mom’s potions. It’s like any attempt at depth in the story ignored. Every resolution is a deus ex machina. It is all just a pile of absolutely ludicrous hodgepodge.

I honestly wonder what was going through the author’s mind. Reading through a few interviews with her, she seems well educated and well spoken. Her answers are thoughtful, researched and informative. It’s too bad that didn’t translate into her fiction at all. I hope the book goes through a thorough edit before its general release, but I’m not holding my breath.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

(2009, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 471 pages)

and a half

Fierce heroines are few and far between in young adult fiction. Sure, there are examples like Katniss in the Hunger Games or Annabeth from the Percy Jackson series, but generally most heroines are better described as feisty or resilient and most heroines definitely need the help of their hero, not defeat them daily.

Katsa is truly fierce. She is blessed with a Grace that allows her to kill grown men with her bare hands. She can survive with little sleep or food and her senses can dodge an arrow in the dark. She has one green eye and one blue one and she is an outcast.

Graceling is a fantasy set in a fictional world of seven kingdoms (seven seems to be the magic number for kingdoms these days). In this world, some people are born with different coloured eyes, which marks them as having a Grace. A Grace is a special skill and can be in any form. It could be a baking Grace or a swimming Grace, something as mundane as sewing or something truly spectacular like Katsa’s. One thing they all have in common is that anyone with a Grace automatically belongs to the King (to be used for their purposes) and anyone that has a Grace is someone feared rather than revered. Katsa isn’t an outcast in the normal sense of the word, as she’s the niece of the King of the Middluns and is referred to as a Lady, but she is generally avoided by everyone she encounters.

The story follows Katsa through a simple errand that turns out to be much bigger than it seems on the surface. The book is neatly split into three sections, the first focusing on the errand and Katsa’s life in court, the second on a quest for answers and the third on a journey and resolution. The entire book is written beautifully, with really rich detail. Every plot twist and story development was revealed in perfect time and I found myself amazed at the depth of the book. I would elaborate more, but the pleasure of reading the book and its charm was, for me, experiencing the story unfold and witnessing each complexity mature.

Also, every character in the book was well-rounded and interesting. Katsa’s character is a breath of fresh air and truly well-developed. A young beautiful girl with the strength and passion to create a Council of covert politics and strives for truth and justice. She has no intention to marry, not because she’s stubborn, but because she has considered the implications and decided she would burden any future husband. She finds splendor in new sights and surroundings, but quickly adapts. She has the power to kill but chooses not to do so without reason. She shows affection but doesn’t fall prey to her emotions. And when Katsa does develop feelings, her priorities remain firmly on the cause.

Her feelings eventually grow for Prince Po, a Graced prince from the kingdom of Liened who she meets unexpectedly on her errand and then again at court. Po is a great character and everything you expect from a fictional prince—he’s charming, polite and skilled (although Katsa spars and defeats him on a daily basis). He’s kind, self-sacrificing, funny and practical and makes the perfect foil for Katsa as he grew up in the only kingdom where having a Grace is honoured. His intentions and feelings are never less than genuine, but he considers their relationship with the same caution and care that she does. Refreshingly, they both do right for each other and for their positions in life.

The supporting cast is also just as diverse and likable, from Katsa’s tinker of a cousin, to the members of the Council, to the stoically mature Bitterblue. The antagonist of the novel, who I won’t mention by name, is one of the most interesting and truly chilling villains I’ve come across in a long time.

I didn’t give it 5 stars only because I felt some parts of the story were slow and I found myself becoming slightly disinterested during the middle of the book. However, I still felt that it was richer, more engaging and better crafted than any other stand alone book I’ve read in a while. It was clever and I really enjoyed it.

There is a prequel with different characters in the same world available, called “Fire”, which I will be picking up in the near future. I hear there is also a sequel in the works, set 8 years after the events of this book. I honestly can’t wait.

(1999, Pocket Books, 232 pages)

and a half

I picked up this book on recommendation from a lot of friends and fellow Bookheads and in anticipation of the upcoming movie adaptation (my interest was piqued by the strong cast). While I enjoyed it, I think I'm past the point in my life when reading it would've made me feel infinite.

Perks is a set of letters from the main character Charlie to an unknown 'friend' (presumably us, the reader), about his freshman high school experience. The book starts on a fairly somber note, with Charlie telling us about the suicide of his best friend Michael and the loss of his favourite Aunt Helen much earlier in his life. It goes on to describe the rest of a tumultous year, focusing mainly on time with two new friends he makes early on, step-siblings Patrick and Sam. It tackles heavy themes, such as homosexuality, abuse, social awkwardness, drugs, teenage sexuality and much more.

I have to admit, at first I thought I missed a trick about who Charlie was writing to, but I ended up liking that the letters were written anonymously. It gave me a sense of voyeurism, the enjoyment of reading about someone else's adventures and scandals and knowing just enough to keep it interesting. The writing style which the author uses to represent Charlie is appropriate, but doesn't flow well. Charlie, we find out, likes to ramble on and sometimes I do get lost in his long sentences and mixed thoughts.

I enjoyed the characters, and even knowing as little as you do about them, all are well-defined and had distinct personalities. They made me care about what was happening to them, which in a novel that was just over 200 pages is a tough ask. As far as tackling the issues, I thought the book did very well in presenting and resolving them. What I wasn't too keen on was Charlie himself, really. Firstly, I couldn't understand if he was just socially awkward or if he had an illness. Then when you start unravelling his life, you begin to understand that he has had to go through a lot of stuggles that normal teenagers wouldn't normally. However, he does make great friendships, has a great mentor and is loved by his family. He is invited to parties, has a girlfriend, gets straight-As. I found myself not really knowing why I was supposed to feel wholly sorry for him and in the end I couldn't bring myself to.

Either way, I found the book thought provoking and an altogether easy read. There were some very poignant moments that I really enjoyed, like when Charlie is describing how beautiful Sam looks through a photograph. Perhaps I would've enjoyed this book more if I read it in my teens as I feel like some of the shock factor is now lost on me. I will definitely go and see the film, but as for the book, sadly only a solid 3.5 stars.

Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris

Dead Reckoning (2011, Ace Books, 325 pages)

3 stars

This is the eleventh book in the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris. This series was the inspiration for the HBO series True Blood. For those of you who are not familiar with the series I will give you a brief desciption of the premise before getting into my review. Sookie Stackhouse is a waitress in the small fictional town of Bon Temps, Louisiana. But Sookie is not just an ordinary waitress. She is also a telepath aka mind reader. This alone could provide for lots of drama but the story also takes place with vampires officially "coming out of the coffin" and living among humans in peace thanks to the development of synthetic blood which eliminates the need to feed on humans. Sookie gets involved in the world of the vampires and various other supernatural being which leads to all sorts of craziness.

Since it will be difficult to talk about the plot of this book without spoiling things from the books before this I will continue my review under the cut. SPOILERS AHEAD: You have been warnedCollapse )

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