Saturday, November 30, 2013

Review: Kissing Shakespeare by Pamela Mingle

Title: Kissing Shakespeare
Author: Pamela Mingle
Genre: YA Fiction
Publishing Information: 352 pages; August 14, 2012 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Series: Standalone

Where I got it: E-book from the library

Synopsis from Goodreads: 

"Miranda has Shakespeare in her blood: she hopes one day to become a Shakespearean actor like her famous parents. At least, she does until her disastrous performance in her school's staging of The Taming of the Shrew. Humiliated, Miranda skips the opening-night party. All she wants to do is hide.

Fellow cast member, Stephen Langford, has other plans for Miranda. When he steps out of the backstage shadows and asks if she'd like to meet Shakespeare, Miranda thinks he's a total nutcase. But before she can object, Stephen whisks her back to 16th century England—the world Stephen's really from. He wants Miranda to use her acting talents and modern-day charms on the young Will Shakespeare. Without her help, Stephen claims, the world will lost its greatest playwright.

Miranda isn't convinced she's the girl for the job. Why would Shakespeare care about her? And just who is this infuriating time traveler, Stephen Langford? Reluctantly, she agrees to help, knowing that it's her only chance of getting back to the present and her "real" life. What Miranda doesn't bargain for is finding true love . . . with no acting required"

Main characters: 3/5

My initial reaction to Miranda was not favorable. She complained a lot about her parents and her life, and I didn't find her thoughts regarding her own acting to be very mature. Miranda's initial reaction to the time travel was also unbelievable and over-the-top, which turned me off of her for the first bit of the book. I did see signs of life, however, such as when Miranda whacked Stephen with the tree branch at the beginning.
But Miranda began to change over her time in the 16th century and I appreciated her rate of change and the fact that it wasn't easy. It was a steady change, not exceptionally crazy or too slow. I liked learning more about her relationship with her parents and the fact that Stephen questioned what she had assumed to be true. 
Ultimately, there was nothing particularly memorable about Miranda, but her slow and steady change turned her into a more layered character at the end of the book.

Secondary characters: 3/5

At the beginning of the novel, Stephen seemed stuffy and lacked a personality. However, similar to Miranda, he grew on me as the novel progressed. He didn't take shit from Miranda and had his own personal conflicts which added complexity to him as a character. I also liked that he and Miranda didn't have "insta-love" which is always refreshing. One pet peeve though is that he was deliberately mysterious which got on my nerves. For example, Stephen would tell Miranda something about the time travel and then when she questioned further he would say, "Oh, I can't tell you". That's frustrating for Miranda and for the reader. If you're holding on to information for later, then keep it more subtle!
While I liked Stephen more and more as the novel went on, I found that Shakespeare fell lackluster. I liked that he was less the main character of the novel and more of a secondary character, but he lacked a lot of depth that I think Mingle could have added even though he is an important historical and literary figure. 
Writing style: 2.5/5

As with some of the young adult books these days, Mingle's writing style wasn't particularly descriptive or what some may call "literary". That being said, the novel moved along at a good clip. At some points, this was appreciated but at other points, such as before the time travel and immediately after, I wish Mingle had spent a little more time explaining and going into more depth on the action. Some things could have been written with more subtlety, for instance Stephen is described as as looking "exhausted, like maybe this powerful magic was wearing him down. And there was an infinite sadness in his eyes, along with something else. Vulnerability." This was a little heavy-handed and could have been taken down a notch. There were also a few cases where lot of stuff is thrown at the reader with no time spent on it. It's possible that we were meant to put ourselves in Miranda's place and be overwhelmed with her, but if this was the case, it could have been executed better. 

Plot: 3/5

The plot was decidedly unoriginal, but there were some cute and unexpected moments. I liked the fact that Miranda's challenge was to keep the future the same by seducing Shakespeare, that was one of the unique aspects. Also, integrating the religious turmoil of the time added depth and I could tell that Mingle had really done her research. It made the plot more than just some throw-away and created conflict with deep meaning. One knock that I had was that I saw everything coming a mile away. And I do mean everything. Toward the end, the scheming seemed to resemble its own Shakespeare play, which I also really enjoyed.

