Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Review: We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielson



We Are All Made of Molecules
Susin Nielsen

Genre: Contemporary
Hardback: 256 Pages
Publication: May 12, 2015
by Wendy Lamb Books



Thirteen-year-old Stewart is academically brilliant but socially clueless.

Fourteen-year-old Ashley is the undisputed “It” girl in her class, but her grades stink.

Their worlds are about to collide when Stewart and his dad move in with Ashley and her mom. Stewart is trying to be 89.9 percent happy about it, but Ashley is 110 percent horrified. She already has to hide the real reason her dad moved out; “Spewart” could further threaten her position at the top of the social ladder.

They are complete opposites. And yet, they have one thing in common: they—like everyone else—are made of molecules.


Review

We Are All Made of Molecules is a YA novel that I've been waiting for. The plot is focused and relatable, and the characters clearly mature over the course of the novel. Most importantly, We Are All Made of Molecules has a strong message for readers. While reading is something that I enjoy, I also want to learn something from the books that I read. It can be a moral lesson, or it can be something as simple as a character learning some truth about life and / or standing up to his or her fears. We get all of these in Susin Nielsen's latest novel.

The writing is simple, much more so than I would have expected in a novel that contains some mature content. While I generally like novels with more complexity, the simplistic language and straightforward narration are powerful tools that bare the characters' lives to the reader. There aren't any extraneous details that distract from the main plot points. Furthermore, We Are All Made of Molecules is a novel that can be easily finished in one sitting. Nothing should distract from the story except an emergency.

As you might have guessed from the synopsis, the story is told from the alternating POVs of Stewart and Ashley.While it was interesting to see their different opinions on certain topics and to see what goes on behind the scenes in each character's lives, I found much more depth overall in Stewart's perspective. For much of the novel, Ashley is a shallow, fashion-crazy, boy-obsessed girl who is overly concerned with the social ladder and where she stands on it. While we do learn things from her that we can't get with Stewart, who is bad at reading social cues, I enjoyed reading from Stewart's perspective so much more. He makes nerd jokes (something I love but rarely see in YA lit), he's funny, and he's interesting. Ashley's POV doesn't contribute enough that I feel like it is essential to the story's message. She does become more likable at the end; at the same time, it isn't until the end that I really appreciated her character. Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver presents a more complex character in Samantha, who is also an "It" girl that matures into a more sensitive and caring person.

That said, what Ashley's POV does contribute to the plot is that her story intertwines with Stewart's story to show the different facets of high school life. Ashley may just be a girl who is concerned with the social hierarchy, but she is also a bully who has made fun of others and stepped on them in order to climb to the top of the social ladder. Stewart is a boy lacks social awareness and has been bullied as a result. While I wasn't particularly fond of Ashley's POV, I like how the alternating POVs weaves together the lives of the bullies and the bullied, the "haves" and the "have-nots," to reveal the absurdity of categorizing peoples' values based on where they stand on the social ladder. Whereas Ashley considered herself to be at the top of the ladder, her relationship with her "friends" is a facsimile built on what she imagines to be the prefect life. In the end, Stewart, who stays true to himself and presents himself as he is to others, proves that true happiness comes from making real connections with the people around you. In order to be happy, Ashley must become more like Stewart, and the two must work together to defeat the system that gives bullies the power to oppress others.

Literary Value: I find We Are All Made of Molecules to be a novel with literary value because of the growth that the characters exhibit. Stewart and Ashley enter the novel with preconceptions about how their lives will go, and after their first meeting, they form superficial opinions about each other that will later prove false. They learn about the complexity of life and about the fallacy of judging people by appearances and initial impressions. There are important messages about respect and tolerance, family and friendship, bullying and the social hierarchy, what is really important in life and what it means to be a decent human being. The plot has the complexity that I have been searching for in YA lit.

Mature Content: While the language is simple and more what I would expect from a middle-grade novel, I would not recommend this to younger readers because of the content. (Warning: potential spoilers follow.) Ashley belongs to the stereotypical "It" scene in high school. She and her friends lust after the hottest boy in their school, there is language and talk of girls' bodies in a boys' locker room scene, there is partying with alcohol involved, and there is an almost-rape scene. Stewart is bullied because of his brains and geeky appearance, and at several points he is afraid to go to school. There is also homophobia and discrimination against homosexuality by some persons.

Overall: We Are All Made of Molecules is a novel that I believe young adults should read. It has complexity: Stewart and Ashley show true character growth, family and friends play important roles in their lives, and their story shows us what is really important in life.

