Saturday, January 26, 2013

Dark Companion Book Review

Author: Marta Acosta. Release date: 2012. Publisher: Tor Teen. ISBN: 9780765329646.

Annotation: Having spent her life bouncing from foster home to foster home in the shadyneighborhood of Helmsdale, sixteen-year-old Jane Williams is ecstatic when she is offered a scholarship to an exclusive boarding school in the wealthy town of Birch Grove. At first, her new life at the Birch Grove Academy seems ideal, but as she learns more about some mysteries surrounding the school, she realizes there is something dark lurking beneath the academy’s plush exterior.  

Personal thoughts: I hadn’t heard much of anything about this book, but the plot sounded intriguing so I decided to give it a try. It’s one of those novels that I wish would get more attention, but I can see why hordes of teens aren’t rushing to pick it up. It’s quiet and very much about Jane. Although it has some paranormal elements that readers can latch onto, I found watching Jane grow as a character to be far more interesting. I would easily recommend this book to readers who like books that are well-written but not as dramatic as Twilight or other popular paranormal romances. I’m looking forward to seeing if Marta Acosta writes a sequel and what other novels she produces in the future.  

Plot summary: Orphaned when she was six, Jane Williams has spent the last ten years bouncing around from foster home to foster home in the shady neighborhood of Helmsdale (or Hellsdale as the residents call it.) Her closest friend, Hosea, died several years earlier, and Jane used his death as motivation to transform herself from a foul-mouthed brat to a smart, articulate, straight-A student despite her unfortunate surroundings. Now she has been offered a full scholarship to the exclusive Birch Grove Academy: a boarding school in a wealthy town. She is provided her own small cottage to live in, an allowance for living expenses, clothes, and everything else she could want by Mrs. Radcliffe, the headmistress. Jane can’t believe her good fortune at escaping Hellsdale, and soon finds herself with a new set of friends who don’t seem to mind that she was raised in poverty amongst drug dealers and prostitutes. Especially surprising is that Lucian “Lucky” Radcliffe, the headmistress’ handsome son, seems to be interested in her. As Jane begins to learn more about Birch Grove Academy, however, she discovers that everything isn’t as ideal as it seems. The previous scholarship recipient, a girl named BB who was also from Hellsdale, recently disappeared, supposedly moving away with a rich uncle. The wife of one of Birch Grove’s teachers, also a former Hellsdale resident, seems to have committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. Jane is reluctant to leave her new life of luxury and security, but can she survive the truth of the Birch Grove Academy?  

Review: Written by veteran author Marta Acosta, this multi-layered tale with undertones of Jane Eyre proves to be an interesting combination of realistic fiction and paranormal romance that many readers are likely to find enjoyable. The bulk of the story is centered on Jane. Jane is a likable but flawed character with a difficult past who grows as a person as the story progresses. She makes mistakes throughout the story, allowing herself to be used on her quest for love and acceptance, but she is well-written and believable, a character that many young adults will find something to identify with. The supporting characters are also interesting, from the wealthy and handsome Lucky Radcliffe to his offbeat older brother Jack to Jane’s new dramatic Birch Grove BFF Mary Violet, but none are as explored or flushed out as Jane. The paranormal and romantic aspects of the plot are present, but really the novel is about Jane surviving an abusive childhood and learning to open up and trust others. Readers who are seeking something with paranormal components that make up the bulk of the story will be disappointed, but those who like to delve into character driven novels will enjoy Dark Companion. Although a sequel has not been announced, the author could easily continue Jane’s story in another novel. For now, Dark Companion is a quiet but entertaining book that a thoughtful young adult audience can enjoy.

Genre:  Fiction/Romance

Reading level: Grade 7+

Similar titles: Croak by Gina Damico, Damage by Anya Parrish, Everneath by Brodi Ashton, Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay, Lost Voices by Sarah Porter, Mercy: The Last New England Vampire by Sarah L. Thomson.

Themes:  Mystery, trust, abuse, loss, orphans, coming of age, romance, friendship, vampires.        

Awards/Reviews:  Positive reviews from Publishers Weekly, VOYA, Kirkus and Booklist. 
Series Information: N/A

Discussion questions:

-         How did Hosea’s death influence Jane’s life?

-         Why do you think Mrs. Radcliffe selected Jane to receive a scholarship to Birch Grove?

-         Do you think Jane’s new friends really like her? Why or why not?

