Book Review: The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco

Okiku walks the streets, hunting murderers of children.  She finds these murderers and sees the children they have murdered tied to them, and she feels compelled to act.  It has been this way for hundreds of years.  When she meets a strange boy with even stranger tattoos, she discovers that he is not alone, and he is in very real danger.  But can she save him when it’s not what she’s on earth to do?

Rin Chupeco’s novel is a near perfect blend of contemporary YA and supernatural storytelling.  Billed as a mix of The Grudge and The Ring, this is definitely a perfect novel for fans of J-horror. This is a fresh take on horror for teens (and adults), and it’s a standout of a debut.

Much of the novel’s success lies in the narrator’s unique, haunting voice.  Chupeco makes Okiku’s voice very formal and very detached, and the result is compelling.  Her ghostly telling of the story’s events offer readers just enough to understand what’s happening but also encourages the reader to figure out what lies beneath the surface.  As Okiku becomes more embroiled in the life of Tarquin, her voice becomes stronger.  It’s brilliantly done.

An unsettling story, this novel deftly blends many creepy elements: ghosts, spirits, old legends, and super, super creepy dolls.  Readers interested in legends, ghosts, and the like will eat this one up.  It’s bloody without being overly so, and the novel’s suspense is perfectly paced.  It’s a page-turner, and one that horror fans should eat up.  Highly recommended.

The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco. Sourcebooks Fire: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Netgalley.

Waiting on Wednesday: Rooms by Lauren Oliver

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

Rooms by Lauren Oliver

Expected Release Date: September 23, 2014

Wealthy Richard Walker has just died, leaving behind his country house full of rooms packed with the detritus of a lifetime. His estranged family—bitter ex-wife Caroline, troubled teenage son Trenton, and unforgiving daughter Minna—have arrived for their inheritance.

But the Walkers are not alone. Prim Alice and the cynical Sandra, long dead former residents bound to the house, linger within its claustrophobic walls. Jostling for space, memory, and supremacy, they observe the family, trading barbs and reminiscences about their past lives. Though their voices cannot be heard, Alice and Sandra speak through the house itself—in the hiss of the radiator, a creak in the stairs, the dimming of a light bulb.

The living and dead are each haunted by painful truths that will soon surface with explosive force. When a new ghost appears, and Trenton begins to communicate with her, the spirit and human worlds collide—with cataclysmic results.

Elegantly constructed and brilliantly paced, Rooms is an enticing and imaginative ghost story and a searing family drama that is as haunting as it is resonant.

(summary via Goodreads)

The buzz on this one has been largely positive.  Even though I haven’t exactly loved everything Oliver has written, she’s definitely an author to watch.  This foray into adult fiction has been written about since the book deal was announced.  Since I can’t resist a good buzzed-about book, you know I’m all over this.

I love a good ghost story, too.  So that doesn’t hurt.

What are you waiting on this week?

Book Review: Beautiful Day by Elin Hilderbrand

The Carmichael family, along with the Grahams, have come to Nantucket for a wedding.  While not unique in theory, the plans for this wedding have come together thanks to a notebook full of wishes of the bride’s late mother.  Everything should be falling into place according to Dead Beth’s wishes, but then things start spiraling out of control.  Like most weddings, drama cannot be avoided.

Hilderbrand has crafted a name for herself as an author who sets her novels (probably the epitome of a beach read) on the island of Nantucket.  Her wealthy protagonists have their share of quirks and tics, and this novel is no different.  All the hallmarks of a Hilderbrand novel are present: bizarre first names, wealthy families, sarcastic conversations, and family drama.  Which means that while the novel doesn’t offer up much in the way of surprises, it should satisfy readers who enjoy Hilderbrand’s work.

There are a few things that Hilderbrand does particularly well: she does a nice job of establishing a cast of characters with distinct voices and motivations.  Her ear for dialogue between characters, especially when they’re sniping at each other, is both amusing and realistic.  A large cast keeps things moving along at a good pace.

The problem comes from the fact that none of the characters are very sympathetic, and that the stakes present in the novel feel so low that it’s hard to care about the outcome.  The central conflict–will Jenna and Stuart (so bland is this man that I just spent 10 minutes trying to remember his name) get married–never really feels like that big of a deal.  Because of this, the novel’s tension doesn’t quite work as well as Hilderbrand wants it to.