A copy was provided by Random House for review

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Series
  • N/A

Content
  • Some language
  • Alcohol
  • Bullying (some takes place in the guys' locker room)
  • Some homophobia (on the part of the "bad guys")
  • Kissing, making out, some explicit sexual content / talk about sexual activities
  • An almost-rape scene

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Review: Find Momo Coast to Coast by Andrew Knapp



Find Momo: Coast to Coast
Andrew Knapp

Genre: Photography
Hardback: 144 Pages
Publication: May 12, 2015
by Quirk Books



Momo loves to hide—and you’ll love looking for him! In this follow-up to Find Momo, the canine Instagram superstar (and his best buddy, Andrew Knapp) travel across the United States and Canada, visiting iconic landmarks and unique off-the-map marvels. Look for Momo hiding in Grand Central Station, in front of the White House, and in the French Quarter of New Orleans . . . as well as at diners, bookstores, museums, and other locales that only a seasoned road-tripper like Andrew could find. It’s part game, part photography book, and a whole lot of fun.


Review

Find Momo: Coast to Coast is an adorable book in which the border collie Momo and his buddy Andrew Knapp travel from coast to coast across the United States and Canada. There is a good mix of photos where it is easy to find Momo and ones that challenge the reader's imagination. I can envision this being a fun book to huddle over with the family in a race to find Momo.

Many of the photos are breathtaking and worth examining in their own right. I love how there is a mix of tourist attractions and everyday life of the people who in live the areas that Momo and Knapp visit. In the midst of it all, Knap captures photos that show Momo making himself right at home. The two's adventures remind us of the excitement to be found in travel—both in the major attractions and in the quietude of the everyday. Traveling isn't always about visiting the places well traveled. We also need to remind ourselves to look for adventure in the culture of the places that we visit, and we can't do that by following the tourist guidebook. Branch out; explore different sceneries.

That said, I do wish that we were given more specific details in the captions about the locations in the photos. If you're curious about where exactly each photo was taken, you have to flip back to the answer key. Otherwise, I have nothing to complain about!

Find Momo: Coast to Coast is a fun, unique travel book. I love the idea of sharing a road trip through the antics of a dog, and I had a lot of fun searching for Momo (though at times I did get pretty frustrated. Momo isn't always easy to find!). I would definitely recommend this book to readers, especially those who love furry four-legged creatures like Momo.

A copy was provided by Quirk Books for review

Rating: 4 stars

Series
  • N/A

Similar Books
  • I Spy Books
  • Where's Waldo
Content
  • N/A

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

DNF Review: The Prey by Tom Isbell



The Prey
Tom Isbell

Series: The Hatchery #1
Genre: YA Post Apocalyptic
Hardback: 416 Pages
Publication: January 20, 2015
by Harper Teen



Orphaned teens, soon to be hunted for sport, must flee their resettlement camps in their fight for survival and a better life. For in the Republic of the True America, it's always hunting season.

After a radiation blast burned most of the Earth to a crisp, the new government established settlement camps for the survivors. At one such camp, the sixteen-year-old "LTs" are eager to graduate as part of the Rite. Until they learn the dark truth: "LTs" doesn't stand for lieutenant but for Less Thans, feared by society and raised to be hunted for sport. They escape and join forces with the Sisters, twin girls who've suffered their own haunting fate. Together they seek the fabled New Territory, with sadistic hunters hot on their trail. Secrets are revealed, allegiances are made, and lives are at stake. As unlikely Book and fearless Hope lead their quest for freedom, these teens must find the best in themselves to fight the worst in their enemies.


Review

Book grows up in an all-boys government-run camp. When he meets an injured boy, Cat, in the desert, Book learns that the boys at the camp will become entertainment to be hunted by the rich after they graduate. The Sisters from the girl camp are raised for twisted medical experimentation. I love the concept of twin experiments, but a reason should have been provided. While the storyline is an exciting concept and the originality, the writing doesn’t flow well, and character motivations are missing. The plot may be unique for some readers, but it was lackluster for me.

The book is written in alternating perspectives from Book's first-person, past-tense narration and the third-person, present-tense of Hope, a Sister from the girls camp. It is confused. Although we have a second POV through Hope, her presence did not add to the plot for me. She seems to exist for the purpose of giving Book opportunities to perform heroic acts.