-         Why does Jack call Jane “Halfling”? Do you think he means the nickname as a compliment? Why or why not?

-          Do you think Lucky likes Jane? Why or why not?

-         Which decisions of Jane’s do you agree with? Disagree with? Why?

-          If the author writes a sequel, what do you think are some possible ways the story could continue?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Days of Blood and Starlight Book Review

Author: Laini Taylor. Release date: 2012. Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 9780316133975.

Annotation: After her chimaera family, and most of the race, are wiped out by the seraphim, Karou uses the skills she learned from Brimstone to be the new Resurrectionist in the White Wolf’s efforts to recreate his army. Meanwhile, Akiva, determined to atone for all he has done, scours the countryside of Eretz trying to protect what little chimaera are left.

Personal thoughts: I was a huge fan of Daughter of Smoke and Bone so I was very excited to read Days of Blood and Starlight. Unfortunately, like many series, the sequel just did not cut it for me. I found it to be about 100-200 pages too long, the pacing was odd, and it was incredibly dark. I wanted a little bit of levity, but happy moments were few and far between, as were romantic moments between Karou and Akiva. I did enjoy getting to know the characters a bit better, but I felt like the story dove headfirst into the Tolkien-esque fantasy realm and left those of us who aren’t into loads of battles and swordplay in the lurch. That being said, however, I will still likely pick up the third novel in the series when it is released, because I do think there is still some potential for the author to turn things around.

Plot summary: After the deaths of her chimaera family, and most of the race, Karou finds herself at the service of the White Wolf, the chimaera leader who, decades earlier, had her beheaded when she was living her previous life as Madrigal. Karou and what is left of the chimaera army have taken refuge in the human world, inhabiting a Kasbah in the deserts of Morocco, close to one of the last remaining portals to Eretz. Using the skills she learned from Brimstone, Karou is now the chimaera’s Resurrectionist, helping the White Wolf recreate his army to return to Eretz and seek revenge against the seraphim. Meanwhile, a heartbroken Akiva, believing Karou is dead, has reunited with his brother Hazael and sister Liraz, and the trio are now in service of their father, the emperor. Determined to completely wipe out what’s left of the chimaera, the seraphim armies patrol Eretz, killing every last chimaera they come across. Akiva, seeking to atone for what he has done, takes it upon himself to save as many chimaera as he can, still believing that the dream he and Madrigal shared of peace between the two races might be possible.

Review: Well-written but extremely complex, this sequel to Laini Taylor’s best-selling novel Daughter of Smoke and Bone continues to weave the multi-faceted tale of Karou, Akiva and the parallel worlds they inhabit. Although the plot from the previous book is continued, Days of Blood and Starlight is a very different story from its predecessor. There is little to no light-heartedness in the novel, page after page filled with death, war and suffering. The romance between Karou and Akiva is also noticeably decreased in this book, with most of the focus falling on the tension building as the renegade chimaera army plots its revenge against the seraphim. While Daughter of Smoke and Bone might have appealed to the typical young adult audience who like a mix of fantasy and romance, the appeal of the sequel to a variety of different readers is unlikely. Since the novel focuses almost entirely on battle, many teens who enjoyed Daughter of Smoke and Bone for its blend of fantasy, action-adventure and romance are going to get lost in the sea of swords and gore. The pacing of the book is also peculiar at times, skipping back and forth at random between Karou and Akiva’s perspectives. Overall, Days of Blood and Starlight is an interesting but not entirely successful sequel in Laini Taylor’s series. Hopefully the third novel, set to be released in 2014, can improve upon what is still a story and set of characters that hold a lot of potential.

Genre:  Science-Fiction/Fantasy

Reading level: Grade 9+

Similar titles: Between the Sea and Sky by Jaclyn Dolamore, Daughter of the Centaurs by Kate Klimo, Falling Under and Dreaming Awake by Gwen Hayes, The Mephisto Covenant: The Redemption of Ajax by Trinity Faegan, The Space Between by Brenna Yovanoff, Sweet Venom by Tera Lynn Childs.

Themes:  Mythology, mythological creatures, angels, war, betrayal, love.   
Awards/Reviews:  Positive review from School Library Journal, sequel to best-selling novel.  

Series Information: Second novel in Daughter of Smoke and Bone series. Third novel set to be released in 2014.  