Ending: 3/5

Without spoiling, I liked that it didn't end on that "denouement" (pardon the English major term that I learned this week) where everything wraps up all neat and pretty. I felt like the characters had improved throughout the novel and I really enjoyed where Miranda ended up personally.
Best scene: When Miranda smacked Stephen with a branch

Positives: Good and steady change of the characters, some interesting plot points and surprising complexity

Negatives: Writing style, unoriginal, saw everything coming, unmemorable characters

Cover: Really pretty actually. I was surprised by how much I liked this cover

Verdict: A fun and cute time-travel story with a couple unique twists, but mostly sub-par writing and characters

Rating: 5.8/10 (3 stars)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Review: American Fraternity Man by Nathan Holic

Title: American Fraternity Man
Author: Nathan Holic

Genre: Adult Contemporary
Publisher: Beating Windward Press LLC

Length: 436 pages
Original Publishing Date: June 3rd, 2012
Series: Standalone
Where I got it: NetGalley

Links: Goodreads Amazon Author's Website

Synopsis from Goodreads:

"Charles Washington, a college grad brimming with energy and idealism and promise, is swept up in the Compassion Boom. At the height of the financial meltdown, he spurns the prescribed job market to take a job with a not-for-profit, sacrificing salary for the selfless mission of his first post-college employer. Charles is out to save the world - the world of fraternities! Charles is an Educational Consultant with the Nu Kappa Epsilon National Fraternity Headquarters. He's making no money, but he's on a noble mission: he will crisscross the country to clean up the corroded culture of fraternity life, driving from college to college, fraternity house to fraternity house, conducting leadership development workshops and serving as a 24/7 role model for his NKE brothers. Charles will whisk away the alcoholism and drug abuse, and put an end to the hazing. He will help transform 21st-century fraternity life into a leadership experience just as enriching as the Boy Scouts. The only problem: Charles isn't nearly the clean-cut role model he wants to believe he is, and he's about to learn that he is ill-prepared for the true demands of leadership. Very quickly, he finds himself caught in a whirlwind of alcohol, parties, hazing, and sex, a series of events and decisions which will test his new values and threaten his entire future. "American Fraternity Man" is an intimate portrait of a young man struggling to become the right kind of professional, while coming to terms with the harsh financial and political realities behind the ambitious mission statements and corporate philosophies. Set within a broad panoramic of the national fraternity world, American Fraternity Man offers a humanizing look at the individuals who live and breathe Greek Life, while also giving an unrivaled glimpse at the power, potential, and absurdity of the National Fraternity/Sorority business. Through both text and illustrations, Nathan Holic offers the very human story of one young man's longing for morality and purpose in a world he simply has not been prepared to understand."

Blogger's Note: 
This novel elicited a lot of responses from me as a reader. I am currently a sorority woman and I've been on my chapter's executive board for two years. I would like to be a sorority consultant after college. So, there was a lot in this novel that really affected me and while I hope that my review is unbiased, it is something to keep in mind. 

Main characters: 5/5
Charles seemed like he could be one of my guy friends. He's a smart guy but a little idealistic at the beginning and I think that was part of his downfall. He was so eager to change himself to fit the image of a role model that I knew he was headed down the wrong path. By the middle of the novel, I really didn't like Charles and as much as I think I wasn't supposed to, it was hard to fight through when I didn't like the main character. Ultimately, I think Charles was just really lost and in any young adults' life, that is realistic in the most heart-creaking way. For Charles it was especially difficult because I think he really did want what was best for his national fraternity but he went to the furthest extremes to do so. More importantly, Charles was well-developed and thought-out so I give Holic some major props on creating a character that I hated at points and loved at others but ultimately was incredibly realistic.