The characters fell flat. I feel no attachment to any of them. The plot focuses on their struggles in the camp and on the run. There is no character development. In addition, the world building is weak and lacking. There is no background information on why the world becomes this way or what the government seeks to achieve with the dual camps. Again, motivation is lacking.

10% into the novel, I began skimming. By the midway point, I still had no idea what is going on. Maybe in the next book the author will go into more details, but The Prey provides the bare minimum of information about the war before the kid’s time. I have no interest in reading further.

An ARC was provided by Harper Collins for review

Rating: 1 Star

Series
  1. The Prey

Similar Books

Content
  • Violence
** Content warnings are from the parts of the novel that I read and may not reflect the entirety of the novel **

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Review: The Cost of All Things by Maggie Lehrman



The Cost of
All Things

Maggie Lehrman


Genre: YA Contemporary, Magical RealismTragedy
Hardback: 416 Pages
Publication: May 12, 2015
by Balzer + Bray



What would you pay to cure your heartbreak? Banish your sadness? Transform your looks? The right spell can fix anything…. When Ari's boyfriend Win dies, she gets a spell to erase all memory of him. But spells come at a cost, and this one sets off a chain of events that reveal the hidden—and sometimes dangerous—connections between Ari, her friends, and the boyfriend she can no longer remember.

Told from four different points of view, this original and affecting novel weaves past and present in a suspenseful narrative that unveils the truth behind a terrible tragedy.


Review

Imagine a world where you can buy the solution to any problem you have. You want beauty, grace, friends, happiness. . . ? Just buy a spell. Of course, you have to be careful what you wish for because spells have a way of coming back to bite you. In a world where you never know when someone is spelling you, can you even trust yourself?

The Cost of All Things is a deeply thoughtful and provocative novel about the consequences of living in a world where people can get a quick and easy fix to their problems. The characters laugh about how the desperate resort to spells. However, most of them turn to spells for answers. In a world where spells can easily resolve their problems, it is easier to rely on them instead of trying to work through their problems themselves. For example, Ari chooses to forget Win instead of working through the grieving process. There are only two people in this novel of which I know that do not use a spell. Even so, they get entangled in the mess of spells bought by other people that both directly and indirectly influence their lives. Their experiences provide a great contrast to the experiences of those who rely on spells to fix their problems.

The general availability of spells raises some moral issues. Are you still the same person after a spell has been cast on you? Ari provides the strongest statement on this issue. After forgetting about Win, she begins referring to the Ari that knew Win as "Old Ari" because she has lost a whole year of her life and no longer remembers the person that she was then. She isn't the same person as the Ari who knew and loved Win. Then there is the question of hooks. Hooks will keep people close to someone. If you cannot leave a certain radius, can you be said to be the same person you would be without the hook? Or if you get a beauty spell. Or even a simple gravity-defying spell that has a time limit. Our identity is shaped by the experiences that we have. How life altering is it to have access to all of these spells?

I appreciate how the four narrators present us with different insights into the influence of living in a world with spells. The multiple POV adds more depth and breadth to the novel. Nevertheless, I did have some problems with the execution of the narration. First, the POV switches fairly often. Second, the POVs are all told in the first person. While I don't necessarily mind the constant change in POV—it was done better than others I have seen—I do mind that it was done in the first person. That said, this is a personal issue of mine. I generally prefer novels to be told in the third person. More so when there are multiple narrators. This next point isn't a huge issue but would have enriched the reading experience: the narrators' voices were not unique. Their narrations were indistinguishable outside of their different experiences.

Some other things that would have been nice to have: I would have liked for the novel to show us more of the before. For example, what about Win and Ari's relationship made it worthwhile for her to forget about Win? How was their relationship perfect? What made her so dependent on Win that she felt like she could not live with her memories of Win? Or was their another reason that she had to forget him? Also, how do the different characters blame themselves for Win's death? I could have done without the explanation for how spells work. I like the magical realism it adds to the novel. If a reason is going to be provided, however, I don't buy into the idea that the spells reorganize one's brain. It doesn't make sense to me.

Overall, The Cost of All Things is one of the best YA novels I have read thus far in 2015. I love how it explores the complexity of human relationships and that the primary characters are not two people with a romantic interest in each other. In addition, this novel presents a moral dilemma and examines it from multiple perspectives. I definitely recommend checking this one out!