Discussion questions:

-         Do you think Karou is doing the right thing in working for Thiago? Why or why not?
-        Why do you think Hazael and Liraz agree to help Akiva save the chimaera?
-          How do you think Karou is coping with remembering her life as Madrigal and the life she’s lived as a human? How does it influence her actions in the story?
-         Who was your favorite character in the novel? Why?
-        Do you think peace is possible between the chimaera and the seraphim? Why or why not?
-        What would you like to see happen in the third novel?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Evolution of Mara Dyer Book Review

Author: Michelle Hodkin. Release date: 2012. Publisher:  Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 9781442421790.

Annotation: After the events of the first novel, Mara Dyer finds herself in a mental institution, locked up for claiming that she killed her teacher and that her presumed dead ex-boyfriend, Jude, is still alive. Everyone thinks she’s crazy except for her boyfriend, Noah Shaw. Mara must find out how Jude survived, and why he seems determined to punish her for the accident that took the life of his sister and Mara’s best friend.

Personal thoughts: I really enjoyed the first book in this series and found it to be very unique, so I was hoping that The Evolution of Mara Dyer would be similar in its creativity. I was happy to find it just as intriguing as its predecessor! The tone of this novel is dark (as was the first), especially because the reader is never really sure if the horrible things Mara is experiencing are actually happening. I found these dark moments to be creepy but also a large component in why the novel is so enjoyable. I’m really looking forward to seeing how Michelle Hodkin concludes this trilogy and wraps up the complicated web she has woven in the character of Mara Dyer. I highly recommend this series to both teen and adult readers alike!

Plot summary: Shortly after the events of the first novel, Mara Dyer finds herself in a mental institution. The doctors tell her that she was uncontrollably raving about having killed her teacher and that Jude, her ex-boyfriend who was thought to have died in the tragic accident that brought Mara to Miami, is still alive. Everyone thinks Mara is crazy: her parents, her brothers, the doctors, the police. Everyone but Noah Shaw, Mara’s boyfriend, who seems to have supernatural abilities like her. In an effort escape the confines of the mental institution, Mara pretends to be normal: not mentioning that she sees evidence that Jude is very much alive and stalking her. Jude seems determined to punish Mara for the accident that killed Claire, Jude’s sister and Mara’s best friend. Mara can rely only on Noah, the sole person who believes the Jude is still alive. As Mara begins to uncover more about the truth of the accident that changed her life forever and Jude’s sudden reappearance, however, she discovers a much larger, centuries-old secret, showing that everything that has happened to her was no accident.

Review: Following up her best-selling debut novel, The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, this second installment in the Mara Dyer trilogy picks up briskly right where the previous book left off, plunging the reader again head first into Mara’s confusing but fascinating world. One of the most enjoyable parts of both the first and second novels in this series is that, like Mara, the reader isn’t sure what is real and what is imaginary. Clearly Mara herself has difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy, making her an unreliable narrator in the sense that the reader doesn’t know the truth either. Is Jude really alive? Is he truly stalking her? These are questions that the author does a good job of raising throughout the story, making this book a lot more complex than other paranormal titles available for the young adult audience. The Evolution of Mara Dyer also begins to unravel some of the mystery surrounding Mara, Noah and their apparent supernatural abilities, explaining some things to the reader while creating even larger questions as well. Like the first novel, the story ends of a large cliffhanger that will undoubtedly leave readers clambering for the third and final book in the series, The Retribution of Mara Dyer, which is set to be released in the fall of 2013. Overall, a successful sequel in a very intriguing trilogy.

Genre:  Mystery

Reading level: Grade 8+

Similar titles: The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin, After Obsession by Carrie Jones and Steven E. Wedel, The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman, The Carrier of the Mark by Leigh Fallon, Damage by Anya Parrish, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, and Ultraviolet by R.J. Anderson.

Themes:  Post-traumatic stress disorder, hallucinations, insanity, mental institutions, paranormal abilities, conspiracy.      

Awards/Reviews:  Sequel to best-selling novel.

Series Information: Second novel in Mara Dyer trilogy. First novel, Unbecoming of Mara Dyer (2011), third novel, The Retribution of Mara Dyer set to be released Fall 2013.

Discussion questions:

-        Do you think Mara is sane or insane? Why?

-         Why do you think no one but Noah believes that Jude is alive?

-        Describe the significance of the flashbacks in the story. What do you think they explain about Mara?

-         Do you think that Noah truly loves Mara? Why or why not?