Another thing that some readers will struggle with is the concept of The Notebook itself.  Before Beth dies, she leaves behind a notebook detailing (in excruciatingly clear detail, natch) all the things she wants for Jenna’s wedding.  There are several things about this that are worrisome: that Beth’s dying wish is for her youngest daughter to have a “perfect” wedding feels profoundly arcane; and that Beth’s attention to every detail leaves nothing for Jenna or Stuart to decide on when it comes to their wedding.  While Beth frames these ideas as suggestions, there’s quite a bit of emotional manipulation in her wording, and the fact that she is dead sort of leaves her notebook as the final word on wedding planning.  It’s creepy, and it’s controlling, and yet the reader and characters (with the exception of step-mom Pauline) are supposed to believe that Beth was wonderful, perfect, etc.

Perhaps some readers won’t take issue with this aspect of the novel.  Some will take it at face value, and that is fine, for this reader’s guess is that was Hilderbrand’s intention.  It just didn’t totally work as a narrative device, leaving the novel lacking something.

Perfectly fine beach read, but the characters were pretty insufferable.

Beautiful Day by Elin Hilderbrand. Hachette: 2013. Library copy of the Audiobook.

Book Review: Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

Amy Gumm has never fit in.  Raised in a trailer park by a mother whose struggles with addiction have made her parenting sporadic at best, Amy has had to fend for herself.  So when a tornado hits her trailer and whisks her away to the land of Oz–no, seriously, that Oz–she can’t believe her eyes.  Only, this Oz isn’t like the one in the books.  Here, Dorothy has changed the land and has mined the magic to fulfill her own desires.  Now, the land of Oz is in trouble, and citizens of Oz want Amy to be their chance for freedom.  In order for that to happen, Dorothy must die.

Danielle Paige’s dystopian tale set in the familiar fantasy land of Oz is guaranteed to attract attention.  It’s the time for fractured fairy tales and their ilk, so it’s perfect timing for this novel to hit shelves.  This edgy take on The Wizard of Oz will probably work better for older teens, as it’s quite gory at times.

The problem is that as fun as Paige’s inventions are here in the world of Oz, they’re flashy additions that can’t wholly disguise the fact that there’s nothing new happening.  This is a standard dystopian romance that’s been set in place of a familiar fantasy landscape.  All the well-worn tropes are here, and while it might be fun to see Paige’s re-imagining of the Tin Man or Dorothy herself, at its core, this is kind of a disappointment.

It’s also overly long, despite the fact that once the novel gets going, it keeps going at a good pace.  There are more than a few gaps in the logic of the story and its characters, and this is likely to distract and frustrate readers who pay close enough attention.  The fact that the writing itself isn’t stellar and is at times quite clunky and awkward only adds to the unevenness of the novel.

Overall a disappointment, but it will probably work for fans of fractured fairy tales or fans of shows like Grim or Once Upon a Time.  There will be a sequel, because of course there will.

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige. Harper Collins: 2014. Library copy.

 

Book Review: Made of Stars by Kelley York

Hunter Jackson and his half sister Ashlin have spent most of their summers with their dad.  Their summers were spent with Chance, the strange boy who became both of their friends.  He was enigmatic but shrouded in mystery, and Hunter and Ashlin never really got to know Chance completely.  Now, Ashlin and Hunter are spending the winter with their father for the first time in years.  Chance is there, but things are different now.  As secrets are revealed, the siblings realize why Chance has kept his home life private.  But can they trust anything Chance says or does?

York’s novel is well written and engaging.  The novel’s subtle but authentic portrayal of two boys who fall in love with each other offers a fresh perspective in LGBTQ stories, and the complicated friendship between the three teens is guaranteed to pull many readers in.  This reviewer just wishes she could remember more of the story, since it floated away the second the book finished.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that both Ashlin and Hunter take turns narrating the story but don’t have distinctive enough voices to really differentiate their motivations.  Both of them find Chance totally captivating and fascinating, but the reader is told this much more than shown it.  Hunter describes Chance in a way that will immediately rankle some readers: “Chance was strangeness and whimsy in human form.”

Um, gross.  By setting Chance up as a whimsical enigma, York took the risk of alienating readers who are more suspicious by nature.  The problem is that the reader never gets to know Chance (or Hunter, or Ashlin, really), and as a result, it’s very difficult to connect to any of the characters, let a lone care about what their fates hold.

A bizarre cliffhanger ending will leave many readers scratching their heads about how to interpret the way things end up, while others will wonder if York plans a sequel.  There’s not enough here to satisfy readers, though it’s certainly fairly well written.

Made of Stars by Kelley York. Entangled Teen: 2013. Electronic Galley accepted for review via Netgalley.