A review copy was provided by Harper Collins for review

Rating: 4 stars

Series
  • N/A

Content
  • Kissing, making out
  • Alcohol
  • Language
  • Sex (not explicit)
  • Violence

Friday, May 1, 2015

Review: Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce



Song of the Lioness Series
Tamora Pierce

Genre: YA FantasyMedieval Fantasy
Hardback: 568 Pages
Publication: November 1, 2002
by Science Fiction Book Club



"From now on I'm Alan of Trebond, the younger twin. I'll be a knight."

In a time when girls are forbidden to be warriors, Alanna of Trebond wants nothing more than to be knight of the realm of Tortall. So she finds a way to switch places with her brother, Thom. Disguised as a boy, Alanna begins her training as a page at the palace of King Roald. The road to knighthood, as she discovers, is not an easy one. Alanna must master weapons, combat, magic -- and also polite behavior, her temper, and even her own heart. With stubbornness, skill, and daring, she wins the admiration of all around her, and the friendship of Prince Jonathan of Tortall himself. But she also makes an enemy of the prince's uncle, the powerful and charming Duke Roger....


Review

Song of the Lioness is one of my all-time favorite series. It is one of my staple comfort reads, and I re-read it at least once or twice a year.

Out of all of the YA authors with whom I am familiar, Tamora Pierce is the best at writing real characters. For a while now, I've seen a trend in YA lit to write "kickass" heroines. These heroines tend to be super strong one moment and a weeping mess another moment, leaving me confused as to who is the real them. When I think about a truly strong and independent heroine with some vulnerabilities, Alanna is the first heroine to come to mind (followed by Daine and Kel from Tamora Pierce's The Immortals and The Protector of the Small). Alanna is strong, independent, and courageous. When she gets picked on for being small and weak, she doesn't break down. Instead, she suffers quietly while diligently training on her own so that she can prove her strength further down the road. She is also vulnerable in that she is scared of her magic, and she is scared of her womanhood. What makes her real is that these vulnerabilities are integral to her identity. She isn't strong one moment and then her vulnerabilities are exposed the next like many of today's YA heroines. Rather, her vulnerabilities are always with her, and they are important to the plot. Alanna cannot attain true knighthood without embracing her vulnerabilities.

Song of the Lioness is Tamora Pierce's first series, so the writing and character / plot development isn't as well done as her later series. Nevertheless, these are very solid for a debut author. In particular, I want to draw attention to the world building. I love when authors take the time to draw the maps for a fantasy world and when they understand the culture and history of their fantasy worlds so well that they can really develop the world. I felt like I was traveling the world with Alanna, and I could feel the distinct change in culture when Alanna brought me with her across the borders into another nation and even when a foreigner would arrive in Tortall. Few YA fantasy novels possess this power.

Tamora Pierce also writes unique characters. It is rare nowadays to find a novel where I love the supporting cast as much as I love the heroine. George and Faithful especially. George is a paragon for chivalrous thieves, and Faithful is one of the best literary cats ever written. What makes such characters special is that, while I may be able to place them under stock character lists, they are alive. They have their unique histories and character quirks. When they take action or say something, it doesn't feel like it is because the author thought that it would be cool if they did such and such or if such a scene took place. Even if she did, the scenes flow into one another. Again, Song of the Lioness is Tamora Pierce's debut series, so some of the dialogue and action does feel forced, but I can see a pattern in them. Everything that happens builds into the plot, a plot that I very much enjoyed.

The most important takeaway from the Song of the Lioness series is that we can do whatever we set our minds on. Alanna is small and not as strong as the other pages. Instead of giving up, she works harder than everything else. When she learns that she has no talent in swordplay, she drills herself in the basics so long and so hard that her body can respond instinctively to attacks. When she is bullied, she trains herself so that she can beat a bigger boy instead of relying on her friends, who would have gladly fought in her place. In a world that isn't accepting of female knights, she fights to make a place for herself. Alanna is a young woman who never quits until she has tried as hard as she can to overcome a situation.

The Song of the Lioness series has one of my favorite heroines of all time, an exciting world of adventure, and some of the most lovable characters in YA lit. It has romance, but the romance doesn't take over the greater plot. At its heart, Song of the Lioness is a coming-of-age story in which a girl who doesn't belong makes a place of her own through sheer determination and force of will. Alanna is someone with whom I could relate growing up, and her story is one that I will continue to love even as I grow older. I will for sure share this story with my future children and anyone looking for a good book to read.