Secondary characters: 3/5

Jenn was the voice of reason at the beginning, but she becomes a little flat and one-sided. Ultimately I didn't find Jenn that likable. Unfortunately, whether it was because of the lack of attention compared to Charles or not, Jenn was less developed a character. Fabre was particularly distasteful and left me wondering if there are actually people like him out there. I try not to be too idealistic about greek life but I was shocked by his character and some of the other alumni and it was tough for me to move beyond that. I would have liked some more engaging characters. I felt like most of the secondary characters had extreme flaws and therefore it was hard for me to relate to them.

Writing style: 3/5

Holic's writing style was thoughtful and detailed. His ability to get into Charles' head was especially wonderful and he really found the college feel on so many different campuses. I was disappointed that my ebook version didn't include a lot of the illustrations! Another plus for Holic though was his attention to detail. There were times when I just had to smile because Holic painted some of the things I feel about greek life perfectly. I did feel that the book seemed unnecessarily long. I got the picture pretty early on and I felt like Holic was beating a dead horse at some points. There were also some paragraphs with excessive detail that, although I appreciated, were a little tough to read through.

Plot: 4/5
When Charles started telling Jenn how he wasn't going to change, I knew exactly what was going to happen. I wasn't thrilled with how obvious that plot twist appeared. While I pointed out above that Holic got a lot of details right for a reader currently in greek life, some of it did feel over the top. To be fair, I'm not sure if this is fraternity versus sorority differences but some of the politics about shutting down a chapter and some of the dare I say corruption seemed unrealistic to me. Further, some of the plot points as Charles visited the fraternities seemed repetitive. While Charles did fall into a rut where the universities ran together, I would have liked either that section have been shorter or gotten more details about each school. Another bonus point for the unique plot! I've never read anything like this book before.

Ending: 4.5/5

The way that American Fraternity Man ended was funny, ambiguous and yet wrapped everything up perfectly. I love the way that Holic made it so clear without having to specifically tell the reader what would happen after the book ended.

Best scene: The scene in Mexico

Realistic and well-rounded main character, the ending, the balanced view of fraternities and sororities, Holic's attention to detail

Negatives: The secondary characters (particularly the way that some were extreme one-sided or flawed), the length, the excessive details and repetitive nature of the plot

Cover: I'm in love with this cover; it depicts the realities of college life all in one image. Plus the font is huge and can either stand out or fade away depending on how long you look at it.

Verdict: Although sometimes long and tough to get through, American Fraternity Man is a journey through fraternity life of epic proportions with a narrator whose complexity and realism is astounding. 

Rating: 7.8/10 (4 stars)

Your Thoughts: Have you read it? What did you think? If you haven't, will you be adding it to your TBR list? Let me know!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Review: Alice in Zombieland by Gena Showalter

Title: Alice in Zombieland
Author: Gena Showalter

Goodreads Summary:
"Had anyone told Alice Bell that her entire life would change course between one heartbeat and the next, she would have laughed. From blissful to tragic, innocent to ruined? Please. But that’s all it took. One heartbeat. A blink, a breath, a second, and everything she knew and loved was gone.

Her father was right. The monsters are real….

To avenge her family, Ali must learn to fight the undead. To survive, she must learn to trust the baddest of the bad boys, Cole Holland. But Cole has secrets of his own, and if Ali isn’t careful, those secrets might just prove to be more dangerous than the zombies….

Main character: 3.5/5
Alice was a well-developed character. I could relate to everything that she was feeling and going through; including her self-pity at times, which was not overwhelming the way that some main characters are. Alice had the perfect blend of feeling sorry for herself and understanding the need to eventually get over it (it's hard to read that much pity partying). The one main knock on Alice is that she didn't have anything that made her supremely memorable in my mind, which would have taken her character to the next level.

Secondary characters: 4/5
Kat was fantastic; I wasn't sure if I would like her at first because of her directness and almost over-the-top confidence, but I ended up really enjoying her as a character. I wished that some of the "gang" had been further developed, but I realize that sometimes the author needs to choose who best to develop further. Cole was frustrating at times in an Edward Cullen type way which I hated, but he improved throughout the story.