Waiting on Wednesday: Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

Belzhar by Meg Wolizter

Expected Release Date: September 30, 2014

If life were fair, Jam Gallahue would still be  at home in New Jersey with her sweet British  boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield. She’d be watching  old comedy sketches with him. She’d be kissing  him in the library stacks.

She certainly wouldn’t be at The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school in rural Vermont, living with a weird roommate, and signed up for an exclusive, mysterious class called Special Topics in English.

But life isn’t fair, and Reeve Maxfield is dead.

Until a journal-writing assignment leads Jam to Belzhar, where the untainted past is restored, and Jam can feel Reeve’s arms around her once again. But there are hidden truths on Jam’s path to reclaim her loss.

(summary via Goodreads)

Wolitzer is mostly known for her adult fiction, so releasing a YA novel, while not surprising, is still interesting.  I can’t wait to read this one, which has an intriguing premise and the trappings of things I like in my YA: boarding schools, writing assignments, etc.  It looks like it’s going to be a great fall read.

What are you waiting on this week?

Book Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Georgie McCool knows that things are not great in her marriage to stay-at-home dad Neal.  The two have a pair of amazing daughters, and Neal is an incredible father, but Georgie’s work–writing for a hit television sitcom, and preparing to launch the show she’s been working on for decades with her writing partner, Seth–causes stress between her and Neal.  Two days before they’re supposed to leave for a Christmas visit to Omaha to be with Neal’s family, Georgie backs out to work on the new show.  Neal takes the girls and goes anyway, leaving Georgie alone and wondering if her marriage is over.

But when Georgie calls Neal from the yellow celandine phone in her childhood bedroom at her mother’s house, she realizes that she’s not talking to the Neal of the present.  She’s talking to the Neal of the past.  So what does it mean?  Is she crazy?  Is she supposed to fix something?  And if she is, what exactly is it?

Rainbow Rowell’s second adult novel has all the trappings of what readers expect from Rowell at this ponit: it’s funny, clever, and often very charming.  No one writes a romantic comedy like Rowell, and this novel has many of the author’s trademark witticisms.  But it’s also the weakest of her four novels thus far.  That’s not to say that the novel isn’t enjoyable or that readers won’t devour it, because they will.  But it’s a bit of a letdown for those who have absolutely fallen in love with Rowell’s other books.

But first, the good: Rowell’s examination of a complex, difficult marriage is smart, nuanced, and authentic.  What’s important to note here is that Georgie and Neal love each other but recognize that that might not be enough and that it certainly doesn’t fix their problems.  These are two good people who are trying to work it out but are dealing with personality conflicts and fundamentally different priorities.  The novel is sympathetic to its central couple, but it doesn’t shy away from the fact that they are flawed human beings with different motivations and needs.

There’s also something very smart about Rowell’s touch of magical realism in the novel.  Georgie discovering that she can connect with the Neal of her past via a landline–a communication device that is very nearly obsolete–makes for a compelling metaphor.  This anchor to the past, in some ways very literally, provides Georgie a way to feel both nostalgic and also allows her to do some deep reflection.  But the problem is, the phone works better as a metaphor than as an actual plot point, because readers are treated to a lot (and I do mean A LOT) of repetition of conversations as Georgie and Neal talk.

Which brings this reviewer to the novel’s biggest problems: uneven pacing and disappointing characterization.  What has worked so well in Rowell’s previous novels is her incredible characterization.  Even small, tertiary characters leap off her pages and are fully realized, well-rounded individuals.  Here, that’s not the case.  While Georgie is fairly well drawn (if not more than a little exasperating), Neal isn’t given enough page time to become a fully sympathetic character, and Georgie’s writing partner, Seth, is given even less.  This is particularly troubling because he’s supposed to serve as a major part of the tension in Georgie and Neal’s marriage.  But Seth never becomes more than a one-dimensional needy lech of a dude-bro.

As mentioned before, the novel’s pacing feels off at times, too.  Because Rowell relies so heavily on phone conversations between present-Georgie and past-Neal, the novel feels weirdly padded with conversations that become a slog to get through.  More page time could have been given to characterization or action, and the novel would have picked up its pace considerably.

Even so, it’s still a Rainbow Rowell book.  Readers will be able to consume this novel in one sitting, and it’s still got a lot of humor and heart.  Perhaps it’s a case of raised expectations that lead to a slight letdown with this one.  Some teen crossover appeal, but this one is pretty firmly in the adult camp.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell. St. Martin’s Press: 2014.  Purchased copy.