Rating: 5 stars

Series
  1. Alanna: The First Adventure
  2. In the Hand of the Goddess
  3. The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
  4. Lioness Rampant

Similar Books
  • The Immortals series by Tamora Pierce
  • The Protector of the Small series by Tamora Pierce
Content
  • Kissing
  • Suggested sex
  • Some violence

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Review: Heat of the Moment by Lauren Barnholdt



Heat of the Moment
Lauren Barnholdt


Genre: YA Contemporary
Paperback: 304 Pages
Publication: May 12, 2015
by Harper Teen



Before graduation, I promise to...learn to trust.

Each book in this paperback original series is told from the perspective of a different girl—Lyla, Aven, and Quinn—former best friends who wrote emails to their future selves back in freshman year about one thing they hope to accomplish before they graduate. When the emails get delivered on the first morning of their senior trip all three girls will spend the next three days trying to keep the promises they made to themselves four years ago. While each book follow’s one girl’s life-changing adventure, you have to read them all to get the whole story, including why they’re no longer friends and whether they can get their friendship back on track.

Lyla McAfee had all but forgotten the email that she wrote to herself freshman year and scheduled to be delivered right before graduation—the one promising that she’d learn to trust by the end of senior year. But when she receives it the first morning of her senior trip to Florida her life is sent into a tailspin. Soon she’s questioning her seemingly perfect relationship with her boyfriend, Derrick; her attraction to the school player, Beckett; and whether ending her friendship with Aven and Quinn, her former BFFs, was one of the biggest mistakes of her life.


Review

Heat of the Moment is beautiful in its themes of love, trust, and friendship. I love novels where characters learn life lessons that help them grow, and Lyla's character and what she learns over the course of the novel reminds me of Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. Barnholdt portrays a side of high school life with which we're all too familiar in YA territory nowadays: the clubbing, the drinking, the hookups. Frankly, I'm not happy with how many novels in the YA market nowadays tend to portray this as the norm or at least all there is to life outside of school. It's not representative of everyone's high school experiences; there is so much more out there. In Heat of the Moment, however, I think it works because of how Lyla's expectations are broken down. She thinks that she needs to do all these things to make other people happy when it's pretty obvious early on that she needs to learn how to pursue her own happiness outside of other peoples' expectations. And this is part of what this novel is about.

That said, Lyla's transformation is not executed as well as it could have been. It isn't until at least halfway in the novel that I realized that Lyla and Derrick had a perfect relationship. It would have helped if this fact had been established from the beginning and we were given a chance to see that. As it is, my initial impression of Derrick was that he was a total jerk and that Lyla was desperately ignoring reality. I do feel like Lyla thought about sex way too often (most of her thoughts are about sex and how to seduce Derrick, or fantasing about Beckett). Her feelings, though, are understandable. I believe most anyone who has been in love only to have that relationship break apart can understand the nagging feeling that your relationship is slipping away and the inability to realize that you aren't happy anymore. It can be hard to face the current reality when your relationship has only brought good into your life.

It would have also helped if it was better established that Beckett was a player. It wasn't until maybe three-quarters into the novel when it was explicitly laid out for us that I realized he had a reputation. Up until then, I thought that he was a smart guy that happened to be hot and attracted girls. I didn't know that he went out girl after girl. Of course, he does do some things you shouldn't be doing with a girl that has a boyfriend. . . . That's one complication to the novel. The character relationships weren't clear for the most part, and they didn't start clearing up until towards the end of the novel. Even then, I still don't understand much of the characters' motivations behind their behavior. Especially Julianna.

I initially picked up this novel because I liked the themes of trust and friendship. However, the friendship element doesn't look like it'll be pursued much until the second novel, and Lyla doesn't really sort through her trust issues until the end of the novel (though kudos to her for attempting). I'll probably read the second novel if I get the chance, however, because I'm curious to see how Barnholdt continues the series. That said, if you're looking for a novel with similar themes and less of the mature content, Before I Fall has a more multi-dimensional heroine whose growth is explored in greater depth. For a similar beach read with the mature content, Jersey Angel by Beth Ann Bauman has great themes (though it does have its own flaws). I have linked my reviews of these two novels below. Pardon the brevity of my Before I Fall review. I wrote it early into my blogging career.

A review copy was provided by Harper Collins for review

Rating: 3.5 stars

Series
  • N/A

Content
  • Language (cussing)
  • Alcohol, Clubbing
  • Kissing
  • Making Out
  • A lot of talk / thoughts about sex and hookups
  • Some aggression and threat of violence