Writing style: 4/5
One of my favorite aspects. Showalter made a long book fly by with her vivid descriptions and fantastic action scenes. Everything was believable and I bought into the story, which I think has a lot to do with the way that the author presents the story. Showalter did a beautiful job of painting the setting and plot.

Plot: 3/5
I wish that the Alice in Wonderland motif had been used more! The connections were very minor and I would have loved more crossover between the Zombies & the Alice in Wonderland tale. Regardless, the plot could have been overdone but Showalter's take was fresh and well-told. I loved the mix of romance, mystery, family drama & action-adventure thriller.

Ending: 2.5/5
While the ending accomplished it's purpose, I just felt that it advertised itself too much as opening for a sequel. To be fair, the conflict was solved and Showalter did a good job of leaving mystery open for the sequel without leaving us with a cliffhanger, but something was just unsatisfying.

Cover: So pretty and just the right amount of light and dark. And you gotta love that tagline, "Off with their heads".

Rating: 6.8 / 10 (4 stars)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Review: Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst

Title: Conjured
Author: Sarah Beth Durst

Genre: YA Paranormal/Fantasy
Publisher: Walker Children's

Length: 368 pages
Original Publishing Date: September 3rd, 2013
Series: Standalone
Where I got it: NetGalley

Links: Goodreads Amazon Author's Website

Synopsis from Goodreads:

"Eve has a new home, a new face, and a new name—but no memories of her past. She’s been told that she's in a witness protection program. That she escaped a dangerous magic-wielding serial killer who still hunts her. The only thing she knows for sure is that there is something horrifying in her memories the people hiding her want to access—and there is nothing they won’t say—or do—to her to get her to remember.

At night she dreams of a tattered carnival tent and buttons being sewn into her skin. But during the day, she shelves books at the local library, trying to not let anyone know that she can do things—things like change the color of her eyes or walk through walls. When she does use her strange powers, she blacks out and is drawn into terrifying visions, returning to find that days or weeks have passed—and she’s lost all short-term memories. Eve must find out who and what she really is before the killer finds her—but the truth may be more dangerous than anyone could have ever imagined."

Main characters: 3/5

When the main character is an amnesiac, it is obviously difficult to get a lot of background. Despite this, I didn't feel a noticeable lack of depth in Eve. She stayed calm through her traumatic situation and her stubbornness about her memories and Zach were endearing. It was difficult to get a clear read on her personality because Eve herself is continuing to search for who she is. I would have liked to see a little more firm development of a personality throughout the story. Somehow Eve is the subject of a lot of male attention, which was a little bit stereotypically "heroine" of her.

Secondary characters: 4/5

Zach was so kooky. I think that's the best word to describe him. Like when he first meets Eve and starts talking about how he wants to kiss her. He also has this thing about never lying. Zach felt very real to me; he was never described as the incredibly handsome love interest. Another quirk was that he was very talkative. Read: he never shut up. But the ordinariness of Zach was refreshing and I love that some of his flaws were so upfront. As for the rest of the secondary characters, I loved seeing some of the history behind Malcolm and Nicki, but Malcolm felt too perfect and I wanted some more imperfections from him. I also wanted more time with our "bad guys" since they only appeared pretty late in the novel.

Writing style: 4/5

More than anything, Durst's writing demonstrated her remarkable and beautiful descriptions. However, her dialogue was also realistic, funny and easy-to-read and the pacing was well done. My one critique on the writing was that the book was just so darn long! We don't learn anything about Eve's past for a great deal of the novel and as interesting as it was, it can only keep my interest for so long. I was also unsure about the third person narration but Durst pulled it off and still allowed me to experience the same disorientation that Eve was going through.

Plot: 4.5/5
Okay, I'm gonna admit it, I'm a huge sucker for psychological novels where the reader has to dig deep and think. The face that Eve had both short and long term memory loss and can't remember huge chunks of her life is terrifying... and a fascinating mystery for me as a reader. Beyond that, the world-building was subtle but incredibly well constructed and distinct. It was the first time I'd experienced something like this and I also loved the carnival influences running through the novel (although it might give me nightmares).

Ending: 3/5

There were a couple points about this ending that were a little rushed and, if I'm honest with myself, could have just been cut out. Pretty minor stuff, but I was so caught up in the central plot that I just wanted to focus on that resolution. Still, I loved the final playout and that epilogue was gorgeous.

Best scene: Zach and Eve's kisses- all of them

The whole premise, the worldbuilding, the tension that arrives from Eve's memory loss, Zach, the writing

Negatives: A slow start, lack of development from Eve and secondary characters, slightly rushed ending

Cover: It's not really my style but it's definitely been growing on me. The simplicity is definitely eye-catching.

Verdict: Don't go in expecting a fast paced thriller, but this fantasy/mystery has a unique premise and incredibly strong worldbuilding plus that carnival premise!

Rating: 7.4/10 (4 stars)

Your Thoughts: Have you read it? What did you think? If you haven't, will you be adding it to your TBR list? Let me know!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Review: Since You Asked by Maurene Goo

Title: Since You Asked
Author: Maurene Goo

Genre: YA Contemporary
Publisher: Scholastic

Length: 262 pages
Original Publishing Date: June 25th, 2013
Series: Standalone
Where I got it: NetGalley

Links: Goodreads Amazon Author's Website

Synopsis from Goodreads:

"A humorous, debut novel about a Korean-American teenager who accidentally lands her own column in her high school newspaper, and proceeds to rant her way through the school year while struggling to reconcile the traditional Korean values of her parents with contemporary American culture."
Main characters: 4.5/5

Holly's wit and disillusioned view of high school made her perfect to write her rant-y column. Sometimes I would have a little twinge of, "I kind of liked that about high school", but it fit Holly perfectly. Holly was really well developed and being able to see her through an entire year made her really come alive. Mostly, I could really connect with a lot of what Holly was feeling. I think everyone has those moments of hating high school and the popularity contests that come with it, we all struggle with the stress and pressure, and all have issues with our parents. Also, Holly's narrative voice was unique and hilarious.

Secondary characters: 4/5

I was really impressed with how well Goo characterized Liz, Carrie and David. They each had their own quirks and problems to deal with. Especially when the three of them compare their families and parents, you really get a clear glimpse into how each of them are so similar and different. I would have liked a little more development of Holly's family; I feel like we understood that they loved her in their own way, but it wasn't tied up neatly and I wanted to see more connections made between their family.

Writing style: 4/5
The ease of the dialogue and the wittiness of Holly and her friends was funny and refreshing. As someone who lacks a lot of wit, I am always impressed when people can just pull funny out of nowhere. This novel also read so quickly! I read it in pretty much one sitting and Goo's writing left me laughing out loud in some points.

Plot: 4/5
While there weren't a lot of "plot points" per se, everything was realistic because it chronicled a regular year in the life of a high schooler. I love that part of the conflict was Holly attempting to reconcile her Korean background with American culture. The mix of Holly's columns with her descriptions of normal teenage life made the plot move quickly and realistically.

Ending: 2.5/5

I was a little disappointed with the ending. It seemed to end really quickly and not much was wrapped up. While we got a fun last column that detailed some of what happened to Holly, I would have preferred a little more time spent on the ending. 

Best scene: When Holly first gets the column

The fast moving pacing, realistic plot, Holly and her hilarious wit, well-characterized secondary characters

Negatives: I wanted more depth from Holly's family, the ending

Cover: Gah!!! I love this cover, especially the typography.

Verdict: A witty and quick read about a girl struggling through high school; Holly's voice is worth the read!

Rating: 7.6/10 (4 stars)

Your Thoughts: Have you read it? What did you think? If you haven't, will you be adding it to your TBR list? How does it compare to other time travel books you've read? Let